Back in 2009, I wrote a post about the death of the television schedule. In the post, I discussed shelf life versus participation value for content, highlighting the rare entertainment events like sports that continue to offer a semblance of the broad, connected communal experience we used to know before technology subdivided our culture. I quoted Mark Cuban who said the following:
The internet has also trained us that if it can be shown on the internet, its probably not going to have a high participation value. Why? Because the expectation is that if its on the internet, you can get to it any time you want it. Its out there waiting for you to stream or download at your pleasure. There is a long perceived shelf-life. So there is no rush.
Things haven’t really turned out that way though. As we so often note in The Scholarly Kitchen, culture trumps technology, and now, nearly every television show or movie of note is accompanied by a frenzy of effort, fueled by both traditional and social media, to create an urgent sense of community around the show.
As someone looking forward to the simultaneously thrilling and excruciating finale of the show Breaking Bad, but also someone whose schedule requires I timeshift my viewing to when it’s convenient, I feel a palpable pressure to stay caught up and watch the show as quickly as possible after it airs. Forget about joining the conversation, at this point the choice seems to be either watch immediately or avoid the internet entirely, lest one learn key plot points and have surprises ruined. The same goes for The Walking Dead, where knowledge of the frequent character deaths seems impossible to avoid.
Just as we have been freed from the tyranny of the television schedule, we seem to have responded by imposing a similar schedule upon one another.
Richard Rushfield recently wrote a snarky, yet insightful piece about the frenzies surrounding television shows, and suggests that, despite our supposed tremendous modern levels of connectedness, they stem from a desperate and unfulfilled need for community:
I think there is something terrifying about the way the internet turns out for these events and cranks up the GIF, meme, Tweet and think piece machines like some sort of disembodied 4th of July parade. These moments carry a desperation with them; the logical conclusion of the Bowling Alone thing, where now living our lives glued to our individual screens cut off from actual human interaction, we are desperate to find ways to march together. I’ve noticed that these events–award shows, series premieres, etc. are becoming bigger and bigger of group phenomenons. Super Bowl ratings have never been higher. The Grammies for chrissake inch upwards. We want to watch together. In our own homes, in front of our own multiple screens.
This sense of desperation echoes a recent study that suggests that increased Facebook use correlates with a decline in subjective well-being in young adults. The animation below, inspired by Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, explores the connection between social networks and being lonely.
What this all says to me is that we are still in the early days of understanding and finding the right uses for these new tools. There’s no going back–the genie is out of the bottle, and these technologies are far too enticing for us to walk away. But we are all still novices in this dissatisfyingly connected world. Rather than spiral off into a Wall-E style dystopia, I suspect we will instead continue to explore how to use these technologies, and perhaps uncover a better understanding of our own personal needs, and what social media can or can’t do to meet them.
In the meantime, perhaps the best advice comes from this church choir: