For a brief period of time after the development of the radio, when enormous central governments carefully regulated access to airwaves and wires, a small number of media organizations came to dominate culture. Whereas in previous eras, religious organizations were the only ones with the level of capital, organization, and manpower to influence culture internationally, once the mass media came into play, those organizations supplanted religions.
To the extent that modern man is a mediated person, previous generations of men were relig-iated — every aspect of their lives was understood by them in reference to their religion, whereas now, every aspect of most people’s lives and identities is understood through their media consumption habits.
Since the deregulation of the media that began with the emergence of cable television and accelerated with the spread of the internet, the former era in which the power of the press was paramount has come to an end, and has indeed already ended for younger demographics, who get most of their news through personalized feeds over their mobile phones.
The key word in ‘mass media’ is ‘mass,’ lower-case m, to distinguish it from the upper-case-M-Mass, although it performs a similar function, in a more mundane way. People attend Mass to come into communion with the universal church, but they subscribe to a mass media publication to come into communion with the other subscribers. The best way that I’ve heard someone describe how to run a good magazine is to run it like you would run a cult, and treat the subscribers as if they are a special sort of person with certain attitudes and something in common with the other subscribers.
In some cases, the type of person that the magazine wants you to be is right there in the title: Playboy is for playboys, Gentleman’s Quarterly is for gentlemen, and the New Yorker for for people who are New Yorkers in spirit if not in residence.
With the fracturing of radio, television, and written media into millions upon millions of channels, we’re returning to an earlier era of non-mass-media, in which you can never be in communion with anyone else just by being a subscriber to the New York Times — because you probably only read the occasional article, rather than the entire publication, and your reading habits are going to be entirely unique to you rather than to your social group.
The ads in an online publication also tend to be tailored to the person viewing them: even when someone buys an online ad in the New York Times, they can easily elect to only have it displayed to people of a certain gender or age range. If social convention and the law allowed it, they could probably target only Mormons or exclude reform Jews who have not been to synagogue in the last three years.
For this reason, the mass media finds itself in crisis, because it no longer performs the same social function that it once did. If before, it resembled a sermon — people of previous times often refer to getting the newspaper with breakfast as part of a ‘morning ritual’ — it now resembles something else entirely, with each parishioner receiving a different message tailored to them.
Despite this, people still have the same religious impulses as they always have, and are seeking to have them filled in a different way than they once did. People still need to organize themselves, but the prestige media is no longer capable of performing that function at scale.