This Labor Day weekend, the supernatural horror film "The Possession" was No. 1 at the box office, but chances are you didn't see it. That's because the average moviegoer these days visits the cinema fewer than six times a year, and a third of us don't bother going at all.
While you probably didn't see a movie this past weekend, if you're like most Americans, you almost certainly spent some time opining on Clint Eastwood's baffling conversation with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention. Maybe you shared one of the thousands of "Invisible Obama" memes on Facebook. Maybe you even created one yourself. Either way, you not only joined a national conversation about a relatively trivial current event, but you also participated in what is perhaps the last bastion of a truly unifying pop culture: unplanned incidents, captured by television, and catapulted into the mass consciousness through blogs, tweets, memes and social networks.
From Charlie Sheen's public unraveling to Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment, the most recognizable pop-culture trends in recent years have come from the real-life folly of the public sphere. That's a far shift, media experts say, from the days when a one-size-fits-all monoculture was produced on Hollywood soundstages and backlots. And that shift is changing the very nature of pop culture itself.
"It used to be that everyone would watch a show, and then the next day everyone would talk about other people's scripted stories, other people's voices," said James C. Kaufman, a professor of psychology at California State University at San Bernardino. "Now everybody has a voice. Everybody is playing a part in creating our pop culture."
Kaufman, who also edits the academic journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, said that as entertainment options have exploded over the years, individual tastes have become more and more splintered. Today, the most popular TV shows and movies are seen by only a small fraction of the viewing public when compared to the number people who have seen, say, the viral photo of a scowling Queen Elizabeth from the 2012 London Olympics. "Even a movie like 'The Avengers,' which made like a gazillion dollars, really isn't part of our national consciousness," Kaufman added.
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It wasn't always so. In 1983, for instance, the final episode of the CBS sitcom "M*A*S*H" was watched in 60 percent of all American households, a record it still holds to this day. To put that in perspective, that means if you'd gone into work the next day, you could discuss the weepy farewells of Klinger, Col. Potter and the 4077th gang with more than half of your coworkers.
Of course, there was no Internet in 1983, and cable TV was in its infancy. CBS, for all practical purposes, was competing with two other networks when it aired the show. Since that time, as viewing choices have multiplied, widely watched broadcasts have become less and less common, and widely watched scripted shows are all but non-existent. Of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of all time, despite a growing population only three aired in the last 10 years -- and they were all Super Bowls.
Where that shift leaves us as a society is a mixed bag, according to Kaufman. "I think it's good in that it has us reflecting and thinking more," he said. "There is a pressure to stay informed on current events so you can be part of the discussion. On the other hand, because everyone has something to add to the conversation, there is the danger of it being more polarized."
Some recent research backs up those concerns, according to Jon Taplin, director of the University of Southern California's Annenberg Innovation Lab. Last year, the Innovation Lab began conducting a "Twitter Sentiment Analysis," in which it mined hashtags across the social network to gauge users' feelings about different events. According to Taplin, the results of that research are clear: Viral events like Eastwood's speech or Akin's rape comments may unify conversations, but they do not unify us as a culture. If anything, he said, they reveal stark differences in our ideologies -- even when the events in question are not overtly political.
"The volume on Twitter spikes around a certain topic, but it's split," Taplin said. "A year ago we were all talking about Charlie Sheen. Over half the people on Twitter thought he was an idiot, and the other half thought he was great."
Taplin said that pattern of fiercely divided opinions surrounding viral media phenomena is common. Part of the problem, he said, is that having so many choices for news and information can ultimately make us less informed, as consumers have a tendency to gravitate toward news sources that agree with their ideology. "It's possible now to live in a media universe that never impinges on your beliefs," he said. "You could wake up in the morning, go on RedState.com, listen to Rush Limbaugh on your way to work and watch Fox News when you come home. You're going to get a certain view of the world."
Moreover, Taplin doesn't buy the idea that Internet memes and Twitter chatter are replacing pop-cultural phenomena of decades past like "Star Wars" or "All in the Family" -- wildly popular movies and TV shows that once offered a kind of communal experience for the American population. "We don't have a shared culture anymore in any sense," he said. "Yes, we're all talking about the same things, but we're looking at them from a partisan point of view."
The Meme Generation
The now-ubiquitous term meme was coined by the science writer Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene." In the book, Dawkins describes how bits of information change and evolve as they're passed through human culture, in much the same way genes behave in biology. "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches," Dawkins wrote.
Of course, Dawkins did not imagine that his term would one day be applied to Rick Astley videos, screen captures of Willy Wonka and Photoshopped spoofs of a botched fresco restoration. And yet for all the talk of Internet chaos as an engine for modern pop culture, so many of the memes that truly enter the mass consciousness are still dependent on an appliance of old media that has been sitting in our living rooms since the 1950s. "Television is central to these viral memes," Taplin added. "They spread on the Internet, but they still originate on TV."
But if television is still an important tool in spreading memes, then it should come as little surprise when memes born out of live televised events such as the RNC feel like the final frontier of pop culture. Which raises the question: If live TV is our last unifying medium, what happens as fewer and fewer people watch live TV?
In January, the DVR maker TiVo published a study showing that, among TiVo users, only 38 percent of TV viewing is done in real time. Sporting events and news account for the majority of live viewing, according to the company. The remaining two-thirds is driven by recorded viewing or on-demand content. That means that, for the first time, recorded viewing is now outpacing live viewing, at least among people with DVRs. And seeing how Nielsen Media Research estimates that almost half of all households have DVRs -- many of them broadband-enabled -- it's no wonder that some media futurists believe the convergence of TV and the Internet is a lot closer than we think.
Still, Tara Maitra, TiVo's senior vice president of content and media sales, says live telecasts will always factor into the equation, regardless of what the future holds for the medium. "There will always be some need for live TV," she said, citing news and sporting events as two forms of programming that viewers will always want to see in real time.
In fact, despite fears of ad-skipping among TiVo users threatening to drain the lifeblood of the TV industry, Maitra said the company is also leading the charge to keep the advertising model solvent. Through meta tags, interactive technology, and pop-up ads that flash on the screen as you skip through your umpteenth commercial, TiVo is striving to take the passivity out of TV commercials. "I realize it's ironic," Maitra said. "TiVo created a technology that allows people to skip through ads and now here we are with a solution. But we don't think the 30-second spot is dead."
What does all this mean for the future of pop culture? Unfortunately, if you're yearning for a time when a well-scripted TV show could capture more of our attention than a octogenarian movie star yammering at an empty chair, you're in for a disappointment. If and when TV converges with the Internet, such a technological shift doesn't bode well for 20th-century-style monoculture, nor does it bode well for our attention spans. For Taplin, that may be society's biggest loss of all. Internet memes, for all their value as amusing workplace distractions, do not exactly fuel cultural introspection. "The difference is that they have a short life span," Talplin lamented. "Compared with the kind of water-cooler events we used to talk about like 'All in the Family,' which could last a whole season, memes tend to last four or five days and that's it. Even the Eastwood thing has already died down."
Indeed, the short-lived spectatcle of Clint Eastwood and his empty chair will soon be locked quietly away in the annals of Web lore. And when it is, life will surely go on for the actor who inspired it. His new movie, a sports drama called "Trouble With the Curve," opens later this month. But chances are you won't see that either.