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Stone age memes: Heraclitus and me in the blogosphere

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I started out life as a Latin teacher, and apart from being able to spend time poring over smut no one else could understand and being called a scholar and not a pervert –- it was long ago and in those days the former term was considered preferable -– the appeal was that the subject domain didn’t change very much. You could delve deep and really understand what you were doing.

Oh, Saint Heraclitus, where did I go wrong? I fell into the blogosphere, and I will never be the same again. Everything changes, and I have to hustle my abundant middle-aged hams to keep up. Right now I’m investigating a sea-change in our culture: blogging has gone from a dubious phenomenon to just another way of getting information. There’s less “It’s just a blog,” and more of people reading blogs, without even noticing they are getting their information in a new way.

Lots of people out there can’t tell Word Press from blogspot, but, thanks to the film Julie & Julia, blogging has become as familiar as email. The last time we saw a change like this was in 1989. That year, there was a new version of The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 movie about letter writers unaware that they are corresponding with a feuding co-worker. The remake was You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as workers in competing bookstores, oblivious of the identity of their email correspondents.

I began to ponder what the representation of blogging in a popular film said about our electronic communication. First a bit of background, in case you have been hiding out in a root cellar. For a year, Julie Powell wrote a blog (the Julie/Julia project) documenting the self-imposed challenge of making every recipe in the two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The project became a best-selling book and then the movie Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep. I’m going to quote a disconcertingly long sample of the blog that is essential to showing the endearing way Powell interweaves cooking and the more prosaic aspects of her life:

So while the veal was roasting, I trimmed the brussels sprouts.  Turns out my cat Maxine is buggy for brussels sprouts.  It’s kind of bizarre she’s only just now discovered this passion, but she’s made for them.  She chomped up all the leaves I tore off then started going for the whole brussels sprouts.  I’m sporting several scratches on the back of my hand this morning, the result of having to beat her off.

Fucking weirdo cat.

So I shred the brussels sprouts with the handy-dan slicing blade of my Cuisinart.  There is nothing much funner than slicing brussels sprouts, or anything else for that matter, with the slicing blade of a Cuisinart.

… It’s all good. I gotta say, though, I guess it’s just the Texas girl in me, but I’m not one percent thrilled with veal. It’s not the torture and premature death so much, I can handle torture, it’s the always-threatening possibility of dryness, and a certain non-oomphiness of flavor. Certainly I’ve had veal I’ve loved in my time, and will have it again – surely in the course of the dozen or so veal recipes I’ve got coming up I can manage to make some I love – but in my heart of hearts, give me a big dripping hunk of long-cooked picnic shoulder any day….

So y’all’s encouragement plus a good night’s sleep have left me feeling not at all whiny, but I were feeling whiny, I’d say this: So yesterday I … come home, via the subway Eric never has to take anymore, and he’s talking on the phone with his brother (hey, Ethan!) for like ever, and there are so many dishes in the sink I can’t start cooking, and the bed isn’t made, and it’s like and for this I have no dog??!!!

Then he comes and washes the dishes, and friends again.

Food porn it’s not. You can see right away, I think, that some aspects of this blog are not going to work in a Hollywood flick. Nasty bitch that I am, I found the transformation of the in-your-face blog into a sappy movie interesting especially in the light of the inherently dissonant characteristics of the endeavor.

In the first place, Child did not approve of Powell’s project. According to Publisher’s Weekly Child’s editor Juliet Jones read Powell’s blog with her, and “Julia said, ‘I don’t think she’s a serious cook.’” Blogger Kristen Michaelis also read the blog and wishes she hadn’t:

In one post, she says, “I was supposed to degrease the sauce, but f— it.” No wonder Julia Child said Julie didn’t “seem very serious” about it. After all, Julia had spent years of her life researching and writing utterly fail-proof recipes. And Julie waltzes in, disregards the directions, and whines about her failures on her blog.

Jones said,

Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describes the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called ‘the flimsies.’ She didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.

Jones calls this a generation gap; to me it’s more like an instance of cultural dissonance. What Jones and Child think of as improper behavior really represents the norms on the Internet. Most advice on blogging will tell you that bringing your personality into a blog and being controversial are good, but they are not old school.

According to Roseanne T. Sullivan, the issue of Child’s rejection is even more problematic in the movie:

The actor portraying Julie’s husband has some tough lines to read when trying to console Julie after a reporter told her what Julia Child thought of the blog. The husband speaks a psychobabbly bit about how the Julia Child that Julie has in her head is a different person from the Julia Child who doesn’t appreciate the blog. And that somehow consoles the Julie character.

Trying to learn about the Internet from a popular movie is like coming to Casablanca for the waters. In the transition from blog to mainstream culture, the edgy personality of Julie Powell is somehow homogenized. Sure, there are plenty of bland blogs out there, but a blog is more likely to be profane, deliberately disjointed, and funky. In fact, it’s official: the standards for Internet blogging are becoming more relaxed. An LA Times editor acknowledged the distinction in 2008, noting,

A less formal voice may be appropriate in online stories and on blogs (as is often the case in feature stories too), but a conversational style is not an invitation to abandon The Times’ high standards by introducing gratuitous obscenities.

In other words, “… whether it’s on latimes.com or in print, curse words and crude language are supposed to be used only when they are essential to conveying an important point of the story.” Julia Child would not have approved, but our mores are changing.

In the light of Julie & Julia, a tounge-in-cheek article in the Guardian suggested that more popular films would be based on blogs. Its recommendations included: Girl With a One Track Mind (“The Diary of a Sex Fiend”), Stuff White People Like (satirizing yuppie values), and Pimp That Snack (elaborate homemade versions of fast food, somehow a memed-up descendant of The T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project).

I know the Guardian article is a joke, but look at Mitzi Szereto, a blogger extraordinaire. The blogosphere is a virtual wild West for foot soldiers to rise from obscurity, remaking themselves as heroes and villains. Mitzi parlayed a career writing erotica (mostly as M. S. Valentine) into developing the genre of the erotic writing workshop.

I didn’t even know these things existed. This is what I love about the Internet. From the safety of my geeky armchair I can read about human vagaries heretofore unimagined. This particular one is a big treat for an aging devotee of Anais Nin. Mitzi (whose current last name is Hungarian for “lover”) has moved on to starring in a series of youtube videos about the “madness and mayhem” of London. Once a voyeur…

At the same time, Mitzi is still on call in her blog Errant Ramblings and she offers erotic writing workshops. When I see her being thrown into the air by Morris men (who are defined in her narrative as eccentrics), smutty-minded as I am, I can’t help wondering about the physiological concomitants of the experience. Will she tell us about it some day? Can a movie deal be far behind?

Concurrent with (and perhaps related to) the movement of the Internet blogging trend to the mainstream, there is a strain of thought that it is moribund if not deader than a doornail. You see this from wonderful writers like DiamondGeezer, who says the blogging has had its day, adding

Ten years ago, [it] was a little-known activity undertaken by the very few. Even when I started, back in 2002, blogging was still very much an inconspicuous overlooked activity. That changed, didn’t it? Once people realised that they could publish stuff, and maybe get themselves listened to, they started taking far more of an interest. And now if you say the word ‘blog’ in public people generally know what you mean. But they don’t get excited any more.

Don’t believe it for minute. Blogging is alive and well, and more interesting than ever, All the same, you can see the blogging-is-dying thread on personal sites as well as sites devoted to media analysis, like that of Meg Pickard, who says blogging has “penetrated mainstream web usage” and so people are no longer excited about it and consider it a failure.

Another way to look at the exaggerated rumors about the death of blogging is to observe that this activity is now in the area of the Gartner Hype Cyle called “the Slope of Enlightenment.” This means that business people have figured out how to “monetize” it by turning it into “Corporate Blogging.” So now the blog is worth buying and the opportunities are endless.

One practice affecting our view of blogs is astroturfing, a form of stealth marketing that simulates a grassroots campaign, disguising the commercial or political interests actually at work, and making them seem more representative than they are. This wonderful term is thought to have been coined by the redoubtable former Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who in a Vice-Presidential debate said to a quivering Dan Quayle:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Early astroturfing campaigns used letters and phone calls, but now there is a shift to electronic media, and blogging is one way to go.

According to the Guardian, China has been using astroturfing bloggers, the so-called “50-cent army,” who are paid 5 mao or 50 cents for each post supporting speeches by Chinese leaders, or defending China’s honor abroad. Sourcewatch.org reports that companies are also using paid blogging to hype their products. According to John D.,

The killing aspect of astroturf is that it poisons the well of discourse. Before this, you could at least have a degree of confidence that the stupid was authentic stupid. I’m not sure if I can deal with sorting out the fake stupid.

And there is something called niche blogging, “one of the easiest and one of the most profitable ways to make money on the internet today.” This involves creating blogs for particular, narrow audiences and linking them to ads peddling products related to the area of interest. Of course, as bloggingfingers points out, “every blog is in a niche,” whether the author realizes it or not, so the commercial possibilities are in this view boundless. Would you like to buy a meme?

Bloggers makemoney when readers click on the advertising placed on their sites. Maki, a Canadian college student, set himself the personal challenge of starting seven niche blogs a week. Examples would be blogging about robotic pets or bento boxes. I think stone-age memes need not apply. In any case, Maki sets up the blog, you and I provide the content, and if all goes as planned, Maki makes the money. What’s Maki studying in college? Well, philosophy, of course.

Although there is plenty of reason to be cautious about what you read on line, blogging is poised to give us information of the sort we need, especially as the realm of “objective truth” has yet again become tarnished in its turn. The New York Times reports this week that JAMA editors have found ghostwriting “rife” in medical journals. In the medical domain, the term refers to

medical writers, often sponsored by a drug or medical device company, who make major research or writing contributions to articles that are published under the names of academic authors.

So much for scientific objectivity and objective proof. You mean we have to read the stuff and figure out if it’s valid? English teachers need not fear for their jobs!

In reading a blog, you have to be aware of the rules of the game for bloggers. A favorite example of mine is the article Frank Fitzpatrick wrote in June about how bloggers reported an alleged assault on NBA referee Tim Donaghy and whether Raul Ibanez was taking drugs. Fitzpatrick quoted the editor-in-chief of the “wildly popular” sports blog Deadspin, A.J. Daulerio, as saying,

I’m just trying to kind of create some conversation, put some stuff out there … I think you can take the gossip side and the salacious side and the journalism side and try to make this whole neat product. . . . Maybe it’s complete horse- . . . but we can fix that later.

But Fitzgerald also suggested the distinction between blogs and journalism is “an internecine feud,” and quoted attorney Nathan Marinoff’s email to the Inquirer:

Are there excessive, irresponsible bloggers? Of course, … That said . . . one doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of similarly excessive, irresponsible figures in print and broadcast media. As with all things, the key is to read and think critically.

Sometimes journalism comes off a clear second best. In covering the recent murder of Byrd and Melanie Billings, the Pensacola couple who adopted a brood of disabled children, blogger Rick Outzen scooped the more established media. Citing anonymous sources, he blogged that Billings engaged in shady dealings and there was reason to think his death was by contract. He fingered Patrick Gonzalez, Jr. who in 1999 had worked for a used car company connected to Billings’ business interests. Damien Cave reported in the New York Times that the local sheriff, David Morgan, said the blog assisted the investigation and a grand jury indicted Outzen’s suspect.

Cave quoted the publisher of (the rival news source) The Pensacola News Journal, as saying that Outzen’s success was in part due to”his blog’s looser journalistic standards.” He did however, concede that

… in the eyes of many here, Mr. Outzen has become an example of civic journalism that trades objectivity for an argumentative love of place displayed online.

“I don’t always agree with him, but he is the conscience of the community,” said Mort O’Sullivan, chairman of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “People have come to trust that Rick’s going to be out there, pushing us in ways sometimes we’re not comfortable with.”

In fact the fresh energy brought to reporting by bloggers is increasingly being harnessed by conventional news sources. The New York Times sponsors The Lede, Robert Mackey’s news blog which

remixes the day’s top stories, adding information gleaned from Web sites around the world or gathered through original reporting by writers, editors and readers of The New York Times, to provide fresh perspectives on events and to draw readers in to the world-wide conversation about the news taking place online.

The name of the blog is taken from the journalistic word for the opening of an article which is designed to lead readers into a story.

Mackey says,

The Lede blog is the place for readers to start if they want to know more about a news event than what they’ve read in articles in the New York Times and links NYTimes.com to the rest of the world’s news sites.

This is tantamount to an admission that the newspaper is not sufficient, and the blog completes it. And yet the blog appears on the paper’s home page and as such represents a blurring of the traditional news source and the blogosphere.

Leonard Witt, Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University, says

Is it journalism? Yes, half baked, but that sounds pejorative. Instead think of it as the raw materials that make for a truly robust, finished journalism. It is the perfect example of using the amateurs and pros to make a more perfect form of journalism.

No profanity yet, but just wait.

Note: After this column, Stone Age Memes will appear monthly (instead of weekly) at its usual time. ‘Tis the school year starting. Same nose, different (digital) grindstone. Don’t get me wrong. I love it.

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3 Responses to “Stone age memes: Heraclitus and me in the blogosphere”

  1. You said, above:

    “All the same, you can see the blogging-is-dying thread on personal sites as well as sites devoted to media analysis, like that of Meg Pickard, who says blogging has “penetrated mainstream web usage” and so people are no longer excited about it and consider it a failure.”

    Just to be clear:

    a) my site isn’t devoted to media analysis. It’s a personal blog and since I’ve been blogging now for just under ten years, it should seem fairly obvious that I’m not over it yet.

    b) the link you reference, on my blog, is a lighthearted comparison of the social adoption and use of early blogging services and Twitter. Since I’ve been involved with both areas from the very beginning, and was struck by many of the comparable experiences they’ve seen, I wanted to note them down in a way which people might be able to relate to.

    c) The timeline on my site could be applied to early blogging (late 1999-2003) or Twitter (early 2006-present). The timelines are not concurrent. So something that happened last month for Twitter probably has a parallel in something that happened to Blogger in 2002 or so.

    d) You should note that the conclusions drawn in the quoted paragraph above are your own – as expressed in my blogpost, they are not causal.

    d.1) Both Twitter and blogging reached a point at which they penetrated mainstream web usage. In Twitter’s case this was relatively recent. In the case of blogging, this was, I’d argue, around 2004/5.

    d.2) There is a certain point at which people (media included) are no longer obsessed with covering or endlessly referencing a particular medium becuase it has become normal, like telephones.

    d.3) The final point on my timeline reads: “It’s more popular than ever, but people refer to it as a ‘failure’ because it doesn’t perform exactly as they demand it should”. This is more of a comment on how unreasonable consumers of particular services (like Twitter and Blogger) are, and how quick they are to pronounce “failure” when what they actually are experiencing is natural growing pains and an inability to match their experience requirements to the product roadmap (and vice versa).

    But micropublishing (like Twitter) isn’t “over” or “broken” and it isn’t going anywhere, despite people being frustrated with its features and usage – just like when people were saying the same thing about blogging (and Blogger) way back in 2002, it didn’t ring the death-knell for blogging, either.

    Forgive the lengthy comment – I just thought it might be helpful to provide background info for your readers who may otherwise not realise that my perspective (and site!) was somewhat misrepresented in your original piece.

    Meg

  2. I very much appreciate your comments. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that your blog is that of a professional media analyst. It is as you say, a personal blog, but one of a person who, as you note on your home page, is, “a creative geek” and a “web experience /community /social media specialist.” That is why I said your writing was “devoted to media analysis,” as in my view this was a prime (personal) interest of yours.

    All the same, you are right to correct my phrasing: the causal link between blogging’s penetration of the market and people’s considering blogging passé (or a failure) was my conclusion and not yours. I would suggest that my conclusion is warranted in the light of the unreasonableness of consumers (please allow this shorthand for your point) and of their psychological need for novelty and “hipness” (is there such a word?). The latter is my usual point in my blog, the metaphor of “Stone Age Memes,” that people have always (in my conceit, since the Stone Age) wanted to move on to new things, so they can be part of an elite, knowledgeable few. This is where I in my turn wax (or is it wane?) lighthearted.

    My more serious point in the cited column is that the general perception that blogging has had its day is both facilitated and encouraged by the movement of weblogs into the realm of mainstream media through the film Julie & Julia. This is not the same point you are making, or else there would have been no point in writing about it. Nonetheless, I fancy that my position is enriched by reference to your very different and thoughtfully developed argument.

    An additional aim of mine in my blog or “column” has been to point my readers to other thought-provoking sources on the Internet, like your blog. There is a sly allusion to this intention in my opening piece: “When is a gift not a gift?” And for this reason, I am especially grateful to read your assertion that you are not over blogging yet. Thanks again for the clarification and amplification of your views!

  3. Great piece Eva.

    I’d echo Meg’s 2d comment: in another couple of years blogging will no longer be considered a failure — it won’t be considered at all — just like we don’t consider the telephone, TV or electricity.

    What will be interesting to see is how film companies will pick their projects when there is no longer a “book deal” as intermediary; that day is coming and much sooner than many think.

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