Sunday, May 17, 2009

Algorithmic art or the collective experience of the isolated consumer

Lots of people seem to be making and writing about works of art and marketing that are about omass experience lately. Not just commenting on it, but made from it, works which were dubbed algorithmic art in a post last month on BBH labs.

While the desire to create works of art from or about mass experience is hardly new, it seems to be on the rise again, perhaps facilitated by newly accessible technology or a reaction to the explosion of social medi and its emerging encircling aura of mass chatter. Maybe we are looking for new works of art to make sense of of the role of our subjective selves in this new world where everyone is talking all the time? These works obviously encompass a wide range of forms, but rather than attempt any kind of systematic categorization, I'm just going to (in the bloggy spirit) pick some at random and generalize.

Some of are free-standing works of creative expression, some are produced by collectives of various kinds, some advertisements or some other form of marketing vehicle. But whatever their intention (to challenge or amaze or market, or all of the above), they all share some common features. Almost all of them attempt to visualize some collective or mass experience. Sometimes the experience is shared in real life—like the recent run of spontaneous dance of events (T-mobile's in Liverpool here; the Do-Re-Mi event in Belgium here.) These are more familiar stunts: situationist in their occasion though without the subversive intention. And they do a decent job of creating a sense of temporary spontaneous exuberance and jubilation, a fancier version of the now dated "wave" or any other fan activity in a stadium.

More interesting work focuses less on a sudden cohesion of a crowd into some orchestrated, cooperative activity,than on a mass individuals (us, online) whose isolated experiences are brought together—synthesized—into some aesthetic experience for the viewer, generally in real or recent time, with the help of technology. The work of Jonathon Harris is prime example. Harris' oft cited “We feel fine” uses search and data visualization to gather statements and images of people who are expressing their feelings into a single evocative six-movement-work. Related, but distinct, are the works that turn outward, fragmenting and reassembling cultural materials, like Brendan Bell's Five (Dramatic Pause), which synthesizes fragments of the nightly news into what Bell calls a "collage poem." Or the recent youtuube 36 rows mosaic phenomenon. Alice in Wonderland seems to be getting the most action on the Internet.

Reacting online to these works, most people describe these works as “cool.” And they are cool. Both in the conventional sense of visually striking and intriguing and hip but also “cool” in the slightly more figurative sense used to describe emotional engagement. They are cool in the sense that they distance us further from emotional or even cultural engagement with the original material, decontextualized or recontextualized.

If this is a trend or a movement and I'm not sure it is yet, it's worth asking what it's about. What are these works trying to do and are they achieving their ends? At some level, they seem to be trying to suggest an experience of collective unity (we're all in this together!), gesturing at a shared transcendent humanity, like looking down at the swirling group of strangers at a rave you aren’t participating in.

But then almost immediately, or perhaps simultaneously, there is a falling away of engagement: repetition, dullness, boredom. While the vision of the sequence is temporarily enthralling, it doesn't really lead anywhere. Each one of the fragments--expressions, images, cultural fragments, statistics--says something about mass and volume and the technology that has made the works possible in the first place. But most of these works, to my eye, fail to meaningfully engage the question about individual subjectivity in mass culture that they are taking on whether they know it or not.

This a question of prime concern to marketers as well, but I'll save that for that another post.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why so nice? More thoughts on thin skins and social media decorum

Since my last post, I've been poking around for more thinking and insight into why social media exchanges seem so conflict averse, and I haven't found very much.

There are a couple miss manners guides to good behavior like this basic and matter-of-fact post from 06 about how to not get freaked out by flamers and trolls. But not very much analysis or theorizing about why bloggers often respond to critics by challenging their ethics ("stop spreading negative energy," or "being evil," etc) or their manners ("pedantic" "too serious") or utility ("it's much more useful to...")

But there does seem to be a think-positive self-image thing going around. As I was making my rounds through people's bios on all kinds of social media sites from Blogs to Twitter to Linkedin, I noticed that a lot of people described themselves as "positive," and often in really assertive ways, like "irrepressible optimist" and "super-positive thinker." And not just life coaches, who are are obviously in the business of being positive.

I was reminded of research I did about a half-dozen years ago for a candy bar brand. I was interested in seeing what teens and young adults thought of as attractive personality and character traits. So I went to the various dating sites, which were more new and popular among young people then, and checked out a bunch of profiles.

What I saw was it was important for young people looking for dates to say they had really diverse interests and tastes. There were a lot of statements like "I enjoy the opera at Lincoln center as much a seat in the bleachers. "Ready to raise a glass of champagne or a Pabst Blue Ribbon." or "Everything from Mozart to Mos Def." You get the idea. You don't say these things about yourself on a dating site unless you think they are going to be appealing to your peers. (As was, as an aside, using the work "geek" or "nerd" to communicate your unembarrassed passion for a subject, e.g., "I'm a total "star trek nerd" or "gardening geek"

So maybe this is a sign, at least among the social media users, that being upbeat is just the way to be.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thin skins on twitter? Toward a theory of social-media niceness

I’ve been following a couple instances of critical commentary and backlash on various blog-like objects like this one (involving a debate over website design) and it raised some questions about tone and style in the social-media world.

It’s not unusual of course for people to express strong feeling on the web, often too strong, protected by the anonymity and distance of the screen, saying acerbic and mean-spirited things they would never have the courage to say in person. That’s not what I’m talking about right now (though it’s related to one of my theories below.)

What’s interesting to me in these cases is less the initial critique than the tone and rhetoric of the response. In several cases, I’ve noticed that people have reacted to reasonable if somewhat snarky criticism by complaining about the critic’s attitude or style or even intention, as if there was something unethical about making a critical comment in the first place.

The link above is representative: The original poster complains that the critic is spreading “pedantic negativity." Other bloggers have told their critics to "have a sense of humor" or "lighten up" Or "be positive."

Pedantic negativity? Lighten up? Interesting. In two different ways, these responses reframe the critic’s attempt to correct an error or express a difference of opinion as a social gaffe, a lapse in decorum. 1) These responses undercut the critic’s point, not on the basis of evidence or argument, but on the basis of style. Those of us who have spent any time in front of a classroom know that the accusation of being “pedantic” is often an easy way of dismissing someone who has the bad taste to call you to account for an error. Details, details. Can’t you just go with the flow, dude?

The new age language (energy, negativity) reinforces the point by suggesting that the critic isn't just being rude but in fact has a bad intention to begin with . Anyone who has particpated in the identity politics debates of the go-go grad school 90's knows what it's like to be accused of not being wrong so much as bad.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is only kind of exchange out there. The web is way too big and messy and multifarious for that. But there does seem to be a dominant rhetorical style emerging, one which to my (admittedly cranky) ear has more in common with a support group’s optimistic cheer-leading and uncritical support than the public sphere of reasoned debate across different points of view. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. In fact, it maybe exactly what most people want. Sharing ideas and accomplishments and getting a lot of rhetorical high-five's in return.

But my original question was: how did this happen? Why is is the social-media style developing this way. Is this the natural progression of any unregulated social groups talking their way into self-governance? Here are a couple more half-assed theories

Theory #1: This is the personal, subjective, confessional one. People are just nicer than me. I’m skeptical by nature and just temperamentally unsuited to all the unsupported optimism flying around, about which who cares and too bad for me. I should just lighten up already.

Theory #2: People are compensating for a learned or intuitive sense that short-form comments often get read more critically or negatively than they are intended. Most of us have dashed off a quick email at one time or another and were somewhat surprised to learn later that we really pissed the receiver off. I’m not sure why short emails often seem meaner than they are intended to be, though most people seem to agree that it’s true. I remember reading a review in the NYRB of some Janet Malcolm book or article on email decorum that basically advised people to over-compensate for this accidentally negative tone with lots of happy enthusiasm and “that’s greats” in their emails. Seems like an interesting problem for some social linguistics grad student.

Theory #3: Fear, though of the deep Hobbesian variety. We’re mostly dealing with strangers here and a lot of them, so rather than risk offending someone who might go psycho on us, it might be best to err on the side of friendliness and support rather than risk repercussions the dimensions of which are scarily unimaginable.

Theory #4: Early adopter effect: The early adopters (enthusiastic, energetic, positive techies) set the happy tone, a tone which seems pervasive in the tech community (though I’d be curious to hear about the mean techie cultures) and since they were clever enough to come up with this stuff, we all just stuck with it.

Theory #4a: Related to above. It’s generational. I’m somewhat dubious of big generational claims but most cultural observers have agreed that kids these days are an awful optimistic bunch, a pov that I mostly share. They’ve had a pretty good run of it, until recently, and gosh darn-it, they just don’t see why they can’t make the world abetter place, and get rich and famous in the process, all before they get, like old…. They also, somewhat notoriously, don’t like criticism so much. And many of a certain class, at least, were raised in a culture of deep support for just about everything they ever did. So maybe they’re just passing along the love.

Theory #5: The Brainstorm: Just about everyone who has spent a season in an office has participated in a brainstorm-like event and heard the now familiar rules. Here's one version: No idea is a bad idea, support, withhold judgment, build on ideas rather than "squashing them," or risk being shot with a nerf gun. There's a lot to be said for these principles too, and I can imagine they are an important corrective to the top-down power-mad cultures that they are trying to loosen up. MMost people view the social media sphere as one big brainstorm and so bring the same stay positive principles to bear.

I'm sure there are more, but in the meantime, I'll take a chill pill, just as soon as I finish this section of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How creative is too creative for a creative company?

Read a great post on BBH labs in turn responding an article in the NYT's which got me thinking about another cultural contradiction of business culture: the battle between innovation and efficiency; Or, the constant push for greater creativity and innovation but within the limits of business culture, which can be quite constraining.

In an effort to create a culture of greater innovation, we tend to celebrate, even mythologize outsider thinkers both in internal and external communications. The famous Think Different campaign is of course a prime example. And there are dozens of books from various perspectives about how to create more creative/innovative cultures from The Pirate Inside, The Designful Company, Outliers, but when we celebrate unleashed creativity we tend to forget, among other things, how hard these people are to work with.

In any case, here's my response:

Interesting, provocative post. Fuller’s line is great In my darker frames of mind, I prefer Beckett’s grim outsider fortitude (”We can’t go on. We must go on. We’ll go on” or Kafka’s bleak optimism (”Of course there’s hope. Just not for us.”) And I cite those two example for a reason; lots, many, if not most great artists and thinkers are unrecognized or even scorned during their lives. Germany didn’t got over failing to appreciate Mozart, until they had bigger things to be ashamed of. Truly original artists and thinkers tend to challenge the status quo. Not within the system–doing a viral campaign rather than a TV effort–but by absolutely refusing to work in the system at all. Justice Souter comes to mind. How many men or women would have the balls to tell the Supreme Court to screw themselves, describing his seasonal time on the supreme court as his yearly “intellectual lobotomy”? Most of us love the rewards and satisfactions collegial respect, success, money, etc.(myself in included) too much to gamble everything on our kooky personal visions. And these guys and gals tend not to be very good “team players,” as they say in the trade. It’s a deep structural problem which your post calls attention to, reflected in our culture of commentary and constant recycling. And it’s one that all creative industries (basically all industries now) are facing: How do we balance the needs of organizational efficiency and structure with the freedom to include really loopy geniuses (who are very hard to distinguish from the merely loopy anyway). My own sense is that real outsider thinkers (Fuller, Gould, Pynchon) will never play along or play for long enough to help a business achieve its goals without causing all kinds of collateral damage. That’s why we love them right? As the post above says: we want to be inspired by them; but do we want to work with them? Google’s famous 20% time model is one approach, but I doubt that someone like Fuller would bother to show up at the office to begin with.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The rhetoric of Evangelism or maybe I should go to the seminary

because I’ve been listening to this local Evangelical radio all day and I’m finding it pretty riveting, like listening to someone try to explain away evidence that is staring you right in the face. My first impulse was to compare it to a burglar trying to explain why his fingerprints were on the cash register and his face on the store video camera but I don't want to be that disrespectful because it was actually quite impressive. This one preacher who--in addition to a charming Irish lilt to his voice--had a bunch of cool tricks up his sleeves. Here are couple

1) False oppositions that set a masterful divine intention against a red-herring counter-intuitive vision of Darwinian chaos. (I mean: look at the window: does creation look random to you?).

“In some cases it is true that some animals and humans share characteristics--the chimpanzees can use tools for instance- but isn’t it likely that God in his infinite wisdom and majesty would choose, CHOOSE, to replicate certain elements of his design across variations of his creation. Isn’t that logical? Isn’t that more logical than that we are merely some set of random atoms swirling through space that just happened to form, by CHANCE, into the miracle of mankind over millions of years.

2) Sudden shift in the register of rhetoric from a precise vocabulary and high-academic diction to describe the creationist position to groundling comedy when he was was claiming to representing the evolutionary argument.

3) Often in combination with the partial admission of opponent's point (to disarm listeners sense that he was being polemical or one-sided) only to completely take back the admission with the following statement:

“Now I admit the differences between man and animal are sometimes differences in DEGREE rather than differences in KIND but these DIFFERENCES between man’s capacity for reason and intellect, to build and create, have faith and wisdom and knowledge of eternal life and an animal’s abilities are SO VAST that they canNOT be simply dismissed by apparent similarities.

Now, I know there are some of you in the audience that are thinking right now that you have a really smart Labrador or golden retriever. And I know you’re thinking that your Labrador can do some pretty neat tricks. But I never saw a bunch of Labradors at Starbuck’s discussing THE HOLY TRINITY? (laughter) And I know that some of us SEEM to act like animals sometimes. Maybe your Uncle Charlie even LOOKS like a gorilla a little bit...

Ba-da-boom! The crowd goes wild


I’m addicted