I think it’s harder to write nowadays, especially in the wake of the media’s demise, in a way where you break news, or bring new information to people. That was the primary goal of magazines and newspapers and things of that nature, but most information — if not all information — makes its way online first now, and then the writing, at least from a journalist’s perspective, comes after the fact. It is reactionary, writing in the media about media that already exists as media.
That puts the writer at a disadvantage, because the writer has to comb through things that already exist, place them in some sort of larger framework, make it all make sense, when the process of unleashing into the universe or the cloud or whatever it is the internet is, is one that is largely done on a whim, without much sense to it in the first place. This is the wild west and everyone is in the middle of a shootout. It’s hard to tell who’s shooting who, and why, but you just know there’s shooting going on.
This is primarily the function of a society beholden to technology, an internet-first society, a society where we’ll share an update on Facebook with a bunch of people we know, and a bunch of people we don’t know, before we place a call to our immediate family. It is as if the platforms and the technology are a part of the fabric of who we are. We are not alive in some grand society that exists, nominally known as the real world, but caught between the real world and the machine, via a portal — call it the smartphone or the tablet or the computer — part man or woman, part machine, the sum of most knowledge available at the touch of a button, but still needing us to, in fact, touch that button to access it.
So how does a writer exist within that framework? How does the writer reveal something that is already out there. How does the writer expose and illuminate that which is already public knowledge?
My feeling is that the story, for many years, has been “such and such happened on the internet; because the internet; this thing and then the internet,” which in and of itself, is a story not worth talking about much. The silliness of writing about virality is that virality lives and dies within the span of days or hours or minutes or seconds. In essence, it’s not something that lasts. So to do something lasting, to document it, to say “it was here and it happened,” is not important. It happened just like I took a breath five seconds ago. It’s something that is going to happen, because the ecosystem is ripe enough, in fact it exists simply enough, for it to happen.
It just so happens that the spread of messages and memes and information online is still limited to the limitations of the technology itself. A video goes viral because we ourselves do not live inside the cloud. A representation of us, an avatar, lives inside the cloud, and that representation takes the form of some type of media, and we call it a “social” media, because the social part is the online community in which it exists. All of the world, once we leave our house, is technically a social media ecosystem, except it lacks the media. In the real world, we are the media. The human is the media. But the human cannot exist yet inside the cloud, so the media, in whatever form it may be, represents us.
So, merely by plugging in, by accessing, by engaging with the online world, you are exposing yourself to something that could be going viral, or not going viral — and you have the choice to look at it or not. But it is there and it is happening. That story exists outside of the realm of public consciousness, however. It is not, because the analytics suggest it to be so, of extreme importance. It is being looked at glanced at and shared and commented on just as if some other spectacle was happening in the middle of the street and thousands of people were walking by.
Still, that doesn’t make it a compelling story. All that happens in life is not interesting, no matter how many people stop to gape at it.
I think the role of the writer or the storyteller then, instead, is actually to show something deeper, something more meaningful, something more revealing. The writer is no different from any other artist, and in looking at art, we have come to a place where the artist doesn’t have nearly as significant a role in documenting the experience of everyday life, of preserving a moment, as it once did. Looking back on thousands of years of paintings or carvings or even photography, there is an effort to capture a scene, to show a realism or a naturalism, to depict life as it is occurred or as it has occurred.
But in modern times, when everyone has access to the tools to do this, and the responsibility no longer falls on a tradesman to make it so, then there is a sort of humanism, a story behind the story, that it does become the job of the tradesman to endeavor in. If documentation is no longer the end goal, because all of life or most of life or at least the some of life that people think is interesting is already being documented, then making sense of that documentation, and showing how it relates to some deeper sense of being, that becomes a task itself. It’s no longer enough to make a painting of a person. A portrait is a portrait. But a portrait that suggests pain or anguish or happiness or joy, a scene that suggests here is this person and this is who I perceive them to be, that is something else entirely.
In a society where everything is being promoted or marketed, and many people, whether they want to admit or not, secretly want to be at least some kind of star, interpretation of that information — that is where the artist, whether he/she is a writer, a painter, a musician, a photographer or some other thing, differentiates themselves from the pack. It is no longer enough to have the skill, because everyone has skills, but the way of seeing, the point of view, that brings the real value. Art is not a set of skills. Art is a way of seeing. A vision. Observing something that is there, that maybe someone else can’t see, then exposing it, through a canvas, be it a notepad or a blog or a movie screen or a photo album.
Like most people, I have an Instagram account. We all have one these days. And my friends have cameras in their phones and they do that thing they do, where they take a photo of some food or a thing they’re doing, maybe it’s a picture of their kid or something else heartwarming, but I may be in the small minority of people who thinks — you know what, I’m not necessarily sure I care about all that jazz. I click the little heart icon, because that little heart icon acts as some sort of value system, and I do enjoy the photos, for whatever their purpose, on some level or another.
And yet I think, the most interesting Instagram accounts, to me, are still the ones that post artsy images and fantastic photography of places and people and things I’ve never seen, and may never see. See, when the photographer acts as artist, and not just some person saying here is what I’m doing and here is how I feel — the artist stretches the imagination. The artist reveals something, shows something, exposes something, that you previously did not know.
I mention photography because I think photography and writing have a lot in common, even though on a visceral level, they engage different parts of the mind. Obviously, a photo is a visual cue and when you recognize images, your mind makes connections between everything that is present. An image of a person wearing loose-fitting clothing on a sunny day might imply that it is warm, even though you can’t physically feel, through looking at the photo, that warmth. Whereas with writing, you write — it was a sunny day and she was wearing loose-fitting clothing — and the mind has to process the words, then conjure the image, then assume it might be warm. It’s a little more work.
Still, the general thrust is the same, which again, is an exposition of something that is more understood than it is felt, at least from a physical standpoint. Neither the process of looking at an image of a sunny day or reading about a sunny day is going to make you feel any warmer, in reality, than you are at the moment you’re actually doing it, but you know — it warm, it was sunny.
Of course, it depends on what the subject of the photo or the writing is, but still at its core, the idea is always to peel back layers, to show that which is hidden. If you think about food photography, or even food television programming — and food is the best example, perhaps because of how inane, on a much deeper level, I personally find it — the best photos, the best writing, best TV programming is the kind where there is such a level of detail there. To engage with it is to feel like you’re tasting it, even if you’re not. Your mouth waters and you’re just looking at a picture.
And I think all subjects should be treated that way. Almost like an onion, where you just keep peeling and peeling, revealing more and more, until you get to the very core of what that subject is. In the case of a person, it may be the very essence of what it means for that person to be alive. What it feels like for them to walk this earth, and what they do when they get up in the morning, what do they look at and what is the first thing they do, where do they go, what do they eat for breakfast and what is their mood like. In short, you are trying to find out who they are. It’s not so much about what they did or what they are doing or what they will do — it’s who they are.