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20 May 2013

A democracy of writing: Twitter criticism, Tumblr’s sale and deep thoughts from Robert Silvers

(image via the New York Review of Books, credit: Dominique Nabokov)

In the past three months I’ve been to Australia and Brazil and Quebec and Los Angeles, touched Tasmanian soil and wandered endlessly around São Paulo. On these travels, I’ve sponged up a wide variety of local color and remained hellbent on encountering the people available to me only in those specific physical spaces. While I’ve appreciated the time away from the cold New York winter, I’ll admit it’s felt like an overtraveled season.

But it wasn’t the travel that’s been overwhelming, really. It’s been the return.

All the movement and physical stimulus has made my time at home feel mostly like a return to the internet, the medium (the place?) to which I’m balled & chained. It’s not that the physical life and culture of New York City no longer interests me; it’s that when I return here, I’m confronted with a river of prose* that’s piled up in various mailboxes, physical and digital, in my absence. [Regarding that * I have more to say about “prose” in a footnote at the end of this post. – ed] To return to the sponge metaphor, I’m confronted with a flooded mess. I don’t so much absorb it, as try valiantly to sop up what I can.

After my latest triage session with the paper pile, the article that stuck with me most was this New York Magazine interview with Robert Silvers, long-time editor of the New York Review of Books. The excerpt I’ll share with you was unexpected. Silvers is a man often photographed as if beset by an affliction of paper piles.

In this interview, however, his most interesting thoughts are devoted to the conundrum of digital writing. He begins triangulating a viewpoint that mirrors my own — that the rise of a (seemingly) limitless well of internet “content” presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Pick your metaphor: Pearls among swine. Flowers in the dustbin. Needles in haystacks. He’s optimistic that there must be signs of life amidst the digital ash heaps. The real problem is that no one has quite figured out how to properly nurture the new digital organisms, organisms growing like mushrooms on burnt treestumps, thriving in the rain.

(image via Google Image Search and Sabrina & Company)

An excerpt of a Q and Silvers’s A:

To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

(Photo via Facebook, credit: Annie Schlechter)

If you disagree with Silvers — that there is a future in digital commentary — consider one of the biggest media stories of this past weekend. A rapidly emerging social network for digital content, Tumblr, was purchased by Yahoo for one-point-one-billion dollars (aka $1,100,000,000).

Tumblr has rightfully been likened to a curatorial exercise. On my own Tumblr — which is devoted to (my) photos and live music (by others) — I use the About page  to highlight two views of curation in the digital age. First a sketchily attributed quote from David Foster Wallace:

“In 1996, David Foster Wallace described the Internet as a place where ‘there are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clear, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers… . Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit.'”

Second, a thought from the Canadian rapper Drake which directly addresses Tumblr’s place in surfing the digital tide:

“I’m really scared for my generation, you know. The thing that scares me most is Tumblr. I hate what Tumblr has become. Because it like, it reminds me of those clique-y girls in high school that used to make fun of everyone and define what was cool, but in five years, when you all graduate, that shit doesn’t matter. No one gives a fuck about that shit. Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. It just kills me. Then you’ll meet them and they’re just the biggest turkey in the world. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate. It’s scary man, simulation life that we’re living. It scares me.”

It’s interesting that among this very heterogeneous assortment of humans, Silvers is the least pessimistic about this new medium. There is a recognizable distance between Drake’s assessment (“It scares me”) and DFW’s (“surfing through shit”) and that of Silvers (“these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism”).

Can we agree it’s interesting to interact with a medium in which finding useful information entails a bit of drowning? Can we agree that the frontier is always filled with both danger and adventure? Read the whole interview with Silvers, or feel free to stop with my excerpt. I like to think that my blog fulfills some kind of editorial function.

* = Maybe “prose” is no longer the best way to discuss writing built of sentences. Maybe writing is no longer built out of sentences. What we’re arriving at, what we’re debating, is something larger than ink vs pixels. How do you explain a swarm? How do we acknowledge that we’re living in a democracy of writing? Maybe we need to start by using terms of reference shared by both the physical and digital worlds of letters. i.e. The words. The pages. Hmmm…better.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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