In a number of posts over several years, I have expressed skepticism that the new e-technologies of the last couple of decades have had the deep effects on social life that much of the media–and a few academics–assert. The best evidence is that: no, the internet and smart phones did not make people lonelier, did not impoverish human conversation, did not bring a new epoch of political revolution, etc. Despite the media trope that the global web has turned everything inside out, the human fundamentals remain pretty constant.
Yet, my rebuttal does not mean that the new e-communications technologies have had no consequences. They probably have made important differences (although the data are thin), differences similar to those generated by a “technology” that is several thousand years old: the city. Cities enable all sorts of people out in the “long tails” to aggregate into “critical masses,” fostering subcultures for nearly everything from esoteric music to terrorism.
Since ancient times, the physical concentration of people in cities fostered forms of social life distinct from those in the villages, where almost all humans lived until recent generations. (One can think of cities as new technological systems, since they developed as a result of many technical innovations in agriculture, transportation, building, weaponry, food storage, water management, and so on, not to mention social innovations in governance and administration.) Agglomeration enabled, for example, elaborated economic activities, divisions of labor, political structures, and cultural diversity. Importantly, the larger numbers enabled sets of people to reach the “critical masses” necessary to emerge and thrive as distinctive cultural groups–groups as varied as bohemian art circles, political revolutionaries, sophisticated criminal underworlds, minority ethnic, religious, and sexual communities, and occupational specialities (see here).
Cities generate subcultures because they bring together and enable coordination among large numbers of people with a common interest, whether it be bartering rare gems or collecting bottle caps, who would not, were they dispersed across the land, be able to do so. The internet does some of the same.
The term “long tail” is identified with business writer Chris Anderson who argued that the online marketplace allows companies to make great profit selling unpopular items to select customers (see figure below).
To take a common illustration, a typical bricks-and-mortar music store can only stock a small number of recordings, popular music appealing to many customers–rather than use its space for niche items out in the long tail that only a rare customer might want. It will carry Adele rather than, say, Mongolian throat singing or a Uruguayan garage band. (Some big-city stores can sell off-beat music because of their large number of local customers, but only to a degree.) An online store, on the other hand, can not only stock pretty much everything in a super warehouse, more importantly, it can aggregate customers from across the globe. A product that appeals to only one in ten million people can be sold to hundreds of customers across the globe. The internet brings together a critical mass for that product.
So with the logic of cultural activities more generally. On the plus side, people with extremely rare diseases find information and moral support online because the net concentrates them virtually. Similarly, isolated, ostracized gay teens are able to find comfort online with others like themselves. On the minus side, a tiny number of men (they are almost all men) find the online information and support that enables them to act out their violent fantasies in “lone wolf” or “lone wolfpack” terrorist acts–right-wing, left-wing, and jihadist. They are physically alone but in a virtual subculture because via the internet (see, e.g., here and here).
Thus, the new e-technologies have probably not altered human psychology nor personal bonds, but they probably have enabled more people–particularly atypical, unusual people in the “long tails”–to act together, just as cities have done for millennia. Ironically, these consequences are the opposite of the media tropes, not interpersonal alienation but impersonal combination.
— Notes —
 There seems to be some debate about whether the internet proportionally magnifies long-tail sales or, in contrast, sales of “hits” (as more people learn about the most popular products). The point here is that whether or not the niche or “long-tail” products become a higher proportion of sales, as long as they become absolutely more common, we see a “critical mass” effect. For a study of book sales, see here.
 Despite the current fear of jihadi attacks, in the U.S. such acts have been more often committed by right-wing actors, such as the Oklahoma City bombers and abortion-clinic attackers (see here).