The end of the year always brings us plenty of lists. Nowadays, with the advent of social media, the lists are more personalized, specialized: My favorite reads of 2013, my favorite movies of 2013, my favorite celebrity nip-slips, corporate mergers, whatever. Numerous requests on Facebook to name the ten books that stuck with me left me confused and wrung out. Synapses misfired, bad memories floated up. Did I really love that book? Or was I just starved for entertainment as I rode the buses all night with nowhere else to go?
The talk of lists got me thinking. It reminded me of when I was young and the end-of-year programming on the big three networks was peppered with “best of” lists. Those shows that encapsulated and condensed the previous year into a half-hour-long string of clips, making us all agree that Jaws was quite a phenomenon, or that Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, had more personality than the President. With social media taking the reins and narrowing those best of lists into something more tailored to the individual, what are we left with? Barbra Walter’s 10 Most Fascinating People? Really? Miley Cyrus and Duck Dynasty?
It occurred to me that the lists of old served a sacred purpose. They were cultural touchstones, getting us all to agree on what was important, making sure we were all on the same page before we turned to the next chapter of our lives. There were plenty of them: Time, People, Newsweek. There was the Encyclopedia Yearbook and the big award shows, too. It created a common experience for the culture that was easy to identify and barter with. I think it goes a long way to explain why we’re so hung up on music and movies from that era—it’s too confusing to keep up with the choices now.
Now, the tentacles of media have stretched so far that it’s hard to identify what’s important to who and why we should be paying attention to anything. Like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s dark imagination, the media now delivers an endless variety of previously unimaginable dreck. Sometimes I miss those old “best of” shows reminding us that we are one culture. Whether it was Saturday Night Live or Star Wars, we all seemed to have a common ground back then, there wasn’t so many genres and sub-genres. At least you knew what to talk about when you got to the water cooler.