New(s) Access

November 8: the day we recover from the election and begin to process the data with some modicum of logic, distance, and methodology, as opposed to the last two days of sleep-deprived enthusiasm, relief, and urgency to be the first out of the gate.  Like many of us, I spent yesterday in a haze, reading election coverage, trying to make sense of what we knew about the election after it had happened, the various parties’ reactions, and what we could discern about demographics, about responses to important issues, about America as a national body.  Of course, I was doing it on about 4 hours of sleep, in between classes and meetings, and so it was less than optimal cogitation on my part.  This morning, however, buoyed by yesterday’s 9 p.m. bedtime, I realized that one of the elements of this election cycle that I wanted to preserve and assess was the difference in the ways that I had accessed election night coverage itself, which describes a particular shift from television culture to internet culture.

A little background probably can’t hurt here.  When my husband and I moved into our current abode three years ago, we had a little skirmish with our local cable provider (I’ll spare you the gory details.  Suffice to say that it involved a lot of profanity and calling into question of the legitimacy of said cable providers’ parentage).  The question, at the time, was what our options were; could we live without access to television?  Our house sits in some mysterious blackout zone of reception.  We receive neither the public digital signal, nor much in the way of cell service.  We’re lucky to have access to FiOS here, or we might as well have hung it up and started our own Pioneer Days celebration.  It was a bizarre moment: we could get fiber optic service for internet and phone, but not cable through that provider.  Thus, the real question was whether we could live with what was available through streaming services and the mail.  This was an actual question, three years ago. Netflix was radically expanding its library of streaming media, Amazon had just entered the fray, but services like Hulu had not yet made the jump to a simple access point for television-viewing (and by simple I mean “don’t make me get an HDMI cable and my laptop to try and Frankenstein this mess together just so that I can watch an episode of 30 Rock).  In addition, this was juuuust before BluRay players began to integrate access to streaming services as part of their hardware.  In short: we weren’t quite your plucky, early adopters who were willing to figure out how to make the wifi talk to the computer talk to the television; we were looking for something not much harder than cable was: I want to turn on the television and watch what I want to watch.  And I don’t want to give any more money to the cable company.  Jerks.

The moral of this story is thus: with some research, we invested in a dandy little Roku box, and have been mighty pleased with it.  Because streaming offerings have, for the most part, expanded exponentially (hello, Criterion Collection?  Gimme.), we’re generally able to find things we enjoy, and we’ve gotten quite used to NEVER HAVING TO WATCH COMMERCIALS.  EVER.  In addition, we watch entire seasons in a go, rather than seeing an episode a time, weekly.  I’ll say more about this later, but moving to streaming media exclusively will change you as a viewer.  ‘Nuff said.

What this switch meant, however, is that we DO NOT have access to mainstream television, not in any timely way.  Sure, the internet and Roku both offer access to news shows after they’ve aired, but the timeliness of most news coverage tempers my desire to hunt down particular shows and watch them in their entirety.  In essence: why watch Rachel Maddow or NBC Nightly News hours or days after their broadcast?  I can skim the NYTimes, or the Daily Beast, and get a sense of the trajectory of news for the day.

All of these changes in media and news consumption, effectuated by the cutting of cable, have been, for the most part, painless and fascinating, in the “self-as-lab-rat” way.  But I had forgotten the ways that certain cultural events (The Olympics was one of these, but more importantly: PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS) demand a shared access to certain kinds of viewing for full participation. In the 2008 election, we gathered at a friend’s house to watch the returns, eating dinner and having nervous conversations as we waited for Brian Williams to call various states.  I’m sure that we could have suckered someone we knew into sharing their television for a night, but I wasn’t feeling totally sociable.  Surely, there was a way to experience this election with others?  To check returns as they came in?

When you live on the East Coast, election results come in late.  And when you’re used to getting up at 5, bedtime comes early.  As much as I wanted to know how this was going to turn out, I also wanted to get some damn sleep.  So rather than sitting up with my laptop all night, I took my phone to bed with me.  “I’ll just check in periodically,” I thought.  “You know, just to see the electoral map at”

What actually emerged from that decision, however, was a frenetic experience of monitoring several apps and sites in an attempt to access breaking news, and then to verify it; to get a sense of the reaction to said news from friends and from the wider world.  And there wasn’t a clear-cut distinction between news outlets and social outlets: I received as much breaking information about local races, about leading poll numbers and districts from Facebook as I did from the CNN website.  As many have noted, Twitter itself became a crucial and almost overwhelming hash of early, rescinded, hoax, and legitimate calls, in addition to a hotbed of snark that was feeding television discourse as well as making its way on to Facebook.  (I’d see a particularly snort-worthy tweet approximately 3 minutes before someone posted to FB.)  I got to watch how excited and anxious many of my students were about the returns, even as people swapped tips and questions about where reliable information was coming from—and how’s that for internet haters?  A consistent and running discourse, throughout the evening, about how we could verify the information coming in: first calls vs. the number of calls vs. grudging calls by networks opposed to the results all were vetted as probable functions of veracity.  Fool us once, Election 2000, but not again.

On the one hand, then, I got the equivalent of a back-stage pass to a much larger community of shared reactions than I would have received with a small group of friends, parked in front of a television all night.  It was a networked amalgam of sites, for sure, but Twitter, Facebook and news websites, strung together, created both a local and national view of the election that was utterly new to me.  On the other hand, there was a thread of the conversation that I did NOT have access to: a band of discussion/snark that was reacting to the media’s reaction: Brian Williams’s discussions of the legalization of marijuana, Diane Sawyer’s demeanor, Karl Rove’s questioning of the Ohio call.  There remains an important dimension of shared media experience and critique that revolves around the dynamism and unpredictability of live television that can’t be accessed, necessarily, via web—at least not on my phone in the dead of night with no audio.
So, Election 2012 is behind us, with its new landscape of media access and participation.  And as the interpenetration of the social and informative grows, I can only imagine the ways that the next scheduled political event will be accessed, unevenly, by viewers with a variety of devices and inputs, both singular and jerry-rigged together.  To what extent are the experiences that are shared by the most of us (e.g., national politics) accessed differently?  And in what ways will those continue to shape disparate or common experiences of the same event?

[NOTE: If your question about this post is: “Hey!  Didn’t you commit to #digiwrimo, you slacker?  Isn’t this your first post in 4 days?  Are you just going to ignore that?!”, then your answers are, in order: yes, yes, and obviously, no.  I mean, did I fall off the wagon, hard?  Yes.  And I spent some time feeling bad about that, in between reading student portfolios and writing up materials for my department and advising 12 students and teaching classes.  And I even thought about counting the tweets and comments and class-related posts that I’ve written since then, as it would make a significant contribution to my word count.  In the end, I decided against that, because I think the spirit of #digiwrimo, or at least my own commitment to the idea, is that it should be a certain kind of writing, the observational/analytic writing that I associate with public academic blogs, that public humanities intellectualism that I wrote about last week.  And on Nov. 30, I want a clear picture of my accomplishments in that arena, rather than the kinds of writing that I do, and do for my job, regardless of writing challenges and communities of writers who are challenging themselves.  And in that same vein, while I thought about throwing in the digital towel as of Nov. 5, I also thought that perhaps the larger purpose of Digital Writing Month is not that participants achieve 50,000 words and a daily post, but rather that they form a habit of being called to writing and expression in digital formats; that they practice a kind of mindfulness about their writing, and cultivate a desire and readiness to find experiences and events worth writing about, and to do that writing, regardless of word counts and months.  And so, in that spirit, I’ll soldier on.  So there.]