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?