When comment is free, even monkeys can contribute

As we all get busier making non-stop comments on everything, via social media or otherwise, does anyone still have time to actually think?

Last week, sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed flight, I spent some time watching the "Official News Network of America's Airports", otherwise known as CNN.

Somehow, CNN suits the blandly joyless surroundings of a contemporary airport. Dotting the concourse, tucked into the Wolfgang Puck Pizza Express and the Starbucks and the anonymous Mexican restaurant with the word "Cantina" in its name, a continuing national crisis unfolds on the screen as people go about their airport business: yelling at their kids, barking into their mobile phones, flipping through Men's Health, and furtively diving into a gooey, fat-laden pastry from the nearby Cinnabon while praying they won't run into anyone they know. CNN has replaced Muzak as the noise in the background.

Depending on your point of view, it's either the best time or the worst time to be stuck watching cable news. The presidential campaign is heating up and everyone vying for Barack Obama's job was gathered in Ames, Iowa, for the first major candidate debate.

But as the experts on the Official News Network of America's Airports tried to sort it all out, the people around me in the Cinnabon had very definite opinions about the debate, the issues, who won and who lost.

Later, charging my phone and squatting awkwardly on the floor of the concourse, which is where they keep the electric outlets, I struck up a conversation with another political science expert, who told me that the winner was "obviously Ron Paul," the nutty free-market obsessive congressman from Texas, because "he got his ideas out there, man, out there past the media and into people's minds, dude."

Because not many political science experts wear black cargo shorts, or sport those awful ear lobe stretching o-rings, I assumed that my outlet buddy's insights were more of the amateur variety. Nevertheless, when I got to my destination a few hours later, and the subject of the debate came up, I found myself repeating a version of his insights.

"Say what you like about Ron Paul," I said to my dinner companions. "He has a consistent philosophy, and he got his ideas across."

They all nodded sagely. One of my dinner companions piped up, "What I heard," he said, "was that Ron Paul connected the most to the audience."

And we all nodded sagely again.

"What I heard." "Here's what I'm hearing." These are cable news phrases, the kinds of things in-the-know folks - or, more accurately, folks who want to seem in-the-know - employ when they're vamping, trying to fill cable network news time, mindful that the entire shaky business model of the cable news industry rests on the assumption that there's something to know, something to hear, to state and restate.

That's their excuse. They're in the know-it-all business. What's ours?

Maybe it's that we're all busily working at the Network of Me.

We've got Facebook statuses to update, Twitters to Tweet, notions to blog and videos to vlog - we're all so busy sharing and passing along tidbits, that we're never really sure if we're passing along something we've "heard" or if we've actually stumbled into a unique insight.

If unique insights even exist anymore. One million monkeys and one million typewriters will, eventually, churn out Hamlet. What about one million Tweeters and one million smart-phones? We feel the need to comment and remark on passing events as if real life is a sports contest, and we're those guys in suits with the enormous headphones, chattering away.

That's what it's called on the web, on Facebook, on blogs and news sites: commenting. "Care to comment?" it says at the bottom of the news article. On Facebook, people can comment on your status, which doesn't even make English-language sense, but still: the chief activity of the largest human network ever devised is people commenting on what other people comment on.

Not too long ago, a reality television show had a call-in poll. The specific question escapes me, but it was essentially a referendum on the ouster of a certain contestant. Viewers were asked to send an SMS to one number to answer "Yes," another to answer "No," and a third to say "Don't have an opinion." Each message cost around $1.50, which meant some people paid actual dollars to broadcast that they had no opinion.

Which, in a way, is an improvement.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

Published: August 19, 2011 04:00 AM


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