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When I was just entering my teenage years a huge music hit in 1979 with The Buggles song Video Killed the Radio Star. The title and refrain confused me because radio was very important in our lives and particularly the DJs of Radio One were constantly spoken about. It was, however, a song about a previous change as 1950s radio stars were replaced by television stars. That then led into a critique of how our world was changing now, in particular in relation to new technology coming into music as the 1970s became the techno 1980s. At that time there were only three channels available on British TVs: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV. One factor that was not yet evident on the horizon in 1979 was that with the advent of multi-channel television in 1990 watercooler moments were seriously under threat.

A watercooler moment is an occasional chat as co-workers fetch water from the dispenser. The topic of conversation in the 1980s would often turn to the then big shows on TV. When British TV expanded in the satellite and digital age beyond the now four terrestrial channels (Channel Four joining in 1982) a major concern was whether this would lead to a splintering of British society as there might no longer be a common topic of conversation to have at the watercooler. This did not happen as terrestrial channels continued to be able to dominate media discussion through popular soap operas (Coronation Street and East Enders) or through the likes of Big Brother. Indeed the relentless promotion of those three shows in the media might be seen as an attempt to keep the watercooler moment alive, because without it there is less for the media to comment on.

What has really killed the watercooler moment is the combination of social media and smartphones. No longer is the national conversation dominated by a small collection of blockbuster TV shows, but is fragmented into a series of different social media platforms that often appeal to very different demographics, e.g., Facebook has been bleeding youth usage ever since parents and grandparents began using what began as a student platform. Not only is the conversation fragmented by platform, but social media by its nature revolves around the people in your virtual social circle.

The British media continue to seek to generate a national conversation out of this fragmentation. Their commentary on what is trending on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram is an attempt to not only keep control of the national conversation, but to keep alive the notion that there is a national conversation to have. The national conversation has in truth ended if it ever existed other than in the collective mind of politicians and media pundits.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved

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