'The paper is rubbish,' remarked Jasper, 'and the kind of rubbish—oddly enough—which doesn't attract people.'
'Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can't get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!'
Jasper exploded with mirth.
'That's brilliant!' he cried. 'A stroke of genius!'
'Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn't attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.'
'On the same principle,' cried Jasper, 'if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.'
Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.
'An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle-Tattle—a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.'
Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.
'Now do let me go on,' implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. 'That's only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this:—I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.'
'But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!' exclaimed Dora.
'No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on 'buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.'
Jasper had begun to listen seriously.
'There's something in this, Whelpdale,' he remarked.
'Ha! I have caught you?' cried the other delightedly. 'Of course there's something in it?'
'But—' began Dora, and checked herself.
'You were going to say—' Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.
'Surely these poor, silly people oughtn't to be encouraged in their weakness.'
Whelpdale’s countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.
'That's twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world's end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.'
'I shall think no more of it,' said Whelpdale, gravely. 'You are right, Miss Dora.'
Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:
'You said this was for reading in trains and 'buses?'
Whelpdale caught at hope.
'Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.'
'So long as they only read the paper at such times,' said Dora, still hesitating. 'One knows by experience that one really can't fix one's attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.'
'Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading—don't you think?'
'It might,' assented Dora, musingly. 'And in that case you would be doing good!'
They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:
'You are convinced that there is something in this?'
'Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item—we won't call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: “What the Queen eats!” or “How Gladstone's collars are made!”—things of that kind.'
George Gissing, New Grubb Street (1891)
#hackacad [Originally posted on Never Neutral on 2009/08/27].
Panel crop from Geek and Poke
"STUDY: Social Media Is for Narcissists” reads the headline. Symptomatic of a culture of intellectual laziness obsessed with simplified notions and easy solutions, the article summarizes an already-summarized news release from the San Diego State University, which concluded that “social networking sites enhance self-centered traits of young people.”
Unavoidably, there’s the feeling that we have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. "Narcissism" is a term with a complex theoretical history that is often used very liberally, especially in word of mouth about blogging and social media. Self-centeredness and narcissism are, of course, not necessarily the same thing. The days we live in facilitate the fast distribution of ideas through headlines and catchy phrases (I found out of the study in this way) and rarely is there time for in-depth critical reflection. Without reading the full SDSU study report it’s hard to reach a clear conclusion, but certainly the declaration “Social Media Is for Narcissists” is transmitting the wrong message. The study in question is publicized a few months after the publication of the study’s director’s book, titled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. According to the Mashable.com post I quoted above one of the questions used in the survey read:
Question: How much do you agree or disagree with the statement “People in my generation use social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) for self-promotion, narcissism, and attention-seeking”
I find it hard not to see a bias in the way the question is posited, especially knowing that before the study was publicized by SDSU the study’s director had already published a book with a particular take on the question of narcissism. Here I’d like to go back to 2004, when American psychoanalyst and poet Nick Piombino posted a series of articles on "Blogging and Narcissism" which are still relevant for the debate.
Much of what is being said about “social media” was said about blogging before, as it was said of "traditional" literature and art before that. It is ironic that in a culture that embraces, encourages and demands self-sufficiency and autonomy recent representational methods (such as social media) are being accused of propagating “the narcissism epidemic”. (Susan Sontag would have had a lot to say about the pejorative medical metaphor). As Piombino brilliantly explained,
At this moment in time, blogging, as a writing movement, is blessed with an opportunity to evolve a writing tendency that can combine self-sufficiency with empathy in a way that can be advantageous to the individual writer, and at the same time to the writing community, the local community, the nation, and the world. Blogging is quite capable of allowing individual writers quite a lot of space to take a place on the continuum of community involvement and sustain quite a lot of automonomy. This is largely because of the technological advances inherent in html linking, and the fact that, at the moment, it is being made available free of charge.
We can easily substitute “blogging” in Piombino’s writing for “social media” without betraying its message. Blogging and social media are representational methods which allow the design of “profiles” which are an online extension of ourselves. Social media and blogging do not have to be more “narcissistic” than a good resume or CV. The average professional job advert seeks extraordinary qualities that strictly speaking only pathologically narcissistic individuals would truly believe they honestly possess.
The demands of offline social life and “networking” are based on a self-sufficiency most people struggle to build, and the freedom to design appealing digital profiles is unprecedented. I would dare to say this can be positive in the development of a healthy personality. There is an important contradiction between an understanding of social media as promoting self-centeredness and the phenomenology of social media because the latter is supposed to enable the opening of the self towards the Other. “Linking” and “networking” are the key words here, which short-circuit with a notion of a self which only cares about itself. Moreover, it should be noted that those who think that social media promotes or enables negative attitudes (because there is no doubt that “self-promotion, narcissism and attention-seeking” are used pejoratively) do use social media.
The tensions between a culture that encourages a highly developed sense of self-esteem, popularity amongst peers and competitiveness and a contradictorily conservative and hypocritical condemnation of those same values is enhanced by social media, which in a way is just an online public version of “old media” self-representational methods such as business cards, demos, CVs, statements of purpose, fashion styles, publication lists, etc.
Reading about this study also made me reflect up to what extent academic studies have an ethical responsibility to seek knowledge and ask more open-ended questions rather than looking to confirm previous opinions or the researcher’s academic career (it seems to me the study wanted and needed to prove that social media is “narcissistic”; this study quite conveniently complements the book almost like a media tie-in). One wonders if narcissism is not in the reflecting eye of the researcher. Not that narcissism is a bad thing…
Margaret Atwood, tweeting aboard the Queen Mary 2, August 2009
A long time ago—less than a year ago in fact, but time goes all stretchy in the Twittersphere, just as it does in those folksongs in which the hero spends a night with the Queen of Faerie and then returns to find that a hundred years have passed and all his friends are dead…. Where was I?
Oh yes. A long time ago, back in June of 2009, when we were planning the launch of The Year of the Flood and I was building a Web site for it. Why was I doing this building, rather than the publishers? Well, they had their own sites, and I wanted to do some non-publishing things on mine, such as raise awareness of rare-bird vulnerability and heighten Virtuous Coffee Consumption (Arabica, shade-grown, doesn’t kill birds) and blog the seven-country dramatic-and-musical book tour we were about to do. Anyway, the publishers were at that time hiding under rocks, as it was still the Great Financial Meltdown, not to mention the Horrid Tsunami of Electronic Book Transmission. “That sounds wonderful, Margaret,” they said, with the queasy encouragement shown by those on the shore waving goodbye to someone who’s about to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Oops! I shouldn’t have said that. Which is typical of “social media”: you’re always saying things you shouldn’t have said.