Category: Deep Thoughts

So I Guess I’m A Reddit Expert Now?

One of the cool things I’ve been working on for the last year or so is the Local Stories Project from NPR Digital Services. The NPRDS team collaborates with local member stations to share compelling local web content on the NPR Facebook page, geotagged so it only hits the screens in a member station’s listening area. As I’m writing this, the WAMU Facebook page has less than 6,000 likes compared to more than 4 million on NPR’s page — it’s obviously a lot more social media fire power than we’re normally able to bring to bear.

I was assigned to be WAMU’s point person, quite by chance, and the project has opened many doors for me. When you first start out in the program, they give you a small tool set with which a story can be assessed and its share-ability emphasized. Include an interactive element, put in a poll, phrase the headline like a question, make it a list, use sub-heds. I merely took these tools and tried to bludgeon the existing station content with them until they were approximately the right shape. It worked, to a degree, but I began to see a few glimmers that the status quo was changing.

After a point, I started to despair that reporters weren’t giving me the raw materials to put together a social media hit. So I started to write them myself.

It turns out it’s much easier to find success in social media when you actually control the creation of content. And with my Interactive Journalism program at American University essentially forcing me out of the door to do stories, the result was stories wired for sharing and that also happened to meet the assigned criteria. Everybody wins!

As this year has progressed, I’ve continued to write more and more as I’ve gotten comfortable in my little web-first niche. At the same time, I’ve also been experimenting a bit with posting content to and getting story ideas from my time-wasting darling, Reddit.

Imagine my surprise when NPR Digital Services comes through for me again, having me be a guest speaker alongside KBIA’s Scott Pham on a webinar explaining why member stations should be on Reddit. Shortly thereafter, I was also cited in an article explaining how to make serious stories shareable.

It’s so easy to get locked into the grind in this job and not pick your head up to look around once in a while. I myself am susceptible to it, particularly during the dark days of winter. I’m grateful that I’ve found myself in this position that stimulates my creativity, motivates me to keep pushing, and acknowledges my successes. It’s been a good year!

Conan the Cimmerian vs. Irony

I find myself in the grips of an existential crisis, which I am embarrassed to admit has been prompted by my recent fascination with Conan the Barbarian — the series of short stories by Robert Howard that was later made into a pair of movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and remade recently into a critically-loathed mess starring Jason Momoa.

I haven’t seen the new Momoa flick, but I’ve been reading the original pulp fiction from Howard and I rewatched first movie when it was on cable a week ago. Strange as it may sound, the tales of that perpetually shirtless barbarian have prompted me to think a lot about story-telling, and how the abandonment of earnestness for the sake of irony has hurt our culture.

What I enjoy most about Conan, especially in reading the stories, is that there’s none of the sarcasm, irony or apologetic self-reference that pervades much of the art I consume. Yes, Conan is little more than a reversion to an arche-type — a strong-willed, suspiciously muscular, curiously lucky barbarian who probably speaks more to Robert Howard’s latent homosexuality than a larger understanding of the human condition.

It’s precisely this naive honesty in his telling that makes Howards’ prose so compelling to me. It’s uncomplicated, it’s honest, it’s evocative, it conveys a clear vision of who is right and who is wrong. It’s staggering to me to realize that these qualities are so rare in the entertainment I enjoy.

To be honest, I didn’t really think about any of this until I read an essay in David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, wherein Wallace ruminates:

[I]rony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

How perfectly he describes the crises that have colored my adulthood. Heck, my childhood. I remembering watching Fight Club for the first time as a teenager, feeling affected by the anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist message of Chuck Palahniuk’s phantom protagonist, only to have it dashed by the conclusion of the story by the ironic twist that encapsulated Edward Norton’s character.

I’m convinced that the continued popularity of that film stems largely from the fact that many people refuse to reconcile what Tyler Durden says with Palahniuk’s conceit, which is that to have such conviction in the moral and economic freedom of men of the lower middle class is crazy. It is literally the product of the mind of a schizophrenic individual. I’ve never been able to tell if Palahniuk is trying to mask his true feelings in the veil of irony or if he’s trying to mock his reader/viewer for feeling the stirrings of conviction. I suspect the latter, because that seems to be the mark of the celebrated artist these days, and none of his other prose has ever struck me as rising above the muck of irony.

This struggle goes beyond art, and that, I believe, is where the prison of irony has grown most problematic. Ever since I attended Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s March for Sanity, I’ve been ruminating on what such a gathering really means for the political attitudes of people of my generation.

To wit, that was by far the largest turn-out in my age group for for any political event… well, probably in my lifetime.

This is, I think, what that rally was all about. It was an release valve for the thousands of disgruntled young people to vent their discontent with the system in a way that rendered them free from ridicule. Since the whole event was cloaked in Jon Stewart’s pervading sense of irony, people could express sincere feelings and know that others knew that their sincerity was couched with a knowing smile. In other words, it’s OK to be angry at the political process, but only if you make it clear that you know the process is stupid anyway. It assuages the ego, but it does very little for political activism.

So where to go from here? Will I strive to distance myself from irony in my life? Will I swear off David Lynch’s films for the rest of my day? I’d like to think that eventually intellectual culture will strive to redeem the horrors illuminated by irony instead of mocking them, but that may well be something we have to live before we can see it conveyed in art.

And I’m not sure how possible that is. I think that will be the challenge of my generation. I think.

Reading As Competitive Sport

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto House of Leaves Suttree No Country for Old Men A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World The Invisible Man A Dance with Dragons A Short History of Nearly Everything First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth Count Zero Zodiac The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes Bossypants Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are One Hundred Years of Solitude The Forever War

When I was a child, I had something of a natural zest for reading. Strong though that natural urge was, I attribute my real life-long zest for the practice to a reading competition held in my elementary school in fourth or fifth grade.

Essentially, you could select any number of books on a pre-approved list from the library and then, once you had completed it, take a test in a computer program. If you scored above a certain threshold, you would be awarded a number of points that scaled based on how difficult the book was. They had a book chart outside of the library with everybody’s name on it, with the biggest readers at the top of the chart.

While my predilection towards reading was strong, my competitive edge was even stronger, and I was determined to win the contest at any cost. I don’t even remember if there was a prize, but I just knew that I had to win, and I would do anything (including reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women) to make that happen.

I think it’s that same urge, facilitated by the use of my Kindle, that prompted me to jump so ardently into GoodReads’ 2011 Reading Challenge. I set a personal goal to read 30 books in the span of the year, and some combination of my long metro-bound commute and my drive to win, prompted me to smash my expectations and wrap up my 30 books by August.

While it felt really satisfying to meet my goal so soon, I’ve resisted the urge to set my goal post even higher. At the pace I’m going, I could probably finish 45 books by the end of the year, I think changing the goalpost renders the goal itself somewhat arbitrary. I’m also curious about the ways that this kind of challenge affects my reading habits. I’m happy to say that I didn’t shy away from including longer, more challenging reads like Suttree, I do think it precluded me from reading short story collections.

So while my current “serious” reading project is The Brothers Karamov, which I have very much enjoyed so far, I think I will finally allow myself to indulge in The Complete Tales of Conan the Cimmerian and The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Perhaps next year I should make my goals more specific? Instead of adding 45 books to my bookshelf, I should specify that at least five should be short story collections, and another five poetry anthologies? If it’s in the name of competition, almost anything goes…

Getting Over My Gaming Indie-gnation

Building the aforementioned Gaming PC of Ultimate Splendor has given me an excellent excuse to try and catch up on all the PC titles I’ve missed out on since… well, probably 2003. The fine folks behind Steam have been holding one of their bi-annual sales, which has allowed me to swoop in and pick up a lot of titles that would have been totally off my radar even if I trolling the bit-torrent sites instead of a retail store.

The two titles that really seemed to grab me right off the bat were Trine, a physics-based fantasy action/puzzle hybrid and Torchlight, a dungeon crawler that is as fun as it is derivative of the original Diablo.

For whatever reason, indie games of this sort have always generated a sort of natural disdain that I’ve found it difficult to get beyond. My gaming time has been somewhat abbreviated since leaving college, so perhaps it was just a natural impulse to skip titles that would “waste” my time (as if that wasn’t the goal of playing games altogether) in favor of big budget releases. It’s a strange attitude to have, considering I tend to do precisely the opposite when it comes to movies and books.

In any case, I knocked off both games tonight (what an epic boss battle in Torchlight, above!), but here’s hoping there are least a few more indie morsels for me to snack on before the Steam sale runs its course.

That Old Electronic Ennui

I consider myself a pretty rational person when it comes to money. I live in an expensive area and I make even less than I did in my first job, so I monitor my spending habits like a hawk. (Mint.com is especially helpful for this.)

The one category of spending that always exposes a lapse in my Protestant virtue is new electronics, and computers in particular. I hate shopping for most anything else, but the system-building aspect of comparing brands and technologies, looking for deals, and ensuring that I’m hitting the peak of some imaginary value/performance graph puts me in a trance. The whole process speaks directly to the endorphin centers of my brain, and pushes it to a state of near-ecstasy when you add raw uncut consumer delight to the mix. It is indeed a heady brew.

It probably speaks to my personality, however, that I experience diminished excitement with each subsequent stage after identifying the parts and purchasing them. Assembling my monster machine of doom was a somewhat predictable lesson in tedium. Mounting motherboards, formatting hard drives, and installing drivers is not sexy work. There is some latent self-satisfaction in being able to succeed at a task which would mystify most, but it is fleeting.

Here’s my super sweet rig for those nerdy enough to click a build list. His name is Voldemort and he cost me less than $600, including Windows 7. While he plays games smooth as a dream (the principle reason he was created was to play Battlefield 3, which comes out in late October), there are actually few games I actually want to play at present, or could afford in any case.

The only step that remains now is to pay off the credit card bill. The mixture of shame and serotonin-lack that come now are not entirely dissimilar to a hangover after a wild night of partying.