Saluting Journalism’s First Decade of I-Me-Mine!

My DIY as POY: Famous at last?

“All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ your life I me mine…”

When George Harrison sang those words in the 1970 Beatles song ‘I-Me-Mine’, he was in two minds about expressing in the first person (or ego). He wasn’t alone: mainstream journalism has long had reservations about where ‘I’ fit in journalistic narratives.

“Never bring yourself into what you write,” we were told in journalism school 20 years ago. Journalists, as observers and chroniclers of events, write the first drafts of history – and without the luxury of time or perspective that historians and biographers take for granted. We often have to package information and provide analysis on the run. Bringing ourselves into that process would surely distort messages and confuse many, it was argued. We had to keep our feelings out of our reportage lest it affects our ‘objectivity’.

In other words, we were simply mirrors reflecting (and recording) the events happening around us. Mirrors can’t – and shouldn’t — emit light of their own.

Occasionally, if we felt the urge to express how we personally felt about such trends and events, we were allowed the luxury of an op-ed or commentary piece. Of course, as long as we ensured that it was a measured and guarded expression. And if we really wanted to bring ourselves into the narrative, we could use the archaic phrase ‘this writer…’ to refer to ourselves.

But never use I-Me-Mine! That would surely sour, taint and even contaminate good journalism – right?

Well, it used to be the ‘norm’ for decades — but mercifully, not any longer. Thanks largely to the new media revolution triggered by the Internet, writing in the I-Me-Mine mode is no longer frowned upon as egotistic or narcissistic. It sometimes is one or both these, but hey, that’s part of cultural diversity that our information society has belatedly learnt to live with…

We journalists are late arrivals to this domain. The first person narrative was always valued in other areas of creative arts such as literary fiction, poetry and the cinema. In such endeavours, their creators are encouraged to tell the world exactly how they feel and what they think.

Of course, some writers ignored orthodoxy and wrote in the first person all along. One example I know personally is the acclaimed writer of science fiction and science fact, Sir Arthur C Clarke. Shortly after I’d started working with him in 1987, Sir Arthur encouraged me to fearlessly use the first person narrative even in technical and business writing. A lot of writing ended up being too dull and dreary, he said, because their writers were afraid of speaking their minds.

Yet we had to wait for the first decade of the Twenty First Century to see I-Me-Mine being widely accepted in the world of journalism. Did the old guard finally cave in, or (as sounds more likely) did Generation Me just redefine the rules of the game?

Whatever it is, I-Me-Mine is now very much in vogue. And not a moment too soon!

Joel Stein (Photo-illustration by John Ueland for TIME)

As Time columnist Joel Stein, who often writes with his tongue firmly in his cheek, noted in a recent column: “All bloggers write in first person, spending hours each day chronicling their anger at their kids for taking away their free time. Every Facebook update and tweet is sophomoric, solipsistic, snarky and other words I’ve learned by Googling myself.”

And look at what Time just tempted me to do: put myself on their cover, as the Person of the Year (POY), no less. While designating Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg as its POY 2010, Time teamed up with the social media network to introduce a new application that allows anyone to become POY with just a few key strokes. Provided you have a Facebook account, of course.

Joel Stein quotes Jean M Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, as saying that we are living in the Age of Individualism, a radical philosophical shift that began with Sigmund Freud. It has exploded during the past decade with reality television, Facebook and blogging. “You’re supposed to craft your own image and have a personal brand. That was unheard of 10 years ago,” Twenge says.

What a difference a decade can make. Although trained in the pre-me era, I was never convinced as to why I had to keep myself out of what I write. However, my use of I-Me-Mine was done sparingly in the late 1980s (when I started my media work) and during the 1990s. It was only in the 2000s that I finally found both the freedom to speak my mind – and the ideal platforms for doing so: blogging and tweeting.

As my regular readers know, I blog about my family, friends, pet, travels, writing and conference speaking. I liberally sprinkle photographs of myself doing various things. I tell you more than you really want to know about my life. Ah yes, I’m self-referential too.

And not just on this blog. I’ve also been writing op ed essays for various mainstream media outlets for much of the past decade, and have never hesitated in expressing what I think, feel and even dream about. (Isn’t that what opinion pieces are meant to be?)

But the Digital Immigrant that I am, all my writing is shaped by my pre-Internet training. Even for a blog post or tweet, I still gather information, marshal my thoughts and agonise over every word, sentence and paragraph.

As my own editor and publisher on the blog, I don’t have gatekeepers who insist on any of this. My readers haven’t complained either. Yet I write the way I do for a simple reason. I may indulge in a lot of I-Me-Mine, but I don’t write just for myself. You, gentle reader, are the main reason why I strive for coherence and relevance.

(OK, if you really must know, it also ensures a joyful read when I occasionally go back and read my own writing…)

Michael Jackson: A tale of two moonwalks (and a ‘Thank You’ from the Ayatollahs)

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

What a pity that Michael Jackson missed the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moonwalk by only a few weeks.

He was only 10 when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong took that historic first lunar step on July 20, 1969 and was probably among the 500 million people — the largest TV audience the world had known at that time — who watched it live. Fourteen years later, Jackson would invent his own kind of ‘moonwalk’.

First performed for his song ‘Billie Jean’ on a U.S. TV show in March 1983, Jackson’s dance technique that gives the illusion of the dancer stepping forward while actually moving backward gained worldwide popularity and became his signature move.

Like that historic ‘moonwalk’ 40 years ago, Jackson’s untimely death on June 25, 2009 created ripples that was felt worldwide. News of his sudden death crashed some news or social networking websites, and stalled others. Even the mighty Google, now the world’s largest media operation, slowed down; Google News was inaccessible for a while.

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, inspired by the media and public reactions to Michael Jackson’s sudden death. Titled ‘King of Pop Moonwalks to Online Immortality’, it has just been published by the Asian Media Forum website.

I must admit that I’m more a fan of the original Apollo moonwalk than Michael’s version. I was three and a half years when the first Moon landing happened, which remains my earliest childhood memory that can be traced to a specific date.

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

All the same, as an observer of media and popular culture trends, I have always been interested in the Michael Jackson phenomenon. The crux of my new essay is captured in this para: “He was not the world’s first mega-star — in the zenith of their careers, the Beatles and Elvis Presley were similar globalised cultural icons. But two waves of communication technology, arriving in quick succession, propelled Jackson to unprecedented heights in popular culture: satellite television and the Internet.”

I look back at how these twin technologies transformed far-away Jackson into a local icon across Asia. I also recall a 2001 documentary named Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj. Directed by Indian journalist Nupur Basu, it probed how far and wide satellite television was influencing and impacting culture, society and even politics of South Asia. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed on the film, along with nearly two dozen other South Asians.)

Read Nupur Basu’s own recent recollections of how she came across Michael Jackson in remote parts of South Asia, courtesy satellite TV.

The essay ends noting how Jackson could not quite ride the Internet wave the way he did the satellite TV wave. I share my thoughts on how the world’s online population — now over 1.5 billion people according to one estimate — reacted to the news that King of Pop was no more.

The news created a data tsunami of its own on the web, which incidentally – and half the world away – provided a much need respite for the Ayatollahs of Iran…Read the full essay and find out why!

Read earlier blog post: 26 June 2009: Michael Jackson (1958-2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes