Mechanical Dances

Social media and 1960

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One quality of social media that would surprise our time traveler from 1960 is one that digital media writers have noted with such enthusiasm: that so much of the content that flows across the screens of these “ordinary” users are texts, images, and videos generated by other “ordinary” users. In 1960, when the production of media was still centralized, only a relative elite was empowered to produce materials for the large class of consumers. Hierarchies were beginning to break down, and rock musicians, television personalities, and other popular producers were receiving new attention. And television and the rock music world did suggest a new kind of performer, who was not as remote or different from the audience as the classical musician or even the film star of the past. While the rock figures of the 1950s and 1960s were certainly not ordinary, their popularity was often based on the fact that the teenage audience could see only slightly idealized versions of themselves—teenagers or young adults who shared their origins and therefore their life stores. But at the same time television and rock music expanded the audience of passive consumers, and the gulf between the producing elite and the consuming masses remained. Today the relative ease with which a YouTube celebrity or blog writer can emerge to command a large audience has diminished the difference between producing and consuming. And so much of what people read and view on their screen is social media that was created by their friends and peers. This gigantic wealth of user-generated materials (tweets, blog posts, status reports, images, six second videos) is needed to maintain the flow experience for the tens of millions of users monitoring each other. Our time traveler, still used to thinking that media broadcasts are something special, would be surprised both that people are so willing to publish such intimate and trivial material online, and that others would be so willing to read it.

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