Having spent too many years as an independent music producer and label owner-a quintessential long tail example-it's always great to read Chris Anderson's Long Tail posts. Chris' views on the erosion of mass culture and the emergence of (nearly infinite) numbers of niche markets always inspires:
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...
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 connects different groups of people simultaneously.
In short, we're seeing a shift from mass culture to massively parallel culture.
As Chris says, this is definitely a "huge deal". It is profoundly transforming our culture, realizing the vision that many have long had for independent culture empowered with the kinds of technologies that exist to connect people. Of course, one of the things that this optimistic outlook assumes, or even tries to prove, is that people today are willing to go at it alone, and not allow themselves to be defined or identified with mass-culture. It would be great if this were entirely the case, and no doubt examples exist in music, film, fashion etc, but the main question that lingers in the back of my mind is how far, exactly, will we go in leaving "mass culture" behind? How far will individuals go in constructing identity and cultural meaning outside of mainstream/mass culture? Mass culture may be the result of too much influence in the hands of too few controlling a limited number communication and distribution channels, but it also simplifies (stupifies?) a lot, too.
Approached from the angle of brands and their function in today's changing culture, I was struck by Grant McCracken's critique of Alex Wipperfurth's notion of brands as outlined in Brand Hijack. While I suggest reading the entire post on Grant's site, I think this pretty much sums up the gist of it:
(Brands) are definitional resources that consumers scrutinize for notions about who they are and how they might live. This is a biggest value add of the brand proposition, and, as it happens, one of the toughest thing for the marketing to wrap its head around. The key here? Consumer paging through the press looking for stories on their own and assembling them for their own purposes.
The moment that brands presume to tell a larger story, this is the very moment when brands cease to serve us well. Declare a world view? Alex, you little fascist. The very point of the exercise is consumers browsing the world of ads and retail looking for concepts they can use to constitute their private and/or public sense of self. Some of this is eureka, this watch is me. Some of this is Maybe, just maybe, this is who I might someday be. There is lots of noise, contradictions and dynamism here.
But its all choice followed closely by assembly. There may have been a time when consumers looked for all-embracing, pre-fabricated concepts. (I am a Audi kind of person.) There was a time when some brands thought they could sell more or less embracing concepts (I am a Nike kind of guy.) There certainly was a time when intellectuals got their knickers in a knot at the idea that either of these fictions might come to pass.
As with Chris' Long Tail look at culture, the main question in my mind is how much "assembling" our emerging culture really is doing, or is prepared to do moving forward. If there was, indeed, a time when brands blanketed us more completely, and we are replacing that with a more active, individual and eclectic process, I buy Grant's argument, but I'm not really convinced. Most people are either too busy or lazy to invest the kind of time such a rosy ideal suggests. It may be a subtle distinction, but I still think that brands do serve to provide meaning in people's lives on various levels, if even as a short-cut. In that sense, they can be thought to share a similar role with mass culture as a whole, and the big ones do in fact fit neatly in that framework.