Monday, May 30, 2005

The death of the shared experience

Youngsters might not believe this, but there was a time when all Americans could gather 'round the water cooler and be able to talk about the one thing they all experienced yesterday. Maybe that was watching the same television show, or listening to the same album, or going to the same movie, or even replaying the same sporting event. America used to be a bit more homogeneous, media-wise, so that when something big happened, we all experienced it. That's not the case today, where media fragmentation (call it "mass personalization," if you insist) makes it harder for us to have shared experiences with our neighbors and co-workers. I think we're the worse for it.

Take, for example, television. Back when we only had three networks (plus PBS plus a local independent or two), it was likely that a big TV show would be watched by the majority of people you ran into the next day. This sort of shared television experience dates back to Your Show of Shows and I Love Lucy, and continued well into the 1980s. Think back (if you can) to the last episode of M*A*S*H, and what a big deal that was. Compare that to the last episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and ask how many people you know watched it, or even knew about it. Not a lot, I'd wager. Now that we all have 100+ channels of stuff to watch, the likelihood that any two of us are watching the same program is slim. I have people come up to me and ask if I caught the latest episode of Desperate Housewives, or of American Idol, or of Lost, and I'm at a loss; I've never watched any of these programs, and I'd wager that those who watch one haven't watched any of the others. Conversely, I can ask my friends what they thought of the Quentin Tarrantino-directed season finale of CSI, or of who they think will be the next president on The West Wing, and I'm just as likely to get blank stares in return. We're all watching programs off our individual wish lists, and thus are not sharing a common experience.

The same thing with music. I just read where Mariah Carey claimed her 16th number-one single; only Elvis and the Beatles have scored more U.S. number-ones. The thing is, I know all of those Elvis and Beatles records, and I don't know a single one of Ms. Carey's supposed number-one hits. It's not that I don't listen to music, because I do; it's just that I don't listen to that particular slice of the musical spectrum. Radio today is highly fragmented, so that the stations that play Mariah Carey will never play a song by Coldplay or Fountains of Wayne, and vice versa. You could go your entire life and only be exposed to a small segment of contemporary music, which isn't the way it used to be. Back when I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, most radio stations played a fairly broad variety of music. A top 40 station back in the day could play a Motown tune and then a Beatles tune and then a Frank Sinatra tune and then a Bob Dylan tune, one right after another; you won't hear that sort of variety on any radio station today. Music-lovers of my day got exposed to all sorts of different styles; kids today don't. They lack the shared experience (and its broadening results) that used to be common.

I could go on and on about the lack of shared experiences, in movies and sports and news coverage and you name it. Our society has become increasingly sliced and segmented, and I think it's to our detriment. Yeah, we may think we're being better served, but in reality we're becoming more isolated. The only shared experiences we have is when disaster strikes (the 9/11 attacks, the Columbia space shuttle crash, etc.); day by day, we only see what little we want to see -- not all that we should. There's something to say for being exposed to new experiences, and to being intellectually and culturally well-rounded. We need a little more breadth, at the expense of our own self-absorbed depth.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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