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July 07 2010

17:30

From prefab paint to the power of typewriters to the Internet: Distrust of the Shallows is nothing new

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, and four. — Josh]

When factory-produced paint was first made available in tubes in the 1840s, it transformed the practices of painters. Previously, paint-making had been part of the artist’s craft (a messy task, ideally handled by assistants). Grinding pigments, measuring solvents, and decanting the resulting concoctions into containers (glass vials and pigs’ bladders were frequently used). The texture of the artist’s work was determined by the need to make paint, but the paints themselves also literally determined the palette, and even to a certain extent the subject matter, of their works. With the advent of cheap, manufactured tube paints, paint could be a sketching medium; it became easier to carry paints into the field to paint en plein air. Renoir even went so far as to say that without tube paints, the Impressionist movement would never have happened.

Looking through new tubes, so to speak, nineteenth-century artists found a new way to look at the world. Rarely will you find an art historian who will complain about the damaging effects of manufactured paints, or talk about ready-made pigments as if they determined the course of nineteenth-century art in some limiting fashion. Technological innovation made possible a creative renascence in painting.

Nicholas Carr begins the second chapter of The Shallows with a similar story, describing the transformation that took place in Nietzsche’s work when the beleaguered, convalescent philosopher purchased his first typewriter. A friend noticed a change in Nietzsche’s work after he began to use the machine — and Nietzsche agreed, noting that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Observers have long noted the uncanny capacity of the typewriter to tranform the very thinking of its users. Indeed the typewriter transformed many aspects of life in the last decades of the nineteenth century, from correspondence and private literacy to the role of women in the workplace — changes both lamentable and liberating. But the machine’s cognitive capacity was particularly disturbing to writers and critics.

Carr traces the advent of the typewriter brain to the concept of neuroplasticity: the notion that the brain is susceptible to changes in structure and function throughout its lifetime. It’s a broad concept, as Carr allows, covering addiction, neural adaptation to the loss of a limb or the mastering of a novel musical instrument, and the sort of changes in working pattern, attention, and even aesthetic sensibility that seem to accompany the advent of new tools. Carr begins in this chapter to trace some of the history of our understanding of the brain’s adaptability, arguing that neuroplasticity is a relatively new discovery in the cognitive sciences. (It isn’t; as this post at the blog Mind Hacks shows, research into various aspects of plasticity has been going on for more than a century.)

Carr’s concern about the effect of the Internet on our brains hinges on the slipperiness of neuroplasticity as an idea. Because after all, there’s good change and bad change, and little way of telling whether the Internet will induce all one or all the other — or (far likelier, if history is any guide) a fair share of both the good and the bad. Carr puts it like this: “Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism…As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

I have no doubt that the Internet has changed my brain, and in a few of the ways Carr worries about. Some of those changes feel like transformations of consciouness; others feel like worrisome addictions. Thinking of Shirky’s cognitive surplus in particular, I can conceive a peril that Carr might agree with. Shirky’s surplus can be thought of as a newly-discovered resource — and it’s in the nature of capital to try and harness such resources. It’s becoming obvious that one way to harness it is by creating systems of reward that neurochemically goose our brains in exchange for access to our spare cycles. Cory Doctorow has aptly described the social media, and in particular Facebook, as “Skinner boxes” that reward our brain’s desire to communicate in return for access to our minds and our information.

So I agree with Carr to this extent: As users of new tools, we need to take care. But for our brains’ ability to adapt and change over time, we should be grateful. Looking to the past, we see that new tools have led to new possibilities, new ways of thinking and seeing, again and again. As a writer, I’m curious to find out where the tools of our time will take me; to the extent I’m an historian, I’m very skeptical that we can discern the form those transformations will take in aggregate.

To many art lovers in the nineteenth century, Impressionism looked like the Shallows in its obsession with surfaces and in its overturning of deep-rooted canons of painterly sensibility. But today, most of us are likely grateful for the changes the new tubes wrought in the brains of Renoir and Monet. Perhaps the tubes of our time should be approached in a like spirit.

May 05 2010

16:00

Tracking memes on their native turf: Viral anthropology at ROFLcon

If ROFLcon isn’t the world’s largest gathering of Internet celebrities, it at least appears to have the highest concentration. In the audience was Matt Harding, who danced around the world in his series of videos, Where the Hell is Matt? Brad O’Farrell, creator of the viral hit video Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat was around and in costume, as was the man behind the cat’s paws from the original footage, Charlie Schmidt. They were among the many creators and enthusiasts of viral web content meeting at the MIT campus last weekend for the two day conference.

Now in its third year, ROFLcon (Rolling on the Floor Laughing conference, for the n00bs) seems less like a discussion of some obscure online culture than a look at an edge of the mainstream. After all, 4chan was the answer to a question on Jeopardy. CNN’s played the Keyboard Cat video, and ABC Nightly News had a segment on Three Wolf Moon. Many of the best known web celebrities have appeared on late night talk shows or in ad campaigns.

This year, ROFLcon looked to the past to better understand the Internet memes it celebrates. Guests included Usenet moderators, FidoNet creator Tom Jennings, and Mahir, whose “I Kiss You” website dates back to 1999. But the climate’s different from the web’s earlier days, with the growth of Facebook, Digg, Twitter, 4chan, and other social media networks. That Neiman Marcus cookie recipe couldn’t last an afternoon if it were sent around today.

A viral Tumblr, single serving site, or a humorous web video can now see massive traffic in a short time frame. Tens of millions have seen Matt Harding dance. Over a thousand have added humorous reviews to the Three Wolf Moon Amazon page, and since the meme began, it has ranked among Amazon’s bestselling clothing items. But the behavior of sharing and linking content is difficult to predict.

The hunt for the heart of buzz

The huckster with a formula for making your brand “go viral” is the Brooklyn Bridge salesman of our time, but ROFLcon presenter Jonah Peretti isn’t your average social media “strategist.” The Huffington Post co-founder was invited to talk about the “social reproduction rank” measured at his other website, Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed’s focus is on the media that gets shared, with buttons and traffic stats on posts indicating the trajectory of these memes. There are millions of people bored at work every day, sharing links with their friends, and that “bored at work network” is bigger than the BBC, NBC, or any media outlet, Peretti explained. High clickthrough rates don’t always predict lots of sharing: “Porn isn’t viral,” Peretti said. (Those who click a link to see “Lindsay Lohan sideboob” probably aren’t going to then tweet or blog about it.) Peretti also finds that what people search for online is similarly kept private. But while Peretti was clear about what doesn’t create a meme, what does remained something of a mystery. Certainly, engaging with groups of “maniacs” (Ron Paul voters, Justin Bieber fans) or providing an outlet for playful narcissism (“Elf Yourself“) can build crowds — but that still leaves a lot of high-traffic Internet weirdness still unexplained.

As for the meme makers, few had an answer for why their media had taken off the way they did. Most of them were not the sort of SXSWi-attending microcelebrities who were in the audience; as Matthew Battles tweeted, “unlike most conferences, the audience are the experts & the panelists are outsiders. And *they* are the creators.” One guest pronounced “meme” incorrectly several times, and two other panelists were unfamiliar with the term “IRL.” Given the lighthearted spirit of the conference, ROFLers seemed to regard this less as ignorance than further proof of their authenticity. They weren’t “trying too hard” (the worst insult to a meme maker.)

Tracking the numbers

Sharing wacky Internet memes seems driven by some of the same desires that lead to sharing news or more serious media. The gut-wrenching video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death and the footage of ex-marine David Motari throwing a puppy off a cliff spread on the Internet as easily as Keyboard Cat. News of a celebrity’s death — real or not — gets “shared” on Twitter, and many people first heard about the earthquake in Haiti or the bomb in Times Square via social networks.

There may be no crystal ball to predict “virality” in advance, but media organizations can control how an existing meme gets aggregated and filtered. Trending topics and to-the-minute analytics like Chartbeat are essential for tending to traffic spikes as they happen. Peretti explained The Huffington Post keeps constant watch over every post, moving items up and down the homepage as pageviews rise and fall — even rewriting headlines when they don’t appear to work.

It is unclear why one cat video finds a million viewers and another never reaches a thousand. And success may only come once: At ROFLcon, Brad O’Farrell and “Dancing Matt” even made a video together, and at around 8,000 views, it does not appear to be viral. But if your content does go viral, you’ll want to be able to laugh along with the crowd when the traffic spikes— especially if they are laughing at you. Otherwise, you’ll never live it down.

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