The Decline of Popular Culture

The information revolution has been going on since the invention of the printing press, or maybe even earlier, but we didn’t reach information abundance until the 2010s. The internet, smart phones and social media were all contributing factors. Those technologies not only enabled a greater consumption of information, they also enabled everyone to produce and distribute information. This has profoundly affected our culture.

To understand how things are changing, we have to understand what existed before. From the 1920s until about 2010, our culture was dominated by mass media. Mass media (I’ll treat it as a singular noun) is the production and distribution of information for mass consumption. Mass communication technologies include newspapers, books, radio, TV and movies. Those technologies send a small amount of information to a large audience. What we think of as “popular culture” was created by mass media.

Mass media has a distribution bottleneck. Airtime on TV or radio was a scarce resource. So was space in a newspaper. It wasn’t efficient to produce a movie for a small audience. Even for books, distribution capacity was a limiting factor. It was expensive to publish a book and that expense had to be justified. Mass media was a natural oligopoly, because of the distribution bottleneck. There were a few big distributors, and they had to carefully allocate their limited capacity. To qualify for distribution, information had to appeal to the masses.

The distribution bottleneck created popular culture.

Before mass media, culture was divided into high and low forms. High culture was expensive and consumed mostly by elites. Low culture was produced and consumed locally. Elites went to the opera or bought paintings. The masses entertained themselves with village gossip, folk music and dancing.

Mass media replaced both high and low culture with popular culture. Mass communication technologies made it much easier and cheaper to consume information. You didn’t have to go to an opera when you could hear one on the radio. Instead of going to a theater to watch a play, you could go to a much cheaper movie, or (by the 1950s) just turn on the TV. Instead of going to the local square dance, you could go to a dance hall and listen to music on a record player, or you could have some friends over and listen to the radio. Mass media gave the masses access to professionally produced culture. The masses didn’t want exactly what the old elites had wanted, however. The new media created a new type of culture — popular culture — that was designed to appeal to the masses.

Popular culture was unifying, for three reasons:

  1. It was easy and cheap to access.
  2. It had mass appeal.
  3. There wasn’t very much of it.

Mass media gave people a shared view of the world, because everyone consumed the same information. TV shows and movies gave people a shared mythos of characters and narratives. The radio gave their lives a shared soundtrack. The news gave them a common understanding of current events. Almost everyone knew about the popular shows on TV, the popular songs on the radio, the current events in the news shows and newspapers, the popular movies in the theaters, and so on. Popular culture was common culture.

Mass media created a kind of artificial village. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in small societies of a few hundred people at most, and so our social emotions are better adapted to a small village than to a modern society of millions. Mass media created the illusion of being in a small society. If you saw someone on TV every day, then you felt like you knew them. In the late 20th century, people followed gossip about celebrities in the same way that our ancestors followed village gossip.

The virtual village created by mass media made people more comfortable living among millions of strangers. You might not know the person standing next to you at the bus stop, but you watched the same TV shows and “knew” the characters in those shows, so it was as if you had mutual acquaintances. TV really did create a “small world” illusion. It made the big complex world seem much smaller and simpler.

The education system was also a cultural unifier. Basic public education gave people a body of common knowledge, so they could talk about things beyond their personal experience. During the late 20th century, higher education became common, and so it turned into a mass commodity analogous to popular culture.

The academy has the same network structure as mass media, with a small number of elite producers and distributors and a much larger number of consumers. A cultural elite within the academy produced and distributed information to the masses of students. The academy also provided the material for lower levels of education, and it provided expert commentary to the news media. The academy had an institutional monopoly on the production and distribution of abstract knowledge.

The ordinary worldview of the late 20th and early 21st centuries was a creation of mass media and the education system. That worldview is now starting to break down. It is breaking down for two reasons. One is its failure to solve the individual and social problems of the modern world. The other is the rise of new media that eliminate the distribution bottleneck.

Popular culture was starting to unravel before social media. The 1980s was the peak period of popular culture. By the 1990s, popular culture was starting to unravel because the distribution bottleneck was expanding. Cable TV became widespread and the number of channels increased. TV started catering to niche audiences with news channels, shopping channels, sports channels, music channels, etc.

With more competition for eyeballs, there was a shift toward attention-grabbing content. The late 1990s was the era of “reality TV” and “Jerry Springer” — shows that were designed to catch the attention of people flipping channels. Earlier TV shows were more concerned with building a long-term audience than with catching eyeballs on the fly. They also tried to lull people into a relaxed state so they would be susceptible to advertising. During that earlier period, TV was often described as “the opiate of the masses”, riffing on Marx’s comment about religion. By the 1990s, TV had transformed into a drug more like cocaine or speed than opium, and popular culture was starting to lose its coherence.

And then came the internet.

The internet was widely used by the late 1990s, but it took a long time to eclipse mass media. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t easy to publish information on the internet, because you needed your own website or space on someone else’s. By the mid 2000s, there were convenient publishing platforms for blogging and podcasting, and that made it much easier to become a small producer of information. But how could you find an audience? And how could your potential audience find you? In those days, search was the main way to find information on the internet, and search is very limited. The internet had a distribution problem. It was hard to connect producers with consumers.

And then came social media.

Social media was the solution to the distribution problem. Individuals on social media are nodes in a network. Information propagates through that network from node to node. Unlike mass media, social media has no central bottleneck that limits and filters information. A user of social media follows a number of other users, and those users provide him with a curated feed of information. Social media replaces the generic filter of mass media with a personal filter of individuals.

Social media liberated culture from the constraints of mass media. By doing so, it created cultural chaos.

Social media allowed people to find others with similar interests or beliefs, and form communities based on those shared interests or beliefs. This was a huge increase in the substantive freedoms of expression and association. Living in small villages, our ancestors had to pretty much conform to the views of those around them, and they had very little choice of whom to associate with. Today you can associate with almost anyone around the world, and say almost anything you like.

Social media is a new form of human interaction and a new way for information to flow around the world. In some ways, social media is analogous to a real-life social network, but there are important differences. In real life, you are limited to people that you have some real-life connection to, such as friends, coworkers and family. On social media, you can connect with people around the world, based on shared interests or beliefs. You can also use social media anonymously. That makes it safer to be rude and obnoxious. It has also made it easier to propagate heresies, such as race realism and sex realism. Information that is suppressed by mass media can now propagate on social media.

Social media also gives people the ability to talk back to elites. These days, celebrities and authorities are routinely corrected, mocked and insulted on social media, often for good reasons. The credibility of the academy and the news media has been irrevocably damaged by criticism from the general public. Social media has exposed their dishonesty and intellectual bankruptcy. The loss of faith in authorities is partly due to their own lies and failures, but it is accelerated and amplified by social media. Instead of becoming more honest and reliable, the news media and the academy have instead become more ideological and dishonest. They are also calling for the censorship of social media, in an attempt to restore their control over information.

Social media is a fertile breeding ground for new ideologies, but they tend to be short-lived. It is easy for new “isms” to arise and spread on social media, but it is also easy to criticize them and expose their errors. The same applies to fandoms and other internet subcultures. They are easy to create, but also easy to destroy. The lifespan of an internet subculture follows a predictable pattern. It emerges, gathers a niche following, grows, generates drama, attracts critics and then collapses into self-parody through purity-spiraling and in-fighting.

Social media is a double-edged sword. It enables rationality and irrationality, intelligence and stupidity, friendship and hatred.

As social media replaced mass media, internet culture replaced popular culture. The result so far is cultural chaos. If popular culture was a little village, then internet culture is a vast landscape populated by warring tribes and strange beasts. Social media expanded our ability to communicate, but it didn’t bring us closer together. Instead, it allowed us to drift apart.