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Endless fun: how popular culture turned into a sect
Endless fun: how popular culture turned into a sect

Pop culture has long become a kind of mechanism of social cohesion around books, radio programs, TV shows and music of certain styles and genres, and today, among other things, it has gone beyond these limits and mastered the space of social networks, "catching" the sphere of blogging and public pages. - that is, it has become even more fragmented and transformed into a network of mini-pop-cults that compete with each other for the primacy and attention of consumers.

Quartz columnist Alain Sylvain reflects on how network marketing penetrates and becomes an integral part of pop culture, what features of traditional sects and cults are reflected in modern pop culture, how, in his opinion, bloggers resemble charismatic leaders and how they influence thinking their fans.

Fires are raging in Australia, the Bahamas are ravaged by hurricanes, parts of Puerto Rico, even years after Hurricane Maria are left without electricity and water supply, and the coronavirus is spreading at a phenomenal rate. In addition, as I write this, the Royal from the McDonald's menu is at the top of the most discussed topics on Twitter.

People are social creatures at their core. According to research, we are looking for intimacy and community. Our relationship with people, as well as acceptance or rejection by other members of society, determines our behavior and is an important component of well-being and creating a general feeling of philanthropy around.

We thrive on our inner need to be a part of society. Historically, this need is mainly expressed through tribal membership, which provides a sense of psychological comfort, physical security and a sense of social significance. But over time, as human communities became more complex, we moved from individual tribes to more modern ones.

When the French politician Alexis-Charles-Henri Clairel, Comte de Tocqueville, visited the United States of America in the 1830s, he was deeply impressed that “Americans of all ages, social statuses, and customs invariably sought to shape societies ". This drive to build communities and organizations is linked to both social and sociological needs.

The emergence of women's clubs in the Gilded Age gave rise to the suffragist movement in the early 20th century. The Kiwanis Club, founded over a hundred years ago with the goal of creating fraternity and fellowship for male professionals, now has over 18 million hours of social work annually around the world. Throughout human history, these civil communities define our identity, strengthen social ties, mobilize resources and guide us towards the common good.

True, civic activity is not what it used to be. According to sociologist Robert Putnam, the level of American civic engagement has been steadily declining since the middle of the last century. Despite the rise in educational attainment, the new generation has stagnated in participation in everything from politics to organized religion, trade union membership, and parent-teacher associations.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. For example, significant distrust of government, social institutions and business, generation gap, technological revolution, falling religiosity among Americans, changing social roles of women - the list is endless.

But I would like to focus on how people have adapted to fill this void. Instead of civic engagement, we have come to a new mechanism of social cohesion: pop culture. As the level of loneliness and isolation increases, pop culture is becoming a modern hotbed to keep warm. It’s a way for us to create a sense of belonging in an increasingly fickle world, to maintain participation in a social life centered around entertainment rather than relationships.

One might argue that media theorist Neil Postman foresaw the evolution of pop culture as far back as the 1980s, a decade before the commercial internet and a quarter century before the rise of social media. In his cult book Entertaining to Death, he made an insightful observation of how people will interact with each other when television becomes mainstream entertainment, arguing that "Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other."

One gets the impression that we now live in the same society, the model of which was predicted by Postman, where almost every aspect of social life is reduced to a form of entertainment competition for our attention. Political life has turned (or, perhaps, slipped) into reality television, making us ardent admirers. The church has become a cool target thanks to Instagram and the deliberate diminution of the importance of religion, in which Kanye West's change in self-image played an important role. In addition, couch activism made it possible to speak out in support of socially significant causes through posting with selfies and sharing memes.

Pop culture has always united us through a common monoculture around books, radio programs, TV shows and music. But it is important to recognize how rapidly the picture has changed over the past decade. Pop culture split into fragments and, having united us, eventually divided by rigid boundaries.

Thus, while we create modern tribes around things that serve as our entertainment, the rift between tightly united groups is widening. Now we can see this clearly in the example of modern prime-time television, which personifies the reality predicted by Postman.

For example, in the past, the time after dinner was a common cultural space, but now we see the relationship between what people follow and the political events to which they are subscribed. Entertainment-based tribes vying for our attention end up compromising our ability to interact by driving us into echo chambers. Probably due to a new prevailing power of unification, we have lost the characteristic that once allowed humanity to rise to the highest level in the natural hierarchy.

The rise of "pop cult"

Today, pop culture has transformed into a network of mini pop cults that compete with each other for primacy and consumer attention. Like the infamous cults we have witnessed in the past, they skillfully lure ordinary people in by brainwashing them and channeling their civic energies towards goals that are not geared towards the common good.

Cults can manifest themselves in a wide range of characteristics, but they usually have three things in common: They are led by a charismatic, often authoritarian, self-proclaimed leader; informational and psychological impact is carried out in order to ensure belonging to a cult; functioning occurs through financial or sexual exploitation. All three of these features are evident in today's most prominent and entertaining pop cults. And people are desperate to join. I've divided our pop culture habits into several groups.

Worshiping celebrity-led cults

A charismatic leader who is treated with divine reverence plays a huge role in attracting people to this particular type of cult system. Personalities such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones have used their charisma and persuasion to persuade weak-willed people to believe that they are omniscient sources of truth, prompting their followers to commit heinous crimes or engage in acts of self-destruction.

Nowadays, public figures and celebrities have launched something like a specialized spiritual awakening. Beyoncé Knowles, for example, has an undeniable, cult-like, authoritarian influence. Just look at the Mass of Beyoncé, inspired by Queen B herself, the church service of her worshiping Beyhive fandom and stories of unprecedented "mass ecstasy" after a performance at the Coachella Festival.

On the other side of the popularity spectrum is the campaign of President, current leader Donald Trump, which definitely falls into this category. There are constant reports of provocations of grouping, even with the use of violence, against the campaigners and his followers.

Informational and psychological impact of lifestyle leaders

In a cult, informational psychological influence, or brainwashing, usually begins with a process of changing thinking or mind control. Online forums on platforms such as Reddit, 4Chan, and even YouTube are notorious for pushing young, impressionable people into extremism with a combination of memes, conspiracy theories, and algorithmically crafted playlists. As soon as a person is hooked, the recruits are immediately sent to recruit other victims - the same as themselves.

And brands do just that. The popularity of Japanese Mari Kondo's ideas evolved into the KonMari method, with a cult-like certification program created after consumers became distraught with her proposed simplified home cleaning method. Participation in the program costs $ 2,700 plus $ 500 additional annual fees. But as a KonMari consultant, you have the privilege and responsibility of spreading the Mari Kondo method to other people.

Created by Gwyneth Peltrow, lifestyle brand Goop is based on a completely unscientific approach, as constantly proven by real experts, but the brand is more popular than ever. Many people keep buying her $ 18,000 dumbbells, which is proof enough of their blind faith.

Financial exploitation

Exploitation is another key component of the cult and can be characterized by many characteristics, but it is often expressed in financial or sexual form. Like the intentions of cult leaders, the gig economy of social media in particular is a questionable practice.

The mastermind and organizer of the huge disastrous music festival Fyre, which ended before it began, Billy MacFarland knew that the masses were so in awe of pop stars and supermodels that they would shell out any fabulous sums of money just to get the opportunity to touch to their dazzling lives. All it took was an insidious but effective sales pitch based solely on a sponsored social media hype.

This marketing tactic is also present in the Kardashian-Jenner clan's clever money-making schemes, which include Instagram posts worth up to $ 1 million apiece that advertise products from handbags to slimming teas and teeth whitening products.

We are seeing all sorts of network marketing in social media retailing that have devastating effects on the people involved in these types of schemes.Even if these programs are not cheating, they are designed to nudge consultants, mostly women, to part with their money.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. While we have always known that brands are using cult-based tactics to gain popularity, it is still growing at unprecedented levels. And we ourselves create this excitement. Everything around us is now labeled “club” or “community”, subscription-based and dedicated to generating recurring income.

This is especially true when you watch how the entertainment media has split over the past decade. If you are not subscribed to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO, Hulu, Disney +, etc., you will not be able to keep the conversation going. How many people signed up to Netflix in 2013 just to participate in the House of Cards cooler chatter?

We merge our unrealized civic energies into these pop cults, while still believing that they will serve us.

But what will our participation mean for the future?

Price for endless fun

In a world where social exclusion has become a public health crisis, where technology has destroyed the idea that a community is geographically limited, and where parasocial relationships between influencers and their adorning fans are commonplace, pop cult has become the dominant force that manipulates and directs us. our energy into this bottomless abyss. And since all this satisfies our need for the desire to belong to society, we lose the opportunity to mobilize forces for the common good.

What about today's human society, where people are willing to queue up all night to buy a pair of Hypebeast sneakers or a smartphone, but not willing to queue to vote? What can you say when people are willing to argue with strangers on the Internet about the irresistibility of their favorite artists, but are completely uninterested in meeting their neighbors? What can we say if we are ready to fork out for useless consumer goods, but in order to give money to charity, we need to be motivated by tax deductions?

When we handed the reins of power to pop cult, we were in a situation in which we were vainly trying to solve the most pressing and potentially destructive problems of society, because we were bogged down in a distorted view of our own entertainment.

We waved without looking, exchanging the common good for our passions: pleasure and entertainment. So what now?

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