Blog Post

"no one to shout it to"?: Virtual Community, 1986

The always-brilliant Tom Scocca, of Slate, has a post up today that is almost enough to make me care about basketball. It is enough, though, to make me think hard about community, and broadcasting, and—despite the fact that so much of my work is about refusing narratives of absolute change brought about by the internet—the various tidal shifts that have occurred in the last few decades.

I urge you to read the entire post, which is particularly insightful and moving, even for Scocca. But here are the parts most relevant to the purposes of this blog:

Len Bias was the reason for a Maryland fan to care what might happen in the game, even though it was a late tipoff, and it was not being carried on over-the-air television. That was what my family had at the time—four, maybe four and a half channels, usually, down in the woods 30 miles outside Baltimore. I tuned the game in on the radio, in my bedroom. I was 14 years old, and it was a school night. I would listen to the radio as long as the Terps were still in it. …

A quarter-century later, you can watch the moment on the Internet, over and over, to savor how incredible it is—the steal and, of all things, a reverse jam. ...

In real life, in 1986, there was no rewind button, only the incredible words being yelled—yelled softly, the volume hushed in the dimness of the bedroom—on the radio, which was not going to be turned off now. …

Today, a 14-year-old fan would be on Facebook or Twitter, in real time, would be texting and status-updating, play by play, awash in a collectively mediated consciousness. America would have experienced what Len Bias had accomplished in one simultaneous flash of attention.

Twenty-five years ago was another world. The game was over and I was by myself—my parents and brother presumably asleep—alone in the late night with the incredible fact that had just come into being. Len Bias beat Carolina. There was no one to shout it to, nothing to do with the joy but wrap it up and hold it, reverberating, inside the ribcage. Len Bias beat Carolina. It was true, and if you were lucky enough to know it, you would know it forever.

The contrast Scocca draws between the solitary hush of a bedroom and the collective “flash of attention” in our instantaneously networked culture is striking. But what is also striking, for me, is the way that Scocca’s individual experience of the game was experienced as solitude but also and simultaneously as a connection to a larger community of believers fans. There were no visual cues, no immediately present fellows, no tweets or status updates, no elaborate but immediate analysis on websites—but it clearly stuck in Scocca’s memory (or in his ribcage) as deeply formative, and not only because of what became of Bias a few short months later.

In short, I wonder, was his sense of belonging less powerful for being “imagined”? I don’t think so, but I do agree that something has changed. What that is…well, that’s harder to say right now.

[re-posted from my other blog, bookmobility.]

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