Whose News?

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I’ve recently noticed an offer that appears at the top of the Yahoo! News page: “Your News,” Yahoo! promises me. “Now with Friends. Discover News based on what your friends are reading, publish your own reading activity and retain full control.” Obviously, this is an attempt to compete with the wildly successful Facebook paradigm, but it also reminds me of a recent story in the New York Times about the way more and more elite rock climbers and mountaineers are broadcasting their climbs on Facebook, via their iPhones. Such signifiers, and there are legions of them today, belong to a system of signs that bears upon an emerging variation in one of America’s most fundamental cultural mythologies: of the emphasis we place on the value of individualism, as most notably reflected in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance.” The desire to share everything that you are doing with others, reflected in the Yahoo! offer that allows you to share with your friends what you are reading, and vice versa (or in the elite climber’s real-time broadcasting of his climbing experiences!), seems to be anything but a reflection of self-reliance. Rather, it appears to be an expression of what in classical sociological terms is called “hetero-directedness”, that is, living one’s life in relation to the acceptance and approval of others. Hetero-directed societies tend to be communalist in orientation, but there are indications that the kind of “sharing” that is characteristic in an era of interactive digital media may not be so communal after all. However, when seen in the context of a celebrity-worshipping culture, whereby ordinary people can be transformed overnight into celebrities when something they post on the Internet goes viral, digital sharing begins to look more like personal broadcasting: a public relations system available to everyone. And that sounds less like communalism than like ambitious individualism. Twitter and Facebook and YouTube around, you don’t need paparazzi or tabloids. The Internet makes for one vast People magazine, and so what might appear to be a populist signifier (the sharing of experience) could just as well be an elitist one (the broadcasting of the self in the hopes of becoming rich and famous). That both significations are simultaneously present is yet another instance of the contradictory nature of American culture, with populist egalitarianism ever vying with elitist exclusiveness. The question is, then, which tendency is in the ascendancy when news readers want others to know what they are reading and want to read what others are reading? I am not quite certain yet. We could be looking at the emergence of a cooperationalist ethos in America, or at a ramping up of competitiveness. Either tendency would have profound implications for our political system, and so the whole matter bears close attention.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.