This entry begins my week in the Snarkmarket Seminar, but even if you’re not a seminarian, you should feel welcome to comment here!
Hello. I’ve dubbed my lecture in our ongoing Snarkmarket Seminar “Worldbuilding: Mutual Acts of Creation.”
Before we continue, I’m going to ask you to play a game called Parameters, for at least 20 minutes, or until you beat it, whichever you prefer. I’ll warn you that the game is pretty cryptic, so you’ll probably need to click around for a while until you start to get the feel of things. But I’d ask that unless you completely hate the experience, you give it about 20 minutes before you give up. Here’s the link.
You can play for as long as you’d like, and truthfully, you don’t have to play to engage with the questions and ideas I’ll be presenting here. But I think it’ll help. So I’ll pause now, and wait for you to return.
How was that? Was it fun? I genuinely want to know, so if you’d pause one more time and take a quick survey — which you’ll find here — I’d appreciate it.
In case it’s not clear, Parameters is basically a spreadsheet. That’s reductive, of course. There’s a lot more to it than your average spreadsheet. And clearly plenty of thought went into the feeling of the game-ish aspects of it, the way the money and experience come bouncing out of the boxes all random and fun, the little animation of attacking the boxes with your mouse and watching the colors recede and rebound as you click.
But a determined developer with some time, elbow grease and Google Apps Script could probably create something reasonably close to Parameters in a Google Spreadsheet.
When I play Parameters, though, I recognize it as a deconstructed version of every role playing game I’ve ever played. So let me talk about role playing games — RPGs — for a second.
This is the opening scene to the game Skyrim — a pretty recent RPG. I’m just going to shut up for a second and let you watch it.
To me, this is kind of gorgeous and cinematic — slowly waking up to this wintry world, bound in the back of a wagon. As a player of the game, you have very little agency at this point. You can look around, but that’s about it. As the first 10 or so minutes of the game progress, they’ll start taking off the training wheels and unveiling more and more of the game’s controls bit by bit. This allows you to get a handle on the game’s basic mechanics and storyline before they send you out into this incredibly detailed world.
But once that tutorial is done, part of the majesty of the game is how thoroughly rendered it all is. Every tree, every mountain, every path that you’ve glimpsed during this little opening segment is a part of the world you’ll be able to visit and interact with. Many of the plants you pass along the side of the road during this opening wagon ride are actually available to harvest later if you’d like.
Skyrim is so extraordinarily detailed, you could actually sort of live in this world if you wanted to. You could buy a house, make a living for yourself hunting animals and selling their pelts to merchants, find a partner, get married. But so that you don’t get overwhelmed with all of that at the start, they introduce you to that world this way, bound by your digital hands, encountering one by one all the incredible varieties of things you can do.
It’s a pretty sharp contrast with Parameters, isn’t it? That opening screen written in Japanese wasn’t really that much more helpful to me after I found the “English” button. It’s hard for me to think of two more different introductions to a game than these.
Yet Parameters is essentially Skyrim boiled down to its basic essence. I’m being very reductive when I say that, but on a fundamental and important level, it’s true.
The fundamental structure of both of these games goes back to Dungeons and Dragons, and probably even before. You’ve got your hit points, your stats like attack power and defense power and endurance, you earn experience and gold by plundering caves and fighting enemies (or in Parameters’ case, yellow boxes). Parameters even presents the classic RPG phenomenon known as grinding, where in order to defeat more advanced enemies, you spend time hunting down and earning experience from lesser foes.
So when I first found myself playing Parameters and getting the basic concepts, I quickly started imagining that RPG world. I saw the boxes as monsters and the locked black tiles as caves. I pictured the big box at the bottom of the screen as a dragon. The squares that let you pay to up your stats or purchase keys I saw as your classic merchants. All of these basic elements that you’d find in Skyrim or a Final Fantasy game or any other RPG are present in this game that’s basically a spreadsheet, and being familiar with this language, I found myself visualizing it in my head.
This brings me at last to what I’m most interested in: that imaginative act.
My thesis is that works like Parameters and so many other texts similar and not involve two mutual, symbiotic creative acts — the world constructed by the author, and the world constructed by the reader.
By reader, of course, I also mean user, listener, watcher … this is “reader” in the sense that Beck might have meant it in his recent un-album “Song Reader,” which I’ll come back to in a minute.
What I’m most particularly interested in is that second act of creation, the world the reader creates.
Had I the talent and know-how, I could probably even take the world that Parameters inspires in my head and actually make a game engine that actually renders that big ol’ box at the bottom as a moving, fire-breathing dragon.
And then I would have created Skyrim.
But of course users actually do this with Skyrim! The game inspires them to build these hugely time-intensive, significant worlds on top of the worlds the game’s developers have already constructed. They’re called “mods.” There’s a mod for Skyrim that even turns the world of the game into the world of Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels.
That type of creation — modding Skyrim — is basically a form of fan fiction, which is the most obvious manifestation of this creative act I’m talking about. And this is one of my first and biggest questions: What are the conditions that best inspire fan fiction? Why do things like Skyrim and Game of Thrones provoke people to spin out these stories into these enormous extended universes? How does a creative work inspire so much creativity in its audience?
I’m interested in the fact that Parameters sparks this vivid world in my head, but I have no real desire to further manifest that in any essential way. It would seem that the difference between something like Parameters and something like Skyrim in terms of inspiring further output is that Skyrim gives you the foundation of this incredibly rich and detailed world. You don’t need to build the engine to turn the box into a giant dragon, the game’s engineers have already spent significant effort on doing that for you.
But then I think about Scott McCloud and his simplicity theory for comics, which suggests in part that the more room the author leaves us to imagine something, the more we can and do imagine, and so the more we can project ourselves into a world. He points out that our brains are hardwired to scan the world for this pattern: two dots in a circle. And that for most of us, we can’t see that pattern without imagining a face. This is why McCloud says he draws himself so simply: to help his readers with their worldbuilding. To give them more freedom to imagine him, and therefore to empathize with him.
It feels like this idea clashes with what happens with worlds like those of Skyrim and Game of Thrones, worlds so detailed, they’d ostensibly leave the reader little space to imagine on their own. We’ve seen Skyrim’s depth, but let me talk about Game of Thrones for a second.
This is one of those fantasy universes so richly drawn that the show’s producers have actually hired a nonprofit called the Language Creation Society to manufacture one of the languages used on the show. There’s a blog about making this language, named after the language itself: “Dothraki.” If you’re a nerd like me, this blog is actually sort of fascinating, delving into how the fictional history of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy universe would likely have unfolded linguistically, based on what we know about how languages evolved in our world. I’m going to quote a snippet:
According to ancient lore, the Ghiscari Empire fell some 5,000 years prior to the time of action in A Song of Ice and Fire. The empire warred five times with the Valyrian Empire, ultimately falling each time because the Valyrians had dragons. After the fifth war, the Valyrians decimated the old city of Ghis, burning down the buildings and salting the earth so that none would ever return.
So what happened then? Well, Ghiscari had been the language of the empire. As the diaspora spread, the Valyrian Empire took over (until its untimely fall several thousand years later), and the High Valyrian language supplanted the Ghiscari language.
Naturally, what would have happened is that the residents of Slaver’s Bay who spoke Ghiscari would have gradually moved over to High Valyrian, creolizing it along the way. It seems likely that an aristocratic class would have maintained a working knowledge of actual High Valyrian to use with emissaries from the Valyrian Empire, but the day-to-day language would have evolved in a way similar to French or Spanish (i.e. not like either of those languages, but evolving in the way that those languages evolved from Latin).
The post goes on to share some of the Dothraki dialogue that would show up in the Game of Thrones Season 3 premiere.
There are 46 comments on this post.
This is how many worlds have been spun out of that first giant world created by George R. R. Martin. A blog based on a language based on a show based on a series of books — each thing a whole lovely world of its own. This all suggests that rendering a world in extraordinary detail doesn’t seem to prevent others from building worlds of their own on top of it.
So there’s another question for you: what is the relationship between how detailed a world is and how much worldbuilding it inspires?
I’m interested in stories that cause their readers to build worlds because I’m interested in endlessness — for a long time I’ve been obsessed with stories that beget stories and worlds that don’t have boundaries. If you’ve been with Snarkmarket since the beginning, you probably recognize this as a theme of my thought.
I once thought it would be really fun to get a job managing the digital components of the show Gossip Girl, because of the worldbuilding potential there. I said:
Here you’ve got a television series that purports to be fully post-media — the central conceit of the show is the title character’s blog, which all the show’s characters interact with constantly from a stunning variety of mobile devices. Although it struggles for Nielsen ratings, it was picked up for a full season allegedly because of its popularity on iTunes (indicating where the series’ audience is). And importantly, the show’s entire telos is allowing its audience to eavesdrop on the lives of a glamorous subculture.
If any television show could have led the way for an immersive, cross-platform handoff between the boob tube and the cybertubez, Gossip Girl is it. We should be able to sign up for text alerts from G.G.’s blog, pinging us with the scandalous goings-on of the show’s principals. Whenever all the characters in the show are reading a missive from Gossip Girl on their cell phones, we should be able to read it on ours! There should be a Gossip Girl version of the Gawker Stalker, mapping the travels of Manhattan’s elite across the Upper East Side! The show’s website should be a dizzy wonderland of interactive innuendo, filled with voices (some, of course, claiming to be from the show’s fictive universe) commenting on the antics of the characters, all helping to compose and extend the show’s mythology.
So far I’ve only really discussed fictional texts, but of course I’m interested in things other than fiction. I might even be mainly interested in things other than fiction.
I think there’s something about texts that demand a lot of a reader — texts that require an investment just to enter the world of the text. It might be that that investment, once committed, is itself a spark to start creating. Parameters and Game of Thrones are both like this, in different ways. In Parameters, the demand is the opacity of the rulesystem; you have to spend some time just figuring out how it even works. In the case of Game of Thrones, it’s the very extensiveness of the world that makes it demanding, particularly if you’re actually talking about the books. But even the television series will stretch out over dozens of hours.
But then there are texts that require creation to even get into the game, like Beck’s “Song Reader,” which I mentioned earlier. This is Beck’s most recent collection of music, only it’s not actually an album, it’s a book of sheet music.
“Song Reader” fascinates me because it combines a pretty old phenomenon with a very new one. At one time, this type of thing was the entire music industry. Before records existed, artists didn’t release recorded music, they released sheet music. A piano was as ubiquitous a fixture in middle class homes as a speaker system or radio would be today. When a new song was released, you’d buy the sheet music, run home, and play it with your friends and family — a thousand little concerts happening in a thousand little homes.
But today, we’ve got this enormous, super-popular infrastructure not just for playing these songs, but for sharing them worldwide. Each of those thousand little concerts is likely to get uploaded to YouTube. You can’t really call them “cover versions,” ‘cause there’s no original, per se. So this, this right here, this YouTube query for the song “Old Shanghai,” is basically the equivalent of the single. This strikes me as a sort of worldbuilding as well.
Of course, several video games work this way, such as Minecraft and SimCity. They’re games that are actually canvases for creation. They’re more toys than games, even, like Legos or dolls. I think any creator can learn a lot from these things. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m most interested in texts that are both discrete creative works in themselves and tinder for the creativity of others.
Another question: is worldbuilding always valuable? I wonder about works whose creators actually sort of resist the act of worldbuilding. Mark Rothko, for example, asked viewers of his art to consider his works as complete, self-contained entities, not as landscapes or references to things outside the canvas. But whenever I see one of Rothko’s large, suggestive canvases, I almost can’t help imagining it as a window into a world. To do that, I have to consciously try to shut down the impulse in my head to read it as a landscape, to just dial it back to colors, textures, moods, and scale and that actually sort of disrupts my experience of the art. Let me build a world out of this, I want to tell Mark Rothko. But of course, he can’t prevent me, so I do.
Journalists — particularly investigative journalists — are in the business of worldbuilding, whether or not they realize it. They’re trying to discover and connect facts in order to create a model of our own world, to understand it better.
Just this week the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (by the way, this is basically a shameless plug for their work; I’m on the board) released a massive investigation in partnership with news organizations across the world giving us a look at the shadowy domain of offshore tax havens. This is a corner of international society that operates in near-total darkness. Wealthy individuals tend to pad their offshore holdings with layers upon layers of intermediaries and puppet companies. Much of this is perfectly legal behavior to protect giant wads of capital, but some of it is intended to obfuscate laws and cloak illicit businesses. Because it all happens in this shadow corner of the world, it’s very difficult to figure out what’s what.
Like many investigative projects today, this one has at its center a gigantic database, one that actually dwarfs the US State Department cables released by Wikileaks. So investigative journalists from all over the world partnered to take this data and construct it into a faithful and quite detailed model of reality.
When we crowdsource an investigation like this one, releasing a giant data set and ask people to play with it, what I think we’re asking them to do is build a world with us, to participate in the mutual acts of creation. To create fan nonfiction.
So there’s the essential question: How do authors of all kinds inspire readers of all kinds to build worlds? What are the magic ingredients of a creative work that let it yield more creative works?
As you can tell, I’m leaving you with nothing but questions. But I haven’t yet questioned my premise itself. Is what I’m calling worldbuilding actually just creativity — is it just that creativity begets creativity? — or are these actually overlapping but distinct concepts? And if there is a difference between worldbuilding and creativity, is it merely that some of the worlds we create manifest themselves as works of their own rather than just sounds and images in our heads? So then how do you create something that cultivates that leap from the imagination to the canvas?
Thank you for playing, watching, listening and reading. I’ll see you in the comments.
David Weinberger has a thoughtful look at Reddit as journalism. He calls it “community journalism,” a distinct variant of “citizen journalism.”
Two gems to put in your shoe:
- What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.
- One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.
Via Jay Rosen.
I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS
I’m going to jump in the middle of Robin and Gavin’s exchange on the DC Comics reboot, even though I explicitly told both of them that I didn’t want to read about it and had nothing to say about any of it, because some things Robin just wrote sparked some ideas that I want to follow here.
Today, you don’t go work at Marvel and DC because of what they are; you go because of what they have. It’s almost like a natural resource. Superman and Batman are potent substances. They have this incredible innate energy, this incredible mythic density, built up over decades. They really are like petroleum—a bright eon of individual organic contributions all compressed into this powerful stuff that we can now burn for light, for entertainment, for money…
How do you weigh the opportunity to work on an old titan like Superman against the opportunity to create something wholly new, and to potentially profit from that creation? Is it only sentimental or emotional value that draws an artist to the former—or is there more?…
Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a custodian. We tend to think of artists as entrepreneurs, right?—inventors, trailblazers, risk-takers. To make meaningful art is often simply to try something new.
Now before I start, I want to stipulate a few things. First, I want to take seriously Robin’s two primary arguments in his post:
- “I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today.” Let’s call this the explicit argument.
- Comic books themselves, as content, not just the strategies of their publishers and artists, have something to say about this. Let’s call this the implicit argument.
And I want to add a third point, that I’ll call the unconscious argument. It’s something I don’t think Robin necessarily intended, but which is entailed in the way he formulates the problem:
Everywhere in Robin’s post where he writes “artists,” you can substitute “journalists”—and probably many other nodes in creative economies, broadly construed.
From Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech at UC-Berkeley’s Journalism School:
Some people when they look for a job in journalism ask themselves, What do I like to do and Who can take me there? Who can get me to a war zone? To a ballpark? To Wall Street? To politicians, to movie stars? Who’s got the vehicle? And you send them your resume and you say, “I want a seat in your car.” … And you wait.
But there are some people, who don’t wait.
I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.
Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.
So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
This speech makes me want to run around the entire internet, giving a million high-fives.
(via @edyong209, who gets high-five #001)
I’m flying my journalism colors for a little bit, liveblogging Jay Rosen’s solo presentation: “Bloggers vs. Journalists: It’s a Psychological Thing.” If you haven’t yet, read Jay’s introductory post: “Why Bloggers v. Journalists Is Still With Us.”
Here’s the session description: “I wrote my essay, Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, in 2005. And it should be over. After all, lots of journalists happily blog, lots of bloggers journalize and everyone is trying to figure out what’s sustainable online. But there’s something else going on: these two Internet types, amateur bloggers and pro journalists, are actually each other’s ideal “other.” A big reason they keep struggling with each other lies at the level of psychology, not in the particulars of the disputes and flare-ups that we continue to see online. The relationship is essentially neurotic, on both sides. Bloggers can’t let go of Big Daddy media— the towering figure of the MSM — and still be bloggers. Pro journalists, meanwhile, project fears about the Internet and loss of authority onto the figure of the pajama-wearing blogger. This is a construction of their own and a key part of a whole architecture of denial that has weakened in recent years, but far too slowly.”
The sole speaker is Jay Rosen; the esteemed Lisa Williams is helping with the setup and backchannel. And without further ado:
American Journalism Review has a new story about how The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal convinced Dan Sinker to out himself as @MayorEmanuel:
A month earlier, for example, a reporter for the NBC-owned television station in Chicago requested an interview. @MayorEmanuel told him to “just call the office: (312) FUC-KOFF.”
When Madrigal received no response, he tried a different tack: “I think it is incumbent on you to at least tell me to fuck off,” he wrote, also providing his e-mail address. “It’s the only time I’ve ever used the F-word in my Twitter feed,” Madrigal adds.
@MayorEmanuel brushed him off. But a short while later, Madrigal received an e-mail from an anonymous e-mail account. The subject line read, “OK, asshole.”
“There were two points in it,” Madrigal says. “One, if you tweet about this, it’s over before it even started. And two, you’re the journalist — you pitch me.”
Snarkmarket’s part of the story, too. There’s a link to The Two Mayors, and I got to talk to AJR’s Greg Masters about why I think Madrigal got the scoop. I’m particularly delighted I got quoted talking about one of my favorite movies, comparing Alexis’s appoach to @MayorEmanuel to “W.W. Beauchamp sidling up to William Munny at the end of Unforgiven.”
[Warning: violent. Munny = Eastwood. Beauchamp = Saul Rubinek, in the glasses.]
Also, if you missed it, definitely check out Dan Sinker’s appearance on Colbert, where he is way more William Munny gentle father than William Munny/@MayorEmanuel murderous sonofabitch:
|The Colbert Report||Mon — Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Yesterday NiemanLab published some of my musings on the coming “Speakularity” — the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.
I probably should have underscored the fact that I don’t see this moment happening in 2011, given the fact that these musings were solicited as part of a NiemanLab series called “Predictions for Journalism 2011.” Instead, I think several things possibly could converge next year that would bring the Speakularity a lot closer. This is pure hypothesis and conjecture, but I’m putting this out there because I think there’s a small chance that talking about these possibilities publicly might actually make them more likely.
First, let’s take a clear-eyed look at where we are, in the most optimistic scenario. Watch the first minute-and-a-half or so of this video interview with Clay Shirky. Make sure you turn closed-captioning on, and set it to transcribe the audio. Here’s my best rendering of some of Shirky’s comments alongside my best rendering of the auto-caption:
|Manual transcript:||Auto transcript:|
|Well, they offered this penalty-free checking account to college students for the obvious reason students could run up an overdraft and not suffer. And so they got thousands of customers. And then when the students were spread around during the summer, they reneged on the deal. And so HSBC assumed they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopelessly disperse. So a guy named Wes Streeting (sp?) puts up a page on Facebook, which HSBC had not been counting on. And the Facebook site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks, HSBC had to back down again. So that was one of the early examples of a managed organization like a bank running into the fact that its users and its customers are not just atomized, disconnected people. They can actually come together and act as a group now, because we’ve got these platforms that allow us to coordinate with one another.||will they offer the penalty-free technique at the college students pretty obvious resistance could could %uh run a program not suffer as they got thousands of customers and then when the students were spread around during the summer they were spread over the summer the reneged on the day and to hsbc assumed that they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopeless experts so again in western parts of the page on face book which hsbc had not been counting on the face book site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks hsbc had to back down again so that was one of the early examples are female issue organization like a bank running into the fact that it’s users are not just after its customers are not just adam eyes turned disconnected people they get actually come together and act as a group mail because we’ve got these platforms to laos to coordinate|
Cringe-inducing, right? What little punctuation exists is in error (“it’s users”), there’s no capitalization, “atomized” has become “adam eyes,” “platforms that allow us” are now “platforms to laos,” and HSBC is suddenly an example of a “female issue organization,” whatever that means.
Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re a journalist. You click a button to send this video to Google Transcribe, where it appears in an interface somewhat resembling the New York Times’ DebateViewer. Highlight a passage in the text, and it will instantly loop the corresponding section of video, while you type in a more accurate transcription of the passage.
That advancement alone — quite achievable with existing technology — would speed our ability to transcribe a clip like this quite a bit. And it wouldn’t be much more of an encroachment than Google has already made into the field of automatic transcription. All of this, I suspect, could happen in 2011.
Now allow me a brief tangent. One of the predictions I considered submitting for NiemanLab’s series was that Facebook would unveil a dramatically enhanced Facebook Videos in 2011, integrating video into the core functionality of the site the way Photos have been, instead of making it an application. I suspect this would increase adoption, and we’d see more people getting tagged in videos. And Google might counter by adding social tagging capabilities to YouTube, the way they have with Picasa. This would mean that in some cases, Google would know who appeared in a video, and possibly know who was speaking.
Back to Google. This week, the Google Mobile team announced that they’ve built personalized voice recognition into Android. If you turn it on for your Android device, it’ll learn your voice, improving the accuracy of the software the way dictation programs such as Dragon do now.
Pair these ideas and fast-forward a bit. Google asks YouTube users whether they want to enable personalized voice recognition on videos they’re tagged in. If Google knows you’re speaking in a video, it uses what it knows about your voice to make your part of the transcription more accurate. (And hey, let’s throw in that they’ve enabled social tagging at the transcript level, so it can make educated guesses about who’s saying what in a video.)
A bit further on: Footage for most national news shows is regularly uploaded to YouTube, and this footage tends to feature a familiar blend of voices. If they were somewhat reliably tagged, and Google could begin learning their voices, automatic transcriptions for these shows could become decently accurate out of the box. That gets us to the democratized Daily Show scenario.
This is a bucketload of hypotheticals, and I’m highly pessimistic Google could make its various software layers work together this seamlessly anytime soon, but are you starting to see the path I’m drawing here?
And at this point, I’m talking about fairly mainstream applications. The launch of Google Transcribe alone would be a big step forward for journalists, driving down the costs of transcription for news applications a good amount.
Commenter Patrick at NiemanLab mentioned that the speech recognition industry will do everything in its power to prevent Google from releasing anything like Transcribe anytime soon. I agree, but I think speech transcription might be a smaller industry economically than GPS navigation,* and that didn’t prevent Google from solidly disrupting that universe with Google Navigate.
I’m stepping way out on a limb in all of this, it should be emphasized. I know very little about the technological or market realities of speech recognition. I think I know the news world well enough to know how valuable these things would be, and I think I have a sense of what might be feasible soon. But as Tim said on Twitter, “the Speakularity is a lot like the Singularity in that it’s a kind of ever-retreating target.”
The thing I’m surprised not many people have made hay with is the dystopian part of this vision. The Singularity has its gray goo, and the Speakularity has some pretty sinister implications as well. Does the vision I paint above up the creep factor for anyone?
* To make that guess, I’m extrapolating from the size of the call center recording systems market, which is projected to hit $1.24 billion by 2015. It’s only one segment of the industry, but I suspect it’s a hefty piece (15%? 20%?) of that pie. GPS, on the other hand, is slated to be a $70 billion market by 2013.
Today Last week, Marc Ambinder reached the end of his tenure as a politics blogger for the Atlantic, and toasted the event with a thoughtful post on the nature of blogging. The central nugget:
Really good print journalism is ego-free. By that I do not mean that the writer has no skin in the game, or that the writer lacks a perspective, or even that the writer does not write from a perspective. What I mean is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening. Blogging is an ego-intensive process. Even in straight news stories, the format always requires you to put yourself into narrative. You are expected to not only have a point of view and reveal it, but be confident that it is the correct point of view. There is nothing wrong with this. As much as a writer can fabricate a detachment, or a “view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen has put it, the writer can also also fabricate a view from somewhere. You can’t really be a reporter without it. I don’t care whether people know how I feel about particular political issues; it’s no secret where I stand on gay marriage, or on the science of climate change, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder,” rather than because it’s good or interesting.
My esteemed coblogger tweeted some terrific observations about Ambinder’s post:
I expect when Tim has more than 140 characters, he’ll nod to the fact that The Atlantic’s website actually encompasses many different ideas of what blogging means — from Andrew Sullivan’s flood of commentless links and reader emails to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rollicking salons to Ambinder’s own sparsely-linked analyses. And beyond the bounds of the Atlantic there are so many other ideas, as many types of blogs as there are types of books, and maybe more — Waiter Rant to Romenesko to Muslims Wearing Things to this dude’s LiveJournal to BLDGBLOG.
That Ambinder’s essay doesn’t really acknowledge this — that it seems so curiously essentialist about a format that’s engendered so much diversity — disappoints me, because he’s such a thoughtful, subtle writer at his best. His sudden swerve into the passive voice — “You are expected to not only have a point of view” — briefly made me worry that he intends to become one of those print journalists who uses the cloak of institutional voice to write weaselly ridiculous phrases such as “Questions are being raised.”
It puzzles me that the same fellow who wrote that “a good story demolishes counterarguments” would casually drop the line, “Really good print journalism is ego-free.” “What I mean,” Ambinder says, “is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening.” I think I know what type of long-form journalism he’s referring to — there’s a wonderful genre of stories that make their case with a simple, sequential presentation of fact after unadorned fact. The Looming Tower. The Problem from Hell. David Grann’s stunning “Trial by Fire” in the New Yorker.
But there’s an equally excellent genre of journalism that foregrounds the author’s curiosities, concerns and assumptions — James Fallows’ immortal foretelling of the Iraq War, Atul Gawande’s investigation of expenditures in health care. This is ego-driven reporting, in the best possible way. For every Problem from Hell, there’s another Omnivore’s Dilemma. Far from demolishing counterarguments, Ambinder’s mention of “ego-free journalism” instantly summons to mind its opposite.
Likewise, his contention that “blogging is an ego-intensive process” has to grapple with the fact that some of the best blogging is just the reverse. It doesn’t square with examples such as Jim Romenesko, whose art is meticulously effacing himself from the world he covers, leaving a digest rich with voice and judgment so veiled you barely even notice someone’s behind it. In fact, contra Ambinder, I’ve found that one of the most difficult types of blogging to teach traditional reporters is this very trick of being a listener and reader first, suppressing the impulse to develop your own take until you’ve surveyed others and brought the best of them to your crowd. Devoid as it is of links, non-Web journalism often fosters a pride of ownership that can become insidious — a constant race to generate information that might not actually help us understand the world any better, but is (1) new and (2) yours. Unchecked, that leads inevitably to this.
In just the way Marc Ambinder’s post wasn’t necessarily an attack on blogging, this isn’t necessarily a defense of it, or an attack on traditional journalism. If Ambinder recast his musings on blogging in a slightly different way, I’d actually agree with him wholeheartedly. If, as I’ve been arguing in this post, the form is flexible enough to encompass so many approaches, that means every choice contributes to a blog’s unique identity. Perhaps more than any other publishing/broadcasting format, a blog is a manifestation of the choices and idiosyncrasies of its authors.
And I think this is what Ambinder’s experience reflects — his choices and his idiosyncrasies. He chose to blog about national politics — an extraordinarily crowded (and particularly solipsistic) field. To distinguish himself from the crowd, he chose to craft a persona known for its canny insider’s pose and behind-the-scenes insights. I think it was a terrific choice; I’ve enjoyed his Atlantic writing a lot. But there’s little essential about the format that compelled him to this choice.
The title of this post is, of course, facetious. (Although I’d kind of love it if the pointless “Who’s a journalist” debates gave way to pointless “Who’s a blogger” ones.) Of course Marc Ambinder was a blogger — he tended to a series of posts displayed on the Web in reverse-chronological order. Beyond that, there are common patterns and proven techniques, but very few rules. Print imposes more constraints, but some folks find a sort of freedom in that. I hope Marc Ambinder does, and I hope to read the product.