Spend any time online today, and you’d be hard-pressed to escape an overwhelming atmosphere of negativity in your feed regarding the state of culture. One argument is narrow in its framing and demographic, coming from largely Gen X blue checks (nothing wrong with that!) who’ve written widely-circulated think pieces asserting that nothing is cool anymore. Thanks in large part to platforms like TikTok, which push trends into a never ending spin cycle set to warp speed, culture moves so fast today that it’s not even moving at all. Keeping up with what’s new and next has more often than not proven to be an exercise in futility, leaving brands with the only option to remix and reimagine the classics of yesterday, leading us into a place of cultural complacency, or so the argument goes.
If this camp takes a limited, more surgical approach to airing out their cultural grievances, another group’s new form of cultural critique feels more like a buckshot—louder, more diffuse, and sparing no one within range. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact demographic makeup of this group because it almost feels as though we’ve all become guilty of it in one respect. Anyone from an innocuous tweeter to a rogue meme admin can see their perspective not only go viral, but chart the “discourse.”
We have more access to news, TV, movies, music and celebrity than at any point in human history. Ed Zitron ponders whether or not we have “too much internet,” and he’s probably right. More access and more choices is not inherently a bad thing, but the daily deluge of headlines, breaking news, -cores, microtrends and faux controversies has led to an online feeding frenzy—an era dominated by “take” culture. Everything is a thing, and no thing can just be, it must be criticized, dissected, memed and dunked on.
So why does it feel like negativity is the prevailing sentiment across today’s fandoms, from indie film fanatics to upstart musicians? Today, our cultural tastes seem to be defined not by what, nor whom, we’re avidly drawn to, but by what we’re actively against. We’re quicker—and more eager—to rail against things we have disdain for (or at least what we want others to think we dislike) than we are to hype up what we actually like.
This shift is most evident in the political arena, where hyperpolarization has widened Americans' relationship with national leadership and political institutions. The most glaring data point for general unpopularity has been in the Oval Office. None of the last four presidents have notched approval ratings above 50%, and in the previous two presidential election cycles, the biggest factor drawing voters to the polls was animosity towards the opposing candidate rather than a firm belief in the vision of their party’s nominee. For example, in a poll conducted by Pew for the 2020 election, 56% of Biden voters cited their opposition to Trump as the main reason for voting for him.
The increase in negative sentiment towards political leaders coincides with the fading lines between politics and entertainment. Writing about the rise of “Dark Brandon” fanfiction, which seeks to co-opt the “Let’s Go Brandon” (code for “F Joe Biden”) meme popular among right wing circles, internet writer Max Read notes that, “American politics is treated by politicians, journalists, and news consumers as an entertainment product, consumed and discussed online.”
It’s no surprise then, that the age of reality TV politics has fostered immense disdain and distrust for politicians and politics in general. Reality TV has taught us that the path of least resistance to fame—to more likes, views, clicks and shares—is to be openly antagonistic and provocative: After all, 1.5 million people tuned in to watch divisive YouTuber Jake Paul fight former MMA star Tyron Woodley in the hopes that Paul would get knocked out (he did not).