If high culture is like a gourmet meal, folk culture like a homecooked dinner, and pop culture is like junk food, what is social media? We live in a culture that is quick to accept something simply because it is popular. Today, we often consider a cultural expression a “classic” 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 as laid out by Ken Myers in his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes.
High culture tends to include classical music, literature, and works of art. Understanding these works 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 we consider the fallibility of man and the false philosophies some works of art entail, these works encourage patience, and we find their worth in the intrinsic beauty they embody. In general, high art and culture point 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 morals that are not comfortable to the general public. Even with its errors, it, too, tends to encourage patience, contentment, and points to the true, good, and beautiful.
Pop culture has almost none of the benefits of the first two. It is the most easily accessible form of culture, and it is, by nature, the lowest common denominator in cultural expression. It will not receive widespread acceptance if it requires any effort to enjoy. 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 artist’s ability, whereas pop culture focuses on fame. It finds its value in newness and hype, not its intrinsic worth. This focus on popularity is also why it blows away like chaff when the next shiny 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 junk 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 junk 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 we can serve any meal; 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 that 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. Even pop culture is too substantial and must be broken down into smaller bites on social media. If a post does not capture our attention in mere seconds, without user engagement, it will die a quick death as algorithms suppress it into oblivion. Post a few of those and you will learn quickly that you are wasting your time. You must conform if you want to be an “influencer.” 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 cancel culture, and code of conduct violations. While at the same time, it amplifies anger and absurdities. You must pay to play. To stay relevant on social media, you must sink to its ethos, or you will be ignored; or worse, the gatekeepers will banish you. There is no room for serious thought on these channels.
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