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Internet overload: our streaming lifestyle
The audiovisual media created a way of life: the mass culture in which my parents grew up. This has defined a way of life for most baby boomers. This made many of them middle class collectors – of records, then CDs, VHS tapes and DVDs. And this culture survived them in my own childhood. It’s the culture that made Ray Charles and Johnny Cash legends, and then made Oscar movies about them as the Boomers got older. It was a mass culture in which the Oscars had a certain importance. The Oscars made sense because people needed entertainment, so they went to the movies and had to choose from what was available at the time. Mass culture was something Americans experienced collectively and they could make collective judgments about it. This broadcasting culture made the radio Top 40. And even the Grammys and Emmys seemed like they could tell you something about the vibe back then. Quite often what they have told you is that Americans were nostalgic for an earlier period of audiovisual culture. Forrest Gump was nostalgia for the 90s for all the decades leading up to the 90s. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which did not win the Best Picture award, captured that sense of collective experience of the culture of American mass more than almost any recent American film. The main character has to make an adjustment from the pompadours to the mutton chops. And the hustle and bustle of the 1960s is about to be torn apart by the other side of social revolution, the explosion of violent crime, drug use and political millennialism. This culture started to crumble when I was about to inherit it. The household I was a teenager in subscribed to Entertainment Weekly in order to keep up with CDs, movies, and even novels worth talking about. In the late 1990s, I added Blender magazine to our list. The release of the iPod in October 2001 may have been the swan song of this culture. The iPod originally promised that you could take your entire CD collection with you. The idea was that you would continue to collect, maintain and manage your own personal music collection. But, pretty quickly, then all of a sudden, the Internet began to tear apart the limb of audiovisual culture. First, the internet destroyed traditional taste makers in places like Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, and Blender. These have been replaced either by much more obsessive publications dedicated to smaller subgenres of music, or by the fanzines themselves. The film industry has been largely taken over by the vast fan culture that developed from Comic-con. As for the content itself, the mass culture of the United States has been replaced by virtually everything. Music streaming services aim to stream all music ever recorded. They employ some taste makers to organize occasional listings. But all in all, you have to explore on your own. Since the advent of iTunes and later Spotify, no artist or scene has had the power to move popular culture like grunge and gangster rap changed their respective genres and the radio industry when I was a child. Segmentation also came for television. The proliferation of premium television across multiple networks has created a shared audience. The people who watched Mad Man weren’t the same as the people who watched Two and a Half Men. The most important show, according to critics’ reviews, and the most important show in terms of profit and audience, hardly belong to the same culture. The same division applies to films now: there is no attempt to generate critical acclaim for financially successful films, or to make critically acclaimed films commercially viable. You may be thinking, so what? American mass culture had its time. Helen Andrews argues in her book Boomers that a single generation, embracing Hollywood and Nashville, has all but erased the importance of popular culture and high culture. But I wonder if the collapse of mass culture is linked to other collapses in our society. The Top 40 and the Oscars mean nothing to a large American audience anymore. Neither is there a transcendent evangelical preacher like Billy Graham; in its place, there is a multitude of screenwriters. Religion is something to look up to on Reddit or Twitter, and it’s all available to you at once, with all the urgent, demanding excitement of another fan scene. Become a traditional 14th century Catholic or bisexual priestess. There is also nothing like a traditional dating pool or dating conventions; we have apps for that, digital menus that have endless options but can’t promise any of them will matter in a week. The mass culture created by diffusion was superficial and often cynical and exploitative. But he held your hand and gave you a few choices (but not too many). It gave you something to talk about. The new culture of Internet streaming gives you everything and invites you to make your own way. No wonder so many people are lost and alone.