Can You Capture This Moment?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Before Barack Obama ran for president, Time magazine named "You" its 2006 Person of the Year. "Consumer-generated content" was the strategy of choice for enterprises of every kind. MySpace and YouTube put a name to a much broader cultural shift: Spectators, no longer passive, are using new media technologies to claim a share of the only resource that matters in a multi-mediated world -- attention.

During the campaign, the Obama brain trust took advantage of this development in the most consequential way imaginable. Obama offered his millions of online supporters the experience of being part of perhaps the most astonishing political phenomenon in American history. The inauguration will be a celebration of their collective significance. Everyone who was part of the Obama phenomenon will want to be part of that moment, too.

But an exquisite little dilemma presents itself. How to be there? Does one participate virtually -- by way of all the media platforms that constituted the phenomenon in the first place? What about the reality option? Do you make the trek to Washington, knowing that 5,000 Port-a-Potties stand ready for your comfort and convenience? It's a pickle -- especially since Generation O is used to having it both ways. Many of them have been to Obama's huge rallies, seen him in the flesh, heard that voice that manages to be both earnest and self-aware -- such a relief to a generation haunted by irony. But then, at those rallies, they could also text and Twitter and check out streaming video on their portable screens. It was part of the ritual of an Obama rally: being there both ways.

But on Tuesday, unless you are very lucky, very powerful or very, very patient, the reality option is going to swallow you up. You will be downsized. You won't experience "The Inauguration of Barack Obama"; you will experience a sliver of it.

For people who were part of the online Obama phenomenon and decide to go to Washington, a few attitude adjustments will be necessary. For some, the effect will be salutary; it can be a relief to experience your actual place in the great scheme of things. But others are likely to find their reduced position intolerable. Restless in their confinement, they will begin to text, snap pictures and check out video to see what they're missing -- which will be so much, after all, that in principle there will be no reason to stop checking. Those who insist on having it both ways on this occasion will be missing what total access cannot provide: the entirety of a momentous scene, as you see it unfolding, and the texture of what happens to be in it.

-- Thomas de Zengotita, author of "Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company