The Monoculture Is Back
An Internet dream deferred
They said everything would splinter into a million small niches. That everyone would have a voice. That if you had talent or had some something to say, you could be seen or heard.
The Internet as we once knew it— the promise of democracy, where even the little person could carve out his/her own niche — is dead. In its place we have the meteoric rise of what we thought we once said goodbye to years ago— the monoculture.
Social media has its critics, but one thing its particularly great for is monitoring conversation. Checking the temperature, if you will. A quick glance at your Twitter feed on an average Sunday night reveals that everyone is watching the same exact TV show, having the same reaction, and tweeting the same exact thing.
That’s scary. But what’s even scarier is that these same people will then be inundated with essays, think pieces, critiques, top 10 lists and all sorts of Internet ‘content’ related to whatever piece of pop culture is deemed to be leading the conversation. Whatever is trending therefore becomes inescapable.
Hindsight is 20/20, but going back even five years, big media and the businesses that support the production of sellable culture hadn’t really figured out the Internet yet. There was no VEVO. Hulu had just launched. People were posting download links to entire albums on blogs in .RAR format. Entire episodes of shows needed to be downloaded on BitTorrent or MegaUpload. MySpace was where people did their social networking.
It would be a fair assessment to say that the Internet five years ago was the wild west. It still kind of is. But if there’s at least a little bit of regulation now, back then there really wasn’t any. Therefore, the companies that paid to produce much of the professional-quality content that was being transmitted through the pipes— illegally, at that— were taking a huge loss.
Bummer for them. Billion-dollar business models that had survived half a century all of a sudden had to be tossed out of the window. Jobs were lost. Lives were affected. New industries rose up in their absence. Things changed.
And then, all of a sudden, they didn’t. Because here we are in 2013, where it seems like the contraction that had to occur in order for certain pop culture businesses to survive, has lead to a place where everyone is focused on the same exact thing.
It’s not hard to see why. Record labels, Hollywood and the media industry stopped focusing on a variety of smaller projects and it became about making sure one or two things yielded substantial returns. They doubled down on their core properties. It became about hitting home runs.
This is not exactly a bad strategy, and maybe on some level it was really needed. Because what happened was that after the opportunities of the web were opened up to everyone— and page views became the way curators got paid— there was no incentive left for anyone to filter anything. The cap had come off the fire hose, and it was spraying content everywhere.
Now initially that wasn’t a bad thing, because people who just wanted to hear new music or see some funny comedians on Youtube couldn’t get enough of it. But then there was just so much that it became hard to keep up. A website that might have posted 6 times a day with some type of discretion, then began posting 25 times a day. So. Much. Content. Nobody has that much time to sift through that much trash to find a gem.
Social media really took the guesswork out of everything. It’s a continuous feedback loop, where you can see what’s driving the conversation, contribute, and keep it going. So yes, let’s drag out Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. Let’s talk about the ending of Breaking Bad ad nauseam. Let’s talk about Kanye West, Drake, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake and whoever else it behooves us to continue talking about. Because that stuff pays, and the other stuff doesn’t.
Today, once again, it sucks to be the little guy.
Paul Cantor is a writer, editor and music producer based in New York. Formerly an editor at AOL Music, his writing has appeared at Rolling Stone, MTV News, VICE and Billboard, among others outlets. Throughout his 10-year career he’s written/produced records for dozens of artists and provided creative services to brands like Disney, the CW Network, Verizon, Converse and HBO. His commentary has been tapped by the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera, and a selection of his recent work can be found HERE.