I recently posted something on Facebook about television and its power to absorb attention and human endeavour. It was a humorous snippet, but some serious thoughts lay behind it. One comment in response was that one might as well replace ‘television’ with ‘Facebook’ - but there is a crucial difference.
People sometimes ask me how do I fit everything in? I run a publishing company with several anthologies and text books on the go, plus writing my own books (7 in progress at this writing) plus drawing (5,000 items of merchandise for sale based on original sketches at the moment) plus reading (5 books on the go at any given time, usually) plus I only work part-time and look after my daughter the rest of the time. And that's not including all the editing, proofreading, advising, marketing and other stuff that I do.
Part of the answer is zero television. But not zero social media. And there’s a reason for that.
Human beings tend to fall into alignment with most of the mass media they invent. I suppose organised religion was one of the earliest forms of this, getting the community as a whole to a central point from which pontification could take place (in this case literally). Once the bulk of the population was literate, newspapers developed as a similar way of pumping out the viewpoint of the few to the many. With the arrival of the electronic mass media of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we had even more far-reaching tools for population alignment, with broadcast radio and television pouring into almost every household. Modern advertising and marketing built their foundations on this same principle, namely that the way to communicate to the most people and to achieve the maximum effect was to blast out messages from source points until they reached the right receiving points.
But something unusual has happened in the last fifteen years or so: a new form of mass media has appeared. This one has a very significant difference. Unlike all the others, this one is two-way. I’m talking about social media, of course. Not only is it potentially a channel for the transmission of central ideas to the bulk of the populus, like all the other forms of mass media, but it is also a channel for the populus to transmit back.
For the first time in the history of humankind, the population at large have a means by which they can originate something: they can talk back.
While media was in the hands of central bodies, whether state-controlled or not, there was no easy possibility of dissent. The only ideas capable of gaining broad traction in society were those that originated from the centre. The average person in the street either fell into step with others with regard to those central ideas, or faced a general ostracism. But this suddenly isn’t the case any longer: an individual can now respond. And more than respond: a man or a woman can now seek out their own connections, form sub-groups, decide who and what they want to ‘like’, determine with whom they want to associate. Instead of accidents of birth or geography dominating an individual’s life choices, the power now lies in each individual’s hands - and it is literally lying in their hands, in the palms of the hands, in the form of smart phones, tablets and laptop computers which empower communication from any point at any time.
I think this is more significant and potentially game-changing than many realise. Instead of society forming along centralist lines - whether that centralist form be tribal, feudal, capitalist or some other social pattern based on a hub in the middle - now a different kind of pattern is possible. For the first time ever, it might be possible to emerge from the shadow of political structures based on source points for the few and receipt points for the many, and for individuals to grow and emerge in their own right.
Let’s not get carried away. I’m not advocating or even talking about a political revolution. Politics is the outward form, the clothes, the presented image of a social structure anyway. Though we still align ourselves with central messages to some degree, life continues outside the ‘hub’ much as it always has: families live together, neighbours talk, clubs gather, day-to-day needful routines are carried out. But the background sense of core control which central governments of whatever colour drew upon to one degree or another is not quite so powerful as it was. And it is possibly getting less powerful every day.
And for the writer, there is far less dependency on choices made by traditional publishing institutions, also based on a centralist model, which selected the books that people could read and shipped them out for the general population to buy. That’s all been transformed. Writers can not only write what they wish, they can get it into the hands of readers, with a little cleverness and persistence - small groups of like-minded readers, perhaps, rather than vast populations, but readers who will, by their nature, become fans and be able to respond to writers in ways which even twenty years ago would hardly have been imaginable.
So I don’t particularly restrict my time on Facebook. Television was and is an abnegation of both choice and creativity: sitting motionless in front of a box for a large portion of the week robs the world of an individual’s unique input. Eventually, given enough time in front of a flashing TV screen, minds can become numb and ambitions wither. It is not that there is no value in the programmes being shown, it is that they become addictive and all-consuming. But Facebook, while it can have some of the same traits and effects at times, is also a voice. Through social media, friends can be found, groups formed, worlds discovered, creations brought into being. It may be that social historians in the future look back at these formative years as turning points for human life, the time when the inner geniuses that dwell within each and every human individual began to find their voice.