If high culture is like a gourmet meal, folk culture like a homecooked dinner, and pop culture is like fast food, what is social media? We live in a culture that is quick to accept something simply because it is popular. Today, cultural expressions are often considered classics simply because millions of people like it, not because it was necessarily good. How does this play into the phenomenon of social media? Do millions of people use it because it is good, or is it considered good because millions of people use it? Where does social media fit in the cultural spectrum? To take a closer look, let me start with a quick overview of the three cultural categories mentioned above.
High culture tends to include classical music, literature, and works of art. To understand these works, it takes effort. You can never fully appreciate a piece in one sitting. You must spend time with them to glean from their greatness. It may even take training. Even when the fallibility of man and false philosophies are taken into account, these works encourage patience, and their worth is found in the intrinsic beauty they embody. In general, high art and culture points us to what is timeless.
Folk culture tends to be more regional, but it still seeks to communicate morality, wisdom, and truth. Folk art takes less work to comprehend than high culture but often conveys truths that are not comfortable to the general public. Even with its errors, it, too, tends to encourage patience, contentment, and points to the true, the good, and beautiful.
Pop culture has almost none of the benefits of the first two. It is the most easily accessible form of culture. It is, by nature, the lowest common denominator in cultural expression. If it takes any effort to understand it, it will not receive widespread acceptance. Hence, it eschews patience. If it contains any barb of truth or light that might rub against the relativism of our time, it must be filed down to please the populace. As Ken Myers puts it, high culture focuses on the ability of the artist, where pop culture focuses on fame. It finds its value in newness and hype, not its intrinsic worth. This is also why it blows away and is forgotten when the next thing rolls in. Pop culture does not focus on what is timeless, because relativism does not believe anything can be timeless. New is always better which means what is relevant quickly becomes irrelevant.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying pop culture to an extent, but we must be aware that it is a form of culture that comes with a cost and offers us the least in return. It does not cultivate our God-given abilities. It does not challenge our status quo. However, its ability to amuse leaves us with an illusion of satisfaction with minimal nutrition. It is like fast food, we should only imbibe it in limited quantities, or we will amuse ourselves to death.
If the state of pop culture is like eating fast food, meaning it tastes great but offers little nutritional value and can eventually compromise our health, what is social media? Some may argue that social media is merely a conduit; it is the platter on which any meal can be served; it can communicate high culture, folk art, and pop culture. It is all in how we use it. However, this fails to see that social media has an ethos of its own. I agree that social media has several benefits; the most alluring being everyone uses it. If there were no benefits, we would not use it at all. The problem is, we rarely ask what those benefits cost us.
Social media is a form of culture which takes all the negatives of popular culture and heightens them. Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message,” takes on an entirely new dimension on these platforms. Even if we wanted to address significant issues or engage in thoughtful dialogue, the minute we attempt to do it on these platforms, their weight would be diminished by the medium’s trivial nature. Let us not forget, where pop culture files off the barbs of truth to maintain societies’ relativism, social media platforms enforce it with social pressure and code of conduct violations. You must pay to play. More and more, to stay relevant on social media, you must sink to its ethos or you will be ignored; or worse, you will be banished by the gatekeepers.
Where does social media fall on the cultural spectrum? The answer to that question is a worthy discussion that needs to consider more complexities than I discussed above. However, even with social media’s limited benefits, I tend to believe, though it is a form of popular culture, it is one step further down the spectrum.
“Popular culture is unimaginable without mass-media, which is in turn unimaginable without advertising, which would not survive in a cultural climate that places a premium on modesty, chastity, frugality, simplicity, and contentment. So those virtues will necessarily be alien to popular culture, even if the people wanted them there.” -Ken Myers
Credit: Ken Myers’ book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes contributed to many of the thoughts in this post.