Digital technology has enabled the proliferation of many niche markets and communities in the entertainment world--the Long Tail Effect. Will the notion of popular culture eventually cease to mean anything? Do you agree with the observation, paraphrasing Andy Warhol, that in the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people?
PARTICIPATING AUTHORS: GILES SLADE / MCKENZIE WARK
Giles Slade is an independent scholar and freelance writer and author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America
To start with, take the premise of this question which derives from the phrase "the long tail" invented in October, 2004 by Chris Anderson of WIRED magazine. The phrase describes the marketing phenonomenon of a range, family or an extended line of products that have relatively low sales volumes, but that collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds bestsellers and blockbusters if the distribution channel--not a mortar and brick store--is large enough. They can do this because there are now more niche markets than there are mainstream ones and this trend will continue in the future.
To my mind, the increasing segmentation of the market that Anderson describes has many correlates in the field of information distribution which is essential to the process of making fame or celebrity. This is the second part of your question. But that question seems contentious and overly cute since we crave both fame and the famous and are not going to give those things up any time soon.
To take Mr. Anderson himself as an example, he is popularizing an idea that applies across market segmentations or niches. Most people would find the conceptual map he is offering useful in order to live more effectively in our odd modern world. So, what he has done is read and understood the relevance of some original but fairly obscure research by Erik Brynjolfsson, Jeffrey Hu, and Michael D. Smith in 2003. It was these men who abstracted the phenomenon that would become know as "the long tail" from a mass of segmented or niche datum.
Cleverly, Anderson marketed and re-marketed information about this trend in highly effective ways...First he invented a memorable catchphrase unknown to Brynjolfsson, Hu, and Smith using it as the title of his initial essay in WIRED magazine. Then, Anderson began a series of successful talks about the subject that created demand among a growing number of niche markets. Finally, in 2006 Hyperion published his book length essay The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) to satisfy the demand Anderson himself had created.
By analysing data from a variety of separate fields, and then turning it into information and marketing that across a broad range of demographic interest groups by deploying a variety of formats directed towards decreasingly specific and increasingly general audiences, Chris Anderson has turned himself into a recognizable "author brand" known these days to far more than fifteen people. His specialized kind of fame will last a bit longer, I expect, than Warhol's fifteen minutes, since his popularization concerns an essential characteristic of our age. More to the point, however, is the irony that ever increasing specialization and segmentation creates greater and greater demand for generalization. This is the most relevant point for the changes that will occur in our concept of fame in the near future. People will achieve fame, celebrity or notoriety quickly in direct proportion to their ability to perceive and convey a meaningful pattern that makes sense of the tidal waves of separate information, products and experiences that will continue to beat down on our collective consciousness through increasingly intrusive and segmented media channels. Chris Anderson is one of the first of this new group of "pattern gurus" who make the vicissitudes of our polar inertia intelligible to us.
McKenzie Wark is Associate Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Lang College, New School University. He is the author of several books, most recently Dispositions, The Hacker's Manifesto, and the forthcoming Gamer Theory (April 2007)
One of the paradoxes of network communication is that while it allows lots of obscure tastes to flourish, it also seems to do the reverse as well. In the network, the "big names" in any given field only get bigger. So what we have is a few stars who lots of people know, and lots and lots of small audiences for this, that and the other. There's a hollowing out of the middle. Some, like the new media analyst Clay Shirky think this is a "power law distribution". It's hard to explain. What may happen is that when people go off and explore their tastes in, say, North Korean gymnastic music, they find that they have few people with whom this can be a culture in common. So, to compensate, they also pay attention to whatever it is that everyone else pays attention to. So for example while I can name a lot of obscure media theorists, I also know who Paris Hilton is, and in many contexts I may choose to talk about Paris rather than some philosopher from Paris. In the blogosphere these phenomena are related. I may choose to get my opinion fix for the day from some obscure blog that reflects my particular foibles, but that blog is probably talking about Barack Obama just like everybody else.