Monday, September 25, 2006

Sundays are for self-indulgence

4.23 on an overcast Kingston Sunday.
I’m in one of those coffee shops that dances along the fence between arty and upwardly mobile. Exposed air ducts and free wireless Internet, that sort of thing.

Today’s favourite Kingston phenomenon is the tendency for people to wear their Queen’s gear out in public. You know, if you’re of a certain age, or doing certain things like, I don’t know, reading an economics textbook, it’s probably a safe bet you go to Queen’s. I don’t know why you would feel the need for all the extra promotion. It’s like being that guy who goes to a concert wearing a t-shirt advertising the performing artist. Don’t be that guy.

So what brings me down here on a Sunday afternoon, other than my affection for scribbling away in cafes in all my tortured artist glory?
Congdon, obviously. It always comes back to Amanda Congdon.

For as much ire as the woman arouses in me, the former Rocketboom host always seems to uncork a flood of opinions, on a myriad of topics that grow progressively larger in scale the more I think about them. Today’s flow looks as follows:

TitlesThe RevolutionPublic EnemyReal World Futurism

Bear with me, Windsor. This could take a while.

So Ms. Congdon has finally completed her bounceback from being unceremoniously canned from RB. She’s going ahead with her previously planned move from NY to LA, and is wisely using the trip to kickstart a new videoblogging effort, Amanda Across America.
There’s only a handful of episodes up at the moment, but the more you watch, the harder it becomes to disagree with RB co-founder Andrew Baron’s alleged comment that he “created Amanda.”

So the catalyst for all this rambling came in last Friday’s episode, when Congdon stopped by an exhibit of works by the artist Pia Lindman. Congdon’s attempts at art criticism notwithstanding, the best moment comes when Congdon approaches Lindman for an interview. The initial exhange breaks down like this:
“Can you tell me a little bit about your project?” asks Congdon. “I’m a videoblogger.”
“A video….?” Lindman responds.
“A videoblogger.”
“Ohhh,” says Lindman in that, ‘How precious!’ tone your parents used when you told them you wanted to be a fireman astronaut cartoonist superhero when you grew up. Another person in attendance promptly screws with the lighting, and the scene shifts to Congdon plotting her interview strategy with typical bug-eyed enthusiasm.

ANYWAY… I have this thing, Windsor, a problem, another one of those idiosyncratic tweaks that makes The Trail The Trail you love.
I hate self-labelers.
I believe there are some titles or labels that can only be bestowed by others, or when certain criteria are met, such as getting paid [though that’s not the be all, end all]. It’s just a thing I have. Despite getting paid to write/edit/blog for the better part of three years, I still hesitate to classify myself as any sort of professional. Now maybe that just speaks to personal insecurities that Congdon lacks, but I do believe there are certain rites of passage people have to go through before they earn the right to claim their membership in a certain profession. I don’t feel I’ve endured those rites, so I don’t claim membership.

Put it another way: I’m making my way through Samuel Freedman’s Letters to a Young Journalist right now, despite my aversion to works titled “Letters to a Young [insert noun].” Again, one of those tweaks you love.
In the book, Freedman mentions that he doesn’t trust any “journalist” with polished shoes, because if you were a real reporter, you would be out on the streets and getting your shoes dirty. The fact that I’ve spent more time at a desk than on the streets lately prevents me from considering myself a reporter, which is a distinction I think a lot of bloggers fail to make.

The Revolution

Congdon irritating me this time just reminds me of all the other ways Congdon has irritated me in our short, one-sided relationship. The biggest reason being that Amanda is one of these “Death to MSM!” newjacks who thinks the Internet has changed the world on a much larger scale than it actually has. It’s an easy position to take when your primary audience is the people who already feel that way.

Two examples:
This editorial from her Rocketboom days championing the cause of a neutral intarweb for everyone. She does a good job of breaking down why net neutrality is just the ginchiest, I mean, is there anyone who wants their Internet access to look like their cable-tv package? Not so much. But about two-thirds through, her argument falls to pieces.

“What if,” posits Congdon, “the world was hit with another tsunami-level catastrophe? And what if your Internet provider….blocked Craigslist during the midst of the disaster because they wanted you to use their less effective, less popular classified site?”

Umm, call me a dinosaur, but if I lose everything I have in a f*cking tsunami, Internet access is the last thing on my mind. Who gives a shit if I can’t get on Craigslist, if I need a tent that badly, maybe I’ll pick up a goddamn newspaper? I don’t need to connect to the world when I’m living under a tree on the side of the f*cking mountain, I need to find something I can kill and eat.

The other example comes from her Unboomed phase, where she laments a Wall Street Journal article which argues most bloggers and citizen journalists are just using their online efforts to finagle a gig in the MSM.
Congdon takes issue with the claim, obviously, but is smart enough to retort that most web “amateurs” just want to get paid what they’re worth for the work they do. And who can take issue with that? But she can’t resist a chance to get snarky, because vanity always wins.
“You're afraid, Old Media, just afraid. And that's totally legitimate. Media is moving in beautiful and scary and exciting ways. Look at new media (NM) as a challenge, not a threat.
Or, coming at you from another angle, let us in cuz we are coming in anyway. You know it, man. So let's find ways to co-exist in harmony.”
Yeah, man! Stop trying to hold us down! Why won’t you just let us live! All we wanna do is liiiivvvvvve!

Three entries later she mentions that she’ll be doing some work with a “well known news outlet.” Well known news outlet? That sounds positively Old Media! Jiggy!

Public Enemy
Not so much a non sequitur on the awesomeness that is “Flavor of Love” as much as a reappreciation of the group’s 1988 hit “Don’t Believe the Hype,” because that’s what all of this hoopla comes down to. What we have here is a group of small, but oh-so-vocal people who think they speak for the downtrodden masses when they don’t.

Two glib examples spring to mind from events this past summer: One, X-men 3’s last minute inclusion of the line, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” Innocuous on its own, but layered with Internet meta-awareness for people who have seen the viral cartoon it was lifted from. But most people haven’t seen the cartoon. Everyone I know who saw the movie in a theatre last summer told me that audiences reacted only slightly. Certainly not the sort of uncorked, ‘oh no they didn’t!’ cheers the filmmakers were surely hoping for.

Need more? Four words: “Snakes on a Plane.” Months of Internet hype. Bloggers invited to the premiere! The glass ceiling between armchair producers and the Hollywood elite smashed! Opening weekend take of $15 million! Oops.

I could tell you what I think of that, but blogger Heidi MacDonald did it much more succinctly.
“In the end, it proves something we’ve been saying for a while: The [I]nternet is NOT real life. You must market to the real world too. Sure there’s a nice little world in a bottle that we all like playing in, but as much as it pains us to admit it, not everyone reads blogs all day.”
This is certainly an odd position for a blogger to take, and I know I’ve been as guilty as anyone of trumpeting the cause, but I think you’ve learned by now, Windsor, though The Trail believes in the potential of blogs, the blogosphere is not some sort of free speech utopia. Before blogs, there were zines. Before podcasts there were cassette tapes, and before vlogs there were home movies.

Don’t believe the hype.

Real World Futurism
“Damn Trail, you talk about this shit a LOT.”
I understand that, Windsor, but sometimes the stars align, your cryptex gets unlocked and it gets crystallized in a way you hadn’t considered before. So what did it this time? That book pictured above. It’s called to me for months, and I figured being alone in a strange city was as good a time as any to start reading again.

In it, the authors trumpet the value of what they call “real world futurism.” That is, an optimism for what technology can do to improve people’s lives, but a realistic expectation of how those changes will take place: “It would not happen all at once as many then-experts, drunk on the Internet bubble, then thought…change would come in fits and starts amid confusion, chaos, and the fog of business warfare.”

Ohhh, so that’s what I was trying to say all this time.

Real world futurism informs a lot of what’s in the book, specifically when the authors criticize what’s wrong with blogs and the mindset of the new media upstarts, such as:

  • There may be a growing number of people who get their news online, but they still get it from CNN, the New York Times or the Globe and Mail.
  • The very bias that the MSM gets scolded for, is praised in blogs and other forms of citizen journalism, because those biases are real; they’re believed by the content providers, they’re not being dictated by some corporate owner. They foster trust, because they create a dialogue between reader and writer, but they are still there. Make no mistake, new media is just as biased and opinionated as old media.
  • No bloggers [this one included] actually report on anything. We commentate on and link to the people and institutions that do. You’d be hard pressed to find a blogger with scuffed shoes. If you do, it’s because they can’t afford to buy new ones.
For all the criticism leveled against it, and whether you believe it or not, the mainstream media functions on the premise of providing the reader with a fair presentation of the news of the day, and leaving it up to the reader to develop their own opinions. Blogs function on providing one interpretation of that news, but also demand a sort of blind loyalty to that interpretation, which is not healthy to the dialogue.

As much as the newjacks want to disparage the tenets of Old Media, the things they teach you in j-school, like how to order a story, how to make it flow, how to write a lead, how to write, PERIOD, are sorely needed in the blogosphere. But that’s not the point.

The point is something I came to in the midst of shooting my second video, and something the authors of blog! seem to agree with: that even when it’s biased, or ill-researched, or plain ol’ crap, it’s necessary, because that’s what truly defines a free press:
“What the world is coming to, of course, is what we were always taught it was supposed to be in the first place --- a democratic society in which everyone has a voice…not that every voice will be smart, or right, or even polite. Not that every voice would be truthful or used for positive purposes. Just that we would all have a voice.”
The maxim says “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” Now, everyone does.
So what are you going to do with yours?


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