It was sometime between the meatpacking sequences and the atomic bomb testing footage in Rick Prelinger's new movie, "Panorama Ephemera," that I realized blogs have taken over TV.
The whole "blogs are replacing journalism" meme is so 2002. All one has to do is check out the new ABC series "The Benefactor," featuring the freakish but boring misadventures of blogger Mark Cuban, to discern that citizens of the blogosphere are no longer interested in taking over the print media. Instead, they have become both the instigators and consumers of reality TV.
But before reality TV assumed its current incarnation, there were what Prelinger calls ephemeral films, industrial and educational reels whose stilted realism offered a glimpse of everyday life in the early and mid-20th century. In "Panorama Ephemera" (which you can download at www.prelinger.com), Prelinger offers us artfully juxtaposed clips from his world-famous public domain archive of ephemeral films: here we can experience the prehistory of reality TV in its most poignantly unself-conscious form. Amateur performers teach viewers how to drive, date, bake, and understand Communism. In a grave voice-over, a man tells us that sturdy, freshly painted houses will withstand an atomic blast better than poorly tended ones with lots of trash in the yard. Meanwhile, a proto-Colonial House clip full of awkward nonactors in Puritan garb instructs us about the hardships of early American settlers' lives.
It seems in many ways as if our entire media culture is devoted to broadcasting ephemera. Blogs, like reality TV, record the minutiae of our everyday lives, offering lessons in everything from cooking and manners to patent law and sex. Blogs also record our everyday lives even when we intend them to reflect only information of the moment.
When Wendy Seltzer documents the latest weird developments in copyright law on her blog, she also offers us a glimpse of what obsesses people at the turn of the century. In 50 years, readers of Chilling Effects (www.chillingeffects.org) may care less about how to respond to a cease and desist order and more about immersing themselves in a historical period where people owned AIBOs, got sued by Scientologists, used insecure voting machines, wrote salacious fiction about their favorite TV characters and created numerous parodies of MasterCard's use of the word priceless in its advertising campaigns. Out of ephemera comes a mass memory of the world – that's what Prelinger's movie made me realize.
Reality TV, the ultimate ephemera manufacturing plant, is a cross between blogging and the kinds of films Prelinger collects. It has an instructional element – you can learn about plastic surgery, trivia and pop psychology – and it also preserves for posterity all our particular social tics and moral fashions. The strange thing is that the people who watched the original films that make up the fabric of "Panorama Ephemera" probably never did it for fun or entertainment.
If you can possibly stand to get more meta on this topic, you really must pick up a copy of the incomparably great Jim Munroe's latest novel, "An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil." Munroe is the former Adbusters editor who has already written a small collection of subversive science fiction novels including "Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask" and "Everyone in Silico." Opening Act has the distinction of being the first-ever blog-based horror novel. Disaffected gallery worker Kate discovers that her roommate comes from a family of satanists and is conducting bloody rituals in her room. So, like any self-respecting 21st century person, she starts a blog about it called Roommatefromhell.com (yep, the blog really exists).
Of course, the novel is much more than that, and it demonstrates the quality of blogs I was just describing: as much as it purports to be about her roommate, it's really about the community Kate inhabits. A warm, poignant look at the underground art scene in Toronto, "Opening Act" captures the oddball community spirit and aspirations of people who care more about a good wheat-paste campaign than about mortgages. Using Kate's blog, Munroe captures what it feels like to be no longer young but still in the cultural underground, crashing at friends' houses while on tour, worrying about where to find a mummy to dance with at a performance rather than about who attends PTA meetings.
The mystery of Kate's satanic roommate deepens and gets bloodier as the novel progresses, but we're ultimately left with a sense that the people we've met in "Opening Act" are both likable and real. They are our friends – and even if we've never met anyone like them, we know they could exist.
Perhaps Munroe has figured out – and turned into art – what it is that brings us back to our favorite blogs and TV ephemera again and again. I don't think it's narcissism, despite what so many critics have said about reality TV. We don't want to see ourselves. We want to see our communities, even our whole society. And we hope somehow someone will remember us.