What role does the internet play in our collective imagination?
You must remember the buzz, the palpable sense of excitement, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. Even here in Toronto, there was a rare sense of optimism and glee in the air as we gathered around our televisions and laptops, witnessing history.
Regardless of what you thought of Obama’s election, it was a day for pomp and ceremony, for symbols and symbolic gestures. And to me, there was one slightly nerdy symbol that stuck out. Early in the day, my pal Rex of Fimoculous fame posted a ‘before and after’ pic of Whitehouse.gov as it transitioned from the Bush to Obama administration. By the end of the day, the Flickr page had over 200,000 views. It is now at 310,000. While Fimoculous is notoriously influential, a couple of hundred thousand visits was surprising and significant.
It was, to my mind, an interesting moment. Clearly, for ‘progressive’ Americans it had been long 8 years; signs of change were necessary and, let’s be honest, the day had a definite ‘don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out’ vibe. But what was particularly intriguing was that one of the symbols of difference was the new website. It did, after all, signify more than just a change in who was running the place.
If for some the Bush administration has now become associated with ‘the old guard’, then Obama is President 2.0, a man who not only represents new ideas, but is using new technologies to disseminate them. The comparatively slick, uncluttered design of the new Whitehouse.gov suggested that this government was leading America boldly into the future. And in our world, the future and the web are becoming inextricably linked.
What role does the internet play in our collective imagination? Let’s say that, for the sake of ‘fun’ – or because you write a really nerdy blog – you made a mental map of some of the signs and symbols of contemporary society. You might have politics or large corporations as the symbol of power, an idea often captured in images of political buildings or corporate HQs. Television might be where you’d ‘locate’ the swirl of pop culture. For symbols of the past, you might look to factories, suburbs from the fifties or – as much as it pains me to say – leather-bound books of poetry. It’s not that any of this is ‘true’ in any real way. We just come to associate certain cultural items with particular themes and ideas.
And the internet? Where would it fit in this map of symbols? If you look at current phenomena like Twitter, the web is almost literally the place where ‘the contemporary happens’. Taken as an aggregate whole, Twitter is like a near real-time document of the social. But in a more metaphorical sense, the web is also a symbol of how the present is slipping into the future, a way of locating or symbolising the dizzying pace of change, a happening that not only takes place on the internet, but that the internet is also coming to represent.
If you’re looking for evidence, then TV is a good place to start. Jimmy Fallon’s pretty successful launch owes a lot to his successful use of social media, but also to how the same strategy associated the new show and host with the cutting-edge world of the web. 30 Rock is another good example; few shows have more effectively co-opted the rapid-fire pace of internet conversation, its droll, resigned irony – or, it must be said, its vaguely urban, classist elitism (what are the depictions of Kenneth or South Asian New Yorkers but stereotypes reassuring to wealthy hipsters?).
But the fact that 30 Rock is so subtly web savvy probably forms a large chunk of the reason it has become the hipster sitcom of choice, the one that ‘speaks to a generation’ – or, more accurately, a ‘25-34 demographic’. Put simply, if you want to associate something with the new and contemporary, slip in a connection to the web or, failing that, just appropriate its culture.
But if the web is now the symbol of the bleeding edge, the next question to ask is what this symbol actually means. If the web is the sign of how we move into the future, then where are we going? Who has access to the web and its culture and who gets left out? And is the web still a symbol of a new, democratic future? Or is something more sinister lingering on the horizon?