Thursday, June 08, 2006

Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons

A open note to those who run the Blogcritics community.

First a question: what is wrong with these headlines?

Satire: Partition - A New Solution For Iraq

Satire: Attack of the Killer Immigrants

Satire: How to Write Good

Satire: No Mexicans, Get Congress On The Job!

Satire: Take Cover, There's a Kennedy at the Wheel!
In your mad rush to "professionalize" the Blogcritics community and "drive traffic" to the site, you are losing the plot.

I have been fairly inactive in the community but I have a few comments on the editorial changes that have been made in our joint.

First what's the deal with not allowing product links in the body of the text... The link is the only currency of the web. If someone goes to the effort to punctuate a point, to explain with hypertext instead of footnotes, that should be celebrated. Instead it's a matter of style. Well we have our style. It's the web style. You don't need a print style to become "an official Google News and My Yahoo! source", those folks are coming to you. Fetishizing search engine reach and arbitrage for attention in the current manner gives cause for concern. That style is not the native web style. You should know better.

Which leads me to my second point, what's the deal with the titles? Why that big Satire prefix? Even the New York Times, and that lady is all about style guides, wouldn't label Calvin Trillin's wit and wisdom as "Satire:". That goes under Opinion or Op-Art or something.

And good titles are important to be sure... it's always worth spending a few minutes getting a good title but then you spoil it all with that nasty prefix. It then becomes a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google or shall we say Snooze Headlines

The days of the catchy newspaper headlines full of wit and style and the occasional double entendre are fading to blah as a growing number of news outlets are bowing to the 'bots. Search-engine 'bots, that is, designed to scour online newspapers, magazines, and TV news headlines worldwide to rank and list news items for the likes of Google and Yahoo.

News organizations have been rewriting or distilling the traditional eye-catching headlines with more subdued, logical ones for software to catch. One California newspaper recently renamed some of its sections to make them easier for 'bots to find: "Real Estate" became "Homes"; "Scene" became "Lifestyles"; and the dining out section became a bland "Taste/Food." Ironically, search engines often rework their algorithms to avoid self-serving manipulation by news outlets.

I have been on a tear in recent months with lots of material that could well have featured on Blogcritics. After I'd written each piece, I'd first worry that the title I'd chosen would be changed. If I got over that threshold, I would then compose the draft and prepare to hit submit. Out of habit, I'd check the Blogcritics front page and without fail would see another one of those "Satire:" posts on the site and lose heart. To the extent that I've "lost traffic" in the interim that is a shame. But my writing is about changing the perspective and I can't buy into the primacy of traffic and the disembodiment of my writing. Thus I've been conducting a quiet boycott for the past few months.

I suppose if Jonathan Swift had submitted "A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burthen to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public", you would have jumped in to make it more palatable. I can just see the title after it passes through the Blogcritics satirical filter

Satire: Irish Babies have nutritional value and should be eaten.
Why have titles like these?
Satire: How to Become an Onion Ring Connoisseur

Satire: A Deep Man Running for President

Satire: Q & A With the Bookologist
I haven't read the above articles, but really, why mess with the onion rings or the bookologist?

In your current policy you seem to be conforming to the worst stereotypes of Americans as overly earnest people and the notion that it takes "Old World" decadence to appreciate irony and satire. That hogwash about Puritans, Salem and such. At the very least fix the labeling of satire, categories are there for that, don't telegraph your intentions. Part of the shock of the best satire, the savage satire that I love, is that there is a sting of recognition and discomfort. We don't need to be protected from such things.

I dug the notion of the Blogcritics tagline, that "sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, technology, and politics". That sounds very much like that well-known English word, toli. More broadly, I make a living worrying about community software, hence I can see the classic warning signs of community drift and not just because I am currently drifting afloat in the brackish Blogcritics tide.

The Blogcritics commons is important, it's a community full of people bursting with ideas and wielding their keyboards irreverently. We are the unwashed masses that the energy of the web has unleashed. I love engaging with editors but it strikes me that in trying to tame that horseless carriage, you might neuter it into bland conformity. Consider me part of the dark matter of said community, I'm surfacing for a brief moment to simply say "pay attention to the commons and don't lose your soul". You may claim it's editorial necessity, at the risk of being perceived as deliberately provocative, I'll say it's just the commercial imperative. It appears that it's all about gaming search engines for attention as evidenced in the breathless tomes I read in the Blogcritics mailing list, "the traffic! the traffic!" echoes of that crazy baldhead known as Kurtz. Like that sign I saw on the subway in Boston read:

Buy something, you stupid consumer.
Needless to say I dissent.

The founding mythology of the Ewes, the Ghanaian tribe, my mother's people, is that they were chafing under the reign of an overbearing chief who was restricting them in countless little ways. They aired their complaints in the normal manner in town meetings but were roundly ignored over the years. They made their preparations over months, gathered up their children and belongings, and one night they snuck out through a hole they had secretly dug in the thick walls of the town (a precursor to those walled garden things). They walked backwards so that their tracks in the dust would confuse those who were sure to follow in hot pursuit come morning. It was a long journey until they found their promised land but it was worth it. That is why they don't have chiefs any longer, of if they do tolerate one, why everyone sits on stools at the same level in village meetings.

I am not so sure that clans as a means for social organization is effective - witness the degenerate case of Somalia, but it seems to work for the Ewes. Still they sometimes look longingly at the Akans, my paternal people, with a lump in their throat at their riches and prestige - you may have heard of the Ashantis. Still, things also work in the reverse direction, some of the other tribes look at their entrepreneurial spirit and fearlessness with a touch of wistfulness at the vibrancy that has been lost. And to pursue the analogy further, better financed and more "efficient" or organized sites may garner more traffic but they have far less soul and character. I wonder if you realize the depth of fortitude in your community and how important it is to husband its evolution. From another context, this was my take:

It is in small insignificant items that the tribal instinct is articulated.

Pagerank is not the reason we contribute to Blogcritics despite what you seem to think... Being "official Google News sources" is beside the point. Our irreverent and informed voices are the point.

In any case I've ranted enough, some editor will wordsmith this piece I suppose and make it fit the "official" style guide. I hope I picked a reasonable title, husbanding the commons sounds about right to me, but feel free to prepend some byline that fits the prevailing style (Rant, Nitpick, Satire or something) or maybe this:

Satire: Tempest In Teapot About Title Terminology and Traffic Tendencies
or perhaps:
Satire: Boston Blowhard Boldly Blows Bile on Bubbly Blogcritics Behemoth

With some tongue in cheek, you can consider this note as my raised hand at the village meeting in the blog commons; I've been making my own preparations. I do like the sinister cabal idea and wouldn't want to start walking backwards. Just recently I asked myself

"Must everything be utilitarian? Is a country without whimsy worth worrying about?".

Suffice to say that I'm wondering about Blogcritics in the same vein and those carnival things are looking more attractive. I miss the whimsy in our commons. So please, less of the breathless posturing, leaderboards and such... chill a little on the traffic obsession, and above all don't mess with the satire.


This is the second part of the Boycott Day Trinity: The Son

[Update] This piece is crossposted at Blogcritics although not under the "Satire:" category that I submitted it in; it got the "Opinion" label. The saga of its publication and the discussion that it is raising has given me ample material and incentive to complete a follow-up piece, something I have been procrastinating about for over a year now. The title of said piece is as relevant now as when it was conceived: The Dark Matter of Communities. Somehow it will write itself between world cup matches and an intense day job.

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