As many of you know, my youngest brother Steve died suddenly on Sept. 29. My thanks to all of you who expressed your concern and condolences.
If this were a blog, I might post at length about my feelings and my brother’s story, but all that is beyond the scope of a newspaper column. During the distraught 10 days after Steve’s passing, however, my family spent a lot of time discovering how best to use the 21st century’s array of communications technologies — email, texting, handheld devices, Facebook, Twitter and more — to spread the news and handle arrangements.
I think I learned some things about all this technology that have implications for the filmed-entertainment industry.
People my age and older, who grew up without smartphones, tablets and social media, tend to think of these things as improved versions of things we’re used to. Facebook was built around familiar metaphors like the “wall,” where you write and pin stuff. A cell phone is like the living- room phone, but in your pocket.
I think the use of such metaphors risks missing the real power of these advances. Such technologies caught on by feeding a deep craving for connection. With mobile phones, we need no longer be isolated while driving or walking or running errands. Such moments have become an opportunity for intimate connections with friends and family. Many of my relatives got the news about my brother on their cell phones. None said they’d have preferred to wait and get the word at home.
In the entertainment business, we like to think of tablets and smartphones as small, portable televisions. This is correct in the same sense that phones are digital pocket watches; yes, they tell time (and play movies), but that’s not why people buy them. Apple’s official video for the iPad Mini, unveiled Tuesday, shows a clip from “Brave” but spends more time on FaceTime video chat, family photos and home movies than on professional filmed entertainment. Apple isn’t selling portable TVs; it’s selling a way for you to have more and better connections with other people. I’ve been urging my father to get an iPad, but only to simplify video chat with his grandchildren.
I think providing a shared, social experience has long been a key to the popularity of entertainment. I also think television eroded the movie audience in part because TV turned out to be a more social medium, even if people didn’t have to gather in theaters to watch it. TV turned the entire nation into a theater: The timeslot was curtain time, Every living room couch was a theater seat, and the next day people were buzzing about last night’s episode.
Right now filmed entertainment is in some tension with ubiquitous social connections. Artists want the audience’s full attention. Auds increasingly feel that attention is something to be earned, not given, and would just as soon be texting. This isn’t new — the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day were rowdier than any texting teens — and it isn’t going away. We are social animals and our relationships are more compelling to most of us than most things we watch.
The paradox is that these second-screen technologies facilitate numerous casual connections — I’m much, much more connected to my cousins’ many children and my high school classmates via Facebook than I ever could have been by any one-to-one medium — but can undermine truly close connections. My father, who’s approaching his 81st birthday, despises these technologies because, he says, people sit around looking at their handhelds and laptops instead of talking to each other. He’s right. He also laments that instead of a getting a personal phone call announcing the birth of a baby, he reads announcements on Facebook. These media have great reach but can be shallow and impersonal.
That depends on how we use them, though, and that’s evolving, too. As I said at the outset my feelings and my brother’s story are beyond the scope of this column. But if you are curious, all that is available for your perusal anytime — on Facebook.