Friday, March 6, 2015

Charlie Chaplin, The Dress, and Our Declining Attention Spans

After leaving America for 20 years, Charlie Chaplin returned to the US in 1972 to receive a honorary award at the Oscars for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century." When the Little Tramp was introduced to the crowd, they responded with a 12 minute standing ovation.

12 minutes. Set a timer for 12 minutes right now. Stare at it and clap your hands until it goes off.

Just kidding. Don't do that. That's insane.

It was the longest ovation in Academy Awards history, and I would venture to say that it's the longest standing ovation in human history. When Brakk invented the wheel he only got a 2 minute ovation from his neighbors before everyone went back to their caves to draw on the walls.

12 goddamn minutes. Here's a few things you could accomplish in 12 minutes.

  • Watch 120 Vines.
  • Do the 8 min ab workout one and a half times.
  • Play a whole quarter of professional basketball.
  • Make a hard-boiled egg.

12 minutes for a standing ovation is long in any context, but nowadays it's even more difficult to fathom. Some entertainers' entire careers last less than 12 minutes, proving Andy Warhol to be more prescient than we gave him credit for. That speaks to the talent of many entertainers, but it also speaks to our attention spans.

Our collective attention span seems to have been decreasing since the beginning of time, but with the introduction of the internet and social media over the past decade, it is dwindling more rapidly than ever before. Our desire for new stimulation and new content, plus our outright hate of anything in the limelight for too long, makes fame or popularity a fleeting experience for most. Think of how many songs you absolutely hate specifically because you heard it too much (every single wedding reception song comes to mind). The radio is notorious for ruining decent songs (if it even plays decent songs in the first place) and the internet has multiplied that effect by 1000.

On social media, Twitter in particular, songs/shows/movies/people go from "hot" to "washed" in less than 12 minutes. Memes are born and die in the same span. Topics trend worldwide for a few minutes to be forgotten forever.

Let's look at the most recent example: The (blue and black) Dress.

From left to right: a blue and black dress; a blue and black dress; a blue and black dress.

"The Dress" became viral within a few hours after being posted to Tumblr, spreading throughout social media and soon traditional media (Buzzfeed is considered "traditional" right?). In less than 12 hours, it seemed every single person on Earth had seen the image and formed an opinion. About 2 hours after that, the majority of people I saw posting about it were saying how they were sick of seeing it. A few hours later, people were legitimately angry that they were still seeing the dress on their social media feeds (in addition to being legitimately angry if somebody saw different colors).

On one hand, I understand. It's fucking black and blue! Just look at th--Sorry. What I mean is, oversaturation can ruin fun, interesting things. Moderation is important. On the other hand, social media exists to share experiences with people. It's right there in the title: "social." So when something reaches everybody as The Dress did, it's a truly shared experience across the globe. That's amazing! Nothing in history has ever reached that many people that quickly. It may just be a silly optical illusion, but it brings us all together (while dividing us into teams) and reflects the truly great potential of social media to connect us as human beings.

That is, if we let it. Instead, we typically become bored and agitated by the fact that everybody is talking about it. Instead of taking part in this shared experience (and in this case, maybe learning a little about biology and human anatomy and how we all literally see the world differently) we dismiss it, even though we are on social media specifically to share experiences.

There's such a short shelf life for entertainment and news (which is basically just entertainment nowadays). Popular songs get "old" in a week. Kids have always been stuck in the moment, unable to look to the future or accept that anything existed in the past, but it's elevated to an insane degree now. Anything that was made before they were born is irrelevant. Working with kids, I'm privy to all their music (lucky me!). If a song comes on the radio that was popular two months ago, inevitably, some kid will say, "That song's so old!" Old? It came out 2 months ago, it's still a newborn!

A 12 minute standing ovation is impossible to conceive in this day and age. It really spotlights how drastically life has changed in the span of 40 years. Life moves so much more quickly now. What will it be like in another 40? How many new innovations and celebrities and fads will we go through in that time?

It also spotlights how great Charlie Chaplin must have been.

 Turns out he was pretty great, ladies.

Part of the reason for the ovation was the Academy and Hollywood patting itself on the back for embracing a guy they ran out of town so many years ago for his political beliefs (he was against Hitler before it was popular, against communist fear mongering, and against the evils of capitalism) but that doesn't take anything away from him. In fact, it shows how ahead of his time he was, both artistically and politically.

Regardless, 12 minutes is a fucking ridiculous amount of time to stand up and clap for a guy. Considering his greatness, though, if he was still around today, I'd give him at least a 20 second ovation. That's like 3 whole Vines!

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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