I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. Haven’t been doing much of it, but thinking lots. I’ll have to figure out a good system to keep track of the things I want to write about. For now, here’s what might be incoherent rambling but might make some sense to you. Lemme know. (I’ve Twittered incessantly about giving up caffeine this week. So.).
New York Times columnist David Brooks isn’t usually funny, but today he was when he wrote about pseudo-intellectual one-upmanship through the centuries. Go read it then come back.
Here’s what he says when he starts to make his point that people right now are judged on what media they use rather than what culture they consume:
“Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture he enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider he uses to store and transmit it. (In this era, MySpace is the new leisure suit and an AOL e-mail address is a scarlet letter of techno-shame.)”
Oh, so true. He goes on to be just as funny in his description of the hipster mentality of being “already sick of everything no one else has even heard of.” But here’s where he misses something really, really big:
“Prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever.”
Now, there’s no denying that to a great extent he’s absolutely right. Some of the few people who are able to make a living running independent content-driven websites are those who aggregate content. They get gigs writing for major publications and they get book deals and they get advertising dollars. Their content is pretty much solely about stuff that other people create. And, yeah, that buzz is archived and contributes to the body of influence those aggregators have. But dude, they’d have nothing to write about if other people weren’t inventing and writing and creating. And those creators can sometimes gain quite a bit from the buzz generated by aggregators and tastemakers. New readers and customers, mainstream press, niche fame. And what do all of those things equal? More people consuming that content. Which leads me to…
…the larger thorn in my side being that Brooks seems to think that the hordes of people who read sites that aggregate content don’t actually go on to consume the content (and, presumably, learn something or feel something or discuss something as a result). And sure, how many of us know people who read the NY Times Book Review but rarely read the books reviewed? I’ll save you from that one – I do. I like reading book reviews, but in my tangible life I like reading books people I know recommend to me. I’ve never been comfortable accepting someone’s authority when I haven’t experienced that authority myself. Titles mean pretty much nothing to me. So I don’t actually like taking a professional reviewer’s opinion to heart much of the time, because I don’t know them. I don’t much care that they’ve had schooling and training and that they’ve done impressive enough work to be hired by the NY Times. I do, however, know the people I know. I know who’s read a ton and who hasn’t, and who likes the same sorts of things I like. Sometimes I’ll read a book I’ve never heard of just because someone I like says they love it (sometimes I hate it, but I’ve at least learned something about that person).
See, online aggregators and tastemakers weren’t (always) hired to do what they do. They just started doing it, and people started listening. So their cred comes directly from the people who consume their buzz, not from some presumed-legit intellectual at the top of some company. So in a world where people increasingly feel it’s their right to blur the hardfast lines between content creators/producers and consumers, new-media aggregators can have a whole lot more sway than old-media aggregators.
This is one of a few things old-media types overlook about the internet. It’s not uncommon to meetâ€”in person or through correspondenceâ€”people who produce content on or around the internet. That means you can actually form a relationship of sorts with people, and that means their opinions mean something different to you than a pundit’s. And that’s a beautiful, remarkable thing. Culture, as Brooks seems to be treating it, is not unidirectional online, as it is in old media. There are drawbacks to this, sure. There are idiot commenters and trolls and creepy fans and stalkers. But there are also smart, interesting, creative people who interact directly with the people who create the content they consume. Directly. And in ways different from when an author goes on a book tour or a band gives a concert.
I’m going to say it again. Online, you can interact directly with the people who create the content you benefit from. Because of that, online celebrity means something different, doesn’t it? A celebrity doesn’t attain godlike status when you’ve swapped a couple of emails with them. They attain, “holy shit this internet celebrity took five minutes to write to me!” status, and that is no fleeting thing. After a few exchanges, even over years, the holy-shit feeling goes away and is replaced by the wonder at having established an acquaintance with someone who produces culture you consume.
Also overlooked is the value of non-top-down aggregation sites. For general stuff there are sites like Digg and StumbleUpon, through which any old web surfer can bump up the content they find valuable for whatever reason, and if enough people agree, that content becomes extremely visible, thus reaching more and more people. For niche stuff, many sites include features that promote popular or valued content on that site to more visible positions and bury the less popular or valuable content. When I set about revamping CrochetMe.com into a site that would allow anyone and everyone to post their own patterns and tips without editorial vetting, I knew the only thing that would prevent the site from being perceived as being filled with nothing but blurry photos and bad grammar would be to allow every user to rate the content, and to show which content was viewed the most (and also to integrate new content with the older, edited content in such a way that the older content didn’t get buried by or, on the other end, totally overshadow the new content). Every interactive website does this. That’s because it’s not just the quote-unquote tastemakers that influence which content people consume online, it’s also the general online population.
People trust people. Real human people. And all the nifty gadgets around these days, however cool they are in and of themselves, allow people to interact with other people in ways that are meaningful and different and pretty outstanding.
And that’s my circuitous take on things today.
Next time, my brain will be more accustomed to being without its brewed elixir of thought and consciousness, and perhaps I’ll be better organized.
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