Open Letter #48: "Nice network you got here. Be a shame if anything were to, uh, happen to it…"

Dear Botnet Owners,

On behalf of the entire Internet, I would like to say “thank you!” for finally putting that “mailer-daemon” character in his place, and making sure that I will have to forever automatically delete any piece of e-mail that comes from him. I am so grateful that you’ve managed to make bounce messages so thoroughly useless I now have to start ignoring them, thus ensuring that I’ll never really know whether my mail got through or not.

Thanks again. I love my new broken Internet.

Fuck you very much,
Dr. Hazmat

All right, that's IT.

The Internet is officially out of money. All you new-media punks and johnny-come-latelies (and by that I mean, “anyone who got on-line sometime after about 1995”) can go home right goddamn now.

I’ve been thinking this for a while. 15+ years into the mass-popularization of the Internet, we continually see the re-emergence of trends in on-line communities that we saw before. The problems and the dynamics are the same; the only thing that changes is the interface. We’ve always had trolls and agents provocateur; now, instead of infesting newsgroups, they infest blog comment sections and Web bboard fora. People are continually trying to solve the same problems we solved back in the Dark Ages, usually with less grace and less skill than we did. I won’t belabor the point, but the problem essentially boils down to a failure to correctly disseminate information, and a tendency to disregard prior art and experience as a guide to developing contemporary solutions. It isn’t uncommon to run into Internet software developers who are wholly ignorant of the history of their chosen medium, so it probably isn’t surprising that we see the same solutions to the same problems re-invented over and over (and frequently less elegantly than in the past).

It’s bad enough that the Web as a whole goes through these phases where we seem to be trying to solve the same problems we solved on Usenet in the 1980s, but we’ve now reached a point where the Web is dealing with the same phenomena we dealt with eight years ago. By which, of course, I mean the goddamn blahgs.

The current meme in the circles of blogs that I read is the New Media Mob: A collection of young writers who’ve managed to parlay their blogs into paying gigs at formerly respectable publications. Roy and Sadly, No — particularly directed at this post by Cool Kid Garance Franke-Ruta — sum it up quite nicely. It comes down to this: A group of people have, for reasons that are not fully explained by their literary or cognitive skills, been elevated to the status of superstars within a particular community, and everyone else wonders why that happened.

We’ve been here before in the blog world. Oh, my, how we’ve been here before.

If you flash back to 1999 or 2000, back when blogging was beginning to take the world by storm, you remember the A-List. You may even remember the prescient article by Joe Clark that described the phenomenon. At the time the blog was primarily personal and anecdotal, driven by technology, and its superstars were technology “pioneers” and developers; now, seven years later, the blog is primarily political, driven by people who seem to complain about the current crop of pundits while at the same time lusting after those gigs themselves.

I mean, Clark basically nails it (to use an old hoary blogging cliche):

The A-List: “Jason Kottke… is widely admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web culture…. Getting blogged by Kottke, or by Meg Hourihan or one of her colleagues at Pyra, is the blog equivalent of having your book featured on Oprah.”

  • Finally, independent confirmation of an obvious fact that is self-servingly denied by the Weblog aristocracy itself: Despite no appreciable difference in the “thoughtfulness” of their respective Web criticism, some Webloggers are superstars.
  • The myth, of course, holds that all bloggers are equal, because we all can set out our wares on the great egalitarian Internet, where the best ideas bubble to the surface. This free-market theory of information has superficial appeal, but reality is rather different.
  • Jason’s commentary is quite good (Meg’s less so), but so is the commentary written by literally a dozen other bloggers I read, none of whom can create a miniature Slashdot effect by mentioning you. (I’m not citing any other bloggers here, by the way, whatever their fame or acumen. I’m limiting the name-dropping to the bloggers Rebecca Mead introduced into the discourse.)
  • Jason’s fame cannot be attributed solely to his cuteness (mentioned explicitly by Mead). I can think of two other A-list bloggers who are better-looking, not to mention having a bit more meat on the bones, and I am aware that there are a lot of attractive bloggeuses. Moreover, one A-list blogger is spectacularly ugly, but that has not impeded his star status.
  • Web-design skills cannot account for everything, either. Jason’s site, in its various forms, offers a middling level of programming complexity. Yet I can name three other A-list bloggers, and a far greater number digging for coal with their bare hands in the caverns of the net, whose sites are more complex and better-looking.
  • A small number of A-list bloggers run Weblogs that are effectively undesigned, a positioning statement that aims to showcase their ideas more prominently, but their ideas aren’t markedly superior to other bloggers’ in the first place.
  • Any way you cut it, there is no rational or even pseudo-rational explanation for the distribution of fame in the blog biz. Fame is like that.

It’s exactly the same thing, seven years later, and we’re all acting like it’s a brand-new phenomenon. Replace “Jason Kottke” and “Meg Hourihan” with “Matt Yglesias” and “Megan McArdle”, and “web design” with “commentary,” and Joe Clark has managed to preemptively capture the annoyance of a number of bloggers. That no one that I’ve found so far has managed to notice this is, frankly, shocking — and we should all be ashamed at how fast we collectively forget the history of our own medium.

This does not, however, detract from the fundamental irritation that most of us feel when we read this stuff. There isn’t a whole heap of difference between this:

Rio just came out with a new MP3 player shaped like a walnut – and about the same size. They say it’ll sync with my Palm, which is too damn new for me to have synced it with my old Palm, let alone the Cube or the PowerBook. Anyway, something to pick up on Saturday morning.

And this:

Brian is/was Ezra’s roommate. Sommer is Matt’s friend. Ezra is staying with Matt here in NYC while we are all up here for the Clinton Global Initiative. Alex and I are friends, as are Alex and Megan. Matt and Ezra and Megan went shooting together on Yom Kippur (bad Jews!), along with Dave, who is throwing a joint birthday party with Brian later this week. Also, Megan and Matt work together. And I used to work with Matt and still work with Ezra. And I think we are all Facebook friends.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We’ll come back to this idea in a second.

Once again, we see the development of an us/them dichotomy between the blog superstars and the common masses toiling away in relative obscurity, and, once again, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to differentiate the two groups in terms of quality of output — there is no clear reason why, for instance, Matt Yglesias should be given a prominent place at The Atlantic and someone like Amanda Marcotte or Jim Henley or Radley Balko isn’t, at least not on the basis of the quality of their commentary — just as there was no clear reason why Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan were elevated to the status of blogstars in their day. (I suspect that the real reason has to do with comfort levels: Radley and Jim and Amanda all suffer from fairly advanced cases of Stickittothemaniosis.) The qualifications Brian/Ezra/Sommer/Matt/Alex/Garance/Megan bring to the table — an Ivy League degree, connections, and an Establishment Media gig — seem to be more fungible and even less impressive than the qualifications the Original A-List possessed; at least Hourihan could, by working at Pyra, claim to have played some role in the development of the medium she would ultimately represent in the pages of the New Yorker. I’m not sure you could make the same argument for McArdle and her merry band.

Clark again, with his own emphasis:

I would be less inclined to complain if I were able to share in the Internet bounty in even the most trivial way. None of us Webloggers is particularly wealthy; few of us became dot-com millionaires. It’s just that everyone but me gets to make a living. It bugs me that the A-list kids are not really any smarter, or any better at Web design, or have anything particularly better to say than so many of the plebes. Their fame is inexplicable, but famous they are – and able to keep their heads above water. It’s the combination I resent.

Elizabeth Taylor was at least beautiful and could act, when not knocking back the sauce and buying diamonds by the barrel. What causes an anointed cadre of objectively undifferentiable Webloggers to be viewed as demigods escapes me. And it does in fact chafe against my egalitarian instincts. Many of us are as good as they are.

What’s worse this time around — and the big difference between this A-List and the last A-List — is the degree of incestuousness. It’s truly shocking. These kids all come from the same part of the world, have roughly the same educational background, have the same upbringing, have worked at the same places, and essentially think the same way on every given topic. Again, we’ve seen this before — Jason would link to Meg who would link to Robert who would link to Dave, and round and round we went, and it was rare to find one who disagreed with the others. Which was creepy enough, but ultimately harmless when the topic of discussion was blogging itself, or Web standards, or whatever. Now, however, we’re turning to blogs as an alternative to traditional media, to discuss issues of vital importance, and we’re still seeing mass agreement and bland traditionalism. Because the New Media Mob hang out together and work together — because, as Garance says, it’s a cocktail party with the same 50 people over and over again. This isn’t good. It suppresses minority and radical viewpoints, the same viewpoints that desperately need to be heard — the same ones that, paradoxically, the Internet and the blog revolution was supposed to promote. That bland conformity was bad enough when it was on the editorial pages of the major daily newspapers, but the blogosphere was supposed to be the antidote to that. Instead of competing with Maureen Dowd, we have a group of writers working hard to be the next Maureen Dowd. And they’re not even interesting Maureen Dowds.

How is this helping, again?

What YEAR is this? (Part 45)

I feel very torn about the existence of this Web site. On the one hand, it’s frustrating because I can’t find anything on it — what useful information is present is basically buried in there, somewhere. On the other hand, it’s kind of charming, in that retro throwback-to-1994-’cause-we-just-got-a-bunch-of-clip-art way. I mean, holy frick: You got endless images. Blink tags. Clashing colors. Scroll bars until tomorrow. Links to just about everything in the world. Twelve years ago we would have swooned over how much graphical content was on this thing; six years ago it would have seemed kind of dated. Now it might just be so awful it’s cool again.

I can never tell. Maybe I should send the link to the cool kids and see what they think. (“Dr. Hazmat sez: “Check out this hilariously 1994-esque Web site I found while doing frivolous research on the Web!” Indeed. Heh. Posted by: Xeni.”)

Some days (or: why this is an LJ and not a blog)

I was joking with Frink last week that if blogs hadn’t jumped the shark sometime back in 2004, they certainly had as of last week. The defining moment was, I think, the appearance of Duncan Black as himself in an episode of The West Wing. Secretly, I was pleased that I’d managed to avoid being associated with that medium for over a full year, and I said that while I had a LiveJournal, it was in no way, shape, or form a blog. If people want to harbor the illusion that LiveJournal is full of emo-listening teenagers whining at each other, so much the better: nobody, and I mean nobody, will ever take this seriously, nor will I ever be in a position to ask that people take it seriously.

But owning a blog these days is, for the most part, an exercise in seriousness. Sure, you’ll run into people who are damn funny and know that it’s all a big joke and aren’t interested in changing the nature of dialogue — they’re just being funny as best they can. Some of them are really damn funny, and others (like me) are.. well, the less said about that, the better. The upshot is that blogging is mostly an exercise in pretentiousness, and “serious” blogging seems to require an outsized belief in the ability of the medium to somehow influence the world outside of the community of your readership.

Let’s put it another way: I don’t know a single person who reads blogs because they want to be challenged with truly new information. They want their biases and their beliefs confirmed. I slogged my way through a 750 page biography on Brian Mulroney back in the day because I wanted to understand something about the guy; it was really more of a hagiography rather than an actual biography and after I was done I needed to take a drink of cold water because I thought the dude was actually OK. Then I came to my senses and realized that he was a jackass and I’m still glad he’s out of politics. But this frequently happens when I’m reading something in The Atlantic or The New Yorker — I’ll think, “hey, this isn’t what I expected” and I’ll end up having to think about it later. But you don’t do that with blogs, because a blog’s readership self-selects and if you challenge them, they’ll self-select off somewhere else. Self-selecting to read the oppositions’ postings doesn’t work, either, because they’re so snotty and obnoxious that you don’t want to spend any time around them at all. So blogs really serve to reinforce the impressions of their readers: you guys, what you think, and what you believe, are OK. When the conventional wisdom is challenged, viciousness usually results. (Just ask Kevin Drum how much love he gets for being a “reasonable Democrat” who picks his fights carefully!)

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we’re doing anything magnificent or remarkable in the greater sense of the world, nor should we believe that what we hold as dear are necessarily true all over. Nor should we pretend that the outside world cares about what we think.

This point was dramatically rammed home over and over again every time Xeni would post about Jill Carroll, who we are all thankful is home safe and sound, as though somehow, the collective will of the Boing Boing readership would make a difference in whether she was released alive or not. Don’t get me wrong — I’m really happy she’s home safe, mostly because nobody deserves to be taken hostage and threatened with death as part of their job, especially if they have to do that job unarmed. But seriously, who are we fooling here? Boing Boing readers are not going to get hostages released in Iraq, they aren’t going to get Senate legislation overturned, and they aren’t going to get major companies to stop being jackasses. The organizational power of a blog is limited to the collective power of the group it organizes, and let’s face it, most people who read Boing Boing aren’t the sort of demographic that people listen to.

(I will not go so far as to call them geeks or nerds because that would imply that some of them have technical skill. Xeni is not a geek. She’s a wanna-be geek, but so far as I can tell her technical skills consist of being able to write some HTML, use a Web browser, and work a tape recorder. Great! I got a dog that can do that, who, by the by, is a lot cuter than Xeni.)

(Incidentally, the reason that guys like Atrios and Kos can be powerful is because his readership acts with something other than a fax machine: it acts with money. And not just threats to withhold it, either — they give it out, and that always buys you at least an audience.)

The actual effectiveness of the move doesn’t matter, though. The Boing Boing crowd, and bloggers more generally, likes to think of themselves as participating in some kind of journalism project and so therefore the plight of actual journalists (who have to wear clothes to do their jobs) is intriguing and important to them. They probably won’t kick any cash towards RSF and that’s OK, because they’ll have the pose and raise awarness, whateverthefuck that’s supposed to mean. None of them are ever going to be at the mercy of a bunch of insurgents weilding AK-74s (TANIII) because none of them would ever be in that situation in the first place. (Cell phones don’t work over there, for instance, and you can’t get EVDO access, and nobody will fix a Prada bag, and how in the hell are you supposed to charge a widescreen iBook when the electricity is only on for an hour a day?)

It’s a lot like the argument about Google and China (which summed up really well a couple months ago): We agree, in the abstract, that network freedom is a very good thing, and worth fighting for, but most of us aren’t really in a position to do anything about it, and the vast majority of us will merely blog really furiously about it and then do nothing else. Rest assured it was not blogbursts about Jill Carroll that saved her life — it was the fact that a bunch of insurgents decided to let her go on their own. Believe me, outside of the people who read blogs.. nobody gives a shit about blogs.

But those who do give a shit about blogs give a really big shit, because it’s supposed to be this new way to think about the world. It’s kind of sick, actually; you have to pander to readers, or people buzz off and leave. Frauf has, for instance, had this weird obsession with earwax picking for about a week now, and keeps posting stuff about how to pick your ears, even after an otolaryngologist told him (much as any otolaryngologist worth the vowels in his name will) that it’s a really dumb idea to shove objects into your ears. Boing Boing’s readership likely buys into this new paradigm, that the Internet can substitute for expert judgment, and well, hell, if everyone does it and says it’s OK, what does the ENT guy know about it? Hack your body, man. Basically, I conclude that Frauf is continuing to post about this subject because he’s either ignoring the doctor because he’s pandering, or actually doesn’t believe him, because he (Frauf) is stupid, or because he (Frauf) believes that all viewpoints are equally valid, like on cable news. (This third option does not in any way, shape, or form imply that Frauf isn’t any less stupid, btw. Yeah, I know this is not clear. Do you know what time it is right now?) At no point has anyone said, “gee, you know, if I keep posting stuff like this someone might poke a big ol’ hole in their eardrum, and that doesn’t seem like a very good idea.”

There’s nothing very wrong with pandering but it does get old after a while, and I’ve often thought about setting up some kind of a game where you can pick from a list of well-known bloggers and figure out who said what from their archives. (Obviously, in the interests of being fair, you’d have to get rid of catch phrases, but this would be pretty heh-worthy, I think.) We shouldn’t think we’re doing anything remarkably amazing here. As TNH said once, cranks have always found a way to self-publish their ravings to people who are eager to listen. The only difference today is that nobody has to learn how to run a mimeo machine.