Sometimes it’s hard to remember that our current post-scarcity age of media is relatively new. Hundreds of years ago, it was the privilege only of aristocrats or perhaps Benedictine monks to have access to more books than they could read. Today we have added to books with film, music, television, comics, and newer forms of entertainment. And as I am interested in people, I am deeply interested in these newer media which are now shaping us.
On the one hand, I see media that seem to conform to the idea that our attention spans are shortening. First youtube videos, then tweets and vines and instagrams appeared. Each new mode of communication was a small subset of what existed before, distilling stories, thoughts and ideas into their basest components. Perhaps it is this relatively new abundance of media which creates the attraction to the short and the simple. When there are seemingly infinite options to choose from, maybe the easiest choice is the one that involves the least commitment. After all, there is no longer any hope of denying the appeal of these short means of media consumption. We live in a time where a popular 6-second video is seen by as many people as a prime time TV show.
Still, I get the sense that there is a growing reaction to this trend, the “long form” media. For every 6 second Vine star who posts clips that can barely convey a thought, there is a podcast host who spends hour-long shows delving deeply into a subject. Niche podcasts can be found covering an array of genres and subcultures from comedy, to wrestling, to politics, to even fly fishing. In literature, the success of the Game of Thrones (SOFAI) books proves that there is a mass audience willing to digest thousands of pages of fictional history. And in journalism, the current crop of news outfits who coined the long form name are an obvious reaction to what some consider the dumbing down of our culture. BuzzFeed has infamously internalized this dichotomy of long and short, consistently producing shallow listicles and also deeper investigations.
Most of this long/short trend falls comfortably under Chris Anderson’s Long Tail Theory in which a mainstream is be matched by a wide assortment of subgenres. But I think the rise of the long tail is so strong that this metaphor may soon prove inadequate. The newer, deeper internet subcultures are not simply challenging the mainstream media in size, they are now shaping it. Yes, Hollywood still makes all of its money on blockbusters, but those blockbusters are all based on decades of comic book history that has been obsessed over by deeply devoted comics nerds. In video games, the new action is in communities where people spend countless hours analyzing and sharing clips of free-to-playgames or else in reliving the nostalgia of classic titles. And in comedy, many new lights have come from youtube or else have also reached a devoted audience via podcasts and other deep media.
The one exception to this trend may be music, which from its founding days knew how to pluck newcomers from a street corner and make them into stars. The loss of the monoculture in music and its replacement by the subsumed microgenres is an old story by now.
So, what can we expect as the internet intensifies this tendency to long and short, and as the generation that grew up with access to all the worlds media comes of age? I have a prediction. If attention is the new currency, then passion is the new creator of wealth. Passion is infectious and network effects guarantee that what some minority of people are deeply devoted to will someday gain a “mass” audience. For this reason, artists and companies that can create passion in their customers, even in a small base, will see their wealth and opportunities only grow. As a flip side to the modern attention deficit disorder, we could do a lot worse