You pay attention to something, chances are you’re going to remember it, either on a conscious level or a sub-conscious level. People pay a lot of attention to TV, whether watching network shows on the set at home, or YouTube videos on smartphones and tablets. They pick up, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, lots of ideas and images and attitudes, and make them parts of their daily lives.
When I was growing up, I’m 75, TV consisted of 3 network channels and depending on the size of your hometown, an educational channel and maybe 1 or 2 independents. And because all of them, even the scrawny independent channels, shot at the bullseye in the middle of the market, they presented, collectively, a very limited, very conventional set of ideas, images and attitudes. And almost everybody, whether they admired them or not, knew what they were.
That media conversation may have had its ears clipped and its tail bobbed, but it was based on arguments people were confident could be mutually understood, and it was a conversation that aimed at a civil conclusion.
But, by the 1970s, a feeling had taken hold, that always marketing to the broad middle ground was not just stultifying, it was inefficient. Nobody wanted everything being put on offer, better to market beer, cosmetics, Big Macs, tacos or kosher hot dogs to the different audiences most likely to want each of them.
Cable TV, with its dozens, even hundreds of channels gave advertisers a rifle instead of the old network shotgun to target likely buyers, like those who didn’t just go to the sporting goods store, but went straight to the hunting and fishing department.
The internet, with its precision data-mining for targeting, and its infinite choices of content, has only refined the selection process farther, for consumers and providers.
The perfection, perverse or not, of all this refinement is what we call “a bubble,” a self-created life of self-fulfilling choices, a self-limited existence of selected friends, selected media and social media, chosen for their particular content and point of view.
Often the view from inside a bubble is simplified, but always it is separate, not just wary of different ideas, but unaware of them.
The segmentation and separation that define American commercial marketing have transformed electoral politics, which in a democracy is supposed to be a collective national effort, whomever we choose, we are citizens together.
Doesn’t that seem a quaint notion today?
Today, every choice we make, every idea we express, every product we buy, helps others choose us a targets for their products and ideas. Together, we and the people who engage us, make us feel uniquely us, separated from all those generic others by mutually exclusive beliefs, strengthened by mutually exclusive sources of entertainment and information.
Jenny Schuetz is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. She has published extensively about housing policy, land use regulation, urban amenities, and neighborhood change. Jenny received a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University, a Master’s in City Planning from M.I.T., and a B.A. with Highest Distinction in Economics and Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia. Jenny previously served as a Principal Economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. She also taught at the University of Southern California and at City College of New York, and was a post-doctoral fellow at New York University.