The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Anne Field § The booster pack / 2014-02-15 16:15:39
Josh Rubenoff § The booster pack / 2014-02-09 04:29:20
David Lang § The right flavor of fame / 2014-02-07 15:13:49
Robin § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 16:41:42
Navneet Alang § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:40:31
Sam M-B § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:32:35
Chris Baker § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 02:38:57
G Love § Conversation Media / 2014-01-30 07:26:22
Navneet Alang § Calculating the Weight of the Object / 2014-01-26 16:07:58
Snarkmarket commenter-in-chief since 2003, editor since 2008. Technology journalist and media theorist; reporter, writer, and recovering academic. Born in Detroit, living in Brooklyn, Tim loves hip-hop and poetry, and books have been and remain his drug of choice. Everything changes; don't be afraid. Follow him at

Women’s voices and mogul swagger
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I had the fortunate accident of reading these two very different articles in close succession: Mary Beard’s “The Public Voice of Women” and Peter Lauria’s “Mark Zuckerberg Comes of Age As A Mogul.” I think you can guess which quotes from come from which:

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand.​ But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

§

Noticeably absent from the mounds of coverage of how Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp came together is any mention of the social network’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg… Her absence, at least publicly, seems to suggest that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg no longer needs adult supervision. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though Zuckerberg is still three months away from his 30th birthday, over the last few years he has blossomed into a very impressive mogul. Gone is the caricature of him as a hoodie-wearing, socially awkward CEO profusely sweating under questioning. He’s grown into a cocksure leader, solid operator, and gutsy dealmaker, even if the casual dress still remains. Looking at him today, he can rightly be called the first mogul of social media.

§

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

§

It’s important to understand that not all CEOs are de-facto moguls. There’s a swagger moguls have that transcends simply being the boss or being rich. Moguls are visionary, decisive, and a bit ruthless, at least with their business objectives. They are concerned not with industry or domestic but rather world domination, and usually have grandiose mission statements to describe their business (“Connecting the world” in the case of Facebook; as another example, “Organizing the world’s information” for Google). And they also usually have absolute control of their companies through majority control of its voting shares. Not unlike the traditional family-run media companies — think News Corp’s Murdoch family, Comcast’s Roberts family, Cablevision’s Dolan family, or Viacom’s Redstone family — Zuckerberg has an ironclad grip on Facebook’s board and strategic direction through his 57% control of its voting shares.

It’s both fucked-up and perfect to think about Telemachus competing with both Penelope and her suitors over her “control of voting shares” in Odysseus’s media empire.

I did a quick Google search to see if any female tech CEOs have been praised for their “swagger,” and got stalled at Andrew Wallenstein’s exhortation for Marissa Mayer to, well, shut up:

It’s as if Mayer is trying to play two seemingly incompatible roles at once: the visionary turnaround specialist who lets the innovations she implements do the talking, and the rockstar CEO who rationalizes that her company basks in the refracted glow of a halo that gets its shimmer from her swagger.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you think. Well, “The Marissa Mayer Show Needs a Rewrite” spells out its subtext, pitting Mayer against Sandberg through way of a joint photo op. While Sandberg epitomized “tasteful restraint,” Mayer “seemed to be auditioning to be an Entertainment Tonight correspondent.” “Sandberg leans in. Mayer preens in.”

Dismiss this opinion of Mayer as pure sexism if you must. She’s an attractive woman who shouldn’t have to tamp down her femininity to correspond to some conventional presumptions of how an executive should conduct him or herself. But the same could be said about a male executive who posed for GQ and interviewed the cast of Fast and Furious 14.

Beard’s article/speech isn’t really about the way professional media writers talk about CEOs. It’s more directly about the way the hoi polloi talk to and about women who speak, especially women who speak out. But I think Beard also persuasively shows that the two things aren’t so separate. The way we frame women’s personae at the top of the social pyramid, from Penelope to Margaret Thatcher to Mayer and Sandberg, both guides and is supported by the way we talk about women’s and men’s public and private voices all the way down.

The whole mess is caught up in an inherited fabric so tangled, so knotty, so devious, that “misogyny,” Beard suggests, is a word that falls far too short. It’s not only hate; it’s history.

Comments

Conversation Media
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One of the eternal refrains/laments/excuses thrown at most forms of social media, perhaps especially Twitter, is that “you can’t have a conversation.” Everyone has heard this and many of us have said this.

Whether it’s because of the character limit, the permeable membrane between public and private, the not-quite-real-time interaction, the fact that Twitter and Facebook are things usually at the edges and not the center of our attention, or any other reason — many, many people are unhappy with social networks as a medium of conversation.

Some of this a pushback against what frankly were and are exaggerated claims about what digital media could do to promote conversation. “Want to join the conversation? Add a comment below!” — as if it were just that easy. As if the fact that the group of people formerly known as the audience had and could immediately transform themselves into something else entirely, just by the sheer fact that they too could write for an audience.

Now, this is not true only of comments or Twitter or other social media, even if they get regularly hammered most as being “bad conversations.” Online forums, where people gang up on and ignore each other. Email, which is both now too formal and too cluttered. Texting runs into some of the same problems as Twitter and email. Skype and other video chats sometimes still seem a little weird, performative, almost uncanny, more like you’re acting in someone else’s home movie (and they in yours) than talking to them. Branch and other startups have tried to figure out a way to engineer a conversational structure, but I don’t think they’ve quite gotten a handle on it.

And obviously, you can take it to its limit: there are some conversations that people refuse to have over the telephone, and that it’s considered right and proper only to do in person.

But let’s stipulate that it is possible to have a technologically mediated conversation of high quality. Because it seems like with some things, we get there. The right Twitter or comment thread. A really good podcast, or TV/radio interview. (Although I think interviews are a little different.) A really good round of instant messaging.

And let’s stipulate that there are sometimes genuine hindrances to these being good media for conversation. Those hindrances may be technical, or conventional, or accidental, but I think they are real and not imaginary. Even if some of us have had and are having what we think of as good conversations in these places, not everyone always feels the same.

What makes these conversations work? I’m tired of people saying “you can’t have a conversation on Twitter” and other people replying “of course you can, dummy.” That pseudo-conversation has played itself out. I would rather try to figure out how, why, and under what conditions meaningful conversation happens.

I want to anatomize conversation. Or rather, I want to anatomize conversations, because they’re not all of one kind, and what counts as a good conversation in one kind of media is probably not a good conversation in a medium with different characteristics, strengths, or weaknesses.

Let’s make this even more ambitious. How can you make a conversation as a media object? I’m asking because I think the reason we circle around conversation is because we really do think that the interchange, exchange, and participation of ideas, the emergence of something new as part of a collaboration between two or more people, has inherent value.

Conversation is something we enjoy doing, we enjoy hearing, we enjoy seeing. And despite our misgivings about new media, conversation is not something old media did well, especially for public consumption.

The 20th century gave us the article, it gave us the debate, it gave us the interview. As McLuhan and Ong and Postman and everybody else told us, convincingly, it transformed oral culture into something new, that print culture and technical media could understand. It gave us the telephone and the radio, but neither of those get us all the way there.

We want something else. We’re dying for something else. It feels like with everything we’ve learned, with everything we now have, that something else is, or should be, within reach. What could get us there?

Five years ago, I wrote a blog post, inspired by a conversation with Robin Sloan, where I called for an “iMovie for conversations.” Now, five years later, inspired by a conversation with Jess Zimmerman, I’m asking again. How can we make this work?

5 comments

Hide the switch and shut the light
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2 comments

Chronic traumatic masculinity
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kid-middle-finger

Brian Phillips has written a terrific essay for Grantland on the culture of ritualized pain and intimidation in football, and the ways that sports fans share, enable, embrace, and vicariously live out fantasies through it. It’s called “Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.”

I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.

And of course this affects the players. Locker-room guy-culture is one thing; the idea that any form of perceived vulnerability is a Marxist shadow plot is something else. It’s a human inevitability that when you assemble a group of hypercompetitive young men some of them will go too far, or will get off on torturing the others — which is why it’s maybe a good idea, cf. the real-life military, to have a system in place to keep this in check. What we have instead is a cynical set of institutional fetishes that rewards unhealthy behavior. The same 110-percent-never-give-an-inch rhetoric that makes concussed players feign health on game day encourages hazing creep after practice. Don’t believe that? I’ve got a helmet-to-helmet hit here for you, and that’ll be $15,000, petunia.

This of course reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s amazing essay on pro tennis, “The String Theory” (which I riffed on with respect to broader athlete culture during a guest stint at Kottke.)

But it also resonated with this story Adam Rothstein pointed me to today, about the culture of police officers and police encounters. It’s called “An Ex-Cop’s Guide To Not Getting Arrested.

Every interaction with a police officer entails two contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”

Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.”

Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”

He also says you should be dignified — unless it looks like you’re about to lose both the psychological contest and the one for custody of your body. In which case, you should be strategically pitiful.

I want to be clear — this is insane. This is all some real PTSD shit. These are mechanisms that make a bit of strategic sense in dealing with an abusive parent, or surviving in the Jim Crow South. They are not and must not be tools for dealing with civil servants upholding law and order, in playing a game, or dealing with your colleagues in the workplace. (Always remember, pro sports are both of the latter.)

I mean, maybe we are all suffering with a form of PTSD, after centuries of patriarchy, racial violence, labor violence, and warfare whose legitimacy suddenly (from the long view of eternity) seems suspect. And if PTSD is the wrong acronym, let’s borrow the new term of art football has made famous. What we have is chronic traumatic masculinity syndrome.

Just like NFL players suffer long-term brain damage from both hitting with and suffering damage to their heads, we as a culture are suffering from long-term damage both from and to an parodic and extremely pathological image of masculinity.

As it’s being chased out of places where it used to be welcomed — the household, the workplace, even the military — this strain of CTM pops up in a concentrated form, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in a handful of spaces. Pro sports. The police. Wall Street. Rap music. Reddit threads. (NB: I like all of these things, at least MINUS the bullshit masculinity people feel the need to display there.)

It’s a toxic expression of our long-toxic history, that not only subjects, objectifies, and physically and emotionally abuses women, but stops seeing men as people with feelings, with internal organs other than the ones they use to hit each other, but as generators of violence, and statistics.

“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”

CTM has no easy solutions or easy cure. But just like in football, the activism will have to start from within. And we’d better find a way to get real with the story, pronto.

2 comments

The structure of journalism today
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Square 2 - Edges

I played a funny litcrit game with a very serious journalism debate. I started drawing lines and rectangles and filling in blanks. It’s a little like highbrow madlibs. And it helped me figure a few things out.

Short summary: the debate between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller in the pages of the NYT articulates a lot of the big ideas people inside and outside the profession have had about the practice of journalism. (Also, about the relative merit of David Brooks, but that’s a sideline.)

But by framing it as a back and forth between two poles, it leaves a lot out. It actually doesn’t really recognize how close Greenwald and Keller really are in their basic assumptions about what kind of journalism is important and why, in their faith in the truth and in reader’s abilities to sort out really hard questions for themselves. And they’re arguing with each other, but also past each other, to targets they can’t quite bring themselves to name: people like Rupert Murdoch, and Nick Denton.

The left side is corporate or traditional media; the right is online media. The top is “serious” journalism; the bottom is tabloid journalism. For Keller and Greenwald, journalism is a calling; for Murdoch and Denton, it is a business. And without the largesse of patrons committed to the same ideals of journalism, the New York Times and Greenwald’s untitled venture with Omidyar would be very paltry businesses indeed, while Denton’s and Murdoch’s flourish, grow, and evolve. The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Pro Publica, and a few others, have found a space in which they can continue to exist. But it seems to me foolish to deny that for everyone else, the business models and journalistic practices mapped by Murdoch and Denton are proving to be much more robust, repeatable, and influential.

The picture up top is called a semiotic square, and it’s a way of representing a few basic principles:

  1. Most attempts to think through things rest on an opposition between two ideas;
  2. When you pick those two, you’re usually suppressing two other oppositions;
  3. You’re also usually suppressing some kind of excluded middle or reconciliation between opposed terms.

This has always felt very logical to me. Maybe it’s because it’s like a math problem. If we say, “ok, there are two kinds of numbers, whole numbers and fractions” — well, you’re forgetting about the things that are neither of those. And that’s actually MOST of the numbers. So we say, okay, there are whole numbers and fractions, and not-whole numbers, and not-fractions (irrationals). But wait — now we’re just talking about REAL numbers, and if we’re interested in NUMBERS, you’ve got to talk about imaginary numbers too. And not just imaginary but complex.

And so on. You can always, always, ALWAYS, go further down by expanding and relaxing your field of assumptions. And you can do it all with a pen and a piece of paper. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has always been really important for all the fields I’ve been drawn too intellectually — the only tools you need to carry them out are books, pen, and paper. Maybe a calculator, ruler and compass, and a camera.)

But because I know you can always go further down, I know that this graph of journalism is really incomplete. It’s a schema — it clarifies some things, but it obscures even more. And it makes things fixed that are really on the move. It’s like those beads-and-wire atomic models we made of elements in middle school — shit, electrons just aren’t moving around in quiet circles like that. Electrons are a MESS.

So I’d really like to get some pushback and extensions on this here. Jay Rosen was kind enough on Twitter to say that I didn’t pay enough attention to the debate over insiders vs outsiders, access vs accountability, in contemporary journalism. I talk about it a little bit in terms of complicity with the mechanisms of power. But how extensible is that to finance journalism, sports, entertainment, technology? Maybe it is, or maybe we need to blend that discussion with one of access.

And that points to another limitation: even the graph I made sort of takes investigative political journalism as being the field of discourse. And news, journalism, media is enormous! And the centrality of political accountability journalism is not at all self-evident.

Does Silicon Valley care about this shit? Does Wall Street? Does the science blogosphere? Does ESPN? Kinda. But not really. For them the field of action, of real power, of news of genuine importance, is elsewhere. It intersects with that world of electoral politics and state power, but only tangentially and accidentally.

And where do data and coding fit in? Nothing in this graph tells me whether I should learn to code, or what “learning to code” means. Which as we all know, is the most important question for journalism in human history. I mean, if I knew how to program in R, this sad-ass square could be a super-slick data visualization with crazy mouseovers and tilt-shift views and shit.

So what do you all think? If this is a place to start, how can we make it better?

9 comments

Media wisdom
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An observation from Siva Vaidhyanathan:

In Holland, “media literacy” is called “media wisdom.” I love that.

The Dutch word is “Mediawijsheid.” The Dutch sometimes use “media literacy” too, to describe strict literacy, but “media wisdom” has a specific slant, similar to (but I think stronger than) the more robust sense we sometimes give literacy:

In the Netherlands media literacy is often called “media wisdom”, which refers to the skills, attitudes and mentality that citizens and organisations need to be aware, critical and active in a highly mediatised world.

Mediawijsheid_13_Wordle

Wisdom. What we really mean, what we have always meant, is wisdom.

2 comments

ALLOW US TO REINTRODUCE OURSELVES
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This is the new Snarkmarket. I want to welcome you inside, and tell you how we got here.

Five years ago today, I joined Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson at Snarkmarket.com, a two-person site they’d built to write about media, the future, and everything else. It was the site’s fifth anniversary. (It was also the day Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States.) For five years, I’d haunted the comments at Snarkmarket, writing responses longer than the posts themselves; now I was being asked to join the show.

It may be a strange thing to wrap our minds around now, but being a member of a popular but noncommercial blog in 2008 was a very big deal. Nobody was getting paid, and nobody was doing what was recognized as “work,” but it was a platform that brought two things with it:

  1. Writing for the best, smartest, most playful community of commenters on the internet;
  2. Access to the wider Snarkmatrix, the readers who’d followed the blog from the start, back before there had been so very many of us, and many of whom had fallen upwards to positions of influence and responsibility.

Snarkmarket gave me a fighting chance of writing about something besides university books for a university audience. I felt like I’d won a lottery ticket. And for the next two years, that kicked off my favorite period in the history of the site: when we made New Liberal Arts, when Robin improbably became a bestselling novelist, when Matt returned from the midwest to help reinvent blogging for NPR, when I even more improbably became a technology journalist at Wired and then The Verge.

But as the three of us were pulled into our thirties, and that decade’s corresponding commitments, and as much of the discussion around news and ideas began to shift away from user-owned blogs to new media properties and superheating social networks, Snarkmarket entered a new phase. During this time, Robin called Snarkmarket “a hardy desert ecosystem.” The site proved infinitely adaptable, but its visible flourishing diminished.

As we approached our tenth anniversary, Matt and Robin and I had an idea. We would make the Snarkmatrix — our community of readers, commenters, friends, well-wishers, lurkers, and musers — manifest. We would assemble at the Poynter Institute, where it all began, as Matt and Robin decided to start a blog. We would celebrate Snarkmarket’s tenth birthday with the people who’d made it possible.

But — and this is where the hardy desert ecosystem metaphor becomes especially useful — we also took the Snarkmatrix underground. We started doing weekly meetings — a Snarkseminar — where different members would bring to the group ideas, problems, texts, videos, questions for the group to discuss and respond to. The whole thing was Powered By Google; we’d doodle on a Google Doc each week with marginal notes, conduct a live hangout. Whoever could come was welcome; if you couldn’t make it, no harm, no foul. And it was exciting to see what we could do with those tools, in that smaller space, with two or three dozen people actively collaborating on an idea rather than two or three guys (however skilled we three might be).

And for a while, we thought that would be where it would end. A victory lap for the community we brought together, a reward to people who’d found us, whenever or however they found us. And a reward for the three of us, a big party in Florida with our best friends and biggest fans.

We thought we’d get a little Kindle single out of it — here are the products of our labors, a set of final projects for the Snarkseminar, created by the community online, hammered out face-to-face. And that was exciting.

But then we thought: what if we go bigger?

It turned out the Snarkmatrix was actually the Justice League all along.

What if the point of the tenth anniversary of Snarkmarket wasn’t to present its tombstone, but to bring it back to life, bigger and stronger and bolder than ever? And what if the mechanism for its resurrection was right in front of us — the core community of Snarkmarket readers and commenters, to many of whom the site (and the ideas animating the site) meant as much as it did to us?

What if the tools we needed to create a fun, participatory, community-driven blog were available to us, and what if this time, right now — the age of social media, the age of the new, big-business online media company, driven by ads and scale and Hadoop nodes and dataviz and all that marvelous crap — was to double the fuck down on the enthusiast, curated, small-n multiuser blog? What if it was time to go full MetaFilter?

So that’s what we’re doing. Five years ago, Snarkmarket went from two editors to three. Now our community is growing by dozens. You’re going to see a lot of new writers here — but if you’ve been a long-time reader, they won’t be strangers. You’ve been seeing them in the comments for years.

We’re also building new tools and interfaces to try to take advantage of this newfound swarm of talent. We’re going to have collaborative stories, inline glosses, conversational forks. We’re going to try to reimagine (with the robust tools we already have, tweaked by some of our design geniuses) what a group blog looks like, and what it can do for the reader.

And that’s just the beginning. If we do this right, is a collective that will be continually throwing off new objects like sparks from a hammer on hot steel. Some of those will be objects you can participate in making. But for now we’re settling in, seeing what this new Snarkmarket can do.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few months as new sites have launched, also trying to do new experiments in online writing and reading in 2013. “Is ______ a platform or a media company?” is the new “Are bloggers journalists?”

Snarkmarket is proudly neither a platform nor a media company. It is a community of friends and colleagues, allies and advocates, learners and thinkers, who have gathered together for mutual aid, support, and encouragement, and experimentation. The visible expression of that community is now, as it has been, what you see at Snarkmarket.com. We want you to join us as a commenter. We want you to cheer us on. We want to cheer you on. We want to know what you think. We’re ready to try anything. We’re ready to see what’s possible.

Let’s light this candle.

21 comments

Paper and ink, pixels and Flash
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Today, it’s not just the government that’s back in business! The internet gives us two great articles about cartooning (and technology!) that go great together.

First, Mental Floss scored a huge coup and interviewed the elusive/reclusive/exclusive Bill Watterson, author and artist of Calvin and Hobbes. (As I said on Twitter, this is like ten Salingers times a Pynchon.)

Where do you think the comic strip fits in today’s culture?
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.

Cue up Onion A/V Club’s Todd van der Werff, who looks back at that other great grandchild of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Mike and Matt Chapman’s pioneering web video series Homestar Runner.

Much of Homestar Runner’s animation is fairly rudimentary stuff. Arms go up and down. Mouths flap open. Characters stand in place while the background races past them to indicate movement. But all of that belies the program’s true strength: terrifically designed, perfectly written characters. The weirdos that populate Homestar’s world aren’t drawn from animated kids’ shows or even children’s books, but from another great American art form: the newspaper comic strip. As with Peanuts or Pogo, the characters may have hidden depths, but they’re largely defined by striking, singular personality traits. Homestar is the good guy, and even if he’s a bit of a nerd in the process, he’ll always return to that basic decency. Strong Bad proved too slippery for the antagonist role and ended up becoming something like a 10-year-old boy’s conception of everything that is awesome in the world. His brothers, Strong Mad and Strong Sad, were just what they sounded like. Coach Z was motivational, in his own weird way. The Cheat was basically Snoopy.

Read more…

2 comments

Higher education’s obesity spiral
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(Last week, I read Priceonomics’ “The Supersizing of American Education” on Facebook. I started to write a Facebook comment on it. Then — as you guys often know happens to me — the comment got out of hand. So I posted it on my own Facebook page, and now I’m posting it here. — TC)

The problem with the formulation “even the recession hasn’t stopped the flow of money into American higher education,” as well as the economic lesson that this article draws (the underlying problem is revealed to be federal subsidies) is that well, it’s just not thinking very hard.

First, the recession has increased economic anxiety (for both parents and kids). This leads job-seekers to seek shelter, and helps create a boom in higher ed — hey, if I can’t find a job, at least I can get MORE SCHOOL! And I’ll definitely have a better chance of finding a job in THIS economy if I have more and better education, right? (Note: this is more or less true, but in a way that’s so bound up with hidden variables that the economic logic becomes self-defeating.)

Meanwhile, the state subsidies for public higher education have fallen away, which is partly ideological, but I’ll go ahead and concede is mostly a product of the last decade-plus’s financial and economic problems. Which leaves federal subsidies and, especially, enormous amounts of federally-subsidized private debt. And it also means the gap between public and private higher ed isn’t as large as it used to be, so more kids are applying to private schools.

And last, there’s tremendous demand for American university education worldwide, and both state and private universities are rushing to fill it. Globally, American higher ed is cheap and amazing for the world’s super-rich (and even its not-so-super-rich).

So basically, over the last twenty years, American higher education has become like apartments in Manhattan: a bizarre macroeconomic experiment where a mix of public and private subsidies, huge economic anxiety and inequality, unprecedented national interest and demand, and unbelievable and wildly distorting international interest and demand all combine with genuine improvement in both the substantive quality and superficial prestige itself, creating a cost spiral that will eventually destroy the system for everyone except the people who are wealthy enough that they don’t really need it anyways.

Meanwhile, the overeducated and underemployed are everywhere, piling up on every street corner, like so many Starbucks and Duane Reades, each of them individually a good idea, each flocking to the meritocratic promise of money and success like moths to flame, collapsing under their own weight, desperately grasping upwards, trying to collect just some of the wealth and meaning and stability that is always just around the corner, always just barely out of reach.

And somewhere, too, we are all receiving what on its face seems like very persuasive advice to look down at their upraised hands and whisper, “No.” And we forget that there was ever another way.

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Thirteen ways of looking at Jeff Bezos
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Some of you are saying “just thirteen?” and others of you are saying “AUGHHH I’ve already seen thirty-teen opinion pieces about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post and nobody KNOWS anythng, just make it STOPPP.” Whether you’re either of these: don’t worry. Here, we’ll just do three.

First, Nieman Lab let me write my take on the Bezos purchase. This is very Snarkmarket-y insofar as it’s:

  • written by me (with Matt’s and Robin’s voices in my head)
  • about the future of media
  • leans heavily on a rich storytelling reference (in this case Citizen Kane)
  • mixes and matches historical trend lines with a kind of literary, empathetic imagining of the future.

Second is Rusty Foster’s story at The Awl, which foregos traditional analysis for a full-on science-fiction phantasia peppered with philosophical ruminations:

I lay out Mr. Bezos’s single-use titanium microfiber undergarment and jumpsuit for the day. The truth is there isn’t much for a robot butler to actually do here in the Flying Dragon Lair. Ever since Mr. Bezos moved his home and business headquarters to the cloud, above Mt. Rainier, everything has pretty much run itself. Even laying out his clothing is largely a ceremonial duty. We used to work much more closely together, Mr. Bezos and I. I have been with him nearly since the beginning, and he relied on me for everything back then. But now, sometimes weeks go by and I don’t even see him.

Then our rockets descend from the cloud back to earth, with Dave Pell’s is-he-or-isn’t-he serious tweet, posted just now:

I don’t know how exactly that’s a viable evolutionary strategy for the Bezos-owned Post (and as you see if you read my longer post, I think it’s actually pretty important that the Post business is separate for Bezos from Amazon rather than some enchanting yet-unborn hybrid) but… come on, that kind of totally technology-driven personalized market is clearly the game-theoretically dominant strategy for Amazon, right? And when you scratch the surface, it’s just dark and thrilling and Ned-Beatty-toward-the-end-of-Network-updated-for-the-21st-century enough to be true, isn’t it?

Also, holler.

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