The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

A light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away
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Tim Maly writes about the true architectural marvels of New York, not the skyscrapers, the low-slung brownstones, or the magnificent suspension bridges, but the rivers and islands and shorelines of the city itself:

In 1660, Pearl Street ran along the shore. Captain Kidd had a waterfront property at the corner of Pearl and Wall. Today, that site lies three blocks inland. In the 1690s, the City sold water lots to private would-be landowners, each forty feet wide. Purchasers agreed to infill forty feet into the river, leaving space for public access wharves on the far side. These wharves became Water Street, which is itself two blocks away from the shore today, thanks to subsequent infill.

When these areas were built up, landscapers didn’t build very high. As sea levels rise and the climate becomes increasingly wild, we now have a series of artificial flood plains populated by people who did not sign up to be residents of a flood plain.

You can roughly trace Manhattan and Brooklyn’s original shorelines by looking at a map of the flood zones. Take away Zone A, and you get a pretty good picture of the ancient boundary between water and land. Some of that territory didn’t use to be land at all. Much of it was marsh and wetland.

“The High Line,” Tim writes, “is an architectural marvel made possible by the dredging of Newark Bay.”

Tim’s essay reminds me of two of my favorite pieces of writing. The first, “Atchafalaya,” by the great John McPhee, is probably the classic account of human’s semi-tragic, quasi-doomed, but all-too-real attempts to remake and restabilize the relentless natural wonders on which we’re precipitously perched.

The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah… The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

The second is from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (also called The Man Who Disappeared). In the original draft of the book, Kafka gets key details of New York City’s geography “wrong,” so his editor Max Brod “corrected” them in the early published version. But I think Kafka’s absurd, imaginary architecture (restored in this translation) was entirely deliberate and from the standpoint of literature is actually far superior:

The bridge connecting New York to Boston hung delicately over the Hudson, and it trembled when you squinted to see it. It seemed entirely without traffic and underneath it ran an inanimate, smooth belt of water. Everything in both of these giant cities seemed empty and pointlessly displayed. As for the buildings, there was barely any difference between the large ones and the small. In the invisible deep of the streets, the bustle went on after its own manner, but nothing moved above it except for a light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away, but it was as if you could chase it away without any effort. Even in the harbor, the largest in the world, it was quiet, and only here and there, influenced by your memory of seeing it up close, you might believe you saw a ship pushing on for a short stretch. But you couldn’t follow it for long, it escaped from your eyes and couldn’t be found anymore.

Besides, it’s not as if the geography of New York is fixed and immutable anyways. We’ve built things nearly as flabbergasting as this.

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The imaginative flip-flop
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So I’m hand-coding an EPUB file to salvage a badly-OCRed and not-much-better auto-converted PDF, because these are the things I do when I can’t sleep or write and I decide it’s better to do something constructive and thoughtful rather than brainless but I only have the firepower to, like, delete a whole bunch of excessive line breaks one after the other while I read the text.

The book is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which you might or might not remember I wrote about a couple years ago in a Longshot essay called “Hero’s Welcome.” It’s a favorite of mine. I’m cleaning up the introduction, written by the great and now-late Palestinian scholar of comparative literature Edward Said. Then Said pulls this long quote from Auerbach’s book, taken from a little chapter on Schiller’s 1780s play Luise Millerin, a petit-bourgeois tragedy you’ve probably never heard of.

And b’gosh, for Auerbach, writing a book on the history of European literature, from exile in Istanbul, as World War 2 is crashing all around him, the quote is everything:

Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present. A change in our manner of viewing history will of necessity soon be transferred to our manner of viewing current conditions. When people realize that epochs and societies are not to be judged in terms of a pattern concept of what is desirable absolutely speaking but rather in every case in terms of their own premises; when people reckon among such premises not only natural factors like climate and soil but also the intellectual and historical factors; when, in other words, they come to develop a sense of historical dynamics, of the incomparability of historical phenomena and of their constant inner mobility; when they come to appreciate the vital unity of individual epochs, so that each epoch appears as a whole whose character is reflected in each of its manifestations; when, finally, they accept the conviction that the meaning of events cannot be grasped in abstract and general forms of cognition and that the material needed to understand it must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and women, because it is only there that one can grasp what is unique, what is animated by inner forces, and what, in both a more concrete and a more profound sense, is universally valid: then it is to be expected that those insights will also be transferred to the present and that, in consequence, the present too will be seen as incomparable and unique, as animated by inner forces and in a constant state of development; in other words, as a piece of history whose everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest both in their origins and in the direction taken by their development (443-444).

Now this in turn reminds me of a lovingly-written and well-thought essay by Joshua Rothman on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina appearing a week ago at The New Yorker’s website. This, too, digs into something similarly human and inspiring, both bounded and boundless:

Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way [from a typical love story]: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.

Those thoughts aren’t very romantic, but they are Tolstoyan. When he turned to “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy didn’t simply leave behind the themes of “War and Peace.” Instead, he found a way of thinking about many of same issues that had always interested him—fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them—in a different context.

For the titular Anna, love is a disaster. She runs smack into the limits of what is possible specific to her time and place. She struggles against them, but the universe is indifferent to her heroism. Her limits are just as real as the prohibitions laid down by the gods of Ancient Greece, but there’s no oracle to announce them, with or without room for irony. These gods roll dice; these gods leave seams. Rothman:

In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin writes that, for Tolstoy, wisdom consists in the ability “to grasp what human will and human reason can do, and what they cannot.” The only way to find those limits is to struggle against them, but gently, with the goal of finding and accepting them. You can’t think your way to the limits. You have to feel your way, learning through experience and suffering. And there is a risk in experimenting with what will and will not work in life, which is that it might not work. You might move to New York to pursue your dreams, and end up with no career to speak of. You might think you can wait to find the perfect spouse, but wait too long, and end up alone. You might think you can have that affair and still have the love of your spouse and children—but you may be mistaken about what’s possible, and lose everything.

Can you think your way through time and recognize yourself on the other side, not through a false sense of universal humanity but through the textures of lived experience? Can you encounter the dark miracle we have chosen to christen “literature”?

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Announcing the Snarkmarket Seminar
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Update: Discovered I needed to wait an extra week to book the hotel rooms because of how far out it is. We should be able to confirm signups this week. – MT

Snarkmarket is nine years old today. At this point, I think of Snarkmarket as less of a blog and more of a collective of incredible people with similar (and often wonderfully divergent) fascinations who’ve happened upon each other at the right time. Years after the height of this blog’s activity, I still meet folks who introduce themselves with the question, “Hey, aren’t you Matt from Snarkmarket?”

In 2013, we want to try something that ties together many of the fascinations of this collective. We’ll be seeking about 30 fellow travelers to join us in a year-long, self-assembling digital seminar on media. Everyone will be a lecturer and everyone will be a participant in a series of weekly discussions focusing on a particular text or set of texts. It’ll culminate in a weekend of creation and collaboration in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Snarkmarket began.

First, we have to figure out who’s in. The price of admission will be a hotel room reservation at a hotel in St. Petersburg (official venue TBD) the weekend of November 2nd and 3rd, 2013. We’ll take care of actually booking the rooms. Next week, we’ll post more information on claiming a spot in the seminar. If you want to be in the loop when we do, shoot me a quick email at seminarkmarket@emailmatt.com.

Second, we have to create the syllabus. Starting Sunday, January 6th, we’ll have a weekly discussion led by a different seminar participant, focusing on a different set of texts. During the month of December, each participant will volunteer the text (or texts!) they want to discuss during their week at the virtual podium. It can be anything, of any vintage – a video, a book, an essay, a story, a game, an artwork – just as long as it says something fascinating to you about media today. Once we’ve identified the full set of texts, we’ll arrange a lecture calendar (with a few breaks for holidays and whatnot).

Weekly discussions get underway the week of January 6th. We’ll try to find a regular day and time that’s agreeable to as many members of the group as possible. The day after each discussion, the next participant at the virtual podium will introduce us to their text with a post telling us why they find it fascinating. Our weekly homework assignment is to participate in the comment thread about this post (you’re not getting graded on responses, so they can be short; “I’m not sure I saw the same resonances you did in this video” is a perfectly legitimate reaction).

In September, we’ll break to work on our final “papers.” These can obvs take any form you wish. They’ll be due by Sunday, October 20th. No more weekly discussions during this time.

Last, we gather in St. Pete. What will happen there, no one can know. We promise only wizardry and delight.

The last time we embarked on a grand adventure together, we wrote a book that’s still being talked about today. I’m beyond excited at the prospect of spending a year in study with this community, learning and sharing alongside one another. I hope you’ll join us.

Happy birthday, Snarkmarket. And happy birthday, Tim!

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My [annotated] big idea: We need a TiVo for ideas
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(cc) Today is a good day / Flickr.

I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where I’m one of a host of speakers given a couple minutes to deliver a “big idea.” Here’s the idea I went with, lightly expanded and annotated:

I’d like to get a little meta about big ideas. As a journalist, I think a lot about how we develop and communicate big ideas (“big” in this context meaning “complex,” “weighty”). At NPR, we have no end of nuanced, complicated matters to unravel, and I’m convinced that the transition to digital will end up being a huge asset in this task, not a hindrance. But we need to advance in our understanding of how narrative can work online.

“Big” ideas, examined closely, tend to resolve into a series of little ideas accumulated over time. So here’s my argument: To make our big ideas real, we need to develop better mechanisms for collecting and organizing all our ideas.

Take TV as an illustration. Until the VCR began to go mainstream in the mid-’70s, television episodes were essentially self-contained events. With few exceptions, shows had to frame each episode for a potentially new audience, one that wasn’t necessarily attuned to the show’s continuity.

As VCRs took hold, narratives on TV – ideas on TV – could become more complex. Because viewers could catch up on a series’ essential plot elements on videotape, it was easier for them to follow story arcs and keep track of important developments. Formula-driven shows like Dragnet (pre-VCR) gave way to complex dramatic narratives like Hill Street Blues (post-VCR).

As VCRs gave way to the TiVo (the DVR) storytellers could offer even more complex arcs for audiences, paving the way for narratives of truly literary complexity and heft, such as the Wire. As we move deeper into streaming, and TV episodes sit increasingly alongside YouTube clips, “shows” will become yet more nuanced networks of ideas.

Now think about the structures we’ve used to collect ideas on the Internet. Start with the RSS reader, the Internet’s VCR of ideas – fussy, difficult to program, but it too let us follow story arcs and keep track of important developments. And it was good enough to foster complex serial narratives like Talking Points Memo’s investigation of US attorney firings.

A lot of folks say they’ve moved past the RSS reader. It’s not uncommon to hear us media types say “Twitter’s my RSS reader now.” But tweets and hashtags have obvious drawbacks for communicating complex ideas. I can say, “We need a TiVo for ideas.” I can point you to the hashtag “#tivoforideas.” Hashtags, as we’ve seen, can have tremendous power for collecting ideas at a moment in time. But partly because tweets are ephemeral – they quickly fade beyond search and memory – hashtags are poor vessels for binding ideas over time.

Hence my big idea: We need to develop simpler and more powerful ways of collecting and following concepts across time. There’s much to learn from – hashtags, Storify, Wikipedia, Tumblr. But I suspect what we’re aiming for is a standard, not an app, a common convention, not a website. I want to be able to say, “Track the #tivoforideas conversation,” and watch this domain of thought develop over time as multiple thinkers add their input, and little ideas coalesce, gradually, into big ones.


Related thoughts:

  • This, of course, ties in very much with the body of thinking I and others have been doing about the future of context.
  • First Paul Ford and then Megan Garber have delivered powerful essays on the evolving nature of ideas in an era where streams have surpassed stories (e.g. Twitter replacing the RSS reader). I think about these two pieces all the time. Chase them with a reading of Megan’s essay on TED, ideas and authorship.
  • PJ Onori started a similar conversation a little while ago at Adaptive Path, very much worth connecting to this one. (Thanks, @absi!).
  • I still haven’t written my grand treatise about the nature of quest narratives and how that format enables grand ideas to develop, but you might find it interesting to click through these slides of a presentation I gave on the subject:
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Tantric orgasms of critical insight
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Sam Anderson takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise Roland Barthes, “the man who essentially created cultural criticism,” from the systematic analysis of novelistic structure to the TV recap:

Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment…

His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy…

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.”

I have a hard time giving up knowledge so easily — and really, Barthes did too. (I think it’s mostly the pretense to knowledge, the use of knowledge as a cudgel, that he saw as the problem.)

The part I probably love best and most fully endorse is the section on what a critic is supposed to do:

“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”

The pairing of these things, the genuine jouissance and the relentless critical awareness, the ruthless crusade against the conventionally obvious, is what makes it all work.

Never just a cheerleader. Never just a killjoy. Something beyond either. And listing always in favor of flavor.

PS: Mythologies was just published in a terrific new edition/translation which is like twice as long as the bowdlerized version we’ve had in English for forty years. That’s the occasion for the essay.

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How Netflix’s Content Strategy Works, Even When It Doesn’t
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To me, the most fascinating part of Netflix’s earnings release for the past quarter [PDF] is the section on original programming:

One way to think of originals is in terms of brand halo. If we are able to generate critical success for our originals, it will elevate our consumer brand and drive incremental members to the service. That took HBO nearly a decade to accomplish, so we don’t expect overnight results. The breadth of media coverage we already get, though, for the highly anticipated new season of “Arrested Development”, as well as for “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards”, has been great.

In marketing, this kind of press coverage is sometimes called “earned media.” In particular, original programming ideally gets Netflix media coverage both in places that always cover the company and in places that never did before.

Another way to think of originals is vertical integration; can we remove enough inefficiency from the show launch process that we can acquire content more cheaply through licensing shows directly rather than going through distributors who have already launched a show? Our on-demand and personalized platform means that we don’t have to assemble a mass audience at say, 8pm on Sunday, to watch the first episode. Instead, we can give producers the opportunity to deliver us great serialized shows and we can cost-efficiently build demand over time, with members discovering these new franchises much in the same way they’ve discovered and come to love shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” In this regard, we are happy to report that in terms of cost per viewing hour, which is how we evaluate content efficiency, “Lilyhammer” so far performs in line with similar premium exclusive content that we currently license.

As Nav and Robin point out, “cost per viewing hour” is both really fascinating and really pointless. (Maybe it’s fascinating because it’s pointless.)

You could say, “who cares how much people WATCH any particular show?” It doesn’t make you any extra money. What matters is whether that content makes people fork over their cash each month — if a family gets or keeps their Netflix subscription precisely because they can watch new seasons of Arrested Development or the whole back catalog of Mad Men.

But that’s almost impossible to measure. And these are edge cases, to say the least. More people aren’t going to make this decision hinge entirely on a single piece of content, or even a whole passel of it, like Starz’s. It’s an aggregate thing — you want to feel like you’re getting value out of the service. And cost per viewing hour doesn’t seem like a bad way of doing that.

It’s definitely a good way for Netflix, which doesn’t have unlimited resources, to think about how it’s going to spend its money. (Maybe it spent too much money on Mad Men.) Netflix wants programs that are beloved, not beliked. And if it can get them for less than HBO is spending for the same kind of content, that’s even better.

Finally, a third way to think about originals is as a hedge, in case, say, FX chooses not to license us prior seasons of their next hit as good as “Sons of Anarchy”. FX in this case would seek to monetize prior seasons of their next hit in parallel to how HBO does, in other words, only on “FX GO”. As long as we can better monetize prior seasons, through both scale and technology, than anyone else, then this scenario is not likely, except from a premium TV competitor like HBO that is strategically motivated to impede our growth.

Oh ho ho, Netflix, you wascally wabbit.

Hmm, you want to try to do your own thing and syndicate yourself online? Good luck with that. It’d be a shame if it turned out you weren’t able to make any money doing that.

Netflix can go to networks and say “we can make more money from your old content than you’ll ever make yourself.” It can go to creators of new shows, and say “we can make you money online, forever, and FX can’t do that.” Networks that don’t have HBO scale have extra reasons to play nice with Netflix.

As we build our capability in originals, we will have some advantages relative to our competitors. Namely, we have extensive user viewing history and ratings data to allow us to better understand potential appeal of future programs, as well as a very broad and already segmented audience. At the same time, we don’t face the same pressure as linear or ad-supported online networks to deliver ratings. Finally, we should be able to use our size and international scale to bring the best original and exclusive content from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world. This is a real advantage over our regional competitors.

Two constant themes in all my tech writing come together here:

  1. Global, global, global;
  2. Whoever knows customers best wins.

It’s a good day for Netflix. I don’t know exactly what the stock market is up to, or how it will react in the long run, but it feels like Reed Hastings knows what he’s doing again.

Disclosure: Robin Sloan owns one share of Netflix stock.

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Snark by Snarkwest: 100 Years of Awesomeness
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Snark by Snarkwest: Let’s Get Lost – Surprise in the Social Media Age
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Snark by Snarkwest: It’s Not News, It’s Business
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Snark by Snarkwest: The Psychology and Interfaces of Social Design
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