Thursday, February 23, 2006

Who's Not Clever and Who's Skipping Gym

From Pam Spaulding's loving tribute to her days at Stuyvesant High. Scroll for great pics and to see her now-famous writing teacher.

UPDATE: If you like Havarti cheese or simply the right to speak your piece without fear, gather calmly and cheerfully with Hitchens outside the Danish Embassy in D.C. tomorrow.

1) She's a long post, but there's fluff at the bottom. I'll just leak out my objections to the blogging articles I linked yesterday, really primarily to the tone and content of the Financial Times article. Notably, however Glenn Reynolds has the jist of something when he quotes himself in TCS (how vain) as saying "Beware the people who are having fun competing with you!"

I don't think most people want to see newspapers or television news disappear. They want them to be better, and to check the kind of online resources that many of us amateurs routinely use to provide solid facts. If only two experts on a given subject answer their phones before a deadline, should other verifiable experts in the field want to broaden or balance the conversation with online follow-up, that seems of benefit to most of us who (like journalists) aren't necessarily subject matter experts ourselves. Last, if you don't consider the video and voices coming through blogs from the previously unreachable parts of the oppressed world are revolutionary, you misunderstand the word entirely.

However, if we're talking about blogging as a purely commercial activity, like the Financial Times does- perhaps forgivably- we conveniently but insensibly eliminate the vast percentage of people who create and surf them for fun, with no expectation of or even desire to quit the full-time gig. These people are joining larger online conversations or debates as they're inspired or have relevant contributions, but mostly they're hanging out with their favorite things. What they're doing with their leisure is connecting to other people of like minds and interests. "Creating insular zombie group think!" some accuse. Balder-goldarn-dash. No more than joining the Jaycees.

Most of the people buying movie tickets and renting DVDs aren't the rich big-wigs producing them. A lot of avid readers don't write books for sale. Not every organic gardener starts a co-op or commercial farmstand. But even those who do don't stop being consumers for what else is out there. In fact, small theater and home redecoration usually cost, rather than earn, money for participants. But since when did what we do for leisure and personal satisfaction become so easily dismissed as not-worthwhile or not a financial opportunity for someone? In the meat world, retailers and manufacturers and service providers rabidly chase such disposable time and income, so if this pool of idle pleasures hasn't been commercialized the way it one day may, I'm still not labelling my fun a sink hole of futility.

The Financial Times article further makes the argument that blogging can only confer perverse success. The people who've made money in blogging- primarily through book deals- have left their blogs to do it. What about Reynolds' Army of Davids which has been so robustly promoted and inventively linked to every Instapundit post in recent memory? (I'm not against the shilling, for the record- the activity or the coin.) The publishing date isn't here yet, but there are pre-orders that could be counted, I'm sure. Although Publisher's Marketplace doesn't list his advance size, there was one, I'm also sure. The fact that he's repped by an ICM agent leads me to believe at least they, not known for their charitable advocacy of small fry, thought there was serious money to be made. He's not declared that he's leaving his faculty post or his blog, in fact he's added podcasting, and that makes the FT argument "to make it in blogging seems to mean making it out of blogging" stupid. Sort of like "it's impossible to become a global beverage company", well except for Coke or Pepsi or Starbucks or Coors. I'd be interested in the chart of James Lileks' books sales over the time he's been bleating. I'm just asking.

What about when the FT states, "The inherent problem with blogging is that your brand resides in individuals." Oh, do they mean like with professional athletics, clothing design, celebrity chefs, media, art, and the ubiquitous Oprah? I can see where that might be inherently limiting to profit.

Even though Reynolds is cited as having one of the top blogs, his story of a person pursuing lots of parallel creative activities within a given realm of topics isn't told, and I believe it's far more representative of most people's online experience. Blogging isn't its own pure activity to be measured independently like how many people tried snowboarding last year. We're blogging ABOUT things, and those fascinations and experiences still "count" even when we're online. I'd like to know how many hobbyists, for example, also check or create online content. That would more compelling to me as an indicator than the fact that the Gawker crowd suffer from cutting edge ennui, and rue that despite all their efforts to create unity (?), humanity remains panoramically individual and diffuse.

The FT's three-card monte shows numbers proving that most blogs will never be read by anyone or group of significance to the Financial Times. The demographics of current webizens have been measured (as is possible) toward the higher ends of income and education, and the necessary equipment and literacy might have predicted that. But as stuff becomes ever easier and financially accessible, I'd extend the idea of blog demographics to something just as useful, the loudmouth factor.

I'm saying that the kind of crochet-fiend who braves Blogger or even learns html for the purpose of sharing her work and reaching out to other yarn-craft fanatics is exactly the kind of loudmouth Malcom Gladwell leveraged to market The Tipping Point: curious, willing to explore and learn, willing to invest effort and expense in new things that dovetail with current interests. In adult education, this is the profile of the lifelong learner, and the kind of person who tends to vigorously promote what she's enthusiastic about. In this context, it doesn't matter a bit if you're only reaching thirty crochet artists with your blog. If they're the ones who teach classes and go to conferences and disseminate to the world at large, the ripple your contribution makes could be big within a realm that matters deeply to you.

Again, seems like nothing to the Financial Times, but I've known many small businesspeople who would top their goals with just a few more sales a week or month. An extra hundred dollars or so a month from a new crochet hook innovation that you originally made for your own use won't blip the GDP, but to regular people, it can be a satisfying and enriching success story. For a large publication dealing with large summary statements of large numbers, it's easy to lose sight of the drip by drop intimacy of blog communications for most of us, but blogs and the internet offer a uniquely human-scaled experience that you can find simply by searching. You can deal with Amazon for its reassuring bigness or IM the author selling his own books online. You choose. It might sound funny when talking about often anonymized, faceless transactions online, but just compare the human contact of an energetic web conversation with a well-versed clothing enthusiast to dealing with the bored clerk at Eddie Bauer. Because people are choosing more intimate, individual exchanges doesn't make that trend an unimportant force, just way harder to measure.

So journos and quant jocks, earn your keep and figure it out. But please, FT, no more silly, unthoughtful, selectively calculated conclusions where you parrot the summaries of a tiny Baudelairean crowd while simultaneously mocking them. Such only strengthens the argument that you're ripe for overthrow. Just kidding, sort of.

2) If you don't care about my ruffled opinions, and you probably don't, here's a weird story about a gym teacher collecting a dollar a day (tax free!) from each kid that wanted to loaf. Did that mean they didn't have to dress out, either? I'm a fool. I never even tried bribing my way out of Jane Fonda or Combative Sports.

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