Us, the audience

I read a lot of things, and I watch a lot of things, and I am not particularly discriminating in my consumption. I read books, magazines, newspapers, gossip columns, advice columns; I watch television, films, and also a shit-ton of YouTube videos. I feel no shame about any of this; I’ve been that way since I was very small, during the days when there was a LOT less content to consume (it is so telling to me that in elementary school, I was a devoted viewer of General Hospital). For me, it’s comforting to recognize the same stories and patterns of human behavior across all of these mediums, to understand that no matter who you are or where you are, you can understand what’s going on in the world through the lens of story—you can figure out which character you identify and sympathize with, understand the dimensions of the conflicts and tensions at hand, and think about all the ways to wrap up the story so you can, you know, move on.

In addition to being a voracious consumer of content from the time I was one (no joke, there is archival footage of me watching the premiere of Sesame Street), I also learned, from my college education, about all the different filters, conscious and unconscious, that influence and shape our consumption of content and culture. My major at Brown is (still) called Modern Culture and Media—it’s an interdisciplinary major that blends semiotics and critical theory with analyses of cultural texts, whether they were paintings or books or movies or television shows. Basically, the underlying premise is this: All expressions of culture, whether intended for more rarified art audiences or for mass consumption, can be read as expressions of social and political and economic norms related to particular societal contexts and times. So, for example, you can watch a Hitchcock film and learn a lot about the objectification and fetishization of women in society and popular culture; you can watch a television commercial and understand exactly who the company wants to buy their product and what cultural references and values they’re seeking to activate.

For me, Modern Culture & Media was a hella fun course of study. I mainly chose it because I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but I ended up loving it because everything I learned helped me make sense of the world, for the rest of my life. Even when I wasn’t the intended audience for the content, it gave me the ability to appreciate how we convey meaning and information throughout history.

But these days, more than 30 years after my exit from college, while I still feel like I can make sense of the world (on my better days), I am also feeling utterly exhausted and battered by the current information environment we’re living in. I’m pretty sure we have a huge information crisis on our hands, but I’m not even sure how to describe the crisis. Some people refer to this crisis as an epidemic of “disinformation” and an ongoing erosion of trust and radical polarization affecting our media institutions, but I don’t know if those shorthand descriptions cover all dimensions of the crisis—especially the parts having to do with us, the audiences, the content consumers.

Here is my lame attempt at summarizing what I think is wrong, on the “us” side:

  • We have so much content out there, so many media outlets and streaming services and content production shops, that most individuals get easily overwhelmed when trying to make sense of everything that’s going on. And, I venture to add, many people did not have an education or a career like mine, in which I learned to recognize narratives and filter and sort content on a daily basis. So, left to their own devices, in today’s cacophonous information environment, many people pick and choose the content streams that speak to them directly and make them feel seen and understood, rather than the ones that could help them understand how groups of people other than themselves think and feel and behave.
  • Some of the content platforms and content producers are acting in bad faith; some are putting out content that reinforces some worldviews and marginalizes others; others are putting out content that is false or misleading or inflammatory, content and messaging that can and does lead to real harm. Some of the bad-faith actors are doing this for profit or market share or power gain. I’m even willing to allow for the possibility that some of the bad-faith actors are even unaware that they are operating in bad faith, and that they believe they’re on some Joe Citizen crusade to inform the masses of the Truth. (Yes, the gendering of Joe Citizen was intentional, as was the capitalization of the Truth.)

So, let’s look at some examples of how to deal with the problem of “too much” and “bad actors.” I think of my mother as a success story, when it comes to this crisis: she’s getting up there in years (82) but she still shows surprising levels of awareness about the hot topics of the day. When she first came to the United States from Korea in the mid-1960s, and for years after that, my mother pretty much had two sources of information: the evening news (local and world) and the Korean-language newspaper. I chiefly remember the former for Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings (my mother thought the latter was very handsome) and the latter as a wrapping/cushioning material for packing boxes, since I didn’t read or write Korean.

Over the years, my mother has picked up a few other sources of information: she is a devoted reader of People magazine, she watches news digest and magazine shows, like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, and CNN, to a more limited extent. She still faithfully watches the evening news (local and world). Thank goodness, she has not become a Fox News fan—although she voted Republican for many years, her bullshit detector has remained in working order, and she recognized Trump and all of those windbags who appear on Fox News for what they truly are: crooks and bullshitters.

Overall, I think my mom has done a decent job for herself in overcoming the “too much” and “bad actors” problem. When I talk to her about current events, I hear and recognize the filters and narratives that come with reading People Magazine and watching 20/20 and 60 Minutes, but overall, I think she’s pretty well-informed and that she’s not bought into any narratives put out by the bad faith actors. (Well. She fell for a few right-wing traps having to do with Biden and his credentials to be President, but thank goodness, she extricated herself out of them.)

My kids, aged 22 and 19, respectively, are thoroughly modern media consumers. They are used to having content blasted at them from all sources; in fact, they’ve learned to shut down content streams periodically when they feel it is having a terrible effect on their mental health. My daughter is into politics: she reads the New York Times and Vox News. My son is a film major; he is a devoted fan of John Oliver and also takes stock of the Twitter zeitgeist, from a distance. If one of them shoots an opinion on a specific topic my way that I consider to be, er, on the less well-informed side, then they know that I will share a multitude of articles or videos that provide a variety of perspectives on the topic. (But most of the time, they know better than to shoot off ill-informed opinions.) They also know that I’m happy to engage with them on serious topics like elections and feminism, but that I’ll also engage with them on the latest television show or film.

So there you have it: my mom, my two kids. Here are three people in the world who I feel okay about when it comes to how they’re dealing with all of the content in the world. They have figured out how to deal with the “too much” aspect of our crisis, and they have also learned how to filter out the bad faith actors out there who are consistently reinforcing dominant stereotypes, creating and disseminating false narratives, and distorting the facts.

What, though, about the literally millions of people who I don’t feel okay about, when it comes to how they’re handling this information crisis? What about the millions of people who are actively consuming content that is wrong, inaccurate, harmful, and even hateful—because this content happens to be their particular jam? You could pick literally any issue of the last few years that has gotten swallowed up by a toxic rabbit hole—critical race theory, abortion, COVID-19 for chrissakes!—and understand how quickly these topics have become poisonous and ridiculously polarizing.

There are a number of organizations and donors out there who are thinking about this information/content crisis from the production side. The politicians are calling for greater oversight and regulation of companies like Facebook (good luck with that); in addition, new media firms are being created, funded by billionaires (I hope not the evil ones), for the sole purpose of combating disinformation.

How these new media firms are planning to combat disinformation, I don’t know. I worry that they are paying too much attention to the production side—so, for example, if one of their proposed solutions is to create more engaging content that actually, you know, helps people ground their opinions in actual evidence, how are they going to address the fact that millions of content consumers are already deeply invested in their content sources, the ones that make them feel seen and heard and understood? How will they tackle the problem of “too much?” How will their information sources win out against the bad actors, who clearly have some skills in making their content engaging and perhaps even addictive, and who don’t align with any rules or standards whatsoever?

In short, what can be done to help literally millions of people become better, smarter, and more compassionate consumers of content? (I was about to say, “less fucking selfish” instead of “more compassionate,” but I have this brilliant theory that perhaps people who are acting like dumbasses are not likely to be open-minded when you call them dumbasses.) This is what I would like to see. I would like to see interventions that help the content consumers of today—the ones who glibly pass on the unproven treatments about COVID, the ones who will post or share racist things about Black and Brown people on social media but not say them out loud IRL—gain deeper and more informed perspectives about the information world we exist in today. In the same way that we aspire to teach people about mental health, better eating, the benefits of exercise, caring about the environment—and yes, I know that those are all uphill battles, too—I want us to collectively aspire to teach people to be better consumers of media, and of content, in general.

And I don’t want to make it hard for those people to become better, more informed consumers of content. That’s the thing about so many progressive leaders and thinkers who want to make the world a better place: they think that people can be converted through evidence and persuasion, based on that narrow slice of consumers who diligently research all the best options for buying a car and then end up buying a Honda because of factors like “reliability” and “good gas mileage.” They forget about all the people who buy cars because they like the style! Or they think all of their friends will envy them! Or because they like the color! I feel like there must be ways to better incentivize people to be better content consumers that we haven’t thought of, yet. It’s kind of like when Ezra Klein started his journalism career with a news digest of the wonkiest of wonky policy developments in DC. He a) made fun of his wonkiness by calling the digest the “Wonkbook” (which sounds fun on its face), and two, he usually included cute animal GIFs as one of the links in the digest, along with all of the other policy-related content.

I will just close by saying that I found hope in the recent controversy about Dave Chappelle’s most recent comedy special, in which he said lots of not-okay things about transgender, LGBTQ, and Jewish people. The hope I felt was not about Dave Chappelle himself, who has always been one of my all-time favorite comedians and who may be out of the rankings now, entirely. After watching the special, I think he might, actually, have been trying to share his version of the despair I feel about the public discourse of today, how angry and cruel and noisy the world has been feeling, for all of us who read things and listen to things and watch things. But in doing so, he himself became part of the problem, by saying things that came off as angry, cruel, and ignorant.

No, I felt hope from the many thoughtful pieces of commentary that appeared from people who had watched the special, who understood the historical and current contexts surrounding the special and Dave Chappelle himself, acknowledged Dave Chappelle’s brilliance and track record, and ultimately, judged the special to be a thorough misfire.

In other words, it gives me hope that there are still so many places where you can find reasonable, informed discourse about the content of the day (this may be the best by-product of the “too much” problem I talked about earlier). The hope is a useful counterweight against the despair I sometimes feel that so many millions of people either don’t know how, or don’t care to, actually seek out those sources of more reasonable, informed discourse. I can’t understand the millions of people who find Tucker Carlson to be a common-sense, sane individual (nor can his lawyers, apparently, as that formed the cornerstone of their defense against legal action brought against him), but somehow, someday, I feel like we’ve got to find ways to bring more of those people into the light. And by the “light,” I’m not talking about wishing for a world where many more people agree with MY opinions and MY values. I’m talking about wishing for a world where more people actually do their due diligence, as content consumers—they understand the events and narratives and history that have shaped their particular take on the topic, they understand the weight of evidence and actual facts, they understand that there might be other opinions that they haven’t yet been exposed to, and they don’t demonize any one group for the problems that really, will take all of our efforts to tackle in a meaningful way.

By the way, the best pieces I read about the Dave Chappelle special:

Dave Chappelle’s Endless Feedback Loop, by Craig Jenkins for Vulture

Review of The Closer, by Eric Deggans for NPR

Dave Chappelle The Comedy Relic, by Danielle Fuentes Morgan for Vulture

The Power of Dave Chappelle’s Comedy, by Jelani Cobb for the New Yorker