Friday, May 10, 2013 4:32 PM
The rise of
corporate-owned social media raises many flags about our online security and
the future of the digital commons. The solution, says theorist Michael Albert,
is a different kind of network altogether.
In many ways, social media seem almost designed for
activism. Efficient, user-friendly, and above all, inexpensive, sites like
Facebook and Twitter are invaluable communication tools for any activist.
Planning a rally outside a college president’s office? Create a Facebook group.
Find a nifty guide to protesters’ rights online? Share it on Twitter. Worried
about police brutality at an illegal march? Live-stream from your phone so more
people can see what you see.
No shock that, “Twitter revolutions” aside, social media
have undoubtedly played an important role in activism and social change over
the past decade. In Egypt,
the revolution in some ways began with Facebook groups like the 6 April Youth
Movement and “We Are All Khaled Saaed.” Here in the U.S.,
it was a “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page that gave many future participants
their first glimpse of Occupy Wall Street—more than a full week before the
first encampment in Zuccotti
Park. Achievements like
the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were of course about so much more than
Facebook or Tumblr, but without social media they would likely have been very
Which, when you think about it, is probably the exact opposite
of what the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world thought social media would do. So
much of what sites like Twitter or Facebook are designed for, how they’re
organized and governed, and how they make money, could not be further from ideals
like social justice or goals like ending student debt. Many sites, like
Facebook, even have a history of giving private data over to government
the U.S. and abroad.
But here’s the good news. It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s
no law of nature that social media need to be run by giant corporations or that
users need to put up with government spying and manipulative advertising. So,
what’s the alternative?
Michael Albert, social theorist and co-editor of Z Magazine, has come up with one solution—and
it’s worth taking a close look at. It’s called FaceLeft, and it embodies the
very best of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but emphatically
without the spying, concision, and commercialization users have long put up
with. Ad-free, substantive, and as open or private as users want to make it,
FaceLeft is the first social network designed by and for activists—or anyone who
feels uncomfortable with corporate-owned social media.
“Can social networking itself better reflect and address needs of people
who are trying to improve the world?” Albert asked in an email exchange. “I
think the answer is of course it can.” It’s just a matter of creating an
alternative space, one that “allows brevity but emphasizes substance, that
rejects ads but enhances mutual aid, that protects privacy and of course also
seeks to subvert spying.”
For a first time user, the site may look and feel a lot like Facebook. Users
can set up profiles, connect with others, join groups, and follow stories
through a news feed. There are also spaces for events and easy ways to share photos,
videos, and links from other sites.
But that’s where the similarities end. In countless ways, FaceLeft
delivers more substance and more genuine interaction than a typical social
network. News feeds include your contacts’ updates, but also RSS feeds from
media outlets like Democracy Now! and
Al Jazeera. Groups are built around actions
and topics like Food Not Bombs and Indigenous Activism, and facilitate informed
discussions that would be unthinkable on a more typical social media platform. Users
are encouraged not only to interact and comment, but to stay informed and ask
Even more importantly, with FaceLeft, there’s no hidden agenda. The
site’s hosts won’t catalogue your private information and sell it to
advertisers, or allow the government to spy on its users. To that end, users
are asked to subscribe to the site for no more than $3 per month. The idea,
says Albert, is to be upfront about how the site tackles operating expenses, as
opposed to a “free” site where users pay with their private data.
At the same time, FaceLeft is by no means meant to compete
with sites like Twitter or Facebook. Rather, it’s about creating more diversity
in an increasingly homogenous internet. When the web started, Albert recalls, users
relied on platforms like America Online to do pretty much everything. But within
a few years more people figured out how to navigate for themselves and the
internet began to blossom. With low costs and few barriers, users created a
uniquely free landscape to interact and share information.
The problem with sites like Facebook and Twitter, Albert
says, is that they’re “trying to get everyone back under one umbrella,” meaning Facebook and
Twitter. And they’re succeeding. Countless organizations, from local restaurants
to immigrant rights groups “now see their most important web presence as their
activity on and within the confines of Facebook.” What this means is that more
and more of the web is being mediated by private, commercial hands. It’s as if the
web itself has been suburbanized: Where once friends and colleagues could meet
in fairly public spaces—chatrooms, message boards, independent sites and blogs—now
the most important online meeting place is the equivalent of a digital shopping
“The issue is, do we want our own ways of doing important things,”
Albert asks, “or do we want to settle for what we can eek out of corporate
offerings?” It’s an idea that’s starting to take off. Already Utne Reader, Z Magazine, and the widely popular Greek party Syriza have created
their own sub-networks on the site (where users can create a profile and join
the larger FaceLeft system)—and Albert hopes there will be many more. For now, it’s
worth considering the potential of a social media alternative, of a more public
For a quick how-to on getting
started with FaceLeft, click
here. To join FaceLeft as part of Utne Reader’s sub-network, called UtneSocial, click here.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight
Center, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, May 04, 2012 3:08 PM
Getting the full picture
of what happened on May Day is difficult from afar. Here in Kansas, things were quiet on May 1. The
Media Consortium’s live-action
map of demonstrations and arrests across the country showed little activity
within a day’s drive. Occupy KC’s indomitable rally in front of the Board of
Trade in Kansas City turned some heads, but fizzled within an hour.
The heartland, big and beautiful, is not known for its radical organizing—at
least not lately.
And for the most part, mainstream
media sources didn’t help much, as Allison Kilkenny points out in The Nation. There were no Occupy images
on NYT front pages like there were in the fall (maybe it didn’t help that
marchers picketed the Times’ offices
and sources like Reuters and CNN were quick to declare the day’s events a
failure. After all, despite the nationwide call to action, most places saw
business-as-usual continue. Zuccotti was conspicuously unoccupied, and traders
on Wall Street had a pretty normal day. Conclusions like this aren’t too
surprising, Kilkenny says. Occupy is a complex, ever-changing movement that
consciously resists media categorization, and wire services aren’t too good
Fortunately, there were
alternatives. On the day itself, sites like OccupyWallSt.org offered frequent
updates and live video from New York, Oakland, and other
flashpoints. The Guardian put big
American outlets to shame with its extensive live coverage. Occupy websites
were awash in Twitter feeds and live video streams, from CourtneyOccupy’s dramatic live video
from Oakland, to @allisonkilkenny’s
updates and photos from lower Manhattan.
The pictures that emerge
from these sources don’t easily fit into binary narratives like success/failure
or win/lose. Mostly what the pictures show is movement. Video cameras shake
with a strident march, glass shatters against a thrown rock, police shields
press against a frozen crowd. Even the rapid-fire Twitter feeds and blurry (still)
images capture dramatic volatility. And while this immediacy can easily be lost
in writing, there has been a flurry of powerful on-the-ground coverage from a
number of alternative print sources.
Writing in Yes! Magazine, Nathan Schneider
captures much of that intensity in a
critical moment from New York:
As dark came,
occupiers' plans to hold an after-party in Battery Park were foiled by police
blockades. Text-message alerts guided those who wished to stay to a Vietnam veterans' memorial tucked along the East River waterfront between buildings that house Morgan
Stanley and Standard & Poor’s. The memorial includes a space that served as
a perfect amphitheater for a thousand-strong "people's assembly"—so
named because OWS' General Assembly is currently defunct—and it became one of those
moments of collective effervescence and speaking-in-one-voice that won so many
discursively-inclined hearts to the movement in the fall. People of other
inclinations danced to the familiar sound of the drum circle on the far side of
The topic of the
assembly was whether to stay, to try and occupy. At first it seemed that maybe
people would. (What better place to spend the summer than by the water?)
Members of the Veterans Peace Team, a uniformed bloc of military veterans and
allies, volunteered to stand at the front lines. So did two clergymen from
Occupy Faith. They received cheers, but as the discussion wore on, the assembly
seemed less and less inclined to stay after the park closed at 10 p.m. and
repeat another sequence of beatings and arrests. Even after being told that the
Occupiers would retreat back to the streets, though, the Veterans Peace Team
members and the clergymen—including Episcopal Bishop George Packard,
veteran—stayed at the memorial as an act of disobedience and were apprehended
That veterans and church
officials—not students or global justice activists—would be the last holdouts in
a would-be New York
occupation says a lot about how expansive Occupy has become.
Elsewhere in New York, the situation
was tenser. After stepping into a convenience store following a night of
violence, activist Michael Harris was surprised to see a police officer waiting
in line. Writing in The New Inquiry,
Harris recounts a
telling exchange with the cashier after the officer leaves:
He hands me my
change and tells me to stay safe out there, a standard piece of advice that I’m
not sure how to follow, since it’s the danger that makes it “out there.” I nod
my thanks before quickly reconsidering the strange circumstances that lead a
young black man in lower Manhattan
to tell me to stay safe from the cops. I look back at him and say, “You too,
man. You too.” He gets it, quickly enough that I wonder what exactly he thinks
about when he thinks of the police. We share a small laugh.
But of course, May Day
wasn’t all confrontations and violence. In Washington, the situation was very
different. “As New York
swelled with up to 30,000 May Day demonstrators on Broadway, and as parts of
the West Coast exploded with tear gas and broken windows,” writes In These Times’ Emily Crockett, “Washington, D.C.,
held a carnival.”
On a holiday that draws attention to workers’ rights in the industrial era,
D.C.’s event was downright medieval. On a sunny day in Meridian Hill
Park, protesters danced
around a maypole (held aloft manually when the cops said it couldn’t be planted
in the soil), sang ancient labor ballads, hung out in the shade of trees, and
erected a massive “sun dragon” puppet for the later march to the White House.
The atmosphere was festive and often whimsical. A game of “inequality pong”
(with water, not beer) enticed players to aim for the 1 percent wine glass and
avoid the 99 percent red Solo cups—and for an extra challenge, stand further
back on the line for “poor dad” instead of the close-up “rich dad.” There was
T-shirt silk-screening and purple glitter body paint. There were leaflets and
models of foreclosed homes. One anarchist held his 5-week-old baby, and another
anarchist gave a lecture on how chaos and disorder are actually the opposite of
what anarchism seeks to achieve.
But fun and games aside, the central focus was on labor issues. One
teach-in took attendees through the fraught history of organized labor and the
bane of the Taft-Hartley Act. Numerous community and labor organizers took the
stage, and several Metro employees in uniform could be seen around the park
pushing for fairer deals.
Washington’s Occupy movement has a history of being much more
peaceful than those of other cities, says Crockett, despite the city’s violent rap.
Until an eviction in February, the encampment there was one of the longest
lasting in the country. On May Day, Occupy
D.C. lived up to its
One irony about
mainstream coverage of activism is that it tends to define even what it
ignores. Unfortunately for activists, whether an American Spring can repeat the
significance of last fall depends in large part on how media respond to it, and
by extension, how it appears to those at a far distance. The internet may level
the playing field a little, but exactly how much difference this makes is yet
to be seen. For now, getting the full picture may be tricky.
Image by Katie Moore, used with permission.
Sources: Media Consortium, The
Nation, OccupyWallSt.org, The
Magazine, The New
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 4:02 PM
Baghdad’s beautiful, enduring street
Why bachelor pads changed
American culture forever, and why no one actually has one.
The Twitter account that won
a Pulitzer Prize.
How to get a price tag to tell the full story.
A veteran climate activist
in the towel.
Why that shiny new iPad isn’t
as clean as you may think.
Why tax day can be downright
dangerous for drivers.
Was Ben Franklin secretly a serial killer?
Probably not, but his friend liked to rob graves.
How to take a bike from a perfect
stranger (and eventually give it back).
What the Affordable Care
Act looks like as a map.
earthquakes? In the Midwest, a recent
uptick in seismic activity has geologists stumped, but new data from the USGS
suggests that fracking may have something to do with it. The same is true of
underground wastewater disposal, a much more common practice that usually
accompanies the fracking process. Yet another reason why fracking is a totally
awesome and sensible idea.
Image by Tom Murphy
VII, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 12, 2012 8:34 AM
The whole Kony 2012
debate has gotten me thinking about how activism has changed over the past few
years, especially with the explosion of social media use. Back in 2010, Malcolm
Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in The New
Yorker about the so-called “Twitter
Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran the previous year. Many observers had
jumped to the conclusion that social media had reinvented grassroots activism,
that, of all things, Facebook and Twitter were now powerful tools for populist
change. But as Gladwell argued, activists’ use of Twitter in both countries had
been way overblown, and in fact, it
was hard to see how social media could ever live up to claims like that.
Historically, most social movements, like civil rights in the U.S., had been
based on what sociologists call “strong ties”—activists were more likely to
commit time, energy, and personal safety, if they belonged to a strong,
cohesive group of like minded friends. By contrast, social media are based on “weak
ties” with very low personal commitment required of participants. Facebook
users were more likely to belong to a “Save Darfur” online group than to make
protest signs or risk arrest. If social media were having an impact on young
people, it was not in terms of civic engagement.
A lot of things have happened since then, most importantly
the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Both made heavy
use of social media to organize, communicate, and get the word out to a
larger public. Facebook allowed activists in Tunisia to coordinate and plan
the radar of a clueless and very 20th-century regime. A new
smartphone app allowed activists in the U.S. to broadcast episodes of
police brutality as they were happening. And, yes, Twitter let demonstrators
communicate in mass numbers quickly and effectively (some state prosecutors
have even subpoenaed
Occupy protesters’ Twitter feeds in recent months).
But, in spite of those developments, Gladwell’s argument
still has a lot of validity today. The fact is that the basic elements of
grassroots activism have not changed since the invention of Twitter. The role
social media played in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square was to facilitate and
streamline on-the-group organizing, not to take its place. The important
flashpoints in those movements were still physical, and involved the same
dynamics as previous grassroots struggles. And as The Atlantic’sNathan
Jurgenson has argued, Occupy
was in many ways explicitly low-tech, from the (entirely print) People’s
Library, to general assembly hand signs, to the iconic human microphone. While
Occupy made use of new media to organize and coordinate with itself, once
organized, it behaved much more traditionally.
And yet there are many activists and groups that still seek
to address very real issues entirely through social media. Over the past decade
or so, Facebook has probably been the most notorious. Especially in the U.S.,
issue-oriented Facebook groups have a history of being very popular, very good
at raising awareness, but
very bad at raising cash and affecting change, says Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy’s Net Effect blog. Like Gladwell, Morozov points to a brand of
activism that is low-risk and essentially unconnected with larger groups or
experiences. A powerful illustration is the group a Danish psychologist started
in 2009 to address a problem that didn’t actually exist (the group opposed a
never-planned dismantling of a fountain in Copenhagen). Within a week, the
group had 28,000 members. And interestingly, activists in the Global South seem
to be much better at translating digital participation into physical action. An
Facebook group in Colombia got hundreds of thousands of people to march
against the guerilla force in almost 200 cities in 2008. This may be because while joining a political Facebook
group from Bogota or Cairo can be a brave act of personal conscience, in the
U.S., there is very little danger. And in a network of weak ties, low personal risk means low personal investment.
This brings us to the now-ubiquitous Kony 2012 campaign, a
movement that has generated quite a bit of awareness
and controversy over the past few days. A viral video on the group’s
website has already garnered tens of millions of views, but many observers have
criticized the film’s overly
simplistic portrayal of Ugandans and the larger conflict. Spending only a
few of its thirty minutes on East Africa, the film’s moralistic message seems more
akin to White Man’s Burden than humanitarianism—and many have criticized its
commodification of the conflict, especially in light of Invisible Children’s allegedly
shady finances. The group has certainly accomplished its stated goal of
raising awareness about Kony, the LRA, and child soldiers in Africa, but it is
hard for many to connect the film’s slick simplicity and the group’s
consumerist message with facts on the ground.
But more broadly, Invisible Children’s use of social media
has much more in common with groups like “Save Darfur” than with genuinely
grassroots battles like Occupy. In the film, the campaign’s founder Jason
Russell talks about the need to “make Joseph Kony a household name.” To do
this, they want to get the attention not only of the American public, but also
of “20 culture makers” and “12 policymakers,” including Bill Gates, Lady Gaga,
and Ban Ki-moon. While Russell urges ordinary people to call their
representatives and poster their neighborhoods, it’s these 32 people that he
believes will have the most impact. “We are making Kony world news by
redefining the propaganda we see all day, everyday, that dictates who and what
we pay attention to,” he says.
But it’s hard to see how this redefinition plays out,
especially as the campaign relies almost exclusively on the “weak ties” and
low-risk participation that generally have very little social impact. If it’s
our job to spread the video, buy
the “Action Kit,” get the attention of celebrities, and not much else, what
exactly are we redefining? In the film, Russell laments that “the few with the
money and the power” tend to frame and address issues in their interests, but
that’s exactly what Invisible Children is seeking to do. In encouraging young
people to participate in clearly delineated ways for clearly delineated
reasons, the group ignores the critical thinking and bottom-up organizing that
made other movements so successful—with or without social media.
Of course, all this has to do with what Invisible Children
hopes to accomplish. If their goal is to “make Joseph Kony a household name,”
then they did a fine job. The popularity of the group’s film was unprecedented,
speed with which it spread was astounding. As a result, tens of millions of
people know more about Uganda and East Africa than ever before. However, if the
group wants to work out some of the complicated questions that have surfaced
over the past week about Uganda’s own
poor human rights record, or the U.S.’s equally poor history of
humanitarian intervention, or the neocolonial
dimensions the campaign has assumed, then more bottom-up methods of
organizing may be a good place to start. As Occupy and the Arab Spring have
shown, young people have a lot more to offer than their money and their
Sources: Kony2012.com, Christian
Science Monitor, The
New Yorker, Wired,
Jazeera English, Huffington
Daily Beast, Amnesty
Monday, December 05, 2011 4:17 PM
Social scientists and media theorists speak in accord on point: What you post to blogs and social networks reflects a specific version of yourself that you project outward to the rest of the digital world. By tweeting about our cats and liking musicians on Facebook, we’re really just crafting our identity—at least, what we want other people to think is our identity. Sometimes the two don’t necessarily see eye to eye.
A new infographic generator called Twitterize Yourself adds an additional layer of unreality on top of our already fluid, artificial personalities. The way it works is by a bit of reverse engineering: Feed your Twitter account name into the software and the website spits out a version of you based on its analysis of your previous tweets. It will try to guess your fashion, interests, and even your prevailing mood. What’s more, you can also go head-to-head with another person to see how you match up. The picture above juxtaposes Utne Reader editor-in-chief David Schimke (@dmschimke) versus the official Utne Reader Twitter account (@utnereader). Nice sandals, boss.
Of the friends and co-workers accounts I’ve tried Twitterize Yourself on, there are typically two outcomes. Either the website will reproduce a perfect semblance of the person, meaning that person’s tweets accurately reflect their interests and personality; or the Twitterize Yourself avatar is surprisingly different from the person’s personality, which should make one wonder what they’re actually telling the world with their 140-character missives. For example, our editor doesn’t smoke (or wear dandy vests around the office).
At the very least, Twitterize Yourself is a lunch break distraction, and at best it should give us pause when managing our digital identities. For the sake of transparency, I’ve included my meta-Twitter version of myself (@willwlizlo) below. It’s less than flattering.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 12:21 PM
Some of the best stuff from the Twitter feeds we follow...
The Nation (@
Robert Reich eviscerates the Supercommittee's skewed priorities, draws a cartoon.
See more at The Nation
Mother Jones (@
Chart of the Day: How Not to Create Jobs mojo.ly/vy6C5e
Chuck Marr of CBPP notes that the CBO recently studied a laundry list of job creation proposals and concluded that higher unemployment benefits had the biggest bang for the buck. "That’s not surprising," he says, "given that jobless people are severely cash constrained and would quickly spend most of any incremental increase in cash and that, in turn, would lead to higher demand and job creation."
But which proposal came in last?
See Kevin Drum’s Chart of the Day at MoJo
The American Prospect (@
Despite what you've heard from many pundits, Mitt Romney isn't the kid who gets picked last in gym class. ampro.me/u6m2We
Mitt Romney is just as popular as Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, his problem—in part—is that he has too many competitors, and Republican voters are indulging the extent to which they have a fair amount of choice. When the field begins to winnow in January, odds are very good that Romney will pick up a lot more support from Republican voters.
Read more about a Gallup poll about the Republican presidential candidates at The American Prospect
In These Times (@
Library in the slammer, roughed up. Librarians surveying the damage. bit.ly/sxUK22 @melissagira livetweeting from the garage.
OWS librarians attempted to reclaim their collection and found it decimated, according to the Maddow Blog. The librarians told Maddow that they only found 25 boxes of books in storage, many of which were damaged or desroyed. Laptop computers were recovered, damanged beyond repair.
Read more at In These Times
Bill McKibben (@billmckibben)
If you want to see someone looking nervous on Colbert, tonite is your big chance
Oxford American (@
Musician Chris Isaak likes Oxford American
“I was reading the ‘Oxford American,’ a great, great music magazine,” he said. “It’s like getting four years of ‘Rolling Stone’ all in the same magazine.”
Read the rest of the article about Chris Isaak in The Kansas City Star
Wednesday, November 09, 2011 12:13 PM
Some of the best stuff from the Twitter feeds we follow...
Talking Points Memo (@TPM): Kyle Leighton weighs in on the rejection of far-right Republican ideas shown in last night’s referendum votes around the country:
[V]oters in some key states where Republicans had made gains rejected those ideas through statewide referendums, striking not only at the party but at the very reason for electing them — their ideas. If election day 2011 tells us anything, it’s not just that overreaching in this political environment is a bad move, but it’s a spectacularly bad one.
None of last night’s roundup of referendum votes were close…
Read all of “The Hangover: One Year After Electing GOP, Voters Reject Their Ideas”
Kickstarter’s (@kickstarter) Project of the Day:
The documentary “Tomorrow We Disappear”:
For hundreds of years roaming artists traveled the Indian countryside, creating the stories, the mythological backbone that would unite a country. Before radio, film, and television, these artists helped form what we now call the Web of India.
In the 1950s the artists ended their itinerant routes and moved into vacant land beside a jungle in West Delhi. They called their new home the Kathputli Colony. The colony is now a tinsel slum, providing home to some of the world's greatest street magicians, acrobats, and puppeteers. But last year the government sold the Kathputli land to real estate developers; the slum is to be bulldozed and cleared for development.
Our film, "Tomorrow We Disappear," will take you into the world of the Kathputli Colony, to experience the last remnants of its unique culture before it's too late.
Read more about “Tomorrow We Disappear”
): Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, on how Steve Case and his firm, Revolution, are driving the sharing economy:
A luxury-home network. A car-sharing company. An explosive deal site. Maybe you see three random ideas. Case and his team saw three bets that paid off thanks to a new Web economy that promotes power in numbers and access over ownership. The so-called sharing economy has taken off in the Great Recession, as companies like Netflix and Zipcar have allowed the exchange of DVDs, cars, clothes, couches, and even kitchen utensils. The promise of a post-ownership society is that we can do more, own less, and rent the rest with Web-enabled companies. That's a huge break for cash-strapped families in a weak recovery. Whether it's good news for companies who rely on customers to buy new thing, rather than share old purchases, is much more complicated.
Read all of “How Steve Case and Revolution Are Driving the Sharing Economy”
Etsy’s (@Etsy) Online Lab: Get Unstuck with Noah Scalin:
Stuck in a rut? I hope you’ll join us on Friday, November 18 for an Online Lab with king of creativity, Noah Scalin. You might know his Skull-a-Day project or his last book,
365: A Daily Creativity Journal.
Well, he’s at it again with his newest book called
Unstuck: 52 Ways to Get (and Keep) Your Creativity Flowing at Home, at Work, and in Your Studio
.He’ll be joining us in the Online Labs to share tips for getting unstuck creatively. So, if you need a jolt of inspiration, tune in! You’re not going to want to miss out on this one.
Find out more about the Etsy Online Lab, “Get Unstuck with Noah Scalin”
Image from the documentary "Tomorrow We Disappear"
Friday, October 28, 2011 10:58 AM
Considering the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles, it’s natural for many to ask: Where is the art to help us deal with our troubles?
In this second installment of the “This Art Is Your Art” series, we’ll look at what role popular music had played in helping people survive tough times in the past, and what role it is playing in the struggles of today.
It was bound to happen. After nearly four years of prolonged economic struggle
, lingering joblessness, an ever-increasing income gap, declining household wealth with an incongruent gain in corporate wealth, and a resulting explosion of mass frustration, people were bound to start asking: Where is the music that speaks to my problems? “Every successful movement has a soundtrack,”
New York Times
recently quoted former Rage Against the Machine member Tom Morello telling reporters during a rally at the Occupy Wall Street Protest. Others concurred with Morello. NPR’s Ann Powers had run a similar story two weeks earlier. 24-year-old college student Martían Hughes told the Times: “I have not heard a single song that sums up what we are trying to do here,” and a clever wag joked on Twitter: “
Really torn by the Occupy Wall Street movement because I agree with the message but I fucking hate drum circles.”
These concerns raise questions. First, has there actually been, during past struggles, music that
spurred on mass protests movements or that soothed and inspired struggling masses of Americans
? And, if so, is it reasonable for people to insist that such a soundtrack emerge for a protest movement that is so young it has yet to even decide what it is protesting exactly? And, perhaps most importantly, if we need music to raise us out of the muck, what is it about drum circles that fail to satisfy this desire?
Today, we can look back from our safe remove at past eras of suffering and despair—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, or the sustained economic troubles of the 1970s—to examine the role music may have played in helping society deal with times of systemic troubles, how it may have given solace to the suffering or provided inspiration, and how it may even have helped affect change. And we can take heart in the fact that conditions today are the same as they ever were, and also completely different.
The Music of the 1930s: Daydreams and Defiance
The Great Depression struck the country with the suddenness of a howitzer shell. After a decade of brisk economic growth, bustling consumerism, and a resulting speculative bubble in Wall Street, the Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929, ushered in a quick economic decline that would culminate in 1933 with a 25 percent unemployment rate (from a near-0 percent rate in 1929), a 37 percent drop in gross domestic product (from its high in 1929), and a debilitating deflationary spiral. Millions of displaced workers stood in bread lines. Families struggled with widespread anxiety and despair. Local union workers fought harassment by union-busting companies. Displaced and bankrupt workers were forced into itinerancy. And through it all an ineffectual government remained uncertain about the best course to take to solve the nation’s troubles.
At the time of the Wall Street crash, jazz was the ascendant style of music, and through the 1930s jazz vocalists such as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Rudy Vallee, Ted Lewis, Dick Powell, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Billie Holliday, and Ethel Waters would provide a soundtrack for the Depression. As with most eras of American popular music, the radio air waves of the 1930s were filled with fluff—songs of unrequited or jilted love, songs hoping for a chance at love, and songs celebrating the acquisition of love. But there was also, as early as 1930, an undercurrent in the time's popular music suggesting that life had changed. In January, 1930, “Why Was I Born?",
from the Jerome Kern musical Sweet Adeline, captured a sense of the year’s uncertainty in its lyrics:
Why was I born?
Why am I livin’?
What do I get?
What am I givin’?
Why do I want for things
dare not hope for?
What can I hope for?
I wish I knew.
The song that many consider to be the anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, followed in the same vein. Written in 1931 and recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby in 1932, the song recounts the heartache and frustration of a narrator who, just a few years before, had helped build railroads and skyscrapers, and had marched alongside his victorious countrymen in 1918. That the song struck a nerve with thousands of displaced American workers was evident in the fact that both Crosby’s and Vallee’s recordings reached the top of the hit charts that year.
Beyond the music of the popular airwaves, a resurgent “folk” music in the 1930s—created by figures like Jim Garland, Woody Guthie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly—further explored the injustices faced by millions of ordinary citizens whose lives had been disrupted by the Depression. Songs like Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More” told stories about migrant workers, families reduced to poverty, and people forced to live in hovels and worker camps. Florence Reece’s 1931 song “Which Side Are You On?” channeled the anger and frustration of Kentucky miners facing union-busting activities during a labor strike. And Jim Garland’s 1933 song, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (All I Want),” spun the sentiments of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” into even more defiance.
We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.
So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.
Not all Great Depression music was as despairing. A certain American optimism filled the radio air waves alongside these other, more dour songs. In February, a song appeared in a movie called Chasing Rainbows
that would become another great anthem of the Great Depression. Though written in reference to the end of World War I, “Happy Days Are Here Again”
struck such a catchy, joyous message of hope that it inspired many Americans too look beyond their current troubles to when times would one day improve. The song’s sentiment was so popular it appeared in more than twenty movies during the Depression’s height (1930-1933), and then in nearly twenty more as the downturn lingered through the rest of the decade. Other songs based on this forget-your-troubles-be-happy model were common throughout the Depression: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from the 1930 Broadway musical Lew Leslie's International Revue;“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” performed by Rudy Vallee in 1931; “
Help Yourself to Happiness,” from the Ziegfield Follies of 1931, “Looking at the Bright Side” performed by Gracie Field in 1932, and so on. One such song became so popular it helped make the film it appeared in—the Busby Berkeley choreographed spectacle Gold Diggers of 1933—the biggest box office hit of that year. “We’re in the Money,” written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, epitomized the cheering quality of much music of the Depression, even as it added a thumbed-nose to the whole idea of Depression in the final line of the chorus.
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong.
Both aspects of Depression music—the indignation and defiance in songs like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the roll-up-your-sleeves optimism in songs like “We’re in the Money”—spoke volumes about the values of the times. While people suffered, faced hopeless job markets, and had their families torn apart, this was still an age when the idea “American know-how” had currency. Many of us have heard stories about how our grandparents and great grandparents survived the Great Depression through a collective sense of determination, pluck, and thriftiness. My own grandmother used to keep a drawer full of old, used tinfoil—even well into the 1980s—because “you just never know when you’ll need it.” Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic presidential candidate who broke a 12-year Republican hold on the office in 1932, won election that year by emphasizing American’s natural perseverance and ingenuity, and stressing how much we have relied on each other to get by. In his inaugural address—the famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech—Roosevelt spoke words that might have come from the mouth of a folk singer of the era:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline…. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
The 1970s: Songs of Anger and Songs of Pain
Considering the similar trajectory of the 1970s recession to the turmoil of the 1930s, it’s no surprise that the music of the later era followed a similar pattern to the music of the Depression. As with the Great Depression, the lingering recession of the 1970s came after a long period of economic expansion. Both downturns lingered for a decade or so after the initial recessions had technically ended, and both were precipitated by a single event. (In the 1970s, the event was the 1973 oil crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo on the United States that began on October 17, 1973.) Therefore, it did not take long for American ears in the 1970s to turn to music that spoke to the pain of era. In November, 1973, Stevie Wonder released his single, “Living for the City.” While not as sharp a commentary as songs he would write a few years later, this composition strung together a blunt series of images depicting the nature of American city life. Meanwhile, that same week on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, country-western star Waylon Jennings released his depiction of a laid-off factory worker, “If We Make It Through December.” The similar sense of empathy that these two very different artists feel for the downtrodden reveals the universality of artistic concern in a troubled time.
Plenty more popular music depicted the troubles of the times as the nation struggled after 1973 with joblessness, inflation, and stagnant economic growth. J. Geil’s Band’s “Detroit Breakdown,” Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century,” Hudson Ford’s “Burn Baby Burn,” Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Winter in America” and spoken-word album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Don McLean’s “Homeless Brother," 10-CC’s “Wall Street Shuffle,” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” all appeared in 1974. Note: While some have adapted this last song as an ode to American acquisitiveness, a glance at the song’s lyrics make clear the O’Jays’ original intentions:
For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat
For the love of money
People don’t care who they hurt or beat …
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
In 1975, gritty looks at the times included “Hard Times” and “Never Say You Can’t Survive” by Curtis Mayfield, “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers, and “Rich Get Richer” by the O’Jays. In 1976, Stevie Wonder filled an entire album—Songs in the Key of Life—with songs that reflected his increasing dismay and bitterness at the way the country was being run. The album included the stark and angry “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and his tour de force “I Wish."
By 1977 and 1978, the times were so frustrating that artistic anger led to the rise of a new, underground musical genre. These so-called “punk” bands played spare, loud, and angry songs about
the frustrations of the working class—the class from which most of the performers came—and of the hypocrisy and control exhibited by the rich and powerful
. Among the punk acts that appeared between 1974 and 1977 were the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, t
he Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, the Clash, the Suicide Commandos, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Crime, the Nuns, the Tupperwares, VOM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Subversives, and the Runaways. “
All the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it,” screamed the Clash angrily in its 1977 song “White Riot,” “while we walk the street too chicken to even try it.”
As this new, energetic underground flourished on the indignation and anger of the times, similar sentiments filtered into even the most mainstream of music between 1976 and 1979. Songs like Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Angry Young Man” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Factory” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” more tunefully expressed the frustration felt by young people with few options for success in their lives. Even the biggest band in the world at the time, the hyper-successful Rolling Stones, who had little real reason to be upset in 1978, couldn’t keep the frustrations of the time from creeping into their feel-good brand of rock ’n’ roll. Their song “Shattered” spoke of the rising crime rates, the “money grabbers,” and the maggots overrunning New York City. “You got rats on the West Side,” Mick Jagger moaned, “bed bugs Uptown. What a mess, this town’s in tatters. I’ve been shattered.”
And you know once Mick Jagger is feeling frustrated, then it’s a safe bet that the masses are dealing with some pretty serious troubles.
Today: Music of Distraction
The breadth and depth of the anger and the haunting depictions of pain that was commonly written into the music of the 1930s and 1970s—as well as the popularity of such songs among the angry and frustrated masses—might lead one to expect a similar occurrence today. Thus, the questions raised today by Tom Morello and Ann Powers
are completely valid, especially when considering the breadth and depth of musical response to bad times in the past. While mainstream pop charts of today are, as in times of past, filled with songs of frivolous distraction and the obsessive pursuit of (or pining after the loss of) love/sex, what’s different now is that, unlike in the past, there has been little sign of the troubles of these times in the charts of musical hits. (Just to cite one example, in the Billboard list of the top 100 hits for 2010
there was only one song—Jay-Z’s somewhat gentle depiction his life on the streets of New York, “Empire State of Mind” (#21)—that includes any sort of social content, and no song that examines the anger or frustration of the times.) If pop music is to be believed today, no one seems to care to hear their own life frustrations reflected back at them in their music. (If pop music is to be believed, in 2010 Americans spent its spare time clubbing, cruising, and “doing it big all over the globe.”) In pop music today, no one seems to have any interest in venting their worries and frustrations or in being uplifted beyond the troubles of the current times.
There may be several reasons for this social disconnect in mainstream pop music. In an age when the lilting spiritual-cum-protest song “Kumbaya” is deemed an embarrassing national joke, we may have come to consider ourselves too savvy, too cynical, too clever by half to have our emotions and feelings depicted and manipulated by something so banal as a song. Indeed, several musical acts, in several different musical genres, go so far as to suggest that the protest song is dead. This includes the heavy metal band Foundation, who released their song “No One Writes Protest Songs Anymore” in 2011; the modern folk-rock group GioSafari, who produced an entire album called Protest Songs (Are Dead) in 2011; and, finally, and most famously, there’s Hugh Laurie’s send up of the protest song, “Protest Song.” This song
appeared on national TV just as the country began tipping into the economic abyss in 2008. As Laurie sings it, the answers to the country’s lingering problems—“poor keep gettin’ hungry, and the rich keep gettin’ fat,” etc.—are easy: “All we gotta do,” he sings, before mumbling an incoherent (nonexistent) answer.
So we may have—despite the wishes of Morello (wishes that, actually, may be self-motivated; see more on this below) and Powers—moved as a culture beyond the protest song. It’s possible that we live in a time when our values have turned so inward into personal introspection and self-regard that we find it impossible to gather together and sing about a common cause. Or else protest music may simply be too embarrassing a relic of the past, of a time when such well-meaning sentiment actually meant something. Today is a different age, we prefer to think, when problems are so complex, so difficult to solve that they’re not even worth bringing up in polite society. Considering all of these attitudes, it makes sense that the music that has thus far dominated the Occupy movement—the ever-present drum circle—is essentially an act of solipsism, in which a person with a loud percussive instrument expresses himself loudly without regard to whether or not anyone really wants to listen to the racket. And this may be the one object-lesson of today’s protests: Most of us, no matter our sympathies one way or another, can agree on one thing. We hate the music of the Occupy movement.
There may also be another, somewhat related reason that protest songs today simply don’t have the sticking power of the past. We may not only be prone to dismiss such music as out of touch with the times, but, as Live Aid founder Midge Ure suggests, we may also be living in a culture that makes it impossible to hear such music. “The protest song isn’t quite as relevant right now,” Ure said at a recent conference on politics in the digital age. “The world certainly has enough turmoil going on in it for people to write about. I just think maybe the vehicle to hear those songs has changed, or broken, or disappeared.” As Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition recently pointed out in an NPR story, ours is a “fractured culture,” sliced up in so many different ways that we lack much common cultural ground now. In an age when people carry in their pockets devices that hold upwards of 10,000 songs of their own choosing, when satellite and internet radios offer access to hundreds and thousands of radio stations of every particular bent, when Spotify allows you to tap into the music collections of your entire network of friends, when we have, in a word, unlimited amounts of choice about which music to consume, it makes sense that songs of complex or troubled sentiment might be lost in the mix.
Still, the fracturing of our culture is not necessarily a completely bad thing, as Rae-Hunter explains, because it gives a “plethora of folks who otherwise would’ve had no shot of getting on commercial radio” a change to be heard. And, as it happens, this dynamic is analogous to the changing nature of protest that has become apparent in the Occupy movement itself. Today, the traditional trappings of protest—rallies, speeches, song circles—seem less important than the constant stream of chatter that is made possible through social media. “In the 1960s music was the social media of the day,” said Ralph F. Young, a professor of history at Temple University, in a recent Time magazine story. “Today protesters have Facebook and Twitter to disseminate their message.” And in an age of flattened discourse—made possible by universal access to the Twitter stream—music ends up being far less of a player in the debate than in the past.
In the end, apparently, it may no longer really matter whether or not artists are writing meaningful music about the times. Which is unfortunate in a way, because
in fact there are plenty of songs of protest and complaint to be found if you’re willing to look beyond your own iPod’s playlists. The New York Times story, of course, lists a few—by Ry Cooder, Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, and Aloe Blacc. But the list could be much more expansive, including a wide range of genres and takes, including: “Survival of a People” by Gabriel’s Grandzjuk, “Sounds Like Life to Me” by Darryl Worley, “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” by John Wesley Harding, “Ponzi” by the Felice Brothers, “Shutting Detroit Down” by John Rich, and entire albums by Robb Johnson (Some Recent Protest Songs) and the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello—no wonder he wants us to reconsider the protest song (World Wide Rebel Songs).
And then there’s my own personal current favorite song about the times, one that I would gladly share with anyone who comes within reach of my own ear buds: Jeremy Messersmith’s recent composition “Blue Sky (Corporations Are People My Friend).” In this simple, tuneful song Messersmith finds an accessible, endearing way to put his musical thumb right on the deep, raging, universal vein of frustration that is nagging at the so-called “99 percent.”
We don’t have money
We don’t have guns
Off shore accounts
Or mutual funds
But from the suburbs to trailer parks
We’ve got each other, and that’s a start.
While Messersmith’s song may not change the world, in this age of iTunes and Spotify, and it may not find its way onto the Billboard charts, by sharing his take on the times through this song I can honestly say he’s changed my life just a little bit. And that’s a start.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Read more of the “This Art Is Your Art” series.
Lead image by David Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Additional image by Jessica Warren is licensed courtesy of Getty Images. © 2011 Jessica Warren. © 2011 Getty Images. All rights reserved.
Monday, April 18, 2011 5:00 PM
I miss the days before iPhones. With pocket-sized, portable, 24-hour access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s entirely possible to fill every free second with other people’s family photos, favorite song lyrics, video links, and ideas without connecting to them—or to ourselves—in a significant way.
In Tricycle magazine, Lori Deschene, founder of the website Tiny Buddha, asks us to take a deep breath and rethink our online lives with ten ways to use social media mindfully.
Deschene advises that we examine our intentions before posting, experience life now and share it later, give ourselves permission to ignore yesterday’s stream, and always represent our authentic selves. She writes:
In the age of personal branding, most of us have a persona we’d like to develop or maintain. Ego-driven tweets focus on an agenda; authenticity communicates from the heart. Talk about the things that really matter to you.
And before you flood the Internet with every minor rumination, question if your contribution to the online ether is worthwhile. Deschene reminds us:
The greatest lesson we can all learn is that less is enough. In a time when connections can seem like commodities and online interactions can become casually inauthentic, mindfulness is not just a matter of fostering increased awareness. It’s about relating meaningfully to other people and ourselves.
Image by Alan Stokes, licensed under Creative Commons
Tuesday, October 26, 2010 1:52 PM
What’s the old adage? Buy low, sell when Twitter users are in bad moods? Is that it? If not, maybe it should be, because according to a story in Wired, "[t]he emotional roller coaster captured on Twitter can predict the ups and downs of the stock market, a new study finds. Measuring how calm the Twitterverse is on a given day can foretell the direction of changes to the Dow Jones Industrial Average three days later with an accuracy of 86.7 percent.
The findings were somewhat stumbled upon, according to Johan Bollen, the social scientist behind the study. Attempting to find the mood of the public through Tweets, Bollen and Huina Mao, a grad student, used a questionnaire aimed to attach feelings to adjectives. After searching millions of Tweets for those adjectives—and other words used in conjunction with them—Bollen and Mao figured they could see the general mood of the population—at least those on Twitter.
Using this information along with an algorithm trained to predict the fluctuations of the stock market, the algorithm’s accuracy increased to 86.7 percent from 73.3 percent. That is, when the information of the general mood on Twitter was taken into account, this algorithm was able to predict much more accurately which way—up or down—the stock market would go.
Bollen admits that more research is needed to understand why this happens, but until then, why not add Twitter to your list of resources for figuring out who’s best to play with your money?
Image by mil8, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 21, 2010 4:10 PM
Over at Poets.org Ada Limón talks about how easy it is to feel isolated in the world as a poet. One place where she finds solace is through social networking, not necessarily the first thing you’d associate with a poet. “I think the social networking tools for poets have served as a wonderful way to not feel alone as an artist,” Limón says. “And I feel like if that’s all it does, it does its job.”
While you're at Poets.org, don't miss Limón’s reading of “Marketing Life for Those of Us Left,” a poem she wrote for a friend who died of cancer.
Monday, October 18, 2010 5:00 PM
Conan O'Brien has more than 1.7 million followers on Twitter. Jay Leno has fewer than 100,000. To say that Conan has a younger audience—and therefore an audience more likely to use Twitter—would be an understatement, as well as a path well-beaten. Nonetheless, Conan's use of social media to rev up the hype around his new show on TBS has been impressive. Using the name Team Coco, O’Brien has dived head first, reports Fast Company, and “dominated…the digital age.”
Starting with the website TeamCoco.com—“[t]he source of all things Conan”—O’Brien has used all the tools at his disposal for promotion: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Google Maps (to track his large blimp around the country), and YouTube to promote his new show. By creating web videos for announcements—which are then promoted via Twitter, et al.—like the name of his new show (“Conan” or “Conaw”?) and whether or not Andy Richter would be joining him on TBS, O’Brien has created a place for viewers to get all the information they needed while he was away from their TV screens.
Never mind the self-promotion and all that, though. What makes Conan O’Brien popular in these new venues is what has always made him popular: He’s hilarious. Just read some of these Tweets:
After 9 hours driving from drug store to drug store, it hit me: no one sells Columbus Day decorations.
The Nobel Prize in Science has gone to scientists who created an ultra-thin carbon. Actually it's normal thickness, but wearing stripes.
David Hasselhoff was kicked off of “Dancing With the Stars.” He should stick to singing. I mean acting. I mean…
Of course, those could have been posted by writers or assistants. But there’s no substitute for O’Brien’s delivery, which is on full display in his YouTube videos.
Right now Utne is just shy of 12,000 followers on Twitter. At 1.7 million, Coco’s got us beat…for now.
Source: Fast Company
Thursday, September 16, 2010 10:23 AM
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “My Daily Read” feature, in which various professors “describe their media diets” is reliably snooty good fun. Turns out neither the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum nor Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis has much time for blogs (Kipnis: “I’m not a fan….I like to read prose that’s edited, frankly.”) or Twitter (Nussbaum: “Never.” Kipnis: “That would be the last straw!”).
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Photo Credit: Image by schani / Mark Probst, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 22, 2009 3:50 PM
It's that time of year again... We've named the 2009 Utne Reader visionaries and you can read all about them in the November-December issue. If you want more, we've created a list of every Utne visionary with a Twitter account and with one click, they'll show up in your feed.
And while you're clicking, you can add the Utne Reader editorial staff.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009 5:12 PM
The deals are a “stunning one-two punch,” according to All Things Digital: Microsoft announced today that it has struck agreements to integrate real-time feeds of status updates from Twitter and Facebook into Bing. The deals are nonexclusive—which means Google could follow suit—but for the time being, Bing has something the search giant has yet to tap, at least in the case of Facebook. And get this: Microsoft is paying for it—exact terms, of course, haven’t been disclosed.
This is nonetheless “a precedent that the ability of search engines to index and link to content is worth some money,” Ryan Chittum writes for Columbia Journalism Review. “Where this goes from here no one knows. . . . Would the AP yank its news off Google if Bing paid and Google didn’t? Would it be worth it in the lost revenue from not showing up in as many search results? That’s too early to tell.”
One thing is clear, as Chittum says: This will be worth watching.
Sources: All Things Digital, Columbia Journalism Review
Wednesday, October 21, 2009 5:02 PM
We Utne Reader editors love a good, geeky style row. (Recent disputes: Should Google, when used as a verb, be capitalized? Should we the titles of online publications be roman or italic?) And when we’re hashing things out, we tap every resource at our disposal: dictionaries, our awesome copy editor (hi Lynn!), published precedents, and, of course, stylebooks like the AP and Chicago guides.
Well, in that last category, there’s a new kid in town: Fake AP Stylebook, now up and running on Twitter, happy to irreverently answer your most irreverent style questions. The feed looks to be only about a day old, so who’s to say how long it’ll last—or if it’ll entirely go off the rails. For the time being, it’s definitely good for a nerdy if slightly off-color chuckle. Some highlights:
-- Use ‘sick!’ in brackets as an editorial comment on something awesome. Ex: ‘Apes with flamethrowers [sick!] burned the police station.’
-- Use quotation marks to express skepticism: Cher’s “Farewell Tour,” Creed’s “Best Album,” Jay Leno’s “comedy.”
-- @jason1749: We suspect you mean “teh.” The popularity of “the” will fade as the Internet fad passes and we return to teletypes.
Source: Fake AP Stylebook
Friday, September 25, 2009 11:50 AM
Green your Twitter feed—in a single click. Investigative reporter Osha Gray Davidson, editor and publisher of the Phoenix Sun, has set up a TweepML list for the Society of Environmental Journalists. With one click, users can follow 58 environmental reporters, writers, and publications, including Utne Independent Press Award-winning High Country News.
Thursday, September 10, 2009 4:32 PM
Sounding off about the government can be put to good use through the @2gov website. A user can enter his or her zip code, and the website will figure out who that person’s elected representatives are. Then, when that person expresses a political viewpoint and mentions @2 gov on Twitter, those views are reported directly to the government.
Representatives will start receiving detailed reports of what political views are being expressed on Twitter in an easily understood format. Users don’t need to know their representatives names, and the politicians don’t need to be on Twitter. The website can also verify people’s voting status to let the representatives know that the voices on twitter actually represent their constituency. The idea is to move political discourse from Twitter’s website to your representatives’ ears.
Friday, August 28, 2009 3:10 PM
Jeff Clark makes my brain hurt, but first he makes me laugh. He's been charting word density on Twitter at his blog Neoformix, and the resulting line graphs are fabulous. You must see his time of day word correlations, where he picks a "word of interest" (in the exaple above, it's "drunk") and shows two words with a positive correlation and two with a negative correlation—all organized by time of day.
Thursday, August 13, 2009 9:14 AM
Earlier this summer, as part of a master’s program at Emerson College, Kerry Skemp began blogging and tweeting about online commentary (i.e., comments left on websites or tweets) and its role in the future of publishing. The resultant blog, You’re Talking a Lot, but You’re Not Saying Anything, is filled with rich observations. For anyone who hasn’t been following all along, Skemp recently summed up the lessons learned with the ultimate “meta-commentary” post: “Commentary on My Commentary on Commentary.”
The distillation is fascinating stuff: a vision of online commentary that rebuffs proverbial complaints of commenters-as-trolls-and-idiots and slays simplistic traffic-building stratagems. “Online commentary both is and affects publishing,” Skemp writes. “It is publishing in the sense that it ‘makes public’ information that would otherwise remain private. In doing so, commentary (ideally) affects more than the commenter and the person being responded to.
“The unique nature of commentary on the internet allows it to be read by an unlimited number of people with varying levels of connection to the topic at hand. An astute comment can educate and inspire others; a negative or uninformed comment can motivate others to help educate. Admittedly, online commentary doesn’t give rise to enlightenment: but it can, and should.”
Finding enlightenment in a comment field might seem a bit farfetched, but Skemp backs up the claim with savvy observations that will be interesting to track as online comment infrastructure evolves. The presence of nasty (or self-serving) commenters, for example, means that “the art of commentary includes determining what to weed out,” a.k.a., a dose of media literacy. Additionally the “Twitterfication of commentary”—knowing who’s reading what you publish—injects accountability into the system, eliminating the anonymity under which bad manners and cheap shots flourish.
But more than commentary shifting toward more refined discourse, Skemp ultimately sees it functioning as a sort of super-discourse. “Commentary is the future of . . . search, and potentially even publishing,” she writes. “Commentary is the future of finding everything we need online, and responding to what is already online. Algorithms can only go so far without the human input that comes in the form of commentary: data showing what people think about other data.”
Source: You’re Talking a Lot, but You’re Not Saying Anything
Image by preater, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009 5:44 PM
Book nerds and children’s literature nostalgics alike were treated today when Twitter exploded with the trending topic #failedchildrensbooktitles. Plenty of “failed titles” took the raunchy road—can it ever be helped on the internet?—while others proved good old fashioned humor still has a place online. Some of my non-offensive favorites (with their twittering creators in parenthesis):
Ramona Quimby, age 38 (@
Furious George (@
Little House on Stolen Land (@
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Mercury Poisoning (@
Horton Hears The Who (@
The Bailout Tree (@
Punch the Bunny (@
Nobody Else Poops (@
Where the Wild Things Eat You (@
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Bertrand Russell
And on that note, if you haven’t yet watched this clip of Will Arnett reading from Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, you’re in for another children’s classics take-two treat.
Monday, July 27, 2009 5:16 PM
A vacationer gazes at a serene sunset over the Mediterranean Sea and whips out his cell phones to compose the perfect Twitter message. Call it an addiction, but according to danah boyd, this need to obsessively update social networking sites is simply the latest embodiment of the human need to share—and sometimes over-share. She writes, “I really wouldn't be surprised if we found a cave painting that outlined what the dwellers ate for breakfast. So why are we so offended when people use the internet to do this?” The issue for boyd is one of moderation:
We like when people share their records. Until we don't. Cuz we also know that there is the notion of Too Much. There are only so many baby photos you can take of a baby that's not related to you before you scream Too Much. There are only so many home videos that you can take until you scream Too Much. And there are only so many vacation photos you can take until you scream Too Much.
Monday, July 20, 2009 4:18 PM
Twitter will not single-handedly save journalism. It’s also not silly and dumb. “The single greatest export on the internet—greater, even, than information—is hyperbole,” Paul Constant writes for the Stranger, and the reactions to Twitter have dolled out hyperbole with gusto. Constant, a former Utne Reader contributor, dissects the Twitter phenomenon, the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, in messages of fewer than 140 characters. He also includes some great insights into internet culture. Here are some excerpts:
A great deal of time on the internet is spent finding different ways to say, "Oh, you didn't know that already? Huh. I've known for ages."
Here's another truth: Nobody has any clue what's going on. That's why sneering at Twitter is worse than blindly loving Twitter.
Historically, very little has been accomplished by being cynical (maybe some broken hearts have been prevented, but at what cost?).
Source: The Stranger
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 1:17 PM
Millions of tweets sounded off in support of Iranian protesters in Tehran last month, but nary a Washington-borne tweet has sung out from the recent healthcare hearings in Congress, or in political protest of Obama’s actions in Afghanistan, writes Alexander Cockburn for The Nation. Nor did the Twitter phenomenon (aka: “Twittergasms”) come to the aid of the estimated 20,000 killed and hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamil people of Sri Lanka earlier this year.
Could it be because Iranians are better looking, asks Cockburn? He writes:
I don't recall too many tweets in Washington or across this nation about a methodical exercise in carnage. But then, unlike those attractive Iranians, Tamils tend to be small and dark and not beautiful in the contour of poor Neda, who got out of her car at the wrong time in the wrong place, died in view of a cellphone and is now reborn on CNN as the Angel of Iran.
Source: The Nation
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 10:30 AM
Reports coming out of Iran from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and various blogs are giving foreigners an unprecedented view into the ongoing political crisis in the country. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, blogging from “a pier in Cape Cod,” has emerged as one of the major arbiters of information on the Iranian protests. Twitter and Facebook users are turning their profiles green in support of the protesters. The same technologies are giving idealists around the world the chance to engage in the crisis, both symbolically and actively. But just because people can engage, doesn’t mean they always should.
The raw, unedited nature of much of the information coming out of Iran could give every the impression that they know what’s really going on inside the country. The abject failure of cable news networks to cover the events reinforces that idea. Editor and Publisher recently admitted, “Web reports from Iranians, including Twitter feeds, have outflanked much of print and certainly cable TV.” With foreign reporters getting kicked out of the country, the reliance on social media for news will likely continue to grow.
As influential as social networking tools are in publicizing Iran’s conflict, much of that information has been unreliable. It was widely reported that opposition leader Mousavi was placed under house arrest, which was just one of many rumors that circulated and later turned out to be untrue. The best reporting, according to Kevin Drum writing for Mother Jones, may be coming from the BBC and the New York Times, and other mainstream, traditional outlets.
News from Iran has also made people “desperate to do something to show solidarity,” according to tech guru Clay Shirky in an interview with TED. Shirky said, “Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement.” This has led people to help out the protesters, according to Shirky, by offering secure web proxies to help them mask their online identities. That sense of involvement, however, has the potential to lead people astray.
Some foreigners have been moved to launch web-based attacks against the Iranian state-run media, overwhelm the state’s servers with a constant stream of requests. Tech-President advocated this “bit of cyber aggression aimed at the Iranian government” as a way to channel the considerable energies of observers outside Iran. The process is so easy that I accidentally helped launch one of these attacks by clicking on an errant link while researching this blog post.
The motivation behind the web-attacks is understandable, but they may end up doing more harm than good. Evgeny Morozov, writing for Foreign Policy, points out that these attacks from other countries actually strengthen the Iranian government’s argument that “foreign intervention” is the driving force behind the protests. And if the attacks get bad enough, there’s a chance that the government could simply pull the plug on the highly centralized internet throughout the country, cutting off the Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube videos that feed the foreign knowledge of the protests.
Sources: The Atlantic, Editor and Publisher, Mother Jones, TED, Tech-President, Foreign Policy
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Wednesday, June 03, 2009 2:31 PM
On the vaunted social networking site Twitter, users—both male and female—are more likely to follow men than women, according to a study from Harvard Business Publishing. On average, men have 15 percent more followers than women, even though they follow roughly the same number of people.
According to the study:
We found that an average man is almost twice more likely to follow another man than a woman. Similarly, an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman. Finally, an average man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman.
Twitter’s gender divide stands in stark contrast to most social networking sites, according to the study, where “most of the activity is focused around women.” The lack of photos and detailed biographies are offered as possible reasons for the discrepancy.
(Thanks, Marginal Revolution.)
Source: Harvard Business Publishing
Monday, May 11, 2009 4:25 PM
Writing a story in the 140 characters allowed by Twitter is nearly impossible, but Dan Baum has managed to do it. Baum chronicled his rise and fall as a staff writer for the New Yorker in bursts of fewer than 140 characters. Reading his page in chronological order from the bottom up, with all the unnatural line breaks, can be disorienting. But the story has wit, a plot, and plenty of windows into one of the most sought after jobs in writing.
Here are four Tweets that provide a good example of his Twitter narrative (Twarrative?):
“I must say, though, the office itself is a little creepy. I didn’t work there. I live in Colorado. But I’d visit 3-4X a year.”
“It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying.”
“Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it.”
Source: Dan Baum’s Twitter Page
Thursday, March 12, 2009 1:26 PM
The internet poo-bahs at Technorati say that blog authority is dropping. The most popular blogs on the internet have seen their “authority” scores, based on the number of other blogs linking to them, go down recently, even if their ranks relative to the rest of the internet remain the same.
This loss of blog authority doesn’t point to a loss of importance, Brian Solis writes for TechCrunch. It shows that the way people consume media has changed. Instead of writing competing blog posts, people are increasingly turning to Twitter or Facebook to respond and make their voices heard.
We are learning to publish and react to content in “Twitter time” and I’d argue that many of us are spending less time blogging, commenting directly on blogs, or writing blogs in response to blog sources because of our active participation in micro communities.
Now people need to figure out new ways to measure the importance of blogs, taking social networking and non-traditional derivative content into consideration. Solis writes, “Now, we have the ability to instantly interact with, respond, or promote blog content away from the source blog, but that shouldn’t make the original post any less valuable.”
Thursday, January 29, 2009 4:47 PM
All the world’s a microblog, and all the men and women merely tweeters. It’s tough to present an intelligent thought in the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, but someone has managed to summarize Shakespeare’s entire canon into tweets. Here are a few highlights:
H: Mommy issues are just the beginning for a prince with a murdered father and new Uncle/Step-dad. Most everybody ends up dead.
TGoV: Two guys overcome both temporary exile from somewhere and their impulse-control issues and marry their long-suffering sweethearts.
KL: Old king learns too late that two of his kids only wanted power. He and most main characters die. One just gets his eyes gouged out.
Update: The blogger has moved on to translating the show MASH and the Best Picture Oscar winners into tweets, too.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009 2:37 PM
Technology is currently crying out for your attention. Twitter wants to know, “What are you doing?” Facebook is asking, “What are you doing right now?” There’s a good chance that your personal, work, and spam email accounts all have new messages waiting for you, friends or acquaintances may be inviting you to LinkedIn or Friendfeed, or maybe your cell phone is ringing. “Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely,” William Deresiewicz writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “now it’s impossible to be alone.”
The technology demands constant attention, because that’s what people want. The “contemporary self,” according to Deresiewicz, “wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible.” The websites offer visibility at no monetary cost, but users end up sacrificing their solitude, privacy, and, in some ways, the ability to be alone.
The technology has a spiritual cost, too. “Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism,” Deresiewicz writes, “a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom.” This kind of self-reflection is nearly impossible if people don’t quit tweeting, texting, and calling every once in a while.
The costs of constant contact become more extreme as technology improves. New applications for the iPhone and Google’s new G1 (which I bought 3 weeks ago), allow people to connect with Twitter, Facebook, and a host of location-aware applications at all times. Programs like WhosHere, Whrrl, and the dubiously named LifeAware give near-constant GPS-based updates to friends or strangers of where people are and how to connect.
Some of these location-aware applications go too far, even for tech enthusiasts. Mathew Honan, the man behind BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle, explored the labyrinthine world of the GPS-based applications for Wired and found paradoxically, “I had gained better location awareness but was losing my sense of place.”
The flood of tweets, updates, and friend request can quickly become indistinguishable from real life (aka RL). The din can easily stand in the way of deeper thoughts and self-reflection. “In effect,” according to the Winter 2007 issue of n+1, “this mode of constant self-report can be summed up in a single phrase: “I am on the phone. I am on the phone. I am on the phone.’”
Image by Juhan Sonin, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009 10:37 AM
At an undisclosed location, somewhere in the United States, a public relations man is chronicling the demise of the media as we know it—and he’s doing it in short bursts of 140 characters or less.
If you are a journalist or media organization who is not on Twitter, you should be. And once you’re there, you should subscribe to the daily beating that is a Twitter feed called themediaisdying.
There you’ll find the rat-a-tat-tat of daily media executions. Here’s a sampling of the devastation:
VIBE has lost an associate music editor, Shanel Odum.
MAD MAGAZINE is going quarterly
VARIETY could have cuts this week
The February WIRED is only 113 pages, of which only 31.5 are ad pages - not the usual 1:1 ratio.
It is brutal, but that is not its founder’s intention. “It started as a closed group of our eight founders,” the anonymous ringleader of themediaisdying (lets call him Mr. Dying) tells Utne Reader. Each of the eight founders are employed in the public relations industry—either in-house or on a freelance basis. The Twitter account was mostly a way to keep track of their clients (and potential clients) in the print media industry. “But the point of Twitter is to be open, right? So we opened it up.” The open account launched on December 19 with this posting: "RUMOR: LA TIMES is considering getting rid of its national and foreign bureaus. Can anyone confirm?”
Today themediaisdying has more than 10,000 followers and gets upwards of 75 tips a day. A tip could take the form of a leaked memo or it could be an e-mail that simply reads: “Hey, I just got fired.”
“I’m spending about 90 minutes a day on Twittering and following up on leads,” says Mr. Dying, who resents the characterization that he and his comrades somehow relish in the demise they are chronicling. “It’s tragic!”
What’s more, the people behind themediaisdying most definitely have something to lose if their identities are revealed. “There would be adverse effects if we were to be exposed—and I put that in big quotes. We still have to work with the media.”
You can read the dispatches of Mr. Dying and his crew here and you can follow the Utne Reader Twitter feed here. May our paths never cross.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009 2:28 PM
While millions tuned in to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration on TV, a conversation was raging on the microblogging site Twitter. Some expected the site would be overwhelmed by the influx of traffic, but it held up remarkably well, allowing journalists, celebrities, and general netizens to chime in on the day’s proceedings.
We’ve compiled a few of our favorite insights below. And don’t forget to visit the Utne Reader twitter page while you’re over there.
On the scene:
: Sign down on the mall says "We Have Overcome"
anamariecox: People mobbing police officers, desperate for direction. Metaphor?
PatrickRuffini: Bearded bohemians richly represented
justacoolcat: Big crowd. So when do they release the bulls?
jdickerson: I believe that the Secret Service had to clear Aretha's hat
Kaeti: How I wish that Hulu's live coverage wasn't sponsored by Mall Cop.
: CBC reporter to kid: "Who's cooler Obama or Kanye West?" WTF?
Jeffjarvis: If people would stop writing tweets predicting that Twitter will fail, maybe that will lighten the load enough so it doesn't fail.
: Now that The Speech is over, telemarketing calls have resumed. God bless America!
jayrosen_nyu: Get ready for four years of "...If you thought the election of Barack Obama was going to bring an end to partisanship, well, think again."
On George W. Bush:
: GWBush listens to Feinstein's call for 'real and necessary change' like I'M SITTING RIGHT HERE
: In a perfect world the helicopter Bush is leaving on should drop him off at Gitmo.
: Bush is being taken to the Hague off-camera right now. Right?
mollypriesmeyer: Get in your 'copter, crook!
: As a former woodwinder myself, I am not embarrassed to say: that is one handsome clarinetist.
: Obama is already killing my productivity.
: President Obama's speech was spectacular. Can't wait to read it really really slowly, to infuse each word into my soul.
: Holy smokes! That was the longest eight years of my life.
: Well, I cried like a fucking baby.
MCHammer: Pac this is for you....I know how you dreamed of this...I'm throwing a 2 in the air in your memory...love you !! Amen!
Tuesday, November 18, 2008 9:27 AM
The Mars Phoenix Lander has accrued thousands of friends and fans on Facebook and Twitter since “dying” last week, when the red planet’s freezing temperatures ended the machine's functionality, Scientific American reports.
NASA spokeswoman Virginia McGregor became a pseudo-celebrity when she began transmitting Twitter tweets and Facebook messages on the lander’s behalf. This proves that 1) social networking is inescapable, even in space; and 2) humans can mourn inanimate objects in record numbers.
For a space program with a history of public relations problems, harnessing the power of social networking to eulogize the Phoenix was a brilliant bit of marketing, and a great way to exploit the sentimentality of space geeks like [sniff] yours truly.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008 4:50 PM
The seldom-reliable but often-entrancing microblogging site Twitter has a new page dedicated to reports from voters. Twitter users around the country are sending in reports of how long they’ve had to wait in line, voting irregularities, and any inane observations that come of the top of their heads. The site is designed to give constant updates for voters, advocacy groups, and journalists. It also runs the danger of driving people insane with the flood of information. Current TV has partnered with Twitter and is featuring this video about the site.
For some on-site coverage tonight, be sure to check in with Utne Reader’s Twitter page, as Cally Carswell sends updates from Obama’s rally in Chicago.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 9:34 AM
Government agencies are hopping on the Twitter bandwagon, with mostly good results, reports Silicon Alley Insider. Followers of the State Department receive updated travel alerts and country information, the FDA tweets about food safety news, and the U.S. Geological Survey posts a surprising amount of useful links, about rocks (naturally) but also about topics like alternative energy, natural resources, and the environment.
Of course, not all of the newly Twittering agencies are making the most of microblogging. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, tends to post—and infrequently, at that—about the country’s much-mocked color-coded threat level. The intentions are good, perhaps, but the information is hardly crucial to most people.
On the whole, it’s great to see the government going with the instant-information flow by using this service. Most people can appreciate getting condensed versions of pertinent news without having to navigate the overcrowded, out-of-date messes that are many government websites.
(Thanks, World Hum)
Image courtesy of trekkyandy, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008 10:38 AM
The internet is buzzing with news about John McCain’s VP pick, Sarah Palin. Bloggers are struggling to figure out who the Alaskan governor really is. Twitter user Eamon 1916 claims that, “Sarah Palin taught MacGuyver [sic] everything he knows.” Twitter user Dabolos writes, “Sarah Palin isn't qualified for VP, but she did stay in a Holiday Inn last night.
The posts aren’t true, but they’re part of a “Little Known Facts” meme jetting around Twitter. Other favorites from CNetNews include: “Sarah Palin wants more cowbell” and “Sarah Palin knows who was on the grassy knoll.” Michael Turk, another Twitter user, is credited with starting the trend.
Fake Sarah Palin news can also be found on the blog Welcome to the PalinDrome, where the authors poke fun at “liberels [sic]” and have asked readers to contribute money for a new snowmobile. The site seems to be taking cues from the fake Harriet Meiers blog that appeared when Meiers was nominated as a potential Supreme Court justice.
The real battle ground in the fight for Palin information was her Wikipedia page, even before her nomination was announced. NPR News reports that a pseudonymous user known as “Young Trigg” began editing Palin’s Wikipedia page hours before the nomination was made public. The user, whose name may be a reference to Palin’s youngest child Trig, made some 30 edits, all of which cast Palin in a positive light. Young Trigg chose to deemphasize Palin’s experience in a beauty pageant and focused the entry on her governing prowess and tenacity as a high school basketball player.
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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 2:29 PM
When inspiration strikes, there’s not always a computer around to record the ideas. Like cocktail napkin sketches, or ideas written on the back of a person’s hand, the website Deeplinking has compiled a few pen-on-paper prototypes of ideas that became websites.
The photo at left, for example, was the original design for the micro-blogging site Twitter, then called Stat.us. The current design of Utne.com, in fact, was once little more than chicken scratches on a torn piece of paper. For a more in-depth and active example, Deeplinking also provides an impressive, moving paper prototype in the YouTube link below.
Image by jack dorsey, licensed under Creative Commons.
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