Has your political bubble eaten you alive?
I recently read one of those articles that makes entirely too much sense, the kind of essay that forces you slap your head with the shock of recognition. It was a New York Times piece by Farhad Manjoo titled “How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers.”
In the past, you could perhaps gauge the mood of the nation (or at least have a general idea what was popular with a large swath of the American public) based upon what was popular on TV.
There were so few choices, people almost couldn't help but be affected by what was running on TV. Think about the effect The Cosby Show had on stereotypes about Black families in the 1980s.
Now, everyone is able to construct their own little private television universe on their iPads.
The era when you could be assured that EVERYONE was watching Alex Haley’s Roots or the final episode of M.A.S.H. is gone, replaced by a vast landscape of choice that lets us cater our entertainment to our specific personal preferences.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Network TV wasn’t always that great and there’s something to be said about entertainment catering to niche audiences. People who've never been able to see themselves represented in a sitcom can often find people like themselves in their entertainment. SeeSo, for instance, now offers a show featuring Cameron Esposito and her wife, Rhea Butcher, in a sitcom. That's awesome.
BUT the new options offered by Netflix and its competitors do exacerbate a problem that became very apparent in the aftermath of the 2016 election — far too many of us are living in our own political, cultural, and social bubbles.
I am very aware that I live in one of those bubbles.
I’m one of the many Americans who woke up on Election Day thinking that Hillary Clinton had a 99% chance of becoming our next president.
My confidence in her chances was largely based on the media that I consumed.
The shows I watched, the people I followed on Twitter and Facebook, the podcasts I listened to — they all supported the preferred reality of my bubble, a reality that couldn’t imagine a scenario where Hillary couldn’t beat Donald Trump in an election.
I now know that I was dead wrong in that assumption.
My personal bubble didn’t account for the very different bubbles that millions of other Americans were living in, and I do think, in part, that my bubble blindness was caused by how I now isolate myself with my media choices.
Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon, and all the other services I use to watch TV these days, I never saw a single political commercial during the run-up to the election. I didn’t watch the evening news. I didn’t hear reporters talking about the mood of the nation.
I’m not a big fan of politics, so I didn’t have to let the election into my bubble if I didn’t want to. (And I didn’t.) But, in the olden days of TV (i.e. just a few decades ago), that choice would’ve been much harder to make.
I would’ve seen commercials, heard commentary, possibly gotten a better sense of now the nation was leaning.
There’s a chance that the most popular shows on television — designed for the broadest mass appeal — would’ve reflected what the majority of Americans valued or were worried about better than the old episodes of Deadwood I was watching.
Granted, mainstream broadcast TV wasn’t always an insightful cultural barometer.
Often times, it was just overly commercialized, mass-market crap.
But, by moving away from it, moving away from watching mainstream programming featuring mainstream commercials, I can see how that contributed to my cultural isolation last year. TV did have some value in that regard.
Because it featured little choice, TV offered something else: the raw material for a shared culture. Television was the thing just about everyone else was watching at the same time as you. In its enforced similitude, it became a kind of social glue, stitching together a new national identity across a vast, growing and otherwise diverse nation.
So, does this mean that I’m going to start watching Big Bang Theory on CBS to put myself more in touch with the common American?
It does mean that I need to be more aware of how the decisions I’m making, in terms of how I interact with media and popular culture, are isolating me. And I need to work to counter-act that isolation.
Maybe that won’t involve me watching more NBC sitcoms, but, knowing how I consume television, I also need to know that I can’t assume that EVERYONE in America is watching the same things I’m watching anymore.
I need to seek out new ways to broaden my perspectives, look beyond the blinders of my own personal watch-list, and occasionally step outside of my bubble to see what the weather is like in the rest of the world.
And if that means I have to stop watching Netflix on my phone for five minutes to accomplish that… so be it.