Everyone is someone else’s marketer…

Picture me huddled up inside where the ice can’t get me. But whatever. I live in a typically warm place and we had a little ice storm. If you live in Boston or New York, feel free to roll your eyes. Also, I don’t usually cross the streams, but in this case, a lot of what I wrote in a recent long piece on the somewhat commoditized state of web design will probably be of interest to you all. And for those of you for whom “web design” means code and code means boooooring, fear not. This is a piece about tech, economics, and getting past fear of the unknown. Much like what follows…

CB, February 20, 2015


You spend so much time making media that you don’t have time to consume it.” The ghost of David Carr scolded me on the ride in to work.

It was 7:30 in the morning, and I had just turned away from my little street and on to the main road. At the next stop light, with a long and empty straightaway before me, I briefly glanced down and tapped “Play” on my phone. The 2013 Dalton Camp Lecture, which the CBC rebroadcast last week just days after David Carr’s death, resumed. I had begun listening to it the night before, but hadn’t gotten far. Just a bit past the preamble, in fact, which Carr handled like a comedian, playfully chatting his way in to what would become a deep and insightful look at the changing landscape of media by way of Rob Ford jokes and the sort of accidental one-liners that professionals like Louis C.K. make us believe are unrehearsed. And like C.K., Carr knew exactly what he was doing. It was at that line — you spend so much time making media that you don’t have time to consume it — where the playback resumed. I had been ready to spend the next twenty minutes happily remembering Carr, expecting more of what I’d heard already — warm, casual, inside-baseball conversation about media — and I got that. You know, the usual journalistic media reflections. “So how about that Twitter!” Or, “The Times is partnering with Buzzfeed people, that’s new!” But I also got a stark reminder of how media can be discussed when you’re not afraid of looking foolish. Carr looked honestly at how media quickly changed the rules of journalistic engagement, but also the day to day life of all of us. He plainly expressed both wonder and concern, sentiments he seemingly held equally without much angst, perhaps, even, with the detachment only a person who had already been through the worst of life could honestly maintain. Carr was a treasure. But you already knew that.

After just a few minutes more, I turned the lecture off. That line — with Carr’s voice — kept repeating in my mind. And until I’d sorted it out, I wasn’t going to give the rest of what Carr had to say the attention it deserved.

And that’s just it. Attention. Something about Carr’s point had caught me off guard. All this time, I probably would have said that the the big problem is that we spend so much time consuming media, we don’t have time to make it. I know that some of my former art-school classmates would probably agree. We, who eschewed television — with a greater and greater sense of accomplishment and grandiosity, I’ll admit — for those four years and many after. We would have said, why sit there consuming when you could be making? Even today, when it no longer means something to not have “TV” in your home — Do you have a computer? Then you have a TV. — I could probably make a case for this problem. That to make is better than to consume. But is it? Can you make without consuming? When asked what makes a great writer, most great writers say, “writing,” of course. That the practice produces greatness, not the other way around. But further pressed, plenty of great writers will add, “and reading also.” Great writers are lovers of the written word, and ever more ardently when they haven’t written it. So what, then, of the making/consuming balance? I wondered.

And then I remembered Henry Bemis. I saw him again, in my mind’s eye, dazed and confused, walking toward that heap of rubble that he would soon discover, with great excitement, is a library. I watched him stack his calendar of books.

“This year… The next year… And the year after that… And the year after that.” He strolled, triumphantly, down the grand, marble steps.

“There’s time now,” he said. “There’s all the time I need and all the time I want. Time, time, time. Ahhh! There’s time enough at last.”

And then, the irony. As if he didn’t have enough already, another book caught his eye, and as he stooped over to get a closer look at its cover, his glasses slipped from his face and fell to the ground. Both lenses broke on the stone.

“That’s not fair,” he gasped.

Books, books, everywhere, but not a word to read for the newly blinded Bemis.

In The Twilight Zone, the bustle of modernity threatened humanity to its core, and Bemis was the perfect protagonist in a fable about the dangers of living for the future, and of course, media’s theft of time. As a child, I remember thinking that what was truly absurd in Time Enough at Last was here was a man planning to read for years to come, and yet he was alone in a desolate world. What would he eat? How would he live to read all these books? Of course, that was part of the point. Man cannot live on books alone. But what is interesting today, in light of our media habits now, was that here in Bemis was a man hyper-intentional about what he would read. Stacking his books — in some logical or pedagogical order, we must assume — for years of reading ahead. But we do the opposite. Our media habits are utterly reactive and impulsive. What we think is relevant today will be forgotten tomorrow, carried away by a river of fleeting notions. Whether packaged in tweets, blogs, status messages, or GIFs, “interstitial media” is in such abundance that, in the aggregate, it can no longer be said to be for the in-between spaces of life. It is the most consistent signal in our lives. And the slow media — the gaps between it theoretically filled by the interstitial — has become the interruption. We don’t read Twitter while waiting to watch a movie. We pause from Twitter when the lights go down and resume when the credits roll. All is interstitial.

And our media is designed for just that. Alexis Madrigal, in his introductory post for Fusion, wrote:

“People all over the world are desperately producing tweets and snaps and posts hoping that you’ll read and share them. Most media can be found by pulling one’s thumb down on a screen and waiting for a new set of free cultural products to appear.”

As I read that passage, I placed a pretty firm mental emphasis on “desperately.” Desperation. I imagine that’s what all this would look like to someone, say, from Henry Bemis’s day. Even Henry himself. The man who stacked books, content to read them in absolute isolation, voracious at the sight of the written word, would probably run from the infinite supply of text and image that a simple tug at the screens in our pockets supplies.

Instagram serves as a great example. I’ve often wondered how anyone can manage to follow more than 100 people. Instagram offers no way to organize your connections. You’re simply given the river of their pictures. The more you follow, the more there is to see. Nevermind that you’re less and less likely to catch that picture of your cousin’s new baby. As you thumb your way through the stream, whether in idle monotony or in desperation, you’ll see plenty of advertisements. And that’s good for Instagram. Twitter, too, has continued to make design decisions that prefer the undifferentiated stream while burying the list functionality that made follower counts over a few hundred feasible in the first place. Thank goodness for Tweetdeck, where I can still easily divide the accounts I follow into several different lists. Of course, only 200 or so of those accounts are in my lists, which means I’m only really following 40% of who Twitter thinks I’m following and seeing far fewer tweets than Twitter promises advertisers. Given their ambition to bring the ad ratio up to 1 in every 20 tweets, I can only imagine they’ll change this at some point. Perhaps very soon.

Later in the same post, Madrigal concludes, “What tech gets made is organized by what people believe.” Yes. Sometimes. At least by what the people who make it believe. The people who use it? That’s another story. That’s the media. So I’m inclined to tweak that statement: What media gets made is organized by what people believe. About themselves.

What’s troubling is the way that time interferes with gaining any insight from our media-making. As it was for Henry Bemis, time is the ultimate factor. It’s the thing that obliges us to let people know how long it will take them to read the thing we wrote. It’s why we make fancy status bars to show them how far along they are in the slog of reading the things we write. It’s why we tag things #longreads, as if to say both, “I am of the literati that reads Moby Dick more than once” and “Warning! Timesuck ahead.” It’s why it has become a legitimate critique to say, “tl;dr.” I used to take pride in my wordcount; as it climbed so did my confidence that I was more clearly communicating myself to the outside world. Now, I fear that with every additional word, I’m less likely to be read. Lost in a sea of words. And as that sea-level rises, what right to I have to expect anyone to read what I write?

Carr is right, after all. Passive media-making will account for more and more of our attention, relegating the #longread to an iceberg in a sea of equally passive actions. “Save to Pocket” “Share on Facebook.” “Tweet this.” I’m already guilty. I have collected hundreds of articles in my Pocket account; all things I, at some point, sincerely wanted to read. Now, I want to dump them all. The idea of an empty screen — a fresh start — comes with a deep sense of relief. But that would be crazy. I saved those articles for a reason, didn’t I? No matter how long it has languished in my queue, surely some of it is still worth reading, right? And yet, the very idea that declaring info-bankruptcy is an acceptable escape hatch from information overload implies that recency, above all other factors, matters most. Certainly that cannot be true.

I’ll close with another bit of text that came in the river this week. In a piece for Harvard Business Review, Elizabeth Grace Saunders wrote:

“Legions of marketers work day and night thinking up ways to capture — and keep — your attention. They will gladly take as much of your time as they can get.”

Last week, I said that “the digital will take all you give it and more.” But, to both Carr and Madrigal’s points, we made the digital. We set it in motion. And so yes, Saunders is right, too. Behind the digital is a marketer somewhere, coveting your time and attention. Eager to feed you their media. But before we fall back upon that easy othering, we also must remember that, in an age of ubiquitous media-making, everyone is someone else’s marketer. I, and you also.

Heavy Rotation: A few years ago, Peter Gabriel guest-DJ’ed an episode of All Songs Considered. I re-listened to that episode while cooking dinner the other night, and so thanks to him, I’ve been listening to The Best of Nina Simone and Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul. Both a bit out of my normal listening-zone. But both beautiful voices and beautiful recordings.

Recent Tabs: And after all of that, it feels almost profane to give you links. Here! Just what you need, more media! But I’m going to anyway. Apocalpyse Scenario: “Everyone just sort of gives up one day.” The Crispin Glover of a very lonely corner of YouTube. We beamed tweets at aliens. You’ll never guess what they did next. Human Landscapes of Canada (via Able Parris). Similar: Aerial views of the stalled veins of trade. Two people take the same photo and rather than being like, “oh, weird!” they accuse each other of plagiarism. The Computer in Our Lives. Helen works the pneumatic tubes. The sun photographed from the same spot, at the same hour, throughout different days in a year on Mars creates a beautiful shape in the sky known as the Martian analemma. Amazon’s robot army GIFs. Nightmarefuel. Stop being a grouch and love this owl.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 20, 2015,   In Essays

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