Will Hyper-Fragmentation Be the End of Shared Meaning?


This year marked a definitive turn in the U.S. media narrative, as time spent with online video overtook TV for the first time. Americans logged an average 3 hours and 11 minutes a day consuming online video, compared with 2 hours and 55 minutes watching television. The era of captivating mass audiences with communal media moments thus appears to be over.

Forty years ago, nearly 106 million Americans united for the M*A*S*H series finale, representing 59% of the adult population. The recent passing of Matt Perry struck a collective chord, perhaps nostalgia for a special type of parasocial relationship with TV icons woven into the collective consciousness of millions. User-generated content now accounts for 39% of all content consumed; meanwhile, nearly half of YouTube viewing takes place on television sets, more than any other individual TV outlet including Netflix.

We’re hurtling toward a kind of media singularity where all media melds into the digital domain and the term “digital” itself becomes meaningless. This landscape is often characterized as one of context collapse—a breakdown of communal meaning into multiple abstract fragments, forsaking shared experiences for insulated echo chambers. A sense of detachment looms, leaving us feeling alienated and adrift, with a loss of what the Germans call gemeinschaft, a sense of community and common ground.

For mass consumer brands, this is a big problem. Not merely in terms of reaching audiences, but in crafting the shared meaning that underpins the bedrock of their value.

People simply don’t have the time to assess thousands of brand choices every day. So what others say, use and buy has a huge impact on making these choices easier. Simply put, people like brands that they know other people like—a well-known beer brand, for example, is going to be a safer choice when buying for guests at a party versus a niche brand few have tried.

Meanwhile, hypertargeting threatens to scatter us further. Yes, it will be possible in the future to ask a machine to conjure a personalized, 10-part HBO miniseries about your favorite childhood toy solving mysteries in a Nordic noir style, but just because you can create individualized content doesn’t mean you should. 

Brands aren’t solo constructs; they have shared meaning across many minds. And building brands at a micro level is impossible—communicating to many utilizes “costly signaling,” with perceived high-expense media to show that the seller has a reputation worth investing in, while targeting one person outside of public scrutiny invites suspicion.

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