Peak Attention: The Fabrication of Subcultures

"Subcultures are vulnerable because they form around shared common-knowledge texts (even if the shared text in question comprises nothing more than a particular vocabulary of new urban slang). In Web terms, today’s invisible — to all but the eye of Big Data crunching AI — pattern of preferences is tomorrow’s subcultural small world on the global Interest Graph. And tomorrow’s Interest Graph is next week’s Social Graph.

The day is not far off when Amazon will be able to predict, based on book-sales correlations in a given geography, the formation of a new subculture before the first defining event (say a party where an origin-myth is created) ever takes place. It won’t be long before influence mechanisms emerge, to complement the detection mechanisms. Today, naive marketers try to clumsily set up online communities framed by their products or services, to attract target subcultures, and generally fail.

Somewhat smarter ones try to “own” relevant conversations, based on identifying core subcultural texts that are adjacent to the product-positioning conversation
(the classic example is: want to own the teen tampon market?
Set up a community for girltalk).

This is marketing-by-peripheral-vision. The smartest ones try to infiltrate and co-opt existing subcultural communities online.

Three of the four companies that dominate the Web today:
 Facebook (Like patterns), Google (search patterns) and Amazon (purchase patterns), 
are equipped with extremely powerful cultural 
early-warning radars, based on massive data flows.

But all these mechanisms have had very limited success. Because they are all about taming wild subcultures. But once marketers working with Big Data get ahead of the cultural curve, you can expect the balance of power to shift decisively in their favor. From detecting subcultures before future members themselves do, to actively seeding, breeding and shaping desirable subcultures, is not a big leap to imagine. It will be a world of pre-cognitive marketing, run by quants in data vats.

Taming will turn into domestication.

Today, the marketing machine can at best put its muscle behind a Justin Bieber and create coarse, large-scale culture whose manufactured nature is obvious to all but the dimmest of observers. Tomorrow, it will be able to create tiny, niche cultures whose members will either sincerely believe that the subculture is their own creation, or ironically not care that it has been manufactured for them to find through engineered serendipity.

Working in concert with neo-urbanists, the new marketers will be able to pack a thousand domesticated hyperlocal subcultures in every major city, and entirely reprogram it culturally every few months, to sell a new crop of products and services."

Venkatesh Rao
Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures