The Popligopoly

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-06-11 21:00:00 No comments

From a piece that caught my eye earlier:

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly - by Adam Mastroianni (

As options multiply, choosing gets harder. You can’t possibly evaluate everything, so you start relying on cues like “this movie has Tom Hanks in it” or “I liked Red Dead Redemption, so I’ll probably like Red Dead Redemption II,” which makes you less and less likely to pick something unfamiliar. 

Another way to think about it: more opportunities means higher opportunity costs, which could lead to lower risk tolerance. When the only way to watch a movie is to go pick one of the seven playing at your local AMC, you might take a chance on something new. But when you’ve got a million movies to pick from, picking a safe, familiar option seems more sensible than gambling on an original.

This could be happening across all of culture at once. Movies don’t just compete with other movies. They compete with every other way of spending your time, and those ways are both infinite and increasing. There are now 60,000 free books on Project Gutenberg, Spotify says it has 78 million songs and 4 million podcast episodes, and humanity uploads 500 hours of video to YouTube every minute. So uh, yeah, the Tom Hanks movie sounds good.

Exercise for the reader: what does this mean for independent artists who don't have money to throw at aggressive promotion, the better to commandeer that ever-diminishing slice of human attention out there?

And then there's this:

The problem isn’t that the mean has decreased. It’s that the variance has shrunk. Movies, TV, music, books, and video games should expand our consciousness, jumpstart our imaginations, and introduce us to new worlds and stories and feelings. They should alienate us sometimes, or make us mad, or make us think. But they can’t do any of that if they only feed us sequels and spinoffs. It’s like eating macaroni and cheese every single night forever: it may be comfortable, but eventually you’re going to get scurvy.

I don't know this has ever been any different, but all the technology we have in place to give us these things in the first place — and, more importantly, to curate our discovery of them — has acted as a giant force multiplier. Most people are not cultural gourmands and do not have the time and wherewithal to figure out what they are most interested in; they take what's offered. Cultural gourmandy is a hard skill to cultivate, and I don't blame most people for not bothering. But that just makes it easier for them to be programmatically delivered things that leave many parts of themselves unrefreshed.

I also see us becoming more, not less, vulnerable to this kind of programmatic half-satisfaction. People are more scared and lonely than ever, and want something that makes them feel together and welcome. It's difficult to satisfy such hungers at scale in any other way than by, well, the at-scale mechanisms we now have. You could do worse than Marvel, I guess. It scratches some kind of itch, and it does so in a way that's arguably less terrible than much of what came before. But nothing says you can't do better on your own, and make whatever effort you can to get it out to a few people who will be grateful you tried.

Tags: popular culture publishing self-publishing