The Decreasing Influence of Mass Culture on Teens (and Everybody)

Actor and NYT contributor Ben Stein notes in passing:

…Adolescents dominate movies and television because they are the main consumers of mass culture. But far more than that, and partly because of mass culture, adolescents, with their short attention spans, their demand for a painless life, their need to blame everyone else for their problems, and their perpetual sense of victimization despite having just been given new Beemers, are the model for the whole society right now.

If you do believe that teens’ unpleasant characteristics are partly due to their unusually high consumption of and influence over mass culture, as Stein seems to say, I have good news: The process of moving down the Long Tail from mass culture to more sophisticated niche culture is accelerating in the lives of teenagers thanks to the internet.

Pre-college teens needn’t settle for what popular culture or popular media, warts and all, serves them. If they want, they can develop a much richer cultural palette.

If you surveyed teenagers 20 years ago on their favorite books and music, I would guess the answers across certain demographics would be similar. After all, you had to take what was given to you on the finite number of TV and radio stations and books at your local library or bookstore.

Now college students can fulfill the “drive to differentiate” in technology-enabled ways which would substantially diversify the results of such a survey if conducted today. It’s now easier to maintain exotic interests, to listen to music bands no one has heard of, to read the first-time novelist’s novel, to download a British sitcom out of the mainstream.

So, if you agree with Stein that some of teenagers’ less attractive behaviors stem from consuming a mass culture that glorifies materialism, hedonism, and any other bad-sounding -ism you can think of — and that the less attractive behavior is compounded when consumed en masse, i.e, the shared consumption experience provides social proof for the resulting behavior — then there’s reason to be hopeful: the internet empowers people at a younger age to begin to move down that long tail earlier, carve out their own little niche, use Wikipedia to satisfy curiosities, learn about foreign cultures, select from millions of books, and so forth.

Teens today have the luxury of not having to watch Jon Stewart or Oprah or read Danielle Steele (or follow any other modern-day cultural influence) to be considered in-the-know from a culture perspective, because they can find and develop their own communities around their own interests and revere the niche-community’s own influences. Personally speaking, I will graduate adolescence knowing less than some about “popular culture,” but this hasn’t left me out of a conversation. I just joined a smaller, more individualized one (this blog, among others). Is this an option my parents’ generation had? I doubt it.

Slowly but surely, the stranglehold of mass culture on everybody (and especially teens, as its largest customer) is decreasing. This should make people like Ben Stein happy.

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