The end of the zeitgeist
It’s incredible how quickly amazing technological developments get taken for granted. The obvious example are mobile phones: the moment you get a new one, it seems as if they’re instantly out of date and in need of an upgrade – the camera isn’t up to scratch, the memory isn’t big enough and you’re unable to unlock the phone using only the unique smell of your breath. In fact, progress inevitably leads to moaning: Netflix hasnt got the new shows we want, iPlayer won’t stream quickly enough and Radioheads latest album isn’t on Spotify – LIFE IS SO HARD.
So, while were taking these incredible advancements for granted, it’s hardly a shock that we dont notice the impact they’re beginning to have on our everyday lives. Just take those three apps and websites I mentioned in the previous paragraph: Netflix, iPlayer and Spotify. You could replace those three with Amazon Prime, 4OD and Tidal. Or Hulu, Sky Go and Apple Music... the list goes on. These few apps have completely revolutionised the way we consume media. Take Netflix for example; the website’s usual practise is to dump an entire TV series, which would previously have been eeked out week after week, onto its site all at once. Suddenly, people have the ability to binge watch their favourite show the moment it comes out, and, even if they take it at a slower pace, an entire friendship group are inevitably at different stages of Making a murderer, Daredevil and House of cards; Toto, I dont think we’re in Kansas’ conventional viewing regime anymore.
It’s not just that the way we watch that is different, what we watch has totally changed as well. The latest figures suggest that young people are watching far more content on YouTube than they are through traditional channels, or even mainstream online platforms such as Netflix and iPlayer. Whereas previously the lines of communication were controlled by those with the means to produce media, suddenly it has been democratised: 15 years ago we thought Pop Idol and Big Brother would fulfil Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame prophecy, but in fact it’s YouTube which is bringing that into fruition. Young people don’t look up to Ant and Dec, but to Zoella and a hundred other YouTube vloggers you’ve never heard of.
We could at this point spark alarm about who these mystery faces with bedroom webcams are and the influence they’re having on young people. We could bemoan the loss of patience that the instant ability to watch an entire TV series has created. But these are merely modern symptoms of age old diseases: humanity has always been struck by the disease of now. (A side note here to point out that the three temptations Jesus faced in the desert focused on instant gratification: he was first tempted by the promise of food, but he knew he’d eat again. Then he’s offered the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus knows that this is how the story ends: but not yet. Finally, he’s offered the chance to impress people, to command worship. Again, Jesus knows that his time is coming, but he bides his time, holding his run like a young Paul Scholes, waiting for the perfect moment. This is not a new problem.)
In a society where young people’s lives which are becoming more fragmented, our youth ministries are one of the few places where young people can experience and inhabit true community
No, the biggest casualty of the Netflix phenomenon has been the zeitgeist, the water cooler conversations, the shared viewing experience. Gone are the days when the big drama would be dissected and picked apart in the office the next day: instead we all live in fear of spoiling or being spoiled by someone further ahead. This isn’t just a product of Netflix, as the mainstream TV channels have put more and more of their content online (spearheaded by BBC’s iPlayer), so-called appointment television has become few and far between, now existing only in the realms of TV talent shows (which are suffering a dwindling in their popularity) and sporting events (which, as any true fan will tell you, can’t be properly appreciated on catch up). Even the music we listen to is no longer a communal event – the album release day has become a thing of the past, as you’ll get your first chance to listen to according to the deal struck by your preferred streaming service.
There’s this idea that the internet has been an incredible force for social good – uniting communities across the world over shared interests, memes and trending topics. And while that’s true to a point, the way it’s impacted the way young people interact with culture has merely hunkered them down into online silos. Sure, virtual communities may spring up around particular shows or vlogs, but the shared experience where young people come into school or youth ministry discussing a particular song, TV show or performance is quickly becoming a thing of the past: another point chalked up to individualism in its 21st Century battle against community.
Here’s the thing: in a society which is becoming more isolated, in which young people’s lives which are becoming more fragmented, in a culture with fewer and fewer shared touchstones, the church and our youth ministries are one of the few places where young people can experience and inhabit true community. We have a wider, bigger, deeper story to invite them into. We have shared narratives and moments that we have the ability to experience together. We know that young people are desperate to be part of something bigger; we see that in their online interactions. But as those moments become more and more fleeting in wider society, our youth ministries are in a beautifully counter-cultural position to fill that gap in young people’s offline experiences. Could the ‘death’ of the zeitgeist see the ‘resurrection’ of the Church?