Zeitgeist used to be a formidable thing. Matthew Arnold coined the term in the 19th Century to capture the spirit of social unrest in the Victorian Age. W.H. Auden wrote “May we worship neither the flux of chance, nor the wheel of fortune, nor the spiral of the zeitgeist.” It could be sinister – powerful enough to convince individuals that they were not responsible for their own choices, that they were merely carried along by the romantic gust of the now. It absolved people of any need to resist the pull of the masses and think for themselves. Then came the Roaring 20s and the Flower Power 60s, great sweeps of history distilled into symbols.
Then came the Internet, and the cycles have sped up. It used to make sense to talk about the zeitgeist of the moment when comparing the present age to a previous one. The literal definition of the word is “The spirit of genius which marks the thought or feeling of a period or age.” Now, cultural movements that used to unfold over the course of years or decades now take place within a much shorter time frame – months, days, hours. (If you don’t believe us, check out what’s trending on Tik-Tok).
Zeitgeist, once so historical and grand in meaning, is now used to reference anything from Lady Gaga, a candy bar, or a TV show that is “zeitgeisty” and would be good on cable. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lady Gaga, candy and cable. But what if zeitgeist now only equals a slew of things that could be a hit on cable? Are we supposed to believe that the contemporary zeitgeist encompasses everything from iPhones, air ionization and a good gut cleanse? To talk about about a “sports zeitgeist” or a “culinary zeitgeist” or a “fashion zeitgeist” when all one means is a “trend” is to shame the word.
Writers position it in the (usually) redundant phrase “zeitgeist of the moment” like “Ah ha” – the lightbulb or idea coming on. The New York Times alone has given the crown to many different entities: One nominee was Marie Antoinette “Queen of the ever-shifting zeitgeist.” Before her, Rosa Parks was defined as a “Zeitgeist Warrior” along with Al Gore. There are many more.
Even Google has a statistics function called ‘zeitgeist’ that aggregates how often particular topics are searched over time. Also according to Google, usage of the word is increasing, but that in itself dilutes the meaning. One explanation is the surge of social media and the virality of its content.
In the online context, a ‘zeitgeist’ is an idea or image that is iconic of a particular moment. If we accept this definition, we could infer that social media is a constant generator of zeitgeist. You could also talk about the advent of memes as a significant zeitgeist, almost a new form of communication or language.
When discussing online zeitgeist, you could also refer to the particular moods or spirit that are felt by internet users. On the one hand, tapping into the ‘zeitgeist’ is fun, fresh, exciting, trendy, #now. It’s a river flowing downstream and we’re along for the ride. It’s belonging, identifying, relating, having something to talk about with friends, a common cultural language.
On the other hand – and this is where it gets dark – it seems to get exclusionary. A significant example of how this cynicism can manifest itself is in so-called echo chambers fostered by shared opinions and – more likely – social media giants’ algorithms. We’re all being put in a room with people like ourselves to keep us happy and interested, and reinforce existing beliefs and habits.
I’m not saying all is lost – on the contrary, I believe there is vast potential for improvement. The internet has demonstrated saving grace during COVID. While the internet can foster isolation, it has also gave us the opportunity to interact beyond the front porch with our families, friends, schools, and coworkers when lockdowns were at their worst. How much better equipped are we now to manage such a situation than our predecessors were when battling other plagues?
We cannot ignore the times the internet managed to bring people together or call attention to important issues whether they be in our backyard or across the globe. We are experiencing a slew of historical events that seem more like science fiction than reality, and that are certainly catapulting us out of our comfort zones.
For good or bad, the internet gives us a front-row seat, forcing us to come face to face with difficult issues. Aside from hiding out under the bed, in echo chambers, and trying to defend ourselves through privacy settings and unsubscribe buttons, our challenge is knowing where to place our trust once we set our own personal boundaries. With unlimited information at our fingertips, we need to exercise our human judgment, morals, and sensitivity chips to make our own decisions on what we are going to reject or implement into our lives.
Food for thought: The digital world is destined for an overhaul, but who leads it, and how can we as individuals initiate that change? Or, do we leave it all up to AI?