Writer’s block, Walter Benjamin, and the problem of plenty

Writer’s block, Walter Benjamin, and the problem of plenty

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

There are several reasons I’ve grown from a frenetic writer to an occasional one. And as always, let’s blame it on the usual suspect. Among the most significant reasons for my sporadicity is that social media has given me a writer’s block.

As the 1930s German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, the proliferation of art destroyed the aura around the artist. The introduction of mechanical reproduction in the 19
 century meant that it could be copied and distributed without the authenticity of the original. With the proliferation of social media, there is no aura in writing anymore.

Ideas were never a writer’s domain alone. But putting them into words was somehow a privileged talent, so from Chaucer to Chetan Bhagat, people have heard the voice of the writer, not the voice of the people with ideas. When social media arrived, few expected it would be a platform for writing. It did evolve a new style of writing—pithy, pointed, direct—that was commensurate with the shifting marketplace of attention. Today, everybody on social media seems to have terrific expression skills.

With the rise of storytelling and of professional storytellers that you can hire if you have ideas, the proliferation seems complete. It all started with writing for brands, and that’s a form of writing that flourishes to great business advantage. But the new trend is to share philosophical thoughts, social observations, professional dos-and-don’ts as well. In other words, writing on social media finally seems to be settling down.

And in that environment of having lived more than a decade in the Facebook-LinkedIn-Twitter era, it’s a good time to take stock of what this new form of writing brings to the table: What is the biggest difference between traditional writing and new forms of writing? Has this new democratic form of expression evolved a different consciousness? Does the new style reflect honesty and individuality, or does it echo inevitability and perfunctoriness?

Perhaps the biggest difference is that it’s largely shorn of pomp and superiority. Writers have traditionally been the bearers of information, insight, new thought and above all, new meaning to life’s various domains. They wielded authority and influence in what was largely one-way communication. The reverential attitude of readers towards traditional writers may persist, but the writing is no longer lapped up without analysis or independent commentary. The comments, typically underneath an article, are read with as much gusto as the article itself.

Security of the control over privacy walls also means more honesty. Today’s writing is personal and modest in scope, often an opinion that seeks approval in smaller, more intimate, friends’ circles within the social media. Echo chambers always existed, but social media platforms have increasingly put up opaque privacy walls, enabling us to express without the constraint of public view.

Manipulating the perception of popularity is much like old times, except that its management is both easy and well-supported by the very platforms that also democratize communication. Because these ‘walls’ can be broken at will, they also enable us to segment audiences for our writing with much more precision—and influence.

But what about the content? Social media observers will tell you that only one among hundreds of articles on social media catches genuine public fancy. Yet this ratio is very encouraging if you like the democracy of writing. In all fairness, I am routinely amazed at the number of people with ideas and insights—and these are people across domains, ages, and the proverbial professional ladder. You needed specialists to write about science, engineering, medicine, and so on, because those trained in any of those domains are not trained in writing, and vice versa. Not anymore, it seems. Simple, honest expression transcends formal training, and of course, the plethora of material available on the social media is great training material in itself.

It is this plethora that is responsible for my writer’s block. Amidst this welter of insight, all of which seems well-consumed, how do I wedge out my niche thought? What if my idea gets torn apart—what would that do to my self-esteem as a writer? Benjamin would give us the Mona Lisa smile—my reading of him has always been that he played with ambiguity to overcome Fascist threats. In hushed undertones, he would say, this is all a good thing. It’s just history repeating itself. What happened to art with mechanical reproduction is happening to writing with social media’s digital reproduction. If, as Benjamin argued, the loss of aura at the hands of reproduction makes the original work of art lose its authenticity, we may propose that in the age of digital reproduction, it is enhanced.

Reproduceability on social media has been well harnessed—and it seems that’s a good thing. Along with ‘likes’ and emojis, what makes your favourite platforms rub their hands in glee is  reproduction through retweets, shares, or anything else they call it. Sharing—which can be seen as akin to printing more copies—is not always the norm, though. Many users of LinkedIn copy with impunity—and many of these are HR managers who are in charge of personnel behaviour. More often than not, attribution remains dubious and the promoters of the platforms seem to have no real problem with unattributed copying, since it’s all free. It seems intellectual output becomes property only when there is a monetary transaction to it. That said, those who copy are clearly not as worried about getting a message across as they are about promoting their visibility, and that, to me, is a telling difference.

As you can tell from the tone I’m using, a traditional writer like me frowns at such newfangled but seemingly well-accepted behaviour as copying. Since it is all free and non-transactional, does it also make it ethical? Has copying without attribution become a disruptive new trend? Will it sound the death of intellectual property in writing? Good old time will tell. Democratization is great, but I now need to wrap my head around yet another new normal in proliferation and reproducibility.

(The piece was first published at http://media-groundswell.blogspot.in/)

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