Trapped in the Long Tail?

Chris Anderson’s Long Tail was published last year and made quite a splash. As the Editor of Wired magazine, and with a slew of academic research to back him up, Anderson is one of the new media gurus leading from the front of an overcrowded field of web 2.0 experts.

The book, and original Wired article which can be read here, provide an economic analysis (no…don’t fall asleep yet!) of online media consumption.
Anderson convincingly argues that ‘endless choice’ of films, music, and everything else online is creating new markets for niche tastes and products. We are no longer subjected to a lowest common denominator ‘hit’ culture, where everyone has no choice but to watch The Generation Game on a Saturday night. Instead we can explore and develop our own individual tastes and fetishes, with unlimited online access to back catalogues, user generated content, and foreign imports.
Certainly Anderson demonstrates that there is a lot of money to be made in this ‘Long Tail’ of niche tastes. He also lovingly describes a world where grass roots creativity can blossom, and a top-down, sales driven culture can be genuinely challenged. It’s a very tantalising prospect.
What interests me is the other side of the coin; there is no doubt that we have much to gain from a decentralization of control over culture, and a reduced dependence on blockbuster profits, but what might we stand to lose?
Anderson deals with the question of whether we might lose a sense of shared culture and community with short shrift. We didn’t have mass culture before the 20th century, he says, culture was based on niche geographical traditions. He predicts that the anomalous mass culture of past decades will be overturned and that new niche communities based on shared interests rather than shared physical space will be created. I.e. we might not share cultural bonds with everyone, but we’ll share stronger, multiple bonds through our shared individual interests.
Anderson dismisses the suggestion that these new communities will be able to create ghettoes where their beliefs and assumptions remain unchallenged. After all, he says, look anywhere on the internet and you’ll find lively debate and dissent never more than a click away.
I’m not convinced.
Take a look at conservapedia or godtube. These new niche worlds are still in their infancy, but they are certainly on the rise. This becomes a worrying process when one remembers how much social change in the 20th century was driven by ideas being communicated through mainstream broadcasting. Think about how suffocating and stale it must have been to live in a village in the 17th century where the only cultural amusement was Morris dancing and cheese rolling, and where there were no new ideas and people to engage with.
As I right this, I realise that the mainstream media can often be more of a conservative force than a progressive one, but the point is that at its best it can force people to confront and engage with other people’s ideas. Of course you’ve always been able to read the Guardian if you’re liberal and the Telegraph if you’re a Tory, but both groups watched the news at 10, and both papers engaged in debates with each other.

I worry about a world where I can get all of my news from watching the Daily Show, buy only books on Amazon that have been read by ‘people like me’, and listen to music similar to what I’ve played before. It’s undoubtedly comforting, but comfort can lead to stagnation. JS Mill wanted us to have the freedom ‘pursue our own good in our own way’, but he lived in a world where people couldn’t fail to avoid being confronted by the ideas of others – and this was how progress was made. However there is a danger of us using new technology to effectively silence the voices of other people who we find distasteful or unappealing.

Clearly this unfettered cultural freedom will pull in two ways – towards both increased cultural production and experimentation, and smaller, more homogenous communities (whether they be balloon fetishists or civil war re-enactors). I open the floor to which force will dominate as the Long Tail trend continues…