2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

This article was sent to me by @wotyougot and feeds into some things I’d been mulling over re: social media and television/films for a while. It shouldn’t seem like a particular insight to say that social media is having a big effect on the way we watch things but, in this age of cultural poptimism, it’s a statement which many will take instant umbrage with. For these people social media can only be a force for good and the kids (ie us, vicariously) are alright. It’s surely difficult to argue, however, that the live-tweeting of a show like Question Time is about much more than affirming your self-image and chasing the buzz of a retweet. I speak as someone who used to do it and understands the pleasure of having a pithy comment about that week’s reactionary panel member shared far and wide. It’s a long way from actually being about politics.

This piece speaks about the ‘social media buzz’ behind many of the most popular current shows and I think a large part of what it’s getting at is that the impulses which drive #BBCQT live-tweeting are now to be fond across television. In short, we reward shows which affirm our self-image. If this doesn’t require much effort on our part and lends itself to pithy social media updates, all the better. Question Time’s facile presentation of politics clearly fits this criteria, as we already know what we think and what the ‘right’ things to say are in order to receive validation. ‘Reality tv’ in general fits the bill, whether that be The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother or Ru Paul’s Drag Race. These shows make no real demands on our attention or even our thinking: they offer quick reward for minimal engagement. It’s arguable that the next step beyond this is the recent trend for verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, in shows like Girls and Looking. These shows offer idyllic reflections of their target audiences – that’s you on screen but you’re funnier, more profound and more attractive. Even the conflict, breakdowns and drama in these shows is an Instagram-filtered gentle masochism which never threatens to disrupt our projections.

Looking is a step beyond even Girls in these regards – its sole creative impulse appears to be this reflection, whether that be gay men of a certain class or a liberal audience who implicitly feel that they deserve cookies for watching a show about gays. I thought that the latter was very evident in responses to Weekend, the previous film from Andrew Haigh (director of Looking), though viewing figures for Looking suggest that its efforts to replicate this on television are falling flat. It’s not surprising, really – having your liberal self-image confirmed in a 90 minute film is one thing but an eight-hour tv show has to offer you something more. Looking fails spectacularly in this regard, being almost entirely free of both straight characters and female characters. It’s notable, however, that its main character is a video game-playing geek, as perhaps the most obvious examples of the trends I’m speaking of are the shows aimed at self-identified ‘geeks’ (Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who). Looking is actually being rather clever in drawing upon the increasing dominance of the ‘geek’ in gay culture but the portrayal is too particular to flatter a general audience.

We can similarly speculate as to whether a wide current audience would care to watch a long television series about slavery featuring a predominantly black cast. Would this offer the same convenient affirmations which people have been finding in 12 Years A Slave? Over the past few weeks I’ve noted that people feel compelled to take to social media and inform everyone of how affected they were by this film, more than any other I can previously recall. It doesn’t require much thought to see how this fits into the trends I’m discussing here. The Brad Pitt character is a personification of the film’s appeal for many ‘liberal’ viewers and the emotional affectation which has so often been following viewings is a performance of self-image. The film is instrumentalised to show how humane and liberal we are. Then it’s onto the next thing.

As the Flavorwire piece notes, if a show acquires a ‘buzz’ it can get away with being a bit slower and more interesting. There’s a clear lineage of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad which are too sprawling to be easily compartmentalised but which became totemic of being a certain kind of person (it’s no coincidence that The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of them). It’s easy, then, to congratulate ourselves for watching ‘difficult’ shows but it’s certainly more difficult for ones which don’t offer facile affirmation to garner wider attention. This occurred to me while watching Rectify over Christmas. While garnering massive critical acclaim, it’s a show which is still largely-unheard of and it’s easy to see why: it’s slow and virtually impenetrable for a ‘social media viewer’, offering almost zero hooks in that regard. All it can hope for in terms of achieving wider attention, then, is to reach a certain critical mass (pun intended) where viewing it becomes a potent signifier.

It’s worth briefly noting here that this trend doesn’t only work in terms of liking something. The ‘Twitter hateathon’ which accompanies Sherlock these days is emblematic of the process working in a different way, where despising a show confirms your self-image. This is not to say that Sherlock isn’t worthy of critique but that is something far-removed from deliberately tuning in to live-tweet 90 minutes of snark.

Social media hasn’t invented the impulses which lie behind all of this, of course. It has merely, as this piece notes, accelerated and cemented them, drawing them out of more and more of us. I noted at the end of my piece on Question Time that the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” written about by Antony Lerman offered an inspiring riposte to the social media-isation of critical engagement. Clearly there is no small irony in writing about that on Tumblr, yet it remains something to heed. Television and film have a massive amount of value to offer us and, on the whole, that value is not GIF-able.

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

A less committed Zionist: Political Certainties and ‘Question Time’

This (and Part 2 of the same) is a thoughtful and fascinating report of The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist, as the title of his autobiography describes. It’s worth reading on its own terms but what struck me was Lerman’s account of leaving behind views he once held onto stridently. His description of the ‘journey’ resonated with me and in a few brief sentences he succinctly gets to its core:

I think it’s also true that one can continue to subscribe to an idea, an ideology, as long as one remains ignorant of facts and analyses that undermine the validity of that ideology.…this was not a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – I never experienced such a sudden falling of scales form my eyes – but one in a series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection that led me to ask ever more searching questions

If anyone reads my ramblings with any regularity you’ll be aware of my own (tedious!) struggle with these issues. The temptation to cling to ideas and ideologies because of the sense of belonging and, crucially, the sense of rightness which they convey is strong and still frequently pulls me back even when they aren’t quite the same ideas as two years ago. Yet I try to push myself to approach my assumptions and beliefs as a scientist might approach a hypothesis, educating myself about why others disagree with them and ‘testing’ whether I could rationalise an opposite view. What brings this to the forefront of my mind every week is the Twitter explosion during ‘Question Time’, a show I used to ‘live-tweet’ myself. I would love to watch ‘Question Time’ with someone from the vast majority of people who pay little attention to day-to-day political developments because I’m genuinely curious as to whether they watch it willing to be informed and/or persuaded. I largely stopped watching it when I became aware that I was only watching it to hear what I already thought, have it affirmed by others online and shout down those who thought differently. I can still vividly recall the sensation of waiting to pounce when the Tory or the week’s right-wing ideologue spoke, listening closely to what they were saying only so that I could catch them out. Of course the nature of ‘Question Time’ means that most contributors rarely stray from very obvious and predictable lines so the odds are that, if you take a serious interest in current affairs, you perhaps wouldn’t be informed by it anyway. So what is the purpose of watching it and, further, sharing that with others? There is undoubtedly much to be said for the importance of knowing that other people share your views. However if politics can be said in some ways to be about engagement, rigid certainty is a quality which can be very off-putting.

The American election led me to ponder people’s perspectives of Obama and Romney, Democrats and Republicans and their personal alignment with them as teams of good and evil. Closer to home, I ask myself if I think Tories are ‘evil’. I certainly strongly disagree with a lot of what they do and it’s easy to dismiss them – but do I think that they do these things because they actively want to fuck up people’s lives? When New Labour pushed neo-liberal policies many on the left painted them as well-meaning and doing the best they could in the circumstances; we rarely offer such fig leaves to the ‘opposition’. Things are complicated with a Marxist analysis looking at class power and its operation which invites further certainty. However in coming to hold views which many would view as ‘radical’ I find myself in an interesting position, because few people in my daily life share them. Few people amongst my friends, my family, my co-workers really speak about politics much at all. Of those that do, a few largely share my opinions, many are committed Labourites and a couple describe themselves as conservatives. Online, it’s a different story as I have followed scores of people whose views chime with me, including many who are far more radical, far more informed, far more engaged than I am. When speaking to those who aren’t politically engaged, it is very easy to become hectoring and weary, believing that they don’t agree with you simply because they haven’t ‘learned’ enough. With the latter group, however, I can find myself being the one hectored if I question them. So I wonder about bridging the gap between the two groups, if ‘radical’ politics is to become more widespread. From ‘Question Time’ through to Prime Minister’s Questions and now onto social media, politics is presented and pushed as adversarial. Add to this an individualistic approach where beliefs and assumptions are seen as part of a person’s identity and self-worth, throw in the desire to belong and to be right which psychology has shown is human nature and add a dash of clicktivism and you have a toxic mix.

This could of course be viewed as a weak apology for moderation and the fetishism of being ‘reasonable’. Constantly second-guess your beliefs and you quickly end up paralysed. This takes me back to Lerman’s quote above. He was a Zionist, now he is an outspoken critic of Zionism. He has beliefs and he acts on them. As befits someone who has had a 180 turn in his world-view, however, he recognises that there is no ‘end point’ of certainty but rather a constant state of questioning, thinking and challenging. Fundamental to this, I think, is a rolling back of what you value from people, parties and even named doctrines to core principles. Lerman viewed Zionism as an intrinsic part of his socialism and it was his increasing sense of tension between the two which led him to become, in his own words, “a less and less committed Zionist for many years.” He undoubtedly suffered personally due to his questioning but you have the sense that he has a surer sense of why he believes what he believes and values what he values. He is a compelling critic of Zionism because he understands its appeal and doesn’t view its adherents as inherently inhumane monsters who are self-evidently wrong. This makes him a powerful voice in addressing great injustices. That’s all we can hope for and everything we can aspire towards, really. For those of us who are on the left and liberal-minded it’s incredibly easy to wallow in a sense of misguided superiority; it’s far more difficult to view those who disagree with us as intelligent, educated and perhaps even believing in the same principles. Disagreements shouldn’t be about fueling our own ego or our own view of ourselves but should arise from our deeply-held values, principles and ideals. These are more appealing to those who aren’t politically-engaged when it’s clear that we’ve thought about the assumptions our view of the world (and of people) rests on rather than subscribing to a binary ‘good/evil’ view of politics. This is something I’m still failing abysmally at but I’m inspired by the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” experienced by Lerman and I’ll continue to give ‘Question Time’ a miss.