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June 26, 2009

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Welcome to the Chimera

I agree with Nav; this post by Emily Gould is terrific. Less for her strong rebuttal of an errant “the internet is vulgar” argument — which is so silly it requires no rebut — than for this description of the internet itself:

Kunkel’s experience of the Internet bears no resemblance to my experience of the Internet, but then, that’s the funny thing about the Internet, isn’t it? No one’s Internet looks the same as anyone else’s, and it’s that exact essential fungibility that makes definitive assessments like Kunkel’s infuriating. The Internet isn’t a text we can all read and interpret differently. It’s not even a text, at least not in most senses of that word. The Internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to. If you are looking at the Internet and expecting it to be a source of fleeting funniness, unchallenging writing, attention-span-killing video snippets, and porn, then that is exactly all it will ever be for you.

On one level, you might just say the internet is just a technology, and broad claims about content on the internet exist at the same level as broad claims about things printed on paper. On another level, you might say the internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to, and man, I want to be on that level.

Posted June 26, 2009 at 7:27 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted, Media Galaxy


(Just to be clear, you CAN make broad claims about both things printed on paper and content on the internet, but serious claims of that kind are VERY seldom what people are actually making when they talk about "the internet" as one big thing, and it's def not what Benjamin Kunkel is doing in the piece Gould links to.)

Well, let's see - does "the internet" exist as a kind of ideal type for content? Or maybe it's not content as such, but a kind of experience of interacting with content.

Kunkel, I think, is trying to talk about content, but he's really trying to talk about a kind of experience of content. Even if the Serious Philosophy were there in abundance, he couldn't or wouldn't get to it b/c he's having too much fun IMing or reading HuffPo or whatever.

You could say that the specificity of this is questionable - cf. Clay Shirky on the cognitive heatsink of television - but the experience he's describing, of using the internet more to pacify than to edify, and letting how good it is at pacification distract you from getting your edification someplace else, seems pretty familiar.

So many of the same arguments we talk about boil down to this simultaneous confusion of and incommensurability between content and the experience of content. We insist on the importance of one or the other, and assume that function will follow form, or the other way around. I love paper, and newsprint. But I get better, more relevant news from TPM and my Google Alerts than my kind-of-crummy local paper. Content is getting in the way of experience, just as for Kunkel experience is getting in the way of content. I think you could map every permutation of this and find all of them tenable.

I think you give Kunkel too much credit -- reading nuance into his argument where there is none. That's charitable, though, and one of my flaws as a reader/blogger is an unwillingness to extend charity to curmudgeonly arguments. I will work on it :-)

What you're getting at is super-valuable, and it's less about the internet than about the web, or even just the web browser. Thirty-six tabs open so much to look at ahhhhh! Hey look a new tweet...

But w/ the development of new tricks & tools -- everything from Instapaper to Kindle -- you see people actively grappling with that, instead of just grousing about it.

So I still find myself able to summon up any charity, b/c:

1. If Kunkel spent two days w/ a Javascript book he could go make something that suited his desires, and share it; and

2. There's this tiny danger that someone will come across his piece, read it, and believe it -- w/out any level of Carmody-like nuance -- thus closing them off, for a time, to all the chimeric wonders waiting out here.

(I'm almost never accused of being too charitable as a reader. Maybe I was being uncharitable to you instead!)

Let me just clarify - I think Kunkel's making a huge mistake. He misunderstands and confuses himself, and that means he misleads and confounds readers.

But I think - let me put it this way - that confusion provides a teaching moment, that doesn't have anything to do with this one dude. That is, that it's not just confusing one corner of content on the internet with another - sure, you're reading a lot of crap, but that's because you don't know where the good stuff is - but also confusing bad content with bad experience, or bad process.

I'll put this out to chew on - most people who are really excited about "the internet," whatever they mean by it, like content, but they LOVE process. And in fact, process becomes content - when your "must reads" folder is Lifehacker, Engadget, 43 Folders, Kevin Kelly, O'Reilly, Wired, MacWorld, new downloads, etc... You're really spending a lot of time reading stuff that's either helping you with process or telling you about it.

If you can't get excited about process, it's really hard to get very excited about content. This isn't just true about the web. It's like trying to get excited about a Western when you don't care about cowboys. Or horses. Or guns. Or sci-fi when you don't care about robots or spaceships.

But my bigger point is that it's not just what's out there that's different - our experiences of it are very different as well. And they're different from one another - and yet they can't help but interact with each other. This is a problem.

"If you can't get excited about process, it's really hard to get very excited about content."

I wonder what the overlap is between "people who are excited about process" and "people who create things." And maybe that's interesting/important. The internet makes more of us into potential creators, so it also makes questions about the creative process (broadly defined) more relevant & urgent.

Meta-media goes mainstream!

Well, if you add "sense" to the list of things that people "make," then i thi
You're home.

Maybe that's a working defn of "internet culture" or "internet people." You're an internet person if you use its mechanisms often and intensely enough that you care about process.

More precisely, it's a state or suject position that you flow into and out of - even if you've never heard of TCP/IP, or crowdsourcing, in the moment when you get ticked off about the Facebook redesign, you are a web person; you are engaging with (and creating) web culture.

Note that this last, casual example, of the facebook design update, is different from, say, comparing the merits of a Kindle and a paperback book. If you say "oh, it's just like/not at all like reading on the beach," you are not engaging with digital/internet culture. You're engaging with reading culture, or object culture, or leisure culture, or something else.

"Content is getting in the way of experience, just as for Kunkel experience is getting in the way of content. I think you could map every permutation of this and find all of them tenable." Sounds like a book to me! Though I thought that the experience of content was a major part of cyber-cultural criticism, if not of all media criticism?

I agree with Robin that if one's Web experience is "boredom on the instalment plan" (and thus unsatisfying), that should be motivation to seek personalized high-fidelity signal. It's the great promise of Web 2.0 & social media. That and Tim's comment about process reminded me of Merlin Mann's crap-cutting post Better, which is germane to Kunkel, too.

The Internet, like most (all?) popular media, works by the power law. The danger's not that people will read Kunkel's lament and stop seeking quality, but that it already describes the experience of 80% of Web users (the other 20% are more fantastic chimeras). The question then is, are they satisfied? Pacified? If dissatisfied, how easily can they use these new tools to address the problem? Do they even need tools, or only willpower? Or is this experience really part of the Web's learning curve? I wonder, too, how much it owes to habitual passive TV-watching.

Posted by: Jake on June 27, 2009 at 09:20 PM

Right! You can't interact with the web like it's television and then expect it to give you the edifying immersion of a novel.

Yet we almost can't help but port our expectations about other media from one form to the other. There's no totally na´ve position where you can say "I am going to approach this as exactly what it is and claims itself to be." They always contaminate each other, sometimes in a good way, sometimes badly.

(For the truly dorky among you, I've written an essay about this - I call it "material intertextuality.")

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