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:
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?
It’s taken me some effort to learn how to appreciate poetry. I can make broad statements about liking books and music without having to like all books or all music, but with poetry–for whatever reason–it’s been more difficult.
However, as someone who would also say he likes math, opening a book of poems and seeing this has immediate appeal:
This is from R. D. Liang’s Knots, a book of poems about “the patterns of human bondage.” I like this. It gives me that “this looks crazy and I want to understand it” feeling.
That feeling is everywhere in math, though it has nothing to do with liking numbers or concepts: It’s a love for the notation itself, the joy of getting to move towards increasingly strange symbology as you understand more.
And reading Knots feels much the same — up to a point. My fascination thus far is wholly with its notation (e.g. the cryptic use of brackets, the strings of random numbers) and the structures in the book itself (e.g. its syntax — the “knots”). Try this one, for example:
Jack sees that
Jill does not know
Jack does not know what
But Jack can’t see
why Jill does not know
that Jack does not know
what Jill thinks
I’ve been reading these poems for the last few nights and I’ve still yet to get much closer to appreciating the subtleties of what Liang has to say about human psychology. (To me, the poem fragment above is not so much about “knowing what others know” as it is about learning how to parse the sentence to read it.) In some sense, I’m hung up solely on the way it’s presented rather than on what it means.
So I’m curious: When is it okay to not want to understand? (Or is it always okay?) Is “understanding” a poem something different from understanding other things?
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.
Wisdom. What we really mean, what we have always meant, is wisdom.
I’m about to sign a lease for a small, Sam Spade-style office in a beautiful old building in San Francisco. This is a space intended initially and primarily for writing, but eventually it will be home to other projects as well — apps, digital stuff, etc. Maybe eventually I will solve some crimes.
I’ve never set up an office of my own, so I’m going to take this opportunity to shine the snarksignal into the sky. I want to hear about great workspace situations. Desks, chairs, plant companions, conceptual frameworks — what’s made spaces work for you, or people you know? Any standing desk devotees out there? What mistakes should I avoid? What Pinterest boards should I be browsing?
I get my key next week. One room, about 150 square feet, with a couple of large windows looking out over a bustling city street. Give me some advice and I promise I will put it to use.
After having completed developer Quantic Dream’s most recent video game Beyond: Two Souls, I felt myself compelled to tweet that the ending had made me laugh out loud.
All right, I just laughed out loud at the Beyond: Two Souls ending.— Gavin Craig (@craiggav) October 29, 2013
Now, like other Quantic Dream games — Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit — Beyond: Two Souls can pretty fairly be described as a game that is not trying to engender laughter. It’s a serious game about 15 years of its main character’s life in which serious things happen. Like being abandoned by her parents to be raised in a secret lab, and fighting Very Bad People in the Third World, and then discovering that maybe the Very Bad People weren’t who she was told they were. Also, there’s a ghost who follows the main character everywhere. Did I mention the ghost?
There are also big problems with the game. The nonlinear structure of the game’s chapters doesn’t appear to be very well thought out. For a character-driven story, none of the characters are particularly realized. I’ve heard more than one person comment that it appears at times that the writers have never actually had a conversation with another human being. I haven’t even mentioned the “Navajo” chapter, in which the white main character saves a Native American family by recovering the rituals of their people, and, um, yeah.
But for all this, I found myself laughing at the end of the game. Not screaming, not throwing my controller at the TV, laughing. Somewhere, at least for a minute, Beyond: Two Souls had crossed the line separating the ridiculous from the sublime, and that, for me at least, was a striking event.
While video games are built on over-the-top, excessive worlds, where if one of anything is good, fifty is better, I’ve almost never seen a discussion of a game in terms of camp — Read more…
I was on a panel at the Wordstock festival in Portland recently, and one of the other panelists, a poet named Mike Young, provided a précis of an idea called “bug time.” You should see the pad of hotel stationary I was using to take notes that day: BUG TIME!!!, underlined multiply, letters gouged into the paper. Look up. Joy L. (?) McSweeney. Notre Dame poet. I was excited.
I am hungry for ideas–specifically, ways of thinking about media, about producing and consuming it — that are truly new, and truly suited to our times. We have all these crazy tools now, and more all the time, and these crazy ways of wiring things together, but we still mostly want to be “authors.” (You can just overlay quotation marks around any/all words in this post. It’s “that” “kind” of “post.”) I mean, of course we do! It’s fun. I love being an author. But at the same time, I have a nagging sense that traditional authorship (even a bloggy sort of traditional authorship) isn’t quite “forward-leaning” in the way that I value. (If you’re interested, I tried to describe that sensibility recently.)
You read about the history of books and you learn: it’s all invented. Not just the formats, but the roles and relationships — cultural, economic, and otherwise. Back in 1450, there was no such thing as a person who paid their rent by writing. It didn’t even make sense to call anyone a “writer,” at least not in the sense that we mean it today. Scribe, maybe; writer, no. Erasmus was (probably) the first, right around 1500, and today we’ve got writers all over the place. So, by extension, there must be some role–or more broadly, some way of being, of working — that will seem obvious and essential and maybe even romantic in the year 2600 that we have not yet imagined today.
What might it look like? What might it feel like? Where can we find some clues? Read more…
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:
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?
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.
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.
(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.
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:
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:
The best thing Jeff Bezos can do for The Washington Post is to figure out how to bring classifieds back.
— Dave Pell (@davepell) August 15, 2013
@davepell Actually, an Amazon-driven Craigslist alternative would be pretty sweet.
— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) August 15, 2013
@davepell How do you take classifieds FORWARD? Beyond Craigslist, beyond eBay. How do you create a total, evolving peer-to-peer marketplace?
— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) August 15, 2013
@tcarmody Get closer to the transaction. That's the name of the game in the Internet business.
— Dave Pell (@davepell) August 15, 2013
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?