During the most recent Presidential election and its aftermath, there has been a lot of talk about bubbles and how we’re increasingly living in echo chambers. Most of the discussion has understandably revolved around the political bubbles that we live in. Knowing what political bubbles we all live in is definitely important, but there are plenty of other less serious bubbles that we can be in as well. Here is a lighthearted take on some of the bubbles that I live in (does it count as a bubble if I know about it?):
When I mention popular Netflix exclusives, what do you think of? I think of shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Daredevil or Stranger Things. And while I don’t watch them, I’m aware of the popularity of shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. I personally don’t know of many people who would mention The Ridiculous Six or The Do Over. In fact, I’m not even sure if most people I know have ever heard of them. That’s my Netflix bubble: Adam Sandler movies.
I think the last Adam Sandler movie I saw was Grown Ups seven years ago. It was on TV (not in the theater) and the best I could say is that it was a guilty pleasure. It’s been years since I’ve thought of Adam Sandler as a legitimate movie star that can bring people to the theater. Apparently he can get people to stream his movies, though. According to a 2017 shareholders report, “Netflix members have spent more than half a billion hours enjoying the films of Adam Sandler.” In addition, The Ridiculous 6 apparently is “the most-watched movie in the history of Netflix” despite having a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (I didn’t think it was possible to have a rating lower than The Master of Disguise‘s one percent). Netflix is notoriously vague with their viewership numbers when they provide any at all, and the quotes about Sandler’s movies have been oddly phrased, so it’s difficult to tell exactly how popular his movies have been, but they’re undeniably more popular than I ever would’ve thought.
And for those who might turn their nose up at Adam Sandler movies in favor of more critically acclaimed content, the Washington Post has a reason for even you to be thankful for The Ridiculous Six:
Seriously, though, Rowles highlights one of the reasons that film snobs should actually be enthusiastic for Netflix’s efforts to foist late-Sandler on the masses: They “are at least helping to pay for some of the better, less popular movies and television series.” Nothing wrong with that.
My video game bubble is probably the silliest. I call it the “FemShep” bubble. FemShep refers to the lead character of the popular Mass Effect video game trilogy (leaving out Andromeda since it’s more of a spin-off in terms of story). The main character is somebody named Shepard and the player is allowed to choose for their Shepard to be male or female. The overwhelming number of people that I know (and articles about Mass Effect that I have read) have been unanimous in their opinion that the female voice actor (Jennifer Hale) is far superior to the male voice actor (Mark Meer). Full disclosure: I played a male Shepard during my Mass Effect play-through and found no problem at all with Mark Meer’s voice acting, so I don’t feel qualified to judge the merits of either side, but I do accept that the popular consensus is that Jennifer Hale does a better job. Either way, it was somewhat amusing to see the video game media lost its mind when Bioware revealed that 80% of Mass Effect players played as a male Shepard, leading Wired to title their article, “How 4 Out of 5 People Play Mass Effect 2 Wrong“.
Another interesting nugget from Bioware? Nearly 50% of players played as a soldier class. That fact is definitely a little sad to me. There are a plethora of other games to choose from which allow players to play as a soldier relying on a wide array of weapons to defeat his enemies. Mass Effect’s twist on combat was to add the science fiction biotic and engineering powers, which turned it into something a little different from just another third person shooter. That nearly 50% of players just went with the soldier class feels like 50% of players missed out on a large part of what made Mass Effect’s gameplay special.
It just goes to show that no matter what kind of fancy bells and whistles are included in a game, or how much the media insists on there being a “best” way of playing, sometimes people just want to go with the path of least resistance and greatest familiarity.
Other bubbles worth mentioning: The incredible popularity of games like Myst, Deer Hunter, The Sims, Wii Sports, Pokemon, Angry Birds, etc. versus the games that I hear more about from video game journalists like Starcraft, Diablo, Halo, Gears of War, Bioshock Infinite, and Mass Effect.
It’s really easy to be misled about the popularity of TV shows based on the coverage they get in the media. The Economist had a good article on this phenomenon, although the article is nearly two years old and some of the data is out of date. The basic premise is still sound, however: The most popular shows aren’t necessarily the ones everybody talks about, and the most talked about shows are often not the most popular ones. While that can seem obvious, I think it’s something that is easy to forget and can sometimes skew how popular some shows seem to be.
Shows like “NCIS” and “The Big Bang Theory” (the most-watched show overall) illustrate a growing divergence in the television-viewing habits of coastal urbanites and the rest of the country. Both shows are produced by CBS, have huge followings—averaging over 20m viewers each—but receive very little attention from the media. In contrast, critically-acclaimed shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” each averaged just 9.3m, and 3.7m viewers, according to Nielsen, a television-ratings agency. Since “Mad Men”’s launch in 2007, The New York Times has written 2,480 articles referencing the show, but just 231 mentioning “NCIS”, despite the latter sharing its name with two popular spin-offs (NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans) and a federal agency. There appears to be minimal overlap in what shows are watched by most people compared to the cultural elite.
– America’s Most Watched by W.Z.
A good example of this dichotomy is the difference between Girls and Last Man Standing. Both shows aired over the past 6-7 years and both are ending this year. Both shows are tied pretty closely to their star (Lena Dunham for Girls and Tim Allen for Last Man Standing). Notably, Girls is on HBO while Last Man Standing is on network TV, which can definitely play a role in the viewership of a show. The biggest difference between the shows, though, is the critical reception and popularity of them.
Even though I didn’t have HBO, knew virtually nothing about Lena Dunham, and had little interest in the show, it was impossible to miss the existence of Girls considering how often it came up in the media. There was no way I was the target demographic for such a show, and yet I seemed to get hit over the head with news about it all the time. In fact, I even recall one time asking somebody, “Who is this Lena Dunham person? What is Girls? And is there a reason I should know the answer to either? Why is everybody talking about it?”
In contrast, Last Man Standing in many ways should be right in my wheelhouse. I’ve got a soft spot for network sitcoms and consider myself to be a fan of Tim Allen. Home Improvement was one of my favorite sitcoms growing up and Galaxy Quest is criminally underrated. And yet, while I remember hearing about a new Tim Allen show a few times, it was a relative deafening silence compared to the gushing that Girls received in the media.
The critical responses back that up. According to Wikipedia, “Critics lauded the show for its raw nature, humor, and refreshing tone”. Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes consistently gave each season generally positive to great reviews. The New York Times was so smitten with the show that somebody felt compelled to compile a list of “Every Article The New York Times Published About HBO’s ‘Girls’”. Spoiler alert: It’s 38. That’s over 6 articles per season the show was on the air! The critical response for Last Man Standing wasn’t nearly as glowing, with much lower Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes numbers than Girls. One interesting thing to note, however, is that Rotten Tomatoes’ average audience score for Last Man Standing is actually higher than Girls despite the massive difference in critical reaction and the Metacritic user score is also much closer.
But an even bigger difference than the critical reaction was the popular reaction to each show. I was surprised to find out that, in terms of viewership numbers, Girls was never even remotely a hit. The final season debut was seen by only about half a million viewers, which was an improvement on previous seasons. Even though it’s been claimed that ratings don’t matter for Girls, those are pretty small numbers by most metrics. Again, while it’s not fair to make direct comparisons because of the HBO vs network TV dynamic, Last Man Standing easily blew those numbers away, averaging 7-9 million viewers over the course of its run. In fact, it was such a seeming hit that it was a bit of a shock to industry watchers when it was canceled after this past season.
Other bubbles worth mentioning: Jay Leno was more popular than David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.
Not the only bubbles
These aren’t at all the only bubbles that I live in, and it’s impossible to tell what additional bubbles I live in that I don’t even know about. Simply by living in the United States, I’m already in the top 1% in terms of income relative to the rest of the world. I would be a (lower case) fool to think that I could even come close to identifying all of the bubbles that I live in. The best that I can do is to try to keep in mind that not everybody shares the same experiences as I do and to actively try to identify what biases I bring to the table. It’s a constant and never-ending work in progress, but I believe it’s work worth doing.