Will the 'Tail' Kill The Water Cooler?

It used to be that taking a break from work to fill up our Dixie Cups at the water cooler was a ritual accompanied by harmless conversation about a predictably limited number of pop-culture subjects. We had access to only a few television stations. We listened to the same songs on Top 40 radio. We all read the local newspaper. So there was always something obvious to talk about. Now some people are saying that water-cooler talk is impoverished--or even endangered. Because the digital age lets us indulge our individual passions, the argument goes, we're losing the shared experience that fuels workplace chatter.

The Internet in particular has transformed a world from one of bounded choices to one where we can get anything imaginable. Increasingly, we're eschewing the blockbusters to pursue our own quirky interests. A good percentage of the vast inventory on e-commerce sites like Amazon, iTunes and Netflix isn't popular enough to be offered in brick-and-mortar stores. But online costs are low. In the aggregate, selling one or two units of many obscure items can reap big bucks. Example: the music service Rhapsody offers subscribers more than 2 million songs; in any given month, users stream 90 percent of the tunes. And a third of Amazon's book sales consist of tomes that you won't find on the shelves of even the biggest real-world superstore.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, has dubbed this phenomenon "The Long Tail," in honor of the shape given to the curve resulting from a graph plotted by sales on these sites. (There's a huge bulge at the "head," representing best-selling products, and an extended, tapering tail at the end, wherein lie many niche products that are suddenly easy to find via search engines, blogs and filters.) In his new book, "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More," Anderson makes a cogent case for how this new model encourages diversity, expands choice and strikes a blow against the megahit mentality. "There will always be hits, but the hits will be smaller," he said to me when we spoke by phone recently. (Disclosure: I sometimes contribute to Wired.)

But as e-commerce and entertainment sites become more successful in allowing people to indulge their idiosyncratic tastes, what happens to the mass-culture touchstones that dominate water-cooler conversation? Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor who's written a book called "The Paradox of Choice," warns that we may lose the overlap that used to come with Johnny Carson monologues and who shot J.R. "People will have nothing to talk to each other about," he says. Anderson himself isn't worried. The Long Tail might drain some common conversational topics from the workplace, he admits, but we'll spend more time on virtual gathering places where we can dish online with those who share our peculiar niches. At broadband speeds, it's just as easy to gossip with someone a thousand miles away (who shares your interest in anime) as it is to dish with a co-worker two cubicles down (who thinks anime is a perfume). "The water cooler is a commonality of geography," Anderson says, "But these days geography doesn't define culture."

My guess, though, is that traditional water-cooler fodder will survive. What are millions of people watching on YouTube? Idiotic videos of nerds dancing. What leads the iTunes chart? That sappy ditty about having a bad day. Who tops the Google News Zeitgeist? Angelina Jolie. These aren't niche phenomena, but a common ground of trivia and fluff that uncannily rivets our attention. It'll take more than a Long Tail to stop us from talking about Star Jones.