Given their drive to maximize each user’s time on site, Facebook and other social media algorithms curate a user’s newsfeed to be as self-reinforcing as possible, limiting the opportunity to interact with dissimilar others.
The largest, most well-subscribed brands are unsurprisingly in the digital space. But while the reach for these brands is broad, the experience is anything but unified. Spotify has quickly risen to be a dominant force in music streaming. But one needs only to see the yearly Spotify report’s to see how different consumers’ listening habits are. Their 28 million users may all be familiar with the same logo and use interface, but that’s as deep as the shared experience goes.
By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman
Case in point, Amazon. At the start of 2020, Amazon Prime had a staggering 112 million U.S. users. However, the consumer experience is as varied as Amazon’s product array. Some people go onto Amazon Prime to order paper towels, others to buy American flags, others still to buy Soylent meal replacements.
Social media platforms have a similar paradox. Facebook has a whopping 225 million users in the U.S. alone – roughly 75% of the adult population. And yet, each social feed is curated to the individual’s specific social network, interests, data history, etc. One’s Facebook experiences are as unique and individualized as their fingerprints. In fact, given their drive to maximize each user’s time on site, Facebook and other social media algorithms curate a user’s newsfeed to be as self-reinforcing as possible, limiting the opportunity to interact with dissimilar others.
How Netflix Is Shaping Culture, Community, and the Zeitgeist
The one exception and saving grace to social cohesion might be Netflix. The dominant player in the red hot streaming competition, Netflix boasts an industry-leading user base of over 80 million subscribers as of 2021. And while not free, like Facebook, its relatively inexpensive monthly fee makes it accessible across socioeconomic lines.
Most of the time, like any digital platform, the consumer experience is highly curated. Their algorithms learn about viewer preferences and then naturally coral towards movies and shows they’re most likely to enjoy. Some people go to Netflix for the baking shows; some go for Narcos. In a way, they’re very similar to the other large platforms discussed above. There’s something different for everybody.
And then, all of a sudden, there’s a single show that IS for everybody. Enter Tiger King. Who knew that a melodramatic gun-toting drug-addled Oklahoman would captivate the nation? Seen by over 64 million people in its first few months, the controversial documentary miniseries was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. People had Tiger King-themed weddings, Tiger King-themed funerals, and everything in-between.
Of course, once it reached a critical mass, the social pressure not to be the last to watch it only intensified. When your friends are referencing a show, talk show hosts can’t stop talking about it, and politicians are tweeting about it, how can you resist seeing what the fuss is about? It’s no exaggeration to say that Tiger King was more than a show; it was a defining feature of the cultural zeitgeist. Other networks have hit shows as well – Game of Thrones had its moment and its fair share of fandom. But the sheer reach of Netflix makes its hits more of a widespread American phenomenon.
While they don’t have quite the reach of Facebook, when a hit show sweeps its 80 million viewership, say what you want about Junk TV. Netflix, perhaps more than any other brand in the American market, provides a shared experience.
American Middle Class and the Decline of Retail Experience and Shopping Malls
Netflix aside, there’s been a sharp decline in the opportunity for shared experiences. Historically, many businesses very literally provide an opportunity for social cohesion and community. Think about a neighborhood barbershop, cafe, or farmer’s market. These local businesses are what sociologist Ray Oldenberg called the all-important “third places”—a place outside the home, and outside of work, where people of all backgrounds could intermingle.
As author Noreena Hertz wrote in her 2020 book, The Lonely Century, these types of places “…play critical roles in maintaining our social fabric because they are places where we can practice community and democracy in their most inclusive form—places where, as in a book club, people may bring wildly different worldviews and lived experiences that must be reconciled, calibrated, understood, and discussed in order for the space to thrive.”
The COVID-19 pandemic upended many community-based businesses, but their degradation predates the pandemic by several years. At a macro level, there’s been a coming apart of our social fabric, aided by a lack of shared consumer experiences. One key phenomenon serves as a microcosm for this consumer-based social erosion: The slow decay of The American Mall.
The American Mall came to prominence in the 1960s and was pioneered by Austrian architect Victor Gruen. As described in the consumer psychology book, Blindsight, he designed the mall not as a commercial hub, but as an essential node in American suburban life. He reasoned that if he created an enjoyable space, people would want to spend their time there, and while there, they would naturally spend money. In Gruen’s mind, profitability was just a nice side effect of good retail design.
He was right. In 1975, malls and shopping centers accounted for 33% of all retail sales in America. At their height in the 1980s, 1,000 new malls were built in America every year. But as the middle class declined and e-commerce became more commonplace, the American Mall began to decline. Today, only 1,000 are still in existence, and it’s estimated that a third of these will shutter their doors by 2022.
The decline of The American Mall is emblematic. As Schwartz writes, “These stores, like the malls they occupied, were more than a place to shop. They were places where middle-class people, especially women, could gather and find a like-minded community of fellow shoppers”.
The end result is more than just isolation among individuals. The country, and the institutions that govern it, begin to fray. “When the middle class starts to crumble, people increasingly see themselves as different from others,”, Schwartz cites Law Professor Ganesh Sitaraman, from an interview with The Atlantic in 2017. “They sort themselves by wealth, by education level, and the result is that there’s an increasing fracturing of society, a loss of the solidarity that comes with having a large middle class. And that can be very destructive to a republic.”
The pandemic has made intermingling difficult, unwise, or impossible. But it’s not where social isolation began. The pandemic accelerated a longstanding trend that goes back much further.
What are the consequences of a frayed social fabric, and why is it so important to have shared experiences?
Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”. You can check out more of their writing here.