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The New Narcissicm

Nicholas Carr: The new narcissism

As I myself have thought about the watery philosophy and the powerful technology that dovetail so neatly in Web 2.0, I’ve become convinced that we’re building a machine that will, to great and general applause, destroy culture. Keen gets close to the heart of the matter: “If you democratise media, then you end up democratising talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratisation, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural ‘flattening.'” In the end we’re left with nothing more than “the flat noise of opinion – Socrates’s nightmare.”

Yes, I fear it’s so. Beware of those who come with money and influence and pretty-sounding abstractions and who are utterly unaware that what they so joyfully seek to impose on the world is their own reckless banality.

I think there’s something to what Nicholas is saying, but the problem isn’t the “democratisation” of media. The trend at the moment is for the blogging world to be a kind of feed-pool for professional media – look at how people like Marc Orchant have crossed over into the mainstream. At the end of the day, talent will out. Opinions that don’t stand up to the rigour of reason will wither, those that work won’t.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s often been the case that mainstream media has represented “the flat noise of opinion”, because they haven’t been involved in conversation or debate. Newspapers have been one-way streets, whose opinions haven’t been subject to any debate outside the confines of the walls of the newsroom. They have been impervious to challenge, except for the challenge of the market.

Where there is a problem with the neo-hippies is in their insistence that opinion itself  – the voice of the people – is intrinsically of value. Opinion without argument is valueless: the tyranny of relativism.

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  • http://www.jonathanbaldwin.co.uk Jonathan

    The Leavisites and the Frankfurt School pretty much said exactly the same thing in the early 20th century. For the Leavisites, popular culture and the availability of ‘art’ for the masses threatened the social order with the experts at the top and the prolls at the bottom. They feared that social order and culture would be destroyed.

    The Marxist Frankfurt School, on the other hand, believed that popular culture was a means of maintaining the social order by feeding the lower classes with crap and keeping them sated and uninvolved in the things that matter, like politics. (Chomsky makes similar points today. He uses the obsession with sport as an example – people can recite the most amazing facts and statistics about balls being kicked and hit, but couldn’t tell you how many people live in poverty in their own neighbourhood, or how high the death rate is from speeding drivers. Yet it’s sport that gets given a bizarre amount of space in newspapers, and sport which gets its own slot in news bulletins. Forget religion, sport is the true opiate of the masses).

    The Frankfurtians worried that cheap printing, formulaic films and music, would stop people engaging with the groups who governed them.

    Clearly the Leavisite fears came to nothing and I’d place Carr’s comments in that particular box on the face of it (only reading the quotation, so maybe missing his point). I suspect, however, that you are coming from the Frankfurtian angle but I may be wrong. If I’m right, it’s quite amusing (but not unknown in this area of sociology) that two people think they’re agreeing with each other but are actually arguing from opposite ends.

    Blogging could be seen either way – a means of fermenting debate (no matter how rabid it might be) and rightly threatening the unquestioned authority of experts, or a means of allowing people to feel involved without actually being involved and thereby allowing things to continue unchanged. The two positions are at opposite ends of the scale.

    (I’m not immune to this. My own bugbear is news programmes that have ‘have your say’ features on them. While it’s interesting to know what people like me think, it’s not right to allow a well argued point from an academic or politician be demolished by the bizarre logic of ‘Bill from Basildon’.

    However, I side with the Frankfurt School in that this isn’t true democratisation – it doesn’t get people more involved, it makes them feel more involved, which results in diversion from actually becoming involved in a real and effective way.)

    Doubtless, there is research going on into this (in cultural and media studies faculties – themselves victims of the fears of those who don’t like to be challenged and who depict what people like me do as ‘just watching soap operas’) but what I’d say is that the only thing worse than opinion without argument is argument without basis in evidence. That seems to be what you’re advocating, if only by omission of the important qualifier. It’s not ‘argument’ that’s missing on the web, it’s evidence.

    However, it’s far from democratic. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identified that power relies not just on economic capital, but on social and cultural capital too. It’s easy to forget that not everyone knows how to blog, or can afford the time or equipment to do it. I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘democratisation’ used in situations like this – as far as the web goes, we’re at a similar stage as we were when voting rights were linked to land ownership.

    Opinion of ordinary people is of value. In any form of communication you rely on feedback, and the web as it’s developing allows for unprecedented amounts of it.

    The analysis of opinion is a science in itself. The Mass Observation Archive down the road from me (and you?) at the University of Sussex is a treasure trove of opinion. In itself it is interesting (often fascinating), but no one pretends it is representative, only indicative. There’s a difference.

    If you read ‘Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone’ by Frank Furedi (a book that makes my blood boil) he seems to be arguing for a return to the days when people listened to experts and believed them without question. Or when we left debate to those ‘qualified’ to do it. It seems that what he’s really asking for is an uninhibited reliance on tenured sophistry.

    Frankly (no pun intended) I don’t see much of a difference between Furedi’s rant and anything I might stumble across on the web…

    However, the fact that this hitherto academic discussion seems to be getting wider coverage, is a good thing. I think 😉

    (Apologies for rambling. I might try something more coherent on my own blog)

  • Stew Dean

    I agree with Nicolas. Blogging and the activities and communities that surround it are have a very low signal to noise ration. It has it’s own insular lexicon and feeds off it’s self. The main stream media is reliant upon a diverse range of sources whilst those who inhabit the world I look onto from the outside, that of the media/web savy ‘haves’ like yourself, tend to feed off a common pool of memes. It is a culture unto it’s self and has the ability to blot out other existing cultures. We already have sunday supliments full of crap, white middle class thirty somethings with good english and broadband blotting out those who don’t have access to the media. And if all you read is from white middle class thrity somethings then isnt that how you think the world is and what you will write about?

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Jonathan: Blimey, that was a better comment than my post! And it actually demonstrates the point I was stumbling towards making: the ability to freely publish with a low capital entry point (which is what blogging is, fundamentally) makes it easier to be engaged in conversation and debate, and – if you’re open minded – to learn.

    Stew: On the one hand, you’re saying that the mainstream media is dependent on a diverse range of sources, on the other hand you’re bemoaning the “Sunday supplements full of crap”. You can’t have it both ways, surely?

    The reason the Sunday supplements are full of crap is that they’re dependent on appealing to the most widely-held (and thus, bland) common interests in order to sell copies. The high capital cost of paper publishing makes this essential – if you can’t sell 100,000 copies, you’re shafted, so you do whatever it takes to sell 100,000 copies.

    The low capital cost of blogging means that you don’t need to sell 100,000 copies to publish. You can publish for nothing using MSN Spaces, LiveJournal or Blogger. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have anything interesting to say – but it means you can be part of the conversation.

  • http://www.jonathanbaldwin.co.uk Jonathan

    Ian, I think I misunderstood your original point but get it now. My fault.

    I’d disagree slightly with the comment “The reason the Sunday supplements are full of crap is that they’re dependent on appealing to the most widely-held (and thus, bland) common interests in order to sell copies. The high capital cost of paper publishing makes this essential – if you can’t sell 100,000 copies, you’re shafted, so you do whatever it takes to sell 100,000 copies.”

    Sunday supplements (and newspapers they come in) don’t make money from sales but from advertising – as I’m sure you know all too well from your own experiences, though maybe the business model is different in the specialist computer magazine market.

    Content in supplements is aimed not at satisfying tastes of readers but of delivering readers to advertisers – and the two aren’t necessarily the same thing. With supplements I’d suggest that they’re something to flick through rather than read (I don’t even bother doing that – straight in the black recycling box) and the ads in them are designed to be glossed over. It’s not in the interests of a lot of supplements to engage their readers in such a way that they skip the ads.

    There was some research done recently that found that, contrary to the popular belief that we ‘switch off’ when TV ads are on, our brains actually become more active, largely because the programmes we’re watching dull our senses and the ads, being short and more fast-paced, wake us up. (I use Sky+ and haven’t seen a proper TV ad for months – yet I’m still advertised too because, as another piece of research suggests, even seeing an ad in fast forward is as effective at seeing it at normal speed. How scary is that!)

    Translating that TV-based research into Sunday supplements, I’d say dull boring articles make us pay more attention to the ads, that leads to higher ad revenue, and that means the papers aren’t so reliant on sales to turn a profit!

    In short: Being dull pays.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Heh! Interesting analysis. But the problem with it is that it’s a competitive market, and it’s the features that attract the readers – and, in particularly, the ABC1’s that every advertiser (except maybe Lidl) wants to get in front of. If you’re making dull content, you’ll be shafted the first time that someone else makes something interesting. And where the readers go, the advertisers will follow. Eyeballs matter.

    However, there’s an innate conservatism in editorial that means that features tend towards the dull “what we know works” formulae. Doing original, interesting, challenging stuff that might attract new readers is tricky, because you might just lose the readers you have. And as it’s far, far cheaper to retain readers than to attract new ones, you’ll tend towards giving readers what you know works – and that means the same old crap that your competitors are also doing, “but better” (as I’ve heard myself saying in the odd editorial meeting).

    The way new stuff happens in publishing is when someone takes a risk, and it happens to work, they suddenly kick the competition out of touch. Think of Loaded, for example – when it launched, all the men’s magazines were essentially following the same GQ-esque template of “intelligent” high-fashion, big-league men. Then Loaded came along, and blew everyone away, quickly gaining the kind of readership that the others never had and eating their lunch. Other companies either launched copycat titles (Maxim) or revamped their existing ones into a more Loaded style (FHM). Which, of course, leaves us in the situation we have today where all the men’s magazines are basically rechurning the same old Loaded features from ten years ago. And they’re very, very dull. It’s a market waiting for someone to take a risk.

    All this stems from the cost of publishing. A new launch into one of the major markets costs so many millions now (thanks to the ever-rising cost of paper – 8-10% year on year increases for the past ten years) that you’re not encouraged to experiment too much. The most innovative launch of the last five years has been Glamour, which was basically just “the same, but smaller (and thus cheaper to print!)”

  • http://www.jonathanbaldwin.co.uk Jonathan

    Yes it’s true that we academic types prefer a good convoluted conspiracy theory over basic economics. It’s why we need elbow patches.

    However it has to be said the power of advertisers over content in a lot of publications is not generally understood. I often refer my students to the series ‘Trouble Between The Covers’ which looked at the launch of Front and other stable-mates, and depicted this relationship quite powerfully. Delivering readers to advertisers dictates editorial content in a lot of cases, particularly in the men’s magazine sector.

    It’s not so much that people are really interested in the things that are written about, but forced to feel they should be. I’ve never met anyone who’s been eaten by a shark (er…) or bungie jumped off a mountain, or survived alone in a snake-infested forest for two weeks – but by gum I’ve met lots of people who think that’s what they want to read about and, coincidentally, then believe that Tag Heuer watches would go down a treat next time they’re out with their mates. That’s assuming they have time after a full moisturising treatment. How lucky that a cosmetics company has just launched a new range right at the time that someone’s written an article about how men are embracing their touchy-feely side.

    Or am I being a cynic?

    I pondered for a long time trying to write for Maxim but as I’m not interested in sport, skis, weights or watches I was never going to get anywhere. I did however write a pretty formulaic letter that got me a ‘star prize’ of a case of Australian wine – very nice.

    The Glamour launch borrowed an idea from the fast moving consumer goods sector where the key word is ‘differentiate’ – hence ‘new formula’ this, that and the other. Brand differentiation helps breathe new life into a mature market. In FMCG and technology sectors this product life cycle is very short, in magazines it’s usually a lot longer. However it has its parallels: In nature it’s notable that when one species develops some new feature it spontaneously appears in other species – the eye, bipedal ambulation, live birth, the cheeky grin (though only overpaid footballers and ‘bad boys’ have perfected that one so far).

    Anyway, I seem to have strayed off the point a bit so I’ll allow someone else to get a word in and return to it…

  • http://blogs.zdnet.com Marc Orchant

    Ian – great post and even better conversation. Thank for the lovely compliment although I must admit I had a shiver of apprehension at the notion that I’ve gone mainstream ;^)

    More to the point, blogs are the fourth publishing revolution I’ve experienced in my working life (I’m a recovering graphic designer and magazine editor). The first was Postscript and desktop publishing which obliterated much of the cost (but not the craft) of producing quality print material.

    The second was the web, which to a certain degree failed to live up to its promise of allowing anyone to publish cheaply and easily but eventually did get us most of the way towards accepting the demise of much of the paper in our lives.

    The third was high-quality, high-speed digital printing which destroyed the economy of scale foundation of commercial printing for many paper-based products. While there are still viable applications for ink on paper in large quantities, the economic impact on business-related printing has been significant, sustained, and very measurable.

    Blogs (and by extension podcasting and vidcasting) are the fourth and most profound of these revolutions. Broadcast is giving way to interaction. Mainstream media may be fumbling its way into creating authentic conversations with their audiences but they are trying and some are making notable progress. New hybrid publications that have some of the essence of the old paper-based media but have their origins in bits like Salon and Slate are refining the model. More importantly, the playing field has been leveled in a way and to a degree we have rarely experienced in the past.

    We’re entering a dramatically different world than the one many of us grew up in. I have two children, 21 and 14, who have grown up in the connected world and take much I still shake my head in wonder at as a given. Even the thirty-somethings mentioned above have a decidedly different acceptance of the sweeping changes being discussed here.

    I do believe that the “best” ideas, opinions, and perspectives *do* rise above the noise. They may not always become mainstream but that is not a requirement for fomenting change. And if the noise level has, in fact, gone up I firmly believe that is more than offset by the reduction or elimination of the barriers to entry these new mediums have produced.

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