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

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

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?

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Filed under: Music, Twitter

Retweeting: The Ultimate Comment Compliment?

Regular online comments can sometimes be responded to: occasionally some blog systems allow users to “reply” to previous comments, or commenters simply take it upon themselves to respond to an earlier remark. But Twitter makes commenting on other comments much simpler and more direct. It even provides you with an easy, simple way to include the original comment in your comment. That’s the retweet.

A retweet is just that: a re-posting of another user’s tweet. It’s usually prefaced with RT (for retweet) and includes the @handle of the original commenter (Twitter user). If space allows, someone may insert their own commentary in a retweet, but 140 characters can be a bit tight for that. Still, the retweet is the ultimate comment: a comment on someone else’s comment. A meta-comment, if you will. But it packs a lot of information into 140 characters, including links to the original comment, the name of the original commenter and the retweeter, not to mention what’s actually being said.

This retweet phenomenon has become an amazing way of sharing relevant information quickly. Not everyone can follow everyone on Twitter–there are too many millions of folks to keep track of–but there seems to be almost a “six degrees of separation” phenomenon wherein any popular tweet can get to you pretty easily and remarkably fast. Thus the retweet as comment is almost less a “comment” than a platform for spreading information. It’s not just about the initial idea, it’s about the ease with which it spreads.

There are a number of ways to look at retweeted material. One is to check out the most retweeted people on Twitter. Are these people experts in their field? Do they have the most followers? Are they tweeting on popular topics? What is it about their commentary that makes it spread?

MrZand, a math teacher from Washington DC with a mere 500 followers, is currently on the top 10 retweeted folks according to Retweetrank. Why is this? He tweets often, and many of his tweets are about the topical Iran elections, and the unfortunate killing of a woman named Neda in them. Perhaps it’s being topical that makes you retweeted?

Maybe not. ZnaTrainer posts mostly inane quotations about love and smiling. Arguably topical at all times, but being perpetually topical is almost like not being topical at all. Yet she’s in the Retweet Top 10. Deservedly?

One attribute that almost everyone in the RTT10 has in common: they retweet others’ tweets a lot. Gotta play the game to win the game, right? Perhaps the takeaway message is, the more active you are on Twitter and the broader the audience to which your tweets have relevance, the more you can be retweeted.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Nobody Wants to Dial Telephones: Does Anyone Want to Read Comments?

Yesterday, I lamented the marginalia of commentary, the lack of impact that most comments tend to have. It seems possible that commentary could do so much for us: instigate debate, give rise to new ideas, realize the full potential of the internet. But it doesn’t, at least not in most cases.

To determine why that is, maybe we can investigate the purpose of comments. I referred yesterday to the definition of “comment,” which involves explaining or criticizing an idea. Online comments can certainly do this. But due to their location online, in a space where everyone can see and respond, they seem to take on another dimension: of participating in a conversation.

But what if not every commenter wants to do this? Well, would-be commenters certainly have options: they can email the author instead. They can bring up the subject with a friend in person. They can make a phone call. They can write about it on their own blogs. Nobody has to comment.

In Being Digital, a book from the days before Google and Twitter (hard to remember those, huh?) Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab posits that nobody wants to dial a telephone; people just want to reach people. So do people really want to comment? Perhaps not–they just want to reach people.

So what are some alternatives to traditional online commentary? Twitter replies have become a popular one, enabling folks to show that they read and appreciated (or didn’t appreciate) something without investing the time to craft a lengthy comment. Twitter also offers the opportunity to reply directly to a person/article/idea, or to send your response only to your followers (or anyone else who happens to find your words, perhaps due to a search or a retweet). As with Negroponte’s telephone analogy, no one necessarily wants to Tweet, exactly–but people do want to connect. Twitter has become another, often effective, way for people to do this.

The telephone analogy could be taken further. The telephone reaches out, directly, to someone specific. (In so doing, it’s often annoying: it’s kind of nice that you can instant message with multiple folks at once, while we still haven’t really figured out how to multi-task with phone conversations, except for perhaps in conference calls.) The thing about Twitter–the thing that comments in general really lack–is its directness. But, like instant messaging, you can essentially be “direct” with a lot of people at once. You’re not stuck Tweeting at only one person for a while. You can Tweet in multiple directions, on multiple topics, in the space of just 140, 280, 420, or more characters.

It seems, then, that the directionality–the intended recipient–of commentary might matter just as much as the content of it. What is the best way to target comments? Should all comments be shared? People complain about oversharing on Twitter, but there’s an easy way to combat that: don’t follow such folks. In this sense, Twitter’s other revolutionary capability is that its directionality is multidirectional. Not only can you send a message to somebody, that person can choose whether to receive it and how to respond to it. Additionally, other people can see that message, and respond, but with the knowledge that the message/comment was directed in a specific way. And, most importantly, and unlike phone conversations or even instant messages, people can ignore you. A bummer if they do, but that in itself sends a message.

Thus Twitter appears simple, but it really contains a number of important capabilities that were missing from online communication, or present in different and unintegrated ways. By putting together public, targeted conversations with the ability to choose modes of responding, Twitter has opened up a whole new form of commentary online. And it’s not that we want to Twitter: it’s that we want to reach people AND let others know who we are reaching. That’s really something important, and something that it was harder to do before this tool.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Too Temporary? Why Comments May Not Be All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Commentary is crucial, but it can also be ephemeral. There have been numerous instances of late–Iran elections/Neda, Farrah Fawcett’s death (quickly usurped by Michael Jackson’s death), Walter Cronkite’s death, and so on–that have attracted huge numbers of online comments or, specifically, tweets. However, what’s the power of that commentary, if it’s not harnessed? Does it just fade away and become irrelevant? Or could there be something to tracking and talking about it in more detail?

ReadWriteWeb recently analyzed Iran commentary, attempting to put the commentary into specific groups. Clusters are identified around Ahmadinejad, Khameni, Basij, and other topics; RWW says the research indicates comments moved “from a dispute over the election process involving Ahmadinejad (shown in pink) to a dispute over authority involving the supreme leader Khamenei (shown in red).”

This kind of comment compartmentalization could potentially be valuable. Right now, Twitter can tell us trending topics–but there are more and more services developing that tell you even more about said topics. Some of these come in the form of group-based services (such as Tweetizen) that allow you to form a group of topics that might interest you, while others report data ranging from number of tweets on topics to what those topics actually mean (a godsend for those confused by acronyms that rise to the top of the trends). Tweets, more then blog comments–probably primarily because of their more standardized form and platform–are easily analyzed for content and meaning.

Not only that, they are easily shared. Perhaps one of the best, or at least favorite (for many folks), features of Twitter is the ability to “retweet” tweets that users find funny, informative, or just plain interesting. In retweeting, a comment (in the form of a tweet) gains additional influence and shelf life. In theory (though not often in practice), a phenomenal tweet’s significance could linger on indefinitely as it is retweeted by person after person who finds the information important. In practice, retweets spread surprisingly rapidly, likely due to the very instantaneous nature of Twitter.

As RWW puts it, “Twitter allows these social structures to become data structures by means of the ‘RT’ convention. And this in turn allows us to perform extremely powerful computations on the social structures that underlie the flow of information.” Analysis of tweets may seem inane, but it may actually be the future. The power of Twitter is the power of analysis–and the analysis of data is just as important as the sharing of it.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

The Death of the Comment; The Rise of the Tweet: What Does It Say About Us?

ReadWriteWeb has a new piece on the “death of the comment” and the rise of integrated alternative response forms: tweets, videos, images, links, and the like, all connected with original content through tools like Disqus or Echo.

The advent of alternatives to traditional comments is certainly relevant and not unexpected. However, don’t these unique ways of responding count as commentary as well? A RWW commenter (ha!) asserts that “Comments are still more insightful than tweets, which provide very little added info other than the link (140 ch. limit).” I tend to agree that long- or free-form comments have the potential to provide greater value than short tweets. However, one of the greatest assets of Twitter is its visibility. If tweets can function to make discussions (complete with comments, potentially) known to a wider audience–many of whom may have their own comments or tweets to make in response–then Twitter is a tool that truly furthers commentary in an important way, even as it morphs the form of that commentary.

In a sense, online commentary is a realization of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligences. None of us would know even a fraction of what we know now if not for the information-sharing ability of the web. Merely accessing information, though, is only the first step. It takes intelligence–first individualized, then later collective/collaborative–to make that information worthwhile. The semantic web is, in a sense, the ultimate form of collective intelligence, not even requiring a “collective” to create it. At the same time, however, it’s also a completely depersonalized “intelligence” or set of information analysis capacities.

Would we prefer our information processed by computers or commented on by humans? The future is definitely going to involve a combination of the two factors. Which one will be emphasized may depend on the types of technology developed and the ways in which they are used and shared by individuals. Collective intelligence aside, we can at least safely assert that comments on posts about the death of the comment are the ultimate form of irony.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Twitter

Could Daily Me Become a Daily We?

Cass Sunstein’s Republic 2.0 discusses ways to make the internet a forum for engaged discussion. But it begins with a critique of the Daily Me, or an independently created newspaper that could be customized to an individual’s preferences (sort of like Time’s new Mine, which some people actually like). Sunstein worries that, when people select what views they’re exposed to, they’ll choose only or mostly sites that reinforce their views: a liberal might subscribe to DailyKos and Mother Jones, while a conservative might stick to LGF and the National Review. In so doing, Sunstein posits, folks ensure that they’ll only hear (see) viewpoints that reinforce their own, leading to further polarization of such viewpoints, and an increased sense of being “right.” After all, if everyone you read agrees with you, how can you be wrong?

As Sunstein says in his book, “it is precisely the people most likely to filter out opposing views who most need to hear such views” (p. 63). True–but what better place for them to hear (see) such views than online? Indeed, DailyMe.com already offers a DailyWe section, featuring the most-read news on the site. Google Reader allows you to view items shared by your Gmail contacts–often just hilarious links to lolcats, but sometimes more substantive content. The internet is the ultimate forum for interaction, and it is not necessarily guaranteed to be polarized. Additionally, Sunstein laments that, according to a study of online commentary, “only a quarter of cross-ideological posts involve genuine substantive discussion” (149). But this doesn’t mean that substantive discussion is not generated within posts of a specific ideology, or that readers of alternate ideologies haven’t been urged into new forms of thinking by mere contact with differing opinions.

Often it’s difficult to truly engage with new ideas right away, but even just being exposed to them is a worthwhile outcome. The internet makes that more possible than almost any technology. Rather than lament the internet’s existence, it should be exploited as an opportunity for cross-pollination. Google Reader sharing is one way to do that. Twitter–not yet big when Sunstein wrote Republic 2.0–is another. You may disagree with a link posted on Twitter or shared on your Google Reader, but at least you’ve been exposed to it–something that seems much less likely in an internet-free world. So while the internet has the potential to increase polarization, it also has the potential to be a tool to combat it, through sharing tools other than direct commentary. I’ll be looking for some more examples of this over the summer!

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Twitter

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