Sunday, January 1, 2023

From "We" to "I" (and Back Again?)

What can we learn from which pronoun people use in comments and messages on social media?  A lot.

I spend a lot of time trying to read the tea leaves, to interpret the changes I observe in society and in my life within it, and what it all means.  What makes this effort feel like more of an art than a science is the multiplicity of factors involved with all the changes. 

Why, for example, has there been such a precipitous drop over the past decade in the USA in the number of people who claim to be professional artists on their tax forms?  Well, for one thing, because there are so many fewer people able to make a living as artists now than 10 years ago.  But why is that?

That's when the multiplicities come in.  There are too many factors.  The rise in the cost of housing for artists who rent, the disappearance of so many venues, the increasing shortage among the remaining venues of places where you don't have to pay to play, and the widespread loss of merch revenue due to free streaming corporations, are some fairly obvious ones.  For artists (like me) who used to largely make our livings playing for students at colleges and universities, where the gigs were paid for by student groups with budgets, the disappearance of this circuit around 20 years ago was devastating, as it was for all the folks who used to travel and speak or do workshops with those student groups all over the country.

If you were watching these changes take place in the US scene, while also touring a lot in other parts of the world during these same years, the differences became easier to observe, and far more stark, especially between Europe and the US.  So many more centrally-located, free venues to make use of in Europe, so many organized networks of people, so many subsidies for the arts in so many forms for venues and groups to take advantage of.

When you understand this context, with the shrinking numbers of artists in the US and a much more stable scene in Europe due to 100 times as much government support for the arts there, among other factors, what I experienced during the grassroots movement against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan across the USA from 2001-2008 or so is that much more revealing.

That was precisely the time period when the venues were disappearing in earnest, and the college circuit was rapidly drying up -- broadly, for so many artists, not just for me.  But it truly didn't matter in terms of audiences or money, for a while, because of the antiwar movement.  Touring in Europe or touring in the US back then were very similar experiences in terms of audiences and money, despite the tremendous differences between them in terms of the existence of institutions and support for the arts in Europe, and the lack of these things in the US.

The antiwar movement, basically, completely made up for these differences, through the wonders of local, grassroots organization.

It's been a truism for over a century that when radical movements wane everywhere else in the country, they can still be found in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For all the chaos wrought by Big Tech and the real estate industry there, this seems to be still the case today.  I reflect on this as I'm organizing another little tour of California, only a couple months after the last one, although I've hardly been anywhere else in the country aside from the west coast in years.

Looking at comments and messages from people from different places, I see a pattern emerge, that reminds me of how different it used to be, during that aforementioned antiwar movement.  That movement also happens to mostly predate the reign of social media, so the comments and messages back then also came in different forms.  

But the pattern is clear, and evident today.  From folks in California or Europe a typical message begins with "we."  We would like to invite you to do a show hosted by our group.  From most anywhere in the US outside of California these days the messages begin with "I."  I'd love it if you came to Virginia, or Ohio, or Utah, because I'd love to catch one of your shows.  A lovely comment, but of a very different kind.

Once again those many different factors arise, when I seek to explain this stark difference.  Are we generally more individualistic here in the US, compared to Europeans?  Did we more fully embrace social media and more fully become victims of its pitfalls?  Maybe the answer to both of these questions is "yes."  And certainly there are those differences in support for the arts in Europe compared to the US.  

But the "I" vs. "we" messages still stand out.  It is, I think, more than anything, about organization -- or lack thereof.  With functional social movements such as the antiwar movement was for a time, most of the time and energy of most of the participants went into building local networks and holding local events, and secondarily, participating in getting local folks to DC or San Francisco for big national events.  So if you were singing antiwar songs and touring in the US, you'd be getting a lot of "we'd like to organize an event" messages from local groups.

The "we" messages from Europe are written by individuals, of course, but they're from individuals who represent a booking collective at an anarchist social center, or a local branch of a union, or someone from the booking committee for a festival, or someone organizing the cultural component of a left party conference.

The "I" messages from the folks across the US are clearly written by people coming from the same sorts of political tendencies, with the same sorts of musical tastes.  The difference is their isolation.  The political tendency is that of a subReddit or Facebook discussion group, not a group that holds physical meetings in a physical location every Wednesday evening and has a committee of people dedicated to organizing physical events, in the real world.

If the Americans had a nice free community center to use, and an arts council offering to fund anything they might want to do in there, this would, no doubt, strongly encourage individuals to form groups.  That's how good social planning, and urban design, work -- they encourage this sort of thing.  Without that, and with the "aid" of social media, and the lack of a social movement to counter these atomizing tendencies, we're left with a bunch of disparate individuals and their nice but usually impotent "I" statements.

I wish so much for the day when I can once again share the good news about all the "we" statements I'm getting from across the US, and the travels that could result from them.  In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to pursuing those "we" statements in 2023, which continue to emanate mainly from Europe, and California.

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