I had a strange thought while debating the growth of closed social networks with a friend this morning: that the only things that offer true collective experience are mass media, and terrorism.
Everyone remembers where they were when September 11 happened. Everyone remembers what they were doing when the London Underground was bombed. Massive and terrible events like that shake us from our little bubbles that we move in. It's not that our lives are isolated - we are more connected than ever before - but our connections are still exclusive; they are determined by shared interests or passions or careers. It takes something like that to make us break out of our closed networks and feel empathy for a larger group.
The other thing that let us do so was mass media. You used to be pretty sure that when you went to school in the morning, your classmates would have watched the same show as you the night before. You could discuss the stupidity of the star-crossed teen lovers characters, or argue over who looked hotter in the beach scene. Tannies had heard the same joke on the radio as their gardener's nephew, and seen the same ad. Mass media was blunt and irrelevant a lot of the time, but the very fact of its inability to target accurately meant it forced people to have collective experiences that had the potential to bring them together. They had something in common to talk about.
As digital media becomes ever more fragmented and targeted, we are fed information and content and shows and advertising that is supremely relevant to us. It taps into our interests and idiosyncrasies. We never have to sit through shows we hate anymore, waiting for something better to come on. But we also never get challenged. We read things about matters we already think about. We chat with people whose opinions we admire or agree with. It's great that we can connect around shared interests with people from around the world. But does it mean we no longer share experiences with the people from a few blocks away?
Is personalised media ultimately divisive, widening the rift between a Constantia trustafarian and a Gugulethu mom? What collective experiences do we have left, other than terrorism or natural disaster, to bring us together and spark our human empathy? We think we're throwing off the shackles of geography and building global community on our own terms, but perhaps the most local connections are the most real and seeing only what interests us limits our ability to grow.