In praise of niches (and cults)?

Oftentimes when I hear the word niche in a sentence and feel it’s an excuse for not thinking deeply about the trend or product it’s attempting to describe. Like, anything that is new, different, or fanciful is a niche. (Lace! Wooden Sunglasses! Zoey Deschanel!) If it can’t fit clearly into an existing movement or market, it’s niche. Or, it’s synonymous with “hipster” – you know, Etsy. Mustaches. DIY. Portlandia. That kind of niche. The hole in the plank you fill with an approximate wedge of wood found on the forest floor – it doesn’t look right, but who really cares? To me, the niche is a community – small, insular, self-contained, inclusive yet deterministic. Not really fit for everyone, it’s own etymology suggests an everlasting fear of growth and deep need for sanctuary.

Compare that to cult. According to my Netflix queue suggestions, cult films include stoner classics (Half Baked), short-lived comedies (Arrested Development), and campy or kitschy one-hit wonders (Ed Wood, anything John Waters). What’s the difference between cult and niche? Well, like the marginal differences between off-brand and generic products from brand names at the drugstore, cults don’t vie for greatness, per se, but are also not derivative from the source – it’s not all pastiche and sass. Yet, people describe cults in the same way they do niches: they’re a way to classify a wholly underrepresented, misunderstood and underrated legion of people who harbor tastes that don’t equate with mass consumption. Folks in these groups may shop at Target, but they wouldn’t be caught dead at Walmart, or Sizzler, nor do they own dozens of flannel shirts. They are somewhere in between.

I would also like to suggest that we separate fandoms and nerd uprisings from niche and cult movements. While it may be that BSG, Stars (both Wars and Trek), Harry Potter, ComiCon, even Glee, have huge followings in “cult”-like ways (an unshakeable fealty, for one), their ubiquity and place in popular culture are signs that well, the nerds are the jocks now, and they are everywhere.

So who really represents cults and niches in the post-postmodern world? It’s not Miller Lite, and it ain’t PBR, either. Marketers will continue their quest to bottle and sell the ever-elusive viral video formula, hoping that a niche bud will soon blossom into a go-to market strategy worth millions. But niches will resist that, otherwise, they won’t continue to thrive in their own worlds of wonder, beyond the caverns of YouTube, beneath the jungle floor of Facebook. To create an aquifer system that pumps the beauty out of these rich ecosystems into the “truly unlimited” meta-world reminds me of FernGully, and I’d rather leave that memory untainted, hopeful that it can outlast even the fiercest green monsters.

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