Status and Culture by W. David Marx, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by W. David Marx.
In 2004, Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired, celebrated the possibilities of infinite cultural choice as “the long tail”: “Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.” In Anderson’s lingo, the “head” described mass culture, whereas the “long tail” culture was niche fare. And the emergence of a long-tail-dominated culture meant corporate overlords no longer could force us into cookie-cutter conformity. The internet unfurled a parsec-long cultural buffet from which we could pick and choose the most distinctive pieces to best reflect our true selves as part of our personas. After the dreaded straitjacket of mass culture, the internet would let us be authentically weird.
The long-tail hypothesis, however, ignores many of the core principles of status and taste. Pursuit of originality is correlated to top and bottom positions in a hierarchy. Most people don’t want extreme uniqueness. Mass culture can be highly appealing in its low complexity and low social risk. The long-tail theory posits that we all want to sing our own individual songs, when there remains an obvious allure to singing “99 Luftballons” in unison at Oktoberfest. The long tail is a dream come true for a minority of ever curious oddballs, but most people seek conventions with broad common knowledge. Listening to Sudanese cassettes is isolating; listening to Cardi B’s “WAP feat. Megan Thee Stallion” is taking part in a national conversation.
The resulting information overload of the long tail further complicates signaling. We see this play out in the “paradox of choice”—analysis paralysis, when there are too many options. In the twentieth century, the number of luxury goods expanded to match the growing number of status groups. But there is a limit to how many signals, status groups, and positions we can track.
Appraisers can interpret only those signals they can perceive. Signals pulled from long-tail culture don’t serve as classifiers, other than perhaps classifying someone as a long-tail consumer—a category not currently sitting at the highest rungs of the status ladder. In the past, the difficulty of acquiring long-tail content suggested that a person had many underlying status assets, such as intelligence, curiosity, and deep knowledge. When anyone can find anything obscure on the internet within minutes, acquisition alone reveals no virtues or skills.
The explosion of media outlets also leads to lower status values. Mediation itself no longer suggests cachet, because there is now a website for almost everything. Yes, appearing on vogue.com suggests higher status than making an appearance on a third-rate content farm, but being on the internet alone doesn’t bespeak influence. The ubiquity of virality also means we have come to expect random things of dubious quality to attract attention. “Winning the internet” for a day is less valuable than getting a number one on the music charts, because it demonstrates very little consumer commitment. A Gold record in 1970 required separating teenagers from their meager allowances; today, a meme goes viral because someone spent ten seconds laughing and one second hitting the share button. Ironic hate-watching often drives up the numbers. After it was dubbed “the worst video ever made,” the wealthy teenager Rebecca Black’s vanity single “Friday” drew 156 million views on YouTube.
Chris Anderson predicted, early in the 2000s, that “when mass culture breaks apart, it doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.” What happened instead was something like the Revenge of the Head—the return of cultural influence to mass hits at the expense of the niches. Culture is collapsing around a small number of massive mainstream artists, athletes, and celebrities with enough industrial support to have staying power. In Hit Makers Derek Thompson augured, “The future of hits will be democratic, chaotic, and unequal. Millions will compete for attention, a happy few will go big, and a microscopic minority will get fantastically rich.” Americans can seek refuge from the chaos of the long tail in the mass-culture pleasures of LeBron James, Beyoncé, superhero movies, premium cable, The Office reruns, Pokémon Go, and Fortnite. Athletic heroics, glossy pop songs, and too-big-to-fail cinema offer ample entertainment and reliable vehicles for positive social interactions.
The few “viral” moments that manage to become mass culture—like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”—are often “head” moments in disguise. Jepsen’s surprise hit didn’t spread from her native Canada to the United States through organic word-of-mouth; Justin Bieber heard the song, signed Jepsen to his manager’s Schoolboy Records, and then promoted the track through his own social media channels. The head may not provide much status value, but at least our appraisers will know we’re in sync with the times and not outcasts languishing in an obscure niche.
But the head is always relative, and much of mass culture claims victory with a mere plurality share. As the long tail spreads the population into thin niches, a “hit” describes only the largest niche. Game of Thrones was one of the “biggest” TV shows of the 2010s—but only around 5 to 6 percent of Americans ever watched it. Many things we call hits only track the aggressive overconsumption of superfans. The Korean pop group BTS has racked up number ones on the Billboard charts, but how many Americans can hum a BTS tune? If the long tail makes different branches of culture mutually incomprehensible and the common language centers around middle-of-the-road mega-hits, the internet further reduces the cachet of obscure culture.
Excerpted from Status and Culture by W. David Marx, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by W. David Marx. The excerpt is slightly edited by the author for clarity.
Click here to read a conversation about Status and Culture between W. David Marx and Alla Anatsko.
W. David Marx is journalist and author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (Basic Books, 2015).