Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 7 minutes (2,006 words)
In 1995, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. In 1996, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. In 1997, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. That is: Two cop shows set in New York, two medical shows set in Chicago, and some aliens, spread across four networks, represented the height and breadth of the art form for three years running.
I literally just copied that entire first paragraph from a Deadspin article written by Sean T. Collins. It appeared last week, when every site seemed to be writing about Netflix. His was the best piece. Somehow, within that flood of Netflix content, everyone found that article — it has almost 300,000 page views. I may as well have copied it for all the traffic my actual column — which was not about Netflix — got.
There was definitely a twang of why bother? while I was writing last week, just as there is every week. Why bother, and Jesus Christ, why am I not faster? The web once made something of a biblical promise to give all of us a voice, but in the ensuing flood — and the ensuing floods after that — only a few bobbed to the top. With increased diversity, this hasn’t changed — there are more diverse voices, but the same ones float up each time. There remains a tension that critics, and the larger media, must balance, reflecting what’s in the culture in all its repetitive glory while also nudging it toward the future. But we are repeatedly failing at this by repeatedly drowning ourselves in the first part. This is flooding (a term I just coined, so I would know): the practice of unleashing a mass torrent of the same stories by the same storytellers at the same time, making it almost impossible for anyone but the same select few to rise to the surface.
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When Michael Jackson died, 10 years ago, our ability to be united by popular culture died with him, or so some critics proposed. “As the music industry spirals into financial oblivion and audiences continue to fragment, Michael Jackson will prove to be the final universally beloved pop star, the last vestige of the now antediluvian notion of the monoculture,” Harry Burson wrote in a eulogy that, to say it has aged badly … I mean, I don’t even have the strength. There are so many articles about monoculture dying and being reborn and dying and being reborn that I can’t keep track of its current condition (I think it recently died again with Game of Thrones). But this infinite cycle of death and renewal is the perfect metaphor for what has actually happened to monoculture in a world that runs on social media, which is that each week it is resurrected around something new, for a brief period, with all the loudest voices in attendance, before expiring again, only to coalesce the next week around something else.
Theoretically, the “democratization” that everyone continues to harp on about persists — anyone with internet access can produce content — but what’s not democratic is the dissemination. There are niche sites for any of your niche needs and niche corners of mainstream sites, sort of, but with these sites progressively dwindling and the ones left behind scrambling to secure their place, which is secured by clicks (still!?), they gravitate toward what’s trending. “Every news outlet is now plugged into the same streams — most notably, social media,” Ravi Somaiya wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year. In the cacophony of content and conversation around that content, the most familiar voices at the largest, fastest, trendiest outlets carry the farthest; according to SimilarWeb, which tracks website statistics, only five sites dominate around 50 percent of the share of newspaper traffic in the U.S. CJR also reports that newspapers online, now with a borderless audience, publish more than twice as many stories as they used to, often with a much smaller staff. So what you get are dailies that operate like news channels, dissecting stories (sometimes even original ones) for ratings, which basically means they cover more of less. “Faced with a sea of headlines, in every permutation,” wrote Somaiya, “even the most determined mind rebels and begins to dismiss it all as noise.”
Much of it is noise. This is where I return to the Deadspin article, which I stole. (I didn’t, actually; I asked Collins first, which, as far as I know, does not reflect the status quo.) Collins describes how the projected utopia of infinite content has revealed itself in the guise of Netflix to be, in actual fact, just an infinite reconfiguration of the same things over and over. “Until the site’s recent game of chicken with Disney’s soon-to-launch streaming service, you could choose from six different street-level Marvel superhero shows set in New York City,” he writes. This is how you get a trailer for a Noah Centineo movie which turns out to be a reheated TV dinner served up by a rom-com algorithm. This is also how it ends up that the top 20 streamed shows are all on Netflix, except one (The Handmaid’s Tale, on Hulu). This is how Ed Sheeran gets 16 tracks in the Top 20 in the U.K. charts (yeah, at the same time). This is how the top 10 stories on The New York Times website last year were all about U.S. elections except one (Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook page took the 10th spot). This is why every best-of list is identical. Everything is less white than it used to be, but all in the same way.
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With a retraction in original offerings, establishing the terms of the cultural conversation has become increasingly automated, which is sort of surprising considering the popularity of influencers — cultural critics are just old-school versions of that. But studies have found that with the rise in algorithmic recommendations, there has been a concurrent decline in sales diversity: We are increasingly consuming the same books, the same movies, the same shows. In A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence, Kartik Hosanagar reports that a third of the product choices at Amazon are driven by algorithms, while at Netflix it’s at around 80 percent (which makes sense if you’ve ever actually tried to search for literally anything on that platform). Per CJR, these algorithms are “taste-reflectors,” meaning they don’t affect taste the way critics do but simply reinforce your palate; there is little discovery here.
And how much discovery can there be, really, with the same critics occupying the same space? What starts out optimistically (Black Panther’s success proves the viability of a superhero movie with a not-entirely-white cast and a future of more inclusive storytelling!) becomes a reshuffle of the same ideas (more diversity in superhero movies, more movies with Chadwick Boseman, more movies by Ryan Coogler!) instead of an actual systemic shift toward more varied storytelling by more varied storytellers.
Indiewire critic David Ehrlich recently noted that since Jordan Peele’s Get Out shook the culture in 2017, only seven original movies (neither spin-offs, nor adaptations, nor remakes) have topped the box office, one of which was also by Peele. Said movie, Us, has had the kind of wall-to-wall coverage that is normally reserved for blockbusters whose budgets allow them to gift wrap various media sites in their own marketing hype. And while it is a welcome change to have Peele, a filmmaker of color, lifted up for mainstreaming a new socio-horror genre, there is the distinct feeling that while everyone had to write about Get Out because it was the future, everyone had to write about Us because it was by the guy who made Get Out. Does the Times really need to publish 12 — and counting — stories about it? (Remember, this is a newspaper, not an entertainment site; New York magazine had even more.)
But this is what we do. We shift around the same ideas, and we shift around the same people, creating an overrecognized few and an under recognized many. Lauren Duca became famous in 2016 for writing an op-ed in Teen Vogue titled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” which became one of the site’s most viewed posts. The problem was those five incendiary words, sometimes in the exact same order, had already appeared on sites like Bustle, Slate, and Vox. But this was Teen Vogue, which was not exactly known for bold political statements. And lost in the quest to celebrate the magazine’s awakening was the fact that the writer who absorbed all the accolades — a column, a book deal, a teaching gig — was shilling 1,236 words of warmed-over editorial with none of the scorched-earth analysis the headline promised. To watch Duca’s brand of zero-tolerance feminism being undercut by old colleagues was to watch the emperor being revealed in all his nudity; there was an almost unanimous sense of schadenfreude among the feminist, progressive journalists with whom she had aligned herself. It was justice built on a bed of resentment over this derivative voice having been lifted at the expense of many others’ (many of them better). Someone else’s success may not be your failure in the meat-world, but it is online. Maybe the web was originally created for everyone, but under capitalism it has clearly prioritized the individual star, preferring a sure thing for that one chance at one click, which necessarily means drowning out the rest.
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I read an article this weekend that I didn’t see being shared anywhere. You had to scroll down the Times pretty far to find it; it was in the arts section and it was about a group of black artists who were suddenly being recognized in their 70s and 80s. It was a frustrating read, a sort of too-little-too-late scenario because, sure, it’s always nice to get half a million dollars for your work, but where was the money when you were actually producing the work, while supporting a family and paying a mortgage, with many decades of life ahead of you? When you could run to speaking engagements instead of rolling to them? “The kind of elation I may have had back 30 years, I’m past that point,” 75-year-old artist Howardena Pindell said. Where was all of this back in 1989? Oh, right, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons — guess they took up the allotted spots.
My frustration was for these overlooked artists, but also for the artists being overlooked now, the ones with interesting new ideas (if not necessarily revolutionary ones) that can inch the discourse forward in some way. We choose virality instead — repackaged, reshaped, shareable versions of what has come before — and equate it to quality because of its resonance. Which is itself resonant because the irony of the web is that even though everyone can have a voice, the ones that we project are projected over and over and over again. This isn’t quality, or real diversity; it’s familiarity. We model ourselves on fandom, where there is no sense of proportionality — there is everything, there is nothing, and there is little else — and the space between now and the future, the space in which critics used to sit, increasingly ceases to exist.
We need a mass realization that pulls us out of this flooding culture. That is: the acknowledgment by powerful organizations that we do in fact engage more with original stories — it’s a fact, look it up — that lasting conversations do not come out of Twitter trends, and that diversity means diversity — more that is different, not more of the same differences. As one curator told the Times in the piece about older black artists getting their due, “There has been a whole parallel universe that existed that people had not tapped into.” Tap into it.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.