Results tagged “media”

The Daily Opportunity Index

March 6, 2013

Every single day, almost every mainstream news source in America offers live updates throughout the day on a few metrics which have almost no meaning for most Americans. Whether it's a radio broadcast, a local TV station going to commercials, or the homepage of most big news sites, you'll see a nod to how the stock market is doing, despite the fact that stocks exist as, at best, an abstraction having to do with a theoretical future retirement for all but the wealthiest in the United States.

Covering the Dow in every news update is like reporting on the price of a Mercedes daily. tweet this It's information only of actual use to the richest extreme of people in America. Yet we act as if it's information so central to our economic well-being that we talk about it as often as the weather. We evaluate presidents during our elections based upon stock performance during their tenures, without having any other long-term indices used in the conversation.

We can do better, by creating and discussing a daily economic index that has to do with the economic lives of regular people. The importance of understanding these concepts is illustrated perfectly by this brief video that's becoming extremely popular:

What Would an Opportunity Index Look Like?

I should be clear: While I am versed in the cultural impacts that this kind of index could have, I am nowhere near literate enough in economics to actually offer meaningful advice on how to construct it. But I can offer a broad view of the way it could come together, to inspire a useful conversation by those who are experts.

Let's look a few key traits a meaningful opportunity index would have to include:

  • Opportunity: The first, and most important principle of creating a meaningful economic index would be to have it attempt to measure or represent the potential opportunity for everyone in the economy, not just the wealthy. Income inequality must be a significant part of this metric, but so too should straightforward factors like the minimum wage, the regressiveness of tax code, and other structural barriers to opportunity for everyone. The key thing to understand is that such an index does not have to be a perfect representation of these concerns; Indeed, nobody would argue that the DJIA or NASDAQ function as even rudimentary measurements of the real economy. Instead, they're useful as detailed measures of a tiny number of variables that are considered important as indicators, and an opportunity index should be similarly narrow in scope but broad in possible interpretations.
  • Daily: This is one of the most contentious aspects of such an index, from the perspective of those concerned about data quality and relevance. While we're used to the stock market trading at light speed (literally!) with the backing of some of the riches and most powerful companies in the world, our measurements of real people's financial lives are typically done by small, underfunded non-profit organizations and government agencies, with results coming out monthly or even annually. It will take both a cultural change from those institutions and the use of smarter, faster data to power a meaningful measure of opportunity. For this reason, it may make sense to base some parts of the measure on very dynamic existing metrics like the markets for financial instruments, but to consider them through an algorithm that's weighted by relevance to average people's economic concerns.
  • A simple number: One of the oldest, and most valid, criticisms of the big market index numbers is that they're such blunt instruments that they don't actually represent anything useful. But the very simplicity of the indices is what makes them so powerful in our culture. I'd reckon that most folks don't actually understand what makes up that "Dow" number they hear about on the news, or that its components change, or that almost all of the new entrants to the index are not "industrial" in any recognizable classic interpretation of the term. But that one number people hear about? It goes up or down. It can be charted and tracked. For all the murkiness of what it's actually measuring, its role in society is clear. And an index that tracks measurements which represent ordinary concerns could be even more powerful.

Who Can Do This?

There's been interesting precedent around private companies defining these sorts of measures, especially in media. Though broad, slowly-measured statistics about these sorts of things are usually the domain of government agencies, the example set by everything from Twitter showing follower counts to the Weather Channel deciding to name winter storms shows that there are media-ready messages that can be created as a proprietary marketing exercise, yet come to represent much bigger concepts in culture. And of course, the Dow average itself is a perfect example of this.

I can imagine a useful combination of a major traditional media organization (New York Times, CNN) along with a respected non-partisan non-profit with data experience (Sunlight Foundation, Pew Research) and a tech industry player that would be helpful in collecting and/or disseminating the data (Google, Buzzfeed, Twitter). The coordination would almost certainly have to come from the non-profit player, unless a single company could be convinced to bankroll the thing from end to end.

But the final result, if successful, could be a meaningful measure that would create a brand name mentioned millions of times a day across thousands of media outlets around the world. And not incidentally, if successful, it would become a powerful tool for treating ordinary citizen's economic concerns as being as central to the news as the daily fluctuations of the porfolios of the super rich.

Gains and Losses, 2007-2009

Related Reading

I thought this slideshow called "A Crack in the Matrix: A Financial Fable" from David Bressler did a really nice job of illustrating how communications about personal finance can really distort economic information in a way that misleads average people about their financial situation.

  • Inequality.org, from the Program on Inequality and the Common Good, is an outstanding and undersung resource for articulating many of these issues. If some of the information they're presented could be made live and more dynamic, it'd be a wonderful start toward a true opportunity index.
  • A few years ago Business Insider aggregated a broad range of infographics on income inequality that is still striking; They should post an updated version of this with newer data, to show how the current economic recovery has essentially only accrued to the wealthy.

I'm sure there are very complex issues that I'm glossing over in this brief description of the Daily Opportunity Index idea, but I'm looking forward to responses from those who are more literate in the topic to provide insights on what I've missed.

Racist Culture is a Factory Defect

June 4, 2012

One of the great struggles in trying to challenge racist aspects of culture is that we've moved from overt, obvious, overbearing racist practices to things that are much more nuanced, and which are often the result of bad habits or ignorance from otherwise well-intentioned people.

This complexity makes it more difficult to fight these instances of racism because we lose a lot of time, and endure a lot of time-consuming explanations, just to get people on the same page in talking about solving the problem. Obviously, this has been on my mind since writing about Popchips' unfortunate ad campaign a month ago; Despite writing in bold that "I think the people behind this Popchips ad are not racist" at the top of my post, many of the responses came from people who could not distinguish between a company or individual carrying out a racist act and the fundamental identity of "being" a racist. Very, very few people identify as racist, but nearly all of us are guilty of racism at one point or another.

In ruminating on this point a bit, I stumbled upon what I think is the clearest way to express this idea for me: Racist culture is a factory defect. In the case of me criticizing a potato chip company for making a racist ad, it's easy to understand this metaphor:

  • I believe the company has good intentions, and is run by people who do not want to be racist or to create racist contributions to culture.
  • Nevertheless, the company made a cultural contribution that was predicated on racist ideas.
  • It's particularly egregious to trade in racist ideas when it's not for artistic purpose or to comment on society, but to sell a product.
  • Therefore, the most helpful thing I can do is to help them fix the broken process within their company that produced this unfortunate result.

On the Factory Floor

Imagine, for example, that Popchips had sold a bag of chips that contained mouse droppings in it. We've all read news stories like this, and we're familiar with how they go. The company apologizes to the person who bought the product, and optionally offers to replace it. Then they talk about how they'll look into their manufacturing and distribution processes to identify how the problem occurred, and work diligently to prevent it from happening again.

But here's what they don't do. They don't say, "We apologize if anybody is offended by the presence of mouse droppings in their potato chips". Because all right-thinking people know that's inherently offensive, and it doesn't take interpretation to do so. They seldom fire someone for these kinds of errors unless there was willful negligence, instead preferring to train and monitor their employees to ensure that such slip-ups never happen again. They don't say "We have some people on the team who keep mice as pets, and they didn't think it was that gross, so we didn't think anyone would object". Because good companies take pride in doing the right thing for its own sake.

While I'm speaking of this as a theoretical, there's a great real-world example of this in the case of Le Pain Quotidien, as detailed in this great Freakonomics podcast. The high-end bakery café faced a huge PR nightmare after a diner found a dead mouse in her salad. Though it took some time and they didn't initially get it right, the company eventually stepped up and made a no-excuses apology, but more importantly they changed the way they work to try and prevent the problem from ever happening again.

The Assembly Line

Through this lens of the "factory defect", we can look at other similar cultural insensitivities much more effectively, and focus not on blaming and shaming the companies that do these things, but on fixing what's broken in these companies which allow these hurtful things to happen in the first place.

Take Mitu Khandaker's brave and beautiful recent post about Dove's hurtful description on their packaging, which implies people of our skin tone are abnormal. In this case, Dove had built up a lot of good will over the years specifically by promoting a message of inclusiveness, so this seemed particularly inapt for the company. But Mitu's take on the issue addressed the problem specifically in terms of the personal impact it had on her, an effective and courageous way of making the company understand the impact of their error, in the same way they'd intuitively know the impact of an error that had to do with the safety or hygiene of their product:

I almost did not write this. I’ve felt apologetic about it to an extent where even bringing up my skin colour, and how angry all those experiences have made me, has felt uncomfortable for me. Writing this is uncomfortable for me. I don’t like drawing attention to it, even when it is on my own terms. I am trying very hard to get over that.

Who among us, though, would apologize for pointing out there was a fly in our soup? We know it's gross, we know a restaurant doesn't want to serve it. And a good restaurant would respond not just by being contrite, but by thanking a patron for pointing out the flaw so that they have the chance to remedy it.

Companies which accidentally create exclusionary, racist, sexist or hurtful advertisements or promotions should embrace the same opportunity. A good restauranteur knows that fixing a bad service problem can sometimes make a customer more of a fan than if they had never encountered a problem in the first place. Jason Alexander is experiencing something analogous as I write this, earning the respect of organizations like GLAAD by publishing a thoughtful and sincere statement that's not just an apology, but an explanation of the process that yielded racist culture, showing that he understands why we have to talk about fixing our factories when they create defective products.

Dove made a great first step in explaining the genesis of their error. Ideally, we'd encourage personal accountability along with these explanations, with individuals claiming responsibility within companies for these errors in the same way they have to when they're responsible for financial misstatements and the like; This is only fair given the amount of vitriol and hatred that many of us face when we speak up to criticize these companies.

But until the time when they don't need to issue these statements at all anymore, the best companies can do when they make something offensive in culture is to explain the method of manufacture for their broken contribution to culture. The tedious, familiar pattern of issuing a non-apology apology ("We're sorry if anyone was offended...") and then trying to bury the entire conversation doesn't make things better, and it puts the burden on the victims of these misadventures to right the wrongs, instead of laying it at the feet of their creators, as should be rightly done.

And those of us who speak up on these issues have an obligation, as well. Too often, we fall back on the simple, lazy statement of accusing a company or institution of being racist, instead of assuming the best of the individuals within it and assuming that the inefficiencies and injustices within that organization resulted in its worst traits being demonstrated. Let's critique them with actionable complaints when we can, giving them steps to right the wrongs they inflict. No, it's not fair that we have to do it, nor should it be our obligation to do so. But we are the ones privileged with the understanding and education about these issues, and we owe it to the communities we represent to carry this burden sometimes even though it's not fair. At least until we own the factories ourselves and can make sure they don't produce defective products.

Why you can't trust tech press to teach you about the tech industry

April 30, 2012

If there were one lesson I'd want to impress upon people who are interested in succeeding in the technology industry, it would be, as I've said before, know your shit. Know the discipline you're in, know the history of those who've done your kind of work before, understand the lessons of their efforts, and in general look beyond the things that are making noise right now in order to understand bigger patterns of how technology works, both literally and socially.

This is a difficult challenge, because today's media about the technology industry will not teach entrepreneurs and creators what they need to know about the history of the technology industry.

I don't just mean this in the obvious way — nobody thinks you can earn a PhD in computer science by reading a tech blog. But I mean the broader landscape of sites that attract attention from technology developers and startup aficionados are woefully myopic in their understanding and perspective of the disciplines they cover. [Disclaimer: This post mentions lots of sites that write about tech; I write for Wired (ostensibly a competitor) and advise Vox Media (parent of The Verge, mentioned below), as explained on my about page.]

Open For Comment

Let's take one example from a month ago. A blogger named Saud Alhawawi reported (judging by Google's translation) that Google is going to introduce a blog commenting system powered by their Google+ platform. If you work at a company which makes tools for feedback on sites, or if you care about the quality of comments on the web, this would be important news, so it's a great thing that it got picked up by WebProNews and TheNextWeb.

Given that Google generally refuses to comment on such pronouncements, and therefore would be unlikely to confirm or deny Alhawawi's blog post, the burden is thus on the rest of the tech blogosphere to explain to their readers the implications and importance that such a product would have, if Google were to launch it.

Fortunately, we have a very good record of how the major tech blogs covered this story, if they did. Techmeme has admirably preserved links to the many pieces written a month ago about this story. As you might expect, most were regurgitating the original stories, with a few mentioning Alhawawi's source post. These reposts showed up all over the place: 9to5 Google, BetaBeat, Business Insider, CNET (which oddly credits ReadWriteWeb but links to TNW), DailyTech, MarketingLand, Marketing Pilgrim, MarketingVox, MemeBurn, SlashGear, The Verge and VentureBeat.

Lots of linking with just the barest amount of original reporting, which is actually a fairly efficient way of getting a story out. But while I admire many of the smart people who work at a lot of these outlets, apparently no one who was linking to this story has more than the slightest bit of knowledge about the discipline they were covering.

What's Missing?

As you might expect, nearly every story mentioned that Facebook has a commenting widget similar to what Google is presumably creating. Google and Facebook are competitors, so that's a wise inclusion. Most also mentioned DIsqus, and sure, that's relevant since they're a big independent player. I don't expect that these stories would be comprehensive overviews of the commenting space, so it's fine that other minor players might get overlooked.

What is ridiculous, and absurd, is that not a single one of these outlets mentioned that Google itself had provided this exact type of commenting functionality and then shut it down. Google provided this service for years. And that last Google commenting service, called Friend Connect, was shut down just three weeks prior to this news about a new commenting service being launched.

That's insane. Whether you're a user trying to understand if it's worth trusting a commenting service, a developer judging whether to build on its API, an entrepreneur deciding if you should incorporate the service or worry about competing with it, or an investor who wanted to evaluate Google's seriousness about the space, the single most salient fact about Google's attempt to create this new product was omitted from every single story that covered it.

Worse, the sites themselves suffered for this omission — when everyone is covering the exact same story, if one site had gone with a headline that said "Google's New Commenting Service: The Secret History of How They've Failed Before!" they could have actually gotten more page views and distinguished themselves from the endless TheNextWeb regurgitation.

This isn't a case where a few lesser outlets omitted a minor point about a headline. It's a case where a story that was interesting enough to earn a full Techmeme pile-on was lacking in coverage that would be necessary for understanding the story at even the most superficial level. As you might expect, a few of the larger outlets have big enough audiences that their commenter communities were able to add the missing salient facts to the story, but on both The Verge and Business Insider, the comments which mentioned Friend Connect were buried in their respective threads and, as of a month later, not highlighted in the original posts.

Do Your Homework

Fortunately, whether or not Google makes a commenting widget isn't that big a deal on its own. Maybe they will or maybe they won't, and maybe it'll fail again or maybe it won't. But the key lesson to take away here is that we know a few things are wrong with the trade press in the technology world:

  • In tech financial coverage, there is a focus on valuation, deals and funding instead of markets, costs, profits, losses, revenues and sustainability.
  • In tech executive coverage, there is a focus on personalities and drama instead of capabilities and execution.
  • In tech product coverage, there is a focus on features and announcements instead of evaluating whether a product is meaningful and worthwhile.
  • Technology trade press doesn't treat our industry as a business, so much as a "scene"; If our industry had magazines, we'd have a lot of People but no Variety, a Rolling Stone, but no Billboard.

There are many more examples of the flaws, but these are obvious ones. What we may not know, though is that there's another flaw:
* For all but the biggest tech stories, any individual article likely lacks enough information to make a decision about the topic of that article.

Imagine if Apple launched a new version of the iPad and a story did not mention that any prior versions of the iPad existed. This is the level of analysis we frequently get from second-tier tech stories in our industry. And that's true despite the fact that technology trade press is actually getting better.

We need a tech industry that values history, perspective, and a long-term view. Today, we don't have that. But I'm optimistic, because I see that people who do value those things have a decided advantage over the course of their careers. One place to start is by filling in the blanks on the stories we read ourselves, perhaps by making use of a comment form?

The Right Wing's $7 Billion Media Subsidy

February 6, 2012

Considering how much conservatives and right-wing political personalities in the United States claim to hate the liberal media, it's remarkable how much money they've been able to funnel into the coffers of the liberal media institutions they malign.

By looking at a few numbers, we can see nearly where nearly 7% of all U.S. advertising dollars are attributable to policy decisions and judicial activism driven directly by conservative priorities.

  • The United States is the only country other than New Zealand which allows the bizarre practice of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers. Called direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA), this practice accounted for $4.9 billion dollars in advertising spending in 2007, nearly all of it targeted to traditional media such as television and print. It's hard to imagine how a mainstream print magazine such as Time would survive without this largesse, especially as the FDA's regulations typically require drug interaction disclosures which effectively double the amount of advertising space which the pharmaceutical company must purchase. The conservative goal of commercializing prescription drugs while reducing oversight has undoubtedly succeeded; the data show that FDA oversight of DTCA drug ads is decreasing while any of us who consume media have noticed the increasing medicalization of ordinary aspects of life for which companies have created remedies. But it's inarguable that this adds up to nearly five billion dollars in advertising that goes overwhelmingly to the old media institutions which conservatives rail against.
  • Similarly, conservatives delighted in the execrable Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which equated money with speech and has resulted in SuperPACs which offer no accountability or transparency while supporting candidates despite being ostensibly required to be independent. It's a horrendous thing, but it amounts to a $2 billion subsidy that, again, goes largely to traditional media with television being the single largest benefactor. Here I'll quote liberally from Wikipedia, because this is a topic where the community has done a remarkably concise job of illustrating the impact:

With total projections of all campaign spending exceeding $1 billion and more likely to be approach $2 billion, some comparison to overall advertising spending is in order. World-wide, total spending in all areas for 2012 is expected to be $438 billion, with North America accounting for 26.6%. In rough terms, allocating some of North America's total to Canada and Mexico, this leaves predicts the US market share to be roughly of $100 billion ($438 billion global times 26.6% for North America times 85% estimate for USA). Therefore, if total spending is nearer the $2 billion figure, the US consumer should expect, averaged out of over the year, about 2% of advertising to be regarding the election. However, since spending is focused closest to voting dates, and may be area focused in hotly contested areas, some markets may see peaks upward of 20-30% of all messages to be election related and paid by PACs and 527 organizations.

The key thing to realize here is that mainstream media cannot encourage reform, either of politically poisonous ideas such as corporate personhood or of personally poisonous ideas such as drug advocacy that is not driven by medical professionals, without fundamentally advocating for the obliteration of as much as 7% of their total revenues. The amount represented by just DTCA pharmaceutical ads and SuperPAC/PAC/527 spending is equal to twenty seven times the $262 million in advertising purchased in the New York Times last year.

As somebody who loves media and has lots of friends employed by these big media companies, I'm surprised and impressed by the concerted conservative efforts to prop up the liberal media establishment. As somebody who detests the commercial exploitation of those who are unhealthy and the distortion of our political system by wealthy oligarchs, I am saddened by what the math shows. I wish that the billionaires behind most SuperPAC dollars would go back to just having their own personal media outlets, like rich people did in the old days. But for today, I'm just delighted by the idea that the unintended consequences of focused lobbying from the right has been the artificial sustenance of the media monoliths run by the left.

Additional Reading

(Special thanks to my colleague Chris Morf for helping with a sanity check on some of this research. None of my opinions stated here are his fault.)

Redefining The Problem

June 1, 2011

When I co-founded Activate last year, one of my goals was that, as much as possible, we'd share what we learned about helping established companies with their strategies. I know there are plenty of old-school consulting companies that publish big, fat white papers that nobody reads, but I was raised on stuff like Getting Real. I want to help articulate a message that makes sense to the CEOs of the biggest media companies around, while also compelling someone who's knee-deep in doing a startup to be able to look at a perspective on big media that gets them excited about the opportunity to collaborate. Media companies face perhaps the most acute and visible form of the Innovator's Dilemma of any industry, and it's exacerbated by the fact that startups and media companies don't really even speak the same language, let alone speak to each other.

So, we focused a lot of time and energy from our senior team at Activate on creating a presentation called Redefiners. The premise is, whether you're a big or small company, if you're going to build a big new business going forward, you'll do it by redefining a market that exists at the intersection of media and technology. Based on our work over the past year or two, as well as based on broader experiences dating back to the beginning of the web's impact on media and business, we've collected some key ideas to start that conversation. It should take you about ten minutes to flip through.

Since we first started sharing these ideas on Business Insider and SlideShare and on Activate.com itself a few days ago, about 100,000 people have read through the slides. It's been gratifying to see so many people be interested, but it's just a start. I hope you'll take a few minutes to read over it, and let me know if any ideas in particular resonated with you, or if anything seemed glaringly wrong or confusing.

It should be possible to take two important, powerful communities that are shaping culture and start to shift them from warily eyeing each other as potential threats and instead move towards fruitful collaboration together. Here's one starting point.

Call and Response

October 12, 2010

As ever, the best thing about blogging is the conversations it kicks off. Some nice responses to recent posts here and around the web:

  • A few weeks ago I was quoted in the New Yorker talking about Facebook and its impact on culture. In this week's issue of the New Yorker, I pop up again, but this time quoted in Ben McGrath's lengthy profile of Nick Denton. Spoilers: The piece closes with me asking, "Who has more freedom in the media world than Nick Denton?" People seem to like lines like that, as the quote popped up in The NY Times Dealbook blog and elsewhere.
  • At Web 2.0 Expo here in New York last week, I did an interview with Mac Slocum of O'Reilly. While I included the video here in an earlier post, Mac revisited the interview on the O'Reilly Radar blog under the title "Why blogging still matters", focusing on one of the points that came up later in the conversation. It had been a long day with lots of different ideas flowing, so I'd nearly forgotten that we even talked about that, but now I'm pretty glad that part of the conversation was captured.
  • I was a judge in the Apps 4 Africa contest which ended last week with some amazing winners, including my favorite iCow, which came in first place. You can listen to an interview I did with Future Tense about the competition, or check out this video of Secretary of State Clinton congratulating the winners:

  • This past weekend, I attended the Open Web Foo Camp hosted by O'Reilly. While the camp itself is off the record, Scott Rosenberg did an admirable job of documenting one of the key themes of the event — whether the present "open" phase of the web is merely an aberration. I tried to use my access to influential open web advocates at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other big web companies to push them to make their employers more open and to resist the urge to compromise on their principles despite the understandable pressure they must be under. Hopefully a little friendly urging can give them the support they need to make the right choices.
  • Finally, with ThinkUp well into beta-testing and Expert Labs supporting its first deployment by Code for America, Gina Trapani and I joined John Moore on The Lab for a brief interview about Expert Labs and where ThinkUp is headed.

Okay, that's enough roundup of Other People's Content. We'll return to original content here again shortly.

Getting Activated

February 25, 2010

Even more fun news! Today, I'm thrilled to announce the other big project I've been working on: Activate. It's a new consultancy, founded by Michael Wolf (you know him not just as one of the most established names in tech/media consulting, but also as former President of MTV), where I'll be joining as partner.

The compelling thing to me is that we'll be advising firms at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment. You don't have to have been reading this blog very long to know that's an area which is near and dear to my heart, and getting to work with the folks who are merging those disciplines at the highest levels of business and culture is pretty exciting. It took me the better part of a decade to figure out that I'm obsessed with how culture is made, but once I had that realization, it very quickly became clear that those of us in the technology world were the ones driving the transformation of these businesses.

But right now, most of the companies that do this kind of consulting for big media or entertainment firms operate from what I'd consider a fear-based standpoint: Oh no! Technology is happening! It's going to be scary and destroy you! The old-school consultants are good at slashing costs (and jobs), but I think it's a lot more interesting to figure out where new growth and opportunities are going to come from.

Which is important, because some of what we think of as traditional media or entertainment companies will figure out how to take their past strengths and turn them into huge new businesses that work in the modern world, and that respect the way people use technology today. Those businesses are the ones we're working with at Activate.

And yep, I'm still totally committed to my work as director of Expert Labs as well. (As I write this, I'm in Washington, D.C. trying to refine our next project.) I was very fortunate that the Expert Labs project was set up from day one to give me the flexibility to put my skills to use in all of the areas that I find interesting. More importantly, I'm learning in general how to help huge institutions evolve. Whether it's media companies, government agencies, or entertainment businesses, I am truly optimistic that many can transform themselves for the technology world that we live in. In fact, I think those are the only ones that will survive.

Honestly, I feel like the community of innovators and tech minds that I've been part of has earned the right to help determine the future of everything from governance to culture. We've made tools and platforms that have made some fundamentally new things possible. So I'm gonna do everything I can to help make sure our community has a voice at the highest level of the institutions that shape our lives. And Activate is an exciting new part of that work.

For more details:

Nobody's Read Everything

January 30, 2010

I'm going to be offline for a little while (some would say that last rant of mine was a sign I should have gone offline a bit sooner) so I thought I'd leave you with some good sites to check out that you may not have been enjoying.

  • Dan C's Lost Garden. Though nominally about gaming (particularly Flash gaming), it's among the most consistently thought-provoking tech-oriented blogs that I read. Every idea of his is one I want to steal, and nothing exemplifies that pattern more than his recent work on Ribbon Hero.
  • Sleevage. Album covers, one at a time. Single-topic blogs run by passionate individuals (instead of paid blog barfers) are still among the best sites on the web. This one is a perfect example.
  • Modcult. Though I am Jeb's number one fanboy, I will begrudgingly concede that all of the authors of this venerable group blog are awesome curators.
  • Mixtape Maestro. Probably the single music blog that comes closest to my own fixations on the production end of pop; I miss its erstwhile spinoff 90s R&B Junkie (the archive is still online), but this is one of those few sites where I try to read every single post and feel let down if I miss one.
  • RC3. Rafe Colburn is living proof that some folks really hone their craft at blogging after being at it for a decade.

And then, two newcomers, from a genre I'm dubbing "Under a Rock" blogs:

  • Hobbited, where my friend Natalie is mirthfully blogging her way through her first-ever reading of Tolkien's classic The Hobbit.
  • Tellywonk, where Anna Pickard is documenting her first viewing of Lost, by trudging through every episode.

Both of those last two blogs touch on a recurrent fixation of mine, the myth of the cultural canon. No matter how ostensibly ubiquitous or universal a particular work of art is, no matter how frequently it's referenced or alluded to in culture, the majority of people have probably never seen it.

My friend Meg told me the other night that, as an early-to-bed morning person, she's never really seen an episode of a late night talk show. I would love to read a blog of her watching an episode of each of the major shows, documenting the things that seem remarkable or bizarre. I've toyed with the idea of blogging my way through playing Beatles Rock Band, since I've never actually listened to any Beatles album all the way through and only know their work from its pop culture ubiquity. This, despite my love of pop music in general. (I first heard "Eleanor Rigby" from Aretha Franklin, "Norwegian Wood" from P.M. Dawn, "We Can Work It Out" from Stevie Wonder, and probably have more examples like that than I can count.)

Inevitably, people react to that revelation from me with something between shock and dismay, often evolving into disgust or revulsion. But it doesn't much bother me; There's lots of culture that I haven't gotten around to participating in. I've never been to an opera, either.

What I'm curious about, though, is how people who are fairly culturally literate and very well-educated respond to works that pervade culture. Under a Rock blogs are great for showing how ideas percolate through the media world, and how those ideas are imperfectly absorbed.

So, confess: What have you never seen, heard, or read?

And Then There's Us

June 23, 2009

And Then There's This

Starting last week, New York Magazine asked me to participate in a roundtable conversation with NYMag's book critic Sam Anderson, Improv Everywhere's Charlie Todd, the New York Times' Virginia Heffernan and David Rees, creator of Get Your War On. In the august company of these Actual Experts, we kicked around a conversation about memes and viral culture, inspired by Bill Wasik's And Then There's This, his newly-released book whose requisite explanatory subtitle is "How Stories Live and Die in a Viral Culture". We didn't talk too much about the "death" part, but the rest of it we got into in depth and it ended up being a blast to participate in the conversation.

Sam started us off with a strong intro, but I really lit up when Virginia cut to the heart of one of my biggest linguistic peeves with this entire topic of conversation: the word "viral". In her own words:

I see why virology is metaphorically convenient, but as a YouTube obsessive I’ve also been curious about a particular inadequacy in the analogical system. My problem with the analogy might seem trivial, but I think it bears on our understanding of Wasik’s justly celebrated Flash Mobs. ...

I understand how the chain-letter thing is vaguely viral: One person who is “infected” with certain information touches you, via e-mail, with that information and then you’re infected. But I don’t get how accepting a widely disseminated invitation to go somewhere—to a website, to YouTube, to Toys “R” Us—is like getting a virus. Viruses seem so yours, don’t they, when you have them, and you’re very much the host, even if your physiological party’s been crashed. By contrast, getting invited somewhere, willingly accepting the invitation, and joining a gathering makes you a guest and makes the whole experience, to my mind, not very viruslike.

NY Mag Viral Promo

From there, the conversation took off (perhaps thanks to the promotional graphic on the NYMag.com homepage, which I've reproduced here). There was some smart analysis of Wasik's book, but the standalone conversation was perhaps most interesting to me, and that's what I focus on summarizing here. Charlie followed up on Virginia's opener with a really insightful look into his experience with Improv Everywhere, including an important idea that I would key off of later: "It's fun to get together with a large group of people and try something you've never done before." Accordingly, my followup began, "Hey, wait: Isn't this shit supposed to be fun?" and from there I went into a little riff about how I like popular music and that people who make popular memes should think of themselves more like those who make pop music.

And then David took it to the next level. I'm pretty damn fussy about what kinds of PowerPoint presentations I'll praise, but the PDF of David's presentation is well worth the download — it's both funny and insightful. Charlie followed with a really thoughtful writeup from the standpoint of someone who can make videos that are both viral and fodder for memes, seemingly at will. His most resonant statement, for me:

The instant feedback through views, ratings, and comments is completely addictive. I think it's possible to learn from the data, but ultimately you just have to do what you find interesting and not worry about whether it's going to be an epic win or an epic fail (sadly, those are the only two possible outcomes in the eyes of YouTube commenters).

Obviously, fail has been on my mind of late, so Charlie's observations were especially resonant for me. Then Sam took us back to David's presentation with a follow-up that presented a series of visual explanations of a sort of grand theory of meme-making. While I must confess I wasn't persuaded by the argument that the infographics advanced, I was certainly entertained by the endeavor. From the smart-yet-accessible land of the charticle, we went to the other extreme as Virginia got to the heart of the "keeping it real" question, declaring "I don’t understand why male writers think so passionately and complexly about whether something like a band or song is ironic or authentic or produced by the right or wrong people."

LOLCat cover image

That's an annoyance of mine, as well, and I tried to answer it in passing in my next update. But maybe the most useful part of that little essay was the part quoted by The Awl, where I said, "I like music that makes me shake my ass. I like my memes to be fun, created by people who are enjoying what they do."

David brought us back with a sharp but still entertaining riff on Twitter and Iran. He put a Blingee at the top of his post (dammit, I was gonna do that!) and then bookended it by closing with a question that counterbalanced my point perfectly: "Does anyone know of a viral smash that worked because it made people SAD or MELANCHOLY rather than HAPPY?"

The answer, of course, is yes. There are countless treacly and maudlin web memes out there, especially viral videos. Any given "Sad 9/11 Montage" video fits these criteria perfectly, and countless nominally-inspiring-but-actually-depressing stories of people triumphing over adversity fit the bill as well. But I submit that even those videos are meeting a positive emotional need for their audience, those people who really just want to have A Good Cry.

This conversation might never end, of course, but that's as far as we've gotten to date. Best of all, the rambling discourse has inspired some terrific responses. My friend and meme-making kingpin Jonah Peretti, who is featured at length in Wasik's book, responded with some cogent points on Facebook. (You might have to be my friend or something to read that. I dunno.) The Assimilated Negro offered up a characteristically thoughtful take, from someone who knows the meme-making world intimately as well. And it seems appropriate to give the last word to Wasik himself, who was featured on NPR with a lengthy excerpt of the book itself, accompanied by an audio interview.

Embedded Journalism

March 14, 2008

I want you to place the text of this blog post on your own site. But I don't want you to do it just by copying and pasting it into your own blogging tool. I think there might be a different way to do it.

Now, I probably obsess over embedded objects and copying and pasting even more than most geeks. When I attended the recent Graphing Social Patterns conference, one of my great frustrations is that people are talking about platforms like Facebook and OpenSocial and MySpace and widgets, but they're leaving out fundamentals like copy and paste. It's a basic capability, but none of these platforms address even basic interoperability for the applications that are built on top of them.

I don't know how we get there; I've written in the past about reinventing copy and paste, Live Clipboard, Ajax Linking and Embedding, and more.

Despite all these developments, what's actually taken off with real users is the plain old browser and operating system's copy-and-paste, combined with <embed> or <script> tags to pull in content from other sites. It's powered the rise of YouTube and many of the biggest widget providers. (APIs are of course a big part of this, too; Flickr and Delicious propagated themselves by posting directly to blogs using standard APIs.) But regular people on the web have settled on copying inscrutable, nonstandard HTML markup as a pretty effective way of getting the functionality they want.

But we've only been using this stuff for the most complicated parts of the web, like rich media. What about text?

My blog is mostly text, with some bits of video and images embedded. So, I've created a javascript embed tag at the bottom of every post on my blog, to let you embed the title, an excerpt of the post, and a list of commenters on the post in your own blog or site.

What use is that? I have no idea. Obviously, you could copy and paste the raw text to excerpt it. And certainly, pulilng in a javascript from my site to live on your site means you've got to trust my content, unless it's sandboxed somehow.

But there seems to me to be something really interesting, some kind of potential, to including our posts (or parts of our posts) in other blogs that way, and while I'm no great coder, making the Movable Type templates to do this took about five minutes. I'm hoping something even more interesting comes from the world of compound objects or compound embeds, with a text post containing a video clip or image, and then being included on another page.

So: Has someone done this before? I've made blog templates that output widgets before, but what if we assume every blog post is a widget? How could we address the security issues? What does it mean that the included text and content can be updated remotely? What purpose does this serve, or is it just a really complicated way of copying and pasting text?

Caucusing is Anti-Democratic

January 3, 2008

Christopher Hitchens, whose belligerence is barely tolerable even though he's almost always right, covers the Iowa caucus scam ably in Slate:

It's only when you read an honest reporter like [the Washington Post's] Dan Balz that you appreciate the depth and extent of the fraud that is being practiced on us all. "In a primary," as he put it, "voters quietly fill out their ballots and leave. In the caucuses, they are required to come and stay for several hours, and there are no secret ballots. In the presence of friends, neighbors and occasionally strangers, Iowa Democrats vote with their feet, by raising their hands and moving to different parts of the room to signify their support for one candidate or another. ... [F]or Democrats, it is not a one-person, one-vote system. ... Inducements are allowed; bribes are not." One has to love that last sentence.

I was in Des Moines and Ames in the early fall, and I must say that, as small and landlocked and white and rural as Iowa is, I would be happy to give an opening bid in our electoral process to its warm and generous and serious people. But this is not what the caucus racket actually does. What it does is give the whip hand to the moneyed political professionals, to the full-time party hacks and manipulators, to the shady pollsters and the cynical media boosters, and to the supporters of fringe and crackpot candidates.

This year, for me, is all about persuasion and how things get made. What's clear with the Iowa caucuses is that the process is about the quiet coercion of peer pressure. And the primary beneficiaries of this broken system are the traditional media outlets which both uses the process as a source of content and as a source of advertising revenue. Secret balloting is part of any real election process for an important reason, and we've empowered a system that forsakes that goal.

Worse, as much as people like to talk about the Internet revolutionizing politics, the measure they're still using is the ability of the web to improve the efficiency with which candidates can funnel money from supporters to traditional media advertising purchases. This is progress?

(Thanks to Clay for the pointer to the Hitchens piece.)

Gawker Reinvention

December 3, 2007

It looks like I wasn't the only one having a Gawker reckoning; A remarkable post revealed that both Emily Gould and Choire Sicha are leaving the site. (Thanks to Rex for the link.)

That post impressively uses Carla Blumenkranz's words about Gawker to highlight the worst tendency of the site: "The status of Gawker rose as the overall status of its subjects declined, and it was this that made Gawker appear at times a reprehensible bully." I'd tried to make the same point, albeit less eloquently, in my own post a few weeks ago:

I'm all for snarky-smart assed blogging, I just think that emulating traditional media's willingness to destroy people who aren't villains isn't a strategy for long-term success.

Perhaps as impressive as Emily and Choire's self-reflection was Gawker's post announcing an opening for a new Managing Editor. It kind of makes explicit that this (re-?) imagining of Gawker is not as the site that takes down the traditional media by mocking them, but as the site that takes down the traditional media by stealing their advertising dollars. In their own words:

It's no longer enough to take stories from the New York Times, and add a dash of snark. Gawker needs to break and develop more stories. And the new managing editor will need to hire and manage reporters, as well as bloggers. Gawker.com receives more than 10m pageviews per month. Think of Gawker less as a blog than as a full-blown news site. The right candidate will oversee Gawker's evolution.

I always believed that those of us who were creating personal media online would win. I still hold out hope that when we do so, it's not because we were willing to fight dirtier (or work cheaper) than the media that inspired us, but rather because we could do a better job of making media than the legacy media does today. Congratulations to everybody involved for being willing to indulge in a little bit of the most positive sort of creative destruction.

Gawker Reckoning

October 15, 2007

I've had the chance to follow Gawker Media since before it launched, really, and so it's been interesting to see a couple of items pop up recently about the direction of some of its titles and practices. The big story, of course, is New York Magazine's piece, which is appropriately petty, self-indulgent, and honest, as any piece about Gawker should be.

A lot of the complaints in the article seem to boil down to "but they're not nice!" and I have to say -- I think that's a completely fair criticism. Not that media has to be nice, but because journalism in many of its forms aspires to having a sense of social responsibility. I've had enough friends or acquaintances who've had their day (or week, or reputation) ruined by one of the Gawker blogs that I've gotten a lot less willing to say "oh hey, they're just trying to drive traffic". I'm all for snarky-smart assed blogging, I just think that emulating traditional media's willingness to destroy people who aren't villains isn't a strategy for long-term success.

From the New York mag story:

It’s long been known to magazine journalists that there’s an audience out there that’s hungry to see the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful (“douchebags” or “asshats,” in Gawker parlance) put in the tumbrel and taken to their doom. It’s not necessarily a pleasant job, but someone’s got to do it. Young writers have always had the option of making their name by meting out character assassinations—I have been guilty of taking this path myself—but Gawker’s ad hominem attacks and piss-on-a-baby humor far outstrip even Spy magazine’s. It’s an inevitable consequence of living in today’s New York: Youthful anxiety and generational angst about having been completely cheated out of ownership of Manhattan, and only sporadically gaining it in Brooklyn and Queens, has fostered a bloodlust for the heads of the douchebags who stole the city. It’s that old story of haves and have-nots, rewritten once again.

The problem with this conveniently simplified narrative about Gawker's sites, particularly its flagship namesake blog, is that it's always accompanied by assertions that this sort of sniping is what blogs are about. This isn't just inaccurate, it's the kind of assertion that is easily disproven both qualitatively and quantitatively. But whether it's Gawker in NYC, Wonkette in DC, or Valleywag in the Bay Area, people who have loud mouths want to believe that news about them must truly be all the news that matters. Therefore, if the blog that talks about me and my friends is snarky, all blogs are snarky. Which is, you know, kinda obviously horseshit.

This hoary-but-false chestnut makes its requisite appearance in the NYMag piece in reference to Elizabeth Spiers and Nick Denton: "They didn’t exactly invent the blog, but the tone they used for Gawker became the most important stylistic influence on the emerging field of blogging and has turned into the de facto voice of blogs today." (Personal note to those who follow in the steps of Vanessa Grigoriadis: This is false. Stop saying it.)

The misrepresentation of blogging is especially tragic because not even all Gawker blogs are snarky. Case in point is the excellent Lifehacker, the best-written of all Gawker blogs, helmed by Gina Trapani. Since they're public, I don't feel too wrong pointing to her recent Twitters, one in praise of a recent attempt by Gawker editors to object to advertising encroaching on editorial on the site, and one celebrating Lifehacker's omission from the recitation of snarky Gawker sites in the NYMag story.

I'm not sure one of the best editorial talents at a publishing company should be reduced to celebrating such small victories. Don't get me wrong: Gawker gets a lot right. There's absolutely a value in speaking truth to power, and there is truly something noble in deflating the self-importance of the various industries that the Gawker sites poke holes in. My contempt for those who insult journalism by pretending it shouldn't evolve remains as strong as ever. At the same time, there should be a sense of social responsibility to the community of bloggers, if not to the traditional media. And to my mind, that means highlighting the humor, incisiveness, and lack of favoritism that made sites like Gawker such a breath of fresh air when they started. Put more simply, tearing apart the innocent bystanders in these industries isn't just bad journalism, it's boring blogging.

And really, as long as print magazines like New York Magazine are still quoting the likes of Julia Allison as an authority on blogs, there will be no shortage of material to poke fun at. But these points of reckoning should serve as useful milestones for making sure we're not becoming the worst of the legacy cultures we're trying to criticize.

Disclaimers, such as they are: I've got a million little connections and biases about this story. I'm an unabashed blog promoter, even after all these years, so I'm protective of the medium. I don't read many posts from Gawker blogs, but still have an inexplicable affection for them, and am quite pleased that at one point years ago, I think I knew almost everybody in the Gawker organization. I like Nick Denton, both personally and professionally, even though he exasperates me regularly and antagonizes my friends almost constantly. (And I certainly admire Nick's diplomatic abilities, which allow him to maintain friendships with people even as he's paid others to publicly embarrass them.)

I've known Liz Spiers for a few years socially, and may even have introduced her at Nick, at a MetaFilter meetup, of all things, and think she's underrated as a blogger. I consider Gina Trapani a friend (which will now be particularly awkward if that's not mutual) and I think indirectly had a hand in her meeting Nick as well. Gina is perhaps the most underrated high-profile blogger in the world. I'm a fan of Gawker editor Choire Sicha, and have a genuine affection for both his talents and charm. I pitched a fit earlier this year at Valleywag editor Owen Thomas because I think some of his pieces on the company I work for were full of shit, though we've since sorta made up and Valleywag continues to publish wacky and wrong articles about our work. I also like New York Magazine, though I only read it when someone sends me a link to a story. And both Gawker and NY Mag use Movable Type for parts of their publishing, which I work on and means I probably indirectly get paid from some of these sites. Batteries not included, your mileage may vary, my name is Anil Dash and I endorse this message.

Update: Can't believe I missed linking to this one, but Nick Denton weighed in, going predictably meta with the absolutely accurate assessment that traditional media has to stop using "bile" to refer to bloggers. I always use "unkind" -- it feels satisfyingly quaint.

The Anonymous Satirist

July 25, 2007

I often lament the lack of perspective in tech reporting, so it's always a delight to find a story that typifies what I'd hope technology reporting could be like: Smart, informed, and with a good sense of history. Take Caroline McCarthy's look at the allure of Fake Steve Jobs. Now, CNET's not known for being the most circumspect tech news venue around, but this is a brililiant dissection of why Fake Steve Jobs is so appealing.

Fake Steve, as a concept, is downright old-school. Think about it. In a culture captivated--obsessed, even--by the antics of high society, an anonymous satirist starts publishing over-the-top missives purporting to be from an insider in that privileged niche. In the process, the faux-mogul skewers political elites, entertainers, business titans, and ordinary people in a way that's at once outlandish and provocative, hilarious and appalling. It reeks of Swift or Dickens or Twain (although a friend of mine who's better-schooled in 19th-century literature informed me that the most apt comparison is likely Edgar Allan Poe). Were it the 19th century, or heck, the 1990s, the satirist's medium of choice likely would've been a serial or set of letters in a major news outlet.

And she's absolutely right. The fact that tech culture has become so pervasive as to merge with pop culture, and that personalities are so well-known that they can be used as a springboard for social criticism, is a milestone for the technology industry. It also points out why unmasking Fake Steve would be a little bit like telling a kid the truth about Santa Claus: You may be factually correct, but you'll have ruined all the fun and lost the little bit of magic that we have left.

Pidginholed

July 13, 2007

I’ve been holding off on updates about lolcats and related memes for a while because it’s easy to get burned out and probably as boring for you as it is for me. But there are still some interesting parts to it. As I alluded to in Inadvertent Lazymeme Clearinghouse Lamentations, once you’re known for something like writing a post about lolcats and grammar, you become the central place for both people looking for information about such things, as well as the go-to place for people to pitch their new ideas about the topic, whether they’re exciting or not.

As is usually the case, most people who are just trying to fill in the blanks with a lolwhatever site are not only unfunny, but tedious. I have what’s called a “Hippo Problem”, based on the problem of someone offhandedly mentions a fondness for hippos once, and is plagued the rest of their days with hippo-emblazoned kitsch for the rest of their days.

My hippos are captioned cats.

It’s a thankless burden — imagine if you were an expert on “I Kiss You!”, or the go-to guy for All Your Base. I’m just glad I didn’t write anything about that goddamn dancing baby.

Houston Chronicle story on lolcats The truth, of course, is that it’s not so bad, and I try to remember that there’s inevitably somebody out there who feels like they really understand this topic. They’re sitting in a cafe somewhere with a laptop, resentful and bitter that a hack like me got associated with lolcats in the first place. I’m sure the I Can Has Cheezeburger folks get hate mail from people who said they started a lolrus site exactly four days earlier and have thus been completely ripped off.

For every angry would-be lolcat expert, though, there are some perks to this kind of thing. “Cats Can Has Grammar” is (I think, I’m lousy at tracking stats) my most popular post in the nearly 8 years that I’ve been blogging, with something like half a million people having read it since it went up. I’ve gotten mentioned or quoted in stories all over the place, from the Chicago Tribune to a TV station in North Carolina to an Associated Press story that ran all over the place. I even talked to the Wall Street Journal, though I’m hoping some editor spiked the piece that was being researched, in a fit of good taste. Somewhere, Mahir’s talent agent is shaking his head sadly. “Enjoy it while it lasts, kid.”

The picture above shows that the Houston Chronicle actually ran a cover story about the lolcat phenomenon that referred to me as a “legendary blogger”. Look, mom, I still don’t have a college degree, but now I’m a lolcat legend!

And the final lesson is that we all create our own misery. If I complain that this one lighthearted and offhand piece gets more attention than all the writing I’ve carefully crafted over the years, then it’s of course only fair that I get my comeuppance. My favorite newsweekly, Time, published their own lolcats story today, and I was kind of disappointed to see that I’m not mentioned anywhere in it. Be careful what you ask for…

Zombie Media Research

February 18, 2007

I hate the abbreviation "MSM". It's almost always used by those who are lacking in perspective. We're all either too lazy to actually differentiate between the technologies and types of media, or just don't know much about media beyond our emotional reactions to it.

I don't usually blog about my process of blogging (my longer posts are usually in gestation for a week or so, some take a few weeks, a couple have taken longer than a year to write), but I thought I'd share some great links that might be useful in a future discussion of "MSM is dead" or "citizen media will conquer all" or "Are blogs journalism?" These are all tedious topics to me, since I've been having these conversations for the better part of a decade, but since the questions keep popping up, maybe I can contribute something more constructive than just bitching.

Until then, check these out:

Rich Skrenta on The Failure of We (the) Media. Skrenta, CEO of Topix.net, nails it:

Tremendous excitement followed the publishing of Dan [Gillmor]'s We the Media (the conference's namesake). It accompanied the trumpeting of a new model of media by the newsy press, and the rise of blogs with attendant breathless hype.

Unfortunately, after doing the author's victory tour, Dan then attempted to put his ideas into practice in a business venture. I suppose there is some due credit for having the courage to cross the line from a long career as a newspaper journalist (observer) to become a startup founder (participant), and try to prove the viability of his alt.media business plan outlined in the book.

But, like nearly every News 2.0 venture so far, Dan's Bayosphere was a failure.

He has a lot of company. The dog's breakfast of new media startups includes Gather, Backfence, Newstrust, Daylife, TailRank, Associated Content, Pegasus News, Tinfinger, Findory, Inform, Newsvine, Memeorandum, NowPublic. The highest distinction on this list is to be one of the few still spoken of in the present tense (or present perfect -- "They haven't yet succeeded...")

And yes, I would include Topix here as well.

Over on CNN, Old media isn't dead. Hey, my link proves Paul R. LaMonica correct! But he makes the point himself:

That notion is just silly. Consider a few questions. If old media really was on death's door, then why are new media companies so eager to cozy up to established media giants?

Why does YouTube, now owned by Google (Charts), have a partnership with CBS? Who cares about that network's stodgy TV programming when you've got scores of hilarious user-generated videos on the site?

What's more, why is Google eager to work with its customers on ways to automate the purchasing of print, radio and TV advertising? And why is eBay working with advertisers to develop an online auction exchange to buy and sell commercial spots on the boob tube?

If old media is about to kick the bucket, then why is TMZ.com, the popular Hollywood gossip site that, like CNNMoney.com, is owned by Time Warner, launching a TMZ television show that will air on News Corp.-owned Fox stations this fall?

And why did popular social networking site Facebook announce a deal last week with cable company Comcast to launch a "Facebook Diaries" TV show?

Simply put, old media still matters.

If there are other links along these lines I should be paying attention to, particularly signs that old and new media are collaborating effectively, please send 'em along.

It's Always August

August 31, 2006

There are lots of different corners of the web, most of which have the good graces to be supportive and interesting and to act like, well, a community. People generally like to be social. But then there's the high-profile personal websites, full of pundits and supernerds, and the kinds of people who I imagine talk on wireless headsets on their cell phones while at a restaurant. For these people, it's always August.

August at Shackleford Banks.jpg

First, a little background. If you've never worked in the publishing or media industries, you might not know that August is officially the month where everyone basically phones it in. Back in New York, people would speak of going to The Hamptons so often that it's been verbed into "Hamptoning" and used as a generic term for going on vacation. While bigwigs and editors are away cavorting, a makeshift army of interns, temps, and recent college grads generally takes over. These kids usually don't have much experience, and newspaper editors don't want to have to do any hard work during the dog days, so the end result is that you get a combination of lazy writing and some really crappy journalism.

What kind of crappy journalism? Listicles! "Best Of"s. Special Theme Issues. And all of these pieces are topped by blaring, or alarmist, or horribly-punned headlines. You might notice that the other time of year this happens is around the end of the year or at New Year's, when Christmas and the other December holidays conspire to leave major media outlets virtually unstaffed. Then, you get year-end wrapups or another round of Best Ofs.

Indeed, as former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card famously told the New York Times, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

So, then, why is it always August in the "look at me!" part of the blogosphere? Because the people who are blogging for an audience of thousands, or for hundreds of thousands, are prone to a lot of those same tendencies. Digg and delicious and the rest are littered with Top 10s and geek equivalents of Cosmo coverlines. It's not long until we get "21 Ubuntu Install Tips That Will Drive Him Crazy In Bed!"

It's harmless, mostly. Hell, lots of it is even fun reading. But I'm struck by how the combination of light or lazy editing, an attention span too short to suffer much fact-checking, and the temptation of easy distractions like, say, a day at the beach can result in the exact same tropes being trotted out, regardless of medium.

I should point out that, despite the fact it sounds like a criticism, I'm not against this kind of thing, really. I just find it ironic that the people who make up the high-profile part of the blogosphere spend all their time living like it's August while accusing the rest of the blogosphere for sounding like the September that never ended.

The photo, by the way, is what Shackleford Banks looks like in August. So I'm not saying August is a bad thing.

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