Over the last couple of days I read Seth Godin’s new manifesto We Are All Weird. While I don’t believe it contains a tremendous amount of insight, or even answers really, it makes up for it in passion.
Godin’s premise is that the internet has led to an explosion of niche communities, that up until fairly recently would have probably lingered in obscurity. Now the fringe of the fringe can find each other and become superfringey together by resonating and amplifying their weirdness. This leads to a flattening of the “normal distribution” that statistics loves and that marketers have used over the years to develop middle-of-the-road products. Consumers no longer are looking for the normal thing, they’re looking for the thing that speaks to their individual needs.
He uses the example of Wonder Bread, which perfectly illustrates this. Wonder Bread is the most mainstream American product that you can probably think of. But if you walk down a bread aisle in a grocery store, chances are you’ll see that there are dozens and dozens of more options than Wonder Bread, and beyond that the grocery probably also has a bakery of its own that does unique loaves of its own kind of bread to fill the niche of people who want fresh-baked, non-sandwich types of bread. I know that in my house I have to buy bread that is not only vegan, but does not contain corn or corn-syrup either because my husband is a vegan who is allergic to corn. That drastically reduces the number of choices, but the fact that I have the option to buy that exacting specification of bread is why I can still keep shopping at that particular store.
People want what is unique to their lives and their experiences, and the common ground is being ceded to the artisan every day.
Godin is coming at this from a marketer’s perspective. How does one advertise to plug the right product into the right place so that these small clusters of people find it? There are no hard and fast answers, but rather a rallying cry to understand that people are unique, not numbers. In order to envision the advertising of the future you have to understand that people don’t want to be “the average American,” nor do they want to be seen as such. They want to be recognized for all the wonderfully weird things that they are.
And this is the way of the future. The internet is not going anywhere, subcultures are growing exponentially, and services that cater to a middling demographic will go the way of the dodo bird. What we will see is the ever growing cacophony of choices, allowing us to go anywhere and buy or build any kind of unique product that we wish.
When I went to Japan I was bombarded with choice. At the 7-11 they had about 30 different kinds of Onigiri in the refrigerator. It was always kind of a random selection for me because I could barely read Japanese. At the hot bar they had make your own Oden soup with a variety of different mix-in things. When we went to Akihabara there were so many things that you could never even begin to imagine. The vending machines alone were the most bizarre and wonderful things you have ever seen. A friend got a hot soup can out of the vending machine that had a quail egg in it, and this from a machine that had hot, cold and room temperature things all in one place. When we went to Don Quijote it was like the craziest multi-floor storage unit full of tchotchkes you’ve ever seen in your life. It makes Archie McPhee’s look like a Spencer’s Gifts. There were racks of underwear, next to badass Hello Kitty key chains, next to sex toys, next to giant foam cowboy hats. It was insane and wonderful. And just while we’re mentioning Hello Kitty, there are untold thousands of HK products in Japan. Every neighborhood has a special HK product, designers line up by the droves to have their own specially designed Hello Kitty. Sanrio is the epitome of this. You can have any kind of Hello Kitty you can imagine, and we’ll make it for you.
And the second thing that immediately came to mind was Warren Ellis’s comic series Transmetropolitan. Transmet takes place in the future where choice has become the most surreal chaotic dystopia you can imagine. Why buy KFC when you can buy a bucket of moose eyes and eat them like popcorn? Or a human leg for that matter from genetically altered, brain-dead, sci-farm raised stem-cells. Why bother being human at all when you can alter your genome and become half-alien or half-animal, or just screw being human altogether and become a cloud of nanites with your human memories? The media is saturated with the bizarre, and the only way to ride the wave and make your voice heard over the din is the be the most bizarre son-of-a-bitch in the world. So Gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem straddles the line between loathing contempt and embracing the madness. Does it change society? Does it have an impact? Does it mean anything at all? Sort of, but not really. The world just doesn’t stop getting stranger, and it doesn’t necessarily get any better.
What does this mean for the future?
I have absolutely no idea.
And I love it.