The end of the applause

The pandemic killed the clapping.

In summary, applause is stupid: you beat yourself, but only in the company of others who beat themselves to show approval.

The end of the applause came to my mind as I watched recent events: Apple’s latest product announcement without clapping geeks and sycophants (and revealing its true aesthetic as yet another advertisement); the US Open with lukewarm, sitcom-like clap tracks that would have been cheering; the intimate and public free YouTube convention of the Democrats – which I wrote about here; and Sarah Cooper’s opener for Jimmy Kimmel’s Show. I’m in awe of Cooper anyway, but when I saw her monologue, I was amazed at the courage of a comedian telling jokes without the immediate feedback of laughter, applause, and cheers: without an audience, or at least one to be heard. YouTubers think that’s normal; old farts, strange.

Applause is binary: it is or it is not. To put it in McLuhanesque, hands are a medium with only one message at a time. Hands can hit each other. Hands can hammer a table. (When I first finished a presentation in a German boardroom, they knocked the table and I thought, “Oh, damn, I just pissed off some angry Germans” only to realize that this was German for applause. ) Hands can also silently show a thumb, finger or fist. The hand was the medium that an audience was allowed to use.

Jay Rosen famously talks about “the people who used to be known as the audience”, his heuristic to make us think about the change in the relationship of journalists or media to the public who are not passive recipients and consumers of the goods, which we call content but who has a voice now.

Voice brings substance, nuance, complexity. This richer message can be shared on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, forums and comments. It is not easy to listen to the voice. The media don’t know how to listen to us. It’s much easier to reduce people to the noise of a crowd – applause, cheers, singing – or to numbers in a poll – red versus blue, black versus white, 99% versus 1%, pro versus cheating. Mass media abhor any voice but its own.

The internet loathes being silenced. It will burst around any barrier so its users can be heard in a different way. Donald Trump may have tried to ban TikTok and silence Sarah Cooper – while the Chinese government is trying to ban American platforms and silence its citizens – but both will fail. People will find their voices elsewhere.

Even so, the media will continue to insist on turning the online voices into binary buckets, reductionist headlines, and shallow hot takes. I despise headlines that say “Twitter hates …” or “Twitter loves …” or “Twitter is going crazy …” like there is a social voice, Twitter, and our only role is in that in contributing to a single monolithic floor line of collective opinion. In writing these attitudes, media people ignore the very essence of what social media enables: individual voices. That way, media couldn’t make room for #BlackLivesMatter. Social media had to.

Social media companies, however, are not to blame for this attempt to reduce their users’ voices to applause or boos. I also loathe “trending” features on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere because they seriously misrepresent the experience there. When I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for a book many years ago, he said that no two people on earth see the same Facebook. This also applies to Twitter – and the Internet – as opposed to old media. So to speak – as Kevin Roose of the New York Times tries using Facebook’s own data – that this or that story, which is seen most often on Facebook, makes something that few people see into something more important than it is, as Casey Newton explains. It’s like saying that all of America – or half of America – is under the influence of Fox News when actually only about 3 million people (1 percent of the country) are watching prime time. On my social feed, I see very few of the trending topics, and I see next to none of the poisonous right-wing stories that the media annoys because me and my friends are neither hip nor Nazi.

The late Columbia professor James Carey famously wrote that the press does not exist to convey information but to provide ritual – that is, an affirmative view of ourselves as a crowd (Catholic type, not media, marketing or Type of production). The picture that the press paints of us is distorted. The press view of our lives on social media is wrong. After all, the web allows us to hear more than just the clapping of hands, and yet we are reduced to polls or trending topics or substitute applause. And so I don’t regret the applause during the pandemic. I am waiting for the sound of the voices that we can now hear instead.

There is still much to be done to hear each other’s voices. As I said before, the network has only been set up for speaking and not for listening. I am celebrating this speech, the voices have not been heard in the mass media for too long. However, we need a lot more tools to discover voices and messages worth listening to, to better portray the nuanced public conversation and to move us into a real conversation. It will come in time. Until then, learn to enjoy the lack of applause and silence.

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