Welcome to the fragmented era of the cultural cocoon. Ours is a time of hyper-personalization. We are the curators of our own cocoons that, increasingly, don’t overlap. What are you watching right now? I’m guessing your parents have never heard of it. What are you listening to? The 2017 SXSW NY Times mix? I doubt it. Where are you getting your news? Twitter? And where are you shopping? Chances are, you’ve found outlets that cater to your tastes. In short, mass, homogenous consumption is mostly done, finished.
So what is popularity in a cocoon culture? The most streamed? The most purchased? The most watched at one time? The most talked about? Was Big Bang Theory the most popular show in 2016? By the numbers it was: 19 million people watched weekly. But I’ve never seen an episode, and I don’t have regular contact with anyone who has. To many, Game of Thrones and Fargo are far more popular. Yet, the season three premiere of Fargo had only 1.42 million viewers! Still, by most accounts, Fargo is an immensely “popular” show.
The insight is that popularity is networked, and it’s relative. We only care about what is popular for those around us, which means that consumer culture allows us to have social relationships with others. If you don’t have “it,” if you’re not watching “it,” or if you haven’t seen “it,” you’re just, well, not “it.” It’s why you have a near-emotional reaction when you meet someone new and they tell you they also love that obscure Tom Waits song. Clearly this person gets “it,” and by implication, “me.” Or, alternatively, maybe you love trying new restaurants with a group of friends regularly? Even love, something seemingly so personal, is mediated by consumer culture. We show affection for our significant others through vacations, meals, gifts, and Netflix-and-chilling (besides the obvious).
But it wasn’t always this way. We all used to sit down to dinner of steak in the pan and tune in to watch whatever CBS, NBC, or ABC had on offer, and top-40 radio was comprised of the only 40 singles out there. The idea of a news anchor still had meaning, and “algorithm” wasn’t in the common vernacular.
In cocoon culture, with its profusion of choice and difference, we use brands as a mechanism for communicating our identities to others, and for relating to each other. Brands allow us to express our differences and to–paradoxically–become unique butterflies.