July 9th, 2016

The death of the hit

One of the biggest concerns which people have about the unification of world cultures is that everything will become the same. In theory, it's a nice idea that telecommunications technology like the Internet allows people from all over the world to share communication with each other, and it's clear that this communication goes well beyond "hi, how r u?" type messages: cultural forms of all types--music, literature, visual art, and so on--are readily shared on a global level through the Internet, and while this has been recogized as a good way for students of art and culture to be able to find information more easily and inexpensively, it's also often observed that this has the inevitable effect of blending those cultures together. As the Internet becomes more pervasive around the world, it is commonly observed that it has the effect of erasing smaller cultures and replacing them with a globalist culture that can be more readily spread through mass media. The result is often called "global monoculture," a vision of the present and future in which the entire world exists within one cultural sphere and mindset, and there is no room for regional variation. Kenya would be indistinguishable from India, Paris would be identical to Buenos Aires, and the entire notion of phrases like "Russian literature" or "Chinese art" would become obsolete historical terms with no relevance in the modern world. While we're obviously still a long way from such visions becoming reality, the effects of pervasive commercial culture annihilating local indigenous cultures has already been observed around the world. The effect is analogous to the development of "Newspeak" in Orwell's 1984: Newspeak was a language designed to limit the range of ideas which people could express by limiting the number and type of words in the language. Similarly, global monoculture limits the number of ideas which people can express through literature or art by eliminating certain ideas from the global cultural awareness.

If some people are to be believed, however, an opposite effect may be simultaneously taking place: there are those who insist that even as this globalization of culture is taking place, there is a simultaneous fragmenting effect, a process through which the idea of a cultural "hit," something so popular that it becomes a recognizable touchstone of its contemporary generation, becomes less prevalent, replaced by countless cultural niches that serve special interests, a process which is inevitably enabled by the Internet with its global reach and thus capability to connect people with niche interests who would otherwise remain isolated.

Perhaps the first book to bring this phenomenon to the public's attention in a major way was Chris Anderson's 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. The fundamental idea of this book is something which anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on Amazon or eBay will quickly understand intuitively: if you have a speciality interest, the Internet is the most likely place to find people or businesses which cater to that speciality interest. In any city or town, big or small, most stores sell either clothing or food, which makes sense since those are the things which people are most likely to buy when they go out shopping, but suppose you have a particular hobby and want to buy something relevant to that hobby. In my case, for example, I have a specific interest in old computer games. Where do you suppose I'm going to find them for sale in any shopping mall? Walk-in game stores usually only sell new games, and the idea of such a store selling any kind of game for DOS is basically not viable unless it happens to be a second-hand store, or a store specializing in "collectible" or "antique" items, and even then, the chances of you finding exactly what you're looking for in such stores--which are necessarily just random collections of bric-a-brac with little organization and no good way to see what's actually in stock in the store's inventory without looking around for a while--are sufficiently low that you can actually expect to not find what you're looking for. On the other hand, eBay generally has such items for sale, and if you're looking for an obscure book, movie, or music album, Amazon has basically the world's largest selection of such items, including the ability to provide you with a stunning array of out-of-print and import items which you basically have no chance of ever finding in a local shop. Sure, if you're looking for a Harry Potter book or Lady Gaga CD, chances are great that a store in your area sells these items, but there are thousands--probably millions--of books and movies and CDs which you will never find in a local shop, but which can be readily ordered on the Internet for a few bucks. Similarly, from a non-commercial community perspective, the Internet allows people to connect based on interests rather than geography: I have a huge interest in computer games from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it's guaranteed that I would never have found people who live near me whom I could share this interest with, but I've exchanged messages with countless people on the Internet who share this interest with me even though they live thousands of miles away. The Internet has allowed countless types of obscure cultures and niche interests to flourish by bringing people together from all over the world who would never find someone with their shared interests in their local neighborhood.

In "The Rise and Fall of the Hit," the second chapter of The Long Tail (the chapter's subtitle is "Lockstep culture is the exception, not the rule"), Anderson argues that "hit culture" was actually something unnatural and temporary, pointing out that in pre-modern times, culture was naturally segmented by geography: before the age of air travel and the internal combustion engine, different places had their own cultures due to lack of contact with each other. As transcontinental railway networks and, later, jet aircraft made it easier than ever to travel around the world, an unprecedented level of global contact with foreign cultures began to take place, and as radio and television networks arose, it became viable to transit information across entire countries--even a big country like the United States or the Soviet Union--in a matter of seconds. This had the side effect of bringing a lot of publicity to whatever those radio or television networks played: throughout the latter half of the 20th century, young rock-and-roll bands were usually made or broken by whether they managed to get airplay on the radio, and later, in the MTV era, on television. These telecommunication networks were marked by how little control listeners and viewers really had over what was played: you could change the station, of course, but in any location there were only a few dozen stations that you could pick up if you were lucky, and they were often saturated with advertising to pay for the expenses involved in operating a large transmission tower. Even in the age of satellite television, when people had access to hundreds of TV channels, there was often a sense of having "hundreds of channels but nothing to watch." This era did mark a notable beginning of fragmentation of television viewership, with speciality channels like the Golf Channel (which really is just about golf all the time), Court TV (which focused on video recordings of actual courtroom trials), The History Channel (yes, it really was just about history), the Food Network (nothing but TV shows about food), and the Cartoon Network (basically nothing but cartoons 24 hours a day) gaining significant viewership, but this still doesn't compare to the YouTube phenomenon. Having 500 television channels sounded like a lot to people in the 1990s, especially to those who had grown up in small towns where you might have been lucky to have two local television stations, but today, there are literally hundreds of millions (some counts say more than a billion) of videos on YouTube, and I can watch any of those videos in seconds without having to pay for anything other than normal Internet access. This means that even if I am a fan of the most obscure music group in the world, a band which would basically have no hope of ever getting played on commercial radio or MTV, there is nothing stopping that band from uploading their songs to YouTube or some similar online site and allowing me to listen to their entire catalog of music without having to wait for the song to come on the radio. The Internet is thus a huge enabler of niche artists and the fans of such artists, allowing obscure artists, for the first time in history, to reach a global audience without any travel or advertising costs.

Anderson cites this effect as causing the death of the hit. Throughout the 1990s, pop music groups were bigger than ever, setting one record after another in terms of albums sold. But right around the year 2000 or perhaps a couple of years after that, things suddenly collapsed. Music sales fell off a cliff, and year after year, the number of hit albums continued to drop precipitously. The music industry was quick to blame piracy for this, and it's true that music piracy surged after technology made it possible to distribute albums in MP3 format online, but the story runs deeper than that: music sales have fallen, it's true, but sales of "hit" music have fallen even more. In other words, the proportion of "hits" has fallen as a percentage of overall music sales, while smaller and more "alternative" music acts have increased in importance and popularity. If the concept of the long tail is to be believed, then, this signifies a new era in which superstars are less important and public interest is more evenly and equally distributed across different types of art and artists. Of course, some people will still be more popular than others: there are still going to be the big stars which are recognized as household names around the world, but they will arguably become less common and less pervasive as our culture turns inward and becomes more fragmented.

In a certain sense, this process parallels what is happening with the significance of countries. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States was left as the world's sole remaining superpower, but we've been hearing for years that the United States is also diminishing in importance as other countries which have been in latent stages for decades become increasingly important on the global stage. We've heard about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries and the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey) countries as emerging powers that are set to become major players on the global stage, and the European Union is often seen as existing primarily to allow Europe to maintain economic competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world, but none of these entities are really capable of taking on the entire world. All of these countries are important and have their role, but none of them are likely to maintain global cultural and economic hegemony in the way that the United States has done since the 19th century. The United States was a big hit, but like an aging rock star, it seems to be becoming less relevant as time goes by, turning from a role model which everyone wants to imitate into a sad, pathetic parody of its former self which people regard with pity among whispers of "Doesn't he realize that it's time to give up and retire?" We're entering a world where individual countries become less important, where who you are or where you're from doesn't matter anymore, and the only thing which people really care about is how much money you have or can raise, how much financial worth you as a person can become attached to.

So a question which most people might ask themselves after thinking about all this is: is this a good or a bad thing? To be sure, "big hits" in culture have value as landmarks which people share and can mutually understand. For example, most of us know the story of Cinderella, and even if this is a fictional story, it has value as something which unites us, something which we can cite as a story which is immediately recognizable to everyone in our culture and which we can build on as a recognizable symbol of something. A community's culture falls flat if people don't have such recognizable cultural symbols. Imagine if you were talking about something and used the story of Cinderella as a comparison for something, then everyone responded by saying "Huh? Cinderella? What's that?" It would be difficult for the analogy to make sense without explaining the entire story, at which point the moment would have passed and whatever point you were trying to make would have been lost. Our culture has benefited from having well-known, widely-recognized stories like Hamlet and Oliver TWist which people can reference without other people scratching their heads and wondering what you're talking about. (Imagine meeting a person with whom you had no stories in common whatsoever.) An ideal education of a well-read person mixes both the well-known with the obscure, because it's important to be able to recognize the common symbols of your culture, but it's also important to be able to go beyond them and explore more obscure corners, discovering hidden treasures which did not receive widespread fame but still deserve some study. A community of people who live in cultural isolation from each other and do not have shared literary or artistic symbols which they can recognize is not much of a community. On the other hand, the fragmentation of culture also seems to prevent one large entity from taking over, because if everyone is off doing their own thing and paying attention to their own little niche, it seems difficult for one culture to take over the consciousnesses of the entire world, as Western culture has done on a global scale since World War II.

I suppose the risk of such a new model of culture, then, is that we could end up with the worst of both worlds: a world of countless cultural offerings in which each one is the same. Every time any form of art becomes popular, it receives countless imitators. When any book, movie, song, or video game attains mass popularity, other people take "inspiration" from it (if you're being kind) or seek to blatantly rip it off (if you're not so kind) and end up producing so many clones and copies that it's hard to find anything which isn't just some stupid knockoff of an established trope. That's the danger of our new networked world, then: we may be entering a world where people all think the same and live the same, but think that they're individual and unique because they're all doing the same thing in what they perceive as their own way. In such a world, people find it difficult to communicate or connect with each other because they lack a shared cultural background, existing as individuals and yet somehow simultaneously disassociated parts of an engulfing whole, cogs in a machine who don't really understand each other (or even themselves) because they lack the shared background that would be needed to come to an understanding of each other. I don't know what can be done about this. Differences between people are as important as shared commonalities between people, and you need both for any community to function. Idealists and humanists might insist that all people are the same, that if you look, you can find commonality between any people, but the real world has shown that it's not so simple, that relationships between people are complicated things, and that it's possible for two people to have fundamentally different beliefs and desires even if they share basic humanity in common. Even in our world today, it remains as important as ever for people to be able to live with each other in a way that allows them to understand and appreciate each other while still allowing them enough independence and individuality that they can go off and do their own things without disturbing one another or being too dependent on one another for it. It remains to be seen how (or if) we can manage such a thing in a globalized world following the death of the hit.