An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #98: Why We Need Charlie Sheen

You might be one of those people who just can’t get enough of this Charlie Sheen story, following him from television to TMZ to Twitter. And who could blame you? The story has all the elements that we love: Celebrities, bad TV, drugs, sex, and self-destruction (generously re-branded as winning).

On the other hand, you might know just enough about Sheen to be enraged that such a pathetic and meaningless story dominates a significant portion of our national discourse in the media and across social networks.

It doesn’t really matter where your opinion falls along the Sheen story continuum. Either way, you’re part of the Sheen Meme, and I thank you for that.

The other day when I was walking out of my local grocery store, one of the guys in the meat department stopped me so he could make a joke about Charlie Sheen. Some of the other folks within earshot laughed while others quietly shook their heads. But everyone on both sides of the refrigerated case got the reference. And that doesn’t happen much.

The Charlie Sheen story fills a vacuum. We used to have fewer television channels and fewer sources of information flooding our screens. It was much more likely that we’d have a common topic to discuss when we gathered around our modern version of the giant campfire.

Today, we’re all wearing headphones, sitting in front of screens. There are infinite channels and thousands of stories flowing in and out of our streams. Even though we are more virtually connected than ever, the content we ingest is wildly varied. We’re each alone in front of our own small, private campfires.

So when one of those campfires blows up into an inferno, we all gather around it faster than the guests at Sober Valley Lodge would dive towards two and a half lines of unattended cocaine.

Nearly all of the major news outlets have provided exhaustive coverage of Sheen’s rants and rambles. Almost everyone I follow on Twitter has had a take or two (or ten) on the topic. Everyone knew that writers everywhere from The Daily Show to Saturday Night Live would open their shows with bits devoted to Sheen. They wait for these moments when a story emerges as a common point of reference. Even other celebrities can’t resist making a joke or coming to Sheen’s defense.

New York Times reporter Nick Kristof, who of late has been providing illuminating coverage from the Middle East, recently lamented the coverage of the Charlie Sheen story: “If there’s a symbol of everything wrong with television news, it’s the focus on Charlie Sheen … It all makes me embarrassed for the news media.”

ABC dedicated a 20/20 interview slot to Charlie Sheen. Nine million people tuned in. We’re all a little embarrassed. But we’re all here around this campfire. And the folks who edit the news need to remain relevant, so they’re more likely to come with lighter fluid than a fire extinguisher.

Sure, we should be gathered around the Libya fire or the Wisconsin union fire or the budget debate fire. But we’re not. This story is not about the quality of the content. It’s about the merits of regaining a sense of community, even if the campfire around which we’re gathered happens to be burning a combination of horrendous television scripts, illegal drugs and our own better judgment.

You are looking at your screen, and I am looking at mine. Half the time, that’s true even when we’re standing right next to each other. Ironically, one our few remaining areas of commonality are the sites and devices we use. That’s why it’s such a huge news story when Steve Jobs announces a new device or Mark Zuckerberg realigns a few pixels in our Facebook stream. That’s why my mom once called me to discuss Steve Jobs’ reaction to the iPhone antenna problem. The fact that we’re all staring at separate screens is one of the last things we have in common.

It’s not that memes are rare. They emerge all the time. Earlier this week, my small corner of the internet erupted with responses to a change Twitter made to its iPhone app. The new feature, called the Quick Bar, makes Twitter’s trending topics of the moment more visible to users of the app. Those offended by the placement of the Quick Bar re-branded the feature as the “Dickbar” (named, in part, after Twitter CEO Dick Costello). The discussion gained so much steam that Twitter employees actually built a makeshift Dickbar in their San Francisco Headquarters.

That turn of events made for a nice communal event for folks who spend their lives working in the internet industry. But if I brought it up at my grocery store, I can’t imagine that anyone on either side the meat display case would get the reference. The Twitter Quick Bar story, like hundreds of others that likely spread during the same period, was an inside joke.

Charlie Sheen is the inside joke everyone gets.

You can nod your head in agreement. Or you can complain about yet another Charlie Sheen story. Either way, you know exactly what I’m talking about.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.