Friday, August 8, 2008

The Power of Oprah Compels You: Finding the Golden Mean Online

When I was in elementary school and summer break finally rolled around, my mother had a unique manner of curbing my computer and/or Nintendo use. While I know that many kids dropped their backpacks at the door and switched on their TVs for three months, my mom had a special policy: if we wanted to play an hour of Nintendo, we had to do an hour of educational gaming--mainly, Mavis Beacon, Mathblasters, Treasure Mountain, etc. It seemed to her a fair trade: an hour of learning for an hour of rotting our brains.

It had an unexpected side-effect, though: I learned a sort of take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward technology. I rarely wanted to play Super Mario Brothers badly enough to suffer through an hour of actual learning--gasp! the horror of it all!--during what was supposed to be my vacation. The natural progression of this policy, then, included much more self-entertaining, whether that was playing outside, reading, or harassing my brother. Myabe that's where I got my over-active imagination. The few times I did turn the computer on to something that was self-improving, I learned to take pleasure in the game iself, to the point that, even if I didn't make it for an entire hour, at least I had fun for the time I was on the computer.

This probably has something to do with my attitude toward both video games (can't play them) and television (don't watch it). As horrible as I think television is in general, however (please see previous post if you don't know what the hell I'm talking about), I do believe that TV and the other recent technological advances have the power to do great things. I've come across the argument that not reading books doesn't mean not reading, since most people nowadays (especially young people), get most of their news and information from online sources, proving that there is the capability to broaden one's horizons online.

The problem is that most people don't use this technology to its full potential. (For example, there are approximately 4.2 million porno sites online--around 12% of websites. [1] With the opportunity to explore life, the universe, and everything, more than one tenth of what is available to us online involves the horizontal hula. While I support and believe in the freedom of speech and the right to watch free porn online, I don't think it should be at the expense of occasionally turning our brains on, which it too obviously is.)

Regardless of how most people spend their time online, I think it's important to note that there is still the availability of wonderful tools on the internet, especially for someone with an appreciation for the written word.

For example, Facebook applications offer members programs such as VisualBookself, which lets users rate books, write reviews, show what they're reading, etc. In my opinion, what's great about this kind of program is that it makes what is an often-solitary activity (reading) social (by including friends and other readers in the post-reading process). I think that that was why I ended up studying literature--yes, I could read all of these books by myself, and even do research to learn all kinds of interesting trivia, but what got me really excited was to talk about the books/essays/poems with other similarly-interested people. Sure, now I'm a receptionist, but I was part of some amazing conversations and had some amazing revelations sort of thrust upon me. ("Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.") Even today, I'll talk about whatever I'm reading with my friends and family, no matter how little interest they might show in the subject.

Anyway, there are many of these kinds of opportunities online. For example, one of the largest and most influential of these groups is probably Oprah's Book Club, which brings together millions of women (both on TV and online) through chat forums, online classes, and discussions. There are even groups of women who meet outside of Oprah-organized events to hold their own discussion sections. (I don't mean to sound sexist, but it really is mostly women. Who says we have to say 'people' all the time?) The group has been so successful that it has generated what is being termed the "Oprah Effect," selling literally millions of copies of books. [2] If you look through the best-sellers of a given year, Oprah's Book Club books are generally on there somewhere, proving that there is a market for reading-made-social.

I think that what makes Oprah's Book Club so successful, however, is that it offers this reading-made-social to Americans without any of the work of normal book clubs--it has the same kind of benefits with very little cost. I can sit at home in my pyjamas eating Froot Loops while taking part in a discussion on-line if I really want to, while traditional book clubs require organizing meeting locations, arriving on-time, and discussing face-to-face--far too much work for many Americans who are busy watching four hours of television a day.

In addition, there are copious opportunities for internet users to do their own writing through blogging (would this be considered metablogging?). Again, it takes what a decade-and-a-half ago would have been called a journal and socializes it by making it available for friends, family, and (if desired) the general public. (Damn--just googled metablogging and discovered that I'm not the first one to think of it. And I thought I was being so clever.) More on this later, I think.

I guess my point is that, though internet and television addiction are horrible, I'm not trying to advocate cutting off all ties from technology. Far be it for me to make some nostalgia-inspired comment about how technology addictions didn't exist in the "good old days." It's a matter of finding a happy medium--the golden mean, something that tends to disappear in today's age of hedonism and excess. I think maybe we all can learn something from my mother's summer break policy: we can rot our brains as long as we are careful to develop them, as well.

Works Cited:

[1] "Pornography Statistics." http://www.familysafemedia.com/pornography_statistics.html.

[2] Burroughs, Todd Stephens. "The Oprah effect: two scholars independently assess the book club that changed everything." Black Issues Book Review. Sept. 2005. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HST/is_5_7/ai_n15763629

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