Diminishing returns on obscure tastes

by Rob Horning

13 September 2006


I had a strange thought when I was in that purgatory known as the Duane Reade checkout line. Desperately trying to distract myself from the (intentional?) inefficiency of the clerks and the customers who were too busy sending out text messages on their phones to have their wallets out, even though they had been in line as long as I had, I was contemplating the DVD rack (who is buying DVDs on impulse in the drugstore? Who sees Stuck on You—with that dynamic comedy duo, Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear—for $11.99 and thinks, Hey, you know what, I could use a laugh or two!) and the paperbacks, which included The Lovely Bones, the out-of-nowhere publishing sensation of a few years ago. But rather than presume that was a reason for not reading it, as I had when I first heard buzz about it, it suddenly seemed like a good reason to give it a try. Of course, pigs will be flying over the frozen lakes in hell when I read The Lovely Bones, but I was nonetheless surprised by the shift in what my immediate reaction to seeing it was. And the change seems related to shifts in the availability of cultural product. It has never been easier to immerse oneself in recondite obscurities—whether these be pop singles from Cambodia or Turkmenistan documentariesor 18th century novels once preserved only in Ivy League libraries (but now scanned into archive.org for anyone’s perusal). It’s not in any way hard to circumvent mainstream entertainment—it may be that only those with limited resources or experience (teenagers) think that it is and thus overvalue the distinctive appeal of obscure esoterica. What is hard is capturing the attention of a huge number of people, particularly when so many things are competing for that attention all the time, constantly, even when people are in drugstore lines. When a book or a song or whatever achieves that sudden ubiquity unexpectedly, that seems to warrant some kind of notice; certainly that’s a rarer phenomenon than discovering something no one’s ever heard of. i could go to the free pile and grad a dozen CDs if I were interested in that.

So perhaps the more evident the long tail becomes, the more strange and singular big hits seem. And it seems we gain nothing in terms of reputation by veiling ourselves in obscure curiosities anymore—we all have to try a little bit harder now if we are setting out to impress people.

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