Entertainment as attention

by Rob Horning

16 November 2006


In No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, Tom Slee’s book about the foibles of individual choice, he cites this passage from Grant and Wood’s Blockbusters about the risk involved in putting up cultural goods for sale:

The risk factor in launching new works of popular culture is impossible to overestimate. Simply put, the great majority of cultural products do not succeed: few people by the CD or watch the movie, and the investment in the creation of the intellectual property is not recouped. Adding to the risk is the blunt fact that research and pre-testing are notoriously ineffective in the realm of popular culture. Until audiences actually experience a creative product, it simply cannot be evaluated. In advance of the actual release of the title, nobody knows.

This point is often raised when someone wants to debunk the power mainstream media conglomerates have in shaping taste or to validate the sovereign, spontaneous role of the consumer in creating culture, which, if this is true, is exactly what we want and deserve. But Slee is citing it to make an almost opposite point—the market for cultural product is so polluted with failure that audiences are always becoming that much more risk-averse themselves. The more product that floods the market, the more difficult it is for an audience to choose something, and the more the audience will rely on safe herd choices. According to Slee, it’s an asymmetric information problem—no one knows what makes anything any good (i.e. successful, profitable—the meaningful criterion) so the slightest fortunate accident that creates a focal point (or the concerted ad campaign, or the presence of a known star, or any other aspect that brings a modicum of familiarity and comfort) can drive a herd to something specific, which then becomes something everybody needs to know about in order to have something to talk about with one another (which is the main function of most popular culture)—you need to see Borat because everyone else has and is reliving it in conversation. Economists calls this increasing returns to scale—the bigger something becomes, the bigger it will continue to become, because the incentives for choosing something else diminish. This is why the longer the long tail gets, the bigger the blockbusters become. Adrift in the deep, vast ocean of mediocrity, we need brighter beacons to bring us home.

But what makes the ocean so deep is the ease with which anyone can distribute their creations. This may allow more people to conceive of themselves as creators making culture rather than consumers digesting it, just as cultural-studies Pollyannas were fond of saying all along—consumption is a form of making, of production. Now, consumers have the opportunity to really prove that by distributing their various repurposed versions of the culture they consume—the remixes, the mash-ups, blog posts, etc. With that distibution capability available, it may becomes incumbent to distribute one’s creative work. One no longer has the excuse of being shut out from the technology as a reason for not attempting to share one’s innovations with an audience larger than the person in the mirror. If one takes the possibility of an audience for the innovative ways in which you consume culture seriously, this shift changes the pursuit of entertainment into the pursuit of attention. So perhaps the future of the “superstars” economy is this: a handful of successes in the sense that Grant and Wood mean, and then a legion of reimagined versions of those successes, at varying degrees of separation and revamping.

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