In his Journal entry for March 8, 2013, novelist Neil Gaiman chronicles his travels and talks briefly about the radio adaptation of his book Neverwhere (featuring the voice talents of James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others). About halfway down the page, he writes, quite a propos of nothing: “Here is a photograph of Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays the angel Islington. Many of my friends strongly believe that photographs of Mr Cumberbatch and amusing photographs of kittens were what the internet was created for.” I remember reading that last sentence, being duly amused, and sharing it on my own Facebook page with an additional comment to the effect that Gaiman’s friends and I might get along.
This incident seems to resonate well with the ideas that Tom Standage brings up in “Poetry in Motion” in Writing on the Wall. Standage remarks that “Then as now, people enjoy being able to articulate their interests and define themselves by selectively compiling and resharing content created by others. The mere act of sharing something can, in other words, be a form of self-expression.” (Standage 75-76). In my case, one might easily assume I enjoy Gaiman, Cumberbatch, and kittens (not necessarily in that order), even though I do have many other uses for the internet. Of course, much like the poems in the Devonshire Manuscript, it is assumed that all of our online writing and sharing—whether blogged, Facebooked, tweeted, Tumbled, and Instagrammed—is part of a constructed identity, even if that identity differs from poem to poem or account to account. In this age of everything-is-public, I wonder if photographs of cats and British actors really the current equivalent of clandestinely circulated couplets and quips. If so, it seems there is much less at stake—quite literally in some of Standage’s examples (82-83)—and much less effort expended. Yet, can resharing “amusing photographs of kittens” really be just definitive an act of self-expression as writing an original composition? After all, both play into to curation of a circulated self.
My anecdote at the start of this post is fairly unremarkable—Gaiman and Cumberbatch make not infrequent appearances in my social media outlets and/or conversation—but in thinking about it again, I am struck by the implications of Gaiman’s choice of (social) media. As a professional writer, Gaiman’s is a personal and professional blog, a mix of reflection, self-promotion (both of himself and his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, so-called “geek royalty”), and things he himself is resharing from elsewhere. By reading it sporadically, am I part of the “court circle” of Gaiman fans, receiving and recirculating his witty missives? Does that group still count as a “coterie” (Standage 77) if it is available to the whole wide web?
Gaiman’s seemingly innocuous comment about the actor voicing one of Neverwhere’s main characters definitely endorses the radio production of the novel, but does so in a way seems to not only also promote Cumberbatch but induce a kind of media synethesia as well: those tuning in to the radio broadcast of Neverwhere are of course not seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as Islington, only hearing him (in this case, singing the Lyke-Wake Dirge).
Yet, by emphasizing the visual recognizability of the actor, Gaiman capitalizes on the fact that the readers of his blog might tune in for that reason if not for others. Interesting too is the fact that the photograph in question is no longer available on the blog, so it is uncertain which of the actor’s looks Gaiman might have chosen to reshare and what that in turn says about the original text in question—I myself have forgotten. Perhaps it was one of these: