Friday, April 16, 2010

A Downside to Niche Culture?

Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail" has some stunning implications about how falling costs to create, distribute, and search for media have changed our world from a "hit-based" culture, where everyone mostly reads the same books and watches the same TV shows, to a "niched-based" culture, where an ever-growing list of interests can be pursued in film, music, and literature.

He notes that, because of competition from cable and the Internet, the top TV show today doesn't draw a big enough audience to make it into the top 10 a few decades ago, even though the population has exploded in the time since. Also, the proliferation of Amazon has made orders of magnitude more books available in one place than anyone could have ever perused at a single brick-and-mortar store, yet 98% of the inventory sells at least one copy every quarter.

Now, we have less to talk about around the water cooler and more to talk about with Internet groups that share our increasingly diverse interests. I have much praise for richness of experiences that these niches allow us, but I wonder if we are putting too little emphasis on another important margin for entertainment: sharing and discussing it with others we care about.

The world is much more complex than this, but assume that, in 1960, you could only watch "The Andy Griffith Show." Today, in addition "The Andy Griffith Show," you could instead watch Japanese anime on your computer, or any of four other equally esoteric genres. Are we better off in a world where you can watch Japanese anime, which you immensely prefer to Andy Griffith, and can discuss it with friends online? It's now harder to strike up a conversation with a random co-worker or stranger at the bar, as your potential interests have diverged greatly. Cultural memes have a harder time catching on en masse, as only a small portion of the population will recognize a witty line or inside joke from the most mainstream shows. Is there something to be said for the era of greater in-person interaction, even if it revolved around shows that people only watched because there was nothing else on?


Adam Gurri said...

I was really enthralled with this book when it came out and I still consider it required reading for anyone who wants to understand how the internet is changing our lives. But I've come to disagree with Anderson on some specific points.

For instance, I don't actually think that big hits are either going to go away, or become less significant. I actually think that they will become more significant. In the old days a blockbuster movie could reap a lot of money and get a ton of viewers, it's true. But in the online world a video can reap hundreds of millions of viewers from around the world.

One of the implications of the long tail getting longer is that the big hits get bigger. This is something that Anderson doesn't really consider--but his focus on the niche side is just as important, I think.

What I'm saying is that I think we get our cake and can eat it too. We still have an enormous amount of shared experiences--remember when there was no way to hide from the Arlington Rap video?--but on the other hand we also get to have a lot of niche stuff that could never have existed in the pre-internet world because there weren't enough people interested in it, or they were too geographically dispersed to create a consolidated audience for it.

Greg Finley said...

Good point about the Arlington Rap video. And there are of course many other ways to relate to the people around you besides what's on TV, it's true.

Adam Gurri said...

Also, one great thing about the net vs. TV: if someone at the water cooler hasn't seen whatever the latest viral video is, you can just be like "you have to see this!" and show it to them right then and there on your computer.

Greg Finley said...

A similar point could also apply in the other direction. We might both be rabid fans of "24," but you can't talk to me about the most recent episode yet if it's still in my DVR queue.

Adam Gurri said...

Too true! I can't tell you how many friends I have that got into Mad Men that I've wanted to talk to about the last episode of season three, but have had to shut up and wait!