You may not be aware of it, but this is the focal peak. Between roughly Valentine’s Day and the Monday after the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament is when macro culture in the United States is most focused. The thinkpieces have been running hot and will continue for a week or two before they begin to subside around St. Patrick’s day.

This is not nearly as scientifically or professionally oriented as many of my theories, but one that I have espoused for a number of years. Any number of you have been subjected to my rants on this topic. This is the first time I will commit the idea to the digital paper despite years of my ramblings. But why should you think about this?

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Cultural Processes are Not Linear

Repeat this argument regularly. Buying one more television ad in the final days will not sway the election. A 2% increase in sappy lines will not make your television program romantic. Many processes overlap and may even retroactively interact.

Perhaps the most often overlooked non-linear dynamic is the oscillator. There are forces that fluctuate within regular boundaries. Take the Olympic games. Roughly every two years, give or take a few months, an Olympic games begin. By the end of the games, the public has grown bored of the derivative events and it is time to return to normal media culture. Interest wells up, and drifts down. This is the underlying dynamic of hipsterism as theorized by Jonathan Touboul: hipsters tend to conform to a counter-oscillation against the “mainstream.” This is not to say that all non-conformists are hipsters or that they are all conforming to an alternative culture, some non-conformists may not change at all. Mutton chops will be in style every seven years, be ready.

There are other shapes as well. Consider the many of our Holidays: they are tangent lines. Attention sweeps up, reaching a peak on the day itself, rapidly diffusing or even fully inverting immediately afterward. There are Twelve Days of Christmas, but truth be told the bulk of the season is before the day.

Emergent Potentials and The Rhetorical Situation

Among all of these different lines are emergent potentialities. It is not that Valentine’s Day causes maximum focus right about now, but that the changing light levels, business cycle, temperature trends, and a number of other established patterns tend to peak right about now. This is how it is. Online social movements will soon begin to decay. This is normal.

Emergence is an important idea in media studies — it is not necessarily the counter to convergence, but it offers a different insight. The convergence argument supposed that the arrival of a single platform for content distribution would facilitate the condensation of a participatory culture. Except it, well, didn’t. Or at least, that culture ended up being a lot less progressive than folks had hoped. Convergence relies on a narrative of connection, often intentional, to drive the story forward. Emergence on the other hand, supposes that there are forces that will create a variety of contexts and potentials that we may not effectively model or understand. Does the media produce the conditions for producers, or do the producers of media reshape those conditions? This is basically the rhetorical situation reframed — and as a topoi for all communication research, this is a worthy point for the basic curriculum.

I turn to the focal peak not to get back to the deconstructive middle ground, but to go all the way to the objective point. This is a time of hypertrophic agency, the focal peak, the intense intense alignment of publics with mass media in the next few weeks, is an annual event. Sometimes we lose that move back to the objective pole of the rhetorical situation and the emergent side of media. This is not to say that this should always be the perspective, but that context is really important for understanding communication.

What are the implications?

There are a few: first, don’t be surprised when your social movement begins to lose energy. It is time to remodulate and recharge. Expect focus shaming. Second, reporters will be taking vacations, the thinkpieces will soon stop flowing. Third, moods will be improving. Yes, reverse seasonal affective disorder is real. It only enhances my argument. It is not that everyone will be moving in one direction, but that the poles will shift and the culture will drift. Fourth, rituals that mark the passage of a year are are coming to an end. The end of the fiscal year, just before the fourth of July is a less visceral, put powerful chronological marker. The end of Lent and the madness of March are more visceral. The factors that focused the public will soon abate.

Enjoy the next few weeks, but know that this is fleeting.

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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