We’re All Social Distancing on the Internet Too
The Fragmentation of Culture
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This is my last newsletter of 2020. This week, I tried to capture how 2020 influenced the internet and vice versa. Hopefully, it’s a fitting cap to an eventful year.
Have a wonderful holiday, and see you in the New Year! 🥳
We’re All Social Distancing on the Internet Too
The English-language Word of the Year is “Lockdown.” The Dutch Word of the Year is similar in concept, but a lot more fun to say: “Anderhalvemetersamenleving”, which roughly translates as “keeping six feet of distance from other people.”
When we think back to 2020, these words will come to mind. (I know I’m looking forward to explaining “Anderhalvemetersamenleving” to my grandkids.) If the pandemic has seared one image into our minds, it’s the image of everyone separated into their own homes—secluded, isolated, quarantined.
I’ve been thinking about 2020 as a year in technology, and I’ve been struck by its similarities to our socially-distanced physical world. When we remember 2020, we’ll remember it as the year that we also became secluded and isolated online.
Popular culture has always given people a shared language. Movies, TV, music—they’re social lubricants that help strangers find common ground.
Internet culture, on the other hand, has always been more niche: one of the internet’s key features is its infinite (and often very strange) hidden corners. In Internet Niches, I emphasized this point with subreddits:
There are 2.2 million subreddits on Reddit—online communities dedicated to anything and everything you can think of. There’s one dedicated to trees that look like they’re sucking on things (111,000 members). There’s one dedicated to Nicholas Cage called “One True God” (135,000 members).
In 2020, the worlds of movies, television, and music largely ground to a halt. Internet culture became pop culture and, in doing so, it fragmented society’s shared language.
We saw this happen across every aspect of culture.
Movies, TV, and Music
For the last century, blockbuster movies have been cultural touchstones that capture a time and place. In a given year, there are typically only a few hits that embed themselves deeply into pop culture. Some become synonymous with entire decades: Star Wars and the 70s, E.T. and the 80s, Jurassic Park and the 90s.
The blockbuster model survived the rise of the internet on the backs of tentpole films like Avengers and Harry Potter. That is, until the pandemic decimated the box office industry this year.
With theaters closed, we turned to streaming. Streaming fragments culture for two main reasons: (1) The sheer volume of content, and (2) The timing of releases.
(1) Streaming economics support an incredible amount of content: in 2019, Netflix released 371 new TV shows and movies—a 55% increase over the 240 it released 2018. Chances are that you and your friend aren’t watching the same show.
(2) Netflix popularized binge watching by dropping all episodes of a show at once. This can create big pop culture moments, but they tend to be fleeting. Think of Tiger King earlier this year: it was everywhere for a week, and then it was gone.
An interesting example is to compare Netflix’s Stranger Things with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Both shows were massive hits and both were viewed by roughly the same number of households. But Game of Thrones’ cultural impact was orders of magnitude larger. This came down to release strategy. Netflix dropped the entire Stranger Things season the week of the Fourth of July; by mid-July, the cultural conversation had moved on. In contrast, by releasing one episode of Thrones each week, HBO kept its show in the cultural water cooler for three months. Game of Thrones was appointment television: everyone was at the same place, at the same time, week after week.
(One interesting side note: Netflix is putting more of its content on YouTube for free, something it didn’t used to do. This is in an effort to build more enduring cultural IP.)
In 2020, we didn’t have blockbusters to unite us. We instead found ourselves in our own corners of streaming services. Or we found ourselves on TikTok: the proliferation of streaming content makes platforms like TikTok more appealing. TikTok removes user choice, using its AI-driven feed to serve up videos one after another.
Every TikTok user has a different For You Page, chosen by algorithms just for them. TikTok feeds are the perfect metaphor for the internet in 2020.
Before TikTok rose to popularity, algorithms and internet streaming were already fragmenting culture. On Spotify, people listen to more and more artists each year.
My 2020 Spotify Wrapped told me that I listened to 699 distinct artists this year; I’d wager that’s up 2x or 3x from the number of artists I listened to in 2015.
The world has never seen the volume of video and audio content being produced today. This has incredible benefits: more creators can earn a living or be recognized for their talent. But it also means a certain breakdown of culture, as we all lose shared touchstones and recede into our little algorithmic cocoons.
In lockstep with the decline of mass-market entertainment, 2020 marked the decline of the celebrity. As the world shut down in March, celebrities awkwardly tried to relate to everyday people. Madonna—in perhaps the most tone deaf moment of the year—called the virus “the great equalizer” while she soaked in a rose-petaled bathtub. (The same day, March 23rd, the Fed warned of unemployment hitting 30%. Yikes.)
Just six days into lockdown, Gal Gadot corralled famous friends for an off-tune a capella version of “Imagine”. The video was immediately criticized—people didn’t love the lyric “Imagine no possessions” coming from celebrities quarantining in multi-million-dollar mansions.
The New York Times journalist Amanda Hess wrote a piece called “Celebrity Culture Is Burning”. Of Gal Gadot’s celebrity-packed video, she wrote: “Their contributions suggest that the very appearance of a celebrity is a salve, as if a pandemic could be overcome by star power alone.” More broadly, she observed that the celebrity compact rests on the celebrity’s ability to move easily between the elite and the masses, being aspirational and approachable at the same time.
The pandemic made celebrities unapproachable, accelerating a trend already in motion: the shift toward user-generated content at the expense of professionally-produced content.
In 2020, the people who captured the pop culture zeitgeist were everyday people who went viral online. There was the meteor/meatier woman, the Ocean Spray cranberry juice skateboarder, and the “I ain’t ever seen two pretty best friends” guy.
In The Business of Fame, I wrote that we may never again have a celebrity as big as Marilyn Monroe or Julia Roberts. The people at the center of 2020 pop culture aren’t as enduring or global as “traditional” celebrities. But they complete an arc that the internet set in motion a quarter century ago, breaking down barriers to fame and unlocking new levels of creativity.
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Coming in second place for Dutch Word of the Year—just after “Anderhalvemetersamenleving”—was “Fabeltjesfuik”. Fabeltjesfuik is defined as:
“The phenomenon that users of social media who are interested in conspiracies are offered more and more messages about conspiracies due to the operation of social media, which gradually leads them to believe in them.”
No word better captures the phenomenon of social media echo chambers. After Facebook and Twitter (finally) began to label Donald Trump’s tweets as misleading, conservatives decided that they needed new places to congregate online, untethered from “the liberal media”. This need became more urgent when Fox News (correctly) called Arizona for Joe Biden.
In the days after the election, far-right social media sites began to rise up the App Store rankings. In just a week, Parler saw 4.5 million people make accounts.
News was already becoming more niche and fragmented because of a shift from ad-based models to subscription-based models. The New York Times was once considered the paper of record, meaning that it was widely seen as a source of truth. With an ad-based model, anyone could read The Times. But when the internet decimated its ad revenue, the paper turned to digital subscriptions. Subscriptions are, by nature, exclusionary—and under its new business model, some argue that The Times caters more to its liberal-leaning subscriber base than to the general public.
More fundamentally, 2020 saw journalism begin to splinter. Top journalists left established publications to go independent, often on Substack. (The influx of Substack writers has been dubbed “the Substackerati”.) This movement gives writers more freedom and economic upside, but it also has a dark side: it’s not hard to imagine a future in which we each subscribe to 5-10 of our favorite writers, burrowing ourselves in echo chambers that reinforce our own ideas and tell us only what we want to hear.
Final Thoughts: The Fragmentation of Culture
Popular culture is becoming more and more niche. Online, people are quarantined in their proverbial homes—echo chambers and digital bubbles and algorithmic feeds.
Disney+ recently announced its new slate, which includes 10 Marvel series; 10 Star Wars series; and 15 new Disney live action, Disney Animation, and Pixar series. The sheer volume of forthcoming content was stunning. But it’s unlikely that any series or film will have the same cultural resonance as Star Wars did in the 70s, The Lion King did in the 90s, or The Avengers did just last year. Family and friends and coworkers may find themselves with different algorithms, watching different shows.
We’re all finding ourselves in more personalized and unique segments of culture. We no longer share a common cultural language.
The pandemic has fueled online niches and echo chambers; in return, those niches and echo chambers are contributing to more real-world distancing by giving people less in common. The two reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. Put more simply, Anderhalvemetersamenleving leads to Fabeltjesfuik, and Fabeltjesfuik in turn leads to more Anderhalvemetersamenleving 😉
This fragmentation has its positives and negatives. I’m generally optimistic about the shift away from newsfeeds and towards threads and small-group messaging. In other words, less Facebook and more WhatsApp. I also recognize the beauty of niches that serve everyone’s interests, however obscure. And I’m ecstatic that the internet is enabling more people (and, crucially, more people from groups underrepresented in traditional media) to become central to culture.
But I’m also deeply concerned about growing partisanship, misinformation, and a breakdown of a shared language. The splintering of culture will be the most defining trend of the decade. It’s fitting that in the decade’s first year, a global pandemic both accelerated this trend and eerily captured its parallel in the analog world.
When I think of the internet in 2020, I keep picturing New York City during lockdown.
If the avenues and boulevards are mainstream culture—the box office hits and red carpet celebrities of yesteryear—then people’s homes are the algorithmic internet niches we occupy today. Personalized and out of sight.
In a digital world, it’s doubtful we’ll ever return to our older definitions of culture: enormous box office hits, era-defining songs, globe-conquering stars. The pandemic accelerated this breakdown by forcing us to shift gears to a zeitgeist fully driven by internet culture.
We may be entering the new normal for culture—not necessarily better, and not necessarily worse. Just different.
Sources & Additional Reading
Celebrity Culture Is Burning | Amanda Hess, The New York Times
This Blockbuster Is Coming to a Living Room Near You | Peter Suderman, The New York Times
The 39 Most Defining Memes of 2020 | Julia Reinstein, Buzzfeed News
In 2020, Pop Culture Failed to Meet the Moment | Elamin Abdelmahmoud, Buzzfeed News
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