Monday, February 19, 2018

Toward a New Media

The World Press Photo whatever thing is trying to make their annual competition more interesting by announcing 6 candidates for the Big Prize, and they're pretty much all just pictures of brown people in the midst of violence, or as victims of violence. The usual snowflakes are bellyaching about it, and as usual they have a point, but as usual they're clueless about solutions. Really, what John Edwin Mason wants, what Jörg Colberg wants, what Allen Murabayashi wants, is for the system to remain exactly the same, except with them in charge. And they genuinely think they'd do a better job. And they absolutely would not.

Consider the media, as embodied at the moment in World Press Photo (WPP). What they're exemplifying is the philosophy of "if it bleeds, it leads". In the same way, Facebook, twitter, instagram, all focus on giving the viewer what will engage and enthrall them in this moment. We see the same in movies, in news, in short stories. Is the trend universal, or are we just seeing blips and bumps in most media? I don't know. I do know that social media in particular has taken this general notion to what I sincerely hope is its ultimate expression.

The artist, the critic, the novelist, the reporter, all these jobs have one thing in common, in theory. That common element is that they should show us what we ought to see rather than what we want to see. When those two goals conflict, the audience will not be delighted, particularly, if you force the former upon them. Therefore there is pressure, from the audience, to show them the latter. Social media takes this to the logical conclusion, and does not even pretend to force upon you what you ought to see (except for ads) and famously permits you to easily wall yourself an echo chamber of like-minded dolts.

Then you and your idiot friends can all sit around in the dark, talking about how fine this entirely imaginary Amontillado is.

As a side note: the people most likely to use social media to link to articles about this phenomenon are also the most likely to be vigorously using those features of social media that allow them to create that echo chamber.

But to the main thrust here. It's tempting to blame the WPP's "if it bleeds it leads" on simple greed, on capitalism, or whatever. But that's not it. Socialist countries are not precisely famous for their honest news reporting. No, the trouble is that whenever any kind of central influential role turns up, a certain type is attracted to the position. These are people who are not very interested in Art, or News, or Criticism, or Writing, they are interested in Influence. This happens regardless of the market system you are laboring under.

Influential roles attract would-be Influencers to fill them. Bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats will always do certain things: They will work to expand their influence. Actually, that's pretty much the only thing they do. Bureaucrats are often unaware that this is what they're doing, and are in fact convinced that they are struggling to improve the state of whatever it is they're running. See also Universities and Yacht Clubs. Generally, bureaucrats are not, and are mystified and upset by the fact that things keep getting worse for Art, Journalism, Teaching, Boating, etc. So they hire more bureaucrats, because obviously the problem is much worse than they thought.

Back to media.

You expand influence in media and media-like roles by pleasing the audience. You may also please advertisers, or the KGB, or whomever, but among the people you must delight are included your audience. Add to this the fact that bureaucrats are, by and large, uninterested in the actual supposed role of whatever they're bureaucratting (reporting truthful news, e.g.) and you pretty much inevitably end up with people hearing some version of what they want to hear rather than what they ought to hear.

Occasionally, passionate leaders will muscle their way in to these influential roles, and there will, briefly, be an interval of truly hard hitting news. Edward R. Murrow will tell the public what they ought to hear, and the devil take the hindmost. Stieglitz will display the photographs and art he feels the public ought to see, and to hell with popularity. And so on. If they're good at it, they become storied figures. Showing people what they ought to see has echoes through the ages.

The jerks who just spew out our clickbait are innumerable, but unremembered. Which effects how we remember these things. When the only names we can recall are the passionate iconoclasts, it feels like history is largely made up of Murrows and Stieglitzes, but it's not. It's made up of Eisners and Murdochs.

The system is essentially broken. The fact that these influential roles exist at all is the problem.

I think Larry Gagosian does pretty good work gatekeeping a big chunk of the Art World. It's not all home runs, but, you know, he seems to genuinely be a guy who's interested in doing his job well, in showing what ought to be shown, not necessarily what will be popular.

Obviously there are plenty of snowflakes who would disagree. Their thesis, though, is that because Gagosian is doing a shitty job (look, everything he shows is POPULAR and EXPENSIVE, it must be shit! in an absolutely marvelous inversion of causality), that someone else, should be doing that work. Someone else should be selecting who gets to Win The Game. And, you know, the snowflakes might have a couple names they could share on that exact point.

The snowflakes who complain about the WPP competition certainly visualize themselves as one of those strong and passionate voices, they see themselves as Murrow rather than Murdoch. I am dubious. Power is corrupting, and my fairly wide experience with people who hold it makes me fear to have it. I suspect that I would find myself rather more Murdoch than Murrow. The snowflakes I have mentioned, in my judgement, would merely run their friends up regardless of any sort of actual ability. In short order, they'd run out of friends, and find themselves making new ones. New ones on the hustle. New friends with a passionate desire to succeed. In fairly short order our notional newly promoted snowflake would find himself doing lines of blow off of hooker's asses, and then the game is up.

Again, the system is essentially broken. The fact that these influential roles exist at all is the problem.

What we need, not only in journalism, but in Art, in photography, is to break the model of centralized influence.

We've tried anarchy. Supposedly flickr and instagram were going to just let us build our own models, build some sort of distributed method of finding the excellent, finding bodies of work that makes sense. What ended up happening was that clicks and likes came to dominate, and the companies behind the "new media" decided that they should, in essence, seize the reins and use our own clicks to begin force-feeding us that which we want. What we ought to see isn't going to drive any ad revenue, so eff that. Note to libertarians: So dies every one of your fantasies.

No, we need something that structurally excludes (much) influence, that is built to be bureaucrat-proof, but has some properties such that it forces what we ought to see, to read, to hear, to know, down our throats. At least, a little.

So far I have the notion that once you subscribe to something, you can't just skip stuff. Like a newspaper, you have to at least flip past things to get to other things.

You've got to pay for it. Not much, but something. Which means that it must be desirable. There has to be some cachet attached to the thing.

Whatever it is that you can subscribe to has to be user-generated, somehow. Remember, no centralized influential roles. The users are, of course, everyone. So there's some system of rewarding good behavior. It's not just "Likes" exchanged for "Likes" there needs to be some way to signal "Hated it, but god damn it made me think" which is rewarded.

I think ways for users to indicate that things are connected to each other, related in some way.

Perhaps we can learn something from Wikipedia (although I suspect that is actually just a strong and passionate personality who will one day be outmaneuvered by bureaucrats, turning Wikipedia into another cesspool).

I don't know how to do it. But I think we'd better figure it out.


  1. Could you perhaps edit this, and throw in a few more uses of the word snowflakes?