Mid-February Links: Twitter, parking, protest and intellectualism, A Wrinkle in Time

* I started a Twitter account that basically doubles as an RSS feed. So if you prefer to be updated about new posts via Twitter, you’ve now got an easy way to do it.

* A Jew in the Northwest: Exile, ethnicity, and the search for the perfect futon. I’m from Seattle, and my experience doesn’t match Deresiewicz’s. Malamud’s A New Life seemed like ancient history to me. I wonder if I have less focus on ethnicity than seemingly every other writer in the universe.

* “How to Fight The Man:”

For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is more or less what happened to Jefferson Bethke. [. . .]

Most professors would like their students to be more rebellious and argumentative. But rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm.

The flipside of the “Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts” temperament is a lack of knowledge that leads to ineffectiveness. Balancing rigor and independence is tough.

* The French parenting style; one lesson might be to worry way less, since you can’t control your child’s outcome to nearly the extent you want to imagine you can. See further Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

* ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and Its Sci-Fi Heroine.

* This is a sign of progress, even if it isn’t pitched as such.

On blogging altruistically or narcissistically and why Facebook is simply easier

The New York Times has an article light on data and big on conjecture claiming “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter.” A sample: “Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers.” This Hacker News comment describes the blogging situation well:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Most of the great blogs that I visit are all done altruistically. They are well maintained, post useful information, and very rarely waste my time. They also require a huge amount of effort on the part of the blogger because they really have to do work to gather and present interesting and useful information for their readers.

What a lot of the press has referred to as blogging is “narcissistic.” Instead of coming up with interesting information and vetting it for their readers they mostly just spew whatever thoughts they had that day onto the page. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort, but the signal to noise ratio is also very low.

It’s really hard to write stuff that will be interesting to people who don’t know you and have no real connection to you. I know because I’ve been writing The Story’s Story for three years and change. Over that time, it became obvious that producing at least one meaningful post a week is difficult. If writing in such a way that other people actually want to read your work weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t have nearly as many professional writers as we do.

If your goal is mostly to bask in the relative adulation of others, you can probably do it more efficiently (and narcissistically) via Facebook. Look at the large number of girls who post bikini or MySpace shots and wait for the comments to roll in (note: they are doing this rationally). If your goal is mostly to communicate something substantive, you’re going to find that it’s not five or ten times harder than posting a 140-character message on FB or Twitter—it’s 50 or 100 times harder. Twitter is easier than “A list of N things” and “A list of N things” is easier than a blog post and a blog post is easier than an essay.

People who want to be real writers (or filmmakers or whatever) in the sense that people with no current relationship of any kind will find their work useful will probably still blog or use other equivalents. But most of those who think they want to be real writers will probably find out precisely how hard it is to come up with useful and interesting stuff regularly. Then they’ll quit, and the people who remain will be the ones who have the energy and skill to keep it up and write things people want to read.

I’m not against Twitter, but a while ago I posted this: “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.” The first part of that sentence can fit on Twitter, but the second part clarifies and reinforces the first.

Furthermore, real life can get in the way of substantive posts. At the moment, I’m recovering from the reading for my M.A. oral exam, which was Friday (I passed). As a result, I haven’t written a lot of deep, detailed posts about books over the last month. I haven’t written that many in general this year because the thing that used to primarily be my hobby—writing about books—has now been professionalized in the form of graduate school. So the energy that used to go into those posts is now more often going into my papers. Writing academic articles “counts” towards my career and toward eventually getting people to pay me money. Writing blog posts doesn’t. I don’t think the two are pure complements or pure substitutes, and I doubt I will ever stop writing a blog altogether because blogs are an excellent for ideas too short or underdeveloped for an article but still worth developing.

Plus, did I mention that good posts are hard to write? I think so, but I’ll mention it again here because I don’t think most people really appreciate that. Perhaps it’s best they don’t: if they did, they’d probably be less inclined to start a blog in the first place. The people who keep it up and keep doing it well have a mysterious habit of finding ways to get paid for it, either by writing books of their own or by finding an organizational umbrella (think of Megan McArdle or Matt Yglesias).

The number of people out there who have the inner drive to keep writing in the absence of external gratification is probably relatively small. I’ve made tens of dollars from “The Story’s Story.” The number of groupies who’ve flocked to me as a result of writing this blog is not notably large. Perhaps not surprisingly, most people will gravitate towards something easier, and I don’t think I’m writing this solely to raise my own status or show people how hard core or nice I am. I think I’m mostly writing it because it’s true.

How could Twitter not change how protests happen?: Egypt and the history of the novel

There’s been a lot of talk about the role Twitter, text messaging, and other communication mediums are playing in the unfolding drama in Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell basically says the role isn’t great: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

But I am not convinced this is true: by lowering the friction of communication, thus making it real-time and instantaneous, Twitter and other technological tools are almost certainly changing what is said. Quantity has a quality all its own, and how we speak has a habit of changing what we say.

Gladwell’s post (and others) remind me of the arguments in English literature the field around the development of the novel as a genre (see, for example this post on Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History). Basically, a lot of people want to argue about the development of the novel without taking into account the printing press.

To me this is silly because mass cheap printing was a precondition to the novel as we know it. Without that, we would have fictional prose narratives of some length, but we probably wouldn’t have them alluding to one another, we wouldn’t have large portions of the population reading them, and we wouldn’t have (relatively) large portions of the population with enough disposable income to avoid them. If you look at surviving works that we would now classify as fiction that were written prior to ~1600, almost all of them are religious in nature because only the church had the resources to fund writing, maintain large collections of writing, and bother writing anything down.

After ~1600 (or ~1500, if you prefer, but that’s about it), you have a lot of things written that would previously not have been considered “worth” writing down because writing and copying manuscripts was so expensive and time consuming. Technology did change what was said. How something was said changed what was said. Technology is doing the same thing now. I don’t know how the current drama will play out; if you looked at the printing press around the time it was first created, it was mostly used to print religious stuff (hence the “Gutenberg Bible”). Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change describes some of this. By the nineteenth century, however, writers are grappling with the idea of a world without God, per J. Hillis Miller’s Form of Victorian Fiction, or a world where “God is dead,” to use Nietzsche’s famous and misunderstood proclamation: he wasn’t saying that people would stop believing in God or that would religion would stop being a force society, but rather that religious studies were a dead end and people would cease to attribute everything in their life to God or God’s will.

In 1500, the material published via printing press looked basically continuous with what came about in 1400. By 1850, things are looking pretty different, and the diversity of printed materials has fundamentally changed what people could say. The printing press allowed people with grievances, to use Gladwell’s formulation, to communicate with each other much more efficiently than they previously could, which leads to a lot of political, social, scientific, and philosophical developments that most of us living today approve of. How many of us want to return to being illiterate serfs toiling in fields for distant masters?

Gladwell is right in one sense: the media is probably overstating the importance of Twitter and SMS. But both of those still play an important role in what’s going on. Somehow, people with grievances against monarchs and dictators weren’t all that successful on average in the years prior to ~1600. After that, they got more and more successful, to the point where a fair bit of world’s population now lives without dictators. Part of the reason is because ideas about freedom and good governance could be disseminated cheaply, where before they couldn’t, and everyone spent most waking hours covered in shit, farming, and hoping they’re not going to starve to death in late winter / early spring.

Mark at the computing education blog says, “A particularly interesting anecdote for me is the below: That the Internet was turned off in Egypt, but the protests continued. So what role was Facebook and Twitter playing, really?” Depends on the timeframe. Various technological tools helped people initially organize and helped the conditions for organization come about. They will probably do so again in the future. In the long term, such tools will probably create the conditions for much larger projects that we only dimly perceive now. I would predict what those will be, but things have a habit of turning out much stranger than random prognosticators like me can predict.

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