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An Eternal Flame That Gives No Heat

I woke up thinking about the maw. Web publishing — blogs, news outlets, magazines, etc. — is a numbers game, and the goal is only to make more to put in the machine. What’s most frustrating as a content creator is that it almost doesn’t matter what the content is. It just has to exist so people can see the image and headline, click Like/Share, and move on. It’s kind of a Catch-22, though: if the content is badly written filler, you’ll get dinged for gaming the system or trying to put one over on your readers, but if the content’s really good, no one will read it to know the difference. You’re just producing to produce, throwing meat into the maw.

This Slate piece digs into the way people click without reading, as if their only goal is to acknowledge that something was published before moving on:

When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.

[…]

The worst thing about Schwartz’s graph is the big spike at zero. About 5 percent of people who land on Slate pages and are engaged with the page in some way—that is, the page is in a foreground tab on their browser and they’re doing something on it, like perhaps moving the mouse pointer—never scroll at all. Now, do you know what you get on a typical Slate page if you never scroll? Bupkis. Depending on the size of the picture at the top of the page and the height of your browser window, you’ll get, at most, the first sentence or two. There’s a good chance you’ll see none of the article at all. And yet people are leaving without even starting. What’s wrong with them? Why’d they even click on the page?

[…]

As a writer, all this data annoys me. It may not be obvious—especially to you guys who’ve already left to watch Arrested Development—but I spend a lot of time and energy writing these stories. I’m even careful about the stuff at the very end; like right now, I’m wondering about what I should say next, and whether I should include these two other interesting graphs I got from Schwartz, or perhaps I should skip them because they would cause folks to tune out, and maybe it’s time to wrap things up anyway …

But what’s the point of all that? Schwartz tells me that on a typical Slate page, only 25 percent of readers make it past the 1,600th pixel of the page, and we’re way beyond that now. Sure, like every other writer on the Web, I want my articles to be widely read, which means I want you to Like and Tweet and email this piece to everyone you know. But if you had any inkling of doing that, you’d have done it already. You’d probably have done it just after reading the headline and seeing the picture at the top. Nothing I say at this point matters at all.

It’s getting harder and harder to make yourself heard. It’s also dispiriting that something you ache over and spend a lot of time trying to get just right will be tossed aside with the same lack of interest as a list of celebrity outfits or a list of news links. The democratization of online publishing isn’t that everyone can publish; it’s that everything starts to look the same, so there’s no effort made to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The ramifications of this for critics, journalists, and other writers are still shaking out. But it’s hard not to feel the machine taking over. Being a critic already means dealing with the studio/publicity engine that drives coverage. Studios want you to see a movie, give them a seven-word power blurb, then go to the next one, so you have to walk away and spend some time with the work to understand it. Actual criticism — seeking to understand and explore a work, and being honest about the way you bring yourself to it — always takes more time and nuance than the machine wants to allow. Now, though, many consumers of that written content are creating their own blind machine: they want only to see and click and skim, to wade through the stream and forget something the moment it passes. I can feel myself doing it with others’ work. I know it happens with mine, too. While I don’t agree with critic Charles McCarthy’s assessment of some of the films of 2013, I did find myself nodding at this:

Social media, moreover, have created a deafening echo chamber in which opinions are confirmed ad nauseam until a de facto truth has been established. Dissent from the status quo can be attention-grabbing for a time, but a limit is quickly reached at which point the dissenter becomes marginalized as a crank.

With so much editorial emphasis placed on readership numbers (hence all the award show overkill), there is the furtive temptation for critics to align themselves with marketing forces. A rave review will be widely circulated by the studio distributing the film or the theater producing the musical. The danger here isn’t so much conscious as unconscious collusion.

Popular sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, while useful to consumers, are detrimental to critics for two reasons: By tallying up the consensus of reviewers, they throw into relief the loneliness and vulnerability of the outlier position and by reducing criticism to a negative or positive assessment they are the enemy of nuance.

The decline in weekly and alternative publications of influence has endangered the long view perspective as has the demand for all journalistic outlets to keep pace with the 24/7 media cycle. There was a time when critics such as Stanley Kauffmann and Pauline Kael offered correctives to the haste of daily reviewers. What one of my editors calls “slow criticism” has long been banished to the quarterly fringe.

Creation and consumption are faster now, but not deeper. I don’t know what the next step would be to change that, or even if it can be changed, or if people would want it to. This could be a problem with no solution, or it could just be one of those things that doesn’t have any response. I just know that we’re throwing logs on the fire every day, and it never gets warmer.

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Rambling, man. Rambling and avoiding the reality. The fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose yesterday. The sadness of drug addiction taking lives, the struggle of the drug addict to stay off the shit, to not get locked back into the groove where choices diminish, where reason no longer applies, where the will is compromised and tethered to a malignant desire. Horrendous. It’s a horrendous loss. It’s a horrendous loss when anybody dies tragically, in almost any way. Why not just say any way? But when you know somebody who’s been fighting, I guess what at one time was a — no, let’s say at all times — a good fight against that particular bug, having experienced that bug, having lived with that bug for all of my life, having somehow kept it at bay through various methods, I understand it. I understand that. Once you surrender your will to getting high, all bets are off. You don’t know what the fuck is gonna happen.

And this guy was a talented guy. He was one of the greatest actors who ever lived. And he had this horrible struggle. And there’s nothing more bothersome, more horrible, than people going, “Eh, he made a choice.” Yeah, he made a choice, but I don’t [think he had] much control, if any, over that choice. His heart and mind were being given instruction by a fucking demon. It’s probably one of the closest — metaphorically, if not literally — it is the closest I have ever seen to demonic possession. Active drug addiction. It’s nothing to be trivialized. It’s nothing to be dismissed as some sort of bad life choice. I really think that that kind of conversation about drugs needs to be eliminated from the culture.

It’s one thing to try to stop drugs; that seems futile. But try to raise awareness and get people treatment so they at least have a shot. And Philip Seymour Hoffman had had some periods of sobriety. But something switched off. Something didn’t stick. Something was not there when he needed it to be there in terms of the support necessary to stop him from reentering the dragon. From opening his soul to the demon. And now he’s gone. We lost him. We lost him to that, we lost him to that fucked-up disease. Fucked-up drug.

You know, I’ve seen a lot of people go down because of this, people in my business, people I’ve known. Some people come back. Heroin’s a tough monkey to kick, man. Seems to be the hardest, really, to reenter life after being strung out on dope. It sets the bar of your brain chemicals so high and so low simultaneously that you can never recapture that. Once you have that blast, once you feel that nod, a lot of things pale in comparison, and the deep hunger in the reptile brain for that feeling is a tough thing to stifle. I know cats that have quit dope and kind of moved through methadone and then became sort of managing alcoholics, drinkers, to sort of give that demon a taste. And a lot of them didn’t go back to dope. A few guys I know that ended up sort of putting that at bay and nursing a drink every once in a while to take the edge off. They’ve done alright. I’m not saying abstinence is for everybody. As Jim Caroll said about Kurt Cobain, he should’ve negotiated with the monkey. It’s hard to negotiate with the monkey. Sometimes you got to cut that fucking monkey off.

You know last week, on Thursday, we ran an interview with Marc Spitz, who also battled with heroin, but who at this juncture has not lost, and is out of its grips. Not sober, per se, but out of the grips of that motherfucker. Heroin’s a bitch. Drug addiction is horrible. It’s a mental illness. It’s a real disease, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead, and it’s sad. It’s sad. Because — just know that there is help available. And this may be a little serious, I understand, maybe I’ll get to something funny in a minute. But there is help available, there is help on the way, there’s always help available if you look for it. The hardest thing about it is once you get into that mind, once you are in demon mind, your decision-making capacity, or your will to say or know that you’re in trouble, becomes somewhat compromised. You know, “I’ll kick tomorrow.” Yeah.

R.I.P., Philip Seymour Hoffman. You were great.

— Marc Maron

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“The man known for dressing up in an Elmo costume and harassing New York City tourists with anti-Semitic outbursts was sentenced in Manhattan Criminal Court on Wednesday to a year in jail after admitting he tried to extort $2 million from the Girl Scouts.”

The best sentence I think I’ve ever read in a newspaper.

(Full story.)

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Maybe we do want too much. Maybe we do want it too soon. Maybe we do think too highly of ourselves. Maybe we think we should have it all. Maybe we think we shouldn’t have to work. Maybe we think struggle is for others. Maybe we believe our own press. Maybe we think the rules do not apply to us. Maybe we don’t know we think that. Maybe we’ve never known real struggle. Maybe we don’t know how to reconcile ourselves with the gulf between us and everyone who came before. Maybe we’re soft. Maybe we’re delusional. Maybe we’re selfish and small.

Maybe we don’t know how to fix any of this without waiting it out and seeing what happens.

But maybe we’re also tired. Maybe we also know what it’s like to watch a generation shuffle away with nothing in their eyes but the weary look of someone who did nothing but survive and is trying to tell themselves that’s all they had to do. Maybe we don’t know what we want to do, but we also know we don’t want to stop trying to find out. Maybe we realize on some level that nobody gets out alive. Maybe we understand that nobody on their deathbed ever looked back and wished they’d spent more time at the office. Maybe we don’t think that the job is the person. Maybe we don’t think the job is anything other than a necessary evil, a tool wielded only because of the things it lets you build. Maybe we know we’ll never change things, not in a big way, not really, and maybe we’re disappointed about that. Maybe we don’t want to sell ourselves short just because somebody before us never bothered to sell themselves at all. Maybe we don’t want to settle a bill we didn’t charge. Maybe we know that the grind is the grind, but that doing it doesn’t have to mean living it. Maybe we don’t want to wake up one day and realize it already happened. Maybe we’re going to blow the whole thing. Maybe we’re OK with that. Maybe we’ll change. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we can. Maybe we’re waiting for you to leave already. Maybe you should accept that.

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One of the reasons I love subscribing to The Listserve is the opportunity it gives me to realize that everyone, everywhere, usually wants the same thing: to connect. Signing up at the site means getting a daily email penned by one of the subscribers, chosen via random lottery, so every day you and a few thousand other people get a note from someone you don’t know about a topic of their choosing. Most people write about life choices and crossroads and trying to sort their needs from their wants, but everyone’s story usually hinges on the idea of connection. We write and read these things in the hope that someone out there recognizes their weaknesses in ours, that they see in our struggles a hope that theirs might succeed. People’s personal emails aren’t used in the letters, yet so many of the writers still opt to include their contact information because they genuinely want responses, questions, comments, or just a chance to keep the conversation going. Some of the letters are better than others, and sometimes I’m not in the mood to read them, but that’s why they’re there. Every day, a reminder that we all spend our lives looking for ways to connect, and that finding those connections is often easier than we think.

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Feeding the Buzz

What does this even mean?

What does this even mean?

BuzzFeed is terrible. Probably not entirely; their tech section publishes interesting (if authorially bland) features, and they’ll also put out some worthwhile longform first-person stuff. For the most part, though, their content is defined by an endless of series of mindless lists predicated on the idea that remembering something is the same as having a feeling, and that pointing out a piece of trivia to a reader is the same as making an insight for them.

Recently, though, BuzzFeed relaunched their Community section, which allows users to create accounts and post articles that are identical to BuzzFeed-created content. This is a canny business move on their part, since it means they can pad their site with content they didn’t pay for but still reap benefits from traffic, ad impressions, and so on. (This is also another reason they are terrible.) Last week, something in me snapped and I decided to create a user account and upload my own BuzzFeed lists. I didn’t know what shape they’d take; I just knew that I wanted to do something to comment on how inane the site is.

So I did. I’d seen Joe Veix’s attack post and knew that BuzzFeed wasn’t wild about content that mocked their own empire (and Kaleb Horton’s amazing piece), but I just didn’t care. I wanted to see what it was like to post ridiculous, stupid content that went in a variety of directions. At first I posted some surreal, more mocking pieces (like 6 Rocks That Totally Rock!! and 7 Sure Signs You Grew Up in Texas), meant to highlight the total obviousness and emptiness of BuzzFeed’s lists. Their content relies on recognition and cheap nostalgia, and their goal is to trick you into believing that “I remember that thing” and “I am entertained” are the same emotion.

Then, weirdly, one of the posts got some traction. Not a lot; this was not something that was taking the Internet by storm. But it generated more traffic and referrals than the others. It was called 13 Benedict Cumberbatch GIFs That Are All The Same, and I wrote it to point out how easy it is to assemble .gif lists that rely on nothing more than familiarity with TV stars or pop culture. There’s zero insight required to make these. Zero. That’s the whole sad point. I was kind of stunned that it took off, especially when some of the comments reflected a split between people who got it and people who just really wanted to see pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch, context be damned.

I posted some more throughout the week. Some were weird and some were plain and some were sad, but all were designed to puncture the expectations people bring to BuzzFeed content. Also: You’ll be amazed what people will click on if you format the headline properly and attach it to a BuzzFeed URL. I could’ve done these lists on my own site or somewhere else and not brought in a fraction of the content. Yes, there’s the appeal of seeing an anti-BuzzFeed list actually published on BuzzFeed, but at this point, most people really are conditioned to just click and scroll. I’m no different.

I’ll probably post some more. The archive is here. I don’t really know how many I’ll wind up doing. It’s fun to put them together, to show just how empty the site is, but it’s also overwhelming to realize that these dozen posts are nothing next to the fire hose of mindless clickbait that BuzzFeed publishes every day. There’s no way to beat them, at least not with jokes like these. I think the only way is to just look for something else, and to try and be entertained in newer/older ways.

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