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 that Alan had suggested. Lunch was a disaster. For one thing, the food was awful. 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 Nov. 29. 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.
Solomon does the Q&A for The New York Times Magazine, but she is also an art critic. 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 Solomon to ask Martin entertaining questions about his career as a comedian and movie actor. You can imagine the letdown.
The members of the audience soon began to murmur their disapproval. After a few minutes, someone from the Y stepped out onto the stage and passed an index card to Solomon. It was a note demanding that she talk to Martin about his career. This defiant message will be remembered the way Americans remember the first shot fired at Concord. 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 e-mail 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.
It was one big IIR week, let me tell you. I sent off a note to President Obama, who owes me for six “Yes We Can” coffee mugs and 23 “We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For” T-shirts.
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 Obama sent with his check.