Recently, I heard someone bemoaning the fact that we collectively don’t have a common frame of reference with respect to media. It used to be, for example, that pretty much everyone who owned a television watched Johnny Carson, and they’d all talk about his monologue or his guest or whatever the next day around the proverbial water cooler. Even if you were on a business trip out of town, you were stuck with the same three networks and could talk with a wide swath of people about the same TV shows.
But with cable, and later the internet, everybody began to be able to follow their niche interests. There were more options catering to increasingly narrower interests. And changes in technology allow people to consume media on their own schedule. You can record a late night talk show, and watch it the next day, or the next week, or whenever. Comic readers frequently “wait for the trade” collecting a full story instead of buying the individual issues. You can skip the lines at the theater and catch the movie steaming through any of a number of channels. You know all this.
And the internet, of course, becomes the new water cooler. Without even trying, I wind up following along on shows like Scandal and Game of Thrones because so many of my friends talk about them online. I’m aware of the hot books, sometimes months before they’re even out, thanks to advance reviews from a variety of sources. I can chat with people on any of my favorite stories, and not infrequently can even involve the creators themselves! You know all this.
So why do people bemoan the loss of the actual water cooler discussions? They tended towards the more banal and, consequently, people didn’t get as enthused about them. When you’re able to focus on something you’re passionate about, with someone who’s also passionate about it, you tend to have more fun and reach a greater connection. What was so great about talking about something you weren’t particuarly excited about with someone who you’re talking with only because of an accident of geography?
The other aspect that gets missed, too, is that any of the big things that do gain traction as a broader cultural reference, they’re quickly findable online as well. If “everyone” is talking about the latest Daily Show or Beyoncé’s new music video, you’re seconds away from finding it. Assuming it hasn’t already shown up in your social media feed a half dozen times. The only cultural references that you miss are increasingly becoming the ones you intentionally opt out of. And there’s nothing wrong with opting out of them because you can happily go on to another group and engage in a much deeper and more enjoyable conversation about your favorite book or movie.
You still need to talk with your co-workers and be on friendly terms with them, and there’s still trite conversations you can have about the weather. But why anyone would miss the stilted, uninteresting conversations around a bland television show is beyond me.