Is popularity dead?

A few years ago I finally took the plunge into Twitter. I fought it for a long time, until I finally realized all the benefits it offered me as a journalist and pop-culture enthusiast. But at some point last year I started to wonder if I had curated myself into a closed-off bubble. I wondered if all the articles, buzz bands and memes I assumed were so popular were actually that popular. Is everyone really listening the music of Lorde? Does everyone know the final season of “Mad Men” will be split in two?” Has everyone seen the “The Fox” video by Ylvis?

Are these things really popular, or do I just think they are popular?

In “The Culture Package” for the New York Times Magazine, Adam Sternbergh argues that we live in a world of micropopularity.

“That’s because we’ve turned off Top 40 and loaded up Spotify; we’ve clicked away from NBC and fired up Netflix; we, thanks to the increasingly concierge-style delivery system of the Internet, are each sheltered in our own cultural cocoon,” he writes.

This is what I’ve been worried about for a while now—I am sheltered in my own cultural cocoon. How can I possibly keep a pulse on pop culture? Is there anything that is actually popular?

Sternbergh writes, “At first inspection, this refraction of the culture into ever-smaller slivers leaves us instinctively with a sense of something lost. Once we listened to the same song together, watched the same show together, argued over the same movies together. Now we’re each focused on our own screen, listening to our own playlist, we’re bowling alone, etc. A landscape that once featured a few unavoidable monoliths of popularity is now dotted with a multitude of lesser monuments, too many to keep track of, let alone celebrate.”

Our self-curated cultural bubbles surround us but that doesn’t mean “we’re bowling alone.” What I experience as popular still feels popular. We still have shared experiences. Sternbergh, who examines how popularity has changed and the ways we measure popularity, seems to see all those different shared experiences as pockets of popularity. The article ultimately concludes, “Once we break down the sample sizes into small enough segments, we are all, by some measure, popular.”

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.

Right now, everyone in my Twitter feed is either hashtagging “Breaking Bad” or the Emmy Awards. Is “Breaking Bad” a popular television show? Even though a lot of people do not watch it, everyone I know—online and offline—has heard of it. Or will some meme from the Emmy Awards break though to everyone else’s cocoon? I wonder how many other people will see that Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler GIF.


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