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How streaming can counter and contribute to the cultural isolation of America

Posted January 25

The rise of fake news has raised questions about online isolation and the creation of filter bubbles, or online tools that curate user content based on "likes" rather than relevancy.

Mostly, Americans see this play out on social media, particularly Facebook, where filters bring users the content they are most interested in, without asking whether a story is true or where it comes from. This creates a dangerously isolating echo chamber that experts argue is harmful to society — increasing ideological divides by making it easier to tune out views users don't agree with or buy into conspiracy theories.

This culminated in the so-called “Pizzagate” rumor, begun via social media, concerning a fictional Washington-D.C.-based pizzeria pedophilia ring that ended in a police standoff in December.

But social media is hardly the only way the internet has isolated users and perpetuated fake news. As the New York Times recently pointed out, there’s an elephant in the echo chamber: Netflix.

As the 2016 election showed many Americans, the country is strongly divided along cultural lines as much as political ones. But when pop culture is shattered across multiple platforms rather than just a few channels, Times writer Farhood Manjoo argues, it deepens existing ideological differences because it’s harder for a deeply divided nation to find any common ground — even in the most superficial terms as old TV catchphrases or beloved characters.

“What’s less discussed is the polarization of culture, and the new echo chambers within which we hear about and experience today’s cultural hits,” Manjoo wrote, citing "All in the Family" as an example of hit TV shows that served as cultural touchstones. "There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage."

As nearly half of Americans leave cable and network TV for the tidal wave of choices on streaming services like Netflix, Manjoo contends there’s even less “social glue” holding Americans together than in other times of political division, such as the 1960s and 70s. As the country tore itself apart over the Vietnam War and civil rights, citizens could, at the very least, laugh at the same TV shows and love the same characters.

Not today, Manjoo argues, when more people tune into streaming, with exclusive TV shows with their own cultural atmosphere and references. In other words, Manjoo argues there is no current equivalent to cultural moments that bring people together on TV that stand the test of time.

“Television was the thing just about everyone else was watching at the same time as you,” he wrote. “In its enforced similitude, it became a kind of social glue, stitching together a new national identity across a vast, growing and otherwise diverse nation.”

There’s also some evidence that people may crave the kind of cultural togetherness Manjoo talked about, particularly in the type of original content Netflix offers.

Last summer, Netflix saw its largest success to date with its resurrection of 1990s family sitcom, “Full House,” a campy, lovable show from a bygone era of family TV night, fewer channels and fewer viewing choices.

The revamp drew an estimated 14.4 million viewers between 18 and 49, which, if translated into traditional Nielsen ratings, would make “Fuller House” the most-watched show of 2016.

This raises the question: How many of those millions of people watched for an hour of nostalgia or to roll their eyes at the show’s camp, and how many watched to experience the no-longer ubiquitous feeling they were part of a larger cultural moment in a time of great division?

This is not to say that the internet and streaming do not have as profound an impact on culture. Rather, when a country of people don't read the same news, get the same information, can't agree on what a fact is and don't even share the same cultural references in entertainment, Americans increasingly are creating their own individual cultures rather than sharing one. That makes it incredibly hard to have anything in common, let alone express an interest in a different cultural point of view.

“I suspect the impacts, like the viewership, tend to be restricted along the same social and cultural echo chambers into which we’ve split ourselves in the first place,” Manjoo argued. “Those effects do not approach the vast ways that TV once remade the culture.”

Whether viewers long for cultural togetherness on TV or not, Netflix is betting on nostalgia in the meantime: An updated version of the 1970s show “One Day at a Time” dropped on Netflix this month.

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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