A recent article in Wired reported on the estimated 100,000 workers around the globe who risk their sanity culling the perverse, grotesque, horrific stuff that some people post on social media – child sexual abuse, close-ups of accident victims, self-mutilation, and the like. That there are circles of people who post such content and yet larger circles who presumably enjoy looking at and trading such content reminds us of the down-slide on the Internet’s “long tail.”
The “long tail” notion, argued in the early 2000s by then-Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, is that the internet allows businesses to make money even on products valued by an extremely tiny proportion of consumers. Sellers aggregate enough of those rare customers to make marketing to them profitable. Netflix, Anderson wrote, is a good example: “It doesn’t matter if the several thousand people who rent Doctor Who episodes each month are in one city or spread, one per town, across the country … What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.” The same logic applies to producers and audiences of perverse contents.
At the same time, the Internet sustains niches for what most would consider positive activities, such as hobbyists trading tips, seekers of relatively rare sorts of mates finding one another (as in Jdate and FarmersOnly dating), fans of rarely-recorded world music discovering tracks, and sufferers from “orphan” diseases finding support and advice.
This “long tail” phenomenon – the good, the bad, and the very ugly – seems to be creating a new society. Except that we have been there before.
The efflorescence of exotic niche groups and activities were noted, with similar breathless fascination and anxious misgiving, in the booming cities of the 19th century. Those cities generated new cultural expressions rarely seen in rural or small-town America – lecture societies, clubs and lodges, museums, operas and symphonies, theater high and low, dance halls, and artistic bohemias. Visitors to the cities came across curious ethnic quarters and practices – prayer in foreign styles, foods of marvelous and puzzling variety, alien dress and customs. And the growing cities harbored an increasing number of “underworlds” – criminal bands, drug dens, “deviant” sexual milieus of various kinds. (An 1859 travel guide reviewed New York City’s brothels: Miss Thompson’s place at 75 Mercer Street, for example, “accommodates a number of handsome lady boarders, who are agreeable and accomplished” – cited here.)
What the growth and concentration of people in cities did then and still does is allow those with a “niche” interest – homosexuals, classical music fans, immigrants from a backwater province of Russia, and so on – to attain a “critical mass” sufficient to support distinctive subcultures with their particular neighborhoods, institutions, practices, products, and services.* Pretty much the “long tail” phenomenon — plus cafes.
* In a 1995 paper on urbanism (pp. 459-50), I speculated that the process of urban agglomeration that generated specialized subcultures in large cities might, looking ahead to the 21st century, be accomplished via the emerging Internet. Ironically, it appears that in this new, supposedly non-spatial era, people who can are concentrating yet more in major cities. The cities’ long tails are still prospering.