Scholarly and popular critics alike often refer to “new media” in a way that is both objectively vague yet critically sanguine. In other words, it appears to have become acceptable to group an incredibly diverse set of technological and mediated phenomena under the monolith of “new media” while maintaining a kind of stubborn conviction that they all work in the same way. It’s reminiscent of a kind of Associate Justice Potter Stewart logic: we know it when we see it.
Despite both the various productive efforts to actually historicize the concept of new media (for instance, Lev Manovich’s 2001 book The Language of New Media) and the contrasting reductive tendencies of more off-the-cuff negative reactions to “new media” (I’m thinking of anything from Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur to dinner table conversations with my Boomer dad), the often shrilly polarized discussion about the so-called effects of new media points to at least one underlying assumption about our contemporary media environment: “new media” refers as much to an accompanying ethos or mode of practice as it does to actual technology.
I’ll admit right off the bat to possessing a probably sub par understanding of the ongoing seismic shift in the global technological landscape. The promises or perils of the technology itself are not really the predicates of my inquiry into “new media” here. Rather, I’m entering the fray with an interest in the social and cultural investments in these “new” platforms for communication. How do they intersect with preexisting preoccupations about the distinction between public and private space, the construction of identity, the negotiation of work vs. leisure, and the ideological underpinnings of larger concepts such as surveillance and interactivity?
The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values
(Broadway; US: Aug 2008)
Many such efforts to confront the socio-cultural corollaries of new media concentrate on the underlying modality of the therapeutic. Whether discussing televised talk shows or web 2.0 social platforms, the contemporary media environment is increasingly identified by its therapeutic function in at least two registers. Not only is there the more standard idea of “therapy” as interaction between social actors that produces some kind of resolution to personal problems, there is the notion of the public disclosure of private feelings as therapeutic in itself. As a professor of mine once opined, it is the shift from Rockwell’s paranoid “I always feel like somebody’s watching me” to the insistence that someone need be watching to validate private feelings.
As media scholar Mimi White has discussed in her 1992 book Tele-Advising, “the therapeutic ethos proposes itself as a response to the loss of logic, coherence, stability, and order.” In conversation with this perspective, Keith Beattie has correspondingly posited that in contemporary media culture, “private reflections, gossip, and confession replace public and ‘official’ knowledge as credible and authoritative interpretations of reality.”
The thrust of these arguments, therefore, is that the therapeutic discourse which saturates the new media environment is defensive, a (paradoxically) publicly enacted guarantor of private feelings that circumvents the family dinner table or the clinic and proceeds in the realm of unregulated mediated exchange. It is only a short conceptual jump from this ethos to the larger privatization of public life and valorization of free-market exchange that are the hallmarks of neoliberal ideology.
Still, though, therapy is a term that I for one am most likely to associate with problems. It may be therapeutic in this manner to participate vicariously in Oprah Winfrey’s public exorcisms of someone’s private emotional deadlock, sure, but what about all of the personally generated new media content that documents stuff that is ostensibly fun? Further, what about the content that may even seem affectively neutral, like taking a photograph of yourself every day for a year and displaying it on the web?
There are obviously many different types of blogs, but one variety seems particularly illuminative to me regarding these ostensible cracks in the new mediated enactment of commonsense notions of therapeutic discourse: those in which the blogger documents some ordinarily enjoyable leisure activity by reformulating it as a challenge. We can turn to a closer examination of what I see as two case examples of this strain of user-generated web content in order to probe the significance of this otherwise perhaps unassuming formulation of new media therapeutics.