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That’s Socialism! II

January 3, 2011

Time to put down a few more thoughts on “Socialism,” the new tendency of the Internet to collectivize you into social networks whether you like it or not.  There’s a rampant case of “me tooism” involved, as online companies play frantic catch-up with the latest boat they’re terrified of missing.  As a consequence, everybody feels the need to attach a social aspect to their product.  There’s no doubt that this can lead to what in CorpSpeak would be called “an enhanced user experience,” but in many cases it’s either poorly executed or counterproductive.  Apple’s “social” feature Ping, built into the latest rev of iTunes, was named by NPR as one of the worst ideas of 2010:

Why Ping is floundering can be summed up in a sentence: Apple doesn’t like sharing, thus, it is difficult for them to build a social network.

There was no way to even share a playlist until four months after launch, and

Ping restricts even this sharing to songs that already appear in the iTunes store.

Ping is essentially a “walled garden,” like the rest of Apple, and is designed only to sell you iTunes, not to participate in genuine social network taste-sharing.

I’ve mentioned my irritation with Amazon’s change over to “share your thoughts” from “rate this item,” and you have to savor the irony that, now that you have to be social to rate stuff, you can’t get a person at Amazon to answer your complaint about the change.

Microsoft is folding Facebook into Bing results, or vice versa – your Bing results can be tailored to “upgrade” search results to highlight those which best match what your friends like.  If you believe in the “wisdom of crowds,” that’s super, and if you and your friends are smart and savvy, even more superer.  However:  this also means that links to wrong information or shady deals or dangerous websites can get “recommended” because your friends “like” them.  No doubt there’s a juicy research paper in tracing the epidemiology of internet error [“error” encompassing everything from emailed links to the sort of bullshit stories that works so hard to debunk, to how people end up at scam or virus-laden websites], and I’d be interested to know how many people are suckered into bad sites at random and how many go there because their friends did first. 

There was a collection of essays in the Times book review yesterday about the uses of criticism, and the question on everyone’s mind was essentially, what’s the use of the critic now when everyone’s a critic?  There’s no permalink to the whole set, but I liked the piece by TNR’s Adam Kirsch the best, as it talks about the boat I’m in right now, traffic low enough that I’m not exactly shouting to the trees but close:

If you are primarily interested in writing, then you do not need a definite or immediate sense of your audience: you write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three. If you want criticism to be a lever to move the world, on the other hand, you need to know exactly where you’re standing — that is, how many people are reading, and whether they’re the right people. In short, you must worry about reaching a “general audience,” with all the associated worries about fragmentation, the decline of print, and the rise of the Internet and its mental groupuscules…

Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called “common readers,” still exists. If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it. But measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche audience. Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold’s is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic, mass-media America, the two barely overlap.

What this displacement takes from the critic in terms of confidence and authority, it perhaps restores to him in terms of integrity and freedom. Or maybe it’s just that, as a poet, I am all too used to making excuses for the marginality of a kind of writing that I continue to feel is important. Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well — that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.

The value of criticism to the critic becomes internalized – when you lose (or fail to gain) the audience and influence the critic once had, you continue to write because you love to write, because you love to think and get better at thinking.  The more you write about things that less and less people care about, the more you have to expect thinking critically to be its own reward.

The function of good criticism, to me, is that the good critic isn’t like everyone else – that she has spent a lot of time researching the field she works in, as well as the fields it influences and is influenced by, and has learned to write clearly, and cleverly, about the subject with a relaxed authority.  We turn to critics because we trust their expertise – in social networking, we assign the role of critic to our friends (who we certainly know better than we know “the guy at the Times”) and who know us and what we like. 

Much of the appeal of relying on friends’ opinions, let’s call that “social criticism,” as opposed to “institutional criticism” (I’ll come up with something snazzier for that when I think of it), comes from having been let down by critics, either because they recommended something you hated (I always cheer for Elaine Benes in the Seinfeld episode where she’s the only person in NYC to hate “The English Patient”), or, sometimes more irritating, because they dismissed out of hand something you ended up really liking.  The Russell Crowe “Robin Hood” was a good example of that – I didn’t go see it in the theaters because “the critics hated it,” but when I saw it on pay-per-view, I loved it.  I loved Cate Blanchett as a cranky middle-aged Marian (no maid), I loved the hot sexy evil King John, I loved all the killin’, and, fully aware that there was no nutritional value to the “historical” parts of the film, enjoyed it for the popcorn movie that it was.  I thought to myself, geez, A. O. Scott, you must have had a bad day if you’re reading a bunch of secret Tea Party propaganda encoded into this one! 

There is a certain satisfaction that comes with being with the critics sometimes and against your friends.  I am the only person I know who hated, hated, hated “Forrest Gump.”  The very mention of that piece of treacly, cornpone, unadulterated pap can send me into a rage.  Only the comfort of knowing I’m not a bad person for seeing through its self-absorbed Baby Boomerism (it’s the most important thing that ever happened because WE did it) gets me through those conversations. 

Critics do still have one key to power they are unlikely to lose: temporal primacy.  They get galley copies of books, attend advance screenings of movies, and hear new music before it’s released.  Some members of the general public get to dwell in the Midlands between these private releases and the official “launch,” getting invited to sneak previews or getting galleys via participation in the “Amazon Vine” program.  There’s little chance that critics will go out of business, if only because of the nature of consumer capitalism, which requires (warning: CorpSpeak) “building buzz around the brand.”  Desire for a product has to be created, and this is always best accomplished by simultaneously announcing a) here is a wonderful thing and b) you can’t have it – yet.  This also requires a “stamp of approval” of some kind, so that on the day the product becomes available, there is a considered opinion ready to be released in tandem with it (or in the case of crappy products, a fake rave review from some quotemeister at “American Movie Minute” or some other nonexistent outlet).  New products in capitalism can rarely function without some legitimate form of “excitement” being attached to their launch.

“Socialized” opinion often fails to deliver the goods, if only because people don’t know what they want until they get it.  And making corporate decisions based on giving people more of what they already want and “like” means not taking the risk of making an “Inception” or (lordy I loved this movie) “Black Swan,” products that take off in the marketplace like nobody’s business because they are new, original, different – unpredictable in so many ways.  Both those films weren’t like anything else out there, and both left you hanging until the very end to discover (or not) whether what the characters were seeing and doing was real or not.  The thrill of these films was in not knowing, in being uncertain of the outcome and in turn being uncertain to the very end whether you’d love or hate the movie.  Relying on the “wisdom of crowds” to deliver more of what they already know and like would never lead you to make or finance films like those.


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