Zeitgeist in the machine

Sunday June 13, 2010 @ 12:04 AM (UTC)

You know how you’ve never heard of something, and then you hear about it seven times in one week? I used to think it was largely psychological — you wouldn’t have noticed the extra instances until you had a context and a reason to remark them. (In fact, there’s a psychological term for this impression: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, a learned psychologist informs me.) But I think it’s also partly real, an effect of zeitgeist, critical mass of relevance. Or as we now say, of something being “trending”.

I had an interesting experience along these lines recently. I had seen the cover of Janelle Monáe‘s first album The ArchAndroid, but I hadn’t really registered it until I saw a link round-up on Racialicious with two links to blog posts about her, one of which had an embedded video. Long story short, I ended up buying both ArchAndroid and her earlier mini-album and loving both. (While I mostly use this as an example, I do recommend checking her out: her voice is as versatile as her songwriting talent, and her album is catchy but smart, eclectic but cohesive.) I tweeted about it. This was June 7.

On June 9, I noticed her uh, imprint had retweeted my tweet, as they do most mentions of her, and that their most recent retweets mentioned that her name was trending. And now she’s showing up other places I wouldn’t have expected. The weird part here is that her album came out May 18, and it’s getting this body of attention now. One of the original two articles I read was complaining that no one was noticing her album — that it didn’t have ‘buzz’. A week later, I think that’s no longer the case. And that’s what is so odd about trending topics. There is now a metric for buzz.

It used to be that zeitgeist lived up to its ethereal name (‘geist’ is literally ‘spirit’), but now we have to some extent bottled that genie. As we analyze, capture, track and archive more and more about our lives — where we go, who we like, what we watch and listen to — there will probably be other moments like this, when the intangible becomes suddenly concrete. Perhaps some of them will make us nostalgic, but perhaps it’s a good thing. That blogger complaining that Janelle Monáe didn’t have buzz was creating buzz. She was one (big) rock hitting more pebbles, and the hillside moved. We can measure this buzz because all of our voices contribute. There’s something charmingly democratic about it, even if it means the world is that much more mechanical.


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