The Principle of Variability and Genre Fiction – Lauren Kesterson

“The principle of variability exemplifies how, historically, changes in media technologies are correlated with social change. If the logic of old media corresponded to the logic of industrial mass society, the logic of new media fits the logic of the postindustrial society, which values individuality over conformity. In industrial mass society everyone was supposed to enjoy the same goods–and to share the same beliefs. This was also the logic of media technology. (…) In a postindustrial society, every citizen can construct her own custom lifestyle and “select” her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately.”

When I read this passage, my mind immediately jumped to my favorite subject: genre fiction. More specifically, the marketing of genre fiction, and the targeting of the masses versus the individual. It’s a prime example of old media/new media. Whatever is going on socially in a time period ultimately decides the popular genre of that time. In the earliest times, literature was mostly long, battling epics or religious stories. Vampires came into play in the sexually-confined Victorian period, where a handsome succubus was an indulgent fantasy. In the 1920s through the 1940s, mysteries and thrillers were the top sellers, due to the rise of the magazine and the mystery serials.

But now, like the “postindustrial society,” ideal, popular fiction has less to do with association to social change, but rather focus on the individual’s preference. A wider variation of genres are popular now because of the connectivity that technology gives us, and the popularity of a book can spawn a genre shift in and of itself. Rather like digital websites will give you ads based on your internet browsing, books will often lead to other, similar books. Before the rise of computers, around the 1980s, publishers would put pages in the back of books that would say “If you liked this book, check out ___.” After that, it became all about sales and the reader’s feedback. The popularity of Twilight led to the rise of the paranormal romance genre. The popularity of the Hunger Games series led to a huge rise in dystopian fiction, giving light to other series such as Divergent or Matched. And now, bookselling websites or websites like “Goodreads” can suggest books for your interest based on the cumulative aspects of all of your previously viewed novels. I like to think that this evolution of genre fiction not only showcases the way technology can shift the way we view media (old media/new media), but even more so how “old media,” such as the printed novel, is in itself relative to the digital concept.

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2 thoughts on “The Principle of Variability and Genre Fiction – Lauren Kesterson

  1. Group B commentary – Zach Nathan

    In terms of constructive criticism, I have absolutely none. All of these points are not only valid, they also resonated with my beliefs on the subject as well. My high school offered several computer science courses, and during conversations and debates with my fellow tech-savvy friends the subject of digitally personalized searching often came up. Many websites and search engines such as Google and Facebook use a system where they track your searches using computer cookies and other tracking methods. They then use the information to tailor your future searches to what they think you are looking for, which is very similar to the “focus on the individual’s preference” that you described. The internet itself is adapting to the preferences of the individual, allowing everyone to be isolated in their own sphere of interests without having to interact with those that the network has deemed as unneeded.

    Another good example of this would be politics on Facebook. Everyone who has been on Facebook is familiar with the wall of posts, pictures, and articles that first pops up when Facebook is opened. This wall, much like the google results mentioned above, adapts depending on what the user has opened or searched before. Someone who frequently looks at articles about cars, republican news, and computer science is more likely to see an article about the ost recent supercomputer than they are an article on makeup tips, whereas a teenager looking at articles and pictures for her school dance is very likely to see posts about prom season and the latest fashion trends. Much like our social media, all of digital media is evolving to have so many options and so many possibilities that every person can have their needs and wants met without even being aware of the alternative possibilities. Instead of sharing information and bringing people together, media may also be isolating us further within our own sets of beliefs and interests.

    • So, both the initiator and the respondent are in agreement about how the digital revolution has brought increasing individuation to marketing. I myself can hardly make a google search without immediately seeing ads about “hot singles in my area.”

      But is this TOO individualized? Maybe what’s really best for me isn’t hot singles in my area, but rather hot singles from someplace far away. Of course, I’m joking here, but when the same principle is applied to news, the central point becomes clear: if I’m only reading news relevant to the area I live in, how will I relate to people from other parts of the world? Further, if I’m being spoonfed “recommended” content that only suits my interests, how will I grow as a person? Surely this can only lead to the increased polarization of opinions in our population. The respondent already touched on this point, but only briefly, so I thought I would expand.

      Since the initiator and respondent were in agreement, I will try to raise my own questions stemming from this discussion. How do we feel about reducing our finest literature into data to be marketed? How will the increasing individuation of marketing affect the artistic integrity of literature? Will writers be pressured to gear their works to a certain demographic, thus reducing their expression as individuals? Could these marketing techniques deepen stereotypes, potentially molding people into a preset caste over time? These are all things to consider the next time you see an ad specific to your political beliefs, geographical location, or literature taste.

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