Pop culture depends on scarcity. When there are only a few TV stations or a dozen radio stations, it’s likely that many of us watch or hear the same thing at the same time.
And so a popular TV show or song from fifty years ago probably reached twenty times as many people as a popular hit today.
But the long tail brings other benefits. More choices, more innovation.
Not just a long tail of consumption, but also a spectacular decrease in the cost of production. Innovations in computers, cameras and AI mean that people can make content without permission from a gatekeeper.
In the latest AI breakthrough, here’s a recent Paul McCartney song ‘updated’ to use the voice of a young Paul McCartney.
You can hear a quick snippet here:
While this is technically amazing, what it highlights is that within a few weeks, we’re going to see thousands (or millions) of new songs created by AI and available on YouTube and streaming channels. Some of them will be mediocre. Some will be breakthroughs. And a few will be hits.
Creating music (or writing) is an inherently human activity, and it doesn’t go away. What does go away, though, is the commercial dynamic of thousands of someones in Nashville or Hollywood hitting it big big big with nothing but a typewriter or a guitar.
The end of pop and the rise of the long tail and AI brings us back a century. Just like it used to be–small circles of people, not mass markets. But this time with endless choice and a business model that is hard to visualize.
PS my friend Paige has a new book out. You can read the digital edition for free with password friend.
That’s what we usually try to do. When technology, comfort, convenience, efficiency and price line up, the market takes care of itself.
On the other hand, seatbelts would never have happened if they weren’t required.
But pizza grew to dominate our diets with no centralized action.
They sell a lot of Tide laundry detergent. Billions of dollars a year, that’s enough pods to reach the moon and back.
Even though Tide usually comes in a big plastic container and weighs many pounds, we keep buying it. That’s because it’s convenient, easy to find and not particularly expensive.
One of the challenges of changing a culture that’s driven by consumption is that people voluntarily choose what to buy next.
And so we get stuck. Stuck with products and systems that we’re not happy with, simply because it’s easier to stick with what we already have. The status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.
And yet, sometimes we get lucky. Consider this simple product for washing your clothes.
It’s super convenient, even more so than Tide. It’s almost as cheap. It’s dramatically more sustainable. It has a jillion 5-star reviews. And yet, it has a tiny fraction of Tide’s market share (so far).
We can’t buy out way out of the climate crisis, we’ll need to compromise, to invest and to rethink the systems that we depend on.
But every once in a while, you can simply change what you buy, and even better, tell someone else when it works.
A placebo is a force beyond understanding, one that is capable of disappearing when we do the appropriate double-blind tests and has mechanisms that defy our knowledge of the laws of physics.
A placebo is a prompt for our subconscious to do the hard work of healing our body, increasing our satisfaction or maximizing our performance.
I think the second is way more likely, and ultimately serves us better.
When someone says, “that’s just a placebo” they’re undervaluing the magic of culture and the power of our minds to actually influence how our bodies perform. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “we’re fortunate that a powerful placebo is available.”
Purveyors of fancy sneakers, designer handbags, rare wines, acupuncture and herbal remedies can proudly lean into the work of producing the conditions where placebos have their maximum impact.
If it’s not helping us believe, then it’s not properly designed.
There are three strands, present for most everyone:
Power (sometimes seen as status, or the appearance of status)
Safety (survival and peace of mind)
Meaning (hope and the path forward)
The changes in our media structure, public health and economy have pushed some people to overdo one or the other and perhaps ignore a third. When a social network finds your button and presses it over and over, it’s hard to resist.
New cultural forces catch on because they hit on one or more of these. And politics is understood through this lens as well.
See the braid and it’s a lot easier to figure out why we might be stressed.
Explaining atoms or molecules, or decision making, or what you do at your job…
The reason that it’s difficult is that in order to explain something, we need to really understand it first.
Not simply be able to do the task or ace the test.
And the reason we avoid it is that we might not want to understand. We might not want to get past “because that’s the way it is” or “do what I say” to actually become comfortable with the underlying forces and axioms that make something work.
There’s an assumption of civility and fairness in all of our interactions. When a harsh competitor unilaterally breaks unwritten rules (because it’s “not technically against the rules”) the community then writes down a new rule.
The best way for a market to be a free market is for the participants to exercise self-restraint.
The second best way is for clear and useful rules to be stated and enforced.
What doesn’t work are unwritten rules that are often broken by selfish bullies.
For a decade, Cliffs Notes were the bestselling section of the bookstore. They were a simple way for any high school student to get insight, examples and answers about the books they were assigned and read (or didn’t read).
When Cliffs published a list of their thirty bestselling titles, I saw an opportunity and created a book that was the cliffs notes of the Cliffs Notes. Quicklit didn’t sell very well, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Used as intended, Cliffs Notes and Quicklit were a gold mine of insight. They opened the door for real understanding, and often got to the heart of the literature better than an overworked high school teacher might be able to.
The paradox? More availability of notes didn’t lead to more learning.
It’s not clear to me that widespread availability of these summaries and guides actually led to much in the way of understanding.
And so here comes ChatGPT and its cousins. Here’s ChatPDF, a miracle that instantly reads a PDF, summarizes it and gives us the chance to ask it questions. The results I’ve seen are extraordinary. Here’s a session built around a 48-page uploaded summary of my new book.
It doesn’t work until we choose to understand.
Part of the magic of an actual book is that the reader ends up understanding. It seeps in, the aha’s are found, not highlighted.
TLDR is internet-speak for “Too long, didn’t read.” It’s one of the consequences of too much to choose from, combined with a lazy quest for convenience. It’s a checklist mindset. And all we get after we finish a checklist is a bunch of checked boxes, not real understanding.
If you were on a long train ride with the smartest person in the world, what would you ask her? And how long before you went back to scrolling on your phone?
It doesn’t matter how much we summarize, at some point, effort is required. More summaries won’t automatically lead to more understanding.
The best way to win a short-term game is to bet it all on one strategy. Someone is going to get lucky and it might be you.
But we rarely thrive in the long run if we persist in playing a series of short-term games.
Instead, organizations, individuals and teams do better when they understand the value of resilience.
In the last year, we’ve seen well-funded and heavily hyped crypto companies hit the wall and fail. That’s because it was easy for them to get funded and grow fast by making a simple bet, and in a bull market, everyone looks like a genius.
But their less flashy competitors are still around. They understood that resilience is expensive and resilience is worth it.