The year was 2004, and we used to wait for someone to write in our Orkut scrapbooks. Broadband connections were nowhere nearly as fast as it is today, but we refreshed our scrapbooks every few minutes. The arrival of each scrapbook entry made us happy. It’s easy to call us losers, but social networking websites met a fundamental human need. There was a time when I used to wake up at 6 to log into my Yahoo mail account. My internet connection was too slow that I couldn’t read mails before 8. But when I could, I felt happy.
I spent many hours every day in Yahoo chat rooms. The boys in my hostel found this a waste of time. But I was instantly a hit with chicks. I metamorphosed into an online Casanova. Jocks in my college were worried. They said I was cheating. The plain truth is that I wrote well. Always on the lookout for great genes, teen girls didn’t miss this. Nerd is the new man. I felt pleasure when I was flooded with offline messages when I logged into Yahoo Messenger after many days. When I did not see enough of them, I was sad. Such pleasures and disappointments are what the internet and social media are all about. It is easy to call all this trivial. But this is big deal, because social media is our culture. For a nerd, the cost of sending out an instant message isn’t much, when compared to walking up to someone. Through small chunks of text I sent out and took in, I was creating a whole world inside my mind. My understanding of human nature became deeper over a long time.
I’d like to repeat this. Social media is our culture. This is true for a whole generation, though they won’t put it quite that way. People don’t see things this way. Not long ago, mass media was our culture. The mass media had a huge influence on almost everybody who could read and write. For most people, not much cultural consumption was happening, except through the mass media. This is still true, but this is changing. Journalists lament the decline of mass media. For all they know, Twitter and Facebook are for dimwitted trolls with low attention spans. They think blogs and social networking websites cater to the lowest common denominator. All this is nonsense.
It’s the mass media that caters to the lowest common denominator. The mass media gives people what they want. If media moguls give people what they don’t like, they will just change the channel or cancel their subscriptions. This is why all the public relations in the world can’t make a movie a hit at the box office. We’ve always had fake news. Mass media is for the masses, and if this is the worst they can say about social media and the blogosphere, that’s not saying much. So, why do so many people call the blogosphere “The Republic of Blah”, and young folks “The Tweeting Generation”? Journalists are being territorial.
People have never read so much. Never did people write so much. Even when I talk to somebody through Facebook messenger, I am reading and writing. This is what social media has done to us. Most people don’t get this because they don’t want to see the obvious.
The social media is changing how we consume culture. But most people don’t see anything in common between social media and culture. When people hear the word “culture”, they think of great art, literature, movies, music and humanities. Even if this is how you define culture, social media and blogosphere helps you filter the best stuff out there. But that’s not all.
When I was growing up, I read a lot more long books. This is because there wasn’t much access. Access was costly and time consuming. It didn’t make much sense to make a trip to the library or book store to pick up a book which I could finish in an hour. So I made the best of every trip. Now I can download books almost instantly. So reading Ulysses doesn’t make much sense if I’m not very particular about it. I can go to my Twitter feed, and read everything my favorite 50 thinkers shared today in a few hours. I’ve added them to a list. When I consume culture in small bits, I am more likely to finish what I read. I feel pleasure when I finish an article, a movie trailer or a hit mashup song. Does this mean people have lower attention spans now? Not really. So long as I stay on the feed, I am doing fine.
But we are not robots that stay on our Facebook feeds to consume information. People also consume music, movies, and television shows in small bits. Much of the time I do not move from my timeline, because it’s about me. What I see on my feed is usually what I want to see. The greatest sort of pleasure I’ve known is when I write a beautiful blog post and click the “publish” button. I’ve never felt the same way when I write for the mainstream, because I’ve never had an editor with a sense of how words mesh and how they clash. That ruins it for me. But it’s also because what I write for my blog is published the moment I am done. It’s instant pleasure.
The blogosphere doesn’t look pretty if you don’t know where to look. But some of the greatest minds of our times blog in the pursuit of beauty and truth. The best stuff out there is pretty damn good. When I finish reading a blog post, I feel happy. And when I do not see a new blog post on my favorite blogs, I feel disappointed.If that goes on for long, I may never come back. When people read and share their work, bloggers feel happy. When readers desert them, they feel dejected.
My favorite blogs are far more perceptive than Atlas Shrugged or War And Peace. This is so true, but when people see beauty and intelligence in a different form, they refuse to believe it. Econlog taught me about half of everything I know. Econlog posts are very short, but this is not as strange as it seems. Hyperlinking gives many dimensions to blog posts. The brightest thinkers talk about each other’s work a lot.
If they have to drive to the nearest book store to buy Anna Karenina, most people would rather not. If it’d take a trip to the movie theater to see a movie, many people would decide against it. But when a click is all it takes, we do more of what we like to do. If a magazine is lying around on my desk, I am not very likely to pick it up and read. But I am more likely to read it if it’s a magazine article shared widely on Facebook or Twitter. When I am done, I am happier and wiser. People don’t go to classical music concerts that last many hours these days, because it’s easier to listen to music in small bits. I discovered David Hockney paintings recently, and all it look was a few clicks.
When demonetization happened, I found the most thoughtful essays on blogs and websites, not in newspapers or magazines. It was never so easy to make sense of the world around me. It was easy to find out what some of the best minds think about demonetization on Facebook and Twitter. This was impossible 20 years ago. In those days, people didn’t feel bad about not paying their maids, and then putting up servant jokes that went viral on Twitter. But we are creating a whole world inside our minds with every such tweet and picture—driven by the new currency of pleasure and disappointments. We are seeing the world in all its complexity.