Neal Stephenson
great fragmentation

The Great Fragmentation: We Are All Weirdos Now

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“Technology isn’t a section in the newspaper any more. It’s the culture,” quoth Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, prompting some eyebrow-raising by Guardian and New York Times columnists. And here’s some more from TechCrunch… but my stance is a bit different. “The culture”? That’s an oxymoron. There is no such thing as majority mainstream culture any more. We are all weirdos now — thanks to tech.

Balaji Srinivasan of Andreessen Horowitz wrote a terrific, farsighted piece in Wired last year, in which he observed:

An infinity of subcultures outside the mainstream now blossoms on the Internet — vegans, body modifiers, CrossFitters, Wiccans, DIYers, Pinners, and support groups of all forms. Millions of people are finding their true peers in the cloud, a remedy for the isolation imposed by the anonymous apartment complex or the remote rural location … The latest wave of technology is not just connecting us intellectually and emotionally with remote peers: it is also making us ever more mobile, ever more able to meet our peers in person.

He suggests that a “reverse diaspora” could cause groups of likeminded people to come together and form new communities — indeed, new nations; “cloud cities or countries.” Which immediately brings to mind the phyles of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, geographically distributed nations whose footprints are dispersed unevenly all over the world rather than contained within a single contiguous piece of real estate.

Plausible, but distant, I think. For now let’s just take a look at the recent and short-term cultural effects of technology, what I call the Great Fragmentation.

Once upon a time, only a couple of decades ago, there really was such a thing as mainstream culture. Its gatekeepers — a handful of TV channels, an incestuous music business, a clutch of radio mavens, a few movie studios, and the jealously guarded print industry — controlled 95% of the media. There was an independent counterculture, sure, but you had to go out of your way for it, and you really had to go out of your way to communicate with others who shared your interests, unless they happened to live nearby.

Nowadays, though, wherever you are, whatever your interests, however baroque and obscure, you can find and join groups and mini-communities of people who share them. Indeed, you can and likely do find yourself part of several or even many distributed communities, one or more for each subject or context that really interests you. (Not that it’s ever that clear-cut in real life; cultural borders are always fuzzy and ill-defined, and every comment thread on your Facebook news feed is arguably its own mayfly-ephemeral mini-community.)

Doomsayers frequently warn us about how the Internet fragments society and causes us to become more polarized. “The Internet is a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization,” intones an NYPD white paper (PDF) on terrorism. Princeton’s Cass Sunstein observes: “When like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.”

Everyone always talks about that kind of polarization in terms of left-wing vs. right-wing politics, loss of civility, doom of society, etc etc etc. But a far more interesting corollary, if you ask me, is this: all those quirky little Internet subcommunities and subreddits to which people increasingly belong? The polarization effect means that they will just keep getting quirkier and more idiosyncratic.

…In other words, as a direct result of technology, our entire society will, slowly but steadily, become weirder and more fragmented.

Dismayed? Don’t be. This is excellent news. Well, maybe not for marketers and advertisers, who no longer have a single barrel full of all the fish to fire their weapons into, but now have to catch us as we all swim through the new online oceans. Stephenson again, from his prescient short story Hack the Spew, written twenty years ago:

It was an unexploited market niche of cavernous proportions: upwards of one-hundredth of one percent of the population.

…but for the rest of us, it’s a very heartening development. Given a choice between

  1. the de facto cultural tyranny of a genuine mainstream majority
  2. a society in which people accept that, for any given context, its “mainstream” will be a plurality rather than a majority, and adjust their behavior and expectation accordingly

…I’ll take option 2 any day of the week and twice on Sundays, thanks. A society in which people accept that their personal views generally are and will remain minority perspectives, rather than seeking to impose “normal” beliefs and tastes on any who don’t fit in, is enormously healthier, both culturally and politically. Given time, maybe this social transformation could even fragment American politics beyond its infantile two-party divide, into a genuine three-or-more-party democracy like the rest of the West enjoys.

In the meantime and the medium term, though, the weird will slowly but steadily efface the normal. My friend Meredith Patterson recently wrote a frankly brilliant piece entitled “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit.” (Intersectionality: the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.) It is, to oversimplify, about the culture gap between old-school weird hackers and new-school progressive techies. She writes:

Many programmers aren’t hackers, and there isn’t a single thing wrong with that. Literacy of any kind is a beautiful thing. In today’s market, demand for code-literate employees far exceeds the supply, so engineering teams contain both hackers and non-hackers. Increasingly, the latter outnumber the former. This is still a beautiful thing — until the latter realise there are enough of them to push the weirdos out, and do it.

Call me an optimist, Meredith, but I think that in the medium term, this problem is self-solving. Because the Internet isn’t just a home for weirdos; it actually manufactures them … and when most of us realize that most of us are weird, we will see that this is actually a very good thing indeed.


Image credit: yours truly, Flickr.