Get Control of the Long Tale

Opinion: Internet customer histories last far longer than anyone realized.

"The long tail" started as an article (soon to be a book) by Wireds editor in chief, Chris Anderson. In my imperfect summary, Anderson essentially states that the Internet provides a long life to lots of products and services. is a mix of a few big hits and lots of books that would have dissolved into obscurity save for the Internet.

At a recent meeting of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, resident New England-based high-tech investor John Landry (currently CEO of Adesso Systems) cited the long tail to include the Internet enabling enterprise-level software applications to reach SMBs in the manner of offering CRM as a service to a wide range of companies.

While I agree with the long-tail thinking to a point (Im not sure who will provide service and help desk support to all those SMBs), I couldnt help but think the real story these days is the "long tale" of customer interactions.

This story is all about customer histories of search, purchases and personal information lasting much longer than anyone realized.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have recently encountered the long tale as government organizations have recognized that the tales related to customer queries and e-mail may provide fertile ground for investigation.

Amid the excitement around Web 2.0-based companies, there has been little discussion about how those companies will develop data retention and identity protection policies in this era of homeland security and compliance-driven technology spending.

How your company will handle this long tale of customer interaction will require you to consider much more than current data retention policies surrounding purchases, e-mail and traditional customer interactions.

Recently, Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz stopped by our eWEEK offices to talk about current corporate trends. Schwartz is a broad thinker, but I think one of his more keen insights related to corporate spending on community technologies.

/zimages/2/28571.gifRead more here from Eric Lundquist about data privacy.

"Social applications will drive more infrastructure spending in the next year or two years than the entirety of the ERP demands in the 1990s," said Schwartz.

While a company is reluctant to spend more for an accounts payable system, it knows it should be investing in blogs, podcasts and technologies to build customer communities, Schwartz added.

He is probably correct in that thinking, but Im not sure companies rushing to build blogging platforms for their users and employees also are thinking about what data retention and identity disclosure policies should govern those community platforms.

This isnt to say some companies are not aware of the need to set a policy. At that same Leadership Council meeting, I had a chance to meet with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Maybe its his background as a futures and options trader or his recognition that Wikipedia entries could provide powerful identity detection capabilities in the wrong hands, but Wales had a quick, thoughtful answer when I asked him about how long Wikipedia maintained identity logs.

They are kept for six months, after which they are flushed. Wales solution may not be perfect, but at least he has a policy in place.

Heres what I think is going to happen: Just as security moved from afterthought to forethought, identity and user activity will become a major topic of corporate compliance policies.

Aggregators will soon step in to the identity market to build a long tale not only from one source such as Google but also from the many dating, real estate and community interest sites now proliferating on the Web.

Customers who are aghast at their credit card data traveling about the country unencrypted will be even more surprised to learn that investigative agencies can get data about them without their consent or being informed.

Customers will demand that community sites reveal the policies on identity disclosure, or they will move to sites more forthcoming. This long tale of user disclosure has a long way to go before the telling ends.

eWEEK magazine editor in chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

/zimages/2/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in Web services.