Who determines what’s popular?
When I was in middle school, we all had straight hair and bangs like Brenda and Kelly on 90210. A few years later we all had layered hair like Rachel on Friends. Nowadays everyone likes to wear spirally locks like Taylor Swift. Why? What made those looks “popular” and why do we all want to do the popular thing.
The answer is psychological in nature I’m sure, and I’m not a psychologist. But an idea was introduced to me a few years ago in a course on media and society that really broadened my view. Let’s see if I can explain it here.
There’s the most popular thing, right? The No. 1 song, No. 1 movies, favorite actors, hairstyles, etc. But then there’s those that take pride in not liking the popular thing. They like inde films or unheard-of artists or dress how they want which is not according to what everyone else is wearing. But — and here’s the idea that was new to me — even those people are choosing from what’s available andsomeone has decided what’s going to be available. Even if you don’t like the mainstream things, even choosing from lesser-known consumables is a choice made from what some person or company has made available for you to decide from. You can’t choose from something that’s not there. So in that way, consumers are still at the mercy of the “powers that be.”
Now, we are in a unique place right now in history in that the deciders are broader than ever before. Thanks to the Internet and social media sites and blogs, a lot of power has shifted to “the people.” We’re not as reliant on big companies with lots of money to put in front of us only what they want us to see or buy. Anyone can have a web page and a Twitter feed, and if the public likes their content then they become influential without any backers. Then people with money show up to support and promote what the individual has made popular on their own. In fact, I think large corporations feel threatened by this shift which is why they, too, are trying to figure out how to best leverage the Internet and social media, lest they be squeezed out altogether.
It’s a shift with more available to us now than ever before, yet we’re still at someone else’s mercy. We can’t listen to a band that doesn’t exist or see a movie that no one has made.