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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Death of Common Culture?

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is justifiably on the way to bestseller status.

But the promo blurbs announcing the death of "common culture" seem premature. Death of common culture? Stuff that everyone watches, discusses, cheers on? While it's true we don't all watch the same TV shows anymore, and that our compulsion towards longtailish iPod playlists have become more practical and affordable, we're not all bowling alone, either. Attendance may be down at Toronto Blue Jays games, but the bars aren't empty. The barbershops aren't devoid of chatter. There is a lot of interest remaining in "common" culture.

Common culture, dead? Tell that to any of those guys in the barbershop who watched World Cup soccer this summer. Or to anyone trying to sleep in Little Italy tonight.

Yes, even the average American is no longer drinking Budweiser or Miller Lite exclusively, and there has been product proliferation in every category. The average American may even be a wine-drinker. Or a tea-drinker. And they won't be guzzling the same product every time, either -- they can order new varieties at wine.com, or get a cool blend of tea at Murchie's (or so says my Dad).

The average meal out in my hometown is never the same twice. I've eaten Turkish and Ethiopian food by traveling only a few blocks from my home this year. "Pho" is available even in sleepy edge cities. You can have anything you want! Does this mean we're all flying off in our "own direction"? (Even if, for rugged individualists, that might be a good thing?) Hardly.

The end of shared interests? Not at all, people are going out and discussing roughly the same things, over a wider variety of beverages and vastly improved food. :) Basically, the extension of consumer choice under capitalism as predicted by 19th-century economists, and the flowering of the global village as predicted by thinkers like McLuhan. Until recently, the shortness of the tail was mainly just a technological pause, you would think. And of course, a product of people's desire to actually have something in common to talk about. People don't go out to see an obscure artist because they really would rather talk about Madonna.

So insofar as people do have obscure tastes (or seek distinction to protect their egos against homogenization and mass culture) and can now realize them, the fact that the techniques are now available to fulfil those tastes profitably is neither surprising nor a harbinger of the death of common culture.

What would be most surprising would be the barriers to those choices that still exist in so many places, that actually enforce "common culture," and restrict those choices in order to benefit the producers of the same old, same old. Someone should write that book!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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