One of the strangest paradoxes of the internet, to me, is that it both encourages and chips away at the foundations of “niche” and “specialized” content. It nurtures the stuff while eroding the category altogether. It’s full of material that is very specifically Not For You, and yet it teaches you to feel that you have access to everything, that everything is for you. All of which is kind of weird.
I assume the part about encouraging niches is mostly self-evident. The whole original vision of the web was as a tool to coordinate academic and scientific research: specialized information. It’s a short mental skip from there to any sort of specialists — hobbyists, obsessives, fetishists, whatever — using it to find one another; it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than the old method of cheap mimeographs, newsletters, envelope-stuffing. The concept, though, is the same: using a public style of communication (print dissemination) to achieve a slightly more private goal (engaging with fellow enthusiasts).
More importantly, it began with the same expectation of privacy. As you sent out your cheap regional newsletter about new developments in toy train collecting, you did so with the expectation that it would not be read or cared about by anyone except fellow enthusiasts. Even if you were running a major literary journal, you might have expected that it would not be read by anyone except people who cared about literary journals — or at least that anyone who picked it up did so in the knowledge that it was a specific thing for a specific audience, and that audience might not include them.
Niches on the internet may have begun that way, but it’s precisely that expectation that the growth of the internet seems to have changed. The things people put on the internet can very easily be interpreted as public speech — global speech — even if they’re not intended that way. (Put a goofy video on YouTube for your friends, and you invite the comment/criticism of the world: “Why are you asking me to watch this?”) And because the web is a totally seamless space, people are far less aware of the specific audience for any given place they wind up; if the content is Not For Them, they’re likely to blame the content. (Start a journal of highbrow lit criticism on the web, and you will likely get called pretentious by people who’d never even notice the thing in a print environment. That opinion will not be “incorrect” or inauthentic, but it will be a kind of feedback you weren’t getting before, and now you’ll have to decide whether it matters.) And because the web puts your material within reach of so many people, it can create the impulse to make the material useful/accessible to as many of them as possible, even if it’s just to avoid the mockery of folks who weren’t in your target market to begin with.
You can be a niche, but you’re a public niche, so you can’t expect to be left alone about it, or understood on your own terms. The internet makes niches possible, but it’s also a massive space in which loads of different people communicate — and spaces like that tend to pull everyone toward the middle, developing conventions and enforcing a cultural center. So far, this hasn’t stopped plenty of corners of the internet from getting extremely insular and specialized, but it’s still a form of cultural policing on this front.
To be honest, I have yet to decide whether I think that’s a good thing or a bad one! Most of us can see a danger in the internet — the way it can allow you to interact solely with people inside your own realm, past the point of insularity and into a space where it’s almost like a form of collective solipsism. The opposite danger, though, is that our ways of policing this tendency tend to be pretty similar to the way children police playground behavior: the center is held mostly by mockery and contempt and criticism and making people feel self-conscious and bad about themselves.
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