One of my chapters is focused on how the rise of niche culture is reshaping the American social landscape. We're leaving the water-cooler era, when most of us listened, watched and read from the same, relatively small pool of mostly hit content, and entering the microculture era where we're all into different things.
I was struck by the recent example of Anil Dash, who hacked the NYT by wearing a GOATSE t-shirt in a photo shoot for an otherwise innocuous article about how hard it is to change what Google says about you.
Most of my geek friends know what GOATSE refers to, because it's a retina-scarring shock-pic that Slashdot trolls try to get noobs to click on by claiming it's a link to something irresistible, like a picture of Natalie Portman or a hot Linux distro (for an explanation of this online hazing ritual, see this exhaustive, brilliant and very nearly worksafe Wikipedia entry, which, by the way, you will not find in Britannica. Ever.)
But I was amazed to find out that almost none of my staff (and
obviously no NYT editors) knew about it. So I tried a few other
cultural references that have become clichés in my little world: "All Your Base Are Belong To Us"; "More Cowbell!"; "I for one welcome our new [fill in the blank] overlords", and so on.
Turns out that these snippets of culture that I thought were ubiquitous are actually pretty obscure even in my own office. And when I took an informal poll at a PR conference I was speaking at I found that only about 10% of the audience had heard of any of them, and for each phrase it was a different 10%. My tribe is not always your tribe, even if we work together, play together and otherwise live in the same world; same bed, different dreams.
If you check out the Wikipedia entry for Internet phenomena you'll find hundreds of these viral memes. Here are ten of the most famous. Have you heard of all of them?
- Ellen Feiss
- The Star Wars Kid
- Dancing baby
- Bert is Evil
- Bonzai Kitten
- Tourist Guy
- MC Hawking
- Leet speak
- Subservient Chicken
- First post
Here's my take on what the Long Tail is doing to pop culture. Rather than the scary fragmentation of our society into a nation of disconnected people doing their own thing, I think we're reforming into thousands of cultural tribes, connected less by geographic proximity and workplace chatter than by shared interests. Whether we think of it this way or not, each of us belongs to many different tribes simultaneously, often overlapping (geek culture and Lego), often not (tennis and punk-funk).
What's interesting is that the same Long Tail forces and technologies that are leading to an explosion of variety and abundant choice in the content we consume are also helping to connect us to other consumers, whether through Amazon and Netflix reviews, blogs, p2p networks or playlist sharing. I've described this in the past, somewhat obscurely, as the rise of orthogonal trust networks, which are the new recommendation and word-of-mouth effects that will drive demand down the tail from hits to niches.
As a result, we can now treat culture not as one big blanket but as the superposition of many interwoven threads, each of which is individually addressable and and connects different groups of people simultaneously.
In short, we're seeing a shift from mass culture to massively parallel culture. This is a big deal, and I'll be writing more on it in the posts to come.