There's a great line in the film High Fidelity where the
main character, Rob (played by John Cusack) makes the observation
that he doesn't like people because of who they are he likes them
because of what they like.
At first glance, this position sounds incredibly superficial. But
on closer examination, it becomes more reasonable. After all, why
do you talk to the stranger in the coffeehouse or in the bar? Unless
you're a creepy freak who just bothers random strangers, it's probably
because they're wearing a t-shirt sporting the logo of a band you
like or reading a book by your favorite author. This spurious connection
gives you a reason to talk to them.
And why not? Taste is based upon a certain set of assumptions about
what is good or bad in the world. It's an arena of moral choices,
to paraphrase rock critic Greil
Marcus. Chances are that the guy down the bar in the Kraftwerk
t-shirt and I will have more commonalities than we do differences
and not just in regards to music. We may not become best friends,
but at least we'll probably have an interesting conversation.
You can also extend this directly into the world of mediated relationships.
If I read a favorable review of my favorite author by a book critic,
I'll be likely to trust that critic's judgment in future, and check
out books that he recommends. If I like a singer-songwriter, chances
are that I'll like the bands that she cites as influences. And so
Where this becomes really interesting is when taste cross-pollinates
between one medium and another. The guy in the Kraftwerk t-shirt
may recommend that I read Douglas
On the surface, there is no direct connection between Kraftwerk
and Douglas Coupland. But underlying both of these signifiers is
a whole world of shared cultural assumption and contextualization.
Not to mention the unspoken trust implicit in the transaction of
ideas, which goes something like this: the guy in the Kraftwerk
shirt is obviously an individual of high intellectual quality, because
he likes the same things I do. Therefore, his recommendation
is likely to be of the same high quality. Nobody thinks this consciously,
of course to do so would be to admit to a certain egotism about
one's own intellect and taste. But we all think it nonetheless.
This person likes cool stuff, therefore, they must be cool, too.
Again, it might be superficial but it turns out to be correct
most of the time.
All of these individuals me and the book critic and the singer-songwriter
and the guy in the bar, even Douglas Coupland and the members of
Kraftwerk are members of a taste tribe, a group which shares
certain interests and tastes in media. So are my friends, because
like Cusack's character I choose my friends mainly because they
like many of the same things I do.
Of course, nobody likes perfect homogeneity. If my friends liked
all the exact same things I do, our conversations would be pretty
goddamn boring. My friend Frank, for example, likes the same comic
books and movies
I do but he also listens to the
kind of lo-fi indie rock that is almost exclusively made by
suburban white guys with Spock haircuts and tuneless voices. I simply
don't get Frank's indie rock, any more than he gets my Peter
Regardless of this dichotomy in taste, Frank has turned me on to
some pretty kickass rock and roll, and vice versa. We have enough
respect for each others' taste in other areas to at least hear each
other out when it comes to music. And every so often, one of us
introduces the other to a
All of this may sound pretty damn obvious, and I suppose it is.
Humans have been forming taste tribes ever since the advent of mass
media. It can even be argued that taste tribes are responsible for
breaking down many of the walls that stand between people. Eric
Clapton and Chuck Berry two people as far apart in every way that
I can think of were both part of the same taste tribe, and it
was the coming together of black blues and white country music that
formed rock and rollÉan event which contributed greatly to the success
of the civil rights struggle in America and elsewhere.
But what happens when these tribes become non-localized when
they spread their tendrils out along the lattice of the Web? This
growth has interesting ramifications, not only for the relationship
between media creators and consumers, but for the way that people
form online relationships.
Mike Doughty is a New
York-based singer/songwriter. He is most well known to the general
listening public as the lead singer of the erstwhile band Soul
Coughing, which during the 1990s cultivated a few minor radio
hits and a cult following.
Before the band broke up in March of 2000, Doughty had already
set up a message board, Superspecialquestions, where fans (and occasionally
Doughty himself) could get together and discuss the band, the music,
and Doughty's solo career.
Having been introduced to Soul Coughing several years earlier by
my girlfriend, I checked out Superspecialquestions, curious about
what other Soul Coughing fans might be like having never met a
vast number of them in real life.
What I discovered was an already-thriving community of folks who
spent a great deal of time discussing not only Mike Doughty and
Soul Coughing, but literature, movies, great bars in (insert random
North American city here), even clothes. Members talked about different
ways to tune guitars. Members talked about their lives.
Enough pundits have weighed in on the social aspects of online
communities to fill Texas Stadium; there's not really much I can
do to advance discourse in that area, so I won't even bother. Read
Howard Rheingold's The
Virtual Community or Julian Dibbell's essay "A
Rape In Cyberspace" if you're interested in serious discourse
about the implications of cybercommunity.
What fascinated me most as a (mostly) inactive observer of Superspecialquestions
was how good the participants were at turning one another on to
good media. Starting from a single assumption (an enjoyment of Mike
Doughty and/or Soul Coughing's music), the members were able to
create a taste tribe of music, film, books, computers, even poetry.
And from my casual reading, it seemed like most of the members were
conversant with many of each others' taste choices alreadyÉbut they
were also profoundly grateful to discover new items to dig on.
At the center of this taste tribe was one man Mike Doughty, who
only occasionally dropped in. But after a while, I noticed that
many of his posts not counting cool things like pictures of himself
in Cambodia or information about upcoming gigs consisted of mentioning
books or music that he himself dug. Consciously or unconsciously,
Doughty himself used the board primarily as a member of the taste
Superspecialquestions.com is gone now Doughty got tired of the
time and effort required to admin the site but the regulars have
reincarnated it at www.superspecialrock.com. "People
ask constantly about music, considering it is so burned out lately,"
says Matt Price, who
maintains the site. "I mean, damn, we lost Soul Coughing, Morphine,
and Jeff Buckley in the
span of about a year. Most of the music we discuss is underground,
college radio kind of stuff. Mainstream pop is definitely not in
At the time of this writing, topics on Superspecialrock included
queries for good salsa recipes and a discussion of the Australian
indie flick Rabbit
Proof Fence. The URL may have changed, but the taste tribe
There is a lot of talk going around the Web right now on the subject
of weblogs some of it thoughtful and interesting, most of it complete
bullshit. But both the boosters and the naysayers seem to agree
that something's going on here, even if they can't agree about its
Over the past year or so, blogs have begun to serve as more than
a way for some doofus to publish his deathless thoughts on the secret
meaning of Homer Simpson's zig-zag hairline. The advent of meta-tools
such as TrackBack,
Technorati and BlogShares
have allowed Net citizens to begin to see not only the individual
pieces of the Web (i.e. the actual sites), but the connections between
them, in a way that has never been possible before.
Many people myself included use their blog not only as personal
diaries, but as a sort of informal critical journal. Surf any random
blog and you'll find a few reviews of books, movies, albums, or
concerts. Because bloggers are not under the same commercial constraints
as mainstream media sources, the length and subject of these reviews
tends to be far more diverse one blogger may write a 2,000 word
critical essay about the Clash's London
Calling, another might write a 500 word review of the local
band they saw last night. I might write twelve different pieces
about Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska
while drunk, and
While it might be argued that this tendency to publish one's opinions
is somewhat self-indulgent, the same can be said of professional
criticism. My personal experience as both a blogger and professional
journalist is that the level of quality in the blogosphere is pretty
much on par with the mainstream mediaÉwhich perhaps says more about
the mainstream media than anything else.
When you start using the aforementioned tools to explore the "world
of ends" (as a recent essay
by bloggers Doc Searls and
names it), you will discover a rather intuitive pattern emerging.
Bloggers link back to sites that link to them.
Wow, pretty shocking, huh? But the reason why this happens
is pretty interesting. It's not out of courtesy, the way it was
back in the early days of the Web when we were all terribly elated
to be linked to by anybody. We're older now, more cynical,
It happens because minds think alike great minds, lesser minds,
minds that really love Jean-Luc
Godard or Kenneth Cole
or the booming garage-rock scene. The Russian lap dancer who links
to my ninth drunken review of Nebraska is likely to be someone
whose tastes I instinctively get like the theoretical guy
in the Kraftwerk t-shirt I mentioned at the beginning. If she likes
Nebraska, she probably likes the Cowboy
Junkies. She might read Flannery
O'Connor (whose short stories heavily influenced Springsteen
when he was recording the album). If she doesn't, I can suggest
these media to her. And in return, she can turn me on to some vastly
beautiful and eminently depressing Ukrainian alternative country
band that I would never, ever have come in contact with otherwise.
She is another member of my taste tribeÉand we can introduce each
other via our links to others like us.
This is all very well for the people who consume media, but what
about the people who make it? What does it do for them?
The answer is: it depends on whom you're talking about. If you
mean the writers and musicians and photojournalists who create media,
it's an opportunity for distribution and collaboration unparalleled
in the history of media.
But if you're talking about the people who promote and distribute
media the record executives and PR people and publishing houses
the answer is: probably not good.
Taste tribes are based upon exactly that taste. But record
labels and publishers are based upon moving data, with no real concern
as to the quality of that content. This works fine in a world dominated
by the one-to-many model of media disseminationÉbut it's more problematic
in the arena of taste tribes.
Fisher is a singer out of Los Angeles who has recorded five albums
with her eponymous band.
Fisher is not signed to a major label, despite modest radio play
and high profile appearances on a couple of movie soundtracks (the
most notable being the 1997 version of Great Expectations
with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as touring spots
with major artists like David
Gray and Duncan Sheik.
But Fisher can claim a rabid fan base and consistent sales of her
small-label albums, along with more than three million downloads
from mp3.com. Though the
site makes it difficult to tell, she certainly ranks as one of their
highest-selling independent artists, and one of their great success
stories. Her fans serve as unpaid PR people, spreading the word
about her music to anybody who will listen. Many of those people
will also become fans, and repeat the process. The taste tribe grows.
I've never met the lady, but I would guess that Fisher probably
makes a much better living selling her music than most major-label
musicians, who almost inevitably find themselves on the short end
of the stick when it comes to contract renegotiation time. Nobody
else is taking a cut of Fisher's cake except mp3.com, of course,
which charge a flat rate to burn CDs for artists. Even their cut
is far less than that taken by the most altruistic record labels.
As a musician, Fisher is a success.
But all of this hinges upon one thing: the quality of Fisher's
music. If she sucked, nobody would bother to buy her albums through
mp3.com, or pay to see her. Her success hinges entirely upon word
of mouth and Internet links on the favor of taste tribes.
Contrast this with a pop star like Britney Spears. Ms. Spears has
precisely zero talent at anything, except possibly for the hardly-challenging
skill of shaking her ass. Her songs are wretched parodies of everything
that makes music great and vital. She cannot hold a key without
production effects. In effect, she is little more than a Junior
League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track.
And yet, she is one of the best-selling pop stars in the world.
Why? Because record labels promote the ever-loving hell out of her.
It is impossible to walk into a chain record store without seeing
her face (or more likely, her ass) plastered up on every surface.
MTV plays her videos on an endless loop, because the record labels
have created artificial demand for her work.
And yet, the likelihood is that Ms. Spears herself is making most
of her money not from record sales, but from merchandise sales
t-shirts and handbags and training bras. As profitable as these
items may be, they are worthless without the heavy hand of her record
label. Without the label's promotional efforts, without the album
it distributes around the globe to giggling teenage girls and the
videos it gets played on MTV and the singles it
pays "promoters" to push on radio stations, a Britney Spears
t-shirt would be no more a commodity than a t-shirt with my
face on it. If you took the record label out of the equation, Britney
Spears really would be nothing more than a Junior League
lap dancer with a karaoke backing track. She would certainly not
become successful on the merits of her music, because it has none.
Hardly anyone disputes that the record industry is in very serious
trouble right now, less from the claimed effects of p2p piracy than
from its own economic blunders and high-handed treatment of consumers.
It seems fairly likely that the next five to ten years will see
a massive restructuring of the way that music gets delivered from
the artist to the consumer. Most people (myself included) think
that the most serious damage will be done to the major labels, which
cannot sustain profitability in the face of an actively hostile
consumer base that is sick of overpriced copy-protected CDs a
consumer base which sees file-sharing as a form of digital Robin-Hoodism.
In the aftermath of this chaos, who seems more likely to survive
with minimal damage Fisher, or Britney?
Of course, music is not the only medium to be affected by the rise
of taste tribes. One could argue that sci-fi author and BoingBoing
blogger (and Mindjack contributor) Cory Doctorow's post-humanist
novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom would not have received
the amount of attention it has gained without the one-two punch
of Doctorow's decision to release
the book for free online simultaneously with its print appearance
and the proliferation of reviews and links from the blogosphere.
Films such as Michael Moore's controversial Bowling
For Columbine and indie horror/fantasy flick Donnie
Darko have certainly benefited from online taste-sharing.
I certainly wouldn't have heard much about either film without the
help of message boards and blogs. The smartest artists in the 21st
century are the ones who use their taste tribes to their commercial
and artistic advantage. As the tribes become more formalized and
concretized through the use of online tools that make the links
explicit, and likely self-identification by their members those
advantages will be considerable indeed.
But that use positive as it most likely will be leads to consideration
of the possible unintended side-effects of the emergence of taste
tribes. The most unnerving is their co-option by those interested
only in the commodification of cool. The world is full of "coolhunters"
people who, like the protagonist of William Gibson's Pattern
Recognition, search the world looking for what happens at
the moment to be cool and hip. This is also a function of taste
tribes but unlike them, the coolhunter is not neotenic
for the sheer love of it. For coolhunters and the corporations who
employ them, the latest thing is just the latest thing to sell,
until the next latest thing comes along.
But even this might turn out to be beneficial. In a capitalist
society, commerce is a requirement (or a necessary evil, depending
upon your point of view). And wouldn't it ultimately be better if
the producers of pop culture were able to work with their consumers,
rather than against them? To directly access those consumers' needs,
rather than simply making educated guesses? In this model of supply
and demand, taste tribes create an alternate form of direct marketing,
analogous to Amazon's recommendation system but vastly more useful,
because it is not automated. It takes the eccentricities of human
taste into account.
In the end, it is not the record labels and the movie studios who
decide what's cool. We do. The media suppliers follow our
cue, rather than the other way around which is the way it should
be. Taste tribes may turn out to be the best way to filter out the
bad media and let in the good to turn up the signal and wipe out
the noise, as Peter Gabriel says
most recent album. Which is great, by the way. You should go
get it. Trust me.
Ellis is a writer and
musician living in Las Vegas. Recently, he co-founded marginwalker.org.
a weblog/community devoted to "open-source futurism".