You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything


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The First Time I Ever Saw That Video: Why?

I thought parts were beautiful; parts were silly. Erykah Badu and her sister Nayrok glowing (with glitter or just naturally)? Beautiful. Erykah’s perfectly painted nails sailing rainbows through clear water? Transcendent. Nayrok covered in syrupy blood? A little off-putting. Nayrok coated in milky white? Interesting, when she was in a position of power and sending droplets soaring from her limbs. Close-ups of sticky whiteness on her face? Gratuitous. Ass-slapping? Also gratuitous, and not artistically gratifying. Wayne Coyne waving around a tinfoil cape or whatever that was? Just silly, and not quite in a delightful way.

Like many Flaming Lips endeavors, from gummy fetus flash drives to the intergalactic holiday adventure Christmas on Mars, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on in the video for “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” (which, if you’re not current on Twitter feuds, has sparked a huge one between Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and singer Erykah Badu—read up). Is there a deeper subtext to the colorful-bordering-on-demeaning nudity, or is it all just totally weird and random? Did Wayne truly betray Erykah’s trust by posting the video without her review and approval, or (as continues to be suggested) are the two collaborating on a major(ly successful) publicity stunt?

Erykah and Nayrok are both gorgeous, visually and (in Erykah’s case) aurally as well (I haven’t heard Nayrok’s voice, at least as far as I know). Wayne’s ass, though it doesn’t appear in the video, has been posted on Twitter and is not half bad, for a man in his fifties, and although his voice can’t quite be called beautiful, exactly, it has a very moving, plaintive tone at its best. So, since he’s got such a great ass, why isn’t Wayne the one getting naked in the Face video? Or in the Lips/New Fumes collab, “Girl You’re So Weird,” which also features two naked women of color? Are the women (and not the men) naked because the women are more beautiful, or because they’re being objectified in some way?

I’m not sure. I’d like to think the former. But Badu’s staunch discomfort with the project suggests the latter. Putting women of color in tribal paint and filming them “peeing” on the floor (as in the New Fumes video) suggests the later. Coating a woman (but no men) in simulated blood and semen suggests the latter. And releasing a video without a collaborating artist’s permission and full buy-in doesn’t reek of objectification, exactly, but it does suggest exploitation, or at least that the Lips are not being very careful about their art.

In many ways, that’s typical Lips. While the band members are truly impeccable instrumentalists, part of the Lips’ ongoing appeal has always been the fact that they’re a bit different, a little rough around the edges. They’re from OKC, not NYC. They sing about bugs more often than babes. Whether it’s Wayne’s cracking voice or intense distortion, the Lips are not a band you’d typically associate with perfection. Many of their releases are even created specifically with idiosyncrasies in mind—Zaireeka, for example, a 4-CD set that requires multiple CD players. Every play—even of this recorded music—will be a little different. Intentionally. Necessarily. That type of novelty and randomness, I think, really delights the Lips, who have also recently embarked on a project to press clear vinyl records with small amounts of the artists’ blood (including Erykah’s) inside of them—each one a little (or a lot) different. Though each contains the same music, each will look–and perhaps even play–in different ways thanks to the slightly different bloody contents.

But Erykah Badu is a different type of artist—less rough, more polished, or perhaps rough in a different way—and her vision should be respected, too. If she truly feels the way that she’s expressed online, the Lips owe her not just an apology (which they have already issued) but also a new video—one that emphasizes the glitter and the glam, the beauty and the joy, not the semen and the blood. It’s very difficult to craft highly sexualized imagery and remain artistic, not exploitative, and the Lips may have pushed the line a little too much in this case, even unintentionally. The very fact that Badu specifically says “As a woman I feel violated and underestimated” requires a statement from the Lips addressing this specific sense of violation.

As a longtime fan, I want to hear why the band not only released a video without buy-in from a collaborating artist, but also why that video features sexualized and borderline demeaning images of women (but not men). In another Lips collaboration video (“I’m Working at NASA on Acid,” featuring Lightning Bolt), potentially comparable imagery—of a man with a pink sticky substance on his face—is featured. But in that case, the substance appears to have come from a mask that hid identity (creating a valid reason for destroying the mask and releasing the substance), and the video pauses does not continue until the substance is removed from the man’s face. Until he’s restored, whole and clean, the song can’t go on, whereas troubling imagery doesn’t interrupt the progress of the video featuring Badu. So what does that all mean? As the “Acid” video itself asks, both in the lyrics and in overlaid images, Why?

In response to Erykah’s questioning of the video’s significance, Wayne reportedly said, “It doesn’t mean anything, I just want to make a great video that everyone is going to watch.” It seems he has. But that’s the kind of thing I’d expect from Kesha or LMFAO (and I love shuffling—but I don’t expect to be listening to LMFAO in 10 years, whereas I’ve loved the Lips for at least 15). The Lips, and certainly Badu as well, have a reputation for doing something a little more meaningful—or, if not having meaning, at least searching for such. The “cosmic, green screen images” Badu references in her post sound very much in keeping with Nayrok’s glittering body and the Lips’ searching, outerspace style. I really hope to see a new version of this video (and song) in the future, featuring more abstract imagery and less (seemingly) outright exploitation.

The Lips song “The Impulse” features a line, It seems like nothing’s gonna satisfy your shapeless urges. Part of being an artist is having those shapeless urges, a desire for meaning that is very difficult to truly fulfill. The Lips know about this. They worked on the movie Christmas on Mars for 7 years. They took 4 years to put out At War with the Mystics. But in 2012, it seems like they’ve just been cranking out crazy videos with more regard for amusement than artistry. That’s pretty cool, when your collaborators are in on the joke. But when they’re not, as Erykah does not seem to be, you need to change course.

Of the video released without her approval, Erykah says, “Our art is a reflection of who we are. I have no connection to those images shot in their raw version. I was interested in seeing an amazing edit that would perhaps change or alter my thoughts. Never happened.” An artist involved in the process of creating a song or video deserves to feel connected to it. If that means difficult dialogue, through Twitter, or otherwise, then that difficult dialogue is required. As a collaborator, Erykah deserves to have more say in what the video looks like. Otherwise, it is truly just exploitation of her beauty and her fame to include her (and her sister) in a video she does not believe in.

I randomly stumbled across a Neitzsche quote today. It seems apt.

The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awk­wardly close to those of our greatest pains… Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art with­out experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

There was no spontaneous mastery in this video. It will take time to achieve the level of mastery that Badu wants in art that represents her. The acceptable levels of mastery may be different for Badu and for the Lips. But because they have agreed to collaborate, they should work together, “awkwardly close” to the pain, to make something they both think is worthwhile.

“The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” concludes:

The first time ever I lay with you

I felt your heart so close to mine

And I knew our joy would fill the earth

And last til the end of time

These simple, peaceful lyrics are evocative of other cosmic Lips joints: I’m sure there’s planets wrapped up with you—I’ve seen them kissing out in the hallway. Let’s hope artistic joy, not a bitter feud, is the lasting outcome here. Wayne, tell the machine you’re not a machine. Erykah, listen. And both of you: make a video you can be proud of. Please?


Filed under: Music, Twitter

Homelessness Meets Privilege at SXSWi

Yesterday, I attended Leslie Cochran’s memorial service in Austin. Though the weekend had been rainy and cold leading up to Sunday, the sky turned blue and the sun began warming the city just hours before the memorial. On the shores of Town Lake, Leslie was remembered for his loving nature and willingness to help others. Leslie’s sister described him as embodying the spirit of Christ with his unflagging generosity. His eccentricities, which attracted so much attention, were only a side note. The memorial focused primarily on his humanity, flawed at it was–his erratic behavior, alcoholism, and stubbornness were remembered in addition to his generosity. People sang and cheered for Leslie. Biodegradable balloons (pictured) with messages to Leslie were released to heaven along with the shout, “heaven just got a lot more weird.” The community spirit of the event showed what I love about Austin: it is an unconditionally accepting, fundamentally odd place.

Today, I woke up to Twitterific discussions of the “Homeless Hotspots” available at SXSW Interactive (SXSWi). The project equips homeless people with 4G wireless hotspots and sends them out into the wilds of SXSWi to find people in need of a data connection. The suggested payment is $2 for 15 minutes of 4G access. The criticism of the project centers on whether it truly helps the homeless participants in a sustainable way, as well as whether it’s respectful to them as people. The criticism is fairly well founded, and I (like others) have a particular problem with the fact that the shirts say “I am a 4G hotspot” rather than “I have a 4G hotspot,” which takes away a degree of humanity from the hotspot providers.

Given this criticism, however, it’s striking that only two of the many pieces of coverage on the issue I’ve checked so far seem to have actually talked to any of the people participating in the project. Most journalists went straight to the project organizers, not the participants, bystepping the people the whole thing is about. I’m really disappointed in this lack of engagement, because it means that coverage of the issue is perpetuating the very de-humanization it purports to oppose–we (myself included) are talking about homeless people in the abstract, rather than actually engaging with them as people. That’s the truly sad thing.

At Leslie’s memorial, I started thinking of him as an entrepreneur of sorts. I guess I’d had the idea in my mind previously, to some extent (thanks to those refrigerator magnets, which I do in fact own) but the juxtaposition of his memorial service to SXSWi brought the comparison into starker relief. Standing in the gravel listening to Leslie’s friends speak, I tried to imagine Leslie giving a keynote at SXSWi. Would he be taken seriously, or reduced to a caricature? Would people be capable of accepting that a homeless person might have something to teach them–something worth a $600 badge price? I can’t see it happening, nor do I necessarily think it should–Leslie was not a technology expert (to my knowledge). But he did clearly understand something about engaging with people, a topic that seems to be at the heart of SXSWi today.

The kerfluffle about Homeless Hotspots is reminiscent of the controversy regarding (Stop) Kony 2012. Both controversies involve well-intentioned but marketing-centric efforts to help people. Both efforts have been criticized for failing to address underlying issues. Even the criticism of both efforts has the potential to further increase knowledge about important social issues, and that awareness is a good thing. But it’s not good to not get your information right, nor is it good for marketing campaigns–or journalistic coverage–to gloss over the actual voices and identities of the people involved in an event.

I think part of the negative reaction to Homeless Hotspots comes from the notion that it’s somehow insulting for for homeless people to provide access to 4G technology, being that it’s something they may not have consistent access to themselves. But many of homeless people have cell phones, if not consistent ways to charge them. And this type of reaction even has a faint scent of privilege: what do those homeless people have to do with my 4G network? I don’t think anyone actually believes anything like this, of course, but it seems to be at least a minor feeling in the discussion. I liked Danny Page’s suggestion that programs teach programming to provide sustainable skills, not just provide temporary employment. But anything is better than nothing, and anything that gets people advocating for the homeless–not just talking about them–is better than nothing.

In Twitter cofounder Biz Stone’s SXSWi keynote this afternoon, he suggested that marketing is the new philanthropy, which felt false to me. Marketing has the (potentially unfair) reputation of being self-promotional, about a product rather than a person or cause; marketing has the tendency to gloss over facts in favor of hyperbole. It’s too sanitized; it’s not real enough. But Stone also called for people to be creative, embrace failure, ask questions, and develop empathy, and it’s hard to argue with any of these directives. The last is especially relevant in this context. But I hope that when people leave Austin, they also remember the people who literally aren’t connected. The people who provide the hotspots, not use them. The people without jobs, much less badges; without homes, much less without 4G access. Say what you will about the Homeless Hotspots experiment, it’s accomplished one thing I’ve definitely never seen before: a discussion of homeless people at SXSW.

All I can think of at this point is an image described at Leslie’s memorial service yesterday. Leslie was staying with a friend, who bought him a denim apron to use while house cleaning. The friend returned home to find Leslie on her porch, naked except for the apron. I think SXSWi has found itself a little naked today, its privilege exposed, but I hope the conference can use the opportunity to learn, grow, and do some good for people in need. As Leslie’s friend Liz suggested yesterday, “Just say ‘Hi.'” Greet homeless people. Greet non-homeless people. Talk to others as people–not hotspots. Not homeless people. Not startup founders. Not people in need. Just as people, who have something interesting to say and are willing to listen to you.
I pledge to say hi to homeless people from now on, and to donate to a homeless organization in my area when I return from Austin. If every single person who discussed the Homeless Hotspots controversy does the same, it will have done at least some good.

Filed under: Commentary,

The Plagiarist’s Tale: Cool Commentary or Rampant Ripoff?

A recent New Yorker article covers the rise and fall of a “writer” who published numerous pieces of work that he’d cobbled together from other texts. While this sort of intertextuality might be rewarded when revealed, this “writer’s” downfall was his unwillingness to disclose his sources–his temerity, even, in pretending that he had authored what he’d stolen.

This almost completely plagiarized work was to be published (as an original) by big-name NYC house Little, Brown before the secret identities of its sentences were uncovered. Appropriately enough, the plagiarized work was a spy novel of sorts, and there are (at least) two mysteries here:

  • Why, if publishing is so important (or important at all), is a huge and highly regarded publishing house capable of putting work in front of a series of individuals (agent, editors, marketers, publicists) without recognizing blatant plagiarism evident to internet commenters?
  • What do we call the work of this “writer” who didn’t really write but instead rearranged existing content in an interesting way

You might answer the second question with “curation,” a word that’s frequently tossed around the echoey hallways of the internet as a “profession” of sorts that involves borrowing/excerpting/stealing content from other sources and repurposing it or running it in full on other sites, primarily with the intent of attracting traffic to that site rather than the originating one. Great curation creates great sites (aldaily being one of my favorites) where you can go and explore many little bits of things to see which little bit entices you to read the whole.

Is that, in a sense, what this plagiarized spy novel could have been–a way to turn readers on to obscure thriller writers of the past, shutting down the modern monotonous mystery machine in favor of getting people into libraries, used bookstores, or deeper into ebook content? Perhaps so, if it had been labeled and marketed as such. But perhaps our society isn’t yet ready for such a thing, for a “writer” who just moves around bits of other people’s work (that’s what an editor does, right?) and puts them together in the best possible way.

That type of work, in a sense, may be even harder than creating something from scratch. It requires more finesse, more tightness, more assurance that each disparate piece you’ve grabbed makes a convincing contribution to the whole.

In his essay “Ecstasy of Influence,” writer Jonathan Lethem assembled insights on writerly influence using almost exclusively the words of other writers. In response to the case of the plagiarized mystery novel, Lethem told the New Yorker that such work “is not a lazy man’s game. As someone who sort of did this, it’s an immense amount of work.” Lethem eventually turned his own borrowed essay into a book of essays. What if the “writer” of the spy novel had done the same, and credited each element? Perhaps he’d then be an anthologizer, not an author (though he’s still not the latter, and not really either).

Who knows. But the nature of the internet or the nature of modern society or both of these elements as well as many other elements are combining to turn much of our work into something more collaborative than it used to be. I feel like I was “raised” as a creative writer, to respect the identity and autonomy of the author, and to struggle to create things entirely my own. And I still do this, in some contexts. But in a professional context, almost everything I’ve worked on has featured a large element of collaboration. I’m not necessarily comfortable calling a proposal or a document “mine” when it was edited and contributed to by several others, even if I may have written the majority of the content, or assembled and edited the full document. Who owns such works?

Pair programming is a common practice for developers, and creating content in pairs is more and more often being proposed as an effective way to quickly come up with something creative and effective. So is our society killing the author, or merely reshaping conceptions of authorial identity? I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to move this blog’s scope a bit broader to incorporate that question as well as the question of commentary.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary,

Building Bookstore Culture Outside of Commerce: Why Amazon is literate culture’s best friend

Readers Internet-wide are fighting about whether to buy books at bookstores or at Amazon. The answer depends on why you buy books in the first place: to support the publishing industry, to support local literary culture, or to connect with great ideas. The answer depends on recognizing that supporting local bookstores may only achieve one of these goals—or none at all.

Amazon really isn’t trying to destroy bookstores. It isn’t trying to save publishing. It’s just trying to make money, and lots of it. In doing so, Amazon is following a principle that was stressed to me over and over in my graduate publishing program at Emerson College: like any other business, publishing is about making money. It’s not about books. It’s not about ideas. It’s not about editorial standards. It’s not about authors. And it’s certainly not about readers, either. All of these elements are just shiny, fun decorations on the publishers’ money train, which was badly derailed by technology and may never get back on track. The big problem (for publishers) is that Amazon has succeeded in making money from publishing and book sales where (many) traditional publishers have failed. Bringing down bothersome distribution and stocking costs through strategic warehousing and inventory has made it possible for consumers to pay less and Amazon to sell more. So what’s at the heart of the publishing problem?

Here’s something you might not know about bookstores: they return a huge number of the books they buy to the publisher, between 30-40%. Any unsold bookstore stock can be shipped right back for a refund (of the price the bookstore paid, which is far lower than the list price consumers would pay, the huge costs of returns to publishers being a big component of bookstore price markup). The publisher may then remainder these books, selling them at a huge loss, or just straight up destroy them. In a sense, then, by shopping in your local bookstore, you’re subsidizing the destruction of trees, printing of books, and shipment of products from publishers to bookstores and back.

Returns are publishing’s catch-22: difficult to make a profit with them, impossible to sell to bookstores without them. Bookstores may over-order titles that have a small chance of selling well, confident in the knowledge that they can return the copies if the book doesn’t take off. The returns system makes bookstore buyers generous and overconfident in ordering—and makes publishers take a big hit. In some sample P&L’s I made in a grad school course, the cost of returns was 160% the total profit of the book. It’s a persistent problem in the industry.

Amazon doesn’t get around the problem of returns—you can return almost anything to the retail giant. It does get around the problem of inventory, at least to some extent. By building a sophisticated inventory management and shipping infrastructure that can get almost any product to almost any place in almost no time at all, Amazon has created efficiencies of scale that smaller stores can’t match. And by selling so many products, it has tons of ways to cover its ass for any one product line that loses money.

If you didn’t know about returns, you probably didn’t know that book publishers tend to lose money on almost every single title they publish. Really. The profits from one or two big authors (think Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling big) often subsidize the rest of a publisher’s catalog. Publishers spend most of their time chasing big hits like this—not promoting smaller titles.

So your local bookstore promotes local authors, provides you valuable book recommendations, thought-provoking author readings, and a fun place to hang out. Great. Why not fund all that, instead of clinging to a clearly broken (and expensive) book distribution framework as the primary financial support for local culture?

In Amazon’s 2010 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos said, “Many of the problems we face have no textbook solutions, and so we—happily—invent new approaches.” Inventory is the big problem of publishing. It didn’t have a textbook solution, but Amazon helped invent a technology one. People who love reading should take advantage of that solution, and build a new way to support cultural events and authors. The new way doesn’t have to start with the traditional bookstore. It might, but it doesn’t have to.

Don’t get me wrong. I like books. I was an English major (which seems less and less like a wise decision, but I enjoyed it at the time). I then got an even less useful graduate degree in publishing. I read all the time as a kid, for lack of siblings and friends (don’t mock). And I’ve lived in a lot of cities, most of which I can define by amazing independent bookstores: Portland means Powell’s. Austin means BookPeople. Boston means Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith.

In Seattle, however, I haven’t found a favorite bookstore (I know, I know—it should be Elliott Bay Books, or Left Bank if I’m feeling alternative, or BLMF if I’m feeling underground—literally). Is that because Amazon has crushed this city’s literary soul? I don’t think so. I think it’s because Richard Hugo House, Seattle Arts and Lectures, Town Hall, 826 Seattle, and other literate organizations provide plenty of engaging events. I think it’s because I work right next to the (transcendently beautiful) Seattle Public Library, which happens to have an excellent Android app, an equally excellent holds system, and a fair share of e-books (if an initially confusing layout). I think it’s because there’s a coffee shop on every corner where I can curl up with my Kindle (Fire) or a real book (often library). I think it’s because technology is changing my life, and will always continue to do so. But it will never make me stop reading.

I don’t actually think Amazon is so great. I mean, it’s unquestionably great at what it does, which is sell a lot of shit and make a ton of money. But I have no illusions that Amazon is well-intentioned, or that it has any intellectual intent behind its reinvention of the publishing industry. If Amazon is reinventing publishing (and it surely is, in a way), it is doing so in service of one goal and one goal only: more profits for Amazon. None of us can make any mistake about that.

At the same time, shopping at your local bookstore cannot stop Amazon, or e-commerce, or electronic publishing. It can only delay the eventual takeover of local bookstores through weak, indirect financial support that subsidizes a bloated, unprofitable or not-too-profitable industry. Think: would Amazon have been able to take off so far so fast on the basis of bookselling if traditional publishing had been lean, innovative, and profitable across the board? Absolutely not.

Inventing a new system of supporting bookish minds probably can’t stop Amazon, either, but it can do a better job of supporting local literate culture. So why not try that instead? Traditional publishing hasn’t succeeded in saving bookstores, nor in supporting authors. Even Aimee Bender—a real live professional author you may have heard of, who has published some books—says it’s hopeless to be a writer these days. Only the luckiest high-profile authors support themselves through writing novels alone; most have other day jobs, whether as columnists or consultants or insurance salespeople or—commonly—creative writing teachers, teaching others to do what they do not make a living at themselves.

But why should it be a dream to get paid to do what you love?

I’m moving to San Francisco in a few weeks. I’ll be lugging several boxes of traditionally published, bookstore-bought books (almost no books I own are actually from Amazon) with me, but I’ll also be bringing my Fire. I’m excited to bask in the beatnik glow of City Lights, listen for echoes of Ginsberg, and spend late nights browsing Green Apple Books. I’m also excited to circle 1 Infinite Loop, see visions of black turtlenecks, and meet some of the incredibly brilliant people (who are not just at Apple, to be clear) working nonstop to make sure that technology makes us smarter and makes our lives better. Maybe I’ll even join them in that crusade.

If their work—our work—results in more bookstores, great. If it means fewer bookstores, okay. As long as it doesn’t mean a diminished exchange of ideas, information, and even artistic ecstasy. And you can buy as many books as you want from your local bookstore. Just don’t be surprised when that small investment in a broken system doesn’t turn out to be as effective as Amazon’s huge investment in a new one.

Filed under: Uncategorized

“The Comments Section” on SNL: Is It Really That Funny?

Last weekend, SNL ran a skit called “The Comments Section,” which used a talk show format to irrelevant three types of internet commentary: negative commentary, embodied by a overweight, balding older man; immature sexual commentary (consisting mostly of “boobz”), embodied by a nerdy-looking young man; and irrelevant political commentary, embodied by an overweight, unkempt woman. The “talk show” host reviewed the comments each “guest” had posted online, and asked the guests to explain their thought process or motivation, which each summarily failed to do.

The skit even confronted the first commenter with one of his “comment victims,” a grandmother whose hat fell off during a birthday celebration. The comment–“Dumb ass old lady! Haha, her hat fell off. Kill yourself.”–motivated the grandmother to simply pronounce the commenter “rotten”–an accurate assessment.

The skit effectively pointed out the mean-spirited absurdity of much online commentary, but didn’t go much beyond that. Given the general portrayal of the commenters as stereotypical “losers,” nerdy and overweight, and lacking a girlfriend (in the case of the second commenter), the implication is that people without “real” or offline lives attempt to make themselves relevant by persistently posting negative and/or irrelevant comments online. But given the incredibly widespread nature of inane online commentary, it seems likely that a larger group of people is responsible.

The fact that online commentary is being recognized as largely irrelevant on a mainstream show such as SNL suggests that its uselessness is widely acknowledged. Still, the question remains, what can be done about this? Is mocking irrelevant commentary–already a widespread practice in comments themselves–a potential solution? Or does it just perpetuate a focus on thoughtless commentary (and am I doing just that right now)? I would propose that no problem can be resolved without being identified, and I do think that insipid commentary is a problem–it wastes time and doesn’t lend to the conversation. But it may be doing more than that, by inuring people to thoughtless exchanges and, perhaps worse, offensive language.

An AP-MTV poll found that although 51% of teens encounter discriminatory language on social networking sites (which are largely just strings of status updates and/or comments), many of them dismiss such language as people simply trying to be funny. Two-thirds of teen respondents said discriminatory words used against black people were mostly jokes, while 75% said negative language used against women was intended to be amusing, and the majority of teens are not offended when something is called “gay” in a negative manner.

In the SNL skit, one of the guests was portrayed as having commented “mad gay yo” on a video of a horse rescuing its owner from a dangerous situation. When asked what was “gay” about the video, the commenter responded, “the horse.” Even putting aside the question of what words are offensive, this use of language clearly demeans language itself, in that it removes significant meaning and creates a very limited vocabulary of words used only to mock or bring down, not to contribute to the conversation.

In a world where we have TV shows mocking online comment mocking anyone–where does the meaning lie? Perhaps in examining each situation to see what, if anything, we can learn from it. And if there’s no meaning, in recognizing that, and in working to create more meaning in our next comment, skit, blog post, or conversation.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Likes, Checkins as Forms of Commentary

Since my last posts here, I wonder whether online (or even mobile) commentary has degenerated from true comments to “likes,” “RT”s, and “+1″s (or even “This.”es). “Liking” (I’ll use the Facebook term for simplicity’s sake, but I’m including all other systems’ equivalents here, too) is the most mundane (weak, perhaps) form of commentary, essentially saying “I agree, this is good, I have nothing to add.” It’s a way to align yourself with the sentiments (or people) you like without going to the effort of explaining your alignment.

This isn’t to say that to retweet, like, or +1 something is bad, just that it’s not enough. Do you hesitate to “like” something posted by Facebook friends (or Google+ folks) you’re not actually close to? Does a “like” become a substitute for not having talked to a good friend for a while? When we are using our feedback buttons to navigate relationships rather than ideas, we should explore our motivation. So next time you feel compelled to click “like,” think about whether you actually have something to say. If so, say it. If not, maybe take a moment and think of something smart–not to show off, but if because you truly “like” something, you should probably like it enough to provide a thoughtful response.

Somewhat relatedly, I recently encountered an article that claims only about 30% of online users are interested in location-based mobile checkins like those offered by Foursquare, Gowalla, and similar services. However, more than 50% are interested in using their phones to get to stores, use coupons, and look up product information. If we view checkins as (weak) comments–essentially, indications that people “like” a place because they are there–the somewhat more tepid interest in checking in vs. saving money may suggest that more users are primarily interested in mobile phones for their functional rather than commentary purposes.

At the same time, we’ve commonly seen venues resort to promoting Foursquare checkins with special deals for mayors or even just any old schmuck who checks in. This essentially rewards people for their visible–to friends/acquaintances as potential customers–positive “commentary” on a venue as a worthwhile place to be. But when that commentary is subsidized, is it still valid? And is relationship-motivated commentary (liking your friends’ posts just because you like them as people) any less subsidized or more valid?

Ultimately, is a deal-motivated checkin the ultimate bastardization of our consumerist society, creating a world where we only do things because we’re rewarded? I hope we haven’t fallen that far–but sometimes I’m not sure.

Filed under: Commentary, Facebook, Foursquare, Google+

The Body As Commentary

I’m updating this thing sporadically only, because (in tribute to the talking heads) I’d rather only post when I have something to say. Anyway, I’m currently watching the Werner Herzog documentary Wheel of Time, which tracks Buddhist pilgrims migrating to Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Some of the pilgrims come thousands of miles in journeys that last several years, in part because they perform prostrations every step or two. In one scene in the film, pilgrims prostrating themselves along a mountain path are surpassed by people who are simply walking.

The contrast between the two figures’ progression made for a clear demonstration of the body as commentary. In each case, the individuals being filmed are traveling toward a particular destination. By enacting that travel in different forms, however, each individual makes a statement–comments on–the purpose of his or her journey. For some devotees, it’s not enough just to travel to Bodhgaya; the journey itself must take on a special form, realized through physical action that provides a comment on the actor’s religious dedication.

It’s hard to translate the body to the online realm: after all, one of the most egalitarian features of the internet, in a way, is that it disembodies all of us. At the same time, however, this can send us in search of an embodiment for the people or ideas we meet online, envisioning how people enact their beliefs in a physical realm. And at another extreme, many people make their physical selves highly visible online, providing extensive photo albums of their activities or fashions, offering additional information about what matters to the individual in question.

Our selves, then, comment on our priorities to some extent: the fashionista’s polished presentation, the runner’s lean arms, the bodybuilder’s impossibly thick thighs. And then, the rest of us, perhaps letting the body make another comment: that we are concerned, primarily, with something other than how we appear, but leaving that “something” undefined.

Filed under: Commentary

Two Months Gone, Not Forgotten

Wow! Can’t believe it’s been two months since I’ve managed to post here. In that time, I’ve moved to a new town, started a new job, and officially received my master’s degree (hurrah!), so you’ll excuse me for not posting frequently. I’d like to get back into the swing of things, though, and came across two interesting articles that might help me do it.

The first was Simon Dumenco’s Twitter lament, in which he decries the allegedly Twitter-inspired tendency to post, tweet, retweet, and generally (virally?) spread information without understanding it. In doing some tweeting for my new job, I can say that I’ve run across more than a few instances of folks tweeting and even retweeting an article without apparently reading beyond the title, dismissing the substance in favor of some style. There are “scientifically proven” magic phrases that elicit retweets, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a surprising amount of folks retweet based on headlines only without reviewing the actual linked content.

Is that bad, though? Dumenco seems to think so, theorizing that over-production of content means “we’re all living in some Bizarro universe where we’re constantly debating stuff that’s not actually up for debate” and that’s “all rewiring our brains in really weird, unexpected and often unfortunate ways.” It’s true that there’s so much more content than ever before–but there are also more people than ever before, and more ways for them to connect. So shouldn’t this make us smarter, not stupider? All of this community and commentary should give rise to a form of collective intelligence that wouldn’t be possible without online interaction. I don’t think mindless retweeting is a good thing, but it’s not 100% bad–and it doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be a tool for thought-provoking conversation.

Of course, it’s easier and more hilarious to just say that Simon Dumenco hates kittens, so maybe I’ll do that anyway.

The other topic I wanted to address briefly is (Twitter-based) geographic location services. It’s interesting that in a delocalized/globalized economy and world, some of our most immediate technological tools are being tweaked to tell others the most mundane information of all: where we are physically. What’s the implication of using broad technology for such specific, local purposes? Will technology, which once led commercialized agriculture and other large-scale efforts, suddenly be at the forefront of a charge to eat/breathe/think/do locally? I’m interested to see the outcome of using these technological tools on a local scale.

That’s all for now, folks, but I hope to be back a little sooner than last time!

Filed under: Uncategorized

Wrap-Up: Commentary on My Commentary on Commentary…

Well, that’s meta-commentary if I’ve ever heard of it! Anyway, it’s almost the end of the summer and time to wrap up what I’m doing on commentary here. I think I’ve explored a lot of avenues and come up with a lot of ideas: not necessarily anything conclusive, but a lot of paths to follow further.

The first and most important conclusion that I want to stress is that online commentary both is and affects publishing. It is publishing in the sense that it “makes public” information that would otherwise remain private. In doing so, commentary (ideally) affects more than the commenter and the person being responded to. The unique nature of commentary on the internet allows it to be read by an unlimited number of people with varying levels of connection to the topic at hand. An astute comment can educate and inspire others; a negative or uninformed comment can motivate others to help educate. Admittedly, online commentary doesn’t give rise to enlightenment: but it can, and should. Publishers should review comments and tweets not only to see how people are responding to their books, but also what people are talking about. What people say gives a great deal of insight into what they’re interested in–and what people are interested in is what books should be published on.

The second lesson is that commentary connects. I started the blog lamenting that publishing CEOs don’t think about connecting with the right people, quoting Richard Nash: “The CEOs [of publishing companies] seem to think they’re not in the media business at all, but in a B2B business, where meeting with B&N and Amazon and a few independent booksellers constitutes doing business.” Online commentary has turned publishing–and other businesses–into a B2P (business-to-person) setup, or even P2P (peer-to-peer), or A2P (author-to-person/peer) setup. Plenty of authors are blogging or tweeting and creating relationships with their readers well outside the traditional publishing realm. Publishing companies cannot control that, nor should they try to: they must tap into it. As the Ithaka report on university publishing and other sources point out, reader commentary can even be incorporated into books, upending Andrew Keen’s pompous denigration of the idea that readers’ ideas should have any effect on important works. To the contrary, publications as important as the Economist allow reader commentary. Additionally, I created some connections through this blog: people whose blogs I directly addressed and linked to immediately came to my blog and responded to me. That’s direct, instant evidence that commentary connects.

Another point is that comments are both useless and not useless if not used. This seems contradictory (and, technically, is), but commentary is an important part of the process of figuring out what you think. By encouraging more commentary, we can encourage people to think more (and perhaps even differently, averting Cass Sunstein’s fear of self-perpetuating beliefs). In the process of creating commentary, people will not only learn, but may also (even if accidentally) teach others. This should be the ultimate goal of commentary: to be used by commenters and comment readers alike, for a learning experience, and the launching point for further conversation. Commenters who have a different, more self-serving motivation are not participating in true commentary with the potential to change the world–and change minds.

A common theme in discussing comments is that they are comments are sometimes just stupid and mean. It’s true. And because of that, the art of analyzing commentary includes determining what to weed out. Not everything that’s said is important or interesting–but much of it is. As I have suggested, the Twitterfication of commentary–knowing exactly who “follows” you and checks out what you have to say, and seeing what (if anything) they have to say about it–might be crucial in ensuring more informed commentary. As long as you can anonymously blather bullshit, you have no accountability. But when people know who you are, what you’re saying and so on–then you’re screwed when you screw up. As Clay Shirky asserts, “the internet… adds group forming as a possibility, not just person-to-person connections.” When everyone can see what you say, you become more accountable. And as accountability increases, the quality of commentary will as well.

Blogging itself is not a necessarily a revolution. In fact, it’s even a bit self-centered. But the exchange of ideas that blogging, Twitter, and other online communication enables is revolutionary. Hopefully contrary to Cass Sunstein’s fear that this exchange will result in further polarization of existing beliefs, perhaps we can go toward Clay Shirky’s hope that everyone’s collective participation will overthrow existing authority and develop its own direction?

As powerful as commentary is, there are many questions that remain unanswered. First, who is liable for commentary–the commenter or the platform allowing it? Thus far the focus has been on the commenter, but websites may step toward censorship if they fear that users might get them in trouble. This bordered on happening with a Flickr user whose questions got his account deleted from the Flickr system. As publishers’ fear about losing royalties to unauthorized use of copyrighted material grow and grow, they may become more and more concerned with ownership of commentary. This is the wrong response. Commentary isn’t “owned,” it’s shared, by definition. So what’s the best way to use it? As much as possible is the initial answer.

Importantly, linking people may not be the only purpose of commentary. If the inventor of the internet has his way, we may be linking data with commentary as well. Evaluative actions like tags and reviews are in a sense meta-comments: evaluative data that can be used to inform others about an item’s worth. When better ways are found to use this data-about-data, online commentary will be solidified as the basis of a lot of what we “know” and can find out online. Data about commentary will become more and more useful over time, not only for thoughtful academic pursuits but also–and perhaps more predominantly–for marketing pursuits. Once a marketer figures out that you fit a certain user profile, they’ll be spamming you with replies and direct messages all day long. But like Shirky hopes, “the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial.” When marketers are in your face, you can get right back in their face, calling companies out on their shortcomings. And everyone will be able to see.

The final word? Commentary can’t just continue to exist as itself. It needs to be connected into a resource that enables more than just its own ideas. It must enable connection, education, and the ability to access relevant information–in the form of original content or commentary–about something. Commentary is no longer at the margins: it’s crucial to everything we do. It’s a remix of what’s come before. In that sense, it tells us both where we are and where we came from: an important duality. What you say about what others say may not yet tell us who you are (though it can model your Twitter personality), but eventually it will tell us a lot–if not all–about you.

I want to close by making what may be simultaneously an obvious and a revolutionary statement: commentary is the future of (social, if I want to qualify it) search, and potentially even publishing. Commentary is the future of finding everything we need online, and responding to what is already online. Algorithms can only go so far without the human input that comes in the form of commentary: data showing what people think about other data. Without this data, the original data is less useful. Whoever or whatever can figure out how to best take advantage of all the commentary out there about everything else will be at the forefront of the future of the internet, the semantic web, social search, whatever you want to call it. Now that everyone’s found their voice, it’s time to start listening.

Filed under: Commentary

Tweets are Comments: Are Tags?

I’ve expanded the definition of commentary exponentially as I continue to write about it. In some ways, nearly everything can be viewed as a comment. A tweet is a comment, if sometimes an inane one. A comment on a blog post is an inane one, even if it promotes something different from the original post’s agenda. A comment is anything that says something, has a point of view. And a comment must be published to be meaningful. In order for your commentary to have an effect, it has to be public. And perhaps more importantly, it has to be read–by others, who will comment in return. Unlike Ian Shapira’s hope for unremitting, unresponsive adulation, any good work should invite commentary, conflict, and debate. If we’re not putting it up for discussion, we shouldn’t be putting it out there.

In his influential book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky uses Flickr as an example of hands-off collaboration, made possible by tagging. He describes how easy it is to find images of a particular item or event on Flickr, in contrast to how hard it would be to specifically contract people to take such pictures. By removing the need for organization and simply giving users tools to organize themselves, Flickr made it possible for people to access images in new ways. Most of Flickr’s functionality is based on tagging: from the original photographer, not necessarily other users. If anyone could tag, would the tagging lose its functionality, or become even more interesting?

A tag, then, is a comment. It adds value. It makes a judgment about something. It expresses an opinion. In that sense, a review is also a tag or a comment. Lawrence Lessig, writing in Remix, agrees that “Tagging thus added a layer of meaning to RW [read/write] content. The more tags, the more useful and significant they become… As they add meaning to content, these tools also enable collaboration… As the reader “writes” with tags or votes, the importance of the original writing changes.” Stars in a review “tag” an item as good or bad; the text of the review offers further commentary. Even “likes” on Facebook have taken over comments. Instead of writing on a friend’s wall or writing something about a friend’s status update, you can just click a button to show that you “like” what your friend has said or done.

Is everything a comment these days? Maybe. Commentary is breaking down into a variety of forms. This is not necessarily bad, just different. We have more ways than ever to respond to something. What’s important is responding at all.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Tweeting a Lot

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