Y’all will recall last time I talked about visiting my in-laws. Ironically, that visit cemented something important for me that I knew intellectually and academically, but that most people don’t experience: we are profoundly shaped by the media bubble we place ourselves in.
I mention experience because as a general rule we are not cognizant of how our own bubble influences us and shapes us. So, in order to experience how a media bubble shapes you, you have to experience someone else’s bubble. Most people don’t willingly subject themselves to this kind of torture. However, it is enlightening if you can manage to both experience it and keep your wits about you.
Any of you that have seen the first Batman movie (the Michael Keaton version) remember the portion of the film where the Joker was randomly poisoning people. Batman was able to find out that it only happened with certain combinations. Of course, the whole idea of a media bubble is not lost on me when I use certain cultural references to make my points.
So, when my in-laws watch Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, or Alfred Hitchcock movies they aren’t necessarily swayed. When you pepper in liberal amounts of Investigative Discovery it may not even do the trick. Add a healthy dose of Fox News, daytime court TV, and all of the commercials that come with it and you begin to get the picture.
There is a reason why when you watch a great deal of Fox News you start noticing commercials that ask you to buy gold or some other such nonsense to “protect yourself” when it all goes to hell. Normally, people are not susceptible to such nonsense, but when you are in a media bubble that bombards you with dire news reporting and imagery of what must be the Purge, you might be tempted to do something drastic.
It is disjarring when you think about it. Online ads are more and more targeted. The stations have been doing this for years. Most people that watch a show like Perry Mason or The Stranger Next Door are of a certain age and a certain mindset. The commercials feed that mindset. They prey on those that fit their key demographic.
Social scientists call this the “relay effect.” Back in the good ole’ days, there were three channels and programming was more generic. Moreover, everyone saw the same news and watched the same shows. A detective show may have been followed by a situational comedy. That may have been followed by a game show. There was really no connection between the programs we watched.
Fast-forward to today and we have channels dedicated to certain genres. The relay effect is in full swing. So, when we sat down to watch Investigative Discovery and we see “Homicide Hunter” and then “The Stranger Next Door” and then “When Spouses Kill” and then “A Monster came to town” you can see a dramatic cumulative effect.
Add that to watching old television shows, old movies, and right wing news and you get a very definite conception of the world. The boogey man is out to get us and is waiting around the corner. He is probably black and probably on welfare with his Obama phone tracking our every move. If we could only return to the good ole days when everything was innocent and everyone knew their place then all would be good.
It works so much better when the older programming comes from a time before we came of age. We imagine what it must have been like in a simpler time. That somehow gets mixed up with selective memories of our own childhood and you have yourself a new reality. That new reality is paired with new facts from our own news sources to justify the reality. You now have yourself a media bubble.
This screed certainly sounds judgmental and I suppose it is in part. Yet, the takeaway I always have when leaving my in-laws is a reexamination of our own reality. What shows do I consistently watch? Am I subject to a relay effect? Do my entertainment choices somehow feed a world view that is jaded? Are my information outlets being honest with me or are they in cahoots with my entertainment choices to paint a reality for me?
More importantly, how can I avoid a jaded bubble? Like Batman, can I watch certain shows and avoid combinations to avoid succumbing to the full effect of the bubble? Can I enjoy an episode of Perry Mason or Homicide Hunter? How many Jim Adler ads can I watch before going over the bin? Is an episode of Judge Judy going to turn me into a conservative asshole?
Obviously that’s hyperbole. Yet, in a world where we get our news from different sources and where we are entertained by different shows and different channels it is no wonder that we come away living in different realities. It is hard to challenge our own bubble, but we must do that every now and then. The alternative is to wind up morphing into someone we can’t even recognize in the mirror.