Fri December 20, 2013
Love In The Time Of Hollering: The Age Of Enthusiasm
There have been Ages of Innocence and Iron, of Jazz and Bronze and Ice. We've had Golden Ages of all kinds, though we note them less by experiencing them and more by debating whether they have started, whether they are over, and whether we will ever see their like again.
And now we are in the Age Of Enthusiasm.
It is enthusiasm that, with social networking as an accelerant, brought about what we now know as cultural virality, which has proved to be almost as fascinating and menacing as more traditional virality. It is enthusiasm that makes it possible for a premium cable channel to charge $200 a year to people who, if they are honest, only really care about 13 or 26 hours of programming. That, in turn, allows that programming to exist without relying on the willingness of Ford to sponsor it, Walmart to sell it, or the largest possible audience to buy it.
Enthusiasm enables grass-roots advocacy and humbling, stunning generosity. It enables viciousness and vileness and insufferable, status-conscious posturing. It feeds quixotic missions to obtain, as well as a sense of towering entitlement to possess: if you care about it, if you want it, and if you believe in it, you're entitled to have it. And if nobody offers it to you on the terms you're looking for, you can freely obtain it however you like with a clear conscience, because your desire for it is about love and not business, so their offering it should be about love and not business.
Enthusiasm can displace passive, unthinking ingestion of broadcast culture, or it can displace knowledge and curiosity. It can be voracious or complacent. It can be smart or dumb. It can come from affection or hostility, and it can manifest as either, neither, or both.
Enthusiasm directly links artists to lovers of art, so that filmmakers can crowdsource films, but also so that creators of art and givers of pleasure can feel the previously impotent fury of those who decide they are dissatisfied.
Enthusiasm is the most productive ally and the most dangerous enemy you have if you're making art, making entertainment, talking about culture, or gorging yourself on other people's creative work day in and day out, as many of us do.
It introduces people to others who hum on the same frequency they do, when they may have previously believed that frequency was unheard by the world. And sometimes, it unites them in tracking down the people who don't love what they love and formulating an attack based on general heresy, specific poor taste, or the ultimate cultural sin of defending The Man.
Just about the only thing in the culture, in fact, that entirely lacks enthusiasts is The Man. An accusation, whether express or implied, of being in the pocket of The Man is the new slap on the face with a glove; it's defamation per se, the way it was at common law to suggest someone had a nasty disease.
Of course, The Man avoids serious attempts at eradication, in a way that syphilis did not, by defying definition and identification, in a way that syphilis did not. Rand Paul enthusiasts and juice-cleanse enthusiasts would both draw The Man as an oppressor to vanquish, but disagree entirely on what he looks like. If they were to duel, they would wind up stabbing each other in the heart, and The Man, wherever he may be, would remain untouched. (Spoiler alert: he always does.)
The Man, in cultural terms, is usually whatever stands between the object of my enthusiasm and its utter domination of the enthusiasms of others.
Enthusiasts, we should add, are not the same as fans. Just as all squares are rhombuses but not all rhombuses are squares, nearly all fans are enthusiasts but not all enthusiasts are fans.
It is a mistake, for example, to speak dismissively of Apple "fanboys" as if this describes the bulk of the Apple People. A person who owns no paraphernalia other than the product itself, knows no trivia, belongs to no distinct social circles, and perhaps rarely even discusses the object at issue with anyone else is not really part of a "fandom." Apple may have a fandom, but the reason it doesn't have to compete on price is not that small throng of superfans, but its large army of enthusiasts. The Apple People are something more than brand-loyal — they feel it more deeply than you feel loyalty to Toyotas simply because you've found them reliable — but they are something less than fans.
What complicates this picture is that — brace yourself — there are also enthusiasm enthusiasts, and among them, you will find many of the loudest voices, both individual and collective, in cultural conversation. Change is sexy and truths that endure are boring, particularly since we tend to speak as if we've already found them all and cannot be surprised.
So there are those who are eager to pronounce that all the old models are dead, all the TV is being watched on DVRs, broadcast is over, nobody listens to the radio, everybody torrents everything, and we will soon be living in a world dominated by crowdfunded super-hyper-micro-targeted entertainment produced on cheap camera phones by autonomous cooperatives and uploaded directly to the Internet where it will be spread through the open-source social networking of the future. Narrowcasting is it, you see, and nobody needs the middle man anymore.
Pay no attention to the fact that 17 or 18 million people still watch The Big Bang Theory in a given week at the time it's on — more like 23 million once you count all those DVR users. That DVR-inclusive number isn't all that different from the 24 million or so who watched Friends in its literally phenomenal first season. The Big Bang Theory is not shot on camera phones. It is not spread through open-source social networking.
Broadcast is down, yes. But it's not so far down that we have moved from a monoculture to a specialty culture. What has happened thus far is measured in degree, not order of magnitude.
Furthermore, believing that the ad-driven, rule-following, infrastructure-building, monopoly-holding middle men can all be abandoned in favor of a self-financed and self-determined a la carte entertainment nirvana requires assumptions about financial and technological resources that cannot hold. If the future is going to bring us all to mobile broadband where we're curating our own cultural diets in our homes and out of them, will it bring us all tablets? Will it bring us free phones?
Will it bring us all unmetered, unthrottled mobile data for the price we pay for broadcast television over an antenna, which is zero dollars and zero cents? Lest you believe nobody uses over-the-air television anymore, a report last summer showed that the majority of Latino, primarily Spanish-speaking households in the United States get their television without benefit of cable. Some of those may be cord-cutters using Netflix and Hulu and iTunes; many are probably turning on the TV with a $30 digital antenna and ... you know, watching it.
How dominant you find enthusiasm in day-to-day life is highly dependent on what you're doing, how connected you are, what resources you have, and what you're accustomed to. The Age Of Enthusiasm, contrary to its press, is not marked by enthusiasm's triumph over everything else; it is marked by the socially, culturally, and economically disruptive nature of its uneasy, often unhappy, accelerating collisions with everything else.
Consider the awkward, often embarrassing manner in which huge entertainment companies meet the entire idea of enthusiasm. At the outset, they go out of their way to try to create it, to manufacture excitement about things that don't exist yet.
They try to attach anticipation to a product like a bauble on a keychain, as most notoriously happened with the 2006 film Snakes On A Plane, around which there was not only buzz, but buzz about the buzz. Newspapers wrote glowingly before the film even came out about how it might very well change everything — here was the key, here was the way to capitalize on the Internet! Everyone was making T-shirts! It was a meme! Watch the money roll in! Marketing budgets are for suckers, and posters are for squares!
And then it turned out that the Internet was more into the meme — the things it made itself — than it was into the movie. Call us suckers for a fake Kurt Vonnegut quote or a grainy video of a heavily sedated child, but those who live online pride themselves on not being fooled by a marketing team's grotesque simulacrum of public delight. While those trying to sell Snakes thought they had created a thriving community of people excited about the movie Snakes On A Plane, which cost $12 or $15 to enjoy and was controlled by New Line Cinema, they had actually created a thriving community of people excited about the meme Snakes On A Plane, which was free to enjoy and controlled by lovable weirdos at their computers. They went in search of virality and forgot one crucial thing: viruses mutate unpredictably.
In fact, what has emerged from a lot of big-business attempts to monetize enthusiasm is a deep distrust of anything that looks like "viral marketing." "Viral marketing" is viewed almost like price-gouging or antitrust violations: it is a bridge too far when it comes to trying to make money. Even more than quaint, old-fashioned advertising, pretending you're The People is the ultimate mark of The Man.
Conversely, when media companies find enthusiasm in the wild, they often treat it with bafflement and proprietary, we're-in-charge-here hostility, as if they're the men in the white suits who have come to capture E.T. and transform him from an adorable, mischievous ally into a rack of cross-sectional slides.
Consider the Jayne Hat.
The Jayne Hat: Not So Cunning
Joss Whedon's Firefly aired in 2002 for four months. It was canceled before all 14 episodes even got a chance to air in the United States. Nevertheless, its dedicated fans, who call themselves Browncoats, have remained a force to be reckoned with (as you know if you have ever written a list of good television shows of any sort on which it did not appear).
In one episode, a character named Jayne Cobb, played by Adam Baldwin, shows his softer side by wearing a knit hat his mother made. It appears in that episode only, but those who loved the show fell in love with the hat. (It was organic, ungainly, and warm, which is essentially fandom looking at its best self in a mirror.)
It became one of the Browncoats' calling cards, a little secret handshake when out among the English and a visual that said "we are a throng" when they were thronging on purpose, like at Comic-Con. Not only that, but some of the sellers who knitted the hats — personally, to order, by hand, just like Cobb's mom — donated some or all of the proceeds to charity.
And then, more than 10 years after the show was canceled, somebody affiliated with Fox seemingly found out that there was a market for Jayne Hats that was being served by unaffiliated rogue knitters, and they moved to create a mass-produced, licensed version. The Jayne Hat was licensed by a company called Ripple Junction (currently advertising Ron Burgundy shirts) and put on sale, among other places, at ThinkGeek, an online retailer specializing in such officially sanctioned goodies.
But it wasn't enough to create the official version — they wanted to cut off the black market that was making all that green for all those orange and yellow hats. So fans started reporting that they were getting cease and desist letters. They had been picking up needles and yarn in their laps and knitting hat after hat after pom-pom-topped hat. And now, nerds in the best way, geeks in the best way, weirdos in the most lovable way, the knitters were vanquished.
As everyone involved seems to say at every turn, this was Fox's right. Maybe even its obligation to its license-holder. The happy hat-makers had no real defense. Still, while ThinkGeek (which gets enthusiasts) reached out to Browncoats to vow to donate its share of proceeds to charity, Fox emerged as the villain. Fairly or not, the tone was such that it came off to fans as a ham-handed, cold-hearted, fish-lipped approach that could not have felt more like a brush with The Man if someone had actually come to people's houses, confiscated their fuzzy knit hats, and unraveled them into piles of yarn.
And then taken off with the yarn.
And used it to knit sweaters for lawyers.
There is a fundamental disconnect between large-scale, for-profit media and the crushing power of enthusiasm, which is that when they try to control it, it instantly isn't real. It's patently unreal. It's excitement given life by force, Pet Sematary-style.
But when they don't control it, it isn't profitable. And that means that when they run into people excited about their stuff, they vacillate between an Ebenezerian lack of generosity and a Professor-Harold-Hillian smarm. To own enthusiasm and to exploit it are competing instincts, much as they often seem to be twins. You can, in fact, sometimes best exploit it — or only exploit it — by leaving it alone.
Twitter, for instance, is a massive enthusiasm engine for television, but when networks try to dictate special hashtags, they look clumsy and lost. Survivor, for instance, likes to suggest momentarily relevant hashtags during episodes — #BLINDSIDE - despite the fact that those hashtags have neither of the qualities that distinguish real Twitter hashtags: utility and wit. It calls to mind the early days of the Internet itself, when companies would tell you, for no particular reason, to go to a bare bones web site for more information about toilet paper or hot dogs. Networks never look more like they're run by people who don't use Twitter than they do when they're treating Twitter as something they can force people to use as they're told.
It's common to speak of second screens, but less common to acknowledge that the first screen really can't run the second screen - when it does, it's just a bigger first screen.
The traditional David-and-Goliath approach is to make this a big-business problem. You're not supposed to control the Jayne Hat if you're 20th Century Fox Television. It's something beautiful. It's authentic. It's tangible enthusiasm, and it's theirs, not yours.
And that's a fine theory, except that those who adopt it should understand that holding enthusiasm inviolable by the marketplace prevents the depth of your enthusiasm from contributing to the financial health, and therefore the market survival, of what you love.
Consider what might have happened if there had been Jayne Hats that had gone on sale immediately after that episode aired — which would have required Fox to actually air the episode, but all right — bygones. Assume that it is late 2002, and assume the Jayne Hat exists. And assume that Fox controls it. And assume they've found some way to control it without coming off so Scrooge-y and acting like they hate their fans. And assume the Jayne Hat costs $125.
Yes, assume the Jayne Hat costs $125. It is being sold by Fox, through whatever outlet, for $125, and that's the only way you can get one. You, as a Firefly person, would have the ability to essentially donate $125 to the ongoing survival of your show. Let's say $100 of it, which seems conservative when we are speaking of a knit hat, is pure profit. If even ten percent of the show's audience — that would have been roughly 400,000 people — had chosen to do that, that's $40 million into the coffers, just from hats. And that might start to change the value proposition of making the show.
It's a ridiculous hypothesis, and it won't happen, and it would create plenty of other problems, but there is an upside to allowing a network to monetize your enthusiasm — the depth of your attachment to Firefly — the same way they can now monetize your simple, more passive habit of watching the show by selling commercials. There is an upside, as a fan, to letting them exploit you. There is merit in putting your money where your heart is.
Traditional media outlets thus far find habit very easy to monetize and enthusiasm very difficult. For the moment, particularly with the collapse of the DVD market, but for a little bit of gift-shop merchandise, someone who loves a cult television show on a broadcast network isn't worth all that much more than someone who likes it. Once you get past the threshold of "turns it on," it doesn't matter much economically whether it's your passion or your pastime. What matters is that you will come back, sit in front of the show, and be counted, week in and week out.
This is why television speaks about the capture of eyeballs and not hearts. This is what makes broadcasting "broad." It's the reason a show like Community — or Firefly, or My So-Called Life — can struggle to remain on the air despite what seems to be a cultural imprint that outstrips other things that were or are on at the same time. If a show's impact is narrow but deep, it is massively more likely to be canceled by a broadcast network than a show with an impact that's wide but shallow, even if the total area covered is the same. That's not because the shows have different intrinsic value, necessarily, but because the latter has value they know how to extract. Broadcast television doesn't know, yet, how to monetize passion except on a sort of logorithmic curve of rapidly diminishing returns.
Premium cable is the opposite. They are all about the buying and selling of love. Because really, all HBO needs is for you to need HBO. If they give you two shows a year that you care about a little, you'll cancel your subscription. If they give you two shows a year that you care about a lot, you might pay just for those. So for one thing, they don't even have to fill an entire schedule as long as they give you enough to tip you into subscribing. Broadcast networks are asked to fill sometimes seven or eight or nine times as much space in prime time with new stuff as premium cable does; ask yourself how much better NBC would be if they only had to air two hours of new series at a time.
But the economics also seem to favor love. Your passion matters more; ergo, how passion-building the show is matters more economically as well as creatively; ergo, on average, it's worth it to them to build deep attachments; ergo, on average, they make more interesting and daring shows meant to be loved deeply, not necessarily broadly.
That's not always true, not by a long shot. There's still a lot of room for terrific broadcast TV. But on average, premium cable shows are better and smarter for the people they target than broadcast shows, and the fact that monetizing enthusiasm is woven into the business model certainly seems to be part of the reason. And so the Age of Enthusiasm is the Age of Premium Cable.
That's why you sometimes hear that HBO doesn't care about ratings, which is both true and not true. They don't care nearly as much as, say, CBS does. But they would care if the ratings were such that a show couldn't affect an appreciable number of people's decisions about subscribing to HBO.
Basic cable is a little different — broad is good for them, because they have ad revenue. But deep is good for them, because they want you to insist that your cable company carry their channel. Consider a channel like Bravo. On one hand, a big audience watches lots of ads. But on the other hand, an impassioned audience is going to freak out if a cable company decides to hold the line on what it's paying to carry the channel and the result is that they can't see The Real Housewives Of New Jersey. They'll care. They'll complain. And hell, if that happens enough times, maybe they'll cut the cord.
You'd think enthusiasts would understand this, that they'd have enough familiarity with the workings of television supported by ad sales that they would know it was about breadth and not depth in most cases, particularly for broadcast.
But they don't, really. How can you tell? Because when they lobby a network to keep a show, even on broadcast, what they put on is a grand demonstration of passion. They send nuts, soap, candy bars, potatoes, they fly banners and take out ads — they're showing depth, not breadth. It hurts to hear as someone who loves something, but if you're passionate, they're not worried about you. They already know about you. And they love you back, but you're not the point. Even the lowest-rated, fastest-canceled show every year breaks somebody's heart, somewhere. Just like even the ugliest puppy is cute to someone, even a flop is somebody's favorite.
We All Love Everything
It's possible that there was a time when enthusiastic engagement could act as a proxy and could stand in for viewership bigger than itself. This is the television version of the politician's "when I get one letter, I assume 10,000 more people feel the same way and didn't write to me" argument. This was the Viewers For Quality Television model widely credited with saving Cagney And Lacey and Designing Women. They wrote letters; it was assumed that if this many people felt strongly, more people felt similarly, if less passionately.
But it's become harder to suss out the relationship between enthusiasts and casual viewers. Does a show like Community really have casual viewers? There was a night in March 2013 when Entertainment Weekly pointed out that while Community fans often chalked up its poor performance in the ratings to being on opposite the powerhouse The Big Bang Theory, even with Big Bang a rerun and Community new, the latter saw no increase in its numbers at all. Big Bang shed about eight million viewers off its average, but Community gained nothing.
There are lots of ways to read ratings, and the picture is usually more complicated than it appears, but maybe when it comes to Community, you are either In or you are Out. If you watch it, you follow it wherever it goes, no matter what's on opposite it. (Faith in this interpretation may be why NBC has toyed with keeping the show, but moving it to the miserable pit known as Friday night.) If you don't watch it, it's not because it's your second choice. It's because it's not in your top ten.
Enthusiasm And The Out-Loud Internet
When you think about the way that life online collides with enthusiasm, you have to think about two things. One is the Functional Internet, which is the one that lets you choose your own shows on Netflix, buy a standup special directly from Louis C.K., read all kinds of news on Google, or seek out an undistributed short film that you would otherwise have no opportunity to see.
The other is the Out-Loud Internet, the cacophonous cultural conversation across hundreds of millions of strangers that literally did not exist in its current unformed form, available to ordinary people as well as tech types, until perhaps the last 15 years. And to the degree it takes place on Twitter, it's more like five.
The Out-Loud Internet is thick with little havens of kindness and good humor and all-in, smart-talking excitement. But if you put a conversation anyone cares about in the hands of the Out-Loud Internet with no moderation, no controls, and no interference, you will find that as it becomes a larger and larger discussion, the likelihood of its becoming primarily angry — no matter how inconsequential it may seem — approaches 100 percent.
Solutions to that problem, should you find it a problem, are elusive. Contrary to popular belief, it's not just anonymity that builds hostility online. Anyone who's ever seen ugliness in full flower is aware that many of those people would be perfectly happy to be insulting, unpleasant and small-minded using their real names and identities. Many of them do it.
If it's not just anonymity — most of us on the Internet are not dogs, after all — then what is it?
At least some of the lack of social accountability comes from the loss of continuity, not the loss of identity. If you participate in a discussion and are corrected as to a basic fact, or if you have a hole pointed out in your logic, you can simply ignore the conversation and create a serious, plausible sense that maybe you never saw it. It's like you posted your opinion on a corkboard at the supermarket and walked away. Even if you signed it with your real name, unless people were likely to run into you in real life, there wouldn't be much they can do.
In fact, the ones who do the most damage to the conversation, year in and year out, are largely unaffected by the popular vision of saying behind a mask what you would never dare to say in plain sight, because they are not embarrassed. They are proud. They are taking a stand, because they consider themselves enthusiasts.
Your favorite band sucks because it soaks up attention that could go to the following eight obscure bands no one ever heard of. Genre fiction sucks because what will happen to the literary fiction I love? Elvis sucks because the kids who like Elvis think my music isn't cool, and my music is really cool. Comic books suck because Hollywood makes nothing but comic book movies, and so I don't get the movies I want.
Their theories are legion, and they all can be restated as warped love: Damon Lindelof sucks because I loved Lost so much. Culture of today is going to hell because I love the culture of my youth so much. E-books suck because I love paper books so much, and my bookstore will go away, and where will I get my books, which I love?
In fact, almost all of the People You Meet Making A Big Fuss Over Nothing In The Comments love something, or believe they do, that brings them there. That they love it is the most important thing about them, and that you can't possibly understand them is the second most important. Just as surely as some people take to the Internet to feel understood, others take to it to feel misunderstood — to feel bullied so they can have the thrill of fighting back. Robbed of the opportunity to embrace a more traditional rebellious identity through the deployment of a leather jacket and a cigarette, they get their cachet from finding the most cutting, the most withering, the most plus-one-able thing they can possibly say to people who like Coldplay. Not because they hate Coldplay, man. Because they love music.
We seem at times to be hardening, so that everything is either the best or the worst, either a masterpiece or a sham. If something is popular, it's either great or totally overrated. If it's unpopular, it's either terrible or it got screwed. Witness the rise of headlines that read "This Lunchbag Hack Will Change Your Life," or "This Is The Greatest Smackdown Ever," or "This Squirrel Wins The Internet." (There is certainly a nonzero chance that one day, someone may win the Internet. There is no chance it will be a squirrel.)
The out-loud Internet is a place where nuance goes to be devoured. A piece of film criticism can go into great detail about influences and art, which elements work and which don't, what the thing is accomplishing versus what it's aiming for. And it will find itself at the point of a bayonet held by someone who comments, "Uh, so just tell us: did you like it or not?" These are presumably people who wish Sherlock Holmes were a series of knock-knock jokes. ("Knock-knock." "Who's there?" "The husband did it.")
The irony is that we are being hardened by our enthusiasms at precisely the time when we need to do the opposite in order to take advantage of all they have to offer. We are hollering when we would benefit from shutting the hell up and seeing what happens.
Anyone honest will tell you that nobody really knows what the models are going forward. We pray that the things we love — movie theaters, libraries, museums — will be healthy, but nobody knows. Nobody knew whether Louis C.K. could sell a standup special directly to fans for $5 and simply ask people not to steal it. And when it worked, nobody knew how many other people could do it. Nobody knows now. Maybe it's not many. Maybe it's a lot.
The one thing you can say about the Age of Enthusiasm with the most certainty is that under the best-case scenarios, we all have to work harder. The best-case scenarios are about replacing passivity with passion — more hunting and less gathering. It does us no good for great things to be out there if we can't find them, and if we assume we're going to replace broadcast-type, risk-averse channels with deep dives that serve our true and specific tastes, that means risk, and that means trying things, and that means not everything being to your taste, and that means not declaring that you demand your five years back when you don't like the finale.
You want to eliminate risk? Think like Hollywood. Only see things about which you have "preawareness." Watch more of the things you already like. Watch the sequel. Watch the other sequel. Watch the rip-off. Be that kind of enthusiast. Be the kind of enthusiast that uses enthusiasm as a shield against the possibility of disappointment.
But there is a better way forward. Fall in love with things. Try things; dislike some of them. Love people who love things you can't imagine loving. Be thirsty and brave. Accept that if narrowcasting really is the future, considering what you don't love to be a threat to what you do is a fool's errand that will exhaust you and require you to police the joys of others in a way that will distract you from your own.
Far from being the disaffected, disconnected people we're often accused of having become, we are in fact awash in things we chose specifically and talk about and share — that song on the iPod, that show to binge-watch, that person to follow on Twitter. We are less beholden to information spigots turned on by habit than we've ever been. We have the option of becoming full-time enthusiasts. Heaven help us, it's going to be great and terrible.