Ever since Canadian English professor Marshall McLuhan coined the term “the medium is the message” in 1964, it’s been fun (if not particularly taxing) for intellectuals to speculate about how new communication technologies influence content. One of the most perceptive observers of today’s proliferating digital channels’ subtle effects is The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan.
Of course, if writers could predict the future of communications, they’d all be Zuckerbergian billionaire entrepreneurs. So Heffernan is at her best in retrospect, such as in her lovely essay last year about the superb sound quality we enjoyed a generation ago on our old-fashioned analog landline telephones. In contrast, having grown up on crummy-sounding cell phones, she says it’s no wonder that today’s youth prefer to text.
Over the weekend, Heffernan baffled a number of her readers by agreeing with “cultural critic” Emily Nussbaum’s Tweet about how “SOCIAL MEDIA IS DISCO.” In other words, the Internet tools such as Twitter and Facebook that have flourished over the last half-decade resemble the 1970s’ disco music by similarly appealing more to “women, gay people, and nonwhite people.”
Heffernan has a point. Disco was fun and functional, in contrast to the epic ambitions of white male rock. I can still recall how in 1977 my cousin, a USC sorority girl, rolled her eyes when I excitedly asked her how much she’d liked the three-hour Led Zeppelin concert—including twenty-seven minutes of “Dazed and Confused”—to which her date had treated her.
As Tom Wolfe scoffed in 1979, although white women were the chief purchasers of disco music and blacks were often presented as disco artistry’s public face, a visit to Studio 54 suggested who was really behind the fad:
Hundreds of young males may be seen dancing with one another to flashing lights and recorded music in a homoerotic frenzy, while prominent citizens…look on, apparently greatly stimulated by the…“disco fever.”
You can see why the average black guy would be sore about gullible white folks blaming him for disco. I’m not sure blacks have ever quite forgiven whites for this misperception. That may help explain how quickly blacks invented rap to replace disco and how adamantly they’ve clung ever since to hip-hop’s lunkheaded but unimpeachable masculinity.
What are Internet social media’s demographics?
Well, to the extent that we can know who anybody on the Internet really is (as the hilarious “Gay Girl in Damascus” and “Lez Get Real” fiascos reminded us), blacks use Twitter about twice as much as others do. And because African-American culture is so homogeneous, black users’ hashtags (”#ghettobabynames Weavequisha”) often dominate the trending rankings.
Still, the current popularity of social media among the diverse should remind us of how much the earlier Internet (say, 1990 to 2005) was the golden age of white male Antisocial Media.
The first wave of the Internet liberated the “neurodiverse”: i.e., nerds, mostly white and male. For example, when the Democratic Kos Netroots started getting together, they were surprised to discover that, despite all the pro-diversity rhetoric they’d exchanged, they turned out to be a bunch of middle-aged white guys.
The antisocial media allowed geeks who were obsessed with a particular topic to absorb and transmit vast amounts of information to similar geeks, all without having to interact face-to-face. Perhaps the most insightful post-9/11 pundit was the War Nerd (a k a Gary Brecher/John Dolan), an itinerant English professor who had taught himself a vast amount about fighting wars in the Third World (especially the key lesson—don’t).
Or consider the career of the most popular sports pundit to emerge from the online era, Bill Simmons. He has a relatively functional personality, but he revolutionized sportswriting by adopting the nerds’ virtual approach to data-amassing. Traditionally, a newspaper’s baseball beat writer would laboriously follow the local team around the country, watch each game from the stadium press box, then trudge down to the locker room to ask tonight’s hero what kind of pitch he hit for a home run. To Simmons, that seemed like a ridiculously low-bandwidth way to analyze sports. Instead, he stayed home and watched four televisions at once.
In contrast, the social-network era of, say, 2005 onward has seen the Revenge of Normal People. Twitter is restricted to 140 characters, a length that us nerdy straight white guys find absurd. How can anybody say anything that is true, new, important, and interesting in 140 characters?
But most people don’t care about saying things like that. They just want to say whatever is on their minds at the moment. They have a life.
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