At the recent UBS Media Conference, Glenn Britt, the CEO of Time Warner Cable, envisioned a world of the four "Anys" -- any content, any device, anytime and anyplace. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, for whoever imagined walking around with any book, on any device, any place at anytime? However, the dream not only appears to be technologically feasible, it strikes a chord among the long-tailed, proudly individualistic, Tivo-buying glitterati. Obsessed with choice, they relish in their dissatisfaction of the tyranny of the majority. In college, I remember they smoked clove cigarettes and listened to Stockhausen. I think these behaviors come from a desire to unfetter from the mainstream and hence watch those things normally not available, at odd times on any device - Personally I think the device part goes a little far. Would we imagine watching "Citizen Kane" on a bagel slicer?
The Web presents an opportunity and a challenge for this individualistic type of behavior. First, the capacity of the technology to present so wide a variety of content choices, regardless of whether that makes sense, reduces the physical and discovery barriers to finding and identifying content. What's interesting to determine is whether "obscure" -- a word I relished when I was young as an identity card to a sovereign intellectual society -- can still prosper on the Web. Even Karl Heinz Stockhausen makes the blips on Google trends, and Yelp can out the tiniest bistro in Brooklyn.
What of the crowd?
Elias Canetti, in his towering book "Crowds and Power," describes growth as one of the four fundamental aspects of a crowd. "As soon as it exists at all, it wants to consist of more people: the urge to grow is the first and supreme attribute of the crowd. It wants to seize everyone within reach... the open crowd exists so long as it grows; it disintegrates as soon as it stops growing."
All around the Internet, the mechanisms to grow crowds on scales Canetti couldn't imagine are prospering as they tap into our instinctual urge to be part of that surging, growing crowd. And whether those crowds manifest themselves in physical locations, such as the recent Twitter Snowball fight in Washington D.C., or online, like the giant chat room that accompanied CNN's live video coverage of election night, they tap into the same underlying phenomena. Sharing, comparing, joining, tweeting, whether obscure, or widely popular, we all seek to form and join crowds and demonstrate why the audience is often as important as the content.
For Canetti, crowds mostly required a physical circumstance to embody the moment when our fear of being touched transforms into the opposite, and when the behavior that marks us as individual melts away into an anonymous, indistinguishable surge that seeks the physical density of bodies packed together. Much of our consumption in theaters, and concerts, on booklists and movie openings has become formalized into crowd rituals.
For Social TV, the question becomes whether the various widgets, gadgets, and devices now at our fingertips will have the same transformative capacity that being packed together in a sweaty club does, and whether that pull will be enough to keep us together. It's either that or watching "Avatar" on your bagel slicer alone, in the middle of the day, in a motel room anywhere.