networks in expanding culture spaces V

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Ok, so it’s a miracle that the Chudnovsky brothers found the MET Unicorn photos. But is it merely miraculous or are there miracle mechanicals at work here?

Word of mouth

In order for the solution to find a problem it could solve, it would have to travel first by word of mouth. And it could not travel very far unless it was embedded in a narrative–a story that people wanted to hear, and even more to tell. (We could think of these narratives as little PR shills that recruit interest for the solution.) This is, probably, the only way something really obscure stories (and their client solutions) rise to public attention in the early days. Everything else remains trapped in the wash of daily conversation, forgotten virtually upon hearing.

As to the mechanicals: this is hard to figure. How many problems and solutions are estranged, that is, unlikely to find one another through conventional channels, thanks to conventional agents? How many conversations are actually devoted to transmitting little stories? I am guessing that there are many more solutions and problems that need connecting than there are word-of-mouth mechanicals capable of doing so. (How to figure? Let’s say we have 3 conversations a day = 21 a week but only 6 of them are story-bearing x 300 million Americans / 2 (or more) to allow for conversation overlap, don’t know how to figure this) = around 1 billion conversations a week. There are, by this reckoning, lots of delivery vehicles out there at any given time. Really commanding stories commandeer ever greater share of conversations. More and more people come to know the narrative, and the solution it contains. The chances that an obscure solution will reach an obscure problem go upward steadily. How quickly a narrative commandeers its share of conversation will depend, as we have seen, on the force of the narrative, and this is really hard to calculate, but not perhaps impossible.)

An expanding cultural universe creates a problem of its own. Part of the power of Chudnovsky narrative comes from the fact that it appeals to many New Yorkers. But as the world becomes more various, it will become harder and harder to find narratives with this kind of reach. There is a solution here and the Chudnovsky story exhibits it. This story is about the New Yorker approach to things and to this extent it can speak to the great diversity of New Yorkers. Presumably, someday all problem-carrying narratives will have to speak to form, not content. But even when they do, it is not clear that they can have the narrative punch that problem-delivery demands of them. This, then, is grounds to wonder whether cultural space is expanding faster than the networks that would allow them to communicate. The narrative delivery device may fail us.

As the world becomes more various, two additional problems emerge. Our problems, some of them, become more exotic. I am keenly interested in finding out something about the supply of talent in Hollywood. We know how many big name celebrities are chosen. I would like to know how many people are called. How many people say, “hmm, I’d like to be a star.” In between is a hierarchy: those who get some kind of training, those who get some a role or two, those who get a SAG card, those who win several parts in C films, B films, A films, how many get an agent, good agent, great agent, how many get a career, good career, great career, and so on. This is an obscure problem. Lots of people might be interested in the outcome, but you and I are the only ones who are looking for an answer.

Now there is someone in Hollywood who knows the answer. I need that rare person who covers the entire waterfront, the full scope of the recruiting system. I think there are let’s say 20 people who could answer my question. And in a desultory way, I’ve tried to find them. (I wrote SAG, Screen Actors Guild, with no results. Of course, they have a deeply vested interested in making sure these numbers are never revealed. Their revenues depend upon people clinging to an illusory hope: next year, stardom!) This small effort failed, and chances are word-of-mouth mechanicals, even with a narrative gale behind them, will not find me. My problem is too obscure. There are lots of little problems like mine out there but not even IMDb can find an aggregated way to speak to them. This is a way of saying that there a “demand” aspect to the “long tail” (thank you, Chris Anderson) that even a very dynamic marketplace cannot keep up with.

The solutions I can supply become exotic too. I am interested in predicting cultural trends, and I have worked out some ways of doing this. Many people are interested in this problem, but because I live outside the academic and the industrial world, mostly, my “solutions” are obscure and will strike many solution seekers as wrong headed. Chances are the word-of-mouth mechanicals will not reach the people who find my solution useful. Here too diversity threatens network.

Now, there are happy moments of congruence/confluence. Some of the diverse solutions “out there” eventually trade in their exoticness and become the generic way of solving problems. Marc Andreessen came up with a solution (Mosaic-Netscape) that was exotic in the early days, but as we wrapped our heads around it, we began to see that it was the solution to a great warehouse of problems, some of them anticipated, many just in time. (Andreessen didn’t just make new solutions possible. He make new, “generative,” problems possible too.) At first glance, it appears that an Internet browser will outstrip problems. (The Internet becoming in effect the solution to almost all network problems and the problems that networks help solve.) But again, the Andreessen solution had the effect of underwriting a new profusion of problems, so the congruence/confluence was fleeting. The cultural space that contains problems continues to expand, and the moments that Humpty Dumpty is brought together again are brief. (Mr. Dumpty always turns out to be an anarchist and not really a “wall sitter” at all.)

Word of net

Our little story is an old fashioned one because news of Chudnovsky brothers moves from word-of-mouth to a big media player in one big leap. This is the world BI, before internet. This is a world in which the solution had to be wrapped in a sensationally interesting narrative because it was going to have to leap the grand canyon between all those people talking and a mere handful of newspapers and magazines.

So the good news here is that word-of-net decreases the amount of narrative power a story actually needs. In a word of mouth word, solutions need quite large narrative sails to move between conversations. In the word of net world, a small (i.e., 2 h.p.) outboard of curiosity will do.

Furthermore, the internet is, as we know, disaggregated, non hierarchical, less constrained by gates, less controlled by gate keepers. This means narrative power can drop again.

Finally, narrative itself may mean less. I think it’s probably true that the internet hosts lots of talk that is purely informational, where people talk about things because, thanks to the net, they can find that critical mass of people who find news of certain individuals and innovations intrinsically interesting. No narrative is needed to catch our attention and conscript our word of mouth.

Word of net fills in the gap between word of mouth and the media outlets. Now passage into the jet stream of public opinion is less frictionful. Solutions need less narrative oomph to make the transition. But in other cases, word of net supplants the big media outlets all together. And now there is a steady stream of intelligence moving from obscure origins to obscure destinations without the aid of much aggregation, narrative, or gatekeeping. (I apologize for belaboring what is well known. This was a ground up, “what do I have to think to think this” exercise, and hey presto, I just found the path to illumination taking me through a little town called the “obvious” with a stopover in a suburb called the “indubitable,” with a sharp turn through a driver’s ed parking lot filled with startled beginners for whom the obvious is actually a big surprise.)

Media coverage

But media coverage still matters more often than we thought it would. Some solutions will find real exposure only when upward ascend brings the story container to the attention of the media. Narrative still counts. The Chudnovsky solution came wrapped in a humdinger of a narrative (and in NECS II, we tried to show why.) People liked it so much they repeated it and repeated it till it reached the New Yorker magazine. This is the balloon hitting the jet stream. Now we’re really getting somewhere. Media coverage will also adds new credibility (unless the medium in questions happens to be The National Enquirer). You and I will talk about it with the assurance that ‘this is something.” And we are now more likely to put this back into word-of-mouth circulation, sometimes reaching those who exist outside the original word-of-mouth and media ambits.

And the really good thing about this media coverage is that it fights the effects of diversity. It helps form and inform a “main stream.” It allows for the possibility of broadcast, when word-of-net is mastering the idea of narrow cast so effectively that we are tempted by the notion (see the one-to-one marketing literature here) that narrow cast is all we need. Let’s hope not. That’s the path to a culture of great diversity in which many of the differences are sealed away from other differences.

Peace out

Ok, that’s enough for today. So far this is pretty pessimistic. My conclusion appears to be that networks are not expanding fast enough to keep up with cultural spaces in which we live. There are several reasons for this, but the chief of these is that every solution to the problem is itself an incitement of the problem. Andreessen’s solution to the problem of a disaggregated culture actually serves further to disaggregate the culture.

But tomorrow, the final installment here (I promise). There is a still larger, more daunting problem here, a deeper reason to think that Chudnovsky solutions cannot hope routinely to reach Unicorn problems. This is another way of saying that it is entirely possible that the miracle mechanicals cannot be relied upon and we will be forced to rely mere miracles after all.

5 thoughts on “networks in expanding culture spaces V

  1. Rockster

    Have you thought about the “solution” as being a way of influencing the probability of connections being made? It recalls for me the notion of “core competence” as a capability that can be applied to many different uses. You may not know all of the potential uses there are for your capability, but you *can* develop strategies to ensure you are aware of interesting roads to follow.

  2. Grant

    Rockster, I will where you are going with this, but I’m not sure what lies up ahead. Could you expand? Thanks, Grant

    Leora, word of mauss, Grant

  3. LK

    dang, you one-upped me yet again.

    ps the reason my comment got posted twice because the first time it gave me an error message (obviously a lie) so feel free to dispose of mauss.

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