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Office Small Talk
I work from home now due to the virus, but I remember one thing that has happened recently, no small talk with coworkers over shared media consumption. We don’t live in a shared media monoculture like we have been living in for the past 100 years. So when one co-worker brings up some show on some streaming platform, no one knows what they are talking about. There are dozens of streaming sites, including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and many more. And each platform has its own shows. There is no shared culture or references. Those days are gone. And since most workplace conversation is just making an attempt to connect to someone, the workplace has become much more of a stilted, awkward place over the last few years.
Sometimes I want to find new music to listen to, but it’s difficult. I load up soundcloud and there are a million artists on there. It’s completely overwhelming. I have no idea where to begin. So I just go back listening to the music I grew up listening too. No new music for me. Or sometimes I’ll turn on the satellite radio for a bit. But they just play music I mostly know anyways, rarely do they play “new” music. It wasn’t always like this.
20th Century Media Monoculture
I grew up in the 20th century. That was a closed media ecosystem. There was a set of classics you could listen to, that went as far back as the 1950s. You could also engage in classical music if you were into that genre. However, most people just listened to what was on the radio. The radio had a few dozen stations and played songs based on genre. But who did they play? They played bands that were on major record labels. It turns out the record companies paid the radio stations (payola) to play the songs of bands they wanted to promote. The radio stations were fine with it. It was a top-down system. The record label and the stations would curate for the listener a “canon” of certain bands, and then slowly over time introduce newer ones. So you never had to really look for new music, it was always there.
Music was in a physical format in the 20th century, it was expensive. I remember CDs with 12 songs costing over 20 dollars. Music was rare, in a sense. But music on the radio was free. So after you listened to the song on the radio, you would buy the record and see the band in concert. Everyone makes money in this scenario, although, it costs you a lot of money. Take this system and scale it up to hundreds of millions, even billions of people and you have the 20th century media monoculture. Bands got fabulously wealthy. Acts like the Rolling Stones are billionaires. Even bands that were one hit wonders made enough money to live off of the rest of their lives, especially with touring. The system was closed. Everyone in the modern world was in sync.
Television and Film
This system did not just apply to music, it also applied to film and television. 30-50 million people a week watched shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Survivor. This is what you talked about with people. It was on at the same time and on the same day of the week. This created a unified culture we all engaged with, scaled up. Celebrities became iconic figures. Flush with hundreds of millions of dollars. Rich beyond belief. But supply was restricted. There was only a few hundred celebrities in the 20th century media monoculture. A few hundred individuals who were promoted by the film industry, the tv industry and the music industry to be household names.
Donald Trump was one of these individuals. Donald Trump has been famous since I was a little kid. So when he decided to run for President, everyone already knew who he was.
The 90s was the pinnacle of ‘winner-take-all’ culture in America
Huge barriers to entry in cultural institutions. The tops of the pyramid (Michael Jackson, Jordan) were gods
Now there’s a real middle and underclass. The summit is lower though. No more gods
Transition to the Decentralized Media Ecosystem
About 15-20 years ago American society transitioned to another system, the de-centralized media ecosystem. This shift started very gradually and eventually accelerated to where we are today. It started out with Youtube and google and then eventually smart phones and other platforms like facebook, instagram, twitter, twitch and now tiktok. In response to this stratification, big industries started coming out with their own streaming services and content. Today you have netflix, disney, hulu, and countless other media properties. They each have their own original content. It’s all divided and dispersed into thousands of entities. We are living in a decentralized age now. Your neighbor is consuming different media than you.
Sure, there is still a monoculture. It’s smaller than it used to be, in a way. There is superhero movies and music played on the radio. But now there are other options people are gravitating to.
In the 20th century media monoculture they brainwashed people into thinking "music mattered". That "songs" could change lives or have effect in the real world. But that narrative doesn’t really work now. We all are not listening to the same album from start to end. We are engaging with bits of songs. or in different subcultures of music. It worked in the 20th century because everyone was on the same page. But it looks ridiculous now in the decentralized system.
When I was growing up there was a notion of "selling out. what did that mean? It meant changing your work so you can leave your subculture and enter the 20th century media monoculture and make money
"selling out" doesnt exist anymore because everything is a subculture now.
We are not fully in a decentralized ecosystem. There is still overlap from the 20th century. The stars of the 20th century media monoculture are huge today. Think Donald Trump, Kanye West or the hundreds of bands or celebrities who tour today that still draw large crowds. So those guys look like giants now. Everyone knows who they are. They achieved fame at scale, something that is difficult to do today. There's a million bands on SoundCloud. They can't draw crowds like the monoculture artists could.
Media monoculture that was, is dead. In the past, a single episode of M*A*S*H or All in the Family could "spark a national conversation". Who has that reach today? Not CNN, Fox, NYT, WaPo, Breitbart, nobody. Twitter deludes itself into thinking it's a representative sample but no. The only scaled up activities are politics (Trump) and sports. And also the Virus.
It will be interesting to see what the world is like when the stars from the 20th century media monoculture fade away in 3-4 decades.
20th century media monoculture celebrities had a lot of power back in the day. Perhaps too much…
In the 20th century media monoculture there was a phenomenon called "authenticity". A millionaire artist would obsess over whether he was making art "true to himself" or commercial purposes.
They did hours of interviews over this and wanted us to empathize with them, their plight, etc. It was kind of gross, looking back. But at the time you accepted it. There was no alternative. It was one crazy rich man struggling to handle some weird inner demons he was fighting. That isn’t around as much when there is a million options.
So much of the 20th century was the format tricking you. This was a big disc you held in your hand. You had to be careful tho, not to scratch it, or else it wouldn't play. This big sensitive disc befuddled the human monkey brain. Of course what's on it was special and "good"
Conspiracy theories had to go through a much stricter filter in the Media Monoculture of the 20th century to get people to notice them. In fact, you can bet most conspiracies from that era have a lot of truth to them. Once you look into the JFK assassination it’s wild how much coincidence paper trail there is to foreign governments and the deep state. For something to stay relevant in a closed ecosystem for that long, it had to be passed along by people. It was artificially repressed by the system.
Now in a decentralized ecosystem there is no filter and even first impressions can immediately go to conspiracy. An event happens and the first thing people go to is conspiracy. We went from one extreme, of repressing truth, to another of not repressing enough bad information and trends.
The 20th century media monoculture plays games with your head. With music it pretended like 100 or so bands were "good". We see it with attractiveness of women as well. Millions of women on instagram. the monoculture tricked you into thinking 20 were hot. Attractive women are everywhere. In all sorts of physical genres.
Anyone who's read Ars Amatoria knows that is true. "Rome will present you damsels as many, and full as fair; so that you will declare, that whatever has been on the earth, she possesses;(...) as many stars as heaven has, so many fair ones does your own Rome contain"
Decentralization is normal. Millions of groups and subcultures scattered around, dotting the landscape. The only difference now is that they are digital, not necessarily geographically based.
Even the counter culture during the 20th century media monoculture was controlled. It was all part of the same system. There were no outsiders. That only happens in a decentralized system.
Now you have dangerous outsiders, think of ISIS using twitter for years, interacting with normies and posting propaganda videos. Think of various movements that come and go. There is no gatekeeper anymore. Things are just out there.
Culture is Stuck
Something happened in the mid 2000s and I don’t know what. But there has not been any changeover since then. If you think back to the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, there is clear change in mass culture. But somewhere around 2006, everything stayed the same. It is currently 2020. People are wearing the same skinny jeans, the same type of haircuts. There is still comic book movies being made, etc.
Perhaps, the mainstream figured out what worked was good enough for mass culture and didn’t switch. Or it was influenced by the decentralization of society. Not sure what. But think about to the mid aughts and look around today. Not much of a different.
News used to be run by a few newspapers. Then a few tv stations. And now news is dead. There is thousands of news outlets. There is even individual people who consider themselves news outlets. All of them have a varying degree of influence. So there is no “paper of record” anymore. It’s all just rumor, gossip and bullshit. The good news is that’s how its always been. News has always been two way. You give news and you take news. Like a barbershop. There is no top down arbiter of authentic or real news. That doesn’t exist. It never existed. Although they tricked you into thinking it did exist for a hundred years when you didn’t have any other options.
Where do we go from here?
It’s up to you to find a niche subculture to engage with. The mainstream has gotten worse and calcified recently. It seems like it was healthier before, there was turnover and since there was no alternative it tried to be dynamic on its own. However, you have a chance to find something even better and useful. Something that wasn’t around to people in a closed system.
But, be careful, if you enter the wrong subculture it could mess up your life. It’s up to you. The Monoculture put a ceiling and a floor on culture. Nothing that could really help you, and nothing that could really hurt you.