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Revenge of the Pod People

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-12-07


I have an almost "Rainman"-like capacity to retain useless bits of trivia which I'll then dutifully trot out when trying to stump easily-annoyed friends after a few drinks. Two of my current favorite parlor-trick questions are about human behavior. See if you can figure them out:

1) When people are asked to pick a number between 1 and 10, they inevitably pick one number more than any other. What is it? And 2), When people are asked to name their favorite color, they pick one color more than any other. What is it?

Give up? The answers to the questions are, simultaneously, obvious and surprising "7" to the first, and "blue" to the second. Most people I asked got the questions correct but they seemed startled to discover that human responses could be so easily predicted. (For those of you keeping score, "3" was the 2nd most popular response to the first question, and "red" was the 2nd most popular to the second question.)

It's no surprise that business and marketing experts certainly know the answers to those questions check to see how often "Seven" is used in the titles of sociology/business best sellers (The Seven Habits of . . . etc) and how usual it is to "see blue" in print campaigns and movie trailers. Advertisers recognize the effectiveness of placing psychological triggers before the populace in order to ensure positive product responses.

Charting the spending habits of American consumers is an essential science for retailers and sometimes the data can provide extraordinary insights into popular culture trends. One particular recent trend provides the basis for my ultimate trivia question, one that I've asked dozens of times and that nobody even gets close to getting correct. See how you do: Q) In 2005 NetFlix had approximately 55, 000 DVDs available for customers. Of that 55,000, what percentage was rented at least once every quarter (3 months) in the United States?

Most people guessed around 15%, thinking that the majority of obscure or limited-audience movies rarely budge off of NetFlix's shelves. The biggest and most popular DVDs accounted for most of NetFlix's success, they reasoned, believing that most customers are unadventurous film watchers with predictable and mainstream tastes.

Of course, you've probably already guessed that this is a trick question. The correct answer? 95%. Ninety-five percent of NetFlix's 55,000 DVDs get rented at least once very quarter. The grainy Italian horror film from the 70's, the forgotten Sundance wanna-be from '98, the boring PBS costume piece from 1981? Virtually all titles could claim at least one interested fan in the United States every three months.

Equally astonishing is the fact that those high percentage figures apply almost exactly to sales for other large, digital entertainment retailers. iTunes reported that 98% of their massive library of songs (which is now in the millions) sold at least once a quarter, and research into Amazon's sales history shows that 98% of their top 100,000 titles sold at least one copy every three months. Clearly, the venerable "80/20" business rule-of-thumb 20% of products make up 80% of sales no longer applies in a digital age.

Business guys and pop-culture aficionados will recognize that I'm quoting liberally from The Long Tail, Chris Anderson's fascinating and influential look into the way unlimited choice has changed the American marketplace. Anderson, the editor at Wired magazine and an extremely sharp guy, perceived that something unusual was happening in the buying habits of American consumers in the 00s. Presented with an array of choices, consumers started gravitating away from the tried-and-true and moved toward the new and unexplored. Markets that used to be dominated by "hits" or top performers were now being dominated by the "niches," or the "tail" of that specific market. A quick look at grocery stores which now carry over 30,000 items (up from 14,000 in 1980) shows an almost infinite variety of jams, flours, salsa, pop tarts, potato chips. Anderson examined the reasons for the phenomenon and made some guesses what the future would look like in an "abundant" age.

While there's been some mild dispute about some of Anderson's numbers, it's hard to deny that there's been a significant cultural shift in the way that availability has changed habits. Anderson maintains that people are becoming "mini-connoisseurs," indulging themselves with esoteric entertainments and tastes that set them apart from everyone else. Nobody is under the tyranny of a backwards radio station director, there's no longer just the "big 3" network TV channels people can now become their own DJ, their own art-house cinema director, their own television programmer.

On the surface, this sounds great who doesn't want to run the show? but after traveling in a car with four people all listening to their separate iPods, no talking, I have to wonder about all that individual choice and the effect it will have on social interactions. There's a danger of becoming a society of pod people, all tuned into their own frequencies, resistant to the merest intrusion of others. Of course I love NetFlix I can go back and choose obscurities from the catalogue, oddball disasters like Absolute Beginners and One From the Heart but I've noticed that having Netflix inhibits any desire for me to mix it up with people in public, whether it's at Cinema Center or Rave. And I'm not sure that's a good thing. I'm so used to calling all the shots and tuning everybody else out that I'm afraid I'm becoming an even bigger misanthrope (if that's possible.)

I think it's undeniable that all this availability has had a subtle effect on simple public behaviors--when you're used to getting what you want when you want it, you're probably not the most tolerant of folks when something impedes your desires. There's absolutely no way to quantify this with facts, but I'm convinced there are more easily-annoyed, self-centered pricks walking around now than ever before (myself included). There seems to be a spectacular lack of even the most basic of human courtesies. And it's not a generational thing grand parents, baby boomers, gen x'ers have all taken to the new paradigm of 24/7 availability and annoyance when it's denied.

I remember a prescient moment from the movie About a Boy in 2002 the spoiled, detached main character (Hugh Grant) believed that the John Donne "no man is an island" maxim was complete bullshit. With enough technology, he reasoned, you could safely avoid everybody. What's interesting (in hindsight) is that the movie left no doubt that it considered this ego-centric attitude to be morally, emotionally, and philosophically destructive. I wonder if the movie would say the same if made in 2010.

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