The Things Make Us Stupid

November 24th, 2007  |  Published in etc  |  12 Comments

O.k. So calling the enthusiasts at Engadget “utterly stupid” was not the kind of thing that demonstrates a mild and pleasant demeanor I imagine people would find appealing. And implying that the CNET blogger who passed Engadget’s incurious post about Kindle sales figures was a lazy blog-troller wasn’t friendly at all.

So I sat down after Thanksgiving dinner and took advantage of my freshly stabilized blood sugar to reason the whole thing out. I mean … I do vituperation inside my own head a lot. Not usually when other people are sitting right there, because I’m not that good at compartmentalizing. And I write a lot of angry drafts that I spike well before even contemplating a last pre-post scan. I can see six or seven in the drafts folder right now, all waiting for me to decide there’s no way to salvage them from the animus that drove them in the first place.

The common theme for a lot of them has to do with stuff.

There’s me being mean about thoughtless use of the word “gentrification,” and there’s 500 words that end mid-sentence, spurred on by this paragraph from an article about a sub-prime lender:

“If consumers qualified for a fixed rate mortgage, they often told that their mortgages were fixed for “as long as they wanted” when in reality, they were only fixed for 2 years. In order to fool the applicants into signing up for the pricier loan, fixed rate mortgage papers were stacked on top of variable rate ones. After tricking the customer into signing all of them, the fixed rate papers were discarded.”

And I think back to a series of reviews I read when I was last shopping for a computer where I learned to identify one particular reviewer because she led almost every single review with a variation on “This machine [will|will not] attract a lot of second glances in the airport waiting area” and how I … well… I got sick of the formulation and irritated that I was losing seconds of my life each time I came across one of her reviews.

Bloggers on the Nintendo Wii?

“Wii is a funny name because it sounds like peepee. Hahahahahahaahahaha! They should call it the Nintendo URINE! Hahahahahahaahahaha!”

For, like, MONTHS. And then on to a second life as part of the clumsy lead construct Gawker bloggers have almost universally adopted:

“While we’re still not sure about the unfortunate name, the Nintendo Wii …”

Out in meatspace at Ikea, I watch a pair of women pushing along their carts, yellow loaner bags swaying from the thoughtfully designed holder nubs on the cart handles. They stop every few feet and the more active of the two grabs a kitchen gadget out of the bag and says “I remember the last time I was over … you had a problem finding something to … this would take care of that!” A few more feet and “I got one of these … FANTASTIC!” A few more feet “Didn’t you say you were looking for …?”

Then I lost track of them and ended up behind a pair who were curating the store for each other:

“I don’t know what it is, but people really, really respond to the clean European look!”

“Yes! The birch and metal really attracts people!”

“People just want things to look clean!”

“And the birch and metal looks clean!”

Both pairs left me spinning my wheels, mired in uncertainty. Were the two women with their carts some sort of viral marketing thing? Breathing target demographic mannequins hired to orbit housewares kickstarting the imagination of anyone in earshot? The stretch black workout tights, clean Nikes and ponytails … they were perfect. The second couple? More of the same? Or perhaps just affecting observer’s detachment so they could imagine their true souls were anywhere but the humid scrum of Ikea on a Saturday afternoon? How about me? If I was focusing on them and their strange desire to sell Ikea to each other, maybe that was my way of detaching my own soul from my body, which was purposefully making its way over to the linens section for some guest pillows. See? I even tried to slip in a needless hint of the practical there because the last place I want to be is an Ikea, yet there I am.

Those two Kindle blog entries. What about them?

I don’t read much on the ‘net anymore without pausing to think about the alleged dichotomy between “democratic” bloggers and the “bought and paid for corporate MSM” we’re supposed to take as an article of faith.

So, there’s Engadget … “bloggers” who appear to work on quota and consider a bit of snark about how funny-looking the Kindle is adequately representative of a human voice to justify their layout choices. And the CNET blogger, who spends her days alternately recapping what the “blogging community” says about this or that, or relaying entries from the likes of Engadget.

I used to make a distinction between warm and cool voices … engaged vs. detached, involved vs. analytical. But both those entries struck me as entrants in a third category … warm, cool, and now “warmed over.” Compelled to appear engaged, but not. Interested to the extent a quota demands significations of interest at the rate of n per day, but not deeply involved or engaged, except perhaps on the level of knowing someting about a thing that others might not: That thing is popular, that thing is not popular, that thing is selling well, that thing is not selling well. Consumers like it. Observers do not like it.

One might briefly wonder why they even bother, but that’s easy to answer: The Web’s a big mall, and having almost anything to say about stuff moves ads. Engadget’s content doesn’t matter as much as our perception about its content: A few witless regurgitations of Amazon’s marketing spin coupled with “snarky irreverence” in the form of “It looks FUNNY! Hahahahahah!” and Engadget’s owners can reliably package the site as one where any page view is surely coming from an ENTHUSIAST … part of Engadget’s PASSIONATE AUDIENCE of 18-34 YO MALES who will identify strongly with brands provided they’re exposed to those brands in the context of an apparently enthusiastic community of fellow 18-34 YO MALES.

So, slow down a moment.

The problem I’ve got seems to be the whiff of commerce that’s everywhere. Everyone’s trying to get theirs, I guess, and it boils down to how one responds to being around people who are in the process of getting theirs in the form of getting some of yours: Time, attention, money, capacity to contribute buzz, willingness to speak the name of the brand at the right time.

I’m a lot more willing to part with tangibles. We gave away a lot of stuff the last time we moved. Some of it could have been sold to someone, but it was far easier to freecycle it. I give away electronics without thinking twice. Software … bits of camera gear … whatever. It once cost something, and it’s still of value to someone, but when it’s merely given away maybe it loses something. The thing no longer has a purpose outside of its utility to someone else. It’s not an economic unit … a thing that has an existence we can rationalize outside “it makes someone happy” or “it is useful on its own brute merits.”

But the intangibles? Maybe I don’t like the idea that the intangibles have suddenly acquired value and utility to anyone besides me, or someone who thinks those things — attention, curiosity, time, engagement — are worthwhile merely because they want to know what I think instead of assessing those things for their economic utility.

For instance:

Suppose you make a new friend. Each day you meet your friend down at the coffee shop and spend hours talking about whatever crosses your minds. Your friend is an excellent listener, always drawing you out on this point or that, clearly engaged in whatever you’re saying. Your friend also buys most of the coffee.

One day you ask to pick up a round and your friend demurs, saying “I’m making enough from our conversations: I get paid by the hour for the transcripts.”

But you point out today’s conversation has to be cut short … you have another engagement.

“That’s cool,” says your friend, “I mentioned that video game three times and you eventually made a note of it on a 3×5 card … that’s worth two hours.”

Do you care that your friendship has been exploited up to this point, even though the coffee has been free and the conversation engaging?

What if the free coffee is an upfront perk offered by your new friend in the spirit of transparency, since your new friendship is primarily commercial? Better now?

What if you and your friend were both in it for the friendship, but the coffee shop was recording your conversations and selling them to a service that mined them for keywords and sold the information to a marketing firm which, in turn, kept the coffee shop’s prices down by offering a $0.25/cup subsidy? Better now?

Maybe it is, and all I can do in return is offer a polite affirmation of your idea of “o.k.” as being your idea of o.k.

I wouldn’t like it. I don’t like it.

I think I’ve just talked myself into being done with quite a few things now.

Responses

  1. Ed Heil says:

    November 24th, 2007 at 11:15 pm (#)

    OK, I’m not 100% sure what that coffee shop thing is a direct analogy of if anything, but it’s creepy, and I’m curious exactly what “quite a few things” it put to rest.

    RE: “Interested to the extent a quota demands significations of interest at the rate of n per day” — holy crap, you gave me a flashback to Umberto Eco. The semiotic wording, and that put me in this whole mind-space where things that are meant to seem natural turn out to be part of a cultural code, weighted with economic and power relations. The semiotician’s universe. Yow.

    Hella deja vu, dogg. I haven’t thought about that stuff for like a decade.

  2. blog.mignault.net says:

    November 25th, 2007 at 6:27 am (#)

    Simulacra of engagement…

    dot unplanned » The Things Make Us Stupid:I used to make a distinction between warm and cool voices … engaged vs. detached, involved vs. analytical…. Interested to the extent a quota demands significations of interest at the rate of n per day…

  3. mph says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 1:30 am (#)

    OK, I’m not 100% sure what that coffee shop thing is a direct analogy of if anything, but it’s creepy, and I’m curious exactly what “quite a few things” it put to rest.

    That’s a free-floating analogy. There are some viral marketing firms that do pay people to drop their product names by giving them free samples for doing so. The idea was that you’d get a case of Brand Z motor oil, use it, then make sure to mention it the next time you were on a road trip with your buddies and motor oil came up. That strategy was to be applied across many different brands in their appropriate contexts.

    In terms of “the coffee shop that hears all,” that’s Facebook. It exists to see who you talk to, what you review and rate, and what people in your demographic like or don’t like. The new ad system (opt-out) keeps an eye on your activity in sites outside Facebook and tries to use your activity as a product endorsement in targeted ads for your friends.

    The thing about it all is, you can opt out of much of that kind of thing, but I’m sick of wondering about how sticky my opt-out will be over time, whether I might not accidentally opt in to something I want no part of, and what happens with all these aggregates of information when they’re inevitably compromised.

    Salesforce.com recently had a customer list taken, and all the customers on it were subjected to a targeted phishing attack that had them giving up passwords and other account information because the apparent source of the mail knew them as they presumed only Salesforce would.

    Just doesn’t seem worth it to me.

    I expunged my Facebook profile yesterday. Users aren’t able to completely delete their accounts. They can deactivate an account, but Facebook keeps the data they gave it. So I deleted all the apps I had installed in my profile, removed everyone from my friend list, overwrote all my personal data with either nothing or much less targeted information where it wouldn’t allow no answer at all, and dropped all my networks. Then I deactivated it. I have no idea how much information will be retained. The exercise’s value to me was just deciding that I get so little value from Facebook that there’s no way the privacy and personal security implications are worth it. Add in the creepy consumer surveillance angle, and there’s no sense in keeping an account active on it at all.

    I don’t mind coming off a little bit crazed on all this. When I was standing there in the Ikea listening to those two women talk and I realized that it was easy for me to imagine that they could easily be some sort of marketing spectacle, it filled me with genuine disgust. Advertisers and marketers are turning our eyes and ears into their holes. They talk about “transparency,” but that’s largely limited to when they’re caught taking advantage of our increasingly naive desire to believe we’re participating in a social interaction that was not engineered by someone trying to part us from our money, attention or information for some corporate entity’s gain.

  4. gl. says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 3:25 am (#)

    i keep wanting to say, “i think i love you.” viral marketing has always made me uneasy, and now i see why certain forms of “journalism” have also made my eyes glaze over. popular topics blogs generally don’t appeal to me, and i thought it was just the tone, but now i get that i sensed the facade of Commerce. i’d feel better if it was openly Commerce, so i could ignore it (or consume it) guiltlessly.

    i’m curious: what else did you talk yourself out of?

  5. mph says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 10:49 am (#)

    Thanks, gl. And Ed. I’m never sure whether to commit this kind of thing to public view. I hate to be all “oh, the dysthymic dude is all worked up about something again.”

  6. mph says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 10:59 am (#)

    And, re: other things:

    I’m feeling less blasé about a number of things I was using without much thought even though I don’t care for the revenue model that keeps them free. Google Reader, Mail & search history for instance. They’re very nice and useful, but they’re also replaceable and they exist to harvest advertising and/or marketing data.

    I talked myself into using stuff like that on the premise that it’s impossible to drop completely off the demographic data collection grid. I still think that’s probably true, but it’s always possible to minimize participation. The lower the profile, the less things to wonder and/or worry about.

    I’d also toyed with setting up affiliate accounts to cover some of the (minor) expense of maintaining my hosting account. I think I’m probably not going to do that now. It seems like a slow road to becoming a salesman instead of some dude with a blog. I’d rather people who visit here have the sense that any enthusiasm I express is unalloyed by the hopes that they’ll follow an affiliate link.

  7. Ed Heil says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 11:46 am (#)

    Funny, I’ve been thinking about trying out Facebook from time to time, and I think you just killed it for me. I HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY, DYSTHYMIC BOY. Your disgust is itself viral!

    Seriously though, I’m with you on basically all of this. I think that an unarticulated sense of fear-of-this-kind-of-bullshit is one of the things that keeps people who don’t do the Internet off the Internet.

    What you just did to Facebook I did to gmail a month or two ago. I’m having the creeps about the proprietariness of OS X a lot lately, and I don’t have the experience of dealing professionally with the Linux Community to keep me from thinking about going Linux.

    Sometimes I think it’d be a lot easier to be able to not worry or care about this stuff, but you can’t unthink thoughts.

  8. Ed Heil says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 4:28 pm (#)

    You’re not alone.

    http://stevenmansour.com/writings/2007/jul/23/2342/2504stepstoclosingyourfacebookaccount

  9. Ed Heil says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 4:29 pm (#)

    Let’s see if Markdown eats this one.

  10. gl. says:

    November 27th, 2007 at 3:44 am (#)

    sometimes i add amazon affiliate links when i write about music played during artist’s way, but it makes me feel icky and i’ve not even made any money. so why am i doing this if it makes me feel icky? good point. hey, look, i think i just talked myself out of something, too!

  11. mph says:

    November 27th, 2007 at 1:00 pm (#)

    Thanks for the link, Ed. I used it on a Facebook entry on Open Networks Today (along with an entertaining Cory Doctorow read).

    gl.:

    I don’t have an issue with Amazon links across the board. The way you’re using them is certainly non-objectionable. You used the product in question as part of your business … that counts as a suitably transparent endorsement, I’d say.

    For myself, when I’m thinking big about my blogging it’s usually in the form of doing more game or movie reviews or commentary. As a long-term question, I wonder (and it really is just wondering … I don’t know the answer) if my reviews would lose some integrity over time. And I wouldn’t be able to expect people to take the good reviews as seriously if they saw an attractive Amazon link arranged at the bottom.

    I also wonder if there would be a transparent way to remedy the reasonable doubts visitors could be expected to have about the highest rated reviews. I guess the best thing to do would be to just write really awesome, thorough, well-reasoned reviews and expect people think for themselves. And maybe I’m overthinking it.

    I like the way John Gruber handles a lot of his affiliate linking on Daring Fireball: He links to Apple hardware and software. We know he’s a total Mac partisan, so it’s not like he’s tilting reviews to get people to impulse click through his links. And it’s much more clearly positioned as “help me make something to run my site” and less as “Leopard 5 stars essential upgrade omg lol buyz!!1!!”

    I guess in an ideal world, things like Amazon links would be more organic and in-line. I have a problem with them in the context of an alleged “review.”

    OTOH, re: Gruber: I don’t like it when he comments on the products his ad sponsors are pushing. He mentioned getting an eval unit from one of his advertisers, and that struck me as problematic … free stuff AND the chance to curry favor with an advertiser.

  12. In other news, Ikea still weirds me out :: dot unplanned says:

    December 2nd, 2012 at 9:51 pm (#)

    […] years, one week old and this is still me. We went to Ikea tonight to get a table and I fell in behind another pair of auto-curators. […]

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