Oversaturated: Mass Culture and Niche Culture Diffuse Into Each Other

You’ve heard about the long tail that digital connectivity helps generate. Hobbies or interests that previously did not have a sufficent (geographical) base to thrive can now survive and flourish as people find community on the Internet.

That’s true. But the opposite is also true: in some ways, mass culture is even more widespread than before. Niches prosper at the same time as the reach of mass culture grows.

I stumbled onto science fiction as a teenager; but I don’t think I met another living, breathing peer who also read the genre till college. Very few science fiction books were even translated into Turkish. I found a science-fiction reading community only because I went to a university where the instruction was in English and my major was in computers. I had placed myself smack in the middle of the tiny English speaking geek community in Turkey.

The Internet, at first, accelerated my drift from mass culture. (Geek culture has become mass culture lately, but that’s another, more recent development.) I suddenly had access to so much more culture outside of mass culture that I no longer had to seek out geeks offline to nurture my own interests.

In the earlier days of the Internet, I found myself missing pop culture allusions. I think a decade passed like that, during which I dipped into mass culture less and less.

Once, after a move ago, I didn’t even unpack my television. I’d get around to it if there is something I really want to watch, I told myself. I had gradually lost the ability to tolerate commercial interruptions, and the bizarre the bizarre structure of constant cliffhangers that advertising forces onto the medium (stay tuned for the KEY DEVELOPMENT!!! right after this break). Nowadays, I occasionally see a TV at an airport, often turned to CNN which I call Mubarak TV, since Wolf Blitzer seems to have outlasted Egypt’s multi-decade autocrat Hosni Mubarak and has few signs of being dislodged. The only other encounter I have with televisions are in hotels. I can’t remember when I last turned one one. I cut the cord and the mid-sized screen. (Movies — the true large screens — are different; but that’s another post).

That’s it, I thought. Bye-bye mass culture.

I was wrong. Now, a few years later, I feel that I am more aware of mass culture than ever before. My semi-isolation in a niche was made possible partly through structural barriers: language and geographically-based communities. Digital connectivity helps make the former weaker (as a version of English becomes more and more globally accessible) and makes the latter much less relevant. Fewer structural barriers mean mass culture can spread more easily.

“Openness” certainly encourages the flourishing of niche interests; but openness also promotes mass culture taking up many more corners of the world with itself.

Consider the earlier kind of niche: the art house theater (pick any world city or college town). There were only a few in Istanbul, and they only showed a few films per week. If you hung out among fans of art house films, you had a common culture, because the scarcity of what was available made it hard for your niche culture to scatter too much. The culture was also protected from outside influence because it wasn’t easily accessible, and neither were you. Your time was filled with your friends. Barriers worked both ways: those outside the tiny niche didn’t and couldn’t easily watch what you watched and those inside didn’t actively pay attention to the outside. Structure protects niches.

In contrast to these structural barriers, digital connectivity’s current openness allows rolling over to sweeping things into the swirl of mass culture. This kind of connectivity means that I’m constantly exposed to mass culture and mass culture events through social media, simply because a certain proportion of my friends (or their friends) are paying attention to them. In turn, focuses my attention. I find myself not just aware of events, but drawn to them since I’m more connected to broader communities of people who are interested in such events.

Paradoxically, popular culture events like the Olympics, the Oscars, award shows feel more relevant to me than before, even if I don’t watch them. I become aware of popular shows on TV, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime in a way that I simply would not have before. I often wonder how this is all related to this called re-emergence of high-quality of television. Digital connectivity allows audiences to gather in large enough numbers to sustain investments beyond niche products. I still don’t watch that much television on any type of screen; but I watch more things that bubble up through social media when my friends start discussing it. I’m both informed of something new, and also aware of a community I belong to discussing a subject that seems interesting.

This phenomenon also occurs in the reverse: niches aren’t made less available to outside influences structurally because there was a single art movie theater in the city that many people did not have access to or time to visit. If you are interested in a movie, you can find a version of it, and a community for discussing it. Cult classics and mass culture phenomena can now merge both ways, in one sweeping spiral of attention and even as spiky “niche” phenomena also flourish.

Last year, hanging out in a poorer neighborhood in Istanbul mostly populated by recent migrants from the country’s Kurdish southeast, I was struck by the prevalence of the “Gangnam style” dance from Korean artist Psy among the kids. I started asking kids I met in various neighborhoods if they knew of it. Sure enough, I was treated to repeated renditions. I realize that video was engineered to go viral, but it’s striking to imagine culture from one niche spreading so rapidly and so widely.

Is this the age of mass culture as well as the long tail? Yes, but perhaps the more interesting development is how they are both eating into each other as niches go viral and global, and mass culture finds its way to cord-cutters. No wonder everyone feels overwhelmed with content, as they also feel more connected. I know the word “distracted” gets bandied around a lot, but this feels like something else. It’s the age of oversaturation: of content, of attention and mass and niche cultures no longer as separated by structural barriers. Everything is more open, but attention is not flat.

How many places are there left in the world that one cannot approach a group of young kids and play “Gangnam Style” on the phone, and don’t have a grin of recognition spread followed by limbs flying to the beat? And how many kids out there are growing up thinking their “niche” interests are so rare that they will never find people to talk about them? The long tail feels stronger and longer, but it’s not coming at the expense of the big middle either.

No wonder we feel so oversaturated.