Standardisation and Pseudo-Individuation

MDIA 301 – Research Essay

The mass production or the commodification of culture plays a prominent role in shaping contemporary culture. Commodification of a cultural product involves taking an aspect of culture and reproducing it in a form that can be used for monetary gain. Mass culture is the widespread dissemination of these cultural products to society via the media. This has differing consequences for society as a whole and impacts on how we experience culture. An analysis of the theory of mass culture shows the ways in which society is affected and how, in turn, contemporary culture is formed. In ‘The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception’, Adorno and Horkheimer look at the concept of pseudo-individualisation and reveal how mass media follows the same formula but is delivered to the audience in different ways. The pinnacle of present day mass media is the social media site Facebook. The customisable user interface is a modern representation of Adorno and Horkheimers’ theory of standardisation and pseudo-individualisation.

First of all we must look at what standardisation and pseudo-individualisation is within a media context. Adorno and Horkheimer first published the concepts in their book ‘Dialectic of enlightenment’, in which the central theme of their work was the culture industry. They point out that high art as it has been historically known is beginning to be commoditised and produced for the sole purpose of generating a profit for big business. This in turn is becoming what is now known as popular culture. It can be seen across all aspects of mass media and is generally used as a form of entertainment for the viewer. Adorno and Horkheimer noticed a trend in the music and film the mass were being exposed to, which was becoming increasingly similar and taking away from the individuality that can be seen in traditional high art.

The culture industry is then concerned with producing standardised products, which come in the form of film, music, magazines, television and now websites. According to Darbyshire (2011), this standardisation meant that parts of popular songs such as the chorus, verse and the bridge could be swapped in and out at will, without doing particularly devastating damage to the final product. This is often seen today when the top 20 songs on the radio are looked at. Providing that a popular song is the same genre of music as another many elements can be changed without much noticeable difference.

The standardisation of cultural products then leads into the next part of Adorno and Horkheimers’ theory, which is pseudo-individualisation. This is the way in which cultural products are designed to make them seem as though they are unique and new, which in turn makes the audience feel as though they are receiving something of this nature. However, the theory of standardisation suggests that this is not the case. If we were to look at this in terms of marketing it would be called product diversification. The way that Apple release new iPhone’s in various different colours gives the consumer the idea that they are purchasing something different and tailored to themselves, where as in reality they are receiving a phone that serves the same functions as any other smart phone. The same can be applied to cultural products such as film and music.

For example, if you are to listen to the work of Justin Bieber over the course of his career you are able to see that his songs are essentially the same but have been packaged in different ways to make sure his fan base keep coming back for more. This is not to say that Justin Bieber’s music is inherently ‘bad’, it just lacks the completeness of timeless masterpieces where if you are to change one aspect of the piece the song as a whole would no longer work.

Pseudo-individuation then works to give the audience of popular culture the illusion that they have a choice of what material they take in and what they discard. This theory also applies to modern forms of media, which are popular today. In terms of social media, Facebook is widely regarded as the most popular website, in which the user is part of an online community of ‘friends’ who are free to interact at their own will. Upon registering, the website provides you with your own profile page which you are able to customise in a variety of different ways. Everyone is given the same template in which they are able to put in their details and create a page that is theirs.

According to Smith (2013), there are currently 1.15 billion Facebook users, all of which use the same basic template to showcase their personal information. This alone is an example of pseudo-individuation as people are given a certain amount of room to personalise their media but the final outcome is much the same. The user interface consists of a cover photo of which acts as a header of the profile, a profile picture which is at the top of the profile and also acts as an interactive thumbnail on your activity, an information section and finally each user has a wall where comments, videos and pictures can be shared. These features come together to create your own user interface where you can communicate with others.

Mainstream media has changed drastically as technology advances but Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory is still valid. Although their theory was initially applied to popular music significant similarities can be seen in new media forms like Facebook. The aspect of standardisation is clearly seen in the user interface. Everyone who joins is given the same template to work with and there is little room to show true individuality. The main difference that can be seen in Facebook though is that rather than trying to sell records or singles, the website sells to advertisers. All of your personal information is recorded and takes the form of your profile. This provides advertisers with a strong sense of what demographic you are sitting in and they can then tailor their advertisements accordingly.

While advertisers are not given specific personal information, they are given data, which gives them a good idea of the demographic their ad will be reaching. When the user first signs up they first enter in their age, gender and interests, which is a good start for advertisers to reach their target market. Although both industries are in a sense selling different cultural products they are similar in that they both reach a mass audience and have a significant impact on shaping popular culture. Just as music producers use the same formula to sell their records, Facebook uses the same formula to sell to advertisers by offering a pseudo-individualised product.

The Facebook interface allows the user to interact with their media and they effectively help to create it. According to Gunelius (2010), social media has led to the rise of the ‘prosumer’, which replace the audience’s former position as a consumer. Consumers simply take in what they are offered by the media. For instance, before social media a television ad or billboard is simply shown to the audience and generally did not require any direct interaction with the consumer. You either bought the product or you didn’t. Now, technology and social media allow the consumer to become a part of the advertisement by enabling them to go online and ‘like’ their Facebook page, or visit their website and offer feedback. The mass now has a voice but in turn give the culture industry a louder voice in terms of standardisation and pseudo-individualisation. With the consumers’ active involvement in the cultural product of Facebook, the corporation as a whole are able to get an in depth idea of what people want to see and keep them coming back for more.

Another important aspect of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory is that capitalism is the main driver of this standardisation and the impact that this has on the lives of the people exposed to these mass media forms. According to Gendron (1986), Adorno attempted to expose the destructive ways in which capitalist production could affect cultural products and in turn the people that consume them. The culture industry turns art into a form of escapism where people can indulge in the mass produced entertainment as a form of relaxation, which will help them recharge in preparation of the next day. The standardisation of these products makes it easy for the viewer to engage, as they may not necessarily be familiar with the material but they are able to relate to it as they have experienced much of the same previously. Adorno and Horkheimer state, “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labour process so that they can cope with it again.” (2006) Facebook is no exception when it is used as a form of entertainment and distraction. It is now not only common for the average person to have a Facebook profile but they are able to access this profile in numerous different ways.

From what started off as a form of media that was confined to use on a desktop computer has now been spread across various mediums. People can access their profile through their mobile phone, tablet, laptop and even on some new televisions. This usage will get more widespread as technology advances and the features of Facebook begin to change. This constant availability for people to use the website leaves open the potential for abuse. According to Smith (2013), the average person spends twenty minutes each time they log onto their Facebook account with many users going on multiple times each day, while mobile phone users are constantly connected. This shows just how much exposure people are subject to if they have a Facebook profile.

Facebook allows people to take part in their own form of pseudo-individuation when they are creating their profile. The information that people put on their profile is open for all of their ‘friends’ to see and allows them to put across their best possible self. For example, the user is able to; pick and choose which photo’s they would like to show on their profile, make posts on their thoughts and feelings of just about any issue, choose which pages you ‘like’ and ‘share’, all of this enabling the user to create an online self. This representation of the self is often not an accurate real life reflection as people feel pressure to fit into social norms and fit into what is seen as ‘cool’ within society. Even the feature of showing how many friends a person is connected with is an example of pseudo-individuation. It is not uncommon for users to have friends pning into the thousands. It would nearly be impossible to keep up with these extraordinary numbers of friends in real life and it is often a façade in which people connect with other’s they do not actually know to come across as popular.

All of this seems to work surprisingly well in a capitalist sense. As history has shown new forms of technology in which people pay attention to and share information, quickly turn into a prime space for companies attempting to market their products. Facebook is no exception to this with the majority of major corporations extending their marketing to include a strong social media presence. Corporations are able to make their own profile page using the Facebook interface where they can let followers know about new products, promotions and general news about their business. They also have the less direct opportunity to market their products simply by other’s using their products and talking about it online.

As well as creating a pseudo-individualised community, Facebook acts as a vehicle for corporations to turn art into a cultural commodity. The ability to share videos and photos mean that businesses are able to be diverse in the way they approach the Facebook user. This links into the next point that Adorno and Horkheimer raise which is commoditised cultures ability to create false needs. Facebook sends the user notifications of a large variety of activity that happens all over the site, for example, a comment on a photo or a ‘like’ on a picture, which gives the user incentive to use Facebook. The constant checking of the users profile can become overwhelming as they are notified of new people interacting with their media. This provides the ultimate motivation to get the user coming back and keeping them up to date with their profile.

People are more likely to post what they believe others are going to enjoy, rather than their actual feelings or thoughts, leading to a simplified and possibly ‘dumbed down’ version of what actually happens in society. Facebook is not generally regarded as a place for intelligent conversation even though it does have the potential to be an effective learning tool. This also has similarities with what Adorno and Horkheimer discuss in the sense that real human needs are not being met. Freedom and creativity are restricted as people are constantly inclined to please the mass audience.

Facebook provides a present day example of a medium that drives the culture industry. While Adorno and Horkheimer’s paper initially targeted the sphere of popular music the same principles can be applied to social media and the affect that it has on the consumer. Both show that the same process that is used to manufacture physical goods can be used to turn culture into something that is purely produced for monetary gain. The idea of standardisation can be seen in the Facebook interface, as effectively every user is the same with minor aesthetic differences leading to pseudo-individuation. Capitalism is the main driver of this commodification of culture which contributes to the state of mass media today.

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