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.

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  • Ed Rusch

    “But I do wonder how long the economic model of publishing will sustain printing most books.”

    Ah! See, I told you, Jeffo, you wouldn’t let the economic reality persuade you of the boneheadedness of your jihad! Sales are up, younger people are reading books more than ever, and you’re pissed because there’s a medium out there that doesn’t allow you to force your opinion on the rest of us.

    Face it, Jeffo: Every piece of empirical evidence directly and unquestioningly contradicts your point of view. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Give up the embarrassment, old man.

    “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?”

    Because I care about what the author has to say. I could care less what you have to say about what the author has to say.

  • His Pete Seeger lyrics were a mash-up, too having originated in Ecclesiastes. Maybe they were some sort of pre-internet link.

  • I think the Latin term you’re looking for is “secundum quid”. And they said a classical education was a waste of time…

  • steve

    I think McLuhan was wrong. The medium is not the message. The message is the message, and the medium is, well, just the medium.

    IMHO the difference that matters is “professional” or “amateur”. There is plenty of room for both in this world. User generated Content is, by definition, amateur. Doesnt make it worthless, but, again IMHO, it does it worth less. Less than “professsional” generated content. YouTube stuff is YouTube stuff. But it is never a James Cameron summer popcorn movie, and never will be. One, because the economics cant possibly support it, and Two, because the Camerons of the world will, by virtue of talent, be able to attract the resources needed to make Professional Generated Content, and the boob-baring college freshmen chicks, while amusing, won’t.

    Jeff, you make the whole situation seem a lot more complicated because you are a Professional, yet you prefer the tools available to all. Power to you. But as someone who peruses many blogs, it is crystal clear that Buzz Machine is in a tiny, tiny minority of professional publications masquerading as amateur ones, or UGC. Jason Calcanis didnt seell his company because of the user generated content. He sold it because of his tiny stable of star professionals. Fox likely made an expensive error buying MySpace because they believe they can take joyful amateur anarchy and somehow remake it into professional media (the kind that sells ads big time.) But they can’t. Which is why MySpces revenues are soooooooooooo tiny comparred to say, Google, or Yahoo, despite that they are roughly the same size distribution/reach/whatever.

    And this is such old news. Yahoo bought GeoCities for billions then could never monetize the trafffic. Ditto Lycos with Tripod and AngelFire. Etc…

    In sum, Professional content is a media business. Amateur content is just media.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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