I feel I have to start with a caveat, and it’s going to sound melodramatic, and it is melodramatic. But when they canceled Enlightened in March I was “done” with popular culture. The rants I could go on were epic. What got me by the throat about the end of Enlightened was that it was the best thing airing and you simply could not get people really talking about it. People get mad when I compare it to Girls, but I do because they were both low-rated shows on the same network, and to an extent were both only ever going to appeal to similar crowds: your bicoastal literary/art nerds. And I could name a single incident in Girls on Twitter and set off an avalanche of commentary, but Enlightened just had to fly solo for the entirety its brief and beautiful life. It wasn’t that the show wasn’t topical in a way that could have made it one of those nightly think piece things: it was about women and corporate greed. And it wasn’t that Enlightened didn’t provide really great personal-essay fodder, because a lot of its episodes posed giant philosophical questions about what it means to be a person in our day and age. It was a little weird and offbeat, but then a lot of more popular things — I’m back at Girls again — are, and they survive.
Enlightened, I have come to believe, died from something simpler: a lack of “buzz.” It was missing the entropic quality which kicks in somewhere between a thing being good and it being perceived as such by a large number of people, and that damned it. It might one day become one of those cult shows people brag about having caught when they originally aired, but that’s the best it can hope for.
Because we don’t live in an age, if ever we did, where you can survive without “buzz.”
I spent the rest of the year thinking about just what buzz is. In large part, lately, it seems to be a matter of Twitter. The most accessible example of that is Scandal. Here it is, one of the highest-rated shows on television, and yet to watch it is to deal with near-total plot unintelligibility. The particular pleasure of watching something like Scandal is more about pace than substance; often I’ll get to the end of an episode and feel like, OK, I have to concentrate on my breathing now. It feels like I’ve been running, even though I have been sitting on my couch, usually with laptop open.
My laptop is open because one of Scandal’s great pleasures, as others have prolifically documented, is that it is a sort of community event. People on Twitter go nuts for that show. And I don’t want to claim that Twitter represents all of America, because it doesn’t. Nor do I want to get into the whole idea of “Black Twitter,” a subject on which you’ll be far better off reading Shani Hilton at BuzzFeed than me. But no matter who you assume is actually doing this Scandal tweeting or how many people are reading it, I think it’s helped the show’s word of mouth. You see, journalists — good ones! — write entire articles about the Twitter storm that arrives reliably on Thursdays. That produces more articles about the show than otherwise. And the effort replicates itself endlessly. People read the articles about the tweets, and decide to join in. People tweet the articles about the tweeting to each other. People like me wonder what all the tweeting means and write year-end pieces about it. And so on.
I am, in general, a believer in community enjoyment of popular culture. I think it’s a great thing when we all sit down and watch Star Wars together and someone imitates Luke’s voice when he says, “I was going to go to Toshi Station to pick up the power converters!” and then we all cheer when the first Death Star explodes. Moreover, in a world where the pull of religion is on the wane or even a truly functioning political system (oh god, Congress), it’s generally a great thing, this water-cooler Twitter talk about a television show that, whatever its merits, we’re largely watching together. I want to have some kind of common language, and I chose that Star Wars example just to indicate that I am not going to be a gigantic snob about what underlying forms it takes.
Still, I can’t help but feel, after this year, like everything’s getting too hasty on the buzz end of things. Like, as I said, to the extent that I’m getting out of breath trying to keep up. Some of that is really only my problem; I use the Internet as a procrastination tool as much as anyone and just need to quit it. But some of it is a larger force, and every day I flip sides on whether it’s being used for good or evil.
This has, after all, not been social media’s Best Year Ever. There have been successful hashtag campaigns, yes. But there’s also the curious legacies of things like Steubenville — oh, and also the suicides of what began to feel like an entire seventh-grade class of young women around the world. Most of the people involved in those incidents, on every side of the fence, had any natural inclinations they harbored towards depression aggravated by a fair amount of Facebook- and Twitter-based harassment. And yes, harassment has always happened. But the tragedies would not have been the same tragedies they were without social media.
The accelerant here was almost always a thing that I think must be related to buzz. It is the impulse, when you see something you think is righteous, to immediately leap on the subject. The impulse is not a bad one, by the way. It took a lot of mobs to get the French Revolution to happen. I know that sounds vaguely flippant, but I don’t think it’s less flippant than making a giant generalization about “outrage culture.” Anger has its uses. This 18th-century guy named Hazlitt has this essay about it, and he points out that, “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.”
The problem is that increasingly it feels like the action spurred by rage has no thought behind it. The reason is not because people are deliberately less thoughtful now than they were in the past, but rather because there is no time for it. The key is to weigh in the moment Olivia Pope sees her mom, because if you hit at the right time the blogger will see it and put it in their roundup of the greatest tweets about Scandal, and then you will have that to tweet about for a few days until people are on to the next thing, and they always are. The key is to hook people with pith, not substance. And the worst part of it all is that you’re totally right to do it.
Television seems, gradually, to be getting this message by designing episodes that will be GIF-able and meme-able. I’ve observed this myself several times, but I’m in debt to this item in Slant magazine for pointing out that as high a horse as Mad Men’s has fallen for the gag. They had that episode where everyone just got high and acted crazy, and it did not contribute much dramatically but, yes, there were a lot of GIFs that resulted, some of which we can now use to flip each other off on the Internet.
I applaud GIF-ability (a word?) as a general rule. My life would not have taken the form it has without Michael Jackson eating popcorn or what I call the “No Regrets Chicken” GIF. It seems wrong for it to be happening by design, like a creator is saying: I am happy for you to chop up my work and put it on the Internet without any context. I am happy for discussion of my work to happen at a pace at which most people can’t actually think about what it is they are ingesting. I don’t, for the record, actually believe that creators are happy to have their work discussed in this way, but there is a kind of capitulation going on. Because if you are not so GIF-able and you do not hook the Internet’s interest, you are Enlightened instead of Girls. You are dead instead of alive.
Which is more than a little depressing to think about.
Here’s something less depressing: People have never been very good at sorting wheat from chaff on the first go-round. Great works of art have always been rejected by the gallerinas and publishers; Jane Austen and Faulkner and the rest all sold way better after their deaths than before. Whole pop culture cults are built on someone presuming that they found the good thing that everyone else, in their obsessions with the fashions of the day, rejected.
And there’s evidence, you know, that people are still valuing things for reasons other than fashion: I keep thinking about the guy who sold his novel for $2 million this fall. Not two years ago he was giving interviews to small literary magazines saying things like, “Frankly, I’m pretty sure novels of this size are to the publishing world what a big old box of garlic is to the vampire world” and “I just want to work hard and take my time and make something that has lasting value.”
There are, then, other approaches to the world. You can decide that, fun as the tweeting is, fun as the insta-opinion gambit can be, it’s not the only one out there. It’s a little harder to see that these days, when the piles of things chewed up and spit out by the Internet are starting to block out the sun. But it’s curiously clear: increasingly the only way out of it all is to refuse a lot of it. Not in the Franzen old-men-angry-about-the-decline-of-culture way. But in the way of someone who, like me, really did give social media a chance, really found its accelerant qualities exciting for a time — and who also now needs a goddamn break from all the buzzing in her ears.