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illustration by matt hinrichs


May 26, 2003 | feature

There's a great line in the film High Fidelity where the main character, Rob (played by John Cusack) makes the observation that he doesn't like people because of who they are – he likes them because of what they like.

At first glance, this position sounds incredibly superficial. But on closer examination, it becomes more reasonable. After all, why do you talk to the stranger in the coffeehouse or in the bar? Unless you're a creepy freak who just bothers random strangers, it's probably because they're wearing a t-shirt sporting the logo of a band you like or reading a book by your favorite author. This spurious connection gives you a reason to talk to them.

And why not? Taste is based upon a certain set of assumptions about what is good or bad in the world. It's an arena of moral choices, to paraphrase rock critic Greil Marcus. Chances are that the guy down the bar in the Kraftwerk t-shirt and I will have more commonalities than we do differences – and not just in regards to music. We may not become best friends, but at least we'll probably have an interesting conversation.

You can also extend this directly into the world of mediated relationships. If I read a favorable review of my favorite author by a book critic, I'll be likely to trust that critic's judgment in future, and check out books that he recommends. If I like a singer-songwriter, chances are that I'll like the bands that she cites as influences. And so on.

Where this becomes really interesting is when taste cross-pollinates between one medium and another. The guy in the Kraftwerk t-shirt may recommend that I read Douglas Coupland's Microserfs. On the surface, there is no direct connection between Kraftwerk and Douglas Coupland. But underlying both of these signifiers is a whole world of shared cultural assumption and contextualization. Not to mention the unspoken trust implicit in the transaction of ideas, which goes something like this: the guy in the Kraftwerk shirt is obviously an individual of high intellectual quality, because he likes the same things I do. Therefore, his recommendation is likely to be of the same high quality. Nobody thinks this consciously, of course – to do so would be to admit to a certain egotism about one's own intellect and taste. But we all think it nonetheless. This person likes cool stuff, therefore, they must be cool, too. Again, it might be superficial – but it turns out to be correct most of the time.

All of these individuals – me and the book critic and the singer-songwriter and the guy in the bar, even Douglas Coupland and the members of Kraftwerk – are members of a taste tribe, a group which shares certain interests and tastes in media. So are my friends, because – like Cusack's character – I choose my friends mainly because they like many of the same things I do.

Of course, nobody likes perfect homogeneity. If my friends liked all the exact same things I do, our conversations would be pretty goddamn boring. My friend Frank, for example, likes the same comic books and movies I do – but he also listens to the kind of lo-fi indie rock that is almost exclusively made by suburban white guys with Spock haircuts and tuneless voices. I simply don't get Frank's indie rock, any more than he gets my Peter Gabriel obsession.

Regardless of this dichotomy in taste, Frank has turned me on to some pretty kickass rock and roll, and vice versa. We have enough respect for each others' taste in other areas to at least hear each other out when it comes to music. And every so often, one of us introduces the other to a gem.

All of this may sound pretty damn obvious, and I suppose it is. Humans have been forming taste tribes ever since the advent of mass media. It can even be argued that taste tribes are responsible for breaking down many of the walls that stand between people. Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry – two people as far apart in every way that I can think of – were both part of the same taste tribe, and it was the coming together of black blues and white country music that formed rock and rollÉan event which contributed greatly to the success of the civil rights struggle in America and elsewhere.

But what happens when these tribes become non-localized – when they spread their tendrils out along the lattice of the Web? This growth has interesting ramifications, not only for the relationship between media creators and consumers, but for the way that people form online relationships.

Mike Doughty is a New York-based singer/songwriter. He is most well known to the general listening public as the lead singer of the erstwhile band Soul Coughing, which during the 1990s cultivated a few minor radio hits and a cult following.

Before the band broke up in March of 2000, Doughty had already set up a message board, Superspecialquestions, where fans (and occasionally Doughty himself) could get together and discuss the band, the music, and Doughty's solo career.

Having been introduced to Soul Coughing several years earlier by my girlfriend, I checked out Superspecialquestions, curious about what other Soul Coughing fans might be like – having never met a vast number of them in real life.

What I discovered was an already-thriving community of folks who spent a great deal of time discussing not only Mike Doughty and Soul Coughing, but literature, movies, great bars in (insert random North American city here), even clothes. Members talked about different ways to tune guitars. Members talked about their lives.

Enough pundits have weighed in on the social aspects of online communities to fill Texas Stadium; there's not really much I can do to advance discourse in that area, so I won't even bother. Read Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community or Julian Dibbell's essay "A Rape In Cyberspace" if you're interested in serious discourse about the implications of cybercommunity.

What fascinated me most as a (mostly) inactive observer of Superspecialquestions was how good the participants were at turning one another on to good media. Starting from a single assumption (an enjoyment of Mike Doughty and/or Soul Coughing's music), the members were able to create a taste tribe of music, film, books, computers, even poetry. And from my casual reading, it seemed like most of the members were conversant with many of each others' taste choices alreadyÉbut they were also profoundly grateful to discover new items to dig on.

At the center of this taste tribe was one man – Mike Doughty, who only occasionally dropped in. But after a while, I noticed that many of his posts – not counting cool things like pictures of himself in Cambodia or information about upcoming gigs – consisted of mentioning books or music that he himself dug. Consciously or unconsciously, Doughty himself used the board primarily as a member of the taste tribe. is gone now – Doughty got tired of the time and effort required to admin the site – but the regulars have reincarnated it at "People ask constantly about music, considering it is so burned out lately," says Matt Price, who maintains the site. "I mean, damn, we lost Soul Coughing, Morphine, and Jeff Buckley in the span of about a year. Most of the music we discuss is underground, college radio kind of stuff. Mainstream pop is definitely not in the majority."

At the time of this writing, topics on Superspecialrock included queries for good salsa recipes and a discussion of the Australian indie flick Rabbit Proof Fence. The URL may have changed, but the taste tribe remains.

There is a lot of talk going around the Web right now on the subject of weblogs – some of it thoughtful and interesting, most of it complete bullshit. But both the boosters and the naysayers seem to agree that something's going on here, even if they can't agree about its significance.

Over the past year or so, blogs have begun to serve as more than a way for some doofus to publish his deathless thoughts on the secret meaning of Homer Simpson's zig-zag hairline. The advent of meta-tools such as TrackBack, Technorati and BlogShares have allowed Net citizens to begin to see not only the individual pieces of the Web (i.e. the actual sites), but the connections between them, in a way that has never been possible before.

Many people – myself included – use their blog not only as personal diaries, but as a sort of informal critical journal. Surf any random blog and you'll find a few reviews of books, movies, albums, or concerts. Because bloggers are not under the same commercial constraints as mainstream media sources, the length and subject of these reviews tends to be far more diverse – one blogger may write a 2,000 word critical essay about the Clash's London Calling, another might write a 500 word review of the local band they saw last night. I might write twelve different pieces about Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska while drunk, and probably have.

While it might be argued that this tendency to publish one's opinions is somewhat self-indulgent, the same can be said of professional criticism. My personal experience as both a blogger and professional journalist is that the level of quality in the blogosphere is pretty much on par with the mainstream mediaÉwhich perhaps says more about the mainstream media than anything else.

When you start using the aforementioned tools to explore the "world of ends" (as a recent essay by bloggers Doc Searls and David Weinberger names it), you will discover a rather intuitive pattern emerging. Bloggers link back to sites that link to them.

Wow, pretty shocking, huh? But the reason why this happens is pretty interesting. It's not out of courtesy, the way it was back in the early days of the Web when we were all terribly elated to be linked to by anybody. We're older now, more cynical, less excitable.

It happens because minds think alike – great minds, lesser minds, minds that really love Jean-Luc Godard or Kenneth Cole or the booming garage-rock scene. The Russian lap dancer who links to my ninth drunken review of Nebraska is likely to be someone whose tastes I instinctively get – like the theoretical guy in the Kraftwerk t-shirt I mentioned at the beginning. If she likes Nebraska, she probably likes the Cowboy Junkies. She might read Flannery O'Connor (whose short stories heavily influenced Springsteen when he was recording the album). If she doesn't, I can suggest these media to her. And in return, she can turn me on to some vastly beautiful and eminently depressing Ukrainian alternative country band that I would never, ever have come in contact with otherwise. She is another member of my taste tribeÉand we can introduce each other via our links to others like us.

This is all very well for the people who consume media, but what about the people who make it? What does it do for them?

The answer is: it depends on whom you're talking about. If you mean the writers and musicians and photojournalists who create media, it's an opportunity for distribution and collaboration unparalleled in the history of media.

But if you're talking about the people who promote and distribute media – the record executives and PR people and publishing houses – the answer is: probably not good.

Taste tribes are based upon exactly that – taste. But record labels and publishers are based upon moving data, with no real concern as to the quality of that content. This works fine in a world dominated by the one-to-many model of media disseminationÉbut it's more problematic in the arena of taste tribes.

Fisher is a singer out of Los Angeles who has recorded five albums with her eponymous band. Fisher is not signed to a major label, despite modest radio play and high profile appearances on a couple of movie soundtracks (the most notable being the 1997 version of Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as touring spots with major artists like David Gray and Duncan Sheik.

But Fisher can claim a rabid fan base and consistent sales of her small-label albums, along with more than three million downloads from Though the site makes it difficult to tell, she certainly ranks as one of their highest-selling independent artists, and one of their great success stories. Her fans serve as unpaid PR people, spreading the word about her music to anybody who will listen. Many of those people will also become fans, and repeat the process. The taste tribe grows.

I've never met the lady, but I would guess that Fisher probably makes a much better living selling her music than most major-label musicians, who almost inevitably find themselves on the short end of the stick when it comes to contract renegotiation time. Nobody else is taking a cut of Fisher's cake – except, of course, which charge a flat rate to burn CDs for artists. Even their cut is far less than that taken by the most altruistic record labels. As a musician, Fisher is a success.

But all of this hinges upon one thing: the quality of Fisher's music. If she sucked, nobody would bother to buy her albums through, or pay to see her. Her success hinges entirely upon word of mouth and Internet links – on the favor of taste tribes.

Contrast this with a pop star like Britney Spears. Ms. Spears has precisely zero talent at anything, except possibly for the hardly-challenging skill of shaking her ass. Her songs are wretched parodies of everything that makes music great and vital. She cannot hold a key without production effects. In effect, she is little more than a Junior League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track.

And yet, she is one of the best-selling pop stars in the world. Why? Because record labels promote the ever-loving hell out of her. It is impossible to walk into a chain record store without seeing her face (or more likely, her ass) plastered up on every surface. MTV plays her videos on an endless loop, because the record labels have created artificial demand for her work.

And yet, the likelihood is that Ms. Spears herself is making most of her money not from record sales, but from merchandise sales – t-shirts and handbags and training bras. As profitable as these items may be, they are worthless without the heavy hand of her record label. Without the label's promotional efforts, without the album it distributes around the globe to giggling teenage girls and the videos it gets played on MTV and the singles it pays "promoters" to push on radio stations, a Britney Spears t-shirt would be no more a commodity than a t-shirt with my face on it. If you took the record label out of the equation, Britney Spears really would be nothing more than a Junior League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track. She would certainly not become successful on the merits of her music, because it has none.

Hardly anyone disputes that the record industry is in very serious trouble right now, less from the claimed effects of p2p piracy than from its own economic blunders and high-handed treatment of consumers. It seems fairly likely that the next five to ten years will see a massive restructuring of the way that music gets delivered from the artist to the consumer. Most people (myself included) think that the most serious damage will be done to the major labels, which cannot sustain profitability in the face of an actively hostile consumer base that is sick of overpriced copy-protected CDs – a consumer base which sees file-sharing as a form of digital Robin-Hoodism.

In the aftermath of this chaos, who seems more likely to survive with minimal damage – Fisher, or Britney?

Of course, music is not the only medium to be affected by the rise of taste tribes. One could argue that sci-fi author and BoingBoing blogger (and Mindjack contributor) Cory Doctorow's post-humanist novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom would not have received the amount of attention it has gained without the one-two punch of Doctorow's decision to release the book for free online simultaneously with its print appearance and the proliferation of reviews and links from the blogosphere. Films such as Michael Moore's controversial Bowling For Columbine and indie horror/fantasy flick Donnie Darko have certainly benefited from online taste-sharing. I certainly wouldn't have heard much about either film without the help of message boards and blogs. The smartest artists in the 21st century are the ones who use their taste tribes to their commercial and artistic advantage. As the tribes become more formalized and concretized – through the use of online tools that make the links explicit, and likely self-identification by their members – those advantages will be considerable indeed.

But that use – positive as it most likely will be – leads to consideration of the possible unintended side-effects of the emergence of taste tribes. The most unnerving is their co-option by those interested only in the commodification of cool. The world is full of "coolhunters" – people who, like the protagonist of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, search the world looking for what happens at the moment to be cool and hip. This is also a function of taste tribes – but unlike them, the coolhunter is not neotenic for the sheer love of it. For coolhunters and the corporations who employ them, the latest thing is just the latest thing to sell, until the next latest thing comes along.

But even this might turn out to be beneficial. In a capitalist society, commerce is a requirement (or a necessary evil, depending upon your point of view). And wouldn't it ultimately be better if the producers of pop culture were able to work with their consumers, rather than against them? To directly access those consumers' needs, rather than simply making educated guesses? In this model of supply and demand, taste tribes create an alternate form of direct marketing, analogous to Amazon's recommendation system – but vastly more useful, because it is not automated. It takes the eccentricities of human taste into account.

In the end, it is not the record labels and the movie studios who decide what's cool. We do. The media suppliers follow our cue, rather than the other way around – which is the way it should be. Taste tribes may turn out to be the best way to filter out the bad media and let in the good – to turn up the signal and wipe out the noise, as Peter Gabriel says on his most recent album. Which is great, by the way. You should go get it. Trust me.

Joshua Ellis is a writer and musician living in Las Vegas. Recently, he co-founded a weblog/community devoted to "open-source futurism".

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