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August 3, 2009

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The Stupidity of Serendipity

Having just two weeks ago posted a link to what I think is a reasonably intelligent take on the importance of serendipitous discoveries in old and new media, Damon Darlin’s not-quite-an-essay in the NYT is by comparison offensively stupid.

Let’s just juxtapose these two excerpts:

  1. When we walk into other people’s houses, we peruse their bookshelves, look at their CD cases and sneak a peek at their video collections (better that than their medicine cabinets).

    It gives us a measure of the owner’s quirky tastes and, more often than not, we find a singer, a musician or a documentary we’d never known before.

  2. We have Facebook and Twitter, spewing a stream of suggestions about what to read, hear, see and do. We come to depend on it to lead us to the funny article on or the roving food cart serving goat curry. It’s useful.

    But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.

I’m just going to assume that Damon Darlin walks into other people’s houses at random, without filtering or vetting them first. I’m also going to assume that he goes through their medicine cabinets and ingests whatever drugs he finds there without filtering or vetting them. Because otherwise this makes NO SENSE.

Top 40 Radio, books read by random people on the subway - say what you will about the merits of these as engines of serendipity, but at least there’s a prima facie case to be made for them as a fundamentally different kind of content delivery than the way most folks experience the web. But browsing your friends’ bookshelves and sorting through their Twitter recommendations are prima facie the same thing. You’re encountering the shared culture of a small set of associates selected because they have other things in common. Again, this is true unless you’re just knocking on doors.

At least make a case for it. Say something about how our CDs reveal more about us than our Twitter or Blog recommendations, because they show what we like and HAVE liked rather than what we admit that we like right now. Say that email forwards are actually a much more ritualized and inherently conservative form than they’re cracked up to be.

The ultimate irony of this is that you could annotate this post and identify every single cliché in it, most of them already published in the NYT itself. So the other, alternate solution is that it’s a kind of weird performance-art piece, a limply parodic performance of the reject-the-web-in-favor-of-false-nostalgia-for-serendipity tropes that have been circling for years.

Unless it’s forthcoming, I’m going to assume that the guy breaks into people’s houses and huffs their pills before checking out their CD and magazine racks.

(*I know, I’m a weekend late on the stupefied outrage about this. But I’m also just offended as a writing teacher. If an eighteen-year-old submitted this to me, with this paucity of argument, it would be lucky to squeak by with a B.)

Posted August 3, 2009 at 7:59 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy


A B?

Man, I guess grade inflation is real.

There is the take-down by which you engage with the argument, and then there is the take-down by which you point out that there /is/ no argument, and oh, the second kind is far more devastating.

I'm surprised you even dignified it w/ a rebuttal!

You know, it's hard to even parse. I read the quotes and I assumed he meant that this hypothetical friends are much less carefully about what they store in their house then what they store on their profiles, so their house is less filtered (by them) than their profiles are. But your reading made me go back and check that he does, in fact, seem to be indicating that the filtering is done by *him*, in choosing them. Which you're right aboutthat makes no sense at all.

But yeah, right now if you compared by online reading profile with the actuall gigantic pile of books in my room, you would come up with a very different things.

Actually, I'm going to hijack your topic for a second. Because it occurs to me: That's the magic of the New York Times. If something appears there, it deserves comment somehow.

I mean, if this was just a post on Damon Darlin's blog, I don't think anyone would have bothered to argue. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) But it's in the NYT, and therefore somehow argument-worthy.

In part b/c you know other people will have seen it -- that's what things published in the NYT do, they /get seen/ -- so you want to sort of provide an inoculation or antidote.

However you slice it, it's an expression of true publishing power -- of true /agenda-setting/ power. Imagine if people felt /compelled/ to engage with, argue with, respond to arguments posted on Snarkmarket.

One day...

Yeah. It's not even really a rebuttal so much as a tantrum, b/c it's not so much an argument as a whinge.

This seems to be the week in which I dignify arguments ranging from kind-of-dumb (McWhorter) to fully-stupid by suggesting ways in which they could, almost be defensible.

But... I figured since I endorsed (slightly) a smart version of this two weeks ago, it was worth an update.

By the way, if you google "Snarkmarket Serendipity," you get posts going back for years that deal with this same dumb-ass not-even-an-observation.

Reading on the web can lead to tunnel vision. A lot of our digital behavior tends towards mediocrity and me-tooism and reflexive fandom or anti-fandom. Twitter isn't some utopian place where everything magical happens. Our old public and mainstream places were more contested than we sometimes think, and the contestation there was their value - just as it's much of what's valuable about digital culture today.

Ugh. I am just so tired of stupidity. So very tired of it.

I'm not looking forward to grading fifty student papers this fall. But luckily, my kids are smarter than this. Better writers, too.

Re: Robin's point about the NYT above. It's weird. Just biographically, I didn't see it in the Times. I saw it because all of my Twitter friends kept talking about it.

So for me, at least, it's already true: if Matt Thompson twitters about something, I have to respond to it.

Seth Godin made a similar point to yours about a month ago; the Times doesn't matter because of what's in it, it matters because everyone reads it.

I have a similar attitude towards really bad stuff in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's the one paper that everyone I know, including my mathematician and political scientist friends, is likely to read - so when there's something in there that is really stupid, especially about literary criticism, I feel like I have to say something.

But the last thing is that part of the story value has to do with standards and circulation of the publication. If it's on Darlin's blog, it doesn't matter if it's not quite all the way there yet. For one thing, it can be iterated. For another, it hasn't been given the imprimatur of the organization.

Part of my temper tantrum isn't just "this is stupid" - it is "this is stupid and the NYT printed it anyways" - which is also "this is stupid and a lot of people have smart things to say and the NYT is printing this instead of them"...

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