One of the aspects of TV's "Big Brother" I enjoy most is the opportunity to observe group dynamics in action. Really, high school sets the standard for all future human group interaction, in my opinion. That's the first environment in which you're clumped together with random peers pre-selected only by age and geography. It's the training ground for society at large.
After high school and possibly college, things get more chaotic and function on a larger scale and it's harder to scrutinize the ways in which social networks and interpersonal communication come to rule our lives. But on CBS three times a week, individuals clash and align and strategize as part of an intricate competition. It's really quite telling, about the contestants and their approaches to problem-solving in addition to overall human behavior patterns. A weekly demonstration that life is a popularity contest.
One quick example, because I don't want to bore the non-BB viewers. Plastic surgeon Will came into the game with a slight advantage, being the only contestant on this season (comprised of all-stars who have appeared on other seasons of "Big Brother") to have actually won the game before. This combined with his brash, cocky attitude made him a central figure of the show from the first episode.
He's really obvious about planting ideas into the conversation. He'll say things like "I'm a liar and a master of manipulation," stuff like that. I found it really cheesy and obvious what he was doing, trying to intimidate people into fearing him when in reality he's not particularly skilled at winning the important competitions. Yet it worked. His prophecies thus far have come true - everyone's deferring to him like he's in charge, people seem to genuinely fear him in the game and he's managed to divide the strongest alliance on the show.
So the lesson is that getting a message out there, even if you have to be blaring obvious in doing so, pays off in the long run. I think Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, the Swift Boat Veterans and Bill O'Reilly have all figured this out.
These kinds of comparisons, as well as the academic study of Communications, work because interpersonal dynamics are fairly constant. People are people, and close observation can generally yield a fairly predictable pattern of behavior in most social situations. Cliques form, antagonists are chosen, conflicts over territory and supremacy begin and so on.
This is what's happening on the blogs right now. Years ago, when they first got going, there were two camps - right-wing bloggers who rallied around the President at all times and left-wing bloggers who posted things about 9/11 being an inside job and the 2000 election having been stolen. Now, what has developed is akin to an enormous, virtual high school quad full of self-righteous tribalistic adolescents.
I first started having these feelings a few months ago, when the Daily Kos blog hosted its Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas. During the convention and for the following, I'd say, two weeks, readers who go to blogs for political discussion and analysis were treated to the cyber-equivalent of scrawled messages on the second-to-last-page of a middle school yearbook.
"OMG, the entire crew from TalkLeft r0x0rz1111 They r totally cute and h0t111 YearlyKos 4 life suckaz111"
Honestly. I read posts where bloggers gushed for paragraphs about hanging out with Joe Wilson or attending a panel featuring Atrios. The Atrios. How ridiculous. These guys aren't celebrities. They're bloggers. The entire point is that they're not celebrities or professional pundits. (Well, except the people on Huffington Post, who tend not to be famous except when they are Alec Baldwin).
Of course, whenever a community like this forms, some individuals rise into leadership positions and become the "ruling class" and everyone else divides themselves into supplicants and contrarians. It just hasn't taken that long with the blogs, and it's kind of depressing because, for a moment there, it had started to seem like a more open-ended, amorphous, progressive kind of organization, one that wasn't as focused on inclusion and membership as it was on original thinking, sharp writing and fresh ideas.
I don't mean to say that none of the popular bloggers are any good. In fact, I enjoy reading most of the big, popular liberal blogs from time to time, even if I disagree with the authors more than I agree. Which is often. My point is just that, if I asked someone who reads blogs to name the most popular, influential bloggers, we'd both come up with the same names. That level of consolidation in only a few short years surprises me considering how many blogs there are and how easy they are to start up.
Even more unfortunate, the left-vs-right divide online has, at this point, exploded to a level that may no longer be healthy. I've been voicing my concerns about the tone of American public debate, in reality and online, for the past several months. It's not the level of vitriol or lack of civility or the swearing or any of that stuff that bothers me. That would be hypocritical in the extreme, of course, because I lob all manner of offensive insults at individuals on here every day.
No, what worries me is that political conversation in this country no longer holds reality in any kind of regard. It's all about who comes up with the better rhetorical point. Whose argument sounds better. Right-wing bloggers make up ludicrous nonsense arguing for prolonged war or portraying any and all liberals as America-hating unkempt hippies. Then liberal bloggers stupidly respond to this idiocy, trying to inject rationality into a conversation that has nothing to do with logical reasoning. Then the right-wing bloggers reveal their opponents' identites or make snide remarks about their families or, if they are Jeff Goldstein, threaten to smack them with his penis. It's all so lame and pointless.
That last link goes to a Sadly No thread that's one of the most ridiculous, insane things I have ever read. The article discusses a blogger named Patterico who "outed" the identity of blogger Tbogg (who you'll recall recently gave me a copy of Network on DVD), even though this identity was pretty much already known to anyone who cared. He even signed the note that came with my DVD with his real name. In the comments section, Patterico shows up to defend himself. Then, Deb Fritch, an insane woman who has threatened blogger Jeff Goldstein's family, comes around to throw around some senseless vulgarity. Then, a really nutty guy shows up who says that he has solved the OJ Simpson murder case and that Patterico won't face him "legally," whatever that means. It's a primer about how any discussion, even what appears to be a rational one, will eventually devolve into playground name-calling and off-the-wall accusations.
Lefty blogs are at their best when they ignore whatever line of bullshit Ken Mehlman has excreted this week or whatever their critics have to say about them and go on the attack. And right-wing blogs are at their best when they give free reign to unintentionally hilarious apocalypse-minded religious zealots to inaccurately reference Scripture.
Communications majors will tell you that impressions become reality over time - if someone is presented to people as charming, they will eventually be seen that way. (Will in "Big Brother" proves this perfectly. He tells everyone he has charisma, that he will charm them and win them over, so of course that's exactly what he does. Everyone wants to listen to and obey instructions if they are offered in the right context).
But just because the media has the tools and the knowledge to shape messages and sell them to the public doesn't mean they should use it to start wars or encourage torture. In fact, they probably shouldn't use it at all. I know guys like George Clooney want TV and movies to start radically altering the public's perspective on social issues, but I personally feel like it's just too powerful. That we should just show reality TV, game shows and cartoons on the air and let people make up their own minds about politics and world events.
I'm totally serious. I propose an immediate cease-fire for all television political coverage. Just stop immediately. No more news on TV. If you want to find out what's going on in the world, you have to read a newspaper or go online or ask someone you trust to keep you updated on stuff like the drunken rantings of well-known insane Malibu residnets. We gave TV a shot, and it just can't handle the job. It only knows how to lightly entertain. It means well, but in the end, using television to educate Americans is like using a harpoon as a tampon. Woefully inadequate for the job and likely to do more harm than good.
I'll make an exception for "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" with the acknowledgement that they'll probably go off the air anyway for lack of material. This will be disappointing, but still advantageous in the big picture.