The Communal Feeling of Monopoly

Netflix is currently streaming The Last Blockbuster, a movie about the rise and fall of the monopoly video rental giant.

There are a lot of interesting tidbits in the movie, including a former executive explaining that the company did not really get caught flat-footed by services like Netflix but was instead just financially mismanaged to the point where it could not make the streaming investments it wanted to.

What struck me most about the movie was what it revealed about the cultural importance of Blockbuster. In interview after interview, people talked about how central the store was to their childhood and early adulthood, how the blue and yellow branding, snapping movie cases, and harsh lights conjure up intense feelings of excitement and nostalgia. Blockbuster was family movie night, date night, and a regular teenage hangout to tens of millions of people.

If you take a lot of what is said about monopoly these days seriously, you’d struggle to understand how this is possible. Anti-monopolists tell us that it is unique local flavor that creates this kind of attachment and meaning. According to this view, sterile corporate chain stores may be able to deliver the goods, but do so while stripping away the identity and good-feels that only an independent, mom-and-pop operation can deliver.

The problem with this view is that it takes a certain kind of cultural experience and identity – the one you get from being different from others and having a special thing that other places don’t have – and assumes that it is the only cultural experience or, at minimum, the best cultural experience.

But there are obviously other ways to squeeze culture and meaning out of the businesses you interact with. And one of those ways is to go to a business that virtually everyone goes to. This can give you the good-feels of mass culture, which is based on common experiences rather than exclusive experiences. Virtually everyone in the country of a certain age has in common that they went to Blockbuster, and, as The Last Blockbuster documents, that kind of communal experience can also be cool and meaningful in its own way.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, it seems that people create culture and identity in any situation you put them in. If you populate the world with a bunch of one-off small businesses, people will find ways to make some identity and meaning out of their interactions with those businesses. But likewise, if you populate the world with a bunch of large businesses with tons of identical locations, people will find ways to make identity and meaning out of that. Some people have a stronger preference for difference and novelty while others have a stronger preference for commonality and standardization, but it’d be silly to act like there is anything particularly special about one or the other when it comes to these squishier culture-making considerations.