1980s (you), 2000s (connection). What’s the 2020s zeitgeist?

16.26, Monday 8 Mar 2021

What’s this groove called under my nose? If you’re in the UK, the way you’ll know is because of this BT ad from 2001 (YouTube).

A small girl asks an entire stadium of people; somebody stands up and answers. Cut to: somebody selling fish. Cut to: somebody looking for investment: Cut to, etc. It’s the internet, see.

The strapline was: More connections. More possibilities.

Nokia was dominant in mobile phone sales from 1998 to around 2010. Nokia’s slogan: Connecting people.

It was amazing to connect with people in the late 90s/early 2000s. I don’t think we were lonely exactly. But maybe meeting people was somewhere between an opportunity, something novel, and, yes, a need – suddenly it was possible to find the right person, or the right community.

So, the zeitgeist of the early 2000s.

I ran across a previous zeitgeist in an article about Choose Your Own Adventure books. They appeared and became massively popular at the same time as text adventure computer games, but neither inspired the invention of the other. How? The real answer may lie far deeper in the cultural subconscious … in the zeitgeist of the 1980s.

[Historian Eli Cook] draws parallels between the CYOA books’ claims that “You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story,” that “You are responsible because you choose,” and Reagan Republicans cutting welfare programs because people in poverty had only themselves to blame-that they’d simply made poor choices. But this wasn’t just a conservative turn: the language of abortion-rights advocates settled on “pro-choice” in the 1980s, Cook notes, while ad campaigns across the country were switching to second-person slogans like “Have It Your Way” or “This Bud’s For You.” Self-determination had become the watchword of the day, and individual agency the most potent application of American freedom.

1980s: you.

2000s: connection.

2020s: ?

Zeitgeists don’t lead and zeitgeists don’t follow.

I think when we spot some kind of macro trend in establishment consumer ads, it’s never going to be about presenting people with something entirely new. To resonate, it has to be familiar - the trajectory that the consumer is already on - but it also has to scratch an itch. The brand wants to be a helpful fellow traveller, if you like.

I wonder what the zeitgeist of the 2020s will be, or is already maybe. What deep human need will be simultaneously a comfort and an aspiration? There should be hints of it in popular culture already. (If I knew how to put my finger on it, I’d be an ad planner.)

If I had to guess then it would be something about belonging.

There was a hint of this in Reddit’s 5 second Super Bowl commercial which went hard on one their communities, r/WallStreetBets, ganging up to bring down hedge funds. Then we’ve got a couple of generations now who grew up with the idea of fandoms, and of course conspiracy theories like QAnon too. If you squint, you can kind of see this in the way Tesla operates: it’s a consumer brand but it’s also a passionate, combative cause.

Belonging to a tribe is about identity and strength, it’s solace and empowerment all at once. And also knowledge, certainty, and trust in an era of complexity, disinfo, and hidden agendas.

Given that backdrop, it’s maybe unsurprising that the trend in software is towards Discord servers and other virtual private neighbourhoods. But how else will this appear? And is it just the beginnings of something else, something bigger?


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