The Closing of Generation X

Digital and local culture,
with the beat of Hiawatha.

On December twenty-eighth I
heard that Generation X will
close its doors and that, beginning
New Year's Day they would be selling
off their films. The old and mainstream,
horror and alternative and
more will go until the doors are
shut for good on Valen-tine's Day.
Rental shops are on the way out,
but this exit has been met with
disappointment and dismay that
is surprising for a small and
local video store. Which
makes me think I do not get the
way that culture works. So maybe
you can help me out perhaps?
+     +    +
When I read of culture and its
changes, mostly I am reading
algo-rithmic-ally based thoughts
written by the digerati,
based on abstract concepts such as
filters, networks, and gate-keepers.
Coasian transaction costs and
read/write culture fill the pages.
Yet these concepts miss the very
things that Generation X brought
to the town of Waterloo for
sixteen years of offbeat culture.
If you read the digerati
you will read of publishers and
outlets (video and book and
music too) as "gatekeepers" whose
job it is to filter out the
works that do not make the grade to
be considered part of "culture".
Internet-based artists have no
need for such an institution;
middle-men will fade away as
now the artists reach directly
to their global audiences.
Well, good luck with that if you have
neither name nor luck to help you.
Yes it's true that clouds can store all
yours and mine and everyone's art,
yet with no one who curates it
it will sit upon its disk drive,
left unnoticed by the public.
Democratized? I do not think so.
+     +    +
"Gatekeeper" just does not capture
what it is that independent
stores can bring to local landscapes.
Certainly it does no justice
to the complex role that Gen-X
played in Waterloo for years now.
Movies are the formal product,
but community is there too.
When will Netflix organize a
zombie walk on uptown streets or
sponsor The TriCity Roller
Girls (a flat-track roller derby team)?
When will iTunes hand out dog treats,
welcome pets into the store, or
join with next-door coffee shop to
raise some money for a goat?
Amazon will never help to
run a standup festival, or
carve a space for LGBT
films (and also TV series).
Nor will Googlers ever be as
cool as staff who know their subject,
finding just the film you mean when
hazy recollections are the most you
can recount about some movie.
Concerts, lectures, workshops, protests
posted on the notice board, and
funky buttons at the counter, next to
"Theme of Week" films (where else would you
find "The Missing Limb" for that one?)
And I'm sure there's more I'm missing.
Film enthusiasts, I know, would
see it as a place to gather:
now where will they meet each other?
+     +    +
"Gatekeeper" suggests a barrier
keeping out what wants to come in.
But the truth is much more friendly;
"Gard'ner" is a better title
for the independent stores who
foster culture in their cities.
Tending a community of
artists, readers, watchers, fans is
more involved than HTML.
I was speaking to a drummer
in a local indie band, who told
me that the music scene still
has the big stars (they will
always be here) and that there are
many smaller acts who find their
way to play at bars and clubs; but
what is missing is the middle -
bands go viral or they wither.
In the book world it's the same: the
midlist author is the one who
finds they can no longer reach a
public focused on the moment.
Large fixed costs and network effects
lend themselves to tournaments where
winners take all, most take little.
Better hope you win the sweepstakes!
It's those modest institutions
which it's easy to forget, who
bridge the gap from hobbyist to
artist, author, movie maker.
Here's one fact that makes a difference:
Gen X had a point of view, and
so do most small institutions.
Why? Because their owners give a
damn and that's the thing that matters.
Algorithms do not capture
how a healthy culture functions.
Filters cannot yield the richness
of the unexpected finding.
At its heart, community is
what gives art and culture strength to
find its feet and make itself heard.
Platforms for participation
do not make much diff'rence to that.
+     +    +
Many here like me will miss our
Generation X, but still I
understand why owner Mike has
said it's time for him to move on.
Nothing lasts for ever, does it?
Let us hope that there are others
who can take another step and
start up something new and diff'rent.
(And at least I'll get more work done!)
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  1. Your lament for things lost is justified, Tom, but I don’t think I agree with some of the points you make (big surprise huh). I think the digerati would wholeheartedly agree that the role of “gard’ner” is a critical one but they would emphasize that the role of “gard’ner” and the role of “gatekeeper” are being decoupled over time. “Gard’ner” and “curator” can be thought of as independent roles too.
    I also think that Netflix embraces the “diversity” aspects you mention. The top level genres on Netflix include “Anime & Animation”, “Documentary”, and “Gay & Lesbian” (each with sub-categories). They do not have a “Pornography” genre so I’m guessing that means Netflix has “a point of view” too.
    It seems to me that the “things lost” involve local community. Is it surprising that an institution named Generation X is closing shop because it can not attract people younger than Generation X? The newspaper articles claim illegal downloads are responsible but I think they are confusing correlation with causation.
    So how do Generations < X organize zombie walks? How do they discover the long tail (sorry) of movies? p.s. what's up with the 40 character lines?

  2. You are right about the newspapers. While they latched on to the “digital killed the video store” angle, Mike Greaves has consistently said that there are three things that prompted the closure. One is that younger people have gone digital, but just as important is the changing demographics of Uptown Waterloo. The third is that after 16 years he has lost the enthusiasm he had when he started (I can relate).
    In principle I can see that these different roles (gardener/curator/gatekeeper) could be separated, but in practice I think what outlets like Gen X have offered is the best of each, for the simple reason that what makes a good collection is the willingness to go out and hunt for hard-to-find items. I’m not convinced that having “genre=Gay & Lesbian” in the database is the same as doing that work. And I think that there are community benefits that spill over from discovery of movies into other areas (the notice board, for example).
    I’m not overly pessimistic, I think. I do think Gen < X will manage to organize zombie walks or some equivalent (actually it was probably one of the younger-directed audience events they did - far too young a crowd for yours truly). But in doing so it's important to learn from experience about what works and what doesn't, and Gen X has been successful for good reasons. The lines - my attempt to do a Hiawatha. But my better half said she couldn't get the rhythm to work for her, so maybe it's just a distraction.

  3. What I see so often when people write about Gen-X in a broader context is the elevation of “What I liked about it” into a more generalized statement than is deserved.
    I agree with you about what I’ll miss — the gatekeepers, the social aspect, the friendliness, the quirkiness — but I disagree that such things are equally important to others when it comes to experiencing movies. I’m sure my grandmother misses giving the iceman’s horse a sugarcube, but that doesn’t mean our fridges are measure-for-measure inferior to iceboxes.
    What you haven’t mentioned in your post is that there CAN BE a human element to digital purchasing. The element can be small — following the virtual footsteps of other people’s purchases on iTunes in the form of “People who bought this also bought this” — or it can be people on Facebook liking it and discussing it, or people writing reviews, or people replying to blog posts.
    So I think that RAD is correct: what’s being lost is LOCAL community. I would argue that global community is no better or worse, and that most people do not (and rarely ever did) consider community to be essential when they pick a movie to watch. The people losing out are those of us who love to browse, talk, and shop about movies; I think we’ve always been a minority, and a time-limited one.

  4. Hiawatha huh. Who knew. I missed or didn’t register the “…with the beat of Hiawatha” part. It is kind of sad that I did not recognize the name considering how much time I spend on the lake that is home to the Hiawatha First Nation.
    So do we get an MP3 with you reading with the intended rhythm?
    Regarding Netflix, if they grow the audience for documentaries or rare films does it really matter how that growth was achieved?

  5. I agree there can be a human element to digital purchasing – and certainly to online interactions in general – but recently I’ve been thinking that the recommender systems can’t really get that to work properly. Better is the posting/blogging/reviewing channels that you suggest.
    And yes, there is a danger of lapsing into a conservative sentimentality about closings and passings, and it makes some sense to think about some things, including Gen X, as events rather than geographical locations. “Time-limited”, like you say, and time to find something new.

  6. Well you didn’t register that because it wasn’t there. I added it because of your comment. We had to do Longfellow’s Hiawatha in school and everyone got to know the rhythm. I think that technically it is called “DUM-di-DUM-di-DUM-di-DUM-di”. At least, we did an extract – turns out it’s a mighty long poem. Wikipedia has lots about it, of course:
    I like Lewis Carroll’s take on it, mentioned in the Wikipedia article. “In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject.”

  7. I’ve been thinking about something similar from a completely different perspective. See, I’m the kind of guy who would’ve built a Netflix or an Amazon. That is to say: introverted. I fundamentally hate people, but not in a “hate-hate” way, more in a “eww, squishy!” way. People have fundamental contradictions, differing opinions, and way too many exceptions to stick into nice, clean code structures.
    You can see the effect by looking at the exceptions: the flickr guys are masters at building community, and I think the twitter guys have done a good job as well. It’s possible that those guys are just more sociable, outgoing, or maybe just like people more. Now, I know this, but I cannot figure out why, say, flickr is successful at it!
    Like, I would say something like “forum something something”, say “build a forum feature”, but fundamentally, this is not what they’re doing. They’re doing something… else… I’m sure I couldn’t start a store like Gen X, and I reckon Netflix couldn’t either. There’s just something missing about “hey what’s the vibe here”, or just chatting to people and thinking “hey we can do something there”. The features of applications like Netflix have hard edges, clean lines. To me, something like flickr is almost intimidating because of the happiness and smiley faces.
    I think “Gardener” or “Curator” is a good term. To use an analogy, I could build a distortion pedal, but I couldn’t be sound engineer for Jimi Hendrix. The trick is building your application so that those variables are at least captured, and at best Curated. Maybe those “Curators” are doing it for free, or maybe your company will pay them, but whatever the case, community is built using these guys. Unfortunately, for all too many of the guys working in software, all we see are the unwashed masses.
    Perhaps the reason we’re seeing this sort of “winner take all” “lack of community” style isn’t the internet, but the people creating it.

  8. Tom: this is a beautiful post. I use your book in my principles of microeconomics course. When we talk about the Walmart game, I mention a wonderful local bookstore in Toledo (Thackeray’s was the name) that went out of business several years back which did many of the things your GenX store did. The owner watched people come in and talk and get recommendations and then go home – he suspects – and order from Amazon. Each of the former patrons may prefer the outcome where the bookstore remains open and they don’t use Amazon to the one where the bookstore closes and they use Amazon but they (we) couldn’t get that outcome absent collective action, as with your Walmart example.

  9. Well, there is SOME algorithm that describes how healthy communities function.
    As for the filters … it’s like you’re daring me (or whoever) to build a better recommendation engine.
    Sorry if that sounds priggish; you are totally right about the role of indie stores.

  10. Thanks Kevin: we do seem to think along the same lines. I haven’t had a chance to read “Sports and Their Fans” (that’s you I would guess?) but I’ll have to hunt down a copy.

  11. Is there? If healthy communities are like relationships, then Dan Ariely’s work suggests maybe not: I think the issue is that for there to be an algorithm, you have to define the problem in a way that is precise, and yet which does not omit things that are important. I’m sure there are good algorithms for movie selection, but not so sure about good communities – there are so many different types, and it is difficult to catch what you would need to optimize.
    By the way, comments are opened on old posts now, for a while at least.

  12. Tom: that’s someone else with the same name –

  13. Sorry about that. At least I didn’t confuse you with a neo Nazi.

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