The pandemic has killed clapping.
In the abstract, applause is stupid: You hit yourself, but only when in the company of others hitting themselves, to show approval.
The end of applause occurred to me as I watched recent events: Apple’s latest product announcement sans clapping geeks and sycophants (revealing its true aesthetic as just another infomercial); the US Open with tepid, sitcom-like clap-tracks where cheers would have been; the Democrats’ intimate and audience-free YouTube convention — which I wrote about here; and Sarah Cooper’s opener for Jimmy Kimmel’s show. I’m in awe of Cooper anyway, but watching her monologue, I marveled at the courage of a comedian telling jokes without the immediate feedback of laughter, applause, and cheers: without an audience, or at least one that could be heard. YouTubers find this normal; old farts, strange.
Applause is binary: it is or it isn’t. To put this in McLuhanesque terms, hands are a medium with but one message at a time. Hands can hit each other. Hands can pound a table. (The first time I ended a presentation in a German board room, they started banging on the table and I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’ve just pissed off a bunch of angry Germans,’ only to realize this was deutsch for applause.) Hands can also silently show a thumb or a finger or a fist. The hand was the medium allowed to an audience.
Jay Rosen famously talks about “the people formerly known as the audience,” his heuristic to get us to think about the change in the relationship of journalist or media with the public, who are no longer passive recipients and consumers of the commodity we call content but who now have a voice.
Voice brings substance, nuance, complexity. That richer message can be expressed on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, forums, comments. It’s not easy to listen to voice. Media do not know how to listen to us. It’s a lot easier to reduce people to the noise of a crowd — applause, cheers, chants — or to numbers in a poll — red v. blue, black v. white, 99% v. 1%, pro v. con. Mass media abhor any voice but their own.
The internet abhors being silenced. It will burst around any barrier to enable its users to be heard another way. Donald Trump may have tried to ban TikTok and silence Sarah Cooper — as the Chinese government tries to ban American platforms and silence its citizens — but both will fail. People will find their voices elsewhere.
Even so, media will still insist on trying to agglomerate the voices on the net into binary buckets, reductionist headlines, and shallow hot takes. I despise headlines that declare, “Twitter hates…” or “Twitter loves…” or “Twitter goes nuts over…” as if there were one social voice, Twitter, and our only role in it is to contribute to a single, monolithic bottom line of collective opinion. In writing those takes, media people ignore the essence of what social media enable: individual voices. This is how media failed to provide a place for #BlackLivesMatter; social media had to.
But social media companies are not blameless in this attempt to reduce the voices of their users to applause or boos. I also abhor “trending” features on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, for they seriously misrepresent the experience there. Many years ago, when I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for a book, he said that no two people on earth see the same Facebook. That is true, too, of Twitter — and the internet, for that matter — unlike old media. So to say — as The New York Times’ Kevin Roose tries to, using Facebook’s own data — that this story or that is the most seen on Facebook is to elevate something few people see into something more important than it is, as Casey Newton explains. It is like saying all of America — or half of America — is under the sway of Fox News when, in fact, only about 3 million people (1 percent of the country) watch in prime time. In my social feed, I see very few of the topics that are trending and I see next to none of the poisonous right-wing stories media fret about because I and my friends are neither hip nor nazi.
The late Columbia professor James Carey famously wrote that the press exists not to transmit information but instead to provide ritual — that is, a confirming view of ourselves, like a mass (the Catholic kind, not the media, marketing, or manufacturing kind). The picture that the press paints of us is distorted. The view that the press presents of our life in social media is false. The net finally allows us to be heard as more than the sounds of hands clapping and yet we are still reduced to poll numbers or trending topics or ersatz applause. And so, I do not regret the passing of applause in the pandemic. I await the sound of the voices we can now hear instead.
There is much work yet to do to help us hear each others’ voices. As I’ve said before, until now, the net has been built just to speak, not to listen. I celebrate that speech, the voices too long not heard in mass media. But we need many more tools to help us discover voices and messages worth listening to, to better represent the nuanced public conversation, to convene us into true conversation. It will come, in time. Until then, learn to enjoy the absence of applause, the silence.