Variety and the long tail

In a We Are All Weird universe, there are two sorts of cultural disappointments.

The first has been around since the dawn of cable: We don’t all watch the same thing. We don’t all talk about it, hits aren’t really hits, not like they used to be. There’s no comparison in the reach of M*A*S*H and the Crown. (In fact, it’s about 25:1).

It’s easy to miss the feeling of a monoculture if you grew up with it. Hits gave us something to talk about, adhere to or even work against. There are so many pockets of culture, it can’t help but feel a bit more lonely from a certain angle.

But the new one is one I’m hearing for the first time, from younger culture denizens who didn’t grow up in the monoculture. They’re arguing that we’re headed back to a monoculture, where filters, memes and the rapid spread of ideas are making everything the same again. The pressure to be in the short head is great, the desire for variety is shrinking in the face of the monopoly’s algorithms and it’s all becoming mush.

Sure, a hipster coffee shop in Tokyo feels a lot like one in Boise. But no, that can’t be compared to the hegemony of the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s or yellow-arched McDonald’s that made every road trip exactly the same. Yes, Sisco puts the same sugar packets everywhere, but at the same time, there are three Ethiopian restaurants in Cleveland right now. I’m pretty sure that when I was stranded there in 1974, there weren’t any. Consider that they’re now discussing the best bagels in … Seattle. (or the best bread in Paris, the best chocolate in Missouri, ethical spices, or even the best gluten-free cakes in New York).

The math is simple: more people are consuming more of everything than ever before, but there are very few hits of real scale. That means that many of us spend our time in niches, not in the center.

The number one variety of beer, music, sporting event, sneaker, jeans, religious practice and automobile is: OTHER. Yes, the filters keep pushing to make the hits less interesting, but the long tail stays long.

None of the above is going to be here for a while longer.

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