The State of the Art
So… big changes have been afoot. I’ve been lurking, and one of the lesser changes around here is that I won’t be lurking anymore.
I’ve been writing a book, which now is done, publication date still unknown. I’ve been writing more for Cato’s audience. I’ve been writing here and there a bit. I’ve been keeping busy, more or less.
But basically… I still wasn’t writing as much as I wanted. Something about it requires a kick in the pants, and that’s what you folks can be at your best. A good solid kick in the pants. Just like I need.
CK MacLeod suggested that by way of reintroduction I should offer some thoughts on the state of the art in blogging. Here they are.
1. The Structures Have Changed
Everyone of a certain age remembers the old-time blogosphere. It seemed to have appeared magically, fully formed, on the afternoon of 9/11. A shoulder to rant on. It was exactly what we needed.
Less than ten years later it was mostly dead. But for that short while it was glorious.
The old-time blogosphere died because of changes in how we aggregate. Professionalization didn’t kill it. Professionals were in blogging before, during, and after the golden age, and while “I do nothing but blog, and I get paid for it” was unknown in the early days, that wasn’t the killer either.
Here’s what was.
In the golden age, organizing one’s blog reading was a solitary activity. News aggregators weren’t social at all. Aggregators could work well or badly, and they came and went. The key is that they were run by you, for you. A good aggregator was like a good toilet: unobtrusive, solitary, and clean.
Aggregators were tools, not communities. Feedback, such as it was, went directly to the blog, to which one had already in effect pledged one’s allegiance. The blog was the community.
You all have mostly carried on in that tradition, even as the old aggregation process faded away. For that I salute you.
Today, though, and for most who make Reading Stuff on the Internet a big part of their unstructured time, the community exists not at the blog, but at the aggregation site, which is to say that it’s social: It’s Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, Reddit, and the like. When people write nowadays, they write with an eye to that.
In social aggregation, other people mostly put stuff in front of you. And that stuff becomes the community, through algorithms that most users don’t understand in the least. I don’t pretend to either, but I can say this: Much of it is tuned for outrage; the offhand remarks of others are taken as telling, revelatory, and final.
The reading experience is impersonal and optimized. The desired product is not a reflection, but an emotion. OMG. LOL. WTF.
Or just: TRASHY.
It’s also a business. To be specific, it’s a Target, not an antique shop. Don’t like it? There’s a Costco down the street. Their selection is slightly different, and you may always affiliate with it instead.
The winners in this environment are quick, funny, accessible, shocking, and conventional, at least to the audience at hand. (Yes, you certainly can be shocking while being conventional. It’s the easiest thing in the world.) The winners are memes.
Memes are never discursive. They are never ragged about the edges. A good meme ends a discussion before it begins, because that’s what it’s been artificially selected to do. Even disagreeing with a meme seems somehow in bad taste. And so we don’t disagree, and anyway there’s no one around who would disagree (thanks, social aggregation!), and then false memes proliferate. Not that the old way was perfect – it certainly wasn’t – but nobody fisks anymore, and for that we ought to be ashamed.
The results speak for themselves, and the damage goes beyond mere memes. Do you all remember the piece in Slate that said spooning was sexist? That’s a symptom too:
As you know, this is a stupid thought only an intentionally provocative person would think, and the Internet let the author (whose name we’re also not printing, because we’re not rewarding this kind of thing) know exactly that. At some level, you’ve got to admire the guts: this guy had to have known that no person with real problems on this Earth shared this thought, and yet he spent hours of his human life writing about it before disseminating it on a big media platform with his face next to it.
But it’s still profoundly stupid. And he knows it. And he printed it anyway.
Because the metric is messed up. The metric rewards Spooning Is Sexist.
Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat—the kings of metrics on the web—tried to warn us about this last year.
“The click had some unfortunate side effects. It flooded the web with spam, linkbait, painful design, and tricks that treated users like lab rats. Where TV asked for your undivided attention, the web didn’t care as long as you went click, click, click,” he wrote in TIME. “In 20 years, everything else about the web has been transformed, but the click remains unchanged, we live on the click web.”
I confess that I’ve Tweeted way more than I should, and I intend to cut back. I want a return to a chattier, more discursive, more local blogosphere. I thank you for leaving the lights on here.
2. Fuck Civility Though. Seriously.
As some of you may already know, I left this space when it dawned on me that I was having essentially the same tiresome conversation over and over again. It went something like this:
Me: Here are some public policy ideas. Here’s what I think of them.
They: What he really means is FYIGM. Because that’s what libertarians think!
Me: Here’s a book I read, and here’s what I think about it.
They: Which is to say, FYIGM.
Me: “FYIGM’ is a gross misrepresentation of everything that I stand for.
They: What he really means is FYIGM.
Me: No, really. I really don’t mean that. Really!
They: That’s just secret libertarian code for “FYIGM.”
They: Hey look, here’s somebody else saying “FYIGM.”
Me: I’m not going to talk about it.
They: Well. We already know what you think.
It’s the same beast, I suspect, that eats the progressive ideology and craps out Spooning Is Sexist. Dealing with it got real, real old. But the worst part about it was having to maintain the stifling pretense of civility.
I’ll explain what I mean.
When a speaker claims he’s being civil, it’s not a pure win. It may seem that way, and for a long time I told myself that it was. But it isn’t. To claim civility is to forfeit the stance of righteous outrage entirely to the other side. It practically begs the other side to take it on.
That is, civility makes the other side worse. Because anger shows that you care.
The other side gets to say, in effect: I care enough to forfeit civility. Definitionally, the civil one can’t do that. Ever. To insist on civility is to appear perpetually shallow and disengaged. Civility sacrifices earnestness.
So… I ended up agonizing a lot about how to be nice to people who hadn’t the slightest intention of returning the favor. All to no good end. It ended up getting presumed, I think – because I was trying to be civil – that I must be pretty smugly satisfied: in favor of the status quo, or at least of the most FYIGM aspects thereof.
And not even all that committed to those! After all, I wasn’t righteously angry.
Having a proper conversation requires, perhaps, some strategic ambiguity about our intentions. And that’s the course that I intend to take: strategic ambiguity. I do hope that I have some other, more interesting conversations in me. And if it happens that you don’t? Then you, dear reader, may go fuck yourself.