The Three Segments of American Culture
Introducing the Macro, the Micro, and the Meso
Three years ago, I offered an outline of the three factions of the American left. It’s plausible these sweeping categories—moderate, left-liberal, and socialist—don’t hold in the coming years, and that the general instability of contemporary politics reorders what we’ve come to know. A presidential year, in theory, demands a reassessment, but the likelihood of a Trump v. Biden rematch and the bilious blend of resentment and detachment that a large number of Americans feel toward both men will probably mean any sort of greater ideological reckoning will be temporarily forestalled. Unlike Jimmy Carter in 1980, Joe Biden is not getting challenged from the left, and unlike George H.W. Bush after 1992, abject defeat hasn’t chastened Donald Trump.
The culture of the 2020s is increasingly divorced from presidential politics. This might change if Trump reenters the White House in 2025, but for now, absent Israel and Palestine, we have witnessed nothing like the hyper-politics of the 2010s and 2020, when most of cultural life seemed to be filtered through what Trump said, did, and thought. It is good that national politics no longer defines, so aggressively, what we watch, listen to, and read. A healthy nation must periodically compartmentalize.
It’s possible to understand, with some clarity, what’s before us. The writer and music historian Ted Gioia, who has emerged as one of the most trenchant cultural critics working today, has posited that 2024 will be the year the macroculture and the microculture go to war. Another astute cultural writer who publishes under the pseudonym Mo_Diggs has identified the mesoculture as what we most lack today, and what we might require to recover both stability and, eventually, sanity. All of this bleeds into the romantic upheaval that may be here already.
But what are the micro, the macro, and the meso? Why do they matter? What’s coming next? As someone who toggles between the macroculture and the microculture, and longs for the resurrection of the mesoculture, these questions are particularly pressing for me.
Inherent in its name, the macroculture is still what most Americans think of today when they imagine who produces the music, the movies, the news, the books, all that content, to wield a dreaded term. Hollywood, of course, is the macroculture. Disney and Paramount reign above, along with tech giants like Amazon and Apple who have made significant incursions into the entertainment space. Spotify and Netflix are the macro streamers. The major record conglomerates, including Sony Music Group and Universal Music Group, belong here, as does all of legacy media. The Times and the Atlantic and the New Yorker are the macroculture, as is 20th Century Fox (Disney), Fox News, ABC News (Disney), ESPN (Disney), CNN (Warner Bros. Discovery), NBC, CBS (Paramount), and HBO (Warner Bros. Discovery). Corporate publishers and their imprints all belong, too. Size alone isn’t a determinant of what resides in the macroculture. Smaller newspapers and online publications, like Slate and Vox, can be considered macro in sentiment. Most magazines are the same way.
The macroculture is both extraordinarily wealthy and uniquely vulnerable. The second part of this formulation was not true until the twenty-first century, when the internet matured and obliterated, at once, several remarkably durable business models. When the macroculture was on sturdier financial ground, Americans benefited more, in part, because there was a greater degree of narrative diversity. Mainstream cinema could, at any given time, be composed of action films, rom-coms, high concept art films, historical epics, psychological thrillers, regular comedies, and original IP franchises. In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, there were many types of tentpole films. As Hollywood grew vulnerable in the last decade and a half, as more and more consumers shifted to streaming and stayed home, the retread culture, which still strangles us today, emerged: superhero films, films based on video games, films owed entirely to ancient intellectual property. As good as Barbie was, this was the ultimate problem with Barbie, a doll first sold in 1959, a full decade before men walked on the moon. There is no new doll, no new flying hero or righteous mutant, no fresh IP. Thirty years ago, the macroculture cared far more about newness.
It is harder to generalize about book publishing because so many different kinds of books get published every year and the works, if marginalized by a public that mostly doesn’t read, can still be multifarious. But I’ll speak, in broad strokes, to the general culture of literary fiction, which held a kind of prestige in the twentieth century that it may never recapture again. When there had been less conglomeration in publishing, there were, arguably, a wider array of novels that would reach the broader public. Writers themselves could be regional, class-based, highly-educated, or completely bereft of elite formal schooling. Many more of them came from the working class. The moneyed coasts, East and West, always exerted the most pull, but there were many different schools and styles, even politics, taking root in the vast middle of the country. And it wasn’t just the middle: within coastal cities themselves, like New York and Los Angeles, tribunes for the alienated and the destitute could more readily emerge. Outsiders, like Samuel Delaney and Hubert Selby Jr. and Flannery O’Connor, still barreled their way into the macroculture and were even exalted there. I don’t want to idealize all of this too much—we are a less racist country today, and twentieth century publishing had many failures—but the discontent a reader might feel in the 2020s is connected to all the novels conceived, almost entirely, in one milieu: upper-middle class affluence within a fashionable metropolitan area. These worlds are usually white, but they don’t have to be, and what left-liberals never quite understand is that there is far more solidarity between a Black Swarthmore graduate and a white Swarthmore graduate than a white attorney from Grosse Pointe and a white Dollar General clerk in the Lansing exurbs. The literary novels that achieve widest distribution today are, with some exceptions, preoccupied with the struggles and neuroses of those wielding the most cultural capital.
The major record labels, meanwhile, doesn’t know how to break out big stars anymore. Taylor Swift won’t be supplanted. The A&R functionaries race desperately to the new stalwarts of the microculture like TikTok for hitmakers, throwing out record deals to anyone who seems to achieve a moment of virality. They don’t nurture talent or understand, really, how to distribute it outward. This is mostly—but not entirely—their fault; the internet wrecked every distribution channel imaginable, from the record store to the music magazine, and MTV has lost all relevance. Radio stations no longer distinguish themselves in any regional market. Drive through Chicago or Oakland or Buffalo and hear, quite literally, the same exact songs on any local affiliate, if you’re listening at all.
Much has been written on the fracturing of culture, of our dwindling consensus zones—no Friends or Seinfeld to gather around Americans every Thursday evening. For the macroculture, this has long been a challenge, and it will only get worse in the coming years. The theme here is struggle: most of the conglomerates and media properties aren’t as wealthy as they once were. The bleeding out of the large newspapers, the regional newspapers, and the digital insurgents alike is well-known, with an obvious enough culprit. The print advertising model was never replaced. What has been surprising, as we near the midpoint of this decade, is how some of the storied incumbents can’t even garner attention anymore. The 2010s riddle was how to monetize interest. More dire, for a vaunted institution like the Washington Post, is that half of its traffic has vanished since 2020. Traffic itself is quasi-worthless—I don’t monitor the traffic of this newsletter, for example, I simply care if more people sign up and whether they pay—but it is a barometer that can’t be ignored entirely.
It is not much sunnier at Spotify, which laid off 17% of its workforce. Apple’s stock is getting downgraded. CNN’s ratings are cratering, and it may merge with CBS News, which lags its competitors already. ESPN, once the king of the sports macroculture, has turned to an erratic microcultural star, Pat McAfee, to save them—and he plainly cannot.
The walls between the cultures can be porous. Many in the microculture still long for macro prestige and, perhaps, its cash. If not ignoring it altogether, the macrocultural players look upon the micro with a mixture of wariness and envy, wondering how they know little but retrenchment while the micro is booming. Individuals, like Joe Rogan, may shuttle from one culture to the other, and back again. Rogan first found fame as a comedian and host of Fear Factor, firmly situated in the macroculture. He then became far famous, and richer, in the microculture, launching one of the most popular podcasts in the world and streaming it on YouTube. The macroculture took notice: Spotify paid him more than $200 million, and he became the object of scorn—and genuine fascination—in the mainstream media. Rogan alienates liberals for a variety of reasons, but the greater story—one that still must play out—is how Spotify will not gain very much from pouring so much cash into Rogan. This has nothing to do with his views on Trump or Covid vaccines. It has everything to do with the reality that no individual, outside of a professional athlete, can be worth that much money to a company. Streaming itself is a dubious business model, one that will never deliver on its promised returns. When the deal is up, Rogan can take his mass audience and charge them to listen to him directly, sans Spotify. He’ll marinate in the microculture just fine.
The macroculture, it must be emphasized, is nowhere near collapse. I think it will transmogrify, not vanish. But it’s no longer growing. It’s the microculture that is expanding, often explosively.
This is not a value judgement, merely an expression of bare fact.
The cultural undercurrent, in the United States, of Israel’s war against Hamas and the ongoing, catastrophic siege of Gaza is the ideological cleavage between the old and the young. If you’re under thirty-five, you think Israel is an oppressor state, and the sins of Hamas are secondary to seventy-five years of colonialism. If you’re older, you might be disconcerted by the civilian casualties in Gaza but believe, ultimately, Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorism—or, at least, Zionism itself is not evil.
TikTok has harbored the most pro-Palestine and anti-Israel sentiment, leading to accusations that the Chinese-run social media giant is catalyzing an entire generation against Israel through the manipulation of algorithms. Jewish celebrities fumed that TikTok could even be responsible, in some form, for the Hamas attacks. Much of this was simplistic thinking because young, left-leaning Americans don’t need social media to care about the bombing of Gaza. Hamas doesn’t need social media to hate Israel. But it is inarguable that TikTok, for the time being, platformed more anti-Israel voices because its success is built on decentralization: anyone can create a TikTok video and gatekeepers, theoretically, are nonexistent.
TikTok is best understood as one of the most famous and successful components of the microculture. Even if growth there is slowing and the metrics of virality can be nebulous, it is a platform that is, for now at least, capturing the greatest share of youth attention. It embodies the microculture because it is bottom-up, not top-down; macrocultural luminaries can be successful there, but popularity percolates differently, and its celebrities might be rich without the attendant trappings of the old macrocultural fame, that lost world of Empire. Instagram works similarly: it is owned by Facebook, a macrocultural titan, yet it is fueled entirely by the attention of the individual users who fill it, free of charge, with all of its content.
In terms of raw growth, the greater success story of the microculture might be the Google-owned YouTube. The top creators are perpetually expanding. MrBeast has soared past 100 million subscribers, with his rate of growth still increasing. Forty-three YouTube channels attract more than a half billion views a month. Stripe, the payment processor for most online transactions, including those on Substack, revealed that the so-called creator economy—those in the microculture using online platforms—has continually expanded over the last two years. In 2021, Stripe aggregated data from 50 popular creator platforms and found they had added 668,000 creators who received $10 billion in payouts. In 2023, those same 50 platforms had added over 1 million creators and paid out more than $25 billion in earnings.
The context here is the timeframe. The early 2020s were a bloodbath for macrocultural media. Other than, perhaps, the New York Times, there were no success stories. Disney stock plunged. Cable ratings evaporated. Post-Trump news traffic dried up. Netflix suddenly realized there was no pot of gold at the end of the streaming rainbow.
Images and video don’t rule the entirety of the microculture. What you are reading now, this Substack, belongs to the micro, as blogs did in the 2000s before they were subsumed by social media and larger websites or undone by the lack of dollars available to those who wrote for the web. Substack cannot replace the newspapers that have collapsed or replicate the alternative media ecosystem that has mostly been destroyed. What it does offer is a way for some to either make a comfortable living or a partial living writing or, absent that, at least hunt out a fresh audience bored by what the macroculture has been disgorging over the last few years. Stripe is what makes Substack, for writers like me, viable; it’s easy for those who want to support me to pay for what I write, thus solving the great dilemma of the old blogs, which could not, for the most part, convert readers into paying customers.
What’s intriguing about Substack is what’s intriguing about modern day YouTube: growth. Like any online platform, there is a tremendous divide between the enormously popular and the anonymous, but a Substack middle class is slowly taking root as newsletters continually add new readers. There is no such thing as a Washington Post-style crisis, of an audience evaporating. The opposite is true, with those who put the work in getting rewarded with new subscribers. Whatever the pace, the numbers keep going up, not down. A knock on Substack is that the macrocultural heavyweights who end up there merely replicate their success; this is partially true. Matt Taibbi was a fairly famous Rolling Stone correspondent, Matt Yglesias had a large social media following from two decades of blogging, and Bari Weiss had sinecures at the Times and Wall Street Journal. While all of that aids in success, none of it guarantees large audiences will follow. Some have leapt from the legacy media to Substack and found, in fact, they can’t make it entirely work. And other Substack titans had no fame before migrating over to the newsletter service. Heather Cox Richardson was a history professor and author at Boston College, known chiefly in academic circles. The aforementioned Ted Gioia, who is nearing 100,000 subscribers on his own Substack, was known to jazz enthusiasts but didn’t boast a significant social media presence or decades spent on cable television. Anne Kadet, a New York-based journalist, shot past 10,000 subscribers in two short years by conducting quirky interviews and cultural excavations that the macroculture would ignore. The thrill of Substack is the sheer diversity of voices: racial, ideological, cultural, and political. It is something of an underground press, diffuse and raffish and maybe more ambitious. If only it could all be fused together into a neo-Village Voice, stuffed into a news box every week.
In the last century, the macrocultural elites would try to glom onto, appropriate, or make a study of the microcultural equivalent of its day: the counterculture. Hollywood, the large publishing houses, and Madison Avenue were all deeply interested in the protest movements, the new rock music, and the aesthetics of the baby boomer set, in part because they wanted to ensure all of it could be properly commodified. And the creators within the macro, the mainstream, wanted to learn—they were interested in advancement and innovation for its own sake, the desire to reimagine what was possible. New Hollywood, postmodernist literature, and the rising sophistication of network television were all reflective of this shift. The counterculture strengthened the mainstream.
Today, the relationship is far more fraught. Most macrocultural operators remain befuddled by Substack, wishing it all would go away or drown in its mostly nonexistent problems. CNN, the Atlantic, and NPR won’t set up on Substack. And when media conglomerates do poach YouTubers or podcasters from the microculture, like in the cases of McAfee or Lilly Singh, they hope the amorphous formats of their prior productions can be jammed into the structured world of television. Macrocultural elites rarely, though, try to learn from the success of what’s churning below, or how rapid growth is still possible when so much of the mainstream seems to be contracting. The trouble, too, is that the tech behemoths rely on the microculture for their own survival, and no longer innovate themselves. The relationship is, if not vampiric, than feudal: Google controls YouTube, Facebook controls Instagram, Elon Musk controls X, ByteDance controls TikTok, and the creators themselves till the digital fields, tirelessly generating value for their bosses while hoping some of it gets kicked back to them. At some point, this tension will break out into the open, as all of these platforms, in various forms, try to demonetize or suppress the content they do not like. Palestinian voices will find TikTok less hospitable in the coming months and years. The new platforms Big Tech tries to create will not help, either. Threads cannot replace Twitter because it hates the written word.
The microculture, though, is not any ideal because it is still a realm of haves and have-nots. Most people are not MrBeast or even a sliver of a fraction of MrBeast. Most people cannot crowdfund $1 million for their fantasy novel. Most people cannot pay their rent with Substack or Patreon income. There is the risk, like with the oversaturation of podcasts, that too many creators will go begging in front of the same audiences and monetary returns will diminish.
The microculture is, too often, a hustle culture. Many artists, rightfully, would rather not hustle.
What we need is more than a macroculture and a microculture—what thrived in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and is now dissipating.
The cultural producers—painters, musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, and podcasters—can feel alienated today because neither the macroculture nor the microculture are terribly hospitable. The macroculture has mostly stopped innovating and nurturing new talent, and it denies a middle-class existence to many would-be creators because so many different business models are going bust. There was a time when a mortgage could be paid working as a reporter at a midsized newspaper in a city like Cleveland or Denver. Or a writer who had an interest in the arts could get paid by one of these newspapers, on a regular basis, to review new novels, art exhibitions, movies, or albums. To do art, criticize art, or practice journalism in this precarious time often requires a degree of family support or outside wealth that is not available to the poor, the working class, or even some in the middle.
There are opportunities in the microculture, but far less stability. And for those who have no great interest in TikTok or YouTube, the cultural horizons can seem circumscribed. The aesthetics of both platforms may lack appeal. In a war between Hollywood and TikTok, are any of us winners?
Mo_Diggs describes the mesoculture as a 2000s phenomenon with antecedents in the 1980s and 1990s. It was indie rock, underground hip-hop, small press literature, the blogs, and the last of the alternative newspapers. It was what was too small for the macroculture, and perhaps too offline to be entirely micro. As the counterculture waned, the mesoculture stepped in, and then the social media age swallowed it all. The streaming model, concurrently, further undercut the major labels of the macroculture while weakening the music blogs and websites like Pitchfork who wielded tangible influence just outside the mainstream. Algorithms took precedent over hipster critics. The apotheosis of the mesoculture might have been 2009, when indie rock darlings Grizzly Bear played a concert that Jay-Z attended and he gushed about them afterwards. “I hope this happens because it will push rap, it will push hip-hop to go even further—what the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring. It felt like us in the beginning. These concerts, they’re not on the radio, no one hears about them, and there’s 12,000 people in attendance.” It was the same year Animal Collective, an experimental psychedelic and folk band that was my favorite in college, released an album that peaked at no. 13 on the Billboard charts. Several years before, buzz from music blogs had made the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah enough of a cultural phenomenon that one of their songs appeared in The Office.
My bias is to indie rock, but the mesoculture is about more than bands you might find too obscure or twee. It is what lies in between, as well as the demand for physical communion. The microculture is relentlessly online. As bountiful as Substack might be, it is not a newspaper office or a DIY show. It is not a raucous debate at a coffee shop. Pro-Palestine TikTok content is nothing against the rush of an actual street protest, of which there are many now. Slowly, the mesoculture crawls back. The recent burst of new literary journals and magazines represents one element of a small resurgence. Dimes Square, if derided, was a grasp at building the mesoculture. County Highway, a print-only nationwide newspaper, is amassing a readership. Post-pandemic, there is a greater longing for readings, performances, and parties. Five hundred people or more will attend a literary launch. What is missing, still, is the larger alternative infrastructure, particularly the newspapers that cannot sustain themselves anymore. The Voice has no print edition. The Boston Phoenix is dead, as is the Baltimore City Paper. Substack newsletters do not yet sway the zeitgeist like the blogs of twenty years ago did. Yet if the mesoculture grows more vibrant, the macroculture will be forced to respond. A half century ago, the counterculture revolutionized much of the machinery above it, and someday a new mesoculture could do the same. It will expand, regardless, because it is needed. The yearning, among enough younger Americans, is there. Most online platforms amount to empty calories, and so much of digital life ends up antic or glum. There is only so much posting to be done. Meanwhile, the macro mandarins have to figure out how to staunch the bleeding. Retreads, mergers, and pivots to video won’t do it. They’ll have to start imagining again.
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