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June 08, 2007

How The Internet Enables People To Be Even Crazier

My friend Mollie Wilson has been having an interesting new media experience.

Here's why I think things spiraled out of control:

1. I suspect evolution simply did not prepare humans for the internet. We're designed for face to face interaction with others—where communication involves not disembodied words, but words plus tone, body language, facial expression, etc. (Hence emoticons.) Words by themselves are a surprisingly small part of the message. Along with this, the no-place of the internet encourages users to (unconsciously) engage with others as not-people. I'm sure if Colapinto had met Mollie sitting next to her on a plane he would have acted much more normally.

2. The internet rightfully causes great anxiety to old media writers. Not only does it erode the economic base of their institutions, it also calls into question their status. Until now, reaching an audience with your writing was about talent only to a limited degree. It had just as much to do with going to the right college, living in New York, being charming at cocktail parties, etc. This is particularly true about the type of cultural writing Colapinto does. Who doesn't have an opinion about Paul McCartney? Who can say why Colapinto should have a job doing this, as opposed to anyone else?

You'd be tetchy and prone to lashing out too if you were him. Nobody likes competition, particularly when the rules suddenly get changed on you mid-game.

AND: If you're in New York, why not go see Mollie's very funny sister Amy in her show?

ALSO: Mike adds his 3 cents.

Posted at June 8, 2007 11:39 AM | TrackBack

If the soul is darkened
By a fear it cannot name
If the mind is baffled
When the rules
Don't fit the game---???

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 8, 2007 12:49 PM

I can see where Mollie's coming from and it's a hoot that John Colapinto reacted the way he did, but for some of us who have been with that rag for decades, the article about Sir Paul really was classic New Yorker: briefly entertaining, but exemplifying why people mainly save the covers and rarely the articles. I wouldn't even characterize this flame war as old versus new media; it's just the New Yorker versus everyone else.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at June 8, 2007 04:35 PM

Yes I think I would agree with what you say about the internet and how it affects more traditional print media. I think it is a good change though most people find change to be a frightening thing. But when you consider how badly the traditional or old media as you put it has been performing it is a much needed change for it offers up a refreshing alternative that helps keep things a bit more honest. The main problem that I see with the internet is the question of how good the information is and how does an individual decide what they are reading is a good source of information. For example in public and university libraries reference material is reviewed fairly thoroughly for quality before it is put out on the shelves as opposed to something like Wickipedia where anyone can post reference material without any real oversight or at least that is my impression. So I think that can be a problem. So in the case of the internet it is up to the individual to determine the quality of the material being put forth such as looking for the qualifications of the author of the website though other than that there is very little people can do to quantify the quality of what they are reading other than using their own judgment.

Posted by: rob payne at June 9, 2007 12:19 AM

"I suspect evolution simply did not prepare humans for the internet"


lol. I can't disagree with you more. The modern media infrastructure has not been prepared for the internet. Since the formal adaptation of the star system which socially isolates media industry workers from the public, real live person to person interaction has become an alien concept to media workers. Doesn't matter if they are TV actors, news anchormen or singers.

Go back 80 years or so and you have a much more balanced system from a social perspective between the media workforce and the general public.

People, are naturals when it comes to dealing with each other. We have to spend a lot of time, education, and social grooming to get to the point where we can't get along with each other. Sometimes the "social grooming" takes the form of mental or physical abuse or other deprivations, but it is definitely not the natural state of things.

This blog format has broken down the facades. Seeing you and Mike and Dennis and so many others as actual people, through your informal commentary, makes it all the more valuable to the casual reader.

Don't apologize for when things get unseemly, they need to get unseemly, so that we can all figure out how to deal with each other again.

And BTW who gives a shit about Paul McCartney? I think it's the ultimate irony that Mollie and John, who are obviously very smart people are wasting time pissing on each other over this.

"I can worship him better than you can!"

"Well I actually got to sit next to him for a week because I have better hair!"

This is culture? Must be nice to live in such a pampered world.

Posted by: patience at June 9, 2007 01:48 AM

I suppose its understandable that people would be threatened by the ease of self publication especially but it also seems that internet writers have to be consistent in producing because there is that glut- and they dont have the reputation of a recognized entity to fall back on. In a sense these writers are often out there, sink or swim.

Posted by: Lynn at June 9, 2007 10:32 AM

I can't agree with Mike Gerber's total dissing of the New Yorker because of the occasional reporting and writing gems -- Sy Hersh, Mark Danner, Lawrence Weschler, John McPhee...

Who is going to pay for reporting and writing that takes months and years of research but glossy mags? I'm all for the leveling effect of new media on punditry, including culture punditry, but real reporters have to be funded. It would be great to be confident some other, more democratic institutions will pay investigative writers enough to encourage their existence.

But right now the glossy mags play a major part in that 'market'.

Posted by: Nell at June 9, 2007 12:32 PM

I think that at this point, I'm almost obligated to like to the Penny Arcade GIFT (Greater Internet F***wad Theory) comic. It's not entirely applicable, because there wasn't really anonymity here, but it links up to what you say pretty well:

Posted by: CaptainBooshi at June 9, 2007 01:08 PM

My only issue with your analysis is that the "spiral" doesn't seem to be the right shape to describe this exchange -- a spiral implies proportionality as well as escalation. This was more of a spike, I think. (Which is what makes it so entertaining.)

Posted by: Mollie at June 9, 2007 01:24 PM

so does this mean, having people dress you for your public appearances is the same as being anonymous? in the other direction?

Posted by: happy happy at June 9, 2007 02:05 PM


You're right, but a bit of selective pressure can't hurt, can it?

As for Macca, he is of historical interest. A lot of people have listened to the Beatles' records, I understand. The way he's changed in relation to the world around him is in theory interesting, though the bubble that forms round such people (I suppose for political and financial reasons) tends to distort their perceptions of reality. I guess the internet may help mitigate that-- on the internet, no-one knows you're a Beatle.

I have read one of the shorter interviews he's given, though I can't really think of a good reason why I did so. I'm interested that this exchange has taken place. I'm less interested in the subject matter, which makes assessing the fairness of the criticism of the article harder.

Thinking about it, it's not an article just anyone's in a position to rewrite or better somehow, so it's quite a poor target for criticism. That's not to say it can't be criticized, of course. But it strikes me as the sort of assignment there would always be a fairly large number of people saying "I could have done it better" (meaning "I would have done it /this/ way").

The general point about the New Yorker stands, but I'm not convinced this is the best article to make it with.

Posted by: me at June 9, 2007 02:22 PM

Nell, I'm certainly not dissing the reportage in The New Yorker. It's not even the magazine I dislike, it's the fetishization--and my personal experiences with New Yorker snark. If I read it, I naturally think of writing for it, and that's been a nightmare. Everything I/we ever had published there has turned out LESS funny. That is maddening.

Jon and I were just starting out in the pre-Tina Brown years, and he had more direct contact with them than I did at that time, but I think he would agree that dealing with The New Yorker even in the late 80s was a much different experience than it was just a few years later, after Brown had "transformed" it. Pre-Brown it was Olympian, but there was a sense that space was made on the ship for oddballs, mad geniuses, people who couldn't fit in anywhere else but had something valuable to give. This was a Ross-Shawn holdover; TNY had resisted the intellectual and cultural power-down that magazines had in the 1970s and 80s, in large part by defining itself against the larger industry. Its culture had remained unique, and while that culture had its share of flaws, it was at least an alternative. TNY produced something different, something they thought was necessary and valuable, and if you agreed, you were welcome to read. If you didn't, fine, they made plenty of money without having to pander.

That culture died the moment Si Newhouse bought it. After Tina came along in 199-whatever, The New Yorker became simply the high-end of current NY magazine culture; watch "Ugly Betty," it's probably close enough: obsessed with image, and fashion, and a type of other-defined, strangely narrow currency; really bitchy, and image-conscious, and hyper-political, and all about "the magazine-as-brand." After Brown, the difference between The New Yorker and every other magazine became one of degree, not of kind.

Which is fine, except that TNY relentlessly promotes itself as something special, playing on the affection a certain type of person (okay, me) has for a misty Golden Age of American Letters, when publishing was a genteel profession, and Parker and Benchley held court at the Algonquin...This fantasy is harmless, except that TNY uses it to justify the rude and, yes, classless behavior of its mostly run-of-the-mill staff. If Roger Angell wants to be rude to me or dis a humor piece Jon and I wrote, fair enough. He's Roger Angell, he's earned the right. If someone I went to school with does the same thing, I get pissed, especially when their accomplishments outside TNY's protected confines don't justify the dismissive attitude.

Since she's left The New Yorker, Tina Brown's been exposed for what she (apparently) is: precisely the type of style-over-substance person that rises to the top of the NY publishing game. That's not her fault, but I'm not really interested in people like that. That doesn't describe every writer or staffer, but it's a lot of 'em. I have nothing but respect for the people there who can "bring it," and my limited interactions with those people--like Remnick--have been uniformly pleasant. But then there are all the others, who acted just like John Colapinto did towards Mollie.

So I let them stew in their own juice, and when somebody tells me there's a good article, I go read it at the library. Somebody has to pay for good reportage, true, but until Si Newhouse decides to put his money someplace else, I choose to take the good and leave the bad.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 9, 2007 02:41 PM

Mike, you make a lot of sense there. The Danner piece on the El Mozote massacre was in Tina Brown's first issue; the mag's content went steeply downhill from there. It seemed like a move designed to undercut criticism of her as a vapid, celebrity-obsessed type in advance -- and so far beyond what other magazines would publish that it gave her license to do what she was most comfortable doing for the next several years.

And I have to admit I read it only in the library, online, and at the doctor's office these days, so I'm in no position to get huffy about who's funding investigative writers. My parents used to subscribe and give it as a Christmas present to close friends...

But I'm awfully grateful for their publishing Jane Mayer's articles in the last five years.

Posted by: Nell at June 9, 2007 06:38 PM

Man, you Guys, I've always liked The New Yorker, still do. (but then , I'm in Wyoming)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 9, 2007 07:58 PM

This past weekend I was casually perusing the Atlantic Monthly while catching the French Open Finals in my girl-toys brick-exposed Chelsea apartment. I then realized I was a walking talking cliche and rectified the problem the only way I knew how: by writing a venomous blog about the Chinese problem (and I'm not talking about trade account deficits, but actual Chinese people).

I'm still waiting for my offer from the New Yorker.

Posted by: alec at June 11, 2007 11:21 PM

No!!! Your moveable type swallowed my joke whole! Someone call the Ted Stevens internut joke hotline :( :( :(

Posted by: alec at June 11, 2007 11:23 PM