Clearly, cultural phenomena have long existed and been called “fads,” “trends,” “rages” or have been designated by the category they belong to — “product,” “fashion,” “lifestyle,” etc. So why the application of this homogenizing general term to all of them? I think there are four main reasons.
First, the flood of content into the cultural sphere. That we are inundated is well known. Information besieges us in waves that thrash us against the shore until we retreat to the solid ground of work or sleep or exercise or actual human interaction, only to wade cautiously back into our smartphones. As we spend more and more time online, it becomes the content of our experience, and in this sense “things” have earned their name. “A thing” has become the basic unit of cultural ontology.
Second, the fragmentation of this sphere. The daily barrage of culture requires that we choose a sliver of the whole in order to keep up. Netflix genres like “Understated Romantic Road Trip Movies” make it clear that the individual is becoming his or her own niche market — the converse of the celebrity as brand. We are increasingly a society of brands attuning themselves to markets, and markets evaluating brands. The specificity of the market requires a wider range of content — of things — to satisfy it, and they often surprise us. It is often hard to imagine how they can even be things.
Third, the closing gap between satire and the real thing. The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.
Finally, the growing sense that these phenomena are all the same. As we step back from “things,” they recede into the distance and begin to blur together. We call them all by the same name because they are the same at bottom: All are pieces of the Internet. A thing is for the most part experienced through this medium and generated by it. Even if they arise outside it, things owe their existence as things to the Internet. Google is thus always the arbiter of the question, “Is that a real thing?”
“A thing,” then, corresponds to a real need we have, to catalog and group together the items of cultural experience, while keeping them at a sufficient distance so that we can at least feign unified consciousness in the face of a world gone to pieces.
Alexander Stern, “So, Is That a Thing?”, The New York Times (17 April 2016), SR9.