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Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Charm of Obscurity

"Young man," he said, "understand this: there are two Londons. There's London Above―that's where you lived―and then there's London Below―the Underside―inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world. Now you're one of them. Good night.”

I kinda hope this blog post doesn't get as many views as the others.

It's easy to like things when everyone else seems to like them. Likewise, it's easy to jump on the hate-bandwagon when something is popular to hate. Rarely is any positive or negative attention given to the obscure things, but I have seen attempts to criticize obscure things that are deserving of ridicule, although it usually doesn't go very well.

Take Twilight for example. Twilight is not a good movie, or a good book. It's just not a good IP.

That doesn't mean that there are absolutely zero redeeming qualities; I'll admit the soundtrack for the first film was pretty boppin', and some of the side characters like Ana Kendrick and the Cullen dad carried a lot of the scenes they were in. So while the story and main character were pretty worthless, at least not every aspect of the movie was terrible. The movie gets a lot of hate on the Internet, and while I agree that most of it is probably accurate and warranted, I can't help but wonder why some even worse stuff out there gets away scot-free.

However, the answer came to me when I watched a video in which someone criticized a really obscure horror movie that no one knew existed. From the clips the YouTuber showed, it seemed like a pretty bad movie and like all the criticisms were valid, but most of the comments were filled with people saying, "Who cares?" or "Why make a video about this movie?"

That's when it occurred to me that not only is it unpopular to like obscure things, but it's just as unpopular if not more so to sift through them with a critical eye. Essentially, it's unpopular to have any strong feeling one way or the other about any obscure IP.

The irony is that a lot of the more obscure movies and books out there are sought after by hipsters who want to seem cool and quirky by being a part of a smaller, more niche fanbase, but because some of these fanbases appeal to hipsters, the fanbases grow quickly and what originally started as an obscure little show with a small but dedicated cult following suddenly explodes in popularity.

This is precisely what happened with Doctor Who. Doctor Who is a pretty big show today, not just in the UK but in the States and other parts of the world, but do you think the show was popular anywhere outside the UK fifty years ago? Of course not. And it was only "popular" in the UK by minor standards; it was something a lot of people knew existed but not everyone watched. It wasn't a huge phenomenon when it first started airing.

Kind of like relics in today's television. A lot of people know what MASH is and anyone over the age of 40 probably had to put up with their parents watching it when they were a kid, but you don't see a lot of people watching or talking about MASH in today's day and age.

Yet when 2005 - 2008 hipsters found Doctor Who (which was now available in the US), it began to rapidly grow in popularity. But in a twist of irony it was no longer a small quirky fanbase, but a large quirky fanbase. Then it became so over-saturated and mainstream that it's no longer a quirky fanbase or even a quirky show for that matter. Everything after season 10 or so has been generic, mainstream Hollywood garbage that poorly tries to replicate the charm of the previous seasons (and fails).

Although the message of this post isn't "popular things bad." There are lots of popular things that I like. It's no secret that I'm a huge Witcher 3 fan and that game is huge in the gaming community. Claiming to be original for enjoying the Witcher 3 is like claiming to be original for liking Call of Duty.

I'd say there's a few layers of obscurity and that after passing a certain layer, something's charm points go through the roof. Take things that have a million followers / fans but somehow no one knows exists.

According to Tubic's, as of December, 2019 there were over 16,000 YouTubers on the platform that had over 1 million subscribers. 16,000 might not sound like a lot when you consider the astronomically high number of total channels. There are at least 31 million channels that have uploaded content, and only 16,000 have over 1 million subscribers.

However, out of that 16,000, only a few hundred are "relevant" in pop culture. Channels like Vsauce, Pewdiepie, Markiplier, JaidenAnimations, etc. are channels with millions of subscribers that everyone who uses YouTube frequently knows about. But then there's also channels like Ashens that have over a million subscribers but aren't integrated into pop culture in any recognizable way. Since there are almost 8 billion people on the planet, that means anyone I might run into only has a 1 / 800,000 chance of also being subscribed to that same person. Obviously some obscure channels get a little bit of internet fame if they become a meme or something, but that's a discussion for later.

Even channels with 10 million subscribers like LinusTechTips are somewhat obscure in that only people in their niche audience really knows who they are. While Linus Tech is a channel that anyone who frequently watches tech videos will immediately recognize, I wouldn't expect the random passerby on the street to know who that was unless they were a tech nerd or a hipster at Best Buy. This goes for obscure works of popular authors as well. Stephen King is one of the most famous writers in history and yet the Dark Tower series is nowhere even close to the popularity of Harry Potter, even though they're of similar quality and length and both from insanely popular hundred-millionaire authors. Not to mention that the Dark Tower series isn't even that popular among Stephen King fans, with books like The Shining, IT, Carrie, and even The Stand often garnering more attention. Hell, they even tried to make the Dark Tower more mainstream by making a movie starring Idris freaking Elba and still couldn't get anywhere. (That dumpster-fire of an adaption was doomed to obscurity, even Idris Elba couldn't carry that shit-show. Which is fine with me because that garbage excuse of an "adaption" is the last thing I'd want to represent the franchise, it would be like if no one watched ATLA but everyone saw the movie where they call him "Ong".)
When you say "thankee sai" to the cashier:

Then you have the second level of obscurity, which I call "mid-tier" obscurity. Things like Ashens and The Dark tower are slightly integrated into pop culture even though they're still quite obscure, but these next things fall through the cracks a bit more. These are things that a lot of people sort of almost know exist but have never interacted with.

Take Neil Gaiman for example. A lot of people probably recognize his name and photo, but he isn't actually popular, in the same way classical authors aren't actually popular today. When was the last time you saw someone reading Mark Twain in public? Everyone knows who Mark Twain is, everyone was probably forced to read Huck Finn in highschool, and that's it. I don't know anyone else who read and enjoyed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court even though it's by someone as historically famous as Mark Twain. Somehow people like Neil Gaiman and Mark Twain are "famous" but not popular. Their popularity is mostly superficial; lots of people are aware of their existence but very few actually read their works, or with the case of directors, watch their movies / shows and with musicians, listen to their music.

While the Dark Tower series might not be very mainstream, at least a lot of Stephen King's other works are popular. With Mark Twain it's just Huck Finn pretty much, and with Neil Gaiman I don't think any of his works were particularly popular. Coraline is well-known as a movie but the original book was never very popular (and still isn't) and that's likely his most popular work. I recently got my hands on the Sandman graphic novel as a gift which I'm super stoked to read.

One story that I absolutely adored was his first book Neverwhere which has obscurity as its subject, and I think it's only fitting that a book about obscurity is itself an enigmatic and obscure franchise. (If two books can even be called a franchise.)

To elaborate more on what the book is about, it's about another dimension occupying our own where those who "fall through the cracks" end up. When an outcast accidentally stumbles into this other world, they become invisible to the world above them, where all the normal people live and breathe, and the protagonist is one of the only people to ever end up there. Yet if the book was this massive smashing success, the story would almost feel disingenuous. Just like how "Hogwarts" is not a secret school, the underground world of London Below would not be a secret. Sure it would be a secret in the story, but there would be a disconnect between the lore of the story and the popularity of the story in the real world. It's much more convincing that there's a secret place called London Below that's only accessed when an outcast accidentally falls through the cracks of reality when no one else on the face of the planet has heard of such a place.

That picture at the top of the page is Door, a main character in Neverwhere. If I googled "Doctor Who fan art" I'd find millions of them on the Internet, but when I searched "Neverwhere fan art" I only got about three.

So while it might seem like it's not that obscure of a franchise because I have two different examples of Neverwhere fan art on this blog post alone, it becomes a little more depressing when you realize that 2/3 of all the fan art for this book is right here on this page.

Yet I've neglected to accomplish the goal I set out for in the title of this post, which was to explain the appeal of this type of stuff. Although I thought it was necessary to explain the different levels of obscurity before diving into what the charm of it was.

The last level of obscurity is "purgatory." These are YouTube channels with 7 subscribers, books with 1 review on Amazon, etc.

The other thing is that, unfortunately, most content falls in this category. The numbers differ a bit depending on who you ask, but if we go with Google Archives, there are at least 130 MILLION books in the world. Those are only the books that were published either in recent history or were popular enough for their time period to get a modern ebook. We also know that nearly 1-million new books are published each year, with a minimum of around 600,000 guaranteed.

Out of the million or so books that get published each year, how many become famous enough to be recognized in pop culture internationally? One? Two? Maybe five if it was a good year?

Then how many sell well but don't become global-smash-hits? A few hundred thousand maybe?

The data changes depending on who you get the numbers on, but essentially only around 1/4 of the books ever published will sell more than a thousand copies. More than 75% of books published will sit at 500 copies or less sales-wise. That sounds pretty depressing from a marketing point of view, but it's actually quite interesting.

You see, this means there are millions of amazing books--entire franchises and trilogies--that no one has read or heard of.

Take something you really enjoy that's really popular, like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, or any other big franchise you like.

Now imagine if no one you knew even knew it existed.

The movie Yesterday played with that idea a lot. The movie takes place in an alternate reality where lots of pop culture things were either erased from history or were replaced with something different, and bands like The Beatles didn't exist and neither did a lot of big popular franchises or products. It was slightly maddening to the main character that he was the only person on the planet who knew what Coca-Cola tasted like.

That's also what being an author is like, I'm the only person in the world who knows about the wedding scene in Enid or the plot twist at the end of Desolation's Reach, but because these books haven't been published yet, I don't have anyone I can share excitement with mutually. I can only imagine what it was like for someone popular like J.K Rowling to be the only person in the world who knew how Harry Potter ended, while millions of fans eagerly waited around begging for the next installment. I saw this interesting dialogue between Stephen King and George R.R Martin where King mentioned a time when he met up with Rowling right before the last Harry Potter book was published, and while tons of people were eagerly demanding the final installment of the story, they just kind of snuck away and she said, "They don't realize what we do, do they?" and King said, "How could they know what we do? We don't even know what we're doing."

I know, F:NV isn't obscure, I just love everything that comes out of Mr. House's mouth.

I think one of the best appeals of obscure things is that unexplainable feeling of being at the end of the world. Don't get me wrong, popular things can accomplish this too, but obscure things can do it much easier. Bob Ross is a good example; even though lots of people watch Bob Ross on Netflix, if you were to sit down and watch Bob Ross alone, you get this sensation of being outside of time like you're somewhere at the end of the universe in a black room with this legendary man. Sure a lot of people just put him on in the background, but actually watching him alone is quite the provoking experience. Few (if any) things can duplicate that feeling of being at the edge of the world a million fathoms away from anything recognizable.

I'd say that's one of Dark Souls' best assets. While the game is superficially popular, not that many people have actually played through it and not that many people are currently playing. But even if it was as popular as GTA V, that isolating feeling of traveling all the way to the bottom of BlightTown, into the Great Hollow and then eventually reaching this surreal other world called Ash Lake is something that no other game has been able to really duplicate. (But many have tried.)

One reason why this can't be duplicated is because these other worlds are created with a very specific intent in mind, and it's not money.

Obviously the people behind great but obscure works of fiction want to earn money, but they were hoping to make money doing what they love, not pumping out another generic product to a million people.

This is the kind of thing that makes me miss Stephen King.

Yes, Stephen King is alive and well and all, and he writes a lot of books lately, but it seems that his new books are all mediocre at best and he just pumps them out because he's famous and he's expected to. I haven't read any of the news ones in their entirety so it's possible that I'm wrong and his new books all become masterpieces right after the start of the book, but a big chunk of readers seem to also think so. Nevermind that his twitter reads like a cross-faded fan fiction now that he's reached celebrity status and gets to pump out his uniformed opinions to a general public audience (like celebrities at the Oscars). Stephen King was never really "obscure" back in the 80s but prior to reaching peak celebrity status he was just a guy with an imagination and now we're stuck with a shell of his former self. I don't even consider anything he says, does or writes anymore to be the "real" Stephen King. He's become the Disney Star Wars of his own life story. I guess the same can be said for Rowling and the retconning of sexes, entire plotlines and lore. Suffice to say a fall from grace has occured.

However, not all people become like this. While it's not uncommon for individuals to lose the best parts of their personality and become just another annoying mainstream celebirty after reaching a certain amount of fame, there are some who become famous and never change. At the time of writing, Chris Pratt has kept the same get-up and TV personality that made him so great in Parks and Rec, and even after doing Marvel movies, Jurassic World and several other big movies, he hasn't changed as a person one bit since Parks and Rec. I think the same can be said for fan-favorites like Keanu Reeves and The Rock who have remained the same, or have made some small changes for the better.

But of course it's not just a matter of individuals; when it comes to books you can attribute the quality to a single author, but with video games, movies, and TV shows there's entire teams of people behind the project, and both have a certain appeal to them.

With collective efforts, it's the fact that so many people came together to create something genuine and authentic--a shared vision--and each contributed to this collective dream.

And with authors and writers, it's the realization that they sat at their computer alone for hundreds of hours agonizing over every little detail and trying to get it just right.

Of course this only applies to good content that wasn't purely motivated by profit. Lots of bad content is also obscure (I'd say most bad content is obscure), but because most books, movies and TV shows are obscure, that would mean that a large portion of genuinely good content never becomes popular or mainstream.

The charm isn't in the fact that it's merely "not popular," but in the discovery of the new. I remember when I first stumbled on a book called Main Traveled Roads. It was a book published in the 1800s that was obscure at the time, making it incredibly obscure today. Even popular books by famous authors of the time period like Mark Twain are obscure today, so it's no wonder that this book of short stories by a random guy of the same century also fell between the cracks.

Even though the book wasn't "new," it was new to me. Yes, the book was published over 100 years ago, but it's new to me having just discovered it, and if you were to discover a different good book from long ago, it would be new to you too.

The charm of obscurity is that you never know what will be found.

Lots of people like to think that we've explored most of the planet, but that's not true. We haven't even explored half.

This is because the planet is over 70% water, and we've only mapped out 5% of the ocean.

We know more about the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean. At least we can see the moon in detail under a strong telescope, but the bottom of the ocean is so hard to access that it's only been done a few times. That's why 95% of the ocean floor remains a complete mystery. We only know of a few species that live down there, there's no telling what geographical and biological things are just waiting to be explored.

If tomorrow we discovered a bizarre new creature at the bottom of the ocean that was estimated to be millions of years old, the species itself wouldn't be new by any stretch of the imagination, but it would be a new discovery.

When it comes to obscure content, there's a wealth of discoveries waiting to be made. Perhaps the next popular book series or franchise will be discovered. I've seen cases where a popular YouTube reviewer reviews an amazing book / movie / video game / TV show that was previously left to a fate of obscurity, and because of the influence of the popular YouTuber who discovered it, now everybody is buying it or watching it.

In this way, a lot of franchises can be rescued from purgatory and given a new life.

And even if an influential person never makes the franchise gain traction, you can have this other world all to yourself, comfortably knowing that no one else can experience or even begin to imagine what you got to experience. To some extent it's isolating, but to another extent it's like this grand arcane secret that you get to keep all to yourself. This is what someone like Kylie would feel going into work after completing Dark Souls, since it's a statistical improbability that any of her female friends in accounting would know what it was like killing Sif to gain entrance to The Abyss, or what it was like descending into the depths of Blighttown to Quelaag's Lair or traveling back in time to find out the fate of Artorias.

If she tried to explain the experience to one of her 30-something female friends, she'd sound like a total lunatic, so in her social circle it would be necessary to never talk about it even if she wanted to. How could you experience something so profound but not be able to share it?

I suppose that's the definition of lonelienss at its core; having a lot of news to share but no one to share it with.

That's also why loneliness isn't exclusive to being alone, because being surrounded by people you can't share your life-altering experiences with is just as lonely if not more isolating than actually being alone.

You could make a case for this being a reason to oppose obscure content, but that's a rather cynical and unpractical way to go about it. If it weren't for the wealth of obscure content, no new content would ever be discovered, and we'd be stuck watching the same pool of things over and over again, and reading the same few books over and over. And as much as I'd like to say "I'd be fine if I could only watch The Office," some diversity of content is necessary for both entertainment and learning.

Not to mention, if you don't ever consume obscure content, then someone else will just find it first and by the time you come to appreciate it, you're just hopping on the bagwagon--in other words you never liked it until everyone else did, and when that happens it can be hard to tell whether something is enjoyed purely for its own sake or because it was popular. At some point one must stop and ask themselves, "Is The Fault in Our Stars actually a good book or is it just overhyped?"

However, if you discovered something new--an unexplored frontier in entertainment--you'd be the first judge. With no preconcieved notions on how good or bad the story is, your initial emotions and experience would be raw and authentic.

That doesn't mean that we're too stupid to know whether or not we actually like / dislike something that's popular, rather it merely means it's a much clearer picture when we discover something knowing nothing about it prior.

This is why blind play-throughs, viewings, and reads are the best. Generally no matter how popular or obscure something is, I usually will try to enjoy it knowing as little about it as possible. This is difficult because sometimes you have to do some digging to find out if it's even worth your time and money before investing in it, but there's usually a compromise that can be made where the consumer knows just enough about what they're getting into to give it a shot but not enough to take away from the experience or tell them what they're supposed to think about it.

This is one of the beefs I have with movie trailers. There are some great movies out there that are nearly ruined by their bad trailers, primarily with ones that reveal too much. Since movies are so desperate to get you into the theater to spend money, it's common practice now to show all the best scenes and lines in the trailer leaving only the filler for the viewer to experience in the theater. What's the point of even going to the movie if you saw all the best parts in the trailer?

It would be like if you gave a kid a free bowl of cereal comprised entirely of Lucky Charms marshmallows (and milk) and then demanded that they pay you $10 if they want the rest of the brown stuff.

Unlucky Charms.
When I put it that way it sounds pretty rididiculous, and that's because movie studios that do this are being ridiculous.

There's also movie trailers that literally spoil the ending, but fortunately that practice has largely been put to rest. But for a while it was an epidemic--the trailer for Castaway spoils whether or not he gets off the island, the trailer for Batman v Superman flat-out shows you who wins, and the trailer for Shutter Island literally tells you the plot twist at the end of the movie, but luckily those aren't nearly as common as they used to be. (But they still happen from time to time, looking at you Batman V. Superman trailer. Go swallow a fire-poker.)

Yet all that is just talking about the solution to recreating that sense of discovery with popular titles. With obscure things none of that even matters. If you stumble on a book in Barnes and Noble that sounds good and you've never heard about it, you can jump straight in knowing nothing about it except for whatever the synopsis reveals to you (unless it's a terrible synopsis that spoils the book).

There's also the matter of existence.

The general saying is that as long as someone remembers you and people talk about you, you're never truly dead; you live on in peoples' memories.

However, if someone lived an uneventful and unremarkable life, the moment their body fails in this world is the last any will interact with them or their actions, with the exception of a few family members who will die a few decades later.

With art and entertainment it's a bit different because it's not a mortal person, so a TV show that exists on the Internet somewhere can be accessed far into the future even if all its creators are dead if it's still up on the web.

There are exceptions to this, like things that require old technology to access (like how Demons' Souls is even more obscure globally than Dark Souls, since it's only available on the PS3 which most people aren't going to buy just to play it). If a movie never made it to DVD and is only available on a cassette tape in some random thrift shop somewhere, the odds of it one day making a comeback is null.

One might use this information to argue the point that hypothetically, if mankind was eternal and lived until the end of time, that all obscure things would be discovered eventually. However this is simply not true; hypothetically if there was an immortal being who only consumed obscure media, perhaps there would almost be some truth to that, but most of us mortals spend a finite amount of time here on Earth and most of us will end up consuming the same few popular things with only minor deviations here and there, and obscure things are being made much faster than they're being discovered, so even in that scenario not everything would be found.

That's why it's so important to appreciate good things that are underappreciated or unnoticed; if I don't appreciate the immersive world-building in Neverwhere or Yona's amazing character development in Yona of the Dawn, then who will?

Who, I ask you?! No one.

By consuming and enjoying obscure things of great quality, and perhaps sharing them with others when the opportunity arises, we're acknowledging that there are other great works of art other than what we've been given. That's not to say that what we've been given is bad.

There are many praised and critically acclaimed works of fiction that completely deserve the attention and praise that they've been given; The Witcher 3 has won more awards than any other video game in history, even getting more awards than Red Dead Redemption and The Last of Us, both masterpieces in their own right, and yet I don't think it's overrated by any stretch of the imagination. With movies it's hard to argue the same point because there's such a gaping disparity between "critics" and what actual movie-goers enjoy (take Alita for example), but the mere fact that something is publicly acknowledged as good is not in and of itself a bad thing if it actually is. I would never say that The Witcher 3 didn't deserve all those awards. But what I will say is that I can think of a few games that are of the same quality as The Witcher 3 that never got any awards or recognition.

This is a belief I've held about animation awards for years. In Hollywood, the "animation award" is known as the "Pixar award," because Pixar always wins.

And the thing is, Pixar is amazing. Pixar deserves lots of awards. Yet the problem isn't that Hollywood likes Pixar, it's that they only like Pixar. Well, and Disney, but it's usally Pixar that wins.

Wall-E, Up, and Monsters Inc are all fantastic animated Pixar movies that deserve heaps of praise. But so does A Silent Voice, Your Name, The Breadwinner, and many others. And I can guarantee you Hollywood doesn't watch those movies.

Most of the time Pixar wins, and if they don't win, it's either Disney or Dream Works that wins since they're the next most popular creators of animated film in the west. The only time an anime film ever won the animation Oscar was in 2003 when Spirited Away won; and that makes me happy because Spirited Away is an amazing movie. But then you find out that Studio Ghibli--which created and owns Spirited Away--is actually owned by Disney! So the only reason that eastern animated film won was because it was owned by Disney and neither their main studio nor Pixar came out with anything good that year. One might try to say, "What about Finding Nemo? Finding Nemo came out in 2003," but that was in May, and the awards were in March, and the only Disney and Pixar movies to come out that year before the awards were the mediocre sequels to Lilo and Stitch and Atlantis, neither of which were nearly as cool as their original predecessors.

I was pleasantly surprised when Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse won a lot of critical acclaim since it was an original animated feature from Sony and not Disney or Pixar, but unfortunately that type of thing almost never happens.

Thus let it be known that not everything we've been given is bad, but there are so many great works of fiction waiting to be discovered, and if we don't discover or appreciate them, they'll rot away in digital purgatory forever.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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