The virtual communities of sitcoms

I was whiling away the afternoon watching this programme about the 80s sitcom, Cheers - the Boston bar where 'everybody knows your name'. One of the show's creators, Les Charles, says in it: 'There are in America great neighbourhood bars, but not everybody has one, so we thought we’d give all those poor deprived people one. And that included ourselves. So we created one, where everybody could go one night a week, and be with friends.’

That made me think of the social role of sitcoms, about which Clay Shirky has spoken eloquently. Skirky said:

“I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing– there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.”

Shirky thinks the internet has allowed media to become more interactive and less passive - we can create our own communities rather than passively observing virtual communities like Cheers. So why have I spent the whole afternoon watching repeats of Cheers on the internet?