Web Musings

Paleo Retiree writes:

One of the things that has fascinated me most during my years of hanging out online is the way the web has given many superbright, very logical people an outlet for their thoughts and observations. Until 2001 or so, nearly all of the people who were getting their thoughts about culture and politics into mainstream print were English, Arts and History types. But since 2001 we’ve seen a lot of engineers and scientists putting their ideas out there too. And god knows they’re just as bright, if not far more so, than the usual American Studies crowd. Plus: they’re organized, they can think logically, and they’ve got a lot more respect for facts than lib-arts people tend to have.

The arrival on the public-discussion scene of these people, mostly guys, has really shaken up the usual liberal-arts crowd, IMHO. It’s been hard on their collective ego, for one thing. To my mind, the beating that the egos of the traditional opinion-makers have taken helps explain the tone of hysteria that sometimes shows up in discussions of “the end of journalism” or “the end of movie reviewing.” Imagine being a pro movie reviewer, for example, and being forced to wake up to the fact that many people are just as happy to take part in informal online discussions as they are to read reviews. And now imagine waking up the additional fact that some of the people who are using blogs, comments, forums and Amazon viewer-reviews as outlets are in fact just as smart, informed, funny and perceptive as you are.

Plus I’m left wondering how much the arrival of so many engineer-scientist types on the public-discussion scene has driven the growth of the Dark Enlightenment / HBD / Game / Reactionary part of the online world. After all, they do tend to like systems, they aren’t afraid of blunt facts, and they do tend to have more politically conservative views than the usual LibArts crowd does.

Very curious what everybody else’s thoughts on the matter are.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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37 Responses to Web Musings

  1. Will S. says:

    It must be galling for some, indeed. Too bad. 🙂

    You’re probably heard of the joke about a famous novelist’s encounter with a brain surgeon. “I thought I’d take up novel-writing once I retire,” the surgeon said. To which the novelist retorted, “What a coincidence. I thought I’d take up brain surgery once I retire.”

    But, contra the sarcastic, embittered novelist, the difference is, the brain surgeon just might well possibly have what it takes to be a good novelist, without needing to take any writing classes. (And let’s face it, sure, you can take creative writing classes, but at the end of the day, you either have writing talent or you don’t.) The novelist, on the other hand, would have to get through med school… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to be guilty of making some narcissistic mainstream-media assumptions myself. Unconsciously I sorta figured that, since I worked in the media and moved among people who regularly published, I was at least aware of (and in many cases knew) most of the people in the world whose opinions were worth paying attention to. All those hurdles we’d all made it over had to have served some worthwhile winnowing purpose, however imperfect, right?

      (Incidentally, I’m exaggerating for the sake of effect. In fact I was a huge protestor against the pretentions of the media, and a big fan and semi participant in the ‘zine world.)


      • Will S. says:

        I suppose it was somewhat inevitable that journalism schools would end up pumping out a fair number of grads who were molded by their profs to think the same way, and it became a self-reinforcing phenomenon within media workplaces…

        Journalism will have to adapt, as you have, to the changing world…

        Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean where your joke about the novelist and the doctor goes. But I’d twist it just a bit. Unlike short-form writing, ambitious big-scale projects like scripts and novels do require some degree of craft (not to mention loads of determination and drive). Large-scale storytelling ain’t rocket science, god knows, but there really are some basics that need learning, and realistically speaking the likelihood of a new retiree, however bright, with no pro writing experience being able to sit down and write (let alone sell) a readable novel is pretty slim. It happens occasionally but not very often. Besides, long-form writing isn’t generally fun — there are good reasons why sane people don’t generally do it except for money/career reasons. (Some long-form writers are driven by huge egos or outright insanity, but most of us can’t draw on such drives.) It isn’t something people are generally able to do as a fun hobbyistic thing. But short-form writing? Blogpostings, opinionizing, news reports, commenting, reviewing, etc? Agree with you totally there: Almost anyone can do it. And that’s great. I love the openness and rowdiness of the online world.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Will S. says:

        True enough. I suppose non-fiction would likely be far easier for a novice writer to start out a new writing career with, especially if it’s largely autobiographical, since it’s likely nowhere near as hard to write stories of your own life, rather than having to invent characters, come up with interesting scenarios, plot twists, and so on. I know I certainly wouldn’t be able to write even a decent short story, myself – the only one I ever did back in high school days or so that I was proud of, was one done in the form of letters back and forth between the two protagonists, a form that can work, but really might well be considered cheating. I know my own limitations. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • vinny says:

        Oh maybe, but ten thousand movie review bloggers aren’t worth one Anthony Lane.

        But as in every field, the true talents are few, while mediocrities are common. There is something different between journalism and, say, mechanical engineering.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’m genuinely perplexed by the tendency of people to go and get an MFA degree, as preparation for a career as a professional writer (and it seems to work, too; anytime you hear about some guy who wrote a “memoir” at age 24, often one that then turns out to be a pack of lies, or some other lame, “postmodern” literary phenomenon, the author is invariably characterized as having an MFA). I mean, seriously, who the Hell believes you can go to school to learn how to be a writer?


      • MFA programs definitely teach people some skills, they’re just the skills it takes to write chic writing-workshop fiction, and who cares about that? I think the best way to learn writing is on the job, but I do think that storytelling and dramatic writing can be taught. If someone wanted to learn how to write a play, a screenplay or narrative on-the-page fiction, I’d definitely urge him/her to take Screenwriting 101 and 102 at the local college. Those are generally good, useful courses, akin to French Cooking 101 and 102 — they’ll get you up on your feet.


  2. Will S. says:

    And as regards movie reviews, music reviews, etc., there are a lot of intelligent people out there in all walks of life who enjoy good entertainment, and who can articulate why they liked a certain movie or didn’t like an artist’s new album. What therefore makes arts grads so special, that only they can have official opinions in the public square on such subjects?

    Same with citizen journalism. Journalists are just sour grapes that people can not only get their news from other sources, but also won’t let them exclusively interpret the meaning of events / new policies; this must be especially galling for progressives, who feel it is their holy calling to tell us how we should think.

    Too bad!

    The ‘net has democratized the public discourse on everything…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah to the max. A few examples from my own life: I’d rather scan what the people on Chowhound are saying than read pro restaurant reviews. And I’m often happier these days surfing thru amateur viewer responses to movies than I am reading pro movie reviews. And I say this as someone who really enjoys and respects the good pro reviewers …

      The one journalism thing I do genuinely worry about is war reporting, foreign-affairs reporting, that kind of stuff. That’s big-budget journalism, it’s pretty essential to knowing what’s going on in the world, and if newspapers and magazines struggle financially who’s going to finance it? But who knows, probably some new ways of financing and investigating and sharing news-type information will emerge …

      Liked by 1 person

      • Will S. says:

        Oh, I love Chowhound! I have made much use of it!

        Ditto amateur movie reviews; one feature I’ve always appreciated on such sites is the age bracket of the reviewer, which lets you know up-front about some of their biases.

        There are reviews now for everything out there; even strippers and escorts, for goodness’ sake!

        Yes, I don’t think old-school journalism, esp. foreign and war correspondence, will be replaced by anything else, any time soon; there will surely always be a place for reporters on the ground… I’m disturbed by increasing ’embedding’ of reporters in U.S. military operations, though; and I’m glad we have access to foreign media like Al-Jazeera and Russia Today, so we can get access to alternative opinions and coverage of events, too; that’s the other great benefit of the Internet.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. agnostic says:

    Warning: glass half-empty perspective.

    The rise of the science and data types began way before blogs, indeed before widespread adoption of the internet. Pinker’s book The Language Instinct kicked off a fascination with evolutionary psychology, and that was all in the form of mass market books, newspaper reviews, and radio interviews. And word-of-mouth, of course — something we don’t seem to benefit from in the age of online cocooning.

    Then there was the hard-nosed charts-and-tables social science approach that kicked off with The Bell Curve, again being a book / newspaper / radio / word-of-mouth affair.

    Both of those seminal books in the pop sci genre were published in 1994, when even the early adopters of the internet were using it to chat with other teenagers on AOL, or argue about which Star Trek episodes were the best. Both of those books challenged the fuzzy-wuzzy lib arts status quo, not just methodologically but ideologically as well. And both of those books blew up into mass phenomena — something you had to know something about and have an opinion on.

    How many blogs, forums, comment sections, and online reviews can claim the same success? Not as in a status contest to determine who is the most elite pop sci demigod, but as in simply — what effect, if any, is all this online contrarian stuff having on the broader society?

    From the looks of things, things ain’t lookin’ too good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s some shrewd history and some good points. It could be seen a long time ago that evo-bio and digital tech were going to undermine the usual blank-slate establishment outlets and mindsets. (Even I saw that coming.) But in the early ’90s, for instance, the public uproar about “The Bell Curve” was still pretty much under the control of the establishment types. They still had hold of the debate, and they still determined the polite things to say and think. Just like Newsweek and Kodak and so many other outfits, that kind of old-media control is quickly turning into dust. It’s extraordinary to me, for instance, how easy it’s become to find dissenting points of view, and how easy it is to connect with other thought criminals either online or in person. It’s all still a little underground — no one wants to be Watsoned, and many of us still use pseudonyms. But the general discussion is soooooo much more wide open now than it used to be …

      Liked by 2 people

  4. agnostic says:

    What about the positive? Online reviews, where you’re just looking for a large sample size and don’t feel like surveying your entire neighborhood or school. At best, this cuts down on life’s minor inconveniences, like going to a restaurant that you thought would be great but is not, or what you thought was taking a chance on an unheard-of movie — then finding out there’s a good reason why it’s unheard-of.

    Also, getting rid of paid opinion writers. They never knew jackshit about anything, and contributed nothing. Most online pundits who give it away for free are no more knowledgable, and just as gas-baggy, but at least the soaring supply has driven down wages and eliminated the opinion columnist as a viable career option. Although if you never read their garbage in the first place, what’s the improvement? Cutting down on minor inconveniences again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL. I’m more kindly inclined towards old-style reviewers than you are. I’ve known a lot of them and, however pompous they can get, they’re generally smart, and they generally work pretty hard to write worthwhile things. But I know what you mean. Too much of what the pro opinionators say comes out of talks with fellow pro opinionators — it’s like academic chitchat in that way. Who cares? And reactions that are noted down by real people are often much more unguarded and direct than what the pros write. So I often learn a lot about how a book or movie works or doesn’t work for real people by scanning forums and Amazon reviews, for instance. And occasionally I’ll also bump into people whose knowledge is really impressive, whose reactions seem direct and honest, and who can turn all that into fun-to-read prose. A lot of Chowhounders, for instance, really know their food and drink, and most of them don’t go in for the kind of florid overwriting that characterizes too much food crit.


      • I stopped reading professional restaurant reviews when they started spending half the review talking about the lighting. Seriously, not the food, but the fucking lighting. I’d be reading a review in the San Jose Mercury News, or the San Francisco Chronicle, and half the review would be about “the lighting,” and I’d feel compelled to look around my home, in order to ascertain I wasn’t appearing on an episode of some “Candid Camera”-type show.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Will S. says:

    Brave New World:

    French blogger fined over review’s Google search placing


    Liked by 1 person

    • Good lord. I wonder if we’ll be seeing a lot more of that. I suppose it’s wise to anticipate that we will. Any explosion of freedom will cause a corresponding attempt to wrest back control, or something like that.


      • Will S. says:

        It’s a frightening precedent; I hope it stays in France, and doesn’t spread…

        I really don’t get how the judge can justify it. Since when did not having a negative thing come up in a Google search term top results become a right of business owners? And how can a blogger be held responsible for how many people view a given post (esp. when posts can suddenly go viral for unpredictable reasons), and how high a Google ranking it achieves?

        The mind boggles…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. agnostic says:

    As for the quantitative / logical / Dark Enlightenment crowd, I think anyone who has a way with numbers, reasoning, and a coherent framework for analysing the world could be writing books (perhaps just collections of essays), giving talks, and giving interviews. I don’t see the internet expanding their audience or improving the quality of their thinking or expression, compared to the traditional ways of putting your ideas out there.

    Finding a larger audience than nobody? Sure. Improving the quality of thinking beyond “bee in your bonnet” status? Sure. But you also would’ve done that by writing for print and by talking to people. What *extra* improvement does online dissemination get you?

    The main gain goes not to the audience or broader culture, but to the writers themselves — when you’re disseminating online, you don’t have to prostitute yourself, grovel, whitewash, not-go-there, or sell out. Yay for us! That is a huge improvement in personal dignity over having to negotiate with the mass market gatekeepers.

    Still, what *extra* stuff or quality improvements does this writer’s freedom deliver to the audience, compared to having to play the game? There’s probably something extra, but not very much — digital natives might be surprised by what kinds of stuff has been printed, broadcasted, or spoken before an audience. Only before, it cost the writers more of their dignity to reach the audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “As for the quantitative / logical / Dark Enlightenment crowd, I think anyone who has a way with numbers, reasoning, and a coherent framework for analysing the world could be writing books (perhaps just collections of essays), giving talks, and giving interviews. I don’t see the internet expanding their audience or improving the quality of their thinking or expression, compared to the traditional ways of putting your ideas out there.”

      Well, fwiw, my point isn’t so much “this is good” or “that’s bad,” it’s to wonder out loud how much of the online DE/HBD/Game explosion has been powered by scientist/engineering types. A lot of the ideas that catch fire online aren’t coming from the usual lib arts brains, that’s for sure.


  7. peterike2 says:

    One thing you get from a good professional reviewer is scope of knowledge. They are the people that have seen every film or listened to every record (like Robert Christgau) or been to every major theater event in the past 20 years. That kind of experience is hard to replicate, because non-professionals simply can’t devote all their time to one field. And a good reviewer will rely on that experience. I’ve always been a fan of good professional critics and I don’t want them to go away. Think of Robert Hughes on art, or Anthony Lane on film (great fun) or John Simon on theater. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them all the time, but you can learn a lot from them.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t non-professionals around with equal scope. But the problem I have now is the surfeit of people writing reviews. Who do you listen to? It takes time to find somebody you can trust. I like James Bowman on film, for example. He hates a lot of stuff I like, but if he likes something I almost always like it too. So I can use him as a decision point in what to watch next.

    Still, I definitely pay attention to things like Amazon reviews for products, an area where the only “professionals” are Consumer Reports. Who needs them anymore? And I like MetaCritic as an aggregator of “professional” opinion, even if many of the “professionals” they cover are people probably writing for an audience of fifty.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, I value good reviewers too, though I find myself reading less and less of what they write. A lot of their concerns, their pace and their way of discussing things often seems to me to be very 1985, you know? But, even before the web came along, there was always one HUGE downside to their work. As you say, “One thing you get from a good professional reviewer is scope of knowledge. They are the people that have seen every film or listened to every record (like Robert Christgau) or been to every major theater event in the past 20 years.” True, and that can be an advantage in the right hands. But it also often means that that person is A) a fuckin’ weirdo B) has no perspective, and C) has almost zero real-world experience. You read ’em, and you’re in effect reading the thoughts and reactions of a geek with an emotional age of about 14. It’s been a real boon to arts-yak generally that bright and interested everyday adults are now able to have some substantial input, I think. The arts-yak world has been in bad need of some common sense for a lonnnnggggggg time. I’d love to see more everyday people speak up about architecture and urbanism, where the discussion is still 99% controlled by establishment/academic powers-that-be. For the life of me I can’t figure out why there hasn’t been more of a populist reaction against establishment architecture. Any ideas on this?

      Liked by 2 people

      • >>For the life of me I can’t figure out why there hasn’t been more of a populist reaction against establishment architecture. Any ideas on this?

        I have no definitive answer to this question, but here are some factors:

        1. Architecture is, in some ways, a remote art. Even though it’s constantly around us, the vast majority of people haven’t interacted with it like they have other arts. Lots of people read and write stories, listen to or make music, or watch or even make movies (iPhone and YouTube videos).

        2. Closely connected to #1 is that it isn’t taught in schools. People don’t have the context or vocabulary to discuss it, even on a rudimentary level. Even if someone does take an art history course in college (like I did), architecture is usually skimmed over if it’s covered at all.

        3. Given #1 and #2, they don’t have an entry point into the field. I’ve mentioned before that for me it was playing SimCity. When you fool around with that game for hours, it’s hard not to take stock of the urban pattern around you. (Well, at least for me.) The back of the game manual had a “Suggested Reading” section which was the first time I heard about Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” and Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” I think it mentioned William Whyte, too. I went out and bought all those books.

        4. Architecture (at least when it comes to grand buildings) is financed by the wealthy and heavily regulated by the government. People think it’s the province of The Powers That Be and they can’t meaningfully influence it, like they can “vote” by purchasing books, music, and movies. Even though it’s an art they have to interact with, negotiate and confront every day, they feel it’s part of the landscape they have little to no control over. The mountains are what they are — they might be pretty or ugly but there’s no sense in getting too hung up about it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Will S. says:

        @ Paleo Retiree, Blowhard, Esq.: Incidentally, we’ve been discussing architecture at our group blog recently, here and here; you’re more than welcome to join in on the conversation. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I find that keeping up with pro movie reviewing isn’t very worthwhile these days. I still semi-follow Edelstein (though his sensibility often doesn’t mesh with mine), White (I enjoy his feistiness and combativeness), the guys at Critics at Large, Chute, Bordwell, maybe a few others. But the whole of the discipline seems pretty cliquish and blinkered to me — like a school of people who are simply talking to (and showing off) for one another while desperately hoping they don’t get canned and replaced with someone who tweets about Oscars. Who gives a shit about all of that? (In some ways I feel for the critics. It’s a tough job, the big releases don’t give you much to write about, and I sense that most of them don’t have the freedom to let their opinions really rip, as critics often did in earlier times.) I really get more out of friends of mine — many of whom are knowledgeable and talented enough to write for any pro publication — who post on Facebook or on blogs. I’m totally serious about this. That’s where I get most of my culture recommendations. And they’re generally better than the ones I get from the paid media people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Obviously I’m biased, but I honestly believe that PR, Fabrizio, and Sax are the three best movie writers in America.* I’d rather read them than Seitz, Edelstein, Chute, et al.

        *Notice I said “America.” I know people overseas who blow those three shitheads out of the water.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. agnostic says:

    We should also temper our enthusiasm for the internet’s power to discover unheard voices. A helpful analogy is the move by top-tier colleges to recruit across the whole country, not just in traditional centers of wealth and power. That truly did add to the size of first-rate thinkers and doers.

    But, there weren’t *that* many fonts of untapped talent lying around the country. Same goes for people who were invisible before the internet.

    Would the world have kept on spinning and society functioning well, if they hadn’t recruited broadly? Sure — based on history. Not like we were living in the Dark Ages in the 1920s.

    What were the costs of sucking all the bright minds out of flyover country? Increasing inequality, more destructive status competition (larger size of the population vying for elite jobs), flyover country falling into disrepair, eventual civil war, and societal disintegration (hopefully not a permanent one). These are common themes in Peter Turchin’s historical analysis of of cycles between civil war vs. civic cohesion.

    So, yeah, there are more sharp minds putting their ideas out there on the internet, which “recruits” far more broadly than traditional media or word-of-mouth. The internet effortlessly scales up to the global level.

    But what would those minds have been doing instead in traditional media or journalism? Investigating corruption at city hall, and rallying the citizens to give them the boot? Looking into how well local companies are obeying labor laws, like not hiring illegals? Mapping out local hot-spots for crime, and trying to draw any connections about why they’re so bad? Lending some brainpower to mom-and-pop stores so they don’t go under due to basic oversights? Recording, archiving, and categorizing local history?

    It really makes you wonder what other ways of making a difference, intellectual or practical, the members of the great big internet brain could be accomplishing throughout the nation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing how quickly a person can get up to speed on a topic these days. I’m ‘way better-informed (and maybe even a little smarter) than I once was, and I assume zillions of other people are having that experience too. What’s that likely to mean in the longer run? Will we be seeing people who are amazing prodigies of knowledge and skill? It’s got to happen, right?


  9. agnostic says:

    The global scale of the internet has also unplugged everyone from their local surroundings. I’m actually not worried about the foreign / war reporting branch of journalism, since that is the safest niche the print and broadcast media could occupy — “let’s see a bunch of commenters and Tweeters put together *this* story.” Touche, guess we’ll have to keep paying to read the NYT / WSJ, or be subjected to advertising to watch the news on TV.

    But when you’re writing for an internet audience, who would care about your own neck of the woods, unless it was used only as an example of a broader pattern that folks elsewhere could relate to? Some local coverage could be taken over by internet writers — “here’s proof of how busy this intersection is, and why we need a stop light there.”

    But there’s other stuff that requires a budget or some degree of Fourth Estate influence — business and political reporting, and any kind of investigation that’s going to require homework and legwork. Perhaps the best local investigative reporting is being done by the LA Times (performance of LA school teachers, records of sex abuse by the Boy Scouts, and so on), and that costs money and takes time. No blogger could’ve put together those databases, even if they could’ve analyzed, written about, and disseminated them (after a long time).

    We’re growing out of touch with our environment and aware only of a tiny slice of pop culture that must be visible to the entire world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Neglecting (or just overlooking) the local is definitely a temptation and a danger. I feel vaguely guilty that I don’t contribute more localism-type content myself. It’s all in how you make use of the medium, I suppose. It’d definitely be great if people connected more over geographically-local topics than they seem to. On the other hand, maybe they are, and maybe I just don’t know about it.


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  11. lloydville says:

    I find the level of film reviewing online today better than the level of film reviewing in the national media in the second half of the 20th Century. We don’t currently have a James Agee or a Pauline Kael, but such critics are rare — who did we have between Agee and Kael? Place-keepers all, if you ask me. The best of them were no better than the film reviewers on this site, or the few other reviewers I read with interest on other sites. Something is lost when online reviewers are not paid professionals — a kind of discipline, perhaps, the kind of challenge you get from a boss like William Shawn — but again, how many reviewers of yore were capable of that kind of discipline, or got that kind of editorial challenge? Something is also lost when the audience for film reviews is fragmented — the whole culture of movies reacted to a Kael review — but really, how many people did you actually discuss a Kael review with? Probably no more people than follow a particular blog and its comments today. The distinction of Agee and Kael was that they wrote for the ages, that they saw themselves as part of a meaningful literary tradition — and it was largely a self-imposed standard. There’s no reason online reviewers today can’t impose the same standard on themselves. A salary doesn’t guarantee high professional standards — the lack of a salary doesn’t relieve writers of the obligation to adhere to high professional standards.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Fuck lib arts people. And I say this as a lib arts person.

    Liked by 4 people

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  14. peterike2 says:

    Late to the thread maybe, but another critic I really like is Richard Brody at the New Yorker online. His film blog is insufferable, and that’s precisely what I like about it.


    Liked by 2 people

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