Posts about Culture

The real pop idol

I thought that I snagged the best possible boondoggle assignment in all journalism when People magazine sent me on a tour around America to find our best pizza.

But this beats that. Kristine Lowe in Oslo reports that a Danish media company assigned employees to buy sex from prostitutes and then rate them on the web.

“The idea was that the test should be enlightening, entertaining and naughty. However, many people found it unnecessarily offensive,” Hans Engell, Extra Bladet’s editor-in-chief, said in a press a release announcing that they would stop practicing this particular brand of ‘consumer journalism’ on the website in question.

I smell a reality show coming on.

What is reality, Paris

Listening to Steve Wright’s BBC podcast, I heard some gems in an interview with Paris Hilton, who was flogging her new record and is promising to become a hotel magnate — not just heiress — in her own right with a chain of new hotels under the brand Paris.

* On reality: “I’m playing a character. That’s not really how I am in real life. I’m playing like a dumb blonde and just act stupid and say stupid things…. It is a reality show so I can understand people thinking it’s real.”

* On fame: “I’ve built my name right. I don’t even need my last name.”

* On culture: “I’m really good friends with James Blunt. He’s my favorite singer. He’s cool.” Oh, that figures. Pap stars.

* On media: “There’s too many gossip magazines.” For Paris, I’d think there can never be enough.

* On nature: “I have like a zookeeper, a lady who lives at my house, because I have so many animals. I have monkeys and ferrets and cats.” Yes, she is turning into Michael Jackson before our very eyes. But without the talent.


In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Gomes — who’s supposed to be writing about the wonders of the web and whose columns I usually like — writes your basic bar-the-door-against-the -future screed arguing that getting “users” to create “content” isn’t always a good thing because some of what they create is bad. There must be some Latin name for this flawed logic – reductio ad snottism: Because someone uses the tool badly, the tool is bad; because some content of a type is worthless, the type is worthless. Well, surprise, but lots of newspaper reporting is bad, though certainly not all. Lots of books are bad, though not all. Ditto movies, TV, music. Quark yielded lots of really ugly zines and pamphlets, though it also produces Conde Nast’s magazines. And so on, and so on. This argument is wearing. After going through the futurist absurdity of people supposedly wanting to remix movies with new endings — and I agree with him there; I don’t want to work at the movies — Gomes says of remixing:

This is most clearly occurring in books. Most of us were taught that reading books is synonymous with being civilized. But in certain tech circles, books have come to be regarded as akin to radios with vacuum tubes, a technology soon to make an unlamented journey into history’s dustbin.

The New York Times Magazine recently had a long essay on the future of books that gleefully predicted that bookshelves and libraries will cease to exist, to be supplanted by snippets of text linked to other snippets of text on computer hard drives. Comments from friends and others would be just as important as the original material being commented on; Keats, say.

Imagine a long email message with responses and earlier messages included. We’ll have those in lieu of “Middlemarch” or “The Corrections.”

Well, I’d say that The Corrections could be improved by links to fellow readers calling Franzen on his literary self-indulgence, or not. But you wouldn’t have to click on them.

Picking up on the theme, another writer suggested that traditional books “are where words go to die.”

That’s me.

It is an odd state of affairs when books or movies need defending, especially when the replacement proffered by certain Web-oriented companies and their apologists is so dismally inferior: chunks and links and other bits of evidence of epidemic ADD.

I, for one, am not suggesting that all books should be replaced by digital forms. I’m saying they should be augmented, improved, updated, corrected, linked, searched, found online and that then the whole would not be inferior to either half. Don’t want that? Fine, buy the paper versions…. as long as they exist, as long as the economics of publishing supports paper books after it kills paper newspapers. But why not add to the ability of people to find, recommend, understand, and correct information?

Reading some stray person’s comment on the text I happen to be reading is about as appealing as hearing what the people in the row behind me are saying about the movie I’m watching.

Stray person? What if that stray person is you? Or a critic you trust? Or your Mom? And the beauty of the link is that you don’t have to click on it. You don’t have to shush it, as much as you might want to.

In high school, we were required for social studies to take the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn (Turn),” the one with “a time for love, a time for hate,” and illustrate it with pictures clipped out of Time magazine.

It was a pre-Internet mash-up, and we got busy with our scissors and glue and had lots of fun. I’m not sure what we learned, though. Today’s mash-ups remind me of those Time magazine collages: all cutting and pasting, signifying nothing.

There’s the reductio ad sophomoric again: If a mashup he did was bad, all mashups are bad.

Another way that people describe mash-ups is “user-generated content,” referred to by the smart set as “UGC.”

Well, actually, must of this “content” that is “generated” by “users” is actually brand new, not a mashup.

Most of the time, when companies talk about user-generated content, they mean nothing grander than the pictures you store on Web sites or the pages that MySpace members spend hours fussing over.

That’s not what the “users” mean when they say it.

But for those preaching the glories of the new mash-up culture, UGC is bringing about a new golden age, with the Internet giving a platform to everyone, not just elite writers or filmmakers.

And who decides who the elite are? What happens if you lose this gig at the Journal? Are you no longer elite? Should someone take away your keyboard, your tools? And so on, and so on.

These aren’t all twee costume dramas. No. 1 is “Fawlty Towers.” No. 2 is “Cathy Come Home,” a Ken Loach drama about the homeless that first aired in 1966 but is still vividly remembered. The rest of the list includes dramas and sci-fi and talk shows and sitcoms, all of them, in their own way, weighty meals for the mind. You can watch them decade after decade, and never feel guilty at all.

: LATER: Michael Katcher sends a letter to Gomes, trying to set him straight:

Let’s assume 50 years from now, the book – as in printed pages bound between hard/soft cover – is gone. That doesn’t mean the only way to consume Shakespeare is to read every single comment made my every single idiot who has an opinion. There will still exist the discrete text of Hamlet, untouched by other’s words. Now while it is ridiculous to contend that the only copies that will exist on the Internet will be hyper-linked, tagged, and commented, even if that were true, you’re still free to ignore the links, tags, and comments. Links merely turn words blue and underline them. Comments and tags always appear after a text, not in the middle of it. Nothing will stop you from just reading Shakespeare and tuning out every other opinion on the planet…..

…the function of the Internet to provide options.

Yes, I’ve had trouble getting people to understand that, which means that I’ve had trouble expressing it.

Underline the last line: The internet provides options.

I’m not saying that you have to read linked comments or even see them. But if they do add to the value of a discourse, why not have the ability?

I’m not saying that I prefer to read everything on some newfangled e-bookish thing. But I do get frustrated that I don’t have the functionality I want on paper.

I’m not saying that books should die. But I do wonder how long the economic model of publishing will sustain printing most books.

Ladies’ man

Craig Newmark is going to be on The View Wednesday. Set those TiVos.


The Guardian publishes a hilarious email exchange:

As Sun fashion editor Erica Davies herself admitted, it had been a “very LONG day” in Paris – so she could be forgiven for the mix up that led to the following email exchange, destined to become a classic of the genre.

The Sun hack flew off the handle at her brother, with whom she shares a home in east London, over the all-too-common but rarely discussed matter of men and their competency in matters of the shared bathroom toilet.

But caution is always advisable in the ways of the internet, as Davies, 29, discovered.

Thinking that she had fired off a curt email to her brother Gareth Davies, who works in PR, she had no idea that her email would instead ping into the inbox of another Gareth Davies, a colleague who works on sister publication the News of the World.

Go read the rest. Enjoy.

Resident philistine to resident curmudgeon

Sometime between the moment my RSS reader got his latest post and I read it on his blog, Nicholas Carr apparently edited his description of me. It was: “…intones the blogosphere’s resident philistine, Jeff Jarvis.” But then he abandoned his color and descriptive juice and kept only his Thesaurus-happy said-synonym. It became: “…intones Jeff Jarvis.” Drat, I was rather enjoying the title. I would be willing to call Carr the blogosphere’s would-be resident curmudgeon if he’d call me its resident philistine.

But then, Carr goes on to be a sort of philistine in his own right, for in his curmudgeonliness, he refuses to hear the value in individual voices — like his — empowered by the existence of blogs; he refuses to see the benefit of discovering those voices in conversations just like this, without the need to produce and deliver and sell and recycle expensive books and slick magazines. Not that you can’t produce paper, I say, but why stop there when new possibities for being heard abound?

Carr giddily quotes fellow curmudgeon John Updike lashing out at Kevin Kelly’s NY Times magazine story about digitizing books. And then Carr concludes:

It all comes down, I think, to two different visions of culture. One is a vision of integrity – of the integrity of individuals and their works. These are the building blocks of culture. In combining them, you do not destroy their integrity, or erase their edges. It’s their edges that give the entire construction its form and its solidity: edges butted up against other edges. The other is a vision of disintegration. It devalues the individual and his work, cherishing instead a dream of a communal higher consciousness that dissolves all edges. Culture becomes a formless liquid, an “Eden of everything,” as Kelly puts it. But an Eden of everything is also, inevitably, an Eden of nothing.

The web is where culture goes to die.

How incredibly closed-minded can one be? In his final line, he’s playing off my kicker, that “print is where words go to die.” I said that, lamenting that books fall off store and library shelves and into recycling vats and that the ideas and words on them are lost when they could, instead, live on and be found forever if only they were digital and available. I mourned the loss of that culture and urged the use of technology to prevent such death. Carr, on the other hand, simply dismisses the ability of the very web he is using to bring out individual voices, to value the individual more, to place more power and attention at the edges rather than at the mass-market center. To say that the “web is where culture goes to die” is just trying too damned hard to be the web’s would-be resident curmudgeon.

: LATER: Oh, Jeesh, now fellow would-be curmudgeon of the blogosphere, Scott Karp, equates me not with Philistine but with the U.S.S.R. in Carr’s comments:

Nick, you know you’re going to get your ass handed to you for this one. But here’s a consolation:

In the early 20th century, there were people who really believed that communism would work. It took a century of unfortunate history (Stalin, etc.) to demonstrate that an ideology that devalues the individual is fundamentally contrary to human nature.

This too shall pass.

Huh? And just who is the Stalin of the blogosphere? Do tell.

And it’s such a relief that the web shall pass. Tell David Carr and those poor, depressed newspaper sods, would you?

(Pity. And I thought we were getting along so well.)

Arianna’s going to be soooo jealous

Bono just posted on Comment is Free promoting his buy-red initiative as a way to squeeze virtue out of commerce:

I’m not sorry for poor Africans but I am sorry for the British and Irish public who have had to suffer the most recent outbreak of Bonoitis of which there seems to be no known cure though I hear Guardian readers are working on a vaccine …

In defence: There are some really exciting things happening on the ground in Africa and back home that are worth making a song and dance about.

To help us with the HIV/Aids emergency we have come up with the concept of Red products. Why Red? Because Red is the colour for an emergency. And 6,500 people dying in Africa every day of a preventable and treatable disease is an emergency.

Red is where desire meets virtue, where consumerism meets philanthropy, where shopping attempts to meet the need of a continent in crisis, where once HIV/Aids meant a death sentence but where two pills a day can now have you back at work in 40 days.

Really the deal is this. These brands are prepared to share their profits with the Global Fund to Fight Aids in the hope that the association with Red will bring them to new and more loyal customers. [snip]

Big business is not bad. Big bad business is bad. It is strange that it took the continent of Africa to turn an activist onto commerce, but that’s what Africans want now – to do business with us, to trade, to have dignity of labour. Of that, more later … until you find the vaccine.

The attention surplus and relevance deficit

So much is being written these days about the attention economy, and the common view is that we are as a culture suffering attention deficit — that is, that we have so many opportunities for attention, we don’t know where to put it all; we’re overloaded, overdosed. This is an extension of the very old argument that life became too complicated when there is too much information available — which implies that nirvana was sometime between the Garden of Eden and the Library at Alexandria.

I disagree. I don’t have an attention deficit. I have an attention surplus. I have way too much attention devoted to stuff I don’t care about: billboards intruding on every view, ads I don’t care about, crappy content, emails I never asked for, boring conversations. Oh, from my perspective, I have plenty of attention to share. From a marketer’s perspective, they are the ones suffering from an attention deficit — a shortage of my attention. But that’s their issue, not mine.

What I’m really suffering from is a relevance deficit. I want the means to discover and use the content I find interesting and good, the conversations I find worthwhile, the ads that help me get what I want to get, the emails that are worth answering.

When you look at the attention/relevance economy from that perspective, it informs much of the functionality we are trying to create online: We want recommendations from people we trust — but first we have to find those people and know that we trust them. So we pay attention to links: degrees of separation and degrees of trust and authority. We subscribe to the words and links of people we like (or whose judgments we like) and thanks to this world we don’t rely just on the people we already know; we find new people. We join social networks (failing to see that the internet itself, properly parsed, is the real social network). We try to capture the wisdom of the crowd to help with recommendations (see Google,, Flickr). None of it is perfect. But we’re getting there.

We still squander attention on irrelevance. But I think it is improving.