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The New Mainstream, A Series
TNM memo #1: global niches and fractal pop culture
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Today’s V&V is a memo 📋
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Memo: The New Mainstream, A Series
Those who know me, or read my stuff, know I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of “The New Mainstream” these days. Starting with today’s memo, I’m kicking off a loose series of posts about The New Mainstream in an effort to chip away at its meaning, to synthesize, over time, a slew of observations and data points that may help describe its shape and its implications for behavior and commerce.
(A friend and colleague, @abc3d, originally introduced me to the term The New Mainstream, and we have plans to design a study to test our theories about TNM, crunching numbers for a more objective view into how it works.)
If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, I described the concept in a recent essay:
The mainstream, as we knew it, is gone. That old mainstream, reliant on the mass media model, was killed by the internet. In the new mainstream, we invest much of our attention along the long tail and check back in with the masses when something compelling enough forms a new homepage for the culture. It’s a combinatorial mainstream now, and it seems to shatter almost weekly, then reform with a new mix of components.
Our collective attention has splintered and exists in a default state of flux, so that it’s not de facto collective anymore, though it retains that potential — our attention can get magnetized by a special show or meme or news clip or viral vid that somehow manages to penetrate a high percentage of the public and momentarily bring us all* into alignment. (*Not all of us, obviously — but enough to provide a temporary reference point that a critical mass of people recognize and understand, a common language for the culture.)
While we wait for the next big unifying idea or piece of content to come along, our attention runs through sub-communities: some relatively tiny and esoteric and exclusive, others millions of people strong but still not quite representative of the masses. We might think of this as provincial popularity — except the boundaries of a province in The New Mainstream are drawn by shared affinities and content habits and UX preferences, not geography and demographics. A subdivision of The New Mainstream might bring together like-minded people from Los Angeles and Odesa and Jakarta.
Others, like Ben Thompson of Stratechery, have described this in terms of its impact on internet commerce: online businesses can now form to serve the niche-iest of niche interests, which is suddenly an economically viable play, because a niche on a global scale actually gives you a sizable TAM.
Sometimes, singular tweets or memes unintentionally capture the essence of The New Mainstream and might be able to describe it better than I ever could. The good news is, I collect these when I see ’em, so I’ll share some along the way. Here’s a good one:
Sorry to ruin the joke, but let’s break it down:
In the midst of unprecedented monetary intervention from the federal government, this doctored credit card statement shows:
$12.99 spent on Netflix (basically compulsory for any New Mainstream participant)
$592.71 spent on a rare superhero action figure (a crazy high price tag, sure, but comic book culture is now a cash cow and an acceptable hobby in the adulting repertoire)
And, finally, a preposterous amount spent on Only Fans
On the surface: The joke is broadly about frivolous spending in a time of crisis, and more specifically about the nosebleed ascent of OnlyFans. (If you don’t know what OnlyFans is, or think it’s just a fringe app for weirdos to share nudes, you’re either not ready for The New Mainstream or might be too prude to appreciate its perversions.)
The real joke: The funny — and the insight — here comes from the fact that we can relate to the absurdity of the premise. Adjust the amounts to more normal figures and this credit card statement actually doesn’t look that weird at all, even during the height of a pandemic. Most things on the statement are not conventionally ‘mainstream,’ and yet many of us see ourselves reflected in a paper trail which shows money spent on Netflix, entertainment franchise merch, and a breakout app that hardly anyone was talking about even six months ago.
3 Principles of The New Mainstream
In my (probably futile) quest to form a unified theory of The New Mainstream, what I’m planing to do in this series is present a list of principles that might define TNM, then back them up with anecdotes and data. Today, I’ll start with the first three on my mind.
1. In The New Mainstream, the medium really really is the message. I keep trying to bury this adage from Marshall McLuhan but it’s just so sticky and evergreen, and you’ll probably see me use it again and again.
In The New Mainstream, content programmed on one channel might die if it stays there, but might also find new life in a different space if the mechanics or the aesthetics or the built-in audience of the new channel it jumps to changes the alchemy of the experience in a way that reinvigorates the content.
For years I’d tried to read McLuhan but found his writing difficult, too dense and theoretical. Now, studying The New Mainstream, I’m revisiting his work and it’s all coming into focus.
He describes how the sheer glut of content that’s available to us, and the pace at which it floods our senses, inundates us, splinters our attention, and brings about a kind of “mental breakdown”:
With electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native…Electric speed mingles the cultures of prehistory with the dregs of industrial marketeers, the nonliterate with semiliterate and postliterate. Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of new information.
He also predicted that technology would rewire the media landscape, from an organized network built around a few central nodes to one in which “any place” (or any person) can be a media center:
Obsession with the older patterns of mechanical, one-way expansion from centers to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes…Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be a center, and does not require large aggregations.
2. In The New Mainstream, “pop culture” still exists — it’s just fractal.
Pop culture isn’t dead, my friends! It’s just weird. It’s becoming more and more distributed, yet retains certain patterns such that each small pocket of pop culture is kind of a microcosm of the whole. Take celebrity fandom as an example. Whereas there used to be only enough cultural headspace to anoint a select few celebs as global media royalty, now each subculture or niche community seems to have its own mega star. And that might sound like a paradox: how can something be both niche and mega popular? Embrace it — that paradox, my friends, is a defining characteristic of TNM.
For example: intellectual and irreverent Rick & Morty fans aren’t tuned out of celeb culture, nor are they above gossip or drama or the tendency to worship celebrities — it’s just that they aren’t getting their information from Bravo or TMZ or any of the old mainstream sources sanctioned as celebrity gossip outlets. They’re tuned into other frequencies where other rich eccentrics are doing other dramatic, reality-TV type things. The same tropes still apply, the genre survives.
3. The New Mainstream is measurable (sort of).
When a trend is breaking in this mainstream, we can measure its ascent almost instantaneously. We can evaluate, quantitatively, its scale and momentum. How many people know about this thing? How fast is this new Netflix series or product launch or meme spreading?
Often, the act of measurement itself draws more of us toward the trend like a moth toward light; when we see something accrue enough likes or search volume or views, we are compelled to flock to it. We don’t wait for Nielsen ratings to signal what’s mainstream — TNM ratings are out in the open, basically a feature of the content itself. And, sometimes, by the time we do our quick popularity check or an official measurement, that “popular” thing is already gone. In this way, The New Mainstream is quantum.
It’s measurable, usually, but that doesn’t mean we are ever going to fully understand it. There’s too much variance to account for. In a recent episode of The Portal podcast, Balaji Srinivasan explains:
The internet increases variance. For example, you go from thirty minute sitcoms to thirty second clips and thirty episode Netflix binges. You go from a stable nine-to-five job to gig economy on one side and a twenty year old billionaire on the other side. On many different dimensions, the internet is increasing variance.
It’s going, for example, from three television channels or cable news to an incredible variety of different media outlets. Every person is now a personal media channel and I think a big next things is that they are going to become personal media corporations.
This makes me think that curation needs to make a comeback. But not in the way that we talked about curation in the earlier days of the social web — this is different from what excited us about Pinterest boards, Tumblr, and novel eCommerce merchandising.
As it relates to The New Mainstream, I like art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s take on curation:
I believe “to curate” finds ever wider application because of a feature of modern life impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material product we all witness today.
Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for twenty-first century life.
These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood simply as the person who fills a space with objects but also as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results
In my essay Worldconnectors & The New Mainstream, I was thinking about this idea of “bringing different cultural spheres into contact,” which I talked about as “intersections”: Worldconnectors are entrepreneurs of the intersection, and intersections are the new mainstream.
Worldconnectors are a new archetype — world-class curators who leverage new media to consolidate disparate audiences. One of their unique qualities is zeitgeist synthesis: in the breakneck speed of The New Mainstream, they connect the dots more quickly, or in a more interesting way, than the rest of us. They understand how the latest news or emergent trends link to their work and the cultural moment.
Action Bronson, an example of a Worldconnector:
The commercial memo:
In The New Mainstream, audience intelligence that does not rely primarily on demographics is paramount. “Direct-to-audience” is the new DTC.
“Bundling 2.0” will be a key mechanism of New Mainstream commerce, a way to create suites of products & services that appeal to the masses while serving the niches (I did not discuss bundling in this piece, but wanted to tease it here — stay tuned for more in a future memo)
Curation is an extremely high-value, albeit unquantifiable, USP that will become a mark of the most successful brands and individuals in The New Mainstream economy. The next generation of great brands will:
consolidate disparate ideas and make interesting connections for their audience
help their audience discover new niches while feeling part of a unified whole
enable their audience to experience the wonderful variance of the internet while reducing its tax on their attention
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