Are We Losing Our Common Culture?

We’ve just gone through a political season in which parallel universes of political discourse made it obvious how easy it is to create realities that are narrowly tailored to our own beliefs. Is the same happening to culture?

There will never again be a show like “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family” — shows that derived their power not solely from their content, which might not hold up to today’s more high-minded affairs, but also from their ubiquity. There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage (see Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and the aftermath).

Instead, we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke, and satisfying a niche was a greater economic imperative than entertaining the mainstream.

“We’re back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn’t much of a shared culture,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “For most of the history of civilization, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.”

Shared cultural experiences define us as a culture. But they also exclude those who don’t connect with the experience. Broadly shared pop culture can also be generic or trivial in its quest to appeal broadly.

So is the rise of niche culture a polarizing phenomenon? Or does it allow for the rich and diverse expression of individuality that enrich our culture and that we should celebrate? How do we talk to each other if our culture increasingly becomes parallel universes and we lose our common vocabulary?

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