Mass Culture Versus Popular Culture

Culture” is one of the more vague and confusing words in the English language. For example, is Chinese culture Chinese food or Chinese films? The word “China” is confusing in and of itself.

What scholars know is that the vocabulary of culture is increasing. From a term that was limited to high culture versus folk culture and mass culture versus popular culture, now exists a term that is appended onto an array of terms that describe sub-cultures and counter-cultures, such as sports culture and gay culture. There are now entire college departments designed to promote multiculturalism and diversity of all kinds. “Culture”, whatever that means, is on the rise.

Mentions of the word “culture” via the Google Books Ngram Viewer:

Are we experiencing a culture shock? Probably, but that’s not news. The first Portuguese and Spanish explorers that sailed around the world were likely surprised to meet indigenous people with vastly different beliefs and behavior.

What is rapidly changing, however, is the methods for which mass culture is produced, and popular culture is consumed. That’s the difference right there. Mass culture is something that is produced and popular culture that is consumed.

Governments, multinational corporations, and individual people have the ability to influence people more quickly than ever before with web technology such as blogs, YouTube, and Twitter. And each individual citizen now has more influence in choosing popular culture in the form of text message votes for American Idol, Instagram likes, and Reddit Upvotes.

I am interested to track how popular culture evolves. Mass culture is unlikely to change much beyond its primary mediums, because it is rooted in maintaining ignorance, oppression, and passiveness. Meanwhile the latter, “culture”, signifies a chance to grow, develop, and to change the present.

The U.S. in particular has a variety of institutions that are strong producers of popular culture, such as Disney, Universal Studios, and Warner Music Group. But these institutions are facing troubling times. Substantial markers of change include the YouTube Music Services Agreement and also what Y Combinator calls “Hollywood 2.0“:

In 2014, movies had their worst summer since 1997. Just like future celebrities are unlikely to get their start with talent agencies, future content consumers will watch content online instead of at the theater, and probably in very different ways.

Celebrities now have direct relationships with their fans. They can also distribute content in new ways.

There are almost certainly huge new businesses that will get built as part of this shift.

I agree. The businesses of entertainment and popular culture are not going away but they are already shifting in who has control. My hope is that this shift will further empower the producers of great content and the fans that adore them.


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John Marbach

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01 2015