What do the following three recent phenomena have in common?
All three of them are using old-school thinking to understand hotness. They all seem to think that the world is one “superclub”, with “hot” being whatever the emcees (a-list) today are playing.
Another camp takes the opposite approach. It says, “hot is whatever my little subculture finds cool.” And if Oprah is recommending it on her book list, it must be mass-produced crap spoonfed to the sheeple.
But do we really have to take sides? Everyone has some creative product that they love simply because everyone else does. And everyone has creative product that the love because of it’s relevance to a much smaller social circle. The people who insist on either extreme tend to be minority fringe on either side.
Both sides of the debate will claim that their side captures the lion’s share of audience adulation. But if you pay attention, you’ll see that (for the vast majority of people), the split is about 50/50. Look at the songs in rotation on the average person’s ipod. About half will be “hits”, and half will be songs of much more localized significance to the listener. Dolphins like to play in their local pod, and they love to party once or twice a year when the pods come together and form a superpod. People tend to keep one foot in the supercommunity and one foot in their “local” community.
The significance for tech is simple. For the tastemakers, technology makes it easier for hits to move from the “long tail” to the supercommunity (superpod). And for artists, technologies makes it easier for local communities (pods) to form around shared interest communities (IOW, you can share mixtapes with people who have similar interests, and you can go beyond your high school walls to find them).
In general terms, I think this split between community and supercommunity (pod/superpod) comes close to being a universal. The two are very different, yet they depend upon one another for existence.
First, all true hotness originates in a local community. Hotness within the pod is a very specialized thing. Within your small, localized community, influence is very fluid, social, and unstructured. Imagine kids in a high school trading and evaluating mixtapes based on the “objective” criteria that the people in the NYT example above are using. The idea is ludicrous — it would be like the average extended family using “Roberts Rules of Order” to govern their social interactions. If we were autistic, this is probably how we would make art, but then we would make art that only autistic people could appreciate. The way we detect “hot” in our pods is very local, very decentralized, and defies conscious/logical understanding.
As you get to larger and larger group sizes, emotional intuition beomes less useful, and conscious/logical structures take hold. Somewhere (maybe around 1000-2000 people), you have no choice but to rely on conscious logical processes to introduce tastes that the whole supergroup can share.
Enter the tastemakers. They know how to bring a hit to the supercommunity. They provide filtering function, audience, logistics, packaging (in the general sense) and much more. They don’t often create art/beauty (and when they do, it sucks); but they are experts at what they do.
Now, people like to think that a tastemaker is just a failed artist, or an artist is a resentful wanna-be tastemaker. But these are two completely different roles; and absolutely interdependent.
The way they (should) work together is simple. Artists appeal to a local community, and create beauty/value that is appreciated instinctively/emotionally. At some point, the tastemakers discover/identify the beauty/value and bring it to the supergroup. This transition point is sometimes called “selling out”, but only by artists who get confused about their function in life. Before you “sell out”, you need to have a product that people instinctively see as beautiful/valuable. The people who are trying desperately to “get noticed” by Scoble/Malik/Arrington are often the people who think that you can “sell out first, make beauty/value later.” They dream of being the next “Twisted Sister”. And “sell out” implies that it’s all about money. It’s true that “hits” make a lot of money today. But I argue that “hits”, or the superpod phenomenon is absolutely essential to human nature; therefore, even if there were no money in tastemaking, we would have tastemakers operating for different motives. And the “hits” are going to be chosen from the pods anyway (the alternative would be to have Scoble/Malik/Arrington writing software :-)) whether the artist wants to be a star or not — the superpod needs creative product, and if you have creative product that works, you’re going to get taken (and please don’t play the reluctant star; Bob Dylan is boring).
So in summary, I postulate that the skills of tastemaking are very different than the skills of creating stuff that people love. Tastemakers job is to find beautiful work that the whole supercommunity can appreciate, and use it to remind us that we’re all one supercommunity. And artists job is to create beauty using the only standard that really matters; instinctive relevance to a local social community. And both sides need to appreciate/support the other. When tastemakers start thinking that they can create beauty without a pod, or artists start thinking that they can sell beauty directly to superpod, we swim in a superheated sea of excrement.
P.S. I get more traffic to this blog from StumbleUpon than I do from Digg or Google now. This should be cause for thought to people who think success is about whispering pillowtalk in the tastemaker’s ear. Such strategies (i.e. secret keyword sauce and SEO) can lead to success, or it can just lead to a lot of backstage promiscuity and a squandered life.