Can an “extremely online” person enjoy pop culture alone these days?
It’s a challenge that I’ve posed to myself since the start of this year. After two+ years of relying on pop culture and social media as my way to connect to the world during lockdown, I needed a break from the 24/7 pop culture churn cycle.
I have found myself yearning for a more analog approach to enjoying pop culture in the past few months and made changes. For me that meant spoiler-free movie watching and enjoying a TV show or book without immediately heading to Twitter for “the discourse.”
It’s been harder than I expected.
For every two or three-day social media “fast” I’ve put myself on, curiosity invariably drives me to hop back online to check out the latest Disney+ TV show announcement (I thought I didn’t care about Star Wars anymore! Damn you, Obi-Wan Kenobi!) or to see what Twitter has to say about the new hot Netflix binge of the weekend.
It wasn’t always this difficult for me to enjoy pop culture in isolation. Like many of us who were introverted, nerdy kids in the pre-social media age, there was once a time where it was so easy for me to lose myself in a book, a movie, or a TV show.
My young geek life is for the most part undocumented, unshared, and solitary—I was a whole-ass adult when I first met other Doctor Who fans in the flesh, after decades of watching it on public television on my own. With no Twitter or even Usenetaccess to seek out like-minded fans growing up, I was a fan community of one a lot of the time.
These days, I can’t avoid online pop culture conversation even when I want to—my day job is social-media focused and primarily online, which makes it hard to go cold turkey unless you do a LOT of muting of topics and hashtags. And even before the pandemic, as a part-time pop culture writer and avocational pop culture obsessive being online was how I connected to people with similar interests, and it’s hard to completely disconnect from your friends. So being constantly available online is both a comfort and overwhelming. It’s so easy to feel deluged by the seemingly endless selection of TV shows, podcasts, video games, books, movies, and the online conversation focused on it all, from friends and strangers alike. Everyone is watching something—or commenting on it—all the time. And I admit I have found myself trying out and consuming shows, movies, or books simply due to FOMO, not because they’ve piqued my interest on their own.
I do think a lot of that fear stemmed from a time for me where pandemic and midwestern winter loneliness hit its peak for me. I craved being able to share any kind of collective experience with people, since my usual ways of connecting with others—movie theaters, live performances, cons—weren’t possible. But now that the pandemic is shifting into…whatever it is now, I recognize the signs of media burnout in myself.
I am trying to disconnect myself from following the tastes of my peers and learning towards following my own impulses when it comes to the pop culture I enjoy. That has meant reading and watching a lot of older movies, revisiting books I’ve enjoyed in the past, and enjoying TV shows on a completely different timeline than when it’s popular.
For example, I completely missed the fandom boat when it comes to beloved m/m Chinese wuxia series The Untamed, and the accompanying novel Mo Dao Zu Shi. I watched the TV series on Netflix about a year late, and then about a year after that, I started reading the novelizations. I’m aware of the active and passionate online fandom around both, but I haven’t looked into it, it’s led me into diving into the kind of writing and different authors that I’ve not explored in a long time. Rather than looking for more TV shows like The Untamed or going deeper into that show’s fandom, I started reading MDZS author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s books, other novels which led me into other fantasy fiction from completely different and unrelated authors. Staying away from the online conversation ended up helping me broaden my own reading horizons into exploring more of what I actually wanted to read.
I don’t want to come off like a snob, or act like I’m above the tastes of the masses. Other people’s opinions can and do influence my enjoyment of pop culture, just like anyone else. Knowing that what we like is popular and/or critically respected makes us feel validated in our own tastes. Enjoying a piece of pop culture that’s underrated, or even worse, disliked motivates us to defend it, because we are indirectly defending our tastes. What’s more, streaming services like Netflix and Spotify glean the data from our own viewing and listening habits and package our own collective fixations back to us—we’re always on top of what buzz-worthy and popular among our friends and acquaintances.
That’s why these days it’s harder than ever for me to truly lose myself in the pop culture I enjoy because I’m so hyper aware of what I consume and how it’s perceived by other people via social technology. So my attempts to enjoy books, films, etc. without sharing about it is my way of freeing myself to enjoy pop culture for what it is rather than what it means to other people. I can be as critical as I want to be or simply find pleasure in it on face value, no matter how “uncool” it is, because I only have to justify my tastes to the community of myself.
I’m not abandoning online communities completely, of course. How could I? They can be like a form of quality control, where fans educate each other and collectively refine and strengthen each other’s tastes and critical opinions. (Again, this is at its best, there are tons of examples of toxic fandom happening all over the Internet. Perhaps I’ve mostly been lucky.)
I do believe it can be beneficial to “share with the class” when it comes to what we are watching, reading, and listening to especially when issues of representation and identity are involved. Feeling empowered to share your own personal experiences with others because you feel seen by a fictional story or character can be validating and illuminating for other people. And on social media it’s common to feel a sense of obligation to interact and participate in a trending conversation, especially if it’s “your lane.”
Ultimately, though, no one is owed our passions or our interests, not even other fans. We’re not obligated to share our fannish loves publicly and sometimes our journey to what we love isn’t clear cut or on a timeline. So much of modern pop culture is so centered around community and connection that it can often seem like our own interests aren’t valid until we share them with others. So it’s refreshing for me to re-acquaint myself with enjoying media as a solitary experience again and reconnecting with the joy of keeping my joy to myself. And in the process, I’ve learned to really take the time to savor the experience of being a pop culture consumer and fan, rather than feeling overwhelmed or left behind by the variety of content available, I feel inspired and challenged and encouraged by the idea that there’s always something out there that’s just what I’m looking for.
© 2022 Keidra Chaney