How do you define mainstream?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the word “mainstream” and what it means. Princeton’s WordNet defines mainstream as “the prevailing current of thought” while Merriam-Webster defines mainstream as “a prevailing current or direction of activity or influence”. I think many people have a different definition however, something more akin to the one at UrbanDictionary:

Mainstream is what’s the new trend. When one "style" gets old, a new one is reborn; a mainstream person is someone who jumps from trend to trend so that they fit in with the rest of the crowd.

That definition has 514 positive votes and only 51 negative votes. There are a few others there too, but that one is the most popular. The definition at Wiktionary is similar.

Two recent articles got me thinking about this. On October 27th, the Wall Street Journal said that Twitter is going mainstream:

When the service first appeared a couple of years ago, its appeal seemed largely limited to narcissists who wanted to let everybody know what they were doing in real time. But, like blogs and social-networking sites, Twitter is starting to cross into the mainstream, as a wide range of people find interesting uses for the brief notes.

Is the WSJ right? Has Twitter crossed into the mainstream? I think that depends on which definition you use. Based on the one in the dictionary, I’d say they’re wrong.

The second article was from The Economist. They say blogging is mainstream now too:

Blogging has entered the mainstream, which—as with every new medium in history—looks to its pioneers suspiciously like death.

Hold on a sec – blogging has only just entered the mainstream? If that’s true, how can Twitter possibly be considered mainstream? Seems the “mainstream” media have different definitions for the word too!

Maybe everyone has a different definition for the word? I think it all depends on what your litmus test is. For instance:

  • Has Twitter been mentioned on TV and in the newspaper? Yes, it’s mainstream.
  • Does anyone make money using Twitter? Yes, it’s mainstream.
  • Do my parents use Twitter regularly? No, it’s not mainstream.
  • Do all of my friends use Twitter? No, it’s not mainstream.
  • Will a random person on the street know what Twitter is? No, it’s not mainstream.

I think that’s pretty close to what my litmus test is. Replace “Twitter” with “Google” or “Facebook” and all of the answers are yes.

What’s your test? How do you define mainstream?

5 thoughts on “How do you define mainstream?

  1. The Wall Street Journal needs to cool off their use of the word mainstream. Twitter is gaining popularity, but is FAR from a mainstream social networking service. Just because Gore and Obama have accounts does not make it mainstream. It does however lend credibility to the usefulness of the service.

    Besides, if Twitter ever became truly mainstream – I think all we’d ever see is the white fail whale on login. 😉

  2. For me, “mainstream” means that it is no longer a novelty. People don’t feel the need to use qualifiers with it when mentioning it to other people–I would say “Twitter” instead of “Twitter, a microblogging service I use.”

    So by this definition, I would consider blogging as mainstream now, because of the increasing number of blogs out there and the fact that it’s not just individuals any more; governments, companies, and organizations are also recognizing the usefulness of blogs. If you talk to the average Internet user, he or she will know what a blog is, and probably read some.

    Twitter, on the other hand, is not mainstream. I doubt most of my friends know what Twitter is (to put that in perspective, I’m 19, in that demographic where we are all busily integrating social media into our lives)–if they do, it’s probably because I’ve explained it at some point. The way the CBC treated Twitter and other Internet commentary during their television election coverage demonstrates that broadcasters don’t know yet how to truly interact with this phenomenon. Companies and organizations using Twitter are predominantly those focused on technology, the Internet, or social networking. Twitter (or should I say microblogging in general) becomes mainstream when, like blogs, it’s one of those activities in which any sort of individual, company, or organization will engage as a component of establishing their web presence.

  3. Two things can be mainstream at once and a stream refers to a market segment. Things fall our of mainstream when they are no-longer near the front of the pack in terms of use in their market segment. To get into mainstream they first have to cross the chasm (see the book) in their market segment.

    Mainstream needs a qualifier… “Twitter is in mainstream use amongst technology journalists” (or possibly a broader segment). “Texting is in the mainstream amongst 12-50 year olds”.

    Mainstream is not defined by knowledge. Many people still know what vinyl records are…

  4. Jon I hope that’s not the case! They’ve been good about avoiding the Fail Whale recently.

    Ben, I like your comment about using qualifiers. That makes a lot of sense and is probably a good litmus test.

    Hmm good point about the vinyl records Colin, I never thought about it that way before.

  5. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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