The crucial thing about bandwagons is they can only take us from a place of relative indifference to a place of stronger emotion—which is also why few but the most eager-to-please can be swayed once they already hold a strong opinion.
Almost a month ago, the fervor over New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin burst from the confines of the basketball world into the mainstream, with a big leg-up from television and radio personalities who coined the 2012 term I most wish I could erase from my memory—“Linsanity”—and parroted the story, which displayed that “just right” Goldilocks quality that causes media talking heads to salivate.
Meanwhile, social media played its own part in amplifying the viral story with the right kind of pro-underdog, feel-good sentiment that fuels the online echo chamber: there are few people who would have set out opposed to such an affirmative story of multicultural success, and as mentions of this story in my own Facebook feed increased I couldn’t help but notice friends with an apparent newfound interest in basketball. I’m sure part of this can be accounted for by the story generating genuine interest. But there also seems to be a self-ratcheting process at work, in which our interest in things about which we have basically no opinion spirals out of control when we see that The Crowd has pronounced it good.
The crucial thing about bandwagons is they can only take us from a place of relative indifference to a place of stronger emotion—which is also why few but the most eager-to-please can be swayed once they already hold a strong opinion. This might partially explain the elevation of certain (usually interesting and/or valid, yet overhyped) stories in our cultural consciousness. If you don’t particularly care about basketball or Jeremy Lin (and as long as you don’t harbor strong negative feelings directed at either), then there’s a subtle pressure (in part, because the issue is not of great personal significance) to get drawn into the Linsanity, ever so slightly.
As far as music is concerned, social media has done wonders to help connect people and ideas; yet there are many facets of online interactions that increasingly encourage us to hop on bandwagons via the process detailed above. We “like” some things that we really like, but sometimes we “like” things mainly to be seen doing so, or in response to a promotional request that we feel sheepish about turning down. We’re encouraged to share more and more personal details, including our current location, recent music playlists, and auto-reposts of the articles we’ve just read. And in our natural and quite legitimate effort to share ourselves (through our text and media), we might be losing a lot of the spontaneity, privacy, and freedom that makes interacting with others worthwhile in the first place.
Let me be clear that the positives of this social media revolution are obvious and thus hardly need my explanation; of course a great deal of the social media experience is positive, useful, and (usually) governed by free choice. My concern is that we’re doing more and more things in public that used to be private in nature, and the consequences of doing so are that things like where we “check in”, what music we choose to listen to, and even our opinions become “accessories”, to a degree—something put-on rather than authentic. This has always been a tendency in offline human interactions, but there’s something about the permanence, power, and distance between acting and thinking afforded by online interactions which exacerbates our Machiavellian tendencies at the expense of the Erasmian.
The effects of media bias are amazingly widespread and easily observable in American culture, and while social media redresses a lot of these wrongs that’s not to say it doesn’t produce its own pressures and neuroses. I love sharing music that I like with specific people that might be interested, but I can’t quite stomach posting all my listening playlists online—who knows if my awareness that everyone would know I listened to Enya for hours might cause me to be excessively self-conscious in my listening habits?
Perhaps the biggest bandwagon that underscores the new culture of social media is the notion that it’s cool to tell everyone everything about yourself, as much as possible—an idea whose results have yet to completely play out. The same mechanism that allows us to share our individual selves might also have the longer-term effect of funneling our individuality down narrow channels of self-enabled groupthink, in which we choose to interact with only the people wearing the same brand of blinders as ourselves, reinforcing one group opinion over time.
As much as I enjoy the connective potential of social networking sites, I also know that it’s within the other realm of offline interaction where I’m most likely to encounter people and ideas most different from myself—and especially for creative musicians, it’s people and ideas outside of ourselves and immediate social network that can best challenge us to find our true voice.