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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

This (Highly Democratized) Buzz Is for You

April 29, 2001|JACK SOLOMON | Jack Solomon is professor of English at Cal State Northridge

Wanted: Internet professional to design authentic-looking "amateur" Web site to promote maximum buzz for upcoming feature film. Successful applicant will be able to simulate sincere grass-roots enthusiasm without being detected. If interested, contact thisbuzzforyou-dot-con to apply.

The preceding spoof want ad occurred to me as I contemplated the recent Times report that Hollywood studios are contracting with Web site designers to simulate the kind of fan-generated Web pages that turned a low-budget flick like "The Blair Witch Project" into a blockbuster success. What the studios want so badly to generate is "buzz," a word that was once the rather exclusive property of entertainment industry insiders. But with the proliferation of fan sites generating their own buzz, it is clear that buzz is no longer exclusive. Indeed, it seems to belong to us all.

But what, exactly, is buzz?

Like "cool," buzz is one of those words that has become an essential component of our popular cultural vocabulary without ever being clearly defined. It is similar to "hype" but lacks hype's cynical connotations. It is similar to "word-of-mouth" but has a high-tech glamour lacking in the more homely phrase from an era before the advent of mass communications. For buzz is increasingly propagated via the Internet's many-branching channels--from chat rooms to Web pages to ordinary e-mail--and is no longer the sort of thing that solely passes from person to person, in direct conversation. And that is what makes it so powerful.

Buzz is not simply a form of conversation; it is the discourse of an age of mass communications and public relations. And if in the past mass communication and public relations were the exclusive provenance of powerful corporate professionals, today, thanks to the Internet, the whole matter has been democratized. Publicity can now take its place alongside of the news and political commentary as forms of communication no longer controlled by a few powerful interests.

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So we ought to be happy about the rise of buzz, I suppose, for certainly it is better to see mass discourse democratically disseminated than confined to corporate and government hands. But there is still something troubling about the importance of buzz in contemporary popular culture, and it lies in the traditional meaning of the word itself.

For in its traditional meaning, "buzz" simply signifies noise. It's the sound that bees make, a meaningless hum, sometimes pleasant enough, but still meaningless. And when I consider the content of all the buzz that has become such a valuable commodity recently, I think that this essential meaninglessness is exactly the point, because what it all boils down to is the expression of opinion about pleasant entertainments--about movies and pop singers and actors and actresses and whatnot. But haven't we better things to talk about?

Sometimes, as I watch the growing hoopla surrounding the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Emmys, not to mention all those television programs and magazines devoted to entertainment industry gossip, I fear that this is indeed what America wants most to talk about. With the catastrophic decline of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has called "cultural capital"--that is, the value that Western culture once placed upon the knowledge of literature, art and philosophy--entertainment-related chitchat has come to dominate our cultural discourse. The age of the word seems to be passing as buzz, with all its highly commodifiable potential, takes over. And with the corporate vultures already circling overhead to reassert their control over public discourse, that is no trivial matter.

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