In The New York Times Magazine: Ghosts In The Machine

I’ve mentioned this everywhere else, so may as well note it here: I have a cover story for the Times Magazine this coming Sunday about “digital legacy.”

Suppose that just after you finish reading this article, you keel over, dead. Perhaps you’re ready for such an eventuality, in that you have prepared a will or made some sort of arrangement for the fate of the worldly goods you leave behind: financial assets, personal effects, belongings likely to have sentimental value to others and artifacts of your life like photographs, journals, letters. Even if you haven’t made such arrangements, all of this will get sorted one way or another, maybe in line with what you would have wanted, and maybe not.

But many of us, in these worst of circumstances, would also leave behind things that exist outside of those familiar categories. Suppose you blogged or tweeted about this article, or dashed off a Facebook status update, or uploaded a few snapshots from your iPhone to Flickr, and then logged off this mortal coil. It’s now taken for granted that the things we do online are reflections of who we are or announcements of who we wish to be. So what happens to this version of you that you’ve built with bits? Who will have access to which parts of it, and for how long?

The story is online now. It’s pretty long.

“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

No Consumed in today’s Times Mag, but here’s something if you’re bored:

On May 8, 2009, I gave a talk at a conference called “Blowing Up The Brand,” at NYU. Recently, pretty much all of the talks at that event were collected into a book — except mine. This made me curious to revisit my remarks. Were they really that bad? I went through the text and cleaned it up a bit, and added some “footnotes” to more recent observations by others that are related to the matters I spoke about, and decided to post it here. I guess it’s long for a site like this, but if you have time to read it, I welcome feedback — comments open.

It’s true that in some ways these remarks are somewhat dated — but in other ways I think they hold up pretty well. But whatever. The point is having looked at this again I’m thinking of revising and updating it in connection with something else I’m working on.

Here’s a summary if you want to skip ahead to anything that sounds interesting:

  • Section 1 deals with branding and individuality, and my basic contention that the “grammar of branding” is universally understood (in America).  This is something I’ve explored before, as many of you know, so you can skip that part if you’re tired of it.
  • Section 2 introduces my sense (as of May 2009, anyway) of the “transactional” nature of much social media. I think this core point of the talk is still very important, and under-discussed. So you might start there.
  • Section 3 names three related characteristics of much online expression: The “audience motive”; the escalation of easiness; and the privileging of measurability. Again, I think this holds up, and is more relevant than ever.
  • Section 4 attempts to tie together all of the above to offer a cautionary conclusion on the subject of creativity vs. “thinking of yourself as a brand” in the present social-media era. This section could have been better, but I believe the main message holds true and is worth consideration today.

I’ve been adding links and footnotes to the below, some of which post-date the actual talk but that I think are relevant to what I said in some way. I will continue to do so as things occur to me, or you suggest them.


“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

[May 8, 2009, talk at NYU “Blowing Up The Brand” conference]

In 2008, during a Q&A session at the end of an event intended to promote a book I had recently published, somebody asked me for what amounted to career advice. Evidently my answer included a remark about thinking of oneself as a brand. I honestly don’t remember the details of what I said, but in the months that followed several people who had been at that event mentioned it to me. Clearly they had walked away that night with general idea that I had told them to think of themselves as brands. And more to the point:  They thought that was pretty good advice.

A year later here I am at “Blowing Up The Brand,” a two-day event that aims to explore critical perspectives on “promotional culture,” described as “the extension of promotional discourses, practices and performances into virtually all areas of public life.”

Thinking of yourself “as a brand” sure sounds of a piece with that critique. In other words, I may be part of the problem that I have been asked to come here to examine. This is a surprising thing for me to confront, particularly given that the book I was promoting when I was asked that question here in New York a year ago offered a not-very-upbeat critique of the blurring of marketing and day-to-day public life.

Frankly, I’m not proud of this turn of events. On the one hand I think that as a raw, practical piece of advice, I would stand by what I said to that audience in 2008. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a big asterisk I would put next to that observation now. My remarks here are that asterisk. I want, now, to put my throwaway comment into what I hope is a more considered context. Read more

Books, the idea: Library book as connector

Click for more info

Friend of Murketing Gladys Santiago describes, here, her NYPL Connect project, which aims to “examine library books as catalysts to social networking.  I envision this project being part real-world GoodReads, part book club.  I’m interested in discovering what sort of connections can be made through communal objects.”

In noting the unique history-suggesting aspect of library books (yes, as a matter of fact, I do check books out from my walkably local library!), she’s onto something. And she’s looking to see if a connection can be made — by leaving a handwritten note in certain library books. Here’s the methodology:

I placed a handwritten note inside one of the NYPL’s 15 copies of David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto that explains the purpose of this project and includes my contact information.  I always enjoy finding things nestled between the pages of a book.  I’ve found lottery tickets (all losers), a Polaroid picture, receipts, scrap paper, postcards–all evidence of life before me–and I welcome these mementos from readers past.  I hope other readers do as well and are open to the possibility of connecting.

Even though I own a copy, I’m going to place a note in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Every Body because I think this project (which for lack of a better name, I call NYPL Connect) touches on many of the concepts he discusses.  A possible challenge, besides getting people to respond, might be NYPL staff or other borrowers discarding my notes before someone willing to participate reaches out to me.  Regardless, I’m going to include a note in every book I check out and hope I hear from some interesting folks.

This is an awesome project! Please blog/tweet or whatever about it. And you don’t have to mention me, pretend you found it on your own, I don’t care. But she’s really onto something interesting here and the effort deserves attention. I’m dying to know if she’ll get a response to any of her notes. So cool.

This post is part of a series.

The online creativity potlatch

Further thoughts on the gift glut from Rob Horning:

In The Gift anthropologist Marcel Mauss gave some examples of gift-giving potlatches that culminate in the sheer destruction of value in obligatory ritualized sacrifices: “Sometimes there is no question of receiving return; one destroys simply in order to give the appearance that one has no desire to receive anything back.”

I wonder if something like that happens in social media, where the possibility of reciprocation is destroyed by a surfeit of competitive sharing. Because of the ubiquitous ranking possibilities, gift-giving online can escalate into the destructive orgy of the competitive potlatch, in which participants try to outgive everyone else into submission in order to secure a particular identity. On social media, the potlatch takes the form of outtweeting and outsharing the field, overloading the network with fragments of oneself as seek a ranking. The result is that gifts proffered through social media stop seeming like gifts at all. They become referendums on our identity as we are configuring it in that particular instant. The gifts no longer seem reciprocal; they seem narcissistic. Even though we don’t do it for money, we are still back to producing content, not giving.

But the network is now also supposed to be the space in which non-competitive gifts are to be exchanged. The potlatch preening—the produced content—threatens to crowd out those kinds of gifts. So the gifts don’t get recognized and appreciated in the spirit in which they are given, which may lead to a desperate offering of more of them—at which point they become content. This creaties self-reinforcing destructive spiral. In other words, if everyone is oversharing, everyone has to overshare to try to be heard, but in such an environment no one has the time to listen. Paradoxically, sharing destroys gifts.

Horning, by the way, has previously made great points — see here and here — about how online sharing can be considered a form of immaterial labor that benefits the various entities that aggregate our online gifts/creativity/content/data, and monetize it in various ways.

Evidently, I surf like a girl

Thanks, everybody, for making confessing everything on Facebook seem so normal. Despite “connecting” us more securely with others online, social networking has made our real-life, non-online identities more insecure than ever. With a new tool to investigate what we don’t immediately disclose up front, there is less reason for anyone to take us at face value. I guess people just Google us while nodding along and ignoring what we say.

This long excursus at n+1 makes a similar point about targeted ads pinpointing our place on what Facebook calls the social graph: “Today we Google ourselves to see what the world knows about us; tomorrow we’ll just watch the ads.” And to take the idea to its logical conclusion: we will eventually Google ourselves to find out who we are.

Shortly after reading that enjoyable Marginal Utility passage — and particularly enjoying the line, “we will eventually Google ourselves to find out who we are” — I encountered this Slate item which promised to evaluate the ideological content of my “news diet” by assessing my browsing history. It’s not quite Googling the self to discover the self, but it’s on the right track. I gave it a whirl!

The tool scanned whatever it scans and promptly informed me: “At these sites, the readership is on average 49 percent conservative, 51 percent liberal.” Also: “Your isolation index is -31, meaning that, on the bell curve of all readers, your news diet is 31 percentage points to the left.” I don’t know what that latter bit means, and this “interactive test” is sort of based on and spun off a recent study that’s gotten a lot of attention for its assertion that news consumption online isn’t as ideologically isolationist as people assume. (The study seems to me to have been undertaken precisely to reach this “surprising” conclusion, and is full of caveats that make it, to me, totally meaningless.)

The Slate item further point to some other site, where there’s a similar setup that’s meant to deduce your gender from your browser URL history. I did that too. Result:

Likelihood of you being FEMALE is 63%
Likelihood of you being MALE is 37%

Hm. Well, I guess it’s still to early to deduce who I am by asking the Internet.

(Or…  is it?)

Anyway, the Marginal Utility post cited above is much less frivolous than this little exercise, and worth reading.

Books: the idea, cont’d: interactive multimedia crowdthingy

For obvious reasons the discussion of the idea of books has focused quite heavily on the e-variety these last few days, as speculation abounds over The Meaning of the iPad For The Printed Word.

The Telegraph reports on a book that will have a sort of instant sequel “assembled from the best comments by readers of” the author’s Website. A publishing type who is involved comments:

With devices like the iPad nearly at our shores and more routes for communication than ever before, I believe that especially in non-fiction, the distance between the author and reader should start to disappear. Authors will become more like curators and take influence from their readers’ suggestions during and after they have written their work.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Carr suggests that what we’re headed for is books becoming multimedia apps, in a sort of post-reader world. He quotes some other publishing-world guy:

“The definition of the book itself seems up for grabs,” he said at a recent media industry powwow. Unlike traditional e-book readers, which had a rather old-fashioned attachment to linear text, the iPad opens the doors to incorporating all sorts of “cool stuff,” Makinson continued. “We will be embedding audio, video and streaming into everything we do.” He foresees sprinkling movie clips among Jane Austen’s paragraphs in future editions of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Hm. What do you think?

Perhaps I’ll “curate” the best of your responses into a follow-up post!

With video?

What the Internet can’t do

I finally watched the Digital Nation episode of Frontline that I anticipated here earlier. It was okay. The thing I wanted to comment on was a very brief segment involving Feed Me, Bubbe, which is an online show that came about when a young guy basically decided to get his grandmother to be the star of this amusing little Web-based cooking program, on which they collaborate.

“I worked until I was 73. I worked for a bank,” Bubbe says, the point being that once she retired she didn’t have to do anything — but she also didn’t have much to do. “And then all of a sudden this kid walked in, and now I’m too busy!” The delight at this turn of events is evident in her voice.

The young guy then says:  “The Internet, I have to say, added years to Bubbe’s life.”

No, sweetheart. You added years to Bubbe’s life. Listen to her version of things: “this kid walked in.” That’s you. Here again is the medium/message problem. The Internet is just something that came in handy, and that you made cunning use of.  I suppose it’s possible that if the Internet hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have come up with anything. But I know for a fact that the Internet is there in millions of scenarios just like this, and nothing changes; bubbes everywhere remain under-appreciated, ignored, left lonely, and maybe even snickered at for not being tech-savvy. The Internet has no agency; individuals have agency. I don’t usually use the word “inspiration,” because it means so little these days, but there is a genuine one here, and it’s not the Internet. It’s you.

Facebook: The ‘burbs of social networking?

If you recall earlier posts here and here about MySpace aesthetics, you might be interested in the recent NYR piece about Facebook. There’s a lot in the piece I have trouble with, but there are also some things I found insightful. It is here.

Here’s one passage related to aesthetics:

While MySpace listed details similar to if less sophisticated than Facebook—”Education,” but also “Body Type” and “Zodiac Sign”—a MySpace page could otherwise look like almost anything else online. Every Facebook page, by contrast, was laid out in exactly the same way, painted in an inoffensive if antiseptic palette of pastel blues on bright white. Facebook’s engineers, much abler than their counterparts at MySpace, quickly stifled any attempts to break these rules. To call MySpace “ugly” would be roughly equivalent to categorically denouncing graffiti—to praise Facebook for its “clean” design, akin to celebrating tract housing.

The writer repeatedly compares Facebook to a “suburban” space. (My favorite instance is a bit talking about privacy settings: “One solution: set your privacy options so that no one could see your photos at all—a decision whose wisdom would be confirmed every time a drunken picture of a friend showed up on the News Feed, only to disappear a few hours later, like a Cheeveresque husband seen momentarily wandering, naked, down his front drive.” That’s funny.)

“Digital Nation”

I’m interested in this upcoming Frontline installment, Digital Nation, partly because the correspondent is Douglas Rushkoff. I started a while back to write a post here about his most recent book, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, but for various reasons never completed that, and I guess never will. So I’ll just give you the short version: I read it some months back and found it quite interesting and certainly provocative. I’m not really that well-read on Rushkoff’s work, but based on what I (thought I) knew, it was not what I was expecting.

And while the book seems to have done well, I’m surprised it didn’t generate more mainstream discussion and reaction. That’s too bad because there’s a lot to discuss and react to. The most interesting aspect of it to me was the underlying argument that history since, say, the 1600s is not just a march of progress, but rather has also entailed some extremely significant losses along the way. I read this between reading Margaret Atwood’s Debt, and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, so it hit on lots of things that have interested me lately. I even started listening on occasion to Rushkoff’s show on WFMU, Media Squat (now on hiatus) and that included some interesting discussions, notably the episode with Howard Bloom. But since most of his guests kind of see the world the same way he does, I still end up feeling a little frustrated — phrases like “bottom up” and “create real value” get tossed around a lot as if their meaning was obvious, and not contestable. It would have been useful if the book had attracted reaction from a broader range of sources, because I have a feeling that would have been provocative, too.

Anyway so it’s because of all this that I’m interested in Digital Nation — which I think under normal circumstances is something I would have shrugged off as likely-to-be-predictable. I’m curious of the ideas he seemed to be wrestling with in Life Inc. will manifest here.

On a possibly related note — related to digital life, anyway — Mind Hacks notes two bits of research of note: BPS Research Digest summarizes a study looking into how people with certain offline personality traits behave online. (Best line: “Students who scored high on psychoticism were also likely to say that they found it easier to reveal their true selves online than face-to-face.” Hmm, great.) And this earlier study finding consistency between online and offline social behavior. Maybe that all sounds sort of obvious, but keep it mind when you hear gurus generalize about social-Webness affects “everybody.”

Unsubscription notice

I’m on an unsubscribe binge. So many people have put me on so many email lists it’s just gotten overwhelming. I have to do something.

Naturally, I feel like a jerk about it. I imagine these people checking their unsubscribes (as I’ve done during periods when I’ve run email lists) and wondering: What happened? Why doesn’t he like me anymore? Is there something wrong with these email updates, or with the recent iteration of whatever work is described therein?

And I totally understand why people put me on their lists in the first place — without asking (this is routine). Usually it’s someone I’ve written about. So: If I was interested once, won’t I be interested forever? And in a way, I am interested. But I’ve written hundreds of columns (and articles besides) and getting weekly or monthly updates from everybody, ever, is just insane. Not to mention people I’ve just met, liked, and given a business card.

Still, it feels horrible to unsubscribe. Listen, all of you: It’s nothing personal! I’m sorry…


One thing that’s changed in the decade or so that I’ve been freelancing is the amount of time I devote to a story after it’s been published. Partly this is a matter of “doing media,” which isn’t all that new. (I have my last Pandora-related interview in about ten minutes.) But I definitely spend more aftermath time on chasing down, monitoring, obsessing about, online reactions (or even lack-of-reactions). In part this is just trying to be responsible and learn from what people have to say, etc. — just part of the process that has actually improved, in some ways, because it’s easier to encounter far-flung reactions in ways that would have been impossible in the past. (Although it can be annoying, too, but that’s just part of the game.)

Number Two

Second Place

But partly it’s about trying to figure out, for lack of a better word, the “buzz” payoff. The must absurd example is keeping a nervous eye on the Times‘s “most emailed” list. Why does this matter to me? It’s not like I get extra money if the story gets emailed (or blogged or Tweeted about) a lot. Even so, I think for better or for worse, things like “most emailed” have become a kind of proxy for value in the media business. So if my story gets emailed a lot, and that’s reflected on a list, well, that’s good for me as a writer, in a professional sense. It’s good, in other words, for My Brand. This doesn’t really matter so much to really big-name successful writers (Pulitzer winners, best-sellers, etc.), but to someone in my position, maybe it means my next story pitch gets taken more seriously, since my last piece was “buzz worthy,” at least according to the emailed ranking.

It’s not so cut-and-dried as that in real life of course. But it’s absurd to pretend these things don’t matter now in a way that would have been unthinkable in the past. It’s bothersome because the “metrics” that are available strike me as pretty crude. For all I know, the story rose the email charts because thousands of people were sending it to friends with notes like, “This sucks,” or “Can you believe someone published this?” But in the logic of buzz-measurement, really, that wouldn’t even matter. If it’s Number One, it’s Number One. And on that score haters who email a story “count” more than someone who quietly read it on the couch and enjoyed it.

All this is particularly ironic in the context of this specific article, since it was about a company trying to evaluate a cultural product (music) on intrinsic terms, in a way that marginalizes the opinion of “the crowd.” That’s the idea that I wanted to explore. And once it was published … I turned my attention to what “the crowd” thought!


I’m curious if anybody else has concluded that “share” has become the most annoying euphemism of the moment.

As in, “Hi, I thought I’d share with you this article — it’s all about me!”

Or, “Hi, I wanted to share with you this announcement about my new project, which I think you should share with your readers!”

Or, “Hi, I just had to share with you my blog post about how social-network marketing replaces trad-media interruption tactics with sharing. Please share my post with everyone in your social network!”

I find that the word share has basically come to mean tell, announce, blurt, broadcast, impose up on you, etc.

I just wanted to share that thought.

If you have thoughts, you are more than welcome to tell me.

Commodify your 2.0 discontent

Leif Harmsen, once a Facebook user, now crusades against it. Having dismissed his mother’s snap judgment of the site (“Facebook is the devil”), Harmsen now passionately agrees. He says, not entirely in jest, that he considers it a repressive regime akin to North Korea, and sells T-shirts with the words “Shut Your Facebook.” What especially galls him is the commercialization and corporate regulation of personal and social life.


That’s right. He was so “passionately” angry about the “commercialization” of Facebook that he decided to …

… sell T-shirts about it.

How a self-branding expert self-brands

In the months ahead, a certain niche branding consultant may or may not become a mainstream branding guru, as he publishes his first book — and, more to the point, promotes the shit out of it.

When it comes to book promotion, marketing consultants often have an advantage over authors who merely write for a living: employees. In fact that’s how I’m aware of this guy’s forthcoming branding blitz. A couple of months ago one of his employees sent an email (clearly a form letter) explaining that his boss is “trying to get together a promotional bonanza around the [book’s] release.” Thus he was being “proactive” and contacting “all the business and marketing blogs and see what we can do for them.” Contest? Interview?  That was up to me; the consultant-author would do anything. “On your side,” his employee added, “anything you do with him is going to get an influx of readers to your blog due to his massive and loyal following.”

I had a hard time believing either the consultant  or his employees are readers — particularly because I generally have zero interest in such schemes, as any actual reader of this site would know — so I asked why he was asking me. He replied that he was pretty sure he’d found this site listed on the Ad Age Power 150 rankings (or whatever that list is called; I’m not sure if I’m still on it, but it’s true that I used to be). In other words, he really didn’t know anything about this site, he was just going through lists, and saturation bombing. I thought that by itself might make for an interesting interview topic, but I never followed through.

More recently, the PR company that is also working on behalf of this same guru-in-the-making sent a fairly fancy traditional promo packet to the author of the New York Times Magazine’s Consumed column,which of course is also me. The pitch explained the consultant’s energetic “honesty,” and his mastery of “the internet and social media.” The release said the book reveals “how to build a personal brand.”

Obviously what’s of interest in all this is what it says about the new world of social-media marketing (this fellow’s area of expertise). Commonly social-media branding is described as, in theory, more authentic, transparent, and precise than traditional forms of commercial persuasion. Yet I’m often struck by how, in practice, it is largely an old formula poured into a newish bottle.

  • The ethos here isn’t precision, it’s volume: If you have the resources to approach hundreds of blogs that might possibly buzz your product (even blogs you’ve never read), you have an advantage.
  • That doesn’t replace the more old-school move of hiring a PR firm to hype the mainstream media, it supplements it. (Again, if you have the resources.) The main difference is that the old-school PR firm’s pitch is largely about your new-school social-media tactics. (Hey, Consumed guy: Check out this interview he did on some blog called!)
  • Having said that, there is something of a new-media twist in “incentivizing,” as business types say, your potential online promoters, by suggesting that they will get more traffic by giving you more traffic, in a kind of word-of-mouth pyramid scheme. This doesn’t strike me as indicative of a new transparency or authenticity. At least when you see an ad, you know it’s an ad; if you read a blog rave about this guy, it might be from a real fan — or it might be from someone who just wanted to jump on the theoretical buzz bandwagon for their own reasons. (Or maybe I should say: For their own brand.)

None of which is to say that this marketing expert doesn’t have valuable “lessons” for all you brand-builders out there. I couldn’t tell you one way or the other. That’s because the one thing I didn’t get to look at, either as Murketing guy or as Consumed guy, was the actual book. Actually, I wonder if there is a lesson in that.

“The amateur aesthetic and idea of collaboration”

A little while ago I linked to what some say is the most amazing music video of the year. I agree: It’s impressive.

Today Kevin Kelly had an item about it, headline “Crowdsourced Music Video,” which linked to this interview with its creators. The interesting thing about this interview was the following question:

Most viewers recognized this as a professional effort, but it certainly made use of the amateur aesthetic and idea of collaboration. Where did the concept come from?

Actually, I take that back. The question (where did the concept come from?) isn’t interesting. What’s interesting is the phrase I’ve bolded, “the amateur aesthetic and the idea of collaboration.” It’s particularly interesting because despite this open acknowledgment that this video was not a product of amateurs, and the collaboration was more of an idea (that is, a whole bunch of people simply did what they were told) than a reality, it still evidently qualifies to some observers as an example of something that’s been “crowdsourced.”

If that’s the case — if the crowd’s job is basically to follow orders from well-funded visionary authorities (four directors, two of whom are “creatives” at the global ad agency BBH), and kinda look all crowdy-like while doing so — then what, exactly, does crowdsourcing mean?

Is it about amateurs, or about “the amateur aesthetic”?

Is it about collaboration, or about “the idea of collaboration”?

And given that I’ve just said I think the end result is a really great video, what difference does it make? Is this just a matter of people applying trendy words to something impressive, because the trendy words happen to encapsulate the the 2.0 dogma of the moment?