Friday, January 23, 2009

On virtual communitas

This morning I came across a news story about the pope's message for the 43rd "World Day of Communications" (did you know there was such a thing?), in which he warns users of social-networking sites not to become so obsessive about connecting virtually that they forget to connect in real life. (Yawn: are we still stuck on that fear?)

This caution came as the Vatican announced the launch of its own YouTube channel, where you can listen to a translation of the Pope's message (I'd include it here, but the videos on the site don't allow embedding--huh!).

The Holy Father has a point, though, in that no matter how interactive the web might become, the poor, rural, and disadvantaged remain just as marginalized, if not more so, in a world increasingly reliant on computers and high-speed web access to connect with each other.


On Tuesday, I suddenly realized I was fully in the 21st century as I sat in my office with NPR audio streaming, watching the inauguration live on CNN through Facebook, which allowed me to chat in real time with friends (or, if I had so chosen, the entire Facebook community) in the same window as the video.

At the same time, I had another window updating tweets being sent from the National Mall on Twitter, with hundreds of new messages loading every time the page refreshed.

One of the most interesting tweets I read was from someone describing people's reactions as first Bush, then Cheney appeared on the JumboTrons. The folks around this tweeter booed loudly at Bush, and many joined in humming the "Imperial March" from Star Wars to accompany Cheney's entrance.

As a folklorist, this is the stuff that fascinated me: the accounts of what people were actually experiencing on the ground, the interactive, spontaneous, performative aspects of the otherwise official events. And they're the details that made me feel most hooked into the experience, far more so than the news coverage.

Other tweets noted that as the crowd gathered, people were making snarky comments about Bush, and one woman posted that her daughter asked her after the ceremony whether they could go to the White House next to watch the President working.

What I found most amazing about all these tweets, collectively, is the way they gave voice to the imposed silence of the last eight years. Ever since November 4th, I've been moved, saddened, and perplexed by the realization that all these years that I felt isolated and disenfranchised from the mainstream, the reality was that there were many others--apparently, a majority of others--who felt the same way.

James Taylor actually put my feelings into words best in an NPR interview before his performance at the "We Are One" concert last weekend. He said,
"I'm not used to feeling in step with everybody....I've felt alienated somewhat for about a decade now, and became set in a certain feeling about my country and my government and where we were headed, and I didn't realize how powerful that was until it was relieved."
Relief. Yes, that's the feeling, all right, and I felt it again on Tuesday as I connected virtually with others who clearly also felt relieved.

And surprisingly, I felt it more potently in front of my computer than I did when I went over to the campus center to watch the actual oath and address on the big-screen TV there. Though there was a fairly large crowd gathered there, the mood seemed muted; people didn't seem to know whether it was OK to applaud or cheer, though a few did after both the oath and speech.

It was odd. Given the collective outpouring of relief and joy in the last two months, I figured people would be more excited--and at that moment, I wanted to be where the excited people were! Instead, I sensed that people were keeping a lid on their feelings, and I've been trying ever since to figure out why. Of course, West Virginia went for McCain in the election, so it might just be a matter of geography--did your results vary?

In some ways, I wonder if we aren't all like moles back out in the light after being underground--blinking, dazed, unsure what the rules are in this strange, open new place we find ourselves.

The more cynical part of me feels like it's vestigal fear: for eight years we were told that dissent was unpatriotic, and that if we knew what was good for us, we'd keep quiet. It takes a long time to overcome that kind of conditioning and return to a normal kind of affect.

So, I have to respectfully disagree with the Pope on this one: on Tuesday, my sense of communitas was online. And I relished every byte of it.

[For some amazing photos of virtual inaugural communitas around the world, click here.]


Michael said...

What a wonderful post! You put into words feelings that hadn't quite bubbled up into the articulate part of my brain yet. I, too, watched the inauguration on CNN/Facebook and had a good time following the comments, though I did not participate myself. Your phrase, "the imposed silence of the last eight years" is interesting. I kept wondering, where is the big youth protest movement of the 60's? Whenever some public figure made a statement of protest, it seemed to be reported, then vanish into the aether.

As far as whether or not being in a McCain state made a difference in expressions of relief: here in Ohio, the same "lid" was being applied. Almost everyone I spoke to one-to-one was wildly happy about the election, but there really did seem to be a strangely decorous atmosphere, as though we should be worried about offending the few remaining Bushies out there. It did seem a little unseemly to gloat, and here at the library, I work with more right-wingers (or folks uncomfortable with public expression of their politics) than you might assume.

Anyway, thanks for a well-written and thought-provoking post!

Rosemary said...

Thanks, Mike! James Taylor's words had the same effect on me, which inspired the post. I really hadn't quite put together how *physical* the feeling of relief was, and how much it made me realize I'd been holding back for so long.

I'm interested to hear that the celebration was equally subdued in Columbus, though, even though it went solidly for Obama.

I really hope that time will show that we can attribute the "lid" to either a less "gloating" kind of politics, or to people's awareness that as good as change might be, the hard work it requires has yet to be done, and *not* to an ongoing sense that we can't speak out about our views.

Pam said...

The reaction was somewhat different for me. I watched the CNN/ Facebook feed until about 10 minutes before the swearing in ceremony. Then my office wandered down to the Red Cross office down the hall where they were having a viewing party. The atmosphere there was festive and when Obama took the oath there was a huge sigh of relief and even a few tears. Generally, people were excited ;but, what I noticed the most were that those of us that had lived through the assasinations of Kennedy, MLK and Bobby Kennedy were so anxious that something horrible might happen during the ceremony that it was hard to relax and enjoy it. If you're under the age of 45 or so you never were witness to seeing someone losing their life on TV on what would otherwise be an exciting occasion. The interesting part, was that no one talked about it until well after the ceremony was over. But the feeling seemed to be universal to my demographic here.

Rosemary said...

Wow, that's really interesting, Pam. Hadn't thought about that aspect of it, but it makes sense that some of the muted reaction may have been more rooted in anxiety than anything else! I know I didn't really breathe freely until after the oath (as botched as it may have been!).