There are tremendous upsides to The Long Tail that Chris Anderson describes. It helps consumers find content that they otherwise wouldn’t, it allows writers, artists, and musicians to sell content that they otherwise couldn’t, and perhaps most satisfying, it eliminates the artificial demand that kept a lot of content marketable when it probably shouldn’t have been. And yet, with all these advantages, I can’t help but wonder about what we lose with the Long Tail.
Probably most significantly, is the loss of unity. As the New York Times reported shortly after the death of Michael Jackson, we may never see another person of his stature. The worldwide superstar is a relic of a time when “there were three networks and the radio. No Facebook, Twitter, video games, movie multiplexes, Sirius radio, malls or a dozen other potential drains on an audience.” I think it’s important to ask how much cultural elements shape our sense of national unity, and perhaps even the way we relate to others.
I think the fact that forty years ago mass culture was much stronger–in 1964 one third of the U.S. population watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show–is closely tied to the fact that was also more unity in national politics and other realms of the public sphere. While there were bitter ideological disputes raging on at the time, our elected representatives were much more collegial, debates were less partisan. Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious agenda passed with large amounts of Republican support. Today, in an age where culture is increasingly atomized, it’s easy for everyone to choose their own news sources and so our officials no longer have to act in a way that pleases everyone, but merely choose between Fox News or MSNBC. Partisan rancor is at an all time high as a result.
Basically, there are ups and downs to the long tail. On the one hand it allows for people to find content that they are truly interested in and content that is worthy of interest to be found. However, it has led to the fracturing of American culture which has done a lot to degrade the sense of community and unity that previously existed in this country.