The Long Tail is about the shift from hits to niches. Several readers have asked what this means for the future of mass (hit-driven, mainstream) culture in America. The short answer is that it will not only get less mass, but that this is a trend that's already well underway.
Let's start by defining mass culture. The usual test is the "watercooler effect", the buzz in the office around a shared cultural event, be it the finale of The Apprentice or the opening of the last Star Wars. The number of such events has been shrinking for years, driven mostly by the fragmentation of the television audience.
Cable TV started this with its explosive increase in the number of shows broadcast at any one time, which soon resulted in half of American viewership moving to cable, where they are today scattered among nearly 300 networks. The arrival of TiVo and other DVRs amplified this by taking the time component out, too. Today even if people are watching the same shows, they may not be watching them on the same night. Who wants to listen to the morning-after recaps of real-timers, who risk ruining the surprise of shows you're yet to replay?
The result is that the day when most of America watched the same things on the same night is long gone. All but one of the top rated TV shows were in the late 70s and early 80s; the one newer one was the 1994 Winter Olympics, still more than a decade ago. Today's top shows have Nielsen scores that wouldn't have put then in the top twenty two decades ago.
Likewise for music. By my count only ten of the top 100 best-selling albums were released in the last decade, and only four of those were in the last five years. Occam's razor says this is more likely due to the diminishing power of radio as a hit-making machine than it is to some Darwinian decline in music talent. In 1993, American spent on the average 23 hours and 15 minutes a week listening to radio. As of spring 2004, that figure had declined to 19 hours and 45 minutes per week. America's Top 40 just doesn't matter as much anymore.
So instead of the office water cooler, which crosses cultural boundaries as only the random assortment of personalities found in the workplace can, we increasingly have our own tribes. My tribe may have all picked up the "all your base" meme at the same time, but your tribe was into the steroid scandal. These days our water coolers are increasingly virtual, there are many different ones, and the people who gather around them are self-selected. We are turning from a mass market into a niche nation.