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Sunday, July 14, 2024

We are what we consume

Entertainment isn’t just entertainment anymore but a vehicle of self-expression; here’s why that’s a problem


By GEETIKA MAHAJAN — giamahajan@ucdavis.edu

It’s 2023, and your identity is an accessory. No — it’s the amalgamation of everything you’ve watched, read and listened to in the past month but only if you’ve posted about how much you loved “The Menu” or how you were in the top 5% of Harry Styles listeners on Spotify. Wait, no, actually, what you perceive as your own individual identity was actually created and handed to you by a virtual algorithm that pigeonholes a broader market into neat little groups of consumers.

Okay. Sorry for all the confusion; it’s actually all three of those things, in that order. It’s 2023, and identity is an inescapable farce and an Apple product that everyone but you seems to have. The truth is, though many cultures propagate the idea of an innate self — the soul, the mind, who we truly are — that we must unearth, there is no scientific or psychological evidence to support the claim that anything about our identities is congenital. 

What most people would define as their identity has been, for the most part, malleable. This is not a new phenomenon; at 18, I am not the same person that I was when I was eight, and the same goes for my mother and her mother before her. What distinguishes our present moment from the past is the constant cycle of virtual input informing the construction of our identity and the need to advertise this aforementioned identity to others so that we can finally “feel seen.” Thus, the malleable identity stopped being a vehicle for self-improvement and became an ouroboros of consumption. 

Today, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can disseminate information about ourselves. Likewise, there are an infinite number of ways in which we consume information about others. Spotify Wrappeds posted on Instagram, live-tweeted reactions to the newest season of whichever HBO show has caught everyone’s attention and book reviews on TikTok; we are constantly exposed to what those around us are listening to, watching and reading.

This is not the issue though. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with discussing your opinions about a piece of media or even extolling your love for a certain movie or author. But people are not consuming entertainment for the sake of being entertained anymore. “Liking” or “disliking” is an afterthought — the primary concern is what the consumption of this piece of media says about us. 

The content becomes a part of the consumer, in a way that was completely alien before the explosion of social media. Before that explosion, people would listen to certain artists because they liked their music. Now, it seems as though people listen to artists because some intrinsic part of their identity is tied to the artist themselves — because Taylor Swift fans are mirrorballs and children who crave academic validation, because Phoebe Bridgers fans really do have emotional motion sickness and are currently ghosting their therapists. The content is not just entertainment but a facet of your identity, and you can present it to the world and feel like you are revealing a fundamental truth about yourself. 

This is a problem for various reasons, the first being that media was not created to be consumed in this way. Most forms of entertainment — a novel, a film or album — began as a means of artistic expression. When what is essentially a piece of art is co-opted by the masses to appropriate as a facet of identity, it stops being art and becomes a trend, due to the aforementioned malleable nature of our identities and the framework under which this media is produced and consumed en masse. 

I already mentioned that our identities are not static. This means that parts of our identities are always shedding and shifting; an album that resonates with us today may not have the same effect in a year’s time. The inevitability of us losing interest in these forms of media, combined with how virality allows most media to snowball in popularity, means that artists now face a constant cycle of hyper-attention followed by amnesia from the general public. 

This alone would not be an issue, were it not for the fact that media production operates under a robust capitalist framework that seeks to maximize the attention and the money that the public is willing to expend. As long as a genre or artist is popular, they will continue to attempt to replicate whatever it was that caught the public’s attention in the first place, leading to inauthenticity. Eventually, it may no longer be recognized as art any more than a mass-produced IKEA lamp is, because it has been produced solely for the purpose of consumption by the public. 

When people begin to tie their identity so securely to some external work, they may even begin to view the artist themselves as an extension of themselves. From this, numerous other issues arise, namely the inability to critique the artist or their work, because criticism of either is obviously tantamount to criticism of the devoted consumer. This is why people online are calling Taylor Swift “the first ethical billionaire.” There never has been, and never will be, such a thing as an ethical billionaire. The phrase is an oxymoron. But to the average Swiftie, (and I am one so please do not doxx me!) Taylor Swift needs to remain a good person because they themselves have made her music such a key aspect of their identity that any immorality on her part would be practically synonymous with them committing the crime. Right?

Obviously, no. We have a false perception that our identities are the sum of the externalities we consume — a belief that’s really only circulating so that corporations know what to sell to us. We think that we need to present these aspects of our identity to be “seen” by those around us — also a lie, one to perpetuate this idea that connection can be facilitated through mutual consumption. 

There are a lot of feedback loops at play, creating this seemingly never-ending cyclical process in which people continue to search for identity in content. There are no beneficiaries, at least not among the consumers, but it isn’t as if we can just stop. It’s not just about what we’re eating, but how and how much and how we’re talking about what we eat — a process that, considering how the era of social media is practically embryonic, is far too embedded in online culture.


Written by: Geetika Mahajan — giamahajan@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.