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Tethered in technoculture

The mainstream mass audience is splintering into niche interests fueled by podcasting, blogging and all the rest. But do we benefit?

December 18, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

A moment of silence, please, for the imminent death of the old Mainstream Mass Culture.

Born sometime between the invention of baseball and the 1904 World's Fair, it began experiencing violent headaches and seizures shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, then lapsed into a coma during the launch of

There will be no survivors, except on select reruns of "Lost." In lieu of flowers, friends may send checks to the "Bring Back Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw Emergency Fund."

There -- that wasn't so painful, was it? After all, it's been common knowledge, or at least conventional wisdom, that traditional mainstream mass culture has been clinging to life for decades, like one of Anne Rice's mottled vampires. But 2005 is when a chronic condition may have turned terminal.

This was the year in which Hollywood, despite surging DVD and overseas sales, spent the summer brooding over its blockbuster shortage, and panic swept the newspaper biz as circulation at some large dailies went into free fall. Consumers, on the other hand, couldn't have been more blissed out as they sampled an explosion of information outlets and entertainment options: cutting-edge music they could download off websites into their iPods and take with them to the beach or the mall; customized newcasts delivered straight to their Palm Pilots; TiVo-edited, commercial-free programs plucked from a zillion cable channels.

The old mass culture suddenly looked pokey and quaint. By contrast, the emerging 21st century mass technoculture of podcasting, video blogging, the Google Zeitgeist list and "social networking software" that links people on the basis of shared interest in, say, Puerto Rican reggaeton bands seems democratic, consumer-driven, user-friendly, enlightened, opinionated, streamlined and sexy. Or so nearly everyone believes at the moment.

But after bidding adieu to old-fangled mass culture, the question arises: This roiling, recombinant technoculture dangles the promise of change, creativity and shared public life -- but in the end, will it just come down to always-on, one-click shopping?

A decade into the Age of the Graphic Browser Interface, Americans seldom are focused on the same event or activity at the same moment. But they're congregating in enormous numbers on websites and other high-tech portals that function much like the institutions they've nudged aside. The culture's being boutiqued or, as the expression goes, "unbundled." Broadcast has given way to a proliferation of narrowcasts.

Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Americans now have an unassuageable appetite for creating and consuming entertainment and interacting with media of all kinds, mass and otherwise. They're schlepping the kids off to "The Narnia Chronicles" and cruising the Web for old high school flames. They're loading up on Wal-Mart CDs and iTunes gift certificates. They're firing off bellicose e-mails to the Wall Street Journal and daily kos.

What's more, much of the supposedly independent and free-spirited techno-culture is being engineered (or rapidly acquired) by a handful of media and technology leviathans: News Corp., Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google, the budding General Motors of the Information Age.

Linking with the like-minded

THE real story isn't so much the death of the old mass culture or the rise of a new, fragmented technoculture, but the empowerment of the American consumer -- which isn't quite the same as the American citizen.

Beyond racing out to get the must-hear Mariah Carey single and see Hollywood's 10-ton gorillas, We, the People are poring over iTunes playlists of friends, celebrities and strangers to find music that matches our personal preferences. And tapping services like Pandora to stream customized "radio stations" into our PCs. And browsing the endless virtual shopping aisles of opinion and analysis in the blogosphere.

En masse, people not named Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner are using increasingly accessible technology to wrest control of cultural production -- creating, curating and critiquing their own output and nudging along its consumption. An enterprising anarchist-death metal band, say, can make a video, post it on MySpace, sell its home-pressed CD off the Web and develop a base of fans who chat, post reviews and forward the video link to friends.

Maybe they sell only 10,000 CDs. But so what, says John Battelle, co-founding editor of Wired magazine. If you have 10,000 ardent fans who'll buy whatever you record, and those fans can find you directly on the Internet, you don't need a label that would grab 13 of your hard-earned bucks from every $15 CD.

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