As much as I complain about getting old, I understand that I’m pretty young in the scheme of things. Perhaps the thing that defines me as one of the young ‘uns more than anything else is this: I honestly cannot fathom a time before the Internet. I mean, I know that it hasn’t been around for essentially the entirety of human history, but I’m still baffled. How did people write college papers without Wikipedia? What did people do at their jobs without the Internet? Did they actually do work? How do stamps work?
My point is that the Internet has become ubiquitous, especially to members of my generation, who by and large are very much at home online. Given the importance of the Web and the comfort and amount of time people spend on it, it’s easy to view the web as a zeitgeist, an assessment of what’s popular. The Internet knows.
When I say “The Internet” in this case I’m not referring to so much to the actual World Wide Web, (Invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee – thanks Olympic opening ceremonies!) but to a more specific group of people. I’m talking about the Twitterati, the snarky Tumblr-using, Gawker reading and BuzzFeeding Internet. These are the hip types that go to SXSW. It’s one of the more prominent segments of the online population whose definition I clearly just made up. I consider myself part of it, and chances are if you’re reading this you probably are too. On the whole we’re a pretty smart group of people, and we tend to skew liberal and young. The Internet really lends itself to cult followings, and because it’s so interconnected and vocal, the cult followings of The Internet come across as the undisputed mainstream. Or at least that’s what we think.
Look at the recent Olympic games. The hashtag #NBCfail became quite popular in the wake of the multitude of screw-ups the network made broadcasting the Olympics. The Internet did not like the tape delay, and found that the live streaming was often spotty. The handling of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies was lambasted. As for the coverage itself… well it was just terrible. Few were pleased with their insistence on making a nicely packaged narrative instead of showing, well, some goddamn sports. There were many complaints about NBC’s refusal to have the camera linger on any athlete who wasn’t an American, Usain Bolt, or an amputee.
If you only listened to The Internet, you’d get the impression that NBC’s failures were going to result in a total bomb. Not so much. Instead the 2012 Games were the most watched television event in U.S. history, drawing in 219.4 million viewers. There are a couple possible explanations for this. It’s the Olympics, people were going to watch them despite NBC’s best efforts. NBC also broadcast almost 3 times more hours of programming then they did in Beijing. Maybe it’s just that the Internet and its volume continue to evolve. The first day of the 2012 Olympics generated over 9.66 million tweets. That’s more than the entire 2008 Games. Whatever the reason, it seemed despite the anger of The Internet; the rest of America didn’t really care.
Popular culture, especially television really showcases the gap between The Internet’s preferences and America’s preferences. Take the NBC show Community. The Internet loves that show. I love that show. It’s smart, it’s weird, and it’s freaking hysterical. The A.V. Club, a non-satirical sister-site of The Onion is well known for its TV recaps. That community goes gaga over Community, and they’re not alone. Meanwhile, in the real world, it gets crap ratings and shoved to a Friday timeslot to die. Two and a Half Men does gangbusters though. Lots of entertainment blogs lament the consistently terrible choices of the Emmys, yet those shows keep winning the awards and the ratings battles. Recently the president of NBC essentially said that the network was going to stop making good TV shows and start pandering to the lowest common denominator because those are the popular shows. Well, not if you listen to The Internet! Only if you listen to reality.
I don’t personally know anybody who watches Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Any exposure to them I see on the Internet is done with what I can best describe as 50% morbid, disgusted fascination and 50% a resigned duty to cover what’s popular. I’m honestly always shocked when I remember that people enjoy this show. A whole lot of people. There are people who actually want to “keep up” with the Kardashians on a regular basis. Kim Kardashian is the 9th most followed person on Twitter. (The Twitter top ten could be the subject of a whole other article. It’s not a pretty sight.) A frightening amount of Google searches that lead people to NQR are for “Kim Kardashian’s ass,” apparently because of this article. These searchers were probably disappointed. All of this shouldn’t be surprising, but I’m still floored by it. This is not the Internet that I know.
I understand there’s a chance that my whole thesis here might be bunk. Maybe this is just the comparatively limited window of the Internet I view, and the digital company I keep rather than a larger trend. Even so, it supports my larger point. We’re bound to surround ourselves with like-minded people and opinions, and it’s easy to forget that those opinions aren’t the majority when they’re all you see. I do think that there is a certain hive mind of sorts among the very Internet-literate. There are people who don’t know Twitter like the back of their hand, and there are people who (perhaps rightfully so) think that TV recaps are stupid. Heck, apparently 20% of adults in America don’t use the Internet at all.* It would probably do us all a bit of good to take a step back every once and a while, and note what the rest of the world is thinking and watching.
Then, we should go back into our protective Internet bubble, because the shit that broader America likes is truly awful.