The Persistence of Mass Culture

Photo: Courtesy of Apple (iPad); Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images (Obama)

By now, we were all supposed to be happily imprisoned in our niches. You know: the theory that we’re all wagged by the long tail, each of us a microtargeted consumer absorbed in our narrowcast information flow. So if I love Animal Collective, the Golden State Warriors, Ron Paul, and Nutella, I can track down the four other people exactly like me, find our little corner of the Internet, and obsess in peace. So why was it that, for one cacophonous week at least, everyone seemed to be talking about just one of two things?

If you follow politics and care about the future of the country, it was the State of the Union address. If you follow gadgets and care about the future of carbon-based life-forms, it was Apple’s unveiling of its mystical iPad. (Spare the feminine-hygiene jokes: Twitter already beat that horse dead.) Both of these events, coincidentally, happened on the same day. (Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs had emphasized that the speech had to be scheduled to not bump up against another spectacle, the premiere episode of the final season of Lost.) Throw in Avatar, the Team Coco late-night wars, the recent return of American Idol—“Pants on the Ground”!—and the upcoming Super Bowl, and it’s actually been a pretty good stretch for mass culture.

Most remarkable about last Wednesday, though, was how much of our collective conversation preceded, rather than followed, these events. If you’d graphed the online chatter about Apple’s keynote unveiling, it would have started climbing months ago and peaked about the time Steve Jobs took the stage. The State of the Union prompted all the usual postgame analysis—but that was teed up by weeks of speculation, predictions, and what-if forecasting. In the age of social media, the analysis cycle has been reversed: We spend more time talking about what we think we’ll think than what we thought. Last summer, for example, you couldn’t turn around without hearing something about Brüno—until the film finally opened, the brouhaha petered out, and we moved on to speculating about District 9.

As it turns out, social media are just that—social. And all our Twitter feeds and Tumblrs need a parade of shared experiences in order to thrive. No wonder we’ve shifted the emphasis from post-event breakdown to pre-event build-up: Analysis (here’s what it is) is finite compared to speculation (what will it be?), which is inexhaustible. Once we experience something en masse—or even as we experience it—we splinter off to our myriad forums to broadcast our personal takes. Then we look quickly toward the next mass event on the horizon, and wonder what everyone will say about that.

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The Persistence of Mass Culture