I am a total sucker for community theater, especially musical theater. What I love isn’t so much the corny show tunes or the predictable story lines, but the players’ infectious energy for taking risks. I was reminded of this a few weekends ago when I went to see a local production of Godspell.
Because I have an artsy teenager who does tech crew, I’ve sat through lots of high school musicals over the past few years. I always come away shining with true admiration for the kids on stage. As we all know, adolescence is really tough. There’s probably no time in your life when you are more prone to self-doubt and insecurity, and there’s no time (at least for boys) when your voice performs less than predictably. It’s easier to blend in with the crowd than to call attention to yourself. It’s easier to not set yourself apart.
Godspell featured kids and adults, but most of the lead roles were played by grownups. Some of them I knew casually from town: Our kids once went to preschool together, or were on the same soccer team, or whatever. Suddenly, up on stage, I thought I recognized a woman I was surprised to see there. She was swaying her hips and belting out “Save the People” with surprising gusto, and I realized with a small shock that I knew her, too.
Actually, I didn’t really know her—but we had both been spectators at our daughters’ softball games one summer a few years ago. To be honest, I never really had much to say to her, and she didn’t have much to say to anyone else, either. She always seemed a little… tense. Conversation between us was always stilted and quickly settled into silence; then we would spend the rest of the game focused on, well… the game: squinting into the setting sun at our own girls at bat, slapping mosquitoes as dusk settled, until it was time to go.
So watching her there on stage, I couldn’t help but marvel at this whole other side to her: fully mic’d, belting out a tune up from her toes; boogying and swinging her hips so convincingly that she could have given the flirty Mary Magdalene a run for her money. In other words, I came away feeling like I knew her a little better. I caught a glimpse of something she hadn’t revealed before.
I was impressed with her willingness to put herself out there, to look a little foolish, to be—like the teenagers—a little vulnerable. It’s easier to blend in with the crowd than to call attention to yourself. It’s easier to not set yourself apart. And yet, here she was—setting herself apart.
Her performance was far from perfect—in truth, her voice faltered and she sometimes stood as awkward on the stage as on the sidelines of the softball field, unsure of where to place her hands. But who cared?
A year or so ago, I heard an interview with Dave Winer, who spoke, among other things, about the nature of so-called amateurs. Dave, who played a lead role in developing many digital tools like podcasting and RSS feeds, said: “Amateur is not below professional. It’s just another way of doing [media]. The root of the word amateur is love, and someone who does something for love is an amateur….
“If you’re an amateur you have less conflict of interest and less reason not to tell your truth than if you have to pay the bills and please somebody else.”
In that interview, Winer was talking about traditional journalists versus more grassroots media—like citizen journalists or bloggers. But you could also apply his words more broadly to writers who pen blogs or create other kinds of digital media.
Here’s why I fully embrace the digital revolution, and all of the user-generated STUFF it spawns:
1. Folks who previously didn’t have voice—or, more specifically, a platform—now do. In other words, like the community theater players, all kinds of people have a stage, if they want one. The “unbundling of all sources,” as Dave calls it, has given voice to lots of folks previously shut out of the conversation.
“They are not all gadflies or flaky—some of them are scientists, economists, professors, ex-captains in the Air Force,” Winer says. “They can be knowledgeable people, and you have to figure out how to qualify them, but they are now making themselves known.”
2. Those who do climb up on the stage reveal themselves at a more fundamental level. Just like my acquaintance who risked showing a sassier, freer, funner side… bloggers can’t help but reveal themselves to their audiences. Fake bloggers don’t resonate. If you read a blog long enough, you get a clear sense of the character of the individual behind it. Blogs are honest in a way that professionals aren’t.
There are those who are freaked out by amateurs on the airwaves. Some argue that things like blogs and social networking are, at best, self-indulgent rubbish and, at worst, an assault on our culture and our values.
It’s not a perfect new media world, of course. There’s lots I like about the connectivity and access, and lots I don’t. It places a great onus on all of us, and challenges us to study up for a higher reading level in media literacy. There’s a crazy-high “signal to noise” ratio—lots of people yammering, but not saying anything substantive. The pundits say we need better yardsticks for authority and trust.
All legitimate issues. All great points. And yet I wouldn’t change a thing. The band long ago struck the first note. And it can’t be un-played.