To what subject does the following passage apply?

the [noun] established a way of looking—a habit of projection and model of spectatorship—that informed how [users] experienced daily life and primed them for other forms of glamour. [. . .] every [user] was both an audience and a performer [. . .] ‘everyone is posing, everyone tarts themselves up.’

Innumerable articles, some admiring and some disparaging, use the same sort language about the Internet, or about its connection to young people: the Internet is changing perceptions, or increasing narcissism, or offering a dangerous overlay over reality. But here’s the actual passage, from Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion:

Beyond the particulars of setting or plot, the theater established a way of looking—a habit of projection and model of spectatorship—that informed how city dwellers experienced daily life and primed them for other forms of glamour. In the commercial metropolis, every urbanite was both an audience and a performer for passersby, and every street a stage. ‘In Paris,’ wrote a nineteenth-century observer, ‘everyone is posing, everyone tarts themselves up, everyone has the air of being an artist, a porter, an actor, a cobbler, a soldier, a bad lot, or extremely proper.’

The 19th and 20th Centuries also saw innumerable screeds about how novels or movies or music were corrupting the minds of the young.

Glamour is consistently interesting if too academic in tone; like Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images and essays it convinces me that surfaces, fashion, aesthetics, and clothes are much more important than I once believed, that they have an extraordinary power over other people, and that attention to them is not wasted attention.

The meanest thing I’ve ever said

Someone asked, and I thought about it for a while: what makes a comment really mean? Context counts: strangers can say cruel stuff that should roll off, because you can’t take everything said by a random asshole seriously—especially on the Internet. Accuracy should count too: people who say mean but obviously false things can be laughed off, so mean things probably need to have enough truth to sting; they could be untrue but the sort of thing you’re worried about being true. Especially from people who know you well. Power dynamics might count too: a nasty comment from a boss or advisor might count for more than one from a peer.

With those parameters in mind, when I was an undergrad I was hanging out a party and this girl who was, uh, not conventionally attractive, began doing a mock strip-tease (I think / hope it was “mock,” anyway). One or two guys offered her dollar bills, and then she came over to me, and I said, extremely loudly, that I’d only pay her to keep her clothes on. The other guys laughed, but she looked like I’d just murdered her puppy.

I was mostly being funny. But women are used to being pursued and having sexual power over men; when they don’t, and when they have their lack of sexual power pointed directly observed, they become extremely upset in a way that I suspect most guys are used to (this is part of Norah Vincent’s point in the fourth chapter of Self-Made Man). This was around the same time I realized that being inured to a woman’s attractiveness yields the paradoxical-seeming result of being more successful with women. And I was realizing how many women are susceptible to status plays in sexual marketplace value, especially if they’re worried that theirs is low. An astonishing large number are. The mean thing is using this kind of status play on someone who isn’t conventionally attractive.

The meanest thing I've ever said

Someone asked, and I thought about it for a while: what makes a comment really mean? Context counts: strangers can say cruel stuff that should roll off, because you can’t take everything said by a random asshole seriously—especially on the Internet. Accuracy should count too: people who say mean but obviously false things can be laughed off, so mean things probably need to have enough truth to sting; they could be untrue but the sort of thing you’re worried about being true. Especially from people who know you well. Power dynamics might count too: a nasty comment from a boss or advisor might count for more than one from a peer.

With those parameters in mind, when I was an undergrad I was hanging out a party and this girl who was, uh, not conventionally attractive, began doing a mock strip-tease (I think / hope it was “mock,” anyway). One or two guys offered her dollar bills, and then she came over to me, and I said, extremely loudly, that I’d only pay her to keep her clothes on. The other guys laughed, but she looked like I’d just murdered her puppy.

I was mostly being funny. But women are used to being pursued and having sexual power over men; when they don’t, and when they have their lack of sexual power pointed directly observed, they become extremely upset in a way that I suspect most guys are used to (this is part of Norah Vincent’s point in the fourth chapter of Self-Made Man). This was around the same time I realized that being inured to a woman’s attractiveness yields the paradoxical-seeming result of being more successful with women. And I was realizing how many women are susceptible to status plays in sexual marketplace value, especially if they’re worried that theirs is low. An astonishing large number are. The mean thing is using this kind of status play on someone who isn’t conventionally attractive.

Facebook, go away—if I want to log in, I know where to find you

Facebook keeps sending me e-mails about how much I’m missing on Facebook; see the image at the right for one example. But I’m not convinced I’m missing anything, no matter how much Facebook wants me to imagine I am.

In “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors,” Ben Casnocha says that writers need to “Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.” Many other writers echo him. We have, all of us, a myriad of choices every day. We can choose to do something that might provide some lasting meaning or value. Or we can choose to tell people who are often effectively strangers what we ate for dinner, or that we’re listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Lil’ Wayne, or our inconsidered, inchoate opinions about the political or social scandal of the day, which will be forgotten by everybody except Wikipedia within a decade, if not a year.

Or we can choose to do something better—which increasingly means we have to control distractions—or, as Paul Graham puts it, “disconnect” them. Facebook and other entities that make money from providing distractions are, perhaps not surprisingly, very interested in getting you more interested in their distractions. That’s the purpose of their e-mails. But I’ve becoming increasingly convinced that Facebook offers something closer to simulacra than real life, and that the people who are going to do something really substantial are, increasingly, going to be the people who can master Facebook—just as the people who did really substantial things in the 1960 – 2005 period learned to master TV.

Other writers in the “Practical Tips” essay discuss the importance of setting work times (presumably distinct from Facebook times) or developing schedules or similar techniques to make sure you don’t let, say, six hours pass, then wonder what happened during those six hours—probable answers might include news, e-mail, social networks, TV, dabbling, rearrange your furniture, cleaning, whatever. All things that might be worthwhile, but only in their place. And Facebook’s place should be small, no matter how much the site itself encourages you to make it big. I’ll probably log on Facebook again, and I’m not saying you should never use Facebook, or that you should always avoid the Internet. But you should be cognizant of what you’re doing, and Facebook is making it increasingly easy not to be cognizant. And that’s a danger.

I was talking to my Dad, who recently got on Facebook—along with Curtis Sittenfeld joining, this is a sure sign Facebook is over—and he was creeped out by having Pandora find his Facebook account with no active effort on his part; the same thing happened when he was posting to TripAdvisor under what he thought was a pseudonym. On the phone, he said that everyone is living in Neuromancer. And he’s right. Facebook is trying to connect you in more and more places, even places you might not necessarily want to be connected. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Facebook, of course, but my Dad’s experience shows what’s happening in the background of your online life: companies are gathering data from you that will reappear in unpredictable places.

There are defenses against the creeping power of master databases. I’ve begun using Ghostery, a brilliant extension for Firefox, Safari, and Chrome that lets one see web bugs, beacons, and third-party sites that follow your movements around the Internet. Here’s an example of the stuff Salon.com, a relatively innocuous news site, loads every time a person visits:

What is all that stuff? It’s like the mystery ingredients in so much prepackaged food: you wonder what all those polysyllabic substances are but still know, on some level, they can’t be good for you. In the case of Salon.com’s third-party tracking software, Ghostery can at least tell you what’s going on. It also gives you a way to block a lot of the tracking—hence the strikethroughs on the sites I’ve blocked. The more astute among you will note that I’m something of a hypocrite when it comes to a data trail—I still buy stuff from Amazon.com, which keeps your purchase history forever—but at least one can, to some extent, fight back against the companies who are tracking everything you do.

But fighting back technologically, through means like Ghostery, is only part of the battle. After I began writing this essay, I began to notice things like this, via a Savage Love letter writer:

I was briefly dating someone until he was a huge asshole to me. I have since not had any contact with him. However, I have been Facebook stalking him and obsessing over pictures of the guys I assume he’s dating now. Why am I having such a hard time getting over him? Our relationship was so brief! He’s a major asshole!

I don’t think Facebook is making it easier for the writer to get over him or improve your life. It wouldn’t be a great stretch to think Facebook is making the process harder. So maybe the solution is to get rid of Facebook, or at least limit one’s use, or unfriend the ex, or some combination thereof. Go to a bar, find someone else, reconnect with the real world, find a hobby, start a blog, realize that you’re not the first person with these problems. Optimal revenge, if you’re the sort of person who goes in that direction, is a life well-lived. Facebook stalking is the opposite: it’s a life lived through the lives of others, without even the transformative power of language that media like the novel offer.

Obviously, obsessive behavior predated the Internet. But the Internet and Facebook make it so much easier to engage in obsessive behavior—you don’t even have to leave your house!—that the lower friction costs make the behavior easier to indulge. One solution: remove the tool by which you engage in said obsessive behavior. Dan Savage observes, “But it sounds like you might still have feelings for this guy! Just a hunch!” And if those feelings aren’t reciprocated, being exposed to the source of those feelings on a routine basis, even in digital form, isn’t going to help. What is going to help? Finding an authentic way of spending your time; learning to get in a state of flow; building or making stuff that other people find useful. Notice that Facebook is not on that list.

Some of you might legitimately ask why I keep a Facebook account, given my ambivalence, verging on antipathy. The answers are several fold: the most honest is probably that I’m a hypocrite. The next-most honest is that, if / when my novels start coming out, Facebook might be useful as an ad tool. And some people use Facebook and only Facebook to send out messages about events and parties. It’s also a useful to figure out when I’m going to a random city who might’ve moved there. Those people you lost touch with back in college suddenly become much closer when you’re both strangers somewhere.

But those are rare needs. The common needs that Facebook fulfills—to quasi-live through someone else’s life, to waste time, to feel like you’re on an anhedonic treadmill of envy—shouldn’t be needs at all. Facebook is encouraging you to make them needs. I’m encouraging you to realize that the real answers to life aren’t likely to be found on Facebook, no matter how badly Facebook wants to lure you to that login screen—they’re likely going to be found within.


By the way, I love In Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors. I’ve read it a couple times and still love it. It’s got a lot of surface area for such a short post, which is why I keep linking to it in various contexts.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What The World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire — Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is good but not great; it covers a lot of much-discussed studies from an angle that, although novel, isn’t quite novel enough. The book is like Why Women Have Sex: both are written by pairs of popularizing intellectuals who probably want to earn more money and affect the social conversation more than they could through writing purely academic work. Anyone really interested in issues around sexuality and evolution is better served by The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality, which is insanely detailed and concomitantly worth reading.

In A Billion Wicked Thoughts, the forward by Catherine Salmon notes, “There is a lot of truth to the belief that if you can imagine it, you can find it as Internet porn.” If you can imagine it and can’t find it, you probably have a good business model. Or you can make the porn yourself. But the ubiquity of online porn, combined with its breadth, makes it a trove of information about behavior that, as Ogas and Gaddam point out, most people are reluctant to share. If they do share, what they share and how they shade information can render that information nearly useless. In contrast, the Internet feels anonymous enough to let your search engine rip. So Ogas and Gaddam decided to study search queries, sort them (apparently using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), classify them, and analyze them. We also get lots of specific sample search queries, like “family nude beach” (167), “anal sex benefits” (168), and “nude construction workers” (168). These illustrate important points, I’m sure, and I’m not including them in this post purely to ensnare unwary search engine users.

Using Internet search queries reduces some forms of bias while presumably introducing others—like what we know about people who don’t use the Internet. What can see about all those searchers who aren’t looking for porn? What can we say about sample bias?
The authors are aware of this and say, for example:

The male desire for older women is also reflected in the popularity of ‘mom’ searches on PornHub (since teen content is highly visible and easily accessible on PornHub, users may be more likely to manually type in searches for content they don’t immediately seen.

But how do we know about the proportions of searchers to non-searchers? This may be an example of the old joke about the “Streetlight Effect:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.

Internet searches are where the light is right now.

Still, the project is interesting, and, in the absence of other data, it makes some sense to use what’s available. Ogas and Gaddam structure the book as a series of chapters that use Internet porn search classifications as headers, note some of those searches, and explain what those searches might mean using research that draws from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, sexology, and similar fields. It’s a readable introduction, but it’s also part of a torrent of pop sex books over the last decade, which you can find through Amazon’s “if you bought this, you’ll also like this. . .” feature. If you’ve read enough of those books, you probably don’t need this one. Read this Salon Q&A instead.

The prose in A Billion Wicked Thoughts is competent—and, unlike Sex at Dawn‘s whacky metaphors and comparisons that strive for style and instead hit silliness, it rarely strays into the ludicrous. Although the purpose of nonfiction is to convey information, the best nonfiction goes beyond that stage to become art (Umberto Eco makes this as a subsidiary point in Confessions of a Young Novelist). A few jokes might even be intentional—I particularly like “On the web, group sex porn has exploded into a variety of sub-genres” (emphasis added)—but A Billion Wicked Thoughts doesn’t quite get there, although there’s nothing wrong with it.

Having little wrong isn’t enough to be right, and they still use coinages like “The Miss Marple Detective Agency” to describe a large body of research demonstrating that women’s physical reactions to sexual stimuli often differ markedly from their psychological reactions to sexual stimuli. You can get a lot of the material in this chapter from the New York Times article “Women Who Want to Want,” starring psychologist Lori Brotto instead of psychologist Meredith Chivers instead of psychologist Lori Brotto.

The upshot shot of the chapter is that many women appear to physically respond to sexual stimuli even when their conscious minds aren’t responsive or even find it disturbing—and those same women are frequently unaware of the phenomenon. Ogas and Gaddamn analogize the situation to the mind-body problem in philosophy (which also happens to be the name of an excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein). The upshot: “women need to be psychologically aroused.” This appears to be true, but although the research points in that direction, it isn’t perfect; we have effects, but the causes remain uncertain.

There’s still evidence in that direction, and Ogas and Gaddam discuss much of it, including the female penchant for romance novels (which, although sexual, also focus much more on narrative and emotional connection than porn) and the male penchant for porn featuring anonymous sex focused in particular on body parts. They’re also aware of their own biases, as when they note “We all have our favorite theories that fit our experiences and prejudices.” That’s true, and it’s hard to shake ideology out of sex research. It’s also hard to shake one’s own training, and mine in literature makes me think some of their literary analysis is suspect, but they’re good at a naive version of Franco Moretti’s distant reading, as when they note how rare it is for heroes in romance novels to be truly, consistently poor:

In modern romances, the heroine often has a high-powered, high-paying job of her own. Romances feature women who are corporate executives, politicians, and financiers. Since such heroines no longer require a man to provide for their needs, has this cultural transformation led to more romance heroes with limited resources?

Not at all. If a heroine is rich, then the hero is even more rich.

They cite Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, which studies the genre from a politically inflected but still fascinating perspective. They cite a lot in general, and their notes / bibliography is close to 100 pages. I always admire a book with a very, very big bibliography. In this respect, A Billion Wicked Thoughts satisfies.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What The World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire — Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is good but not great; it covers a lot of much-discussed studies from an angle that, although novel, isn’t quite novel enough. The book is like Why Women Have Sex: both are written by pairs of popularizing intellectuals who probably want to earn more money and affect the social conversation more than they could through writing purely academic work. Anyone really interested in issues around sexuality and evolution is better served by The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality, which is insanely detailed and concomitantly worth reading.

In A Billion Wicked Thoughts, the forward by Catherine Salmon notes, “There is a lot of truth to the belief that if you can imagine it, you can find it as Internet porn.” If you can imagine it and can’t find it, you probably have a good business model. Or you can make the porn yourself. But the ubiquity of online porn, combined with its breadth, makes it a trove of information about behavior that, as Ogas and Gaddam point out, most people are reluctant to share. If they do share, what they share and how they shade information can render that information nearly useless. In contrast, the Internet feels anonymous enough to let your search engine rip. So Ogas and Gaddam decided to study search queries, sort them (apparently using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), classify them, and analyze them. We also get lots of specific sample search queries, like “family nude beach” (167), “anal sex benefits” (168), and “nude construction workers” (168). These illustrate important points, I’m sure, and I’m not including them in this post purely to ensnare unwary search engine users.

Using Internet search queries reduces some forms of bias while presumably introducing others—like what we know about people who don’t use the Internet. Still, the project is interesting, and Ogas and Gaddam structure the book as a series of chapters that use Internet porn search classifications as headers, note some of those searches, and explain what those searches might mean using research that draws from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, sexology, and similar fields. It’s a readable introduction, but it’s also part of a torrent of pop sex books over the last decade, which you can find through Amazon’s “if you bought this, you’ll also like this. . .” feature. If you’ve read enough of those books, you probably don’t need this one. Read this Salon Q&A instead.

The prose in A Billion Wicked Thoughts is competent—and, unlike Sex at Dawn‘s whacky metaphors and comparisons that strive for style and instead hit silliness, it rarely strays into the ludicrous. Although the purpose of nonfiction is to convey information, the best nonfiction goes beyond that stage to become art (Umberto Eco makes this as a subsidiary point in Confessions of a Young Novelist). A few jokes might even be intentional—I particularly like “On the web, group sex porn has exploded into a variety of sub-genres” (emphasis added)—but A Billion Wicked Thoughts doesn’t quite get there, although there’s nothing wrong with it.

But having little wrong isn’t enough to be right, and they still use coinages like “The Miss Marple Detective Agency” to describe a large body of research demonstrating that women’s physical reactions to sexual stimuli often differ markedly from their psychological reactions to sexual stimuli. You can get a lot of the material in this chapter from the New York Times article “Women Who Want to Want,” starring psychologist Lori Brotto instead of psychologist Meredith Chivers instead of psychologist Lori Brotto.

The upshot shot of the chapter is that many women appear to physically respond to sexual stimuli even when their conscious minds aren’t responsive or even find it disturbing—and those same women are frequently unaware of the phenomenon. Ogas and Gaddamn analogize the situation to the mind-body problem in philosophy (which also happens to be the name of an excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein). The upshot: “women need to be psychologically aroused.” This appears to be true, but although the research points in that direction, it isn’t perfect; we have effects, but the causes remain uncertain.

There’s still evidence in that direction, and Ogas and Gaddam discuss much of it, including the female penchant for romance novels (which, although sexual, also focus much more on narrative and emotional connection than porn) and the male penchant for porn featuring anonymous sex focused in particular on body parts. They’re also aware of their own biases, as when they note “We all have our favorite theories that fit our experiences and prejudices.” That’s true, and it’s hard to shake ideology out of sex research. It’s also hard to shake one’s own training, and mine in literature makes me think some of their literary analysis is suspect, but they’re good at a naive version of Franco Moretti’s distant reading, as when they note how rare it is for heroes in romance novels to be truly, consistently poor:

In modern romances, the heroine often has a high-powered, high-paying job of her own. Romances feature women who are corporate executives, politicians, and financiers. Since such heroines no longer require a man to provide for their needs, has this cultural transformation led to more romance heroes with limited resources?

Not at all. If a heroine is rich, then the hero is even more rich.

They cite Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, which studies the genre from a politically inflected but still fascinating perspective. They cite a lot in general, and their notes / bibliography is close to 100 pages. I always admire a book with a very, very big bibliography. In this respect, A Billion Wicked Thoughts satisfies.

Steve Jobs’ prescient comment

“The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.”

(Emphasis added.)

—That’s from a 1996 interview with Jobs, and he was completely right: little of interest happened to the desktop interface virtually everyone uses until around 2003 or 2004, when OS X 10.3 was released. The first major useful change in desktops that I recall during the period was Spotlight in OS X 10.4, which was, not coincidentally, around the time I got a PowerBook.

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