How to Build a Monoculture: Memes, Social Media and Shared Experiences

Somewhere, someone in this country still remains oblivious to the four ubiquitous songs from 2012—fun.’s “We Are Young,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Psy’s “Gangman Style”—but, everyone I know, and I’m guessing almost anyone who regularly visits YouTube, immediately recognizes these songs. They have topped Billboard lists, appeared on TV, and been covered, parodied and even flash-mobbed. In 2011 critics were lamenting the death of the monoculture (or unveiling the myth of the monoculture), but at the close of 2012, Chris Molanphy cites these four songs as proof the monoculture has returned.

“The word monoculture is thrown around by culture critics nearly as much as by botanists,” Molanphy writes for NPR. “For us in the pop world, it means the idea of a shared cultural experience — The Beatles-and-Motown AM radio of the mid-’60s, or Michael Jackson‘s cross-cultural peak in 1983–84 — and for years, many of us have been mourning its passing.”

He continues, “Well, the monoculture is back — as impossible as that is to fathom, in an era of isolating earbuds and a myriad of entertainment channels.”

Taking Molanphy’s “shared cultural experience” definition, it’s actually quite easy to fathom a monoculture in today’s world. Whether or not you believe in the monoculture of the past—some claim it’s all a myth—there certainly is a vast shared experience in our culture today. The existence of the Internet meme proves that. It may not be exactly the same monoculture Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau mourns, but we do still share experiences in music (possibly even more than before).

Too often critics focus on this idea of monoculture instead of focusing on the small communities of sharing. We create small communities that work together to build a monoculture. People who spend a lot of time on social media customize a universe by choosing people to follow and to friend and allowing others to follow and to friend them. Everything you share and everything they share circulates within that customized world, creating a shared experience—a sort of miniature monoculture.

Each person in your social media bubble also builds his or her own universe, circulating some of the same articles and memes, which then penetrate another personalized universe. Eventually, the majority of these individual spheres synchronize, all hearing, reading or watching the same thing. Thus, a video such as Gangnam Style reaches more than one billion views on YouTube. (This is why frictionless sharing is so bad—we want to spread what we like, not just random things we happen to click on or sample).

It worked the same way pre-Internet. In a 2011 essay for Salon, cultural critic Toure honors the monoculture of the 90s and what he calls Massive Music Moments such as Nirvana’s release of Nevermind (though others refute Nevermind as a Massive Music Moment). The origins of Nirvana’s rise to fame in the first place started with the localized Seattle music scene.

Then it spread.

Sometimes it’s more interesting to think small. Maybe we should look at the small ingredients that build rallying power behind certain songs or videos, creating a shared experience. People who live in the “Bieberverse” first heard “Call Me Maybe” after Justin Bieber posted a video of himself and his friends (some also famous) singing Jepsen’s now hit.  Yet, there was an entirely different community drawn to Jepsen’s video for its LGBTQ acceptance. Some people inhabit both spheres, but also, each group independently found reasons to watch the video and listen to the song, whether or not they liked it. It created the perfect storm for a shared musical moment.


One comment

  1. […] But if we are all popular, doesn’t that mean nothing is popular? I’m not sure how I reconcile my cultural cocoon and micropopularity with overall pop culture, but I don’t believe we live in a world without “monoliths of popularity.” Sometimes, something breaks through. I outlined this idea in an earlier essay. […]

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