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:
After finishing Writing on the Wall, my life’s new goal is to either locate or become the proprietor of a real-life coffeehouse that operates like the ones Standage describes in Chapter 6. Whether or not they actually existed, the idea of an “egalitarian new intellectual space” (104) where all can exchange new knowledge in diverse fields and imbibe my favorite caffeinated beverage sounds like heaven on earth. In the words of Liz Lemon:
Sadly, I can’t think of a single real-life commercial establishment that functions as such. I have never in my life been in a chain or independent coffee retailer that fosters the actively social “speculative environment” of their predecessors; they are more often filled with people glued to their technology, books, or other distractions in an otherwise social and public place.
Where I do find those environments, or at least analogous cultural structures, is in the virtual world. Like the alleged coffeehouses in the days of Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren, certain online communities function as networks driven by discussion and transactions that are based around knowledge sharing. As the resident reddit enthusiast, I have to admit that upon reading the chapter on coffeehouses, the self-professed “front page of the internet” was the first comparable website that came to mind.
In June of 2012, redditor /u/Dapper77 described reddit as “a place friendly to thought, relationships, arguments, and to those that wish to challenge those genres.” Subreddits, or topic/theme-based forums within the site, parallel the coffeehouses that developed a specific client base. Like Jonathan’s, which drew seventeenth-century businessmen, /r/history attracts historians and history enthusiasts for questions, debate, and other content that is relevant to their interests. The site has areas for users to talk about literally almost anything they can think of, and if a subreddit doesn’t exist, you can create it. Best of all, it’s all free!
The diversity and availability of content options can mean different things for different people. Personally, I like it for the opportunity to learn new things about any topic that strikes my interest. Serial killers, suggestions for slowcooker recipes, adorable corgis, colorized historical images, and tips on skincare routines: I can find information and communities immersed in each topic online.
Like the coffeehouses, most of our myriad social networking or information-sharing sites have been vilified as “distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work” (111). At least with reddit, you’re (generally) learning something new, whether or not it is actually useful information. Plus, the site hasn’t been overrun with irrelevant content such as ads and games, like the fictional “Friendface” from British Channel 4’s The IT Crowd.
While the environment of intellectual sharing and discussion is one of reddit’s strong points, there are certainly detracting factors. For instance, there will always be people whose sole purpose in life seems to be posting responses that are rude, offensive, or generally irrelevant or irritating. Often, these exchanges function like the one that Standage describes on pages 40 and 41, particularly the “comment thread” between Severus and Successus.
Additionally, instead of having face-to-face, real-time interaction, users are separated by time and space, which negates the socialization aspect that makes the idea of coffeehouses so attractive. If you wanted to get really meta, you could go to a coffeehouse and use reddit from there! As someone who is often most comfortable interacting with strangers through friendly, down-to-earth intellectual discussion, and assuming that they did actually exist, I look forward to the day when coffeehouses make a triumphant return!
I’m concerned about poetry. I have always been concerned about poetry. Poetry was that white muse who held my hand when I was so young, took me to a white land, entrapped me in black words, and we never came back. I grew up to grow my own manifesto of poetry: a real poem would carry all its needed instruments within itself. A real poem needs neither camera, nor light to be projected in your mind. A real poem creates images, music, shadow, light, pauses, rhythm, pains and joys out of words; nothing but words. They only exception for me seems to be the voice of the poet. I think a poet’s voice is a part of poetry. I have believed in pure poetry. Am I too old to revise my manifesto? Do I even need to revise it? I still want to think about poetry, as I still want poetry to think about me.
Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States , in his amazing Ted Talk Everyday Moments Caught in Time explains why he has decided to present some of his poems in a new visual medium , with animation, despite his initial resistance, as he always thinks that “poetry can stand by itself.” I am amazed by discovering a huge harmony between my own view of poetry and Collins’ standpoint. “If you are reading a poem that mentions a caw, you don’t need on the facing page a drawing of the caw”, absolutely true, I say. Now the same Billy Collins announces that he is going to present poetry-animations or animated poems to his audience, that he has been trying to take poetry to public places, “poetry on buses, poetry on subways, on billboards” and let it “happen to you so suddenly that you don’t have time to deploy your anti-poetry deflector shields.” This idea is totally strange to me, to let poetry happen suddenly to the resentful busy audience of a crowded world. Collins presents his animated poems, and the experience turns to be unbelievably unique. I can explain it as a conceptual visualization of visual concepts or something like that! What he presents is different from the hasty juxtaposition of poems and random pictures that usually make me stop the clip before the end to avoid letting the beauty of a pure poem be ruined by some mediocre visual supplements. Collins introduces the possibility of creating new forms for presenting poetry in digital age. Poetry needs new weapons to take part in digital revolution, and digital revolution needs that call for new weapons to still be revolutionary.
The fourth chapter of Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall indicates that poetry, along with other genres, has also been used as an available social medium, but as a minor participant in an ongoing act of communication. The historical stories of this chapter talk about “the circulations of poetry within court circle” (77) and how poetry was used as a hidden messenger of forbidden desires or “as a way to amuse friends, win the favor of patrons and advance their careers” (82.) Poetry in this chapter is not depicted as an art but as an available means of communication, “self-expression and self-promotion” (69) which existed before and naturally enough continues to exist. Poetry has been taken for granted. This pervasive underestimation of a super-sensitive art makes me remember once more that we should really think about poetry. The question of poetry’s position in the context of our contemporary creative and communicative world is as essential as any other primary concern that we might have today. Poetry is not really a circulating self-expressing method to be generated, replaced or adapted easily. Poetry needs to be helped to survive our new world;and our new world would need poetry to survive.
I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with Chrome Nanny. For those of you unfamiliar with this horrible brilliant device, it is an extension for chrome that you can program to limit your browsing of certain sites. During the semester, I have it set to only allow me to check Facebook, Reddit, and other similar sites for one or two minutes an hour. When I use up my allotted time, it provides me with this gentle reminder:
When Chrome Nanny reprimands me, I am reminded of the frivolous nature of these sites. Why would I be posting pictures of my dog on Facebook when the article I’m working on remains depressingly unfinished?
The internal dilemma I feel between social media and productivity is nothing new. As Tom Standage notes in Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 years, people felt the same ambivalence towards coffee shops in the seventeenth century. When discussing the initial reception of these caffeine driven hangouts, Standage explains how “[n]ot everyone welcomed the freedom of speech afforded by the new social forum, and some people worried that its compelling, information-rich environment, which provided an endless and addictive stream of trivia, gossip, and falsehood, was distracting people from more productive pursuits” (104).
Over three hundred years later, the feeling that we are wasting our time by engaging in “non-productive” conversations is one that continues to plague us. Indeed, the nagging feeling of squandering valuable time becomes the topic of conversation in an episode of Seinfeld from the mid-1990s.
But really, can’t we have coffee—or facebook conversations—with friends? Is social media merely a distraction? Obviously there are aspects to social media that are unarguably beneficial. As Tom Standage notes, social media has the ability to spread news, spark revolutions, and create a global community. But what about the rest? What about the status updates of mundane daily activities and excessive pictures of food?
Despite the fact that we all may feel compelled to block or unfollow people who are constantly bombarding us with details of their lives, I nonetheless think that the type of connections this level of sharing provides is valuable, and not simply a distraction. Rather, I think social media allows us to talk about the inane details of our lives—to “have coffee”—with our friends and family regardless of the physical distances that separate us. And as Jerry, George, and Elaine remind us, having coffee with your friends may not be such a waste of time after all.