Monthly Archives: September 2009

Sometimes not a great notion


Last night I caught about 30 seconds of Ken Burn’s latest paean: “The National Parks”, which was quite enough.  I already feel as though I’ve watched the entire series. “The National Parks are the enduring treasure of the great experiment that IS the United States….”  Substitute “Jazz”, “Baseball”, “The Brooklyn Bridge”,  “The Statue of Liberty”, the works of “Mark Twain”, buildings by “Frank Lloyd Wright”, the legacy of “Lewis and Clark”, “Susan B. Anthony”, “The West”, the experience of being black in America…

It’s not that these subjects aren’t fascinating and historically significant, it’s that he’s putting them all through the same Ken Burns sausage-grinder.  I loved watching this treament perhaps twice: Civil War, Lewis and Clark – great stuff, tear in my eye.  But not everything can be THE sepia-toned emblem of the great notion/dream/experiment that is America.

What next?  Pike’s Peak, Amelia Earhart, the automobile, Father Coughlin, Vaudeville, Vietnam, Kennedy, Television, Robber Barons, Country Music, Los Angeles, Newspapers.  What is this guy going to homogenize next? I don’t want to see these archived in his gimbel-eyed  exhausted style.  They deserve a fresh attack.

To me there is something about the narrative style of documentaries that invites corruption, after all, they are always “telling” you something, and leaving other things out.  If somehow a documentarian could focus not on substantive events, but on patterns, might this be more revealing?

I remember watching David Frosts’ interview with Nixon, where Nixon utters a heartfelt mea culpa, saying that he had let the country down. He seemed genuinely aggrieved.  I can’t imagine this coming from a modern politician (“Were errors in judgment made, yes…”)   Assume Nixon is neither good nor bad, and I know this is hard to do,  then you are free to focus on his ambition, and the way it manifested itself compared to a dessicated clinician like Barack Obama.  Can Nixon’s way of doing it not succeed today?  Why not?  These are  interesting questions to me and are not dependent on the question of right and wrong.

There was another quote from the “National Parks” documentary:  “50 years from now my grandaughter can visit this place and it will look to her just like it looks to me.”    I think Ken Burn’s wants us to feel that we are dots on a timeline of an immutable “American” (thus special) narrative.  While this is comforting and makes us feel kinship with historical figures, I don’t buy it, with history, things are never as they seem.  Burn’s intellectual contribution is fading and curling at the edges.

Booking from Facebook


An interesting factoid from life in the advertising trenches concerns the social media habits of teenagers: Coca Cola, anxious to jump on the social networking bandwagon, commissioned a study of teenagers that found their core attitude towards developing a social media presence to be “defensive”.  That is, they felt at risk for losing social status if they did not have an online identity which displayed the proper combination of coolness and connections.  This study further characterized todays teens as overscheduled and stressed.  The agency’s response to this research was to whip up a campaign based on the fizzing sound as a can of coke is cracked open.  Pressure relieved and now you have a minute to yourself.  Not a bad treatment for what it’s worth.

Does this attitude occur in adult social media consumers? Steve Tuttle’s article “Why I Quit Facebook”, along with some other commentary I’ve seen recently, focuses on the banality of “status updates”, short posts where users share whatever thoughts are crossing their minds at the moment.  To me, the subtext of these self-centered messages is a strategic attempt to bolster an online persona and, by reflected LCD-light, increase the status of the user.

In real life, at a party for example, the person who corralls me to tell me that their kid ate an entire bowl of cereal would properly be deemed a “bore”and would be most-likley avoided.  A status-updating (and status-enhancing) Cyberbore faces far fewer consequences than their flesh-and-blood counterpart because they are easier to ignore, and because, in my humble opinion, there is a tacit understanding that posts to newsfeeds are not intended to establish connection, they are intended to advertise.   Although there are token updates in which users wanly express non-hegemenous attitudes, the vast majority of posts hew tightly to a woman’s magazine Weltanschaung: “Joanie just did 2 hours of Bikram and never felt so refreshed, Namaste!”.

I have even seen meta-updates to friends about the number of friends obtained:  “John Doe just added friend number 1,000!”.  This is Onkga’s Big Moka,  writ in pixels. –  the display of a fitness indicator, a cyber-peacock’s-tail. The poster not only indicates that they have the social capital to get 1,000 people to click “Accept”, but they have the energy and focus to monitor and broadcast this.

It’s nothing new that people are always advertising and cloaking their intent in normative memes (“community” or in Huffington’s case, “concern for family”).  The interesting question to me is: “Is this an efficient form of self-promotion?”  I don’t think so.  While some people invest a lot of effort in creating online personas, the audience is fickle.  In order to join an online community, the average user faces a relatively low cost of admission and can leave just as easily.  As the founders of Friendster can attest, and with apologies to  “Project Runway”:  “In social media one day you’re in, the next day you’re out”.  This is the nature of the internet itself, low investment with rapid-switching (e.g. hyperlinking).

OK, let’s investigate fashion as an analog.  Is it a more efficient means of advertising fitness?  It takes energy to seek out fashionable clothing, resources to obtain it, and resilience to withstand the social attention and occasional opprobrium one obtains from wearing it.  It’s an effective fitness-indicator albeit one with greater investment and a lesser reach.  Alternatively the impact of a social media presence is broad but shallow. It seems to me that maintaining a fashionable real-life persona takes greater sacrifice, affects fewer people, but affects them more deeply.  Critiques about the banality of fashion precede those of Facebook posts and probably arise from a similar anxiety – keeping up.  Most people don’t want the pressure of figuring out what is in fashion, or of persuading
1,000 people to electronically approve of them.

The establishment of an enduring community on the internet would require that a social networking mechanism demand greater investment by users, and impose real consequences for their non-participation or departure. Entry would have to be more akin to a barn-raising than to watching Google Auto-Fill complete an online registration form. In real-life communities based on shared sacrifice, such as a farm communities, self-promotion is often viewed with skepticism.  Perhaps the emergence of this attitude is a bellwether for the viability of online communities as well.