Last week, Slate's Mark Oppenheimer wrote a heartfelt eulogy to a very specific aspect of old media: the way it allowed us to both judge people and flirt with them. Once upon a time, before Kindles replaced bookshelves and iPod libraries supplanted CD collections, we could easily discern people's tastes in music, books, and movies and thereby determine if they were worthy of our affection:
Remember when you could tell a lot about a guy by what cassette tapes—Journey or the Smiths?—littered the floor of his used station wagon? No more, because now the music of our lives is stored on MP3 players and iPhones. Our important papers live on hard drives or in the computing cloud, and DVDs are becoming obsolete, as we stream movies on demand. One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.Nowhere is this problem more apparent, and more serious, than in the imperilment of the Public Book—the book that people identify us by because they can glimpse it on our bookshelves, or on a coffee table, or in our hands.
Furthermore, Oppenheimer says, now that books are no longer physical objects but collections of megabytes, we can no longer exchange them with our romantic partners as part of the courtship process. What will high-minded young lovers of the future do to signal their commitment when they can't lend each other copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Our Guys, as he and his wife did when they first started dating?
I'll leave it to others to challenge the originality of this point; the bigger question is whether it's accurate, whether the death of old media really means the demise of this cycle of judgment and courtship based on what we read, watch, and listen to.
I'd argue it doesn't. After all, in this era of social media we broadcast our cultural preferences habits more loudly than we ever did before, thanks to status updates on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, Gchat, and so on. In the past week, followers of my Twitter feed learned that I read the New York Times Styles section cover to cover and I enjoy watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off on bus trips. My Gmail contacts were clued into my love of The Arcade Fire and arty photos of Graceland. Likewise, I can see that my friend Matthew is really into Josh Ritter and my old roommate's ex-boyfriend is reading a Bruce Chatwin novel—and I can (and do) judge them for these choices. Rather than thwart our ability to assess people based on their taste in books, songs, and movies, the Internet facilitates it.
Nor has new media really brought about the end of the exchange of treasured reading material with our crushes, lovers, and spouses. Twitter, instant messenger, even good old-fashioned email allow us to send the romantic interests of our past, present and future an article, song, or video clip we think they'd enjoy. In the years since we broke up, my college boyfriend and I have continued to email or Gchat reading or watching suggestions to one another, first as tentative olive branches after a long stretch of angry silence—"Hi, haven't talked in a while, hope you're doing well, did you see Michael Lewis has a new book?"—and now as a way to show we still remember each others' most deeply held cultural preferences.
Of course, we've lost something as we've transitioned from old-media flirting to new. Like so much on the web, broadcasting our likes and dislikes can turn into an exercise in self-promotion, and we can be calculating about how we reveal what what's on our bedside tables and in our playlists. I can post a tweet about how much I'm getting out of reading the Washington Post's Top Secret America series—when really I'm poring over Us Weekly's latest spread about Jessica Simpson's weight loss. I can deliberately put a link in my Gchat status that I think will impress or provoke someone on my contacts list—and cross my fingers that he'll notice and respond. This is all far less pure than glancing at the stranger across from us on the subway and realizing he's reading our favorite novel.
And the very ease with which we can send a new crush or an old flame a link to an article or a YouTube clip arguably cheapens the exchange, on the part of both the giver and the receiver. When I made the man I was dating during sophomore year of college read All The King's Men before I would consider calling him my boyfriend, I made a relatively serious show of my interest by shelling out the $19.95 plus shipping to buy him the book. And he demonstrated a relatively serious commitment to me by reading Robert Penn Warren's 600-page meditation on politics and the human condition and telling me what he thought of it. On the other hand, it requires almost no investment for me to send a New York Times article to a boy who's caught my attention recently, and it takes little to no time for him to do me the courtesy of reading and reflecting on it.
But ultimately, these old and new media exchanges do the same thing: they allow us not only to judge and pursue each other, but also to avoid saying what we really feel. Oppenheimer closes his article with the image of a young woman returning a book to a man after they've broken up. He observes that the book "stand[s] in for all the conversations that you and she were too cowardly to have." That cowardice is alive and well in the digital age. When I send an ex-boyfriend a movie recommendation, it's not because I care whether he sees Inception. It's because I want an excuse to talk to him, or even just a way to remind him I'm still here—feelings I'd never admit directly. Even with less fraught relationships, exchanging links is at least in some part an act borne out of fear. When I fire off a YouTube clips-filled email to a crush of the moment, I'm not really saying, "Here are some songs I thought you'd like"—I'm saying, "I like you." Whether on paper or on a screen, these cultural exchanges are really just stand-ins for conversations we're all too scared to have.