Commercialism and human desire

Yesterday I attended the pop culture exhibition and seminar series, Supanova, in Brisbane at the RNA Showgrounds. It was – as usual – a celebration of difference and rebellion against the mainstream. Of course, in such environments, I’m always struck by the extrordinary effort that is demonstrated by those who dress up in the most bizarre array of costumes, from gothic (and twisted) Alice in Wonderland characters, to militaristic sci-fi infantrymen, fallen angels, sex kittens, giant chickens, ghouls, devils and heroes. It’s like a United Nations for overdrawn characterisations. But even more interesting is the manner in which these people (my people, after all, in spite of my determination to appear mainstream in such collective rejection of the mainstream – We are all individuals! I’m not!) blithely accept the consumerist principles of the mainstream in the “long tail” of niche interests. In the trade fair section of yesterday’s event, books, games, figurines, clothes, artwork, comics, music, movies and series were all being hocked at top price to a captured market, eager to spend, spend, spend on the “little guy” of popular culture.

This is, I guess, an illustration of what I see as the paradox of rebellion against mainstream commercialism. In order to rebel agains the mainstream, it is apparently necessary to do so en masse (a new mainstream) and spend a great deal on merchandise and ephemera to demonstrate that rebellon (consumerism). And the fact that this is all popular culture which makes it mainstream anyway just adds to the delicious irony of the practice. Of course, not all participants believe they are rebelling. Some are convinced that they are celebrating their unique consumerist culture, but if this is the case, then it’s remarkable how little is actually “unique” about their culture. In one of the seminars yesterday, Summer Glau, who played River in the Joss Whedon series, Firefly, and the movie, Serenity, sat for an hour answering questions from an enthusiastic audience of fans. But were their questions compelling and representative of a departure from celebrity worship apparent in banal Entertainment Tonight interviews of mainstream content? Unfortunately not. The questions included which costume was her favourite, which actor she enjoyed beating up most and how much she enjoyed working with her director and cast. It could have been a series of questions drawn up by the most naive entertainment ‘journalist’ on the most mainstream of mainstream media. I suppose I ought to have done my bit to challenge the dominant paradigm and asked the two questions I would have liked to ask, but I looked around me and saw the joy and excitement on the faces of all those amassed, and I thought better of spoiling their fun. After all, if this is a niche popular mainstream, then who am I to set about to deconstruct it?

This brings me back to more of the issues I’ve been canvassing in recent blog posts about industrialism and open source, because to a large extent, it’s the people who are part of the games cultures and niche interests at Supanova who are also major contributors to open source “cultures” and communities. I’m still trying to resolve my sense of the impact of proprietors and traditional commercial practices on meeting niche or minority contributions to a collective production market, but I suspect it’s not that I believe that traditional commercialism can better address the full range of human desires… just that traditonal industrial structures are always fairly obvious in the manner in which they disenfranchise… so it’s fairly clear where a niche might emerge, or how the needs of a minority interest group may be addressed. But in a mass production economy that is premised upon inclusiveness and network externalities, I’m uncertain as to how the needs of niche interests are going o be addressed.

As I keep saying, I need to explore this further, but as I’m about to start teaching Strategic Internet Marketing again, I find it timely to be considering how the needs of the many can accommodate a market of conversation, perhaps between just two interlocutors.

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