Ever watched Fahrenheit 451? If not – get a copy out of your local rental store tonight to see what true media immersion could look like. It’s terrifying – but there is a powerful lesson in there.
In a future without books, the TV is king. I’m not going to spoil the plot of the film (or book) for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but rather concentrate on a single line of dialogue which could be understood to be about social media – even though the film was shot in 1966.
“What do you think, Linda?”
To give the line some context, Linda is sitting in her living room staring at the TeleScreen. She’s been phoned earlier in the day to see if she’d like to be part of ‘The Family’ – a daily TV show – and of course, she said yes.
Her answer will influence the course of the show. She’s important. Someone’s listening to her. Whatever she says will influence outcomes. The world waits for her pronouncement.
Except that she stutters and doesn’t say a word. Guess what? The show goes on without her – the script is written so that the audience can only give one answer and it doesn’t matter if they don’t say a word. And I’d go further to suggest that hundreds of ‘Lindas’ have been called earlier in the day to take part in the show. The Linda we’re watching is probably just one of a huge number, all believing that they’re special; have been chosen above all others; that their voice matters.
Linda doesn’t notice that her non-answer hasn’t upset the actors or script in any way. She’s so involved in the show, in the concept that her answer matters, that she simply doesn’t see what’s obvious to the rest of us: that the script is already written and whatever she says won’t make a blind bit of difference.
They can’t even hear her. It’s actually quite sad. And she doesn’t even notice that her non-answer has no effect on proceedings either.
So what’s this got to do with anything?
Basically, ‘The Family’ could easily be understood to be an allegory for the worst kind of marketing. The kind where you chuck a rock into a crowd and know that someone will throw it back (probably because it’s hit them in the head). This type of marketing doesn’t care who throws the rock back, it just matters that it comes back. Yell ‘Linda’ in a crowded shopping mall and you’ll probably get a good few people running up to you. It’s not clever, it’s just probability. It’s also very lazy (and it’s how I think that ‘The Family’ works).
It’s the bad social media (the show exhibits the theoretical real-time, two way, global broadcast characteristics of all current SocMed platforms that I can think of) – the outcome is determined so it doesn’t matter what the audience says. It’s engagement for the sake of engagement with no actual possibility that the outcome will change. Hollow – that’s a good word for it.
It’s the bad direct mail which addresses you personally even if you don’t want the product and have never heard of the company.
It’s the TV ads that make you cringe because they’re so gut-clenchingly awful in the way that they pretend to be set in a real kitchen, with real kids and a really perfect outcome on every cake… So hyper-real that it couldn’t possibly exist.
However, the show’s viewers are incredibly bought into the brand and the concept, believing that they actually have some influence. They ignore the fact that their missed answers don’t lead to a hitch in the script. They idealise and idolise what’s going on in front of them.
So what can this teach us?
The whole idea of ‘The Family’ represents the worst kind of marketing practice – the staged, faked, irrelevant personalised contact and offer of interaction without any way of coming good on the promise. It reminds us what to avoid – it teaches us that we’re got to think of every angle of the concept and ensure that what we’re doing is right, not just action for the sake of action.
It also demonstrates that by making people involved, by asking their opinions, by giving their voice a (purportedly, in this case) meaningful stage to be heard on, they buy into the concept. Especially if you’re the only one offering meaningful interaction.
‘Meaningful’ – that’s the key word here. The TeleScreen isn’t meaningful. A Twitter feed that’s rarely monitored and never answered, a corporate blog written by the PR people and approved by the CEO’s secretary, a Facebook Group that entertains no debate, a customer service line which can’t actually fix your product – these things aren’t meaningful. They’re simply communication without meaning.
And communication without meaning would be the death of all of us.