I had something unpleasant happen to me in October. I met an old friend for lunch. Let’s call him Alan. I hadn’t seen Alan for years, not since we were the only male members of the Mahjong team in college. One day he popped up on my Facebook page, asking to friend me. I friended him back, and that was that. After a few weeks, he suggested we meet. He was flying in from Bahrain, he said, on business.
Well, we rendezvoused at an Italian place downtown on Thompson Street that Alan had suggested. Lunch was a disaster. For one thing, the food was awful. The tre colore salad was soggy, and the little Italian flag that they’d planted in the middle of it didn’t help. Plus, the waiters only spoke Korean. Then there was the conversation. All Alan could talk about was trying to start a Mahjong league in Bahrain. After a few minutes, we just stared at each other. We finally found a common subject and talked with relief about how to adjust our Facebook privacy settings. And that was it. I was furious. On top of everything else, I had rescheduled a doctor’s appointment to meet Alan.
I was fuming about wasting my time and money like that until a few days ago. That was when the audience at the 92nd Street Y rebelled during a conversation between journalist Deborah Solomon and comedian Steve Martin. That was when history was made.
Ms. Solomon does the Q&A for The New York Times Magazine, but she is also an art critic. Mr. Martin is also an art collector who has just published a novel about the art world. The two friends thought they’d make art the subject of the evening. But the audience had expected Ms. Solomon to ask Mr. Martin entertaining questions about his career as a comedian and movie actor. Not only that, but the people who were watching them on closed-circuit television in synagogues and theaters across the country had come expecting the same thing. You can imagine the letdown.
The people watching on closed-circuit began sending emails imploring the staff at the 92nd Street Y to intercede and press Ms. Solomon to ask snappier questions. Not questions about kvelling over Rembrandt, but about what it was like to work with Goldie Hawn. Back in New York, the members of the audience began to murmur their disapproval. After a few minutes, someone from the Y stepped out onto the stage and passed an index card to Ms. Solomon. It was a note demanding that she talk to Mr. Martin about his career. This defiant message will be remembered the way Americans remember the first shot fired at Concord. Ms. Solomon promptly began accepting questions from the floor. As a result of the general disappointment, the Y decided to give refunds to everyone in the audience.
Messrs. Solomon and Martin, welcome to the age of the Internet! Welcome to the new participatory culture, where the paying audience determines the content of its cultural experience, not elitist gatekeepers and their flunkies. The passive discontent of the spectator has given way to the active control of the consumer. Aux armes, customers!
I read an account of the Solomon/Martin imbroglio and excitedly banged out an email to Alan. According to the receipt, my share of lunch was $38.62. With tip, the whole thing came to $46. Make it a money order, I wrote, just to be on the safe side.
That night, I slept like a baby. Thanks to the heroes of the 92nd Street Y, I had discovered IIR. Immediate Interactive Response.
I shot off a few more IIR’s the next day. First to Facebook, thanks to which I’m out 46 bucks. They shouldn’t pay? Then, to my health care company to dispute a charge. My doctor had told me that rather than suffering from the touch of bronchitis I thought I had, I had developed asthma. Asthma? Me? I had not made the trip to his office on a beautiful fall day, humming “How High the Moon” to myself on the train, to hear disrespectful news. I don’t like to think of myself as asthmatic.
A few days later, I thought I’d get out of the house and treat myself to some opera. I went to a small opera company downtown to see a matinee of their new production of La Bohème. Now, I’m quite the opera buff, but for the life of me, I can’t remember plots. Some people are no good with names; I’m no good with plots. So imagine my distress at having to watch Mimi lie there struggling to breathe. I pay $60 for an orchestra seat to lighten myself up after some doctor gives me an inconsiderate diagnosis of asthma, and now I have to watch someone wheeze to death. I jumped out of my seat, found an usher and whispered into her ear, “Give Mimi an inhaler.” “What?” she said. The impudent colt. I said, “For heaven’s sake, this is the year 2010. We don’t sit around drinking absinthe and coughing. We have medication. Give her some Albuterol, and let’s end this thing on a happy note.”
It was one big IIR week, let me tell you. I sent off a certified letter to Jonathan Franzen’s publisher asking for a refund of the money I’d paid for Mr. Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. A prominent critic in a major newspaper had written that Mr. Franzen had composed “an indelible portrait” of how we live now. Well, it isn’t how I live. The prominent critic got an invoice from me, too. And her major newspaper. Next, a note to President Obama, who owes me for six “Yes We Can” coffee mugs and twenty-three “We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For” T-shirts.
Finally, an angry email to the producers of a recent production of “King Lear.” Talk about a letdown. I had taken my young son with me to see the play because, somehow, with all the holiday bustle, I had confused Shakespeare’s downer with The Swiss Family Robinson. So I made a mistake. So sue me. No, actually, I’ll sue you. We left in the middle of the third act, the poor little kid shaking like a leaf. If they’re going to put on a play like that during Chanukah, they should lighten the script.
To make a long story short, the refunds have started coming in. The gatekeepers are nervous. They’d better be. People will look back at the revolutionaries of the 92nd Street Y and see the beginning of one of the greatest protest movements in American history. The Matzoh Ball Party. Power to the paying people! You should just see the nice note Mr. Obama sent with his check.