By Staci Morrison – Master candidate, Boston University College of Communication
Niche culture is a growing phenomenon. The trend is observable across industries; in marketing it is known as the long tail (Anderson, 2005), in sociology, micro-culture (Neuliep, 2012), in consumer technology it is called customization. Each industry is identifying the same fact: that the United States of America is increasingly less united and more compartmentalized. The openness and globalism of the Internet presents its users with bits of the world’s culture on an always-accessible silver platter. Reviewing the shift online shows that America’s culture does not thrive at the national level, instead America is a place where millions of people happen to live, while supporting variant micro-cultures online.
This is symptomatic of a large nation in which one of the few widespread traditions is to be a catch-all; a land of anyone’s “American Dream.” Part of the reason for disintegrating national identity is the explosion of globalization perpetuated through the Internet. The ‘Internet as a place’ ideology is becoming a commonplace, if not banal, explanation for the parallel yet tailored society of the web. As a medium increasingly controlled by its users, the Internet is becoming more ingrained to daily American life (Horrigan & Rainie, 2006). We rely on the Internet for socialization, information, organization, companionship and more. Heavy Internet dependence reflects the postmodern qualities of a technology-reliant society, yet one that is exercising selective exposure to cultivate increasingly fragmented communities within the larger American culture.
This is symptomatic of a large nation…a land of anyone’s “American Dream.”
What is Mainstream American Culture?
Traditional, mainstream American culture is rooted in the challenge to explore and assimilate through settlement. Initiated through European Separatists and promoted by Puritans, a ragtag nation of Westward minded citizens arrived in this country, pushing their frontier from one ocean to another, enveloping all land in between.
The historical patchwork ownership of this space now called the United States has led to our modern day cultural malaise. Northern Maine, for example, has little cultural relevance to the Silicon Valley of California. Local culture is the existent American culture du jour, a detailing within the patchwork.
In his book, “Who Are We?” Samuel Huntington (2004) acknowledges that American identity is never fixed nor constant. The size of the United States is one underlying factor for our growing ambivalence to mainstream American culture. According to Huntington, America as a nation unites only at times of crisis, when a threat emerges that is larger than our differences and more potent than our nonchalance. An act of terrorism, for example, is an event that strikes so common a chord of collective human emotion that it re-awakens a shared national identity. He cites, “never in the past was the [American] flag as prominent as it was after September 11, 2001 “(p.3). Before the attack on the Twin Towers, citizens more readily identified themselves with specific sub-communities such as “southern Californian,” or by ethnoreligious ties like Judaism than with the title, “American.”
Definition against the “other”
The tendency to define oneself by a subgroup is returning, with caveats. Similar to the Pilgrim Separatists who founded early America, modern Americans are more defined by what they are not rather than what they are. For the Puritans, they were not conformist to Catholic monarchical rule nor tolerant Dutch secularism. Likewise, the events of September 11, 2001 inspired a nation to define itself against the barbarism of foreign terrorists, those dissimilar and distant others.
Herein lies the dichotomy of mainstream America. It is the land of the free, with no official language to demand assimilation of immigrants, no explicit culture that can be surmised upon crossing the border. States even have freedoms unique to one another. This is also a land of citizens who are American by virtue of not being non-American. How will a vague sense of self stand against the tide of globalization? Globalization emphasizes the differences between people and forces us to regularly interact with others from very different cultures and civilizations (Huntington, 2004, p.13).
Notes on Globalization
Generally speaking, globalization is affecting mainstream American culture on two levels. On the world stage, it enables businesses to reach broader markets. Icons of America such as McDonald’s Golden Arches or the Starbucks siren have successfully penetrated other countries to the point of localized menus with little in common with American ones. Cultural imperialism may be good for brands, but only when they appeal to tastes of an international or specific foreign audience (Kraidy, 2010).
On the other hand, globalized brands alienate American consumers who no longer feel connected to the widespread or negative connotations of such international exposure. McDonald’s may imply obesity, Wal-Mart implies baseless consumerism. Mainstream American culture is thus viewed differently by different groups of people, creating a conflicting foundation for national identity. Those citizens who feel disconnected from mainstream America yearn to be involved with their culture, to find a place among the larger national community, yet also feel the need to foster their independence (Healy, 1997). The result of this “double bind” (p. 59) is a number of ambivalent Americans turning to the Internet in hopes of gratifying their need for community.
The Internet tends to satisfy these desires. Many Americans are finding solace and encouragement through social media, online communities and web-based user-generated multimedia.
Worldwide but niche communities
The Internet is more than just a means of associating with other, like-minded Americans. It is also a means of avoiding disagreeable aspects of the larger culture, despite being physically included within it. In the explanation of Healy (1997), “the Net’s culture of coherence is compromised at the same time by limits both imposed and chosen, that tend to perpetuate a culture of separation in the very midst of what appears to be an unprecedented opportunity for community building” (p.59).
As a result, we can observe the explosion of niche communities such as professional mommy blogs, Harry Potter fandoms, or those who believe the government needs to build Death Star. Catering to countless opinions and tastes, all flourishing online, these groups are liberated from the constraints of location and united by the need to fit in to a larger, yet still independent, group. These are Americans exercising their right to assembly, except the meeting house is the web.
These are Americans exercising their right to assembly, except the meeting house is the web.
Though the usage of the Internet appears to have exploded in a way past media has not, the effects of this communication medium are not entirely unexpected. In 1997, Joshua Meyrowitz proposed medium theory, a concept to address the question of how certain aspects of a medium “make it physically, psychologically and socially different from other media and from face-to-face interaction” (Meyrowitz, 1997, p. 61). Meyrowitz and other communication scholars foresaw the evolution of media to include a future, postmodern or electric element. Three decades prior, before the Internet existed, Marshall McLuhan predicted the effects of Internet communication, foreshadowing the retribalization of any society which relies upon a “nonspecialist electric technology,” (McLuhan, 1964, p.24) like the web. The web is a medium like light, which reaches all Americans at the same speed (specific hardware notwithstanding) and does not require specialized skills to use it. Medium theory agrees, elaborating this to be an age defined by “informationally permeable” (Meyrowitz, 1997, p.65) boundaries.
A place in no place
In the United States, the postmodern tendencies are being seen through the explosion of popularity of certain new media capabilities. Pinterest, for example, is a web-based image collection service that allows user to “pin” and share images found online onto virtual bulletin boards according to different customizable categories. Recent reports place Pinterest as the third most popular social network in the United States, after Facebook and Twitter (Wasserman, 2012). Popularity of these three services reflect the desire to cultivate an individualized taste. This is not surprising, since postmodern societies place a new value on the idiosyncrasies of individuals. Paired with the growing reliance upon Internet-equipped consumer gadgets, Americans are using new technology and new media to create a trend of “networked individualism” (Chadwick, 2006, p. 26).
By using the Internet to feed narcissism through content manipulation and social network promotion, the “function of physical location becomes fuzzier” (Meyrowitz, 1997, p.65), if not irrelevant. Though we may share the physical location of one American country, mentally we are diverging into tailored groups of shared interest. Our communication with others in these micro-communities take place in the “no place” of the Internet (Meyrowitz, 1997, p. 66), alongside routinely location-agnostic transactions with banks, retailers, businesses. Permeable information boundaries apply to the McLuhan sense of the Internet being an extension of our physical selves. Thus, we are living in an ‘Internetland’ with porous national borders. It is no wonder mainstream nationalism is fading. How can nationalism exist when governments cannot control their citizens’ knowledge, experiences and lifestyles? Mainstream national identity was a result of the homogenized segregation required of print-reliant groups who linked culture to shared language and place (Meyrowitz, 1997). Medium theory predicts print society will die out with the arrival of postmodern technosociety. As it goes, so does the location-based nationalism it propagated.
The Dichotomist American Internetocracy
Meyrowitz explains the postmodern stage is both unifying and splintering; greater access to others around the world means we are fostering a larger number of disparate relationships. This is where American micro-culture strays from medium theory and begins to dabble in selective exposure. Though our electronic postmodern society fulfills its obligation to provide a variety of choices to its members, Americans are self-selecting into tight alliances. Within these online communities, users perpetuate individual biases, focusing attention on content which can be assimilated into existing personal views (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974). Growing distrust in mainstream media exacerbates the migration to micro-media offerings of blogs, user-generated content or citizen journalism (Ladd, 2011).
Growing distrust in mainstream media exacerbates the migration to micro-media offerings of blogs, user-generated content or citizen journalism
The lack of depth in the cohesion that connects the spirit of Americans across the nation is developing citizens who are more skeptical about news sources that address the country as a whole, and opt to choose news sources that are more pertinent to their individual tastes, location and preference. Likewise, any mass media which continues a one-way broadcast ignores the postmodern netizen’s need for individualization.
Google and the Decline of Social Capital
In the opinion of Google, the online self is the true and ideal self. Google is tapping into the egoistic values of America, developing technology to liberate people from the real world and allow them to create their own virtual places (Healy, 1997).
The latest invention to enact this virtual life in real life is Google Glass. Lenseless glasses with a build-in Google-powered brain, these futuristic frames interpret and respond to images of the wearer and adapt to voice commands (Google Glass). While seamlessly syncing online functions of search, contacts information and scheduling, Google Glass leaves out one key element of a user’s daily life: human interaction. Customizing social exposure to specifically to an individual is a means to insulation (Healy, 1997). Though immensely self-centric, this technology inhibits the natural diversity of build upon chance encounters. “If one doesn’t like the way [an online] conversation is developing, a thousand alternatives are just keystrokes away.” (Healy, 1997, p. 62) With the arrival of Google Glass, this effect is transplanted into the physical world, eliminating chance in-person meetings with anyone who does not share a virtual connection.
Also called cyberbalkinization (“splinternet”), this effect is observable online behavior. Internet users self-select into narrowly-focused self-interest groups (Davis, Elen, Reeher, 2002). Such lack of community engagement drains the collective social capital of the country. As citizens move more of their mental and social investment to an online community, there is less investment in the physical community they inhabit. This is a trend among Americans, demonstrated by political apathy, low in-person voter turnout and a less informed population opting for infotainment over hard news (Davis, Elin & Reeher, 2002).
This is a trend among Americans, demonstrated by political apathy, low in-person voter turnout and a less informed population opting for infotainment over hard news
Cyberbalkinization is likely to be augmented by Google Glass. On a small scale, it creates a million worlds revolving around a million users, a convergence of personal culture and Internet enablement. On a larger scale, it deteriorates the community offline. Community prefigures democracy (Chadwick, 2006) and, as it stands, the state of democracy in America is withering.
Democratic Concerns from Life in the Cloud
Self-centric and synced online, how vested is the postmodern American in the offline requirements of citizenry? There are two key ideologies that address the new global internet culture of America. For the democratic minded optimists, the ability to foster communities on the Internet is a societal motivator. Protests in Tahir Square during the Egyptian uprising are largely credited to the quick and short message format of Twitter. Never before had 140 characters been such an effective means to communicate and mobilize a national audience. According to McLuhan, the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964). For Egyptians, social media was the medium of democratic organizing, thus social media is inherently democratic.
On the other hand lie the skeptics, who view the influx of Internet connectivity as a crutch of democratic apathy. Existence of the web as an ever-ready source of information is creating users who no longer use their own faculties, reliant instead upon a virtual existence. Called the Google Effect (Liu, Sparrow, & Wegner, 2011), this phenomenon is cited for many ills of an online society, from the decline of math proficiency to the demise of the printing industry. Anything we can retrieve online we no longer need to remember. The web is our brain, memory and source of world knowledge, we are merely the vessel.
Extending online behavior and the real world
In a piece for the Christian Science Monitor columnist Ariel Sabar (2011) counters the motivational power of social media, arguing the Twittersphere will never match real world interactions. Twitter may have been used to capitalize upon the political discontent during the Arab Spring but it was not the motivating factor for protests. As a common meeting place for exchange of ideas and discussion, the Internet is the virtual equivalent of the town square. Tending to online communities of fellow citizens is satisfying the desire for social action that once required activists to gather in person. In one way, the vibrant online culture can encourage individuals who may face oppression or lack an outlet for expressing their grievances. However, in a permissive country like the United States, “we no longer need to leave the glow of our laptops to hold leaders accountable.” If we store our values online, “with a few taps on a screen we can microblog about corruption and “Like” the good guy’s Facebook page” (Sabar, 2011).
Results of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States support this argument. Motivation behind the “occupation” was partially inspired by the Arab Spring protests and partially by a desire to exercise democracy in a country perceived as decreasingly representative of its majority. Though Occupy spawned its own web culture similar to that of Tahir Square, the American movement failed to instigate any concrete or lasting change.
For many, lack of direction and demands by “#OWS” turned the protest into a demonstration for the sake of demonstration; a means to no serious end. The Internet encourages divisiveness but how effectively does that extend to offline behavior? Offline, we have a reputation and expectations that differ from a narcissistic and idealized online persona.
Micro-culture vs. Macro-Culture
Already, many people cannot be bothered to vote if it is exclusively an in-person act. Implementing an electronic vote, such as texting, may be preferable for Americans. Texting in a vote could be the reason more Americans voted for the winner of American Idol than voted for the President (Reiter, 2012). American Idol’s 11th season winner won the singing contest with 132 million votes, while President Obama squeaked by with just under 60 million. Or it could be that President Obama, a symbol of America, does not appeal to Americans because he is too mainstream? Obama won by a slim popular majority, signifying that nearly half of the voting population do not support the country’s leader. Additionally, the voter turnout is estimated to be around 57%, thus unrepresentative of nearly half of the eligible voting populace (IDEA, 2012).
Rising offline microculture
Recent history shows that voters tend to vote when political campaigns are markedly polarizing, such as the 2008 presidential race between McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden (IDEA,2012). Four years later, the 2012 election introduced a new type of voter polarity, the state subculture. One example is the Colorado passage of proposition 64: legalization of marijuana for leisurely use by adults. On a national level, marijuana remains illegal.
Though the proposition in Colorado is technically legal and Coloradans are preparing to usher in a wave of cannabis cafes to respond to populist demand, businesses are running into barriers. Banks are hesitant to offer loans to businesses that sell a substance classified by the federal government as a schedule 1 drug – the same classification as LSD and heroine. In California, where medical marijuana has been legal for several years, dispensaries are still at risk of being raided by federal narcotics agents at any given time (Ferner, 2012). Will the rights of the scattered, albeit tight knit, communities ever coalesce to change federal law?
Or, take the case of Puerto Rico, another potentially contentious zone since Puerto Rican voters chose to become one of the United States. However, many of these voters admitted they would never fully embrace the title, “American,” loyal to their Puerto Rican culture first, and foremost (Associated Press, 2012). These are superficial issues, the cracks visible on the face of the country. They are allusions to the spreading, dendritic fractures of loyalty growing online.
So far, this paper has painted Americans as a postmodern dichotomist, constantly attached to his computer or Internet-equipped mobile device. But this is only representative of the populations which can afford smartphones and Internet devices and those who have access to the Internet. Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that about 6% of the country, or 19 million people, are still completely without Internet access. This 6% live in rural or tribal areas of the United States, where broadband Internet infrastructure does not yet exist. This percentage of Americans cannot associate with the Internet-fueled life of their counterparts, they live on the other side of the digital divide.
The digital divide
The digital divide is the modern day distinction of wealth and opportunity – the determinant between broadband-enabled first world and dial-up or unconnected developing world. America has saturated the Internet so thoroughly, with personal data, social networks, photos, blogs, video and converged media that users need more space to store more content. What does a business do when it wants to fill this demand, and more space online? It buys it from countries that don’t use it because their infrastructure is lacking. For example, in May 2012, when the Libyan uprising began to reach global audiences, popular link-shortening services such as Bit.ly and social network aggregator, HootSuite (owner of the doman “ow.ly”), were under pressure to defend their use of the domain suffix, “.ly” – the domain of Libya. Until this bloody conflict, many users of these services were blithely unaware that the links they had been using to promote their blogs, share photos, etc., were links purchased from the Libyan government and hosted on Libyan servers (Stone, 2011). The convenience of an automatic link shortener is first nature to the social media user, even in high profile political campaigns. According to the campaigns of Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney (Bell, 2012), link shortening is a necessary convenience – one that must occur despite an inherent exploitation of the digital resources in other countries. It may seem a trivial example, but exemplifies how easily and automatically Americans manipulate digital resources because they are so readily purchased from a country in need.
Disinterest in diplomacy
Though America may be able to relate to counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan or South Korea, the lack of Internet connectivity in less-developed countries is outside our experience, thus outside our awareness. Furthermore, the cultivating culture online inherently breeds narrow-mindedness. An America absorbed in itself online is an America disinterested in the rest of the world. Despite means and infrastructure, Americans do not travel abroad frequently. A mere 30% of the population holds a passport, a shameful amount compared to 60% of Canadians and 75% of British. Americans are comfortable with the familiar and accessible. They are choosing to experience the world through a computer rather than first-hand.
For the passport-less majority, this is more than a loss of experience. It also places the burden of average American ambassadorship on a disproportionate few. “One of the true benefits of travel to foreign countries,” explains Bruce Bommarito, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the U.S. Travel Association, “is it’s probably the greatest form of diplomacy” (Avon, 2011). Less physical travel may be a symptom of the apathetic role of Internet reliance, a Google Effect deteriorating face-to-face intercultural communication.
Looking Forward, Looking Back
What lies ahead for an America in flux? The United States has an established reputation as a superpower and great exporter of popular culture, a tenuous position reliant upon a shared approval of mainstream culture. The US can only project an image of cultural imperialism for as long as it has the clout; globalization is quickly disseminating audiences to well-defined cultural regions such as South Korea or Great Britain.
A traditional of exploration has created a nation composed of mixed history, beliefs and people. The Internet further expands the already wide, inclusive borders of America. The placelessness of the global web encourages people to collect into unique subcommunities, which thrive within American borders because of the country’s permissiveness and infrastructure, not because they identify with a sense of Americanism.
Such widespread national discord is reminiscent of the nation divided in the Civil War era. A battle of ideals is rising again. Like Abraham Lincoln stated in his Illinois Senate acceptance speech in 1858, “‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’…I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other (National Center for Public Policy Research).” A large country must be only one thing or another before it can fully enjoy the collective power of its people. American culture does retain its historic sense of optimism and opportunity, but to what shall the citizens apply it? Today, with the world beckoning online, it is harder to imagine all of American’s scattered residents becoming “all one thing,” much less determining what that “thing” should be.
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