Friday, January 28, 2011

Searching for a Cultural Common Ground

Photo Credit: autowitch
With the proliferation of new forms of media and entertainment options in existence today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to capture cultural capstones that cut across age, ethnic and cultural divisions. It wasn't that long ago that we all had to read the morning newspaper to learn of the previous evening's sports scores or had to wait until the evening newscast to learn about the events of the day.

With the advent of cable television, the Internet and social media like Twitter and Facebook, we are able to learn about breaking news in real-time.  Not only that but our news and entertainment choices are so varied and diverse that there are few places that "everybody" joins in together.

NPR touches on how this affects our ability to relate to one another across cultural lines:
"American culture is sliced up in so many different ways that what's popular with one group can go virtually unnoticed by another. Univision, for example, is watched by millions of Latinos in the U.S., but millions of other Americans couldn't tell you what channel it's on.

What makes us laugh on TV isn't as broad-based as it once was. At its peak in the mid-1980s, The Cosby Show had 30 million viewers. Today's top-rated sitcom, Two and a Half Men, gets more like 15 million.

Since we're not all watching the same shows, "water-cooler moments" are harder to come by. Dan Schneider, a TV veteran and executive producer for Nickelodeon, says a show like Modern Family is a perfect example. "[It's] a really great comedy that's popular and new that's on the air right now," he says, "but if you go walk around the mall and say, 'Did you see last week's Modern Family?' how many people out of 10 are going to say, 'Yeah, I saw it?' " Schneider believes not that many. "The TV markets are so nichey that even a popular show isn't watched by most people you're going to run into."

In other words, there is no one, dominant cultural conversation.

The same is true for the music industry. Today's best-selling album is selling a lot less than its counterpart of 10 years ago. Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition says this fragmentation has opened up the world for creators and consumers alike.

"The arrival of the Internet to some degree leveled the playing field, and that allowed a plethora of folks who otherwise would've had no shot of getting on commercial radio to be heard," says Rae-Hunter.

iTunes, webcasts, Pandora: There are many more "pipes" delivering the goods than there used to be, Rae-Hunter says. "It's an amazing time to be a fan."

Fractured media is also turning the advertising industry upside down. Fay Ferguson, is co-CEO of Burrell Communications, an ad agency that designs marketing campaigns aimed at African-American consumers. "It's ushering in a totally different era of communications," Ferguson says.

She says American culture has been fractured for a while. In fact, Burrell Communications was founded on "the principle that black people are not dark-skinned white people." She says the agency knew that African-Americans were a separate, viable market. She says there have always been many American cultures. "But technology has been an enabler," Ferguson says. "So now there's a way to get to these smaller groups efficiently."

Ferguson says targeted marketing is the name of the game now more than ever.

In such a fractured society, is America at risk of losing a common culture? Rosenberg of The Atlantic says maybe. But she also thinks it will make us appreciate the mass cultural events that do occur even more, like the end of the Harry Potter series or Michael Jackson's death.

Rosenberg cites Jackson's death as one of the rare moments that affected millions of people: fans, former fans and those around the world who simply recognized his influence. "It was enormous because we were united in a way that we aren't normally," Rosenberg says. "It added significance to the event."
For as much discussion as there has been about a post-racial America in the wake of President Obama's election over two years ago, there is still much that demonstrates that there are still many cultural distinctives among the various ethnic groups that exist within the United States.  There is no "one size fits all" approach in reaching out to and getting our messages across to the 300 plus million that live in our country.

Though we share a common American culture, how we choose to live in and experience that culture is as diverse as our population.  For those of us in Christian ministry, we must recognize that reaching out to a diverse people means that we must learn about what matters to those we are seeking to reach and to speak in the modes of communication in which they are accustomed to sharing information.  The message may be the same but how it gets shared is radically different than a generation ago.

(h/t to Racialicious)

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