Categotry Archives: The Wild Wild Web

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The Case Against Free Trade

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

I spend a lot of time arguing on Facebook. It comes and goes as a use of time. It’s often frustrating, but in the best moments, it feels like there’s a real opportunity to change someone’s mind. Facebook has become this distilled part of the Internet where enough smart, thoughtful people spend enough time that it’s like tapping into a collective town square. The greatest democratic theorists always talked about the proverbial town square, the marketplace of ideas, a place where concepts are freely exchanged and rebutted and synthesized into the best decisions for our future.

Granted, my Facebook feed may be more like this than the average feed. In a world where people talk about their feeds being overly siloed and sectioned off from disagreeing opinions, the majority of my Facebook friends have been associated with APDA, the American Parliamentary Debate Association. This league of collegiate debaters has its flaws, but it does bring together a group of intellectuals who care about persuasion and the future of the planet’s people. And that’s pretty cool.

It also has plenty of people who disagree with me. Then again, the main reason my feed is probably not siloed into people who agree with me is because there are very few such people, if any. There’s a reason my site is called the Blue Pyramid, after all.

Anyway, a recent argument, primarily with some former Boston University debaters, but also with some former Cornell debaters, enabled me to distill a response to one of the most prominent arguments against free trade. And I feel like I want it to be in a more prominent and permanent place than a Facebook sub-comment thread. Both because I live to try to persuade but also because it proves that all the time spent arguing on Facebook doesn’t have to end fruitless with a feeling of unsettled angst. It’s not just wasted time. Even if a lot of it is.

As background, the initial discussion topic was Democrats and leftists, including Bernie Sanders, celebrating Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I am one of those leftists celebrating this, as a lifelong opponent of free trade. We then got into a lot of the reasons I’m against free trade. Part of my case could be the entire book The Shock Doctrine. But I see free trade as problematic for even more reasons than Naomi Klein does. I see it as the proliferation of unfettered capitalism, the system that creates waste and worships waste as a value above all others. It places corporations in a superior position to nation-states – while I’m not a fan of either institution, I’d choose nation-states every time. They at least try to have popularly utile motives, whereas corporations care only about the bottom line.

But I’ve always believed the most damning thing about free trade, especially in its recent incarnations as something that mainstream establishment politicians want to see sweep the globe into one giant market where enormous Western multi-national corporations (MNCs) run wild and free, is that it’s telling a false story about competition. The narrative is that a level playing-field will enable those with the most talent and merit to rise and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. The reality is that the playing-field purported as level is anything but. Free trade is giving some groups a 200-year head-start on a race and then celebrating how fair it is because everyone was allowed to run. Worse, those with all the monetary and power advantages of having been competing in a capitalist marketplace for vastly longer are the ones who write the rules of how the race will be run. The idea that this is passed off on the developing world as a fair fight is laughable.

I got two key counter-arguments in defense of free trade, though, which I want to reprint my responses to because I think they’re the most clear and cogent articulations of my beliefs on this complicated issue that I’ve put forward. And then I’d like to invite y’all to join the debate on this critical issue of our time if you have further counter-arguments.

The first counter-argument questioned, essentially, why I would advocate for protectionist trade when that essentially divides the world and what I ultimately want is a united world under the banner of a more socialist structure. Isn’t free trade a possible stepping stone to a united socialist world? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here?

My response:

Think of it like harm reduction vs. the AA model of addiction cessation.

Ultimately, I want the AA model for capitalism – no capitalism, nowhere. That’s my ideal. I recognize how unlikely it is, but that’s not going to stop me from railing against capitalism my whole life until other people see its flaws too.

But, in the meantime, we can also seek harm reduction. This is why I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits and why I’m not a pure accelerationist. I see protectionist trade as harm reduction. With free trade, the top-dog best-funded MNCs end up owning everything and superseding governments. They are able to make the rules and will turn the globe into an unfettered capitalist wasteland. Protectionist trade, while riddled with innate flaws of capitalism, curbs that outcome that the MNCs so desperately want. It enables some countries to protect themselves and their interests rather than being overrun by greedy colonialists.

Protectionism in America doesn’t really *directly* protect anything I care about, which is why people often assume I believe things I don’t when I align with Bernie and Trump on this issue. I don’t care about the American worker. I care about the Nigerian worker. And if the most powerful country in the world that holds most of the rapacious MNCs takes a big step away from free trade, it extends that trend around the globe, making it more likely the people I care about are saved from free trade’s devastation.

It’s kind of weird, I guess, that I vehemently agree with both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump about the importance of opposing free trade, but not for the reasons they do. But it’s also why the typical rebuttal to economic populism doesn’t resonate with me. People are basically saying “those jobs ain’t coming back, fools!” And it’s true. Automation has killed American manufacturing, permanently. But I don’t care about that. Automation and free trade are both killing everyone’s jobs, pretty quickly, and part of our thread was about the need to develop safeguards in a post-work society. Which, by the way, will not be aided by allowing corporations to sue governments for implementing protections that limit profits. If we need to give universal basic income or benefits or even just the right not to be enslaved by a corporation to former workers who have been edited out of the economy, we will need to tax corporate profits to do that. Both of those things could be clear violations of the TPP as written. This is bad.

But then I got the seminal argument, the one I see most proliferated in defense of free trade, the golden myth propagated by everyone to carry the torch of free trade forward for a new generation. And my response to it was actually liked by the folks asking the questions and arguing against it. If I didn’t change their minds, I at least offered something to give them pause. So this is the main focus of this post and what I want people to think about.

The question:
“What do you make of the statistics that show that this sort of trade and development has reduced extreme poverty ($1 or $2 a day) to single digit percentages in 30 years from 60-70 percent, if I’m right…for all its manifest problems? And before industrial capitalism virtually everyone that lived in extreme poverty.”

My response:

I feel like what’s being calculated is highly misleading. On a capitalist spectrum, the numbers have slightly increased. But people have traded functional subsistence economies for being enslaved by a capitalist machine that destroys their countrysides and makes them all the property of foreign sweatshop-owners and foreign resource exploiters.

This is a complicated question, but there are a few key points in evaluating this widely propagated (mis)perception of free trade:

1. Comparison to pre-colonialism. The only suitable comparison of current standards of living is to pre-colonial days. Because I see free trade and directly colonial ownership as two phases of the same trend. And if you started with chattel slavery and then went to Jim Crow, you don’t get congratulated because Jim Crow is better than slavery. You get blamed for enslaving people in the first place. Developing world poverty was not an innate state of being as it’s represented as being – it was manufactured by colonialism. A shitty quick fix that puts everyone in the GDP matrix does not count as “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on an unending disaster.

2. What is counted. My argument would be that if you’re living in a functional pre-colonial barter economy, or even a somewhat feudal economy, all of your labor and standard of living is invisible to conventional contemporary capitalist metrics. You may be making $0/day because you’re not paid in money or you’re paid in a money worthless compared to the American economy. But this does not mean that your life is awful or that you are even functionally poor relative to your actual sphere. Globalization puts everyone in the same race without recognizing that there are different definitions and perceptions of the good life in other countries and different scales of magnitude.

3. Winners and losers. These averages and things are often calculated with the few robber barons of each developing country factored in. Not only can this skew the math, but it recreates the wealth inequality situation over and over again in societies all over the globe. This is deeply problematic because capitalism tends to recreate its own kind of aggressive feudalism where the few rich people functionally own everyone else in society and can abuse them and get them to do whatever they want. That’s actually somewhat new in the US and it’s giving us Trump, endless government corruption and cronyism, and will eventually replace democracy with kleptocracy. That’s bad for everyone’s quality of life.

4. Materialism. The problem with poverty and quality of life as measured by GDP stats is that it puts the innate value on materialism. The ability to own toasters and cars and other things, regardless of how wasteful and problematic these things are. Are these really necessary for the good life? Refrigeration increases the convenience of your eating experience so you can run back to your 16 hour/day job. But that 16 hour/day job in the West is prompting the world’s largest stream of anti-depressants and people trying to mortgage their schedule to have one day at home where they actually cook a meal and taste their food. How to compare this to a pre-colonial society where people lived on the land, took 3 hours for each meal in a three-generation family under one roof, and took time to appreciate each other as people? It’s a hard question. Capitalism dismisses the latter situation as poverty because it doesn’t cut the mustard in dollars and cents. I think it’s probably objectively a preferable way to live. I don’t see someone being forced out of that to go work in the sweatshop so they can eat processed food that gives them cancer in the middle of a tenement as being “lifted out of poverty”. But that’s how it gets calculated.

5. Access to health care, the internet, etc. This is the one area where I think there may be some ground to argue that modern life and culture does improve quality of life across the board. The problem, though, is that the more unequally things are distributed, the less you can make arguments from this vantage. If socialism were the overriding philosophy, or even protectionist trade, then equal access to improved modern medicine, the internet, and quality education would be priorities. Unfortunately, free trade has created kleptocractic neo-feudalism in most developing countries, meaning that these fundamental improvements are proportionately accessible only to the rich. This is part of why I’m advocating for protectionist trade. If you run the state-run oil company and have some capitalism, you can still use those oil profits to give everyone hospitals, schools, roads, and internet-accessible phones. If it’s everyone for themselves in the MNC-run rat-race, those are only going to be accessible to the people at the top. I think this is the best conduit to improving lives and the best argument for the capitalists. But free trade actively hurts this benefit.

What do you think? Is free trade an unfettered step in our ever-upward trajectory of progress that only Luddites and idiots would oppose? Or is free trade a bill of goods being sold to us by ever-hungrier MNCs controlled by a Singularity-like focus on cancerous growth? Or something in the middle?

I welcome your responses and thoughts. Send me something, post on your blog and send me the link, argue with me on Facebook. This is an important discussion to be considering as we face the future.

If you’re connected to me or the debaters I was debating against on Facebook, you can also see:
The original post with all comments
The specific comment thread where we discussed these aspects of free trade at length

Using this image ought to stoke some reactions!

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Haunted City

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s Twelfth Night. Happy Twelfth Night, everybody! Here is my favorite song about Twelfth Night:

It occurs to me that posting links to things isn’t really good enough for the long-term posterity of the web. Sometimes I review old posts of mine and pretty much all the links are dead. It’s just about a universal. For all that people clamor in fear of a web that Never Forgets, it seems I spend a lot more time lamenting a web that has lost a bunch of information. Major websites are keepers of major information, but then they get caught up in IPOs and mergers and inevitable failures. The people who ran the show get away with billions and the grunt folks lose their jobs and all the creative energy and thoughtful exchange poured into that particular series of tubes is lost in a reshuffle. Remember how much original music was on MySpace? MySpace is just a butt of jokes now, but it’s also the Facebook of yesterday. Say what you will about creative destruction as a principle, but it’s got destruction right there in the description. It’s hard to know whether it’s reassuring or depressing that all the preeminent corporations of today will be gone in a century. Their infinite consumption and recomposition feels like a fitting metaphor for an ecosystem under heavy pressure to fold.

Anyway, for the future record, the song linked above is “Pieces of the Night” by the Gin Blossoms, written by the late Doug Hopkins, one of my erstwhile poetry/rock-n-roll heroes/cautionary tales. I am now older than Doug was when he killed himself, which is a little daunting. That said, I didn’t even like Doug’s music till after he killed himself, so what can you do? But the guy knew something about memory. And regret. Oh lord, the regret.

Twelfth Night is a big deal in New Orleans. It’s not just a Shakespeare play, but the opening of the Mardi Gras season, also known as King Cake season around here. People will sell you a King Cake before today, but you’re really not supposed to eat it until now. King Cake is basically New Orleans in a pastry, it’s decadent and overly sweet and purple, green, and gold. It’s got frosting and sprinkles and tastes a little like kissing a unicorn. You would imagine.

Here, have a look:

I’ve made that image permanently linked from the Blue Pyramid, so if somehow most of the web crumbles, but someone is left keeping up the maintenance fees on the Blue Pyramid after many long years, then future people will be able to see New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake in all its sugary glory. There’s a lesson here about the fragility and temporality of an entirely electronic-and-connection based medium, but the only feasible alternative is to literally print out reams and reams of webpages on actual paper, which itself has longevity issues in most conditions. But, like mandalas and snow and luminarias and perhaps most things that are good in the world, maybe posts aren’t meant to be permanent. Maybe they’re meant to be made, consumed, and discarded all in a day. #snapchat

What can’t be consumed in a day is memory. I kind of meant to post this in Albuquerque, or post about this phenomenon, because Albuquerque really gets my senses going. But I realized, over time and missed opportunity, that Albuquerque is not the only haunted city. Any city can be haunted if you fill it with enough people and enough time for rumination. And now that I’m trying to exercise every day (he said as he looked out the window to a 40-degree thunderstorm, recoiling), there’s a lot more time for observational rumination. Which is perhaps good for writing but bad for my daily frame of mind. Putting those on a diametric axis is probably roughly accurate, regardless of situation, come to think of it.

Anyway, Albuquerque always feels charged and haunted when I first get in. Everyone I’ve ever loved has logged serious time there, and most of the people I’ve liked. There are few corners or streets or establishments that I can pass that are not encoded with memories or references or something that links in to a long and roller coastery past. This is a trope of homecoming, made all the more relevant for not living at home all the time, preventing an old haunted place from becoming mundane again since it does not inhabit one’s daily spectrum. Any landscape, from Manhattan to the Grand Canyon, becomes routine upon daily backdropping. I have had daily commutes past the cable-car turnaround in San Francisco, to the historic Old Queens building at Rutgers, now through the French Quarter at night, and I chant to myself to not let it become typical. It’s the fish, a la DFW, praying to the universe: “This is water. This is water.” It is a hard and thorny discipline, reinfusing the omnipresent magic in your daily normal. But in almost anywhere on Earth that is not war-torn or deeply impoverished, much less America in the twilight of its apex, it is a thing we can and should do. It is also a trope to feel blessed by the ability to exist, to think, to absorb, to move. But it is a trope we too often dismiss for failure to see the real power within.

There are times when the hauntedness of a place, especially Albuquerque, can become overwhelming. Times I wish I could look at a street corner or a building and just have it be a corner or a place. I’m sure German has a word for the deeply felt desire for a cigar to just be a cigar. But you know it’s not just a cigar and you can’t unsee it, any more than you can unsee the other half of a tessellation once you’ve unlocked its mystery. Then again, there are benefits to the inability to unsee. A connection to a sense of place and time and purpose and being on a journey. A real sense of identity and temporality and presence that can be hard for the overly ruminative mind sometimes. It’s not all bad.

In this state, and sometimes in others, I find that I am often almost seeing people. In crowds, in restaurants, on corners. Driving up to them to get in my Uber or driving past them to deliver the latest passenger. Walking around a corner shelf in a bookstore, past the endcap in a grocery store. I am in a near-constant state of being startled by visages of people from the past. This has been such a frequent reality for me that it made it into my first book, Loosely Based, under the theory that there are only a few templates in the world and people just keep recurring. It’s not true, of course, it’s much more that our pattern-seeking brains are trying to eke recognition out of an ocean of strangers. A world of seven billion souls is impossible to comprehend, much less process. We keep looking for flashes of recognition in a sea of empty anonymity.

What pulls me out of it, usually, is the sudden realization that the people I think I’m recognizing are not those people anymore. I will think I see a high school classmate and I will be startled, then curious, but what gets me to realize they are not a high school classmate will be the fact that the person in front of me is currently in high school. And, of course, my high school classmates are, like me, all in their mid-thirties now. None of them look like they’re in high school. My memory of that classmate is fossilized to them at 17, but I will never see them at 17 again. This can often be an actual wrestling match in my brain – the main thing that gets me to rule out the idea that the stranger is the person I first thought they were is the understanding that they can’t be that age anymore, not that they have some distinguishing feature from the person I mistook them for. Just yesterday, I stared at the spitting image of a college classmate for some time before being sure they were 22 and said classmate was, well, 38.

The grand irony of all this, of course, is that this pattern-seeking would probably keep me from actually recognizing many of these former classmates and acquaintances if I saw them on the streets of Albuquerque or New Orleans or Manhattan. They’ve aged, they’ve gained weight, they’ve cut their hair, their hair has lost color, they’ve acquired a string of kids or worries or responsibilities or all of the above. So I am traversing a city, continually starting at apparitions, while the real ghosts could lurk in plain sight, undetected.

We are not well built for change, we humans. We adjust slowly, painfully, and usually under duress. We fall back into habits, patterns, addictions, comfort. It takes so much self-encouragement, self-criticism, inner reflection and yes, resolution to get us to make even the tiniest of alterations. And yet change so often feels refreshing and rejuvenating, exciting with the promise that the old gnawing discomforts and annoyances we’ve mistaken for familiar don’t have to be omnipresent. It’s a familiar bear to wrestle around the early part of January. And here on Twelfth Night, especially, a night when revelers will take to freezing rain-soaked streets to honor Joan D’Arc, patron saint of New Orleans, of the misunderstood, of Pyrrhic losses and those who die before their time. When we defy the winter and its discontent with toothachey sweets and bright mismatched colors, with loud noises and glasses held aloft. Tonight, for the first time in nearly a decade, it may actually snow in New Orleans. Just some flurries, just some flakes, a brief taste of what’s burying the rest of the nation.

I’ll be out there to see it, driving in search of wayward souls looking to find their way home. Seeing them as my past once was, haunted by memory, chanting to myself to not miss the present. This is water. This is the French Quarter in New Orleans in 2017. This is Earth and we are all alive.

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One Nation Under Hate

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

HateSpeech

I guess I shouldn’t have targeted Donald Trump so specifically. I guess that’s what really brought the vitriol out of the woodwork.

When I launched the green Facebook profile pictures to support Muslims in America project two days ago, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Certainly I knew that my Blue Pyramid Facebook page could be the target of incredible vitriol from right-wingers. But somehow I didn’t think that the hate lobbed my way for questioning gun rights in the wake of mass-shootings could be, well, trumped. And maybe if I’d only stood up for Muslims in the abstract and not connected the timing of the need for this to Donald Trump’s consistent claim that all Muslims should be barred from the US, then there would have been fewer death threats, less invective, less utterly disturbing images on my post.

I know, I’m not really being that serious. The comparison of saying “Maybe if I’d only stood up for Jews without criticizing Hitler” would sound a wee bit histrionic in other contexts. In the context of a rising political leader invoking hate against a religious minority to label them as the ultimate threat and bar them from a nation, well…… yeah. I’m hardly the first or even millionth person to draw that parallel.

Still, by attacking the extremely popular person at the top of the totem pole, it invoked many responses which (a) assumed that I support Democrats, (b) assumed that I support Hillary, and (c) assumed that I carried the usual liberal party line. The media does not deal with issues in complex, nuanced, or variable ways, so I can sort of understand why the assumptions are all binary. Either you love Trump or you love Hillary. Either you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Either you care about the entire right-wing slate as presented by modern Republicans or the entire left-win slate as presented by modern Democrats. And yes, not many people are out there espousing pacifism so I wouldn’t expect anyone to assume that as my baseline. What I would expect is some religious tolerance. At least a little. Or some vague understanding that ISIS and 9/11 are not representative of Islam or even a tiny fraction of it.

Nope.

I got death threats. Muslims got way more death threats. People openly, with their names attached, with photos of them holding their smiling kids, called for genocide. It was unbelievable.

I’ve been torn between taking it all down to just reduce the amount of hate in the world, hate that I feel loosely responsible for since I, after all, posted something that elicited it. Torn between that and leaving it up as a little monument to a verbal atrocity. I know, I know, the rule about Internet comments can apply to Facebook pages too. And I’m sure it pales in comparison to the invective thrown at Muslims daily, though I’m pretty unconvinced that most of these folks have ever so much as spoken to a Muslim, let alone a minority of any kind. But the net impact so far of my effort seems to have been rallying a bunch of spiteful violent people against their misunderstanding of Islam. I feel like people who graffiti hate-speech on college campuses, who then see the next day as half the campus rallies in defense of the targeted group. But, y’know, in reverse.

The story of cycles of hate and violence is nothing new. Arguably, this is the only story of human history worth remembering and the only lesson we really need to learn at this stage of our time on the planet. “This stage”, in this instance, being roughly the last 6,000 years. But I don’t think I’d really realized until this week how brazen and substantial the hate is in the United States. And how campaign rhetoric like Trump’s is, as many have observed, emboldening and normalizing hate.

KillEmAll

I guess the ultimate issue is that it’s not really about Trump. That was the post I almost wrote night before last, when I instead decided to turn my frustration into a more positive show of support rather than just criticizing everything again. Obviously, if Trump can enjoy this level of support and garner more enthusiasm for policies like barring all Muslims from entering the nation, then the seeds of this sentiment are much older and deeper than the last few months. I certainly saw glimpses of this at Brandeis in September 2001 – and if I saw it at a purportedly liberal college campus, then one can only imagine what was happening in conservative small towns – but I just greatly underestimated how ready the country was to declare war on a whole religion, a whole people, and not stop till they were wiped out entirely.

I’m not saying everyone feels that way, or even most Republicans, and possibly not even most Trump voters. But the ongoing obsession with terrorism and fear, the incredibly sheltered and privileged position of America as it sits in comfort while lobbing missiles at everyone who disagrees, destroying lives and families and buildings and whole countries in a single bound. It’s coming home to roost. It’s manufactured a dangerous, spiteful, intolerant country that is all the more problematic for its claims at representing the opposite. Many early critics of Trump’s comments this week called his thoughts un-American. I think they were kind of quintessentially American in the America we have now. An America so afraid of its own shadow that it’s ready to blow away the person casting the shadow just to have someone to blame for its paranoia.

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Go Green on Facebook to Support Muslims in America

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Wild Wild Web, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , ,

FBImageGreen_525

I have a long rant about Donald Trump’s latest comments to make somewhere around here at some point, but I’m tabling that for now. Partially because so many people have a long rant about Donald Trump’s latest comments. It’s relieving that he’s finally gone far enough that some people think it’s too far. Hopefully that will get us to start thinking about how far those of us who are not Donald Trump have gone in condemning large groups of people and reflect on our own behavior. But rather than lament and reflect today, I’m doing something. At least, starting an online project.

That project is a Facebook movement, starting with changing Facebook profile pictures green. Not all-green, like the old Libyan flag, but to have the green overlay tint, a la celebrating marriage equality or mourning the Paris attacks. Green is the color historically most associated with Islam and Muslims are the folks who need support right now, especially here in America. We are facing a time where hate-speech, threats, and persecution of Muslims is reaching an unprecedented pitch in the United States. I think we should take stock of those who disagree.

Please log in to Facebook and join my new group there. Use the hashtag #GreenProfilePic to get the word out. And until Facebook creates the option and prompts everyone to do it, tinge your own profile picture with green. I recommend using web color #009900 at transparency 70%.

Spread the word.

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What I Learned on My Day with Pro-Gun Facebookers

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

ProGun

Yesterday, my recent post on mass-shootings and the second amendment garnered a wide response on Facebook. Most of it was from people who are rabidly pro-gun.

What’s kind of fascinating about the experience is that I had forgotten there were a wide number of people in the country itself who are so adamantly pro-gun. I knew there were corporations in favor of gun proliferation, and politicians bought off by the NRA. But the thing we often forget about the NRA is that it has a wide membership. Since my wife left me five years ago, I had lost touch with my last real bastion of gun ownership in my day-to-day life, that being her family who had an arsenal in the basement and regularly went to the shooting range as a Sunday outing. It was easy to get lost in my own Facebook echo-chamber in the wake of mass shootings and believe that it really is only politicians and corporations who are fueling these disasters.

I really shouldn’t have been as surprised by the reaction as I turned out to be. Like all people trying to promote content on the Internet, I chose an attention-grabbing headline and a controversial picture and blurb. I wanted the experience of seeing the post to be dramatic since I see this as a dramatic issue. And I know, deep down, that Donald Trump is highly likely to win the Republican nomination, arguing against folks who for months have said he’s a flash-in-the-pan and even now maintain that the flash is six or seven months, but certainly not the eighteen he needs to be President.

Who do I think is voting for Donald Trump if not rabid gun-nuts?

That said, there were some really interesting interactions. I had several back-and-forth threads with some of the more articulate gunners which ended in a conclusion of begrudging mutual respect that we’d each argued our positions well and kept things civil. A couple of people for banning the second amendment valiantly did battle with the gunners, but it mostly ended in name-calling. There was, incidentally, an unbelievable lack of accurate spelling almost across the board.

I tell everyone I discuss the subject with that I deeply love Facebook. While I regret its impact of filtering the previously wide-open Internet into one primarily used portal of information, this is vastly outweighed by the contact it engenders between people. I love that I can post an open-ended crowd-source poll on income inequality and generate a thoughtful discussion between twenty different people, many of whom never met each other. I love that thirty people will respond to my random question about which month most symbolizes winter to them. I love the randomness and the sense of loose affiliation we all have.

And I’ve never really found the critiques of Facebook to be all that compelling. Especially when the main one is about artificial presentations of happiness. Though I recognize that I, perhaps somewhat uniquely, really don’t mind expressing frustration, depression, or despair on Facebook. But if others are more inhibited there, then doesn’t Facebook just reflect how they’d be in other public settings? Which I guess brings me to the issue that I’ve learned from this run-in with gunners: garbage in, garbage out. Maybe the only reason I like Facebook is because I like my friends and they are easy to deal with. There are even some pro-gun folks among my Facebook friends, many of them from the five years I spent in rural Oregon in my childhood or from the West Point debate team. But because we have the bond of friendship, we are able to be respectful in a way that many of the gunners were not yesterday.

So perhaps the critique of Facebook, like so much of the Internet, as a siloing echo-chamber, is valid. Most every algorithm that the primary holders of the Internet, be they Facebook, Google, or Apple, have developed in the last half-decade has been designed to customize our Internet experience to be more reflective of what we already believe. What we want, what we think, what we feel is just shot back at us in search results, the friends whose posts get bumped higher in our feed, and the ads we see. And much of it is, ultimately, about advertising. People want to customize and tailor advertising to get precisely in our head, to be as close to intercepting our inner monologue as possible in order to understand exactly how to sell us goods and services. This little capitalist worm that infects everything has inspired the tailoring, but it is probably not the only thing that drives it. Certainly we are comfort-seeking beings, no matter how much harm being comfortable ultimately does us. And it’s comfortable to wrap ourselves in a cocoon where only the like-minded surround us.

The problem is, of course, that there aren’t ground-rules for debating on the Internet, so it’s not possible to learn quite as much from Facebook comments like “With such a outrageous statement for a title no sane person will even read your article …. If the title is bullshit your article most likely is to!” or “Blue Pyramid sounds like the name of a Butt Plug…” or even just the classic “STFU” as I might from, say, a 45-minute ordered discussion on the topic. But maybe I’ve been spoiled by decades of formal debate experience. Maybe it’s good to just get down in the mud and wrassle with folks who spew invective in lieu of argumentation.

I guess I’ll close with the most popular article I saw yesterday from my actual Facebook friends, who were not the folks commenting at length on my Blue Pyramid post. The title was Your opinion on gun control doesn’t matter. And I think that kind of sums up where we stand at the ideological divide here in the United States in 2015. People just don’t think the other person’s opinion matters. They will rarely engage with it or interact in any real way. They will rarely regard it as something to be considered. They will simply hold their opinion and observe that the other person’s doesn’t matter.

And look, I’m not holding myself outside of this in some way. I have strong, firmly held beliefs that rarely change. My goal when I talk to others is usually to persuade. As a lifelong student of persuasion, I see that as core to my purpose here.

But at a certain point, I wonder how we’re going to rebuild bridges of discourse when everyone is getting swallowed up into their own cocoons and bubbles and silos. For all the world’s burgeoning connections, we seem to be building just as many walls.

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15 Years and a Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Keepin' it Cryptic, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, The Long Tunnel, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , , ,

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left).  Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right).  Forgive the tiny image size - I don't have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet.  I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left). Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right). Forgive the tiny image size – I don’t have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet. I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

It is perhaps fitting that I went with Introspection-style dash-bullet-points to summarize my experience in yesterday’s post. After all, yesterday was the 15th anniversary of my opening salvo into blogging, the first post of Introspection. Like so many things done the first time, it wasn’t very good.

It did, however, have a pretty prophetic reference in it, that a dream had entailed details of the film “Magnolia”. Not because I would necessarily post so much about dreams in the coming decade and a half (though there’d be some of that), but because that line from that movie has become such a watchword for this blog. It’s even one of the categories for this post since I am, after all, talking about the year 2000. (Cue Conan O’Brien.) Of course, I butchered the line to make it more grammatically correct and perhaps less zingy. I am told, though I haven’t watched the film in a long time, that it’s “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Somehow when I first posted in this category in October 2007 (it was my first StoreyTelling post!), I remembered it as “We may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” Same sentiment, really.

Given my penchant for references, anniversaries, looking at life through a novelistic lens, and seeing time as geography, it is perhaps almost unbelievable, then, that I would launch a brand-new blog on 13 March 2015, exactly 15 years to the day after my personal world turned a bit forever with the opening of public displays of introspection. And that I didn’t even quite realize that was happening for the first few days it was scheduled.

I recently started working at Communities In Schools of Greater New Orleans. It is not my intent to blog a lot about this position or what happens therein – I’m the Director of Development, which is a reasonably sensitive job, and there’s just not a lot of call to talk about my work life in this context given the nature of that work. However, I am super-excited about bringing you details of what that organization is doing to improve other people’s lives, which is the function of our new blog. Launched yesterday. 13 March. The anniversary. I’m sure.

It says something for the separation of work life and personal life that it didn’t immediately occur to me when my boss suggested we launch this Friday that it would be such a significant personal date. Because it’s one of those days, like July 24th (once good, now good and ruined) or July 13th (ibid.) or April 8th (still not sure the roots of this one, but it’s always significant) or June 6th (bad things, man, although also Felix now) that carries weight despite not being a birthday or something. I guess we could throw October 17th in there, but screw that.

Come on, I can’t reference the old blog this much and not have moments of being cryptic, can I?

Anyway, I want you to go read the blog, and like us on social media for regular updates and all that wonderful stuff. It has been a really wonderful project to work on and I’m so excited about telling the story of the organization and especially the kids we serve. Dropout prevention was never a specific passion of mine (though I long aspired to be a high school teacher), but I’ve com to realize that, in this country, it is the primary preventative measure we have to combat all the other direct ills that I care about. Dropping out of high school is the biggest predictor of whether someone ends up homeless, in jail, in poverty, overcome by addictions, you name it. Graduating from high school isn’t a guarantee to avoid those things, but the statistical significance of the benefit is overwhelming. I still care deeply about food justice and poverty alleviation and I believe that this organization is actually doing incredible work on those issues via the best preventative measure we have.

Plus, there will be pictures of kids. Who doesn’t love pictures of kids?

These meta posts observing how long I’ve been blogging publicly and writing posts, usually (in this format) in fits and starts with long droughts and long sustained periods, usually bring up some reflection on the purpose of the approach. I’m not really in a place where I’m questioning the existence of this medium or my use of it (I rarely am, since college, I guess). But it’s good to take stock of the ability to communicate here, to convey a series of thoughts and feelings to try to inspire change. While all writing I have ever done has the goal of changing how people see things toward the ultimate goal of improving our lot in life (as a species, morally), it becomes more clear and overt by starting a blog for an organization with the purpose of communicating the mission and garnering support for it. I don’t see it as that fundamentally different from what I’m trying to do here, honestly, though this also includes a lot of emotional hand-wringing and the intent of simply chronicling a life with all its ups, downs, mistakes, and triumphs.

I’m even more reflective than normal after engaging in earnest as a regular contributor to Clarion Content, Aaron Mandel’s online curation of Durham, North Carolina and leftist politics. He’s long been a gracious supporter of my work and syndicated Duck and Cover for a long stretch when I still was keeping that project up (it may come back someday, don’t give up hope). He’s invited me to be a regular contributor and there’s been a commensurate spike in dedication to blogging here ever since, especially since he’s mostly running cross-posts of the more politically minded content that runs here on StoreyTelling. The index of my new regular feature will be here and I’ll make sure to share my unique posts that end up there on the BP’s social media.

It’s tempting to close these kinds of pieces with a look into the murky fog of the future, something even more inviting in the late winter of New Orleans, when mist is ubiquitous and the spirits seem to gather wispily corporeal presence. But I’m on a crusade against future-mindedness, at least in a long-term personal context. We can set goals for ourselves, like graduating high school or returning to the Grand Canyon to go rim-to-rim-to-rim. But obsessing about where we’ll be in one, two, five, ten years is usually fruitless fretting. It leads to ignoring the moment in front of you, the day you could be enjoying more thoroughly if you weren’t wishing it away. Each day can be long and full and fulfilling, or at least intriguing, if one foreshortens future thinking. I’ve really tried to apply this logic to 2015, not trying to build a grand vision for the year (other, perhaps, than returning to work and the new exciting opportunity at CIS) but to take each day, each moment, as the quiet little opportunity it can be.

I may not be able to forgive people, I may not be able to let go of the past. But daily mindfulness is a healthy target I can try to achieve, for now. And that’s all right for me today. Because today is the only day I need to be all right, right now.

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Children of the Future

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are.  If not, they will be soon.

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are. If not, they will be soon.

They will grow up. And they will log in.

The ages will vary and often be the result of a fair amount of debate. For the more liberal parents, it may be five or six, or eight at the latest. More cautious and conservative ones will aim for sixteen, knowing that it will really fall at thirteen or maybe twelve. There’s only so far you can push these things without causing catastrophic backlash. Holding a hard-line for sixteen will work for a handful, but will force the issue at eight or nine for far more. They will head to the social media outlets and they will enter their e-mail address and devise a password and they will see the world.

What they will look for, first, will not be external. Sure, there will be a couple of friends here and there. But the closest friends will mirror those they have in real life, Mom and Dad, Mom and Mom, Dad and Dad, Mom alone, Dad alone, Grandma, what have you. And they will be looking, primarily, not for others, but for themselves. And lo, what they will find.

It is one thing to have a shoebox of baby pictures in the closet, trotted out in embarrassing fashion when close out-of-state family friends come to visit or even the new boy- or girlfriend shows up at the door for the dance. Or even a home video or seven that depict moments that can’t help but be halcyon for the shy squeaky voice they convey across the years, the distorted mirror of one’s past self coming through the lens and onto the screen. But none of this can compare to the daily grinding chronicle of life, replete with commentary and varying levels of approval, that will greet these children of the future when they log in.

There is the birth and there is the next day and there is the stark nakedness of the tub or the first night across the the threshold, the brazen publicity of it all, no matter who this was shared with at the time. This is not Aunt Marge coming over and saying how she saw you when or held you how. This is Aunt Marge and 27 other friends actively seeing you – you – in the bathtub, in damn-near-realtime, liking the experience and asking for more! This is you having lived a life that you know you remember less than others but being painfully aware of just how many strangers were intimately involved in parts of your upbringing that you will never recall beyond this cribbed rebuilt chronicle of scrolling pictures.

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. For it is not just pictures. It is the daily progress of exactly what your family was thinking at the time, during the hardest days of your earliest time on the planet. Maybe your mother doubted the decision to have you when colic claimed the ninth straight night of sleep from her addled brain. Maybe your father jestingly offered to trade you for magic beans or two months of Netflix, garnering twelve comments of sympathy and two counter-offers from his online acquaintances. Maybe grandpa posted a video comparing your movements to the family iguana’s, speculating that the latter was displaying a greater intelligence.

Sure, some of this is harmless, explicable. Or it will be moreso to you at twenty, or thirty, or when you have your own kids, the way that reaching a certain age makes you understand the people who were that age more. Temporal existence is such a fickle trick. But now, at five or six or eight or nine or even fourteen or sixteen, you will be bewildered. Did they not love me, that they could so callously discuss my existence this way? Was I that bad? Is this warm blanket of unconditional love I’ve come to expect an interpersonal ruse belied by the daily steam-blowing of a semi-public forum?

There will, in most instances, be an insatiable quality to the experience. After being locked out of this world by familial agreement or merely lack of awareness, suddenly the Complete History of You, adorned by countless opinions on same, will be available for endless perusal. Some will be waylaid, becoming obsessive, reliving a childhood remembered and not to the point of becoming an export in their previously forgotten selves. Some may be overwhelmed and give up, but continually be drawn back to this tempting world of an identity that predates self-awareness with an expansive thoroughness their present selves could not possibly hope to match. Others may become dissociative, unable to reconcile the barrage of imagery and commentary of their past being with a person who grew, unaware of this endless documentation and display.

There will be exceptions, of course. Those who anticipate this kind of shocking revelation for their offspring and try to head it off at the pass, attempting to ban the social media proliferation of images and commentary about their child, or limit it to a small, private group. And while these aspirations may be admirable and easily enforced before school matriculation, they will become wholly unwieldy and challenging once the child begins interacting outside the home. What of group photos at birthday parties, or the inevitable phone-snaps at a playdate? How exhausting it might become to trail after every digital camera and cellphone, diligently asking its user not to post it online lest images of their child become publicly available. There will be inevitable leaks, it being impossible to even see every phone at work in a public or semi-public sphere. There will be pictures, recordings that leak out. And when that child discovers that nothing of them exists when their peers are discovering same, they will hunt all the more diligently for those few leaked clues to their earliest aspects of existence.

As the child ages, the notion of an inextricable and continual identity, an ongoing narrative that predates and surrounds them, will only grow. Sure, there can be some sleight of hand with privacy settings and a few other options, but most of the content will be owned or controlled by such a disparate range of people so as to become wild, untameable. Some will try and fail to corral their online identity, from birth, when they move to a new school or matriculate to university. The past will no longer be a shadow in mere memory, but in painfully full-color and clickable expression. You can untag yourself, you can block your mother, but this does not prevent others from seeing you more clearly, vividly, and rememberedly than you want to even see yourself. Surely we see evidence of this sort of navigation already, social media having been embedded sufficiently in culture such that naked or other compromising photos have been disseminated and ruined people, or the unending imagery of a failed relationship haunts their future impossibly. But for the children of the future, this goes all the way back to the beginning.

And indeed, not just the beginning. It will be possible also for the child to watch the development of the relationship that led to their creation, the speculation on the process leading to their birth, every pain and inconvenience of the pregnancy. Not in all cases, surely, for this will be more tied to the social media presence of their parents alone and even how much scrubbing of that history said parents wish to do vis a vis their child. Though it will no doubt occur to many how exhausting it would be to selectively set privacy settings for the prior ten to twenty years for only their child, and even then moreso how odd it will be that the high school classmate they barely spoke to at the time got to see the evolution of this phase of their life, but their own child is banned from same.

A great challenge of social media for my generation has been how much we wanted our parents to see. Soon, it will also be how much we want our children to see.

But it will probably be out of our control anyway. Each generation has grown into their native technology sufficiently to outstrip the knowledge, understanding, and speed of use of their priors by leaps and bounds. Privacy settings will be hacked, blocks will be cast aside, dummy accounts will be made to look like Uncle Bobby finally got on Facebook after all, and the histories, for the curious, will be unearthed. Never before have we lived so publicly and in such a real, minute-to-minute way. And it may be of some comfort to consider that those who come after us may display a real, pressing interest in what it was like to be alive now at this minute, now at this one, now at this one. But are we really considering what it will be like to have been born into a world where that reality has already transpired and is there for the rewatching?

Like all decisions of the twenty-first century, technology and advancement must reign. Any consideration of the philosophical or social impact is just for the luddites on the sidelines. They can contemplate and soothsay all they want, but this era belongs to headlong, heedless “progress”, come what may, damn the torpedoes. The lesson of asbestos is that there are no lessons of asbestos. We just better hope some future technology saves us from our current technology.

This is me on the sidelines, squinting, holding my breath, and fiddling with a mirror. I’m not trying to stop the whole race, but occasionally there might be just enough of a glint of light to catch someone’s eye.

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Symmetrical Surveillance: Serial, the Panopticon, and Why Murder Rates Really Have Crashed

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

The Panopticon!  Now in handy pocket size.

The Panopticon! Now in handy pocket size.

Two things seem to be really trendy these days, if you don’t count bashing Muslims (I’ll talk about that one and why it’s so wrong in a different post). Serial the podcast (which I discussed at length in November) and speculation on why murder rates have crashed all over urban America. Malcolm Gladwell discussed the latter in his latest pop-stats book, David and Goliath, which I read last year, it’s the front page story in one of the surviving New Orleans papers today, and I’m sure NYPD thinks they’re single-handedly going to reverse the trend by refusing to shoot any unarmed people for a whole week.

These things all seem pretty related to me, in a fairly intuitive way. And no, it’s not that people are not murdering people because they fear being analyzed in a 12-week podcast and having all their friends interviewed. If anything, that’s probably going to create a slight uptick in the interest in domestic murder.

People thought a lot of things while listening to Serial. Indeed, the fact that it prompted speculation of all kinds and thus inspired countless unending discussions and debates in homes all across America was a key ingredient of its immense popularity. I almost laughed aloud when Koenig dismissed her wildest thoughts and speculations in the waning minutes of the final episode by saying “So who are we to put this theory forward? This is the very obvious problem with speculation, especially of the emotional variety. You can’t prove it, so you have to drop it.” It’s like Facebook dismissing the opportunity for someone’s link to go viral on their site as not very important to their site. Are you kidding, Koenig? Speculation is everything that Serial was about and that made it great.

But one of the things I think people thought most about Serial is what it would have been like in their high school. For most of the people I know, that’s a time roughly contemporary to the murder depicted in Serial, and I think that made Serial really interesting to a lot of my friends and to me. I can’t imagine loaning my car to anyone, certainly not someone who wasn’t a close friend, so the idea that Jay and Adnan barely knew each other seems ridiculous. For some Serial listeners, an era of cell phones at school is incomprehensible, because cell phones came later. And for some Serial listeners, many who I know, they can’t imagine using a cell phone so little as Jay/Adnan used Adnan’s cell that fateful day in January 1999. There were only, what, 29 calls? Today, there may be no calls at all, or a couple, but there would be about 110 texts, plus Google searches, Angry Birds games, and other unending streams of data pinging away at those cell towers like a GPS tracker of the phone’s movements.

Which gets us to the reality of the panopticon that seems to exist in modern society. I don’t have a smartphone, but I acquiesced to get a cellphone in late 2010. And while I don’t interrupt live conversations to use it and I don’t play games on it or surf the web on it, I sure do text a lot and have it on me most all of the time. And I am considered one of the most luddite, anti-cell people anyone knows. My fellow hold-outs, Russ and Gris, now carry cells, and Russ’ at least is a smartphone too. Sure, my parents and a lot of other people in their generation still lack the cell trackers, but I think we can safely say we’re a couple decades from everyone in society having a perpetual GPS tracker in their pocket. And functionally, we’re just about there already.

Despite what some aspects of Serial may seem to imply, it’s hard to get away with murder. But it’s really hard to get away with if you have a device in your pocket constantly telling the world where you are. And it’s really hard to get away with when everyone has such a device in their pocket, a device they’re expected to use regularly to tell a wider swath of the world where they are specifically, to discuss their feelings, to respond to texts, and to dial 911 at the first sign of danger.

This is the biggest single reason why murder rates are falling everywhere in the country, regardless of whether they have a “three strikes” law or not, regardless of whether their police force is slaughtering innocents who brandish sticks and toy guns or not, regardless of whether there’s broken-windows enforcement in the district or virtually no enforcement. It’s because the technology let loose in the society is creating a community that is sufficiently integrated to police itself, or at least do so against the most dramatic of crimes. It’s made the task of abducting or killing someone vastly harder. And that’s a really good thing.

What it hasn’t prevented, however, is the kind of murder that has experienced a huge uptick during this time of generally crashing murder rates. Which are mass-murder sprees that end in the suicide of the person perpetrating them. Now there are a whole bunch of other reasons for that uptick that I’ve discussed previously in the wake of some of these mass-shootings, but I think it’s telling that basically no one, except I guess the Aurora shooter, even tries to get away with them. Mass-shootings almost universally end in suicide because the idea of getting away with it is totally ludicrous. (And also, notably, that a lot of these are committed by people who have given up on life for one or another reason already.) And it’s not just because a mass-shooting leaves a particularly large trail of evidence, though it does. It’s because any murder leaves behind enough instant evidence that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone getting away with it, so why bother?

This is part of what has fueled so much outrage at the police officers who the state has failed to hold accountable for their murders of unarmed individuals. Because the same kind of evidence, of recording, of instant awareness of these murders has existed for police-committed crimes as well. But instead of being used by law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is ignored in favor of solidarity among those in authority. I discussed this at length a month ago, so no need to review. But the particular outrage is so high because it contrasts so fully with what happens to other murder cases. The mountain of technological evidence is used to throw the book at regular citizens, but to protect and obfuscate when the perpetrators are the police.

Which brings us to the only real danger of the death of privacy: asymmetry. This is hackneyed territory for me at this point, but it bears repeating when people cite the panopticon as an agent of oppression rather than protection. The problem with publicity of information, whereabouts, etc. is when they are wielded asymmetrically. When wielded symmetrically, when there is a similar expectation of publicity among all citizens, whatever their status or rank, and all corporations, governments, and other operating entities in our society, then publicity and a lack of privacy is freeing. When it is wielded asymmetrically, it can easily be a tool of oppression, domination, and disaster.

We’re somewhere in the middle right now with a lot of this. Facebook, Twitter, phone records, and the constant-communication society are functionally pretty symmetrical. Sure, the companies running the systems have a bit more knowledge/power, but not grossly more so, perhaps not even meaningfully more so. And while there are certainly drawbacks and problems with the constant-communication world, it has knitted together a fabric of society that seems so interconnected that it is very hard to be very bad therein, at least if you care about what happens to you afterwards. I truly think this is a wonderful development that is saving tons of lives.

However, there are areas of asymmetry still lurking, bolstered by draconian punishments of whistleblowers levied by both governments and corporations. The police remain utterly immune, as do high-ranking government officials (except when Chelsea Manning or Wikileaks or Edward Snowden can occasionally sneak something out, and then those people have to not care what happens to them as well). And this is problematic and needs correcting. But the correction should not be to push us all back into the shadows where murderers can hide and no one knows where we went. The solution, rather, is to push everyone out into the sunlight where we can evaluate the quality of everyone’s actions. Those in power ought most closely be scrutinized. If we push for this rather than hand-wringing about a “privacy” that we couldn’t currently retrieve if we wanted to (without an irreversible knockout EMP, at least), then everyone might stop murdering people, even the police.

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Follow Me Down to the Rose Parade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

A New Year’s Day dialogue:

Storey: “Do you ever watch the Rose Parade?”
Alex: “What’s the Rose Parade?”
Storey: “Only the biggest or second-biggest parade in the country annually.”
Alex: “Where is it?”
Storey: “Pasadena, California.”
Alex: “Maybe it’s just a West Coast thing.”
Storey: …
Alex: “Seriously. Pasadena?”
Storey: “Are the Oscars just a West Coast thing too?”

This prompted me to extremely unscientifically poll my Facebook friends with the following four options, asking them to describe their closest understanding of the Rose Parade:
1. I am aware of it and have watched it or watch it.
2. I am aware of it but never watch it.
3. I am unaware of it.
4. I am only aware of the Elliott Smith song and have no idea what he’s singing about.

In honor of the two people who actually chose option 4, as well as the others who cited that as a great song, here you go:

Here were the (again, very unscientific) results:
Option 1: 49% (23 respondents)
Option 2: 19% (9 respondents)
Option 3: 28% (13 respondents)
Option 4: 4% (2 respondents)

For a simpler split of
68% have heard of the Rose Parade, 32% have not.

I was expecting to garner some sort of regional and/or age splits on this number that would make it make sense, but this attempted analysis has proven woefully impossible.

For example, there are people who attended high school with me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who have answered 1 and others who have answered 3. This defies regionality, unless New Mexico is on some sort of West Coast/East Coast faultline of viewership.

Yet many people who responded 1 are lifetime East Coasters, including several who have never lived outside New York and New Jersey. Most of those who responded to 3 were also in this category, however, with several having earlier roots outside the country. Although an Albanian-born New Jerseyan voted 1. Many people who live in Southern California unsurprisingly voted 1, with many adding that they’ve attended the parade as well. No one from California seemed to vote 3, which at least gives me one regionally boundary.

And the two people voting 4 were a lifetime East Coaster and someone from my high school. Proving… nothing. Other than that both of them are at least somewhat hipsters.

Of course, it comes to mind that the greater factor may involve sports viewership, and/or some combination between that and parade viewership, whatever that demographic is specifically comprised of. (Clearly, it excludes Elliott Smith himself, at least if he’s thinking about his decisions, or was.) I’ve never much thought of the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl as being terribly intricately linked, which is obviously not an opinion shared by East Coasters, including Alex’s mother, who responded to the same question with a discussion of the Bowl. I have no doubt that more people have heard of the Bowl, but I wouldn’t have thought till this month that more people watch the Bowl than the Parade. Which I guess is mostly the fault of parade broadcasters who very much sound like they have a broadcast reach of the Oscars or possibly the SuperBowl when they’re doing the announcing, at least to me.

The moral of the story is, mostly, that it’s great fun to use social media to poll your friends, even if Facebook doesn’t support traditional poll formatting outside of groups. And maybe there’s something about the diversity of Millennial experience as we veer off the course from universal TV stations and radio songs to our own carefully cultivated, mostly online experiences.

In any event, 2015 is looking up so far. I’m sure Elliott Smith could find a way to be concerned about it, and maybe I should be, but my interest was always greater than his. I think you can expect a lot more content this year on this page, as indicated by the flurry of the last few months. And some of it may even be slightly more serious than this post.

The A in this parade is hardly type-A.

The A in this parade is hardly type-A.

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Facebook Tires of Dominance, Success, Decides to Start Self-Destruction

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: ,

You know what's cooler than a billion dollars?  Throwing it all away!

You know what’s cooler than a billion dollars? Throwing it all away!

Remember MySpace? Or Friendster? No one talks much about Friendster anymore, because it was basically exactly Facebook. I remember the first time someone told me about Facebook, which I had just missed by graduating a little too early and not going to Harvard, my quizzical reaction was “Oh, you mean, like Friendster?” Everyone was on MySpace and Friendster. They were going to take over the world. And then they didn’t.

Look, Facebook has gotten way further along than those sites did. It’s more in the same company as Google these days. And even though people look at me kind of strangely when I say Google “no longer works”, I do think the main searching function of that site is on its way out the door, the algorithm hopelessly cluttered by paid rank improvements of all kind, both with the money going to Google and the cash going to rank-beating services. But regardless. Google has infiltrated our lives sufficiently with its GMail product (though rumor has it they’re trying to ruin that somehow, too) that they will be around for a while.

But Facebook has apparently recently announced that they’re done. Not interested in being the top web company, or co-top, any longer. According to this Wall Street Journal article, they’re going to require people with Facebook pages about something other than themselves (i.e. businesses, artists, teams, websites, etc.) to more or less pay to play.

Here’s how they put it:

“Businesses that post free marketing pitches or reuse content from existing ads will suffer ‘a significant decrease in distribution,’ Facebook warned in a post earlier this month announcing the coming change.

The upshot for Ms. Bossie is that ‘if I do not pay to promote the post or boost it, it’s hardly reaching anyone,’ she says. Now, more than half her sales come via her Facebook posts, she estimates.”

-WSJ article, 27 November 2014

Now I don’t know how far this reaches or how deep the rabbit hole goes. My dramatic post title and condemnation of the move is based on the assumption that Facebook is basically doing this to all pages of all sorts, be they for individual budding artists or writers, companies large and small, candidates for office, activism groups, sports teams, debate teams, you name it. It could be that they’re only overtly targeting for-profit businesses of some establishment with this change, in which case, I’m not so worried about it. But in any case, I see doom on the horizon.

I think the best analogy is not MySpace or Friendster, but Netflix. Remember when everyone in America had a Netflix subscription? It wasn’t that long ago. Yes, I know Netflix has bounced back a little and a lot of people share the password to someone’s account who actually pays for Netflix now, so it kind of feels like most people have Netflix. But remember when they had just one Netflix service and everyone got discs in the mail? Yeah, you recall now. Cool.

And then they made this dramatic announcement, in September 2011, that they would be splitting their DVD-by-mail service from their streaming service. And, more insultingly, that the service everyone liked less (streaming, which had far fewer movies and vastly fewer good movies) would be considered the “default” Netflix, while they were calling the by-mail model that had built the Netflix empire “Qwikster”. They cancelled the official split in businesses a month later after they lost millions of subscriptions and there was huge public outcry, but this was just window-dressing as they basically persisted with the split of services, separate charges for each, and pretending that streaming was the default and mainline service. By the end of that year, their stock value had lost over 75% of its value and Netflix went from being a household necessity to something that was desperately pestering people to come back and try it again free for a month. Admittedly, Netflix has rebounded a little by reinventing itself as a TV station, adding tons of popular shows (Gilmore Girls, anyone?) to its streaming lineup and even creating new shows. But their popularity and reach is nothing compared to where they’d be if they’d just kept mailing DVDs to people in perpetuity while doing the same build of their streaming library.

This is the precipice that I feel Facebook is on with this new change at the top of 2015, assuming it applies to everyone with followed pages. Because here’s the problem: people don’t like paid-advertising content. They don’t like sponsored links. People like what they like. For goodness sakes, Facebook reinvented what it means to like something; they should know this better than anyone! What makes Facebook so palatable for people is that you can like exactly what you like, friend exactly who you like, and basically make Facebook a little portal into only and exactly the things that you feel good about.

Facebook has always had ads, of course. Everyone has ads, except PostSecret, who commendably has built an empire out of books and having one of the simplest and most brilliant ideas ever to grace the web. Good on PostSecret. But everyone else is trying to subsist on ads. And part of the deal with ads is that basically no one younger than 35 can even really see them unless they voluntarily choose to. People raised with the Internet at some point in their high school or college days or younger have trained their eyes where to look for content and where to look for advertising and to mentally block out the imagery and text of advertising. Maybe I’m somewhat unique in this, but I really don’t think so, because in the last year or so, everyone started putting ads in new places, right in the middle of the content. Self-declared authorities of the web like Salon and Huffington Post have started having ads either disrupt your viewing experience entirely by plastering across the screen like a cumbersome pop-up or putting them in the text box every third paragraph so you seemingly have to see it. And Facebook has put sponsored content right there in the news feed like it’s something you want to see.

Here’s the problem: no one wants to see this stuff. When I started getting sponsored ads in my Facebook feed, my reaction was resentful. “I didn’t like ViralNova,” I would grumble to myself. “Why is ViralNova stuff in my feed?” Facebook conveniently does offer the option of blocking future content from any given perpetrator of this advertising, I guess to prevent a riot or maintain the illusion of controlling one’s own content, but it’s still kind of an embittering process when you’re expecting Facebook to give you only stuff that you have voluntarily chosen (or begrudgingly accepted, I guess, from that borderline friend). But at least Facebook still gives me updates from the Blazers and the Mariners, goofy stuff from Chipotle, sales from Southwest Airlines. Because I actually want to see that stuff in my feed.

Now it looks like unless those companies pony up some money, I won’t see their content at all! Which is the most distressing and I think self-destructing part of this for Facebook. I want to know about those big companies, yes, but also to get updates about the budding craft and pottery businesses from old friends in California, my ex-colleague in the Bay Area who is an aspiring artist, my friend in North Carolina’s photography business, and my rising star artist friend in New York City. These all have Facebook pages I have liked and I love being able to use Facebook to follow their progress and cheer them on. Seeing updates from Glide always brightens my day. I suspect I have a few friends who even follow this very website this way, which I diligently update every time there’s a new post and someday will again whenever I finally finish the Song Quiz and get going on other quizzes.

The point is that these fledgling little pages are a huge part of what works about Facebook, its magic, if you will. Like getting little DVDs in the mail and reigniting the joy of mail for people was about Netflix, the little feeling of receiving a present a couple times a week, plus the thrill of anticipation of knowing it’s coming. Netflix totally failed to understand how much of its brand and magic and hold on people was about that simple little process and felt it could kill it in the name of revenue. But that was the revenue! And some group in a boardroom decided that Netflix didn’t need the magic anymore, a whole country felt betrayed, and people dropped it like it was hot.

The people with these pages want to get their news, content, and updates to those people who like them. And the people who have liked them want that content. They voluntarily signed up for it. It is crazy to try to extort a few extra bucks from these people trying to disseminate content to people who want it. And it is even crazier, because most of what is being paid for is getting that content to other people who don’t want it! When you “boost” a post as a page, you can target the audience somewhat, but the point is that most of the people it’s delivered to are not people who’ve ever expressed interest in your company/art/content. Now yes, the empire-building capitalist theory of everyone is that you’re supposed to believe that everyone will someday like me, but they just haven’t heard of me yet. Just like we will all someday be billionaires in this country, we’re just going through our poor-but-humble phase now. But the reality is that this is not how liking things works. You grow resentful of people who barrage you with cheap paid content, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. Things go viral when friends share them and you hear of something from the people you trust. And Facebook is the best and easiest place to “go viral”. What does Facebook think of this other aspect of its magic that gets tens of millions logging in every day?

“Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president of small business, says that Facebook’s paid-advertising options have become more effective recently and that companies should view Facebook as a tool to ‘help them grow their businesses, not a niche social solution to getting more reach or to make a post go viral.'”

What are you thinking, Dan Levy? Trying to organically improve reach and get things to go viral is what Facebook is all about. Take that away and it’s just another superhighway riddled with billboards for stuff you don’t care about. There’s a reason that no serious site uses pop-up ads anymore: people despise being bombarded with content they didn’t choose from people who paid to put it there. People love content that they did choose or was recommended to them. When you undermine Facebook’s ability to provide the latter in favor of the former, yes, you make a little more revenue upfront. But you also strangle the golden goose that made you so popular and ubiquitous in the first place.

It’s almost like there’s a brick-and-mortar model for this. Catalogs and magazines. People love catalogs and magazines that they signed up for, that they chose. They hate catalogs and magazines they didn’t want or didn’t choose, seeing it as annoying junk. I got a free Rolling Stone subscription with some tickets to a concert I bought last year and not only did it long outlast the six-month “trial” that started it, but it followed me to New Orleans against my will. They keep sending me threatening e-mails and letters saying the subscription I never chose and never paid a cent for is going to run out and needs renewal. I can’t wait! Whenever I see that they’ve sent me another Rolling Stone, I get angry at the waste. And it’s not like it’s such a bad magazine – I’m just not into magazines. But I am upset instead of neutral because I didn’t choose it. This experience has actually made me like Rolling Stone less.

I guess I’d be a little less confident that this change was going to signal Facebook’s decline if I hadn’t seen something similar happen to so many other websites. Websites are new technology, still, and everyone running them is a tech geek. I think this is why they all believe in perpetual innovation and change and all seem to believe so fundamentally that it is never enough to leave well enough alone. Unless you’re growing, evolving, and have fifty ideas in beta, then you’re looking over your shoulder at someone else who is going to knock you out of the marketplace.

I think this is backwards. I think that most of these sites knock themselves out of the marketplace by overheating and trying too many new things. If your website is dominating the market and audience attention with a certain model, maybe keep on doing what you’re doing. People like that content, feel good about how you’re delivering it. Why stop? Any other business or venture would find it insane to say that things are working really well and you’re on top of the food chain, so radically revamp how things are done. And yet Google keeps tweaking the algorithm and is looking to overhaul the most popular e-mail platform in the world. Facebook wants to stop people from seeing it as a way to go viral or spread unpaid content. Maybe Fandango will soon stop selling movie tickets are start selling bus tickets instead. Or Priceline can start charging each user $2 to see their listings. After all, more upfront revenue, right?! What could possibly go wrong?

by

Why We Love Serial… and May Eventually Hate It

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

You love them now… but will you always?

You love them now… but will you always?

Spoiler alert, kind of: I will make reference to anecdotes about this show through its current airing, which is Episode 9, but probably not say anything that actually ruins your listening experience of the show, yet. More spoiling might be admonitions about how the show can’t end in a satisfying way and thus you are setting yourself up for disappointment, which is inevitable but probably worth it.

If you consider yourself a reasonably informed denizen of the Internet, you’ve probably heard about Serial, the podcast spun off from wildly popular two-decade-running PBS radio show This American Life (TAL). The co-producers, Sarah Koenig and and Julie Snyder are pictured above, sandwiching Ira Glass, who needs no introduction. Serial bills itself as kind of the inverse of TAL – instead of each show covering one theme and itself fragmented into different lenses for that theme, Serial is one story stretched out over a whole season, however long that ends up proving to be. It’s unclear whether they pitched it as a radio show initially and no one would take it, whether they are leveraging podcast listenership to join TAL on the radio in future, or whether they believe radio is dying and are trying to just start with the future medium of audio audiences.

Whatever their motives behind the show design, there can be no mistaking the success of the model as it is currently being unrolled. Odds are that if you’ve heard of Serial, you’ve listened to it and that if you’ve listened to even one show, you’re totally hooked. Not only do I find myself in this category as of writing, but I have read an uncanny number of Facebook posts and even blog posts about people not just listening to Serial, but building an increasing portion of their mental energy around it, including looking forward to, of all days, Thursdays, when new episodes are released. It’s weird for something without a visual component to have this kind of hold on the web’s collective consciousness, perhaps weirder still that it is almost entirely about something that happened more than a decade ago.

If you prefer non-anecdotal evidence, just plug the word Serial into GoogleNews. Most recently noted, the show is breaking podcast download records and just made an appeal for donations to fuel a second season. Heck, even their one early-season sponsor ad became a viral phenomenon.

So what makes this show so great? And perhaps more pertinently, so popular, so captivating at this moment in Internet history?

Let’s start with the obvious. The show centers on a murder mystery. This nation loves a good murder mystery. The English-speaking world, since Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle opened the genre with still our best examples, really loves a good murder mystery. We have board games, movies, books, and little parties-in-a-box that regularly renew our love of the theme of the murder mystery. Murder mysteries are so ubiquitous in our culture that TAL once did a whole show in 2007 asking the question how people whose lives have been impacted by actual murders can go through their lives afterwards given the prevalence of such themes. “I can’t watch Law and Order,” notes interviewee Rachel Howard at the opening of the show, “or play Clue or, y’know, go to a murder mystery dinner theater.”

We love us some murder. But even more than that, we love us some unsolved murder. Or more pertinently, the wrongly convicted. I’m hardly in a place to critique the phenomenon, given that it is my favorite movie of all-time, but the cultural significance of The Shawshank Redemption cannot be overstated. As of now, it is currently considered the best movie of all-time on IMDB. Proving either (or perhaps both) that I have excellent taste or am extremely mainstream/unhip. (Let me know when I should note that I liked Shawshank “before it was cool”, decrying its Oscar loss, live, to Forrest Gump, which currently ranks 15th on that IMDB list. Which, along with Pulp Fiction [#5] mostly proves that 1994 was a really great year for film.) And as well all know, Shawshank centers around the incredible struggle, endurance, and ultimate redemption (spoiler alert? it’s right in the title…) of someone wrongly convicted for murder.

The first problem here might be that we don’t know Adnan Syed, co-protagonist (along with host Koenig) of Serial’s first season, has been wrongly convicted for murder. We know he’s been convicted and we know that Koenig really wants to believe he is innocent. In more recent episodes, we can hear Koenig sort of struggling against some of the best evidence for Syed’s guilt, expressing surprise that the investigation is deemed adequate to good by an independent detective, or agonizing about the question of who else could possibly have committed the crime. Through 9 episodes, and even from the outset, we get the sense that Koenig really does have a horse in this race, despite clearly wanting to be objective. And after all, her avenue to the case was the purportedly innocent convict, while those who testified most stringently against him and even the victim’s family have refused to go on the air for even one word.

But then there’s a backdoor possibility that might be even more intriguing, one that Koenig deftly sets up into a dichotomy with our favorite storyline of the long-suffering innocent convict. Which is that Syed is a psychopath or a sociopath, some sort of mastermind of manipulation and evil genius who convinced the world that he was incapable of such an act directly before and after committing said act, the one which we consider most heinous in our society. This is the case that we hear the state present, and more pertinently in the latest episode, that the judge herself admonishes Syed for being guilty of. “You used that to manipulate people,” she says after listing Syed’s many gifts and talents, including a guileless seeming charm, “and even today, I think you continue to manipulate even those that love you.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this possibility especially tantalizing. Not only because this setup – namely a high school student whose friends and family are all shocked to learn what he’s been accused of and who may or may not be guilty – is the premise of the first half of my first novel, Loosely Based, but because of my own high school history which may have helped partially inspire that premise. If Adnan is guilty, I dated the closest equivalent of him that went to my high school. It was my first serious longish relationship in my life and it had an overwhelming impact on everything that followed in the development of my romantic and social existence. It was my junior year and she was a pathological liar, an effective one, someone who convinced the entire elite school that she had a forthcoming book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being published by Harvard University Press. She was not as charming or universally liked as Adnan, but she definitely had people snowed and left a trail of incredulity in her wake when the truth came leaking out at the edges. Though the only person who really got hurt by any of it in a meaningful way was me.

I’ve referred to her from time to time on my webpage, using my moniker for her of PLB, a resentful nickname from the decade-plus between her absenting herself from my life in a devastating way in 1997 to our four-hour meeting in October 2010. And I see no reason to start using her full name here now, if only because she has since reinvented herself and her life entirely, again, and I probably no longer think she should be saddled with a series of terrible decisions she made at sixteen on Google. Although, I dunno. I go back and forth on that one, as I do about her ultimate motivations. She did such a good job convincing me that she had changed and grown, but then made a series of decisions again in the year following our reunion that just seemed so explicable as part of the old her. I decided pursuing further communication was unwarranted, or at least unnecessary, if not dangerous. The problem, ultimately, is that I think she liked the mystery and the impact she had on people, even then in 2010, as much or more than she liked anything else about herself or her interactions. That for all its garbage and toxicity, maybe she was never so alive as in our junior year in high school, exacting awe and terror from so many, reveling in the pile of sleepless lies that required so much energy to seemingly effortlessly maintain.*

I do not want this post to get sidetracked into recollections from my own high school years, but I have a hunch that you have made your listening to Serial somewhat or almost entirely about that as well. This is part of the magic of this story. We Americans just about all went to high school and it remains a period of time both iconic and almost universally traumatic. The universality of high school as an experience and, more vitally as a larger-than-life cultural Experience in America makes a murder mystery set in the midst of that time both startlingly unique and overwhelmingly captivating. You have probably all identified your own Adnan, or closest facsimile, from your years between 14-18. You have recalled the key incidents or scandals of that time in your life and compared them to this. You have wondered how your friends would have reacted had you been charged with some heinous deed.

There are other tricks and quirks that make Serial amazingly gripping. Something I haven’t seen anyone else discuss is the music, which is regularly stuck in my head and could not possibly be more perfect for an ever-deepening mystery with plenty of twists. Even the name, Serial, evokes the notion of a serial killer, as well as a hard-boiled series of detective novels that people devour like the cheap filling breakfast food so many of us grew up on (cereal). These additional assets may seem trivial, but when one is just starting a show or cultural phenomenon, small things like name, logo, and music make a big impact.

And then there’s the slow time-release of the episodes. Which, to be fair, is the norm and not the exception in these kinds of things – only books, movies (though increasingly less so with the rise of sequels, trilogies, and whatever endlessness you want to attribute to comic-book franchise films), and Netflix TV are released all at once. Koenig herself in a recent interview said the tactic is as old as Dickens and certainly most every mystery that really hooks us in comes out in installments to keep our attitude in eternal suspense. But the problem here is that the periodic nature of Serial that has catapulted its success is also endemic to what I see as its very likely undoing.

Here’s the problem: we’re not going to get a satisfying conclusion to the story of Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee. We’re not. There is an extremely scant possibility that this podcast’s delving and outrageous popularity combine to prompt the real killer to make a stunning confession, or Adnan to collapse beneath the weight of his guilt and confess, or, I guess, Hae Min Lee’s suicide note to be found. Even the slightly more realistic but still unbelievably unlikely possibility of Adnan getting a new trial or even exonerated would not exactly be a resolution unless we had an admission from or at least conviction of someone else. And the very doubt that makes the podcast so damn compelling now as it’s being released will make its conclusion equally disappointing. Because, in the end, we’ll never know.

Murder mysteries basically never end this way. The only one I can really think of that leaves so much of the ending unresolved is In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece that remains one of my favorite all-time books. I’m sure there are others – I’m actually not a huge mystery reader. But in a fictional story of murder, we can kind of revel in the uncertainty the way we revel in the entire plot, knowing that our squirming and writhing is like that in a horror-movie theater – namely, it is fake. It is concocted for our entertainment with no real-world impact on real lives. And just as putting people through a real-life horror movie scenario would be abhorrent, so I think we will wind up feeling quite cheated by having to live with the uncertainty of whether Adnan Syed is either a wrongfully convicted innocent, continuing to rot away his life in prison or a dangerous sociopathic killer who has managed to convince much of America and a plucky upstart podcast’s staff that he is innocent.

The extremity of that binary in the dichotomy is profound and part of what marks trouble for Serial and our feelings about it long-term. Adnan Syed cannot ever be just a nice-ish guy who may or may not have killed his ex-girlfriend who we then feel ambivalently about. He is either a murderer or among the wrongfully convicted. This binary is what attracts us so powerfully to stories of the exonerated, since they have had to live as the former for so long, but are actually the latter. It is the most horrific nightmare our society produces for its citizens, the social and public equivalent of being buried alive, being reviled and rejected by (almost) all as an utter degenerate, subjected to all indignities, only to be a veritable saint for suffering through the consequences of the damned with head held high. Adnan is either this heroic mystical figure in our world, or he is the diametric opposite. Not only a murderer, but one who would insidiously use all of our emotion and intellect against ourselves to convince us of his heroism. Someone whose pre-emptive betrayal of our trust puts him somewhere equivalent to the devil in terms of malice aforethought and negative impact on our faith in humanity.

But we will never know. Most of the narrative power that drives us to wait expectantly for the next installment of Serial is the idea that we will find out more next week and that this is all eventually going somewhere. That even in our own minds, we can decide if Adnan is innocent or guilty and decide what we think of it. But Serial has done such a good job riding this middle ground and building this uncertainty that few smart listeners will ever really be able to decide. And I promise you that Sarah Koenig isn’t going to make up her mind at the end either. We will be left with a story without an ending, which might be tolerable if there were not real people out there, if there were not a real Jay and a real Hae’s family and a real Adnan Syed sitting in jail.

And if there is a resolution, it’s not likely to be much better. This chance is unspeakably slim, but it could be that Serial finds the smoking gun somehow and either gets Adnan’s admission to the crime or some irrefutable piece of evidence against him. In which case, 95% of you will hate Serial thereafter. You will hate it because it fueled Adnan’s deception of the world, brought it to a high platform, broadcast his protestations of innocence to the world. You will feel betrayed, but you didn’t know or trust Syed personally. You trusted and felt you knew Koenig and the staff of Serial. And you will hold them responsible for this betrayal, for the malice and sociopathy of Syed himself. For the doubt and lack of trust this builds into your life, for the damage done to the mythos of the exonerated and the wrongfully convicted. You will hate Serial and you will stop listening and you will be mad.

If the converse happens, you will likely also hate Serial, unless it actually gets Adnan Syed sprung from prison. Because then it will just leave you with this searing, near-provable injustice that is never corrected. With this idea that we all know he’s innocent, but he’s never getting out. Which is not a satisfying end to the story. Imagine Shawshank with Andy Dufresne getting to be Red’s age, or Brooks’, never tasting freedom, growing harder and more bitter with each year as he continued to do the warden’s bidding. Then make it real, knowing Andy is a real person who is really out there.

Yes, if Serial actually unearths the evidence that gets Adnan Syed out, then you will love it forever. But I think this is beyond any realistic possibility. And in the matrix of possibilities, where total uncertainty fills up about 98% of the squares, it’s not really worth considering. I think all of the other outcomes are far more likely and all of those lead to a slow, creeping resentment of Serial for bringing us this story without an ending, or one that leaves us mad.

Then we get to the issue of season two. Given all the above and the fact that Koenig and Co. must be aware of this reality, it’s not really surprising that the big appeal to fund a second season was made today and not, say, at the end of the highly successful first season. (Yes, I guess they have to start on season two before season one is over, perhaps, but I think they have some sense that this may be peak popularity for the show.) Say I’m wrong about all the disappointment you feel coming out of the above and the show somehow pulls a rabbit out of a hat to leave you feeling both satisfied with that season and wanting more of the same. Well then, you are basically guaranteed to be disappointed.

Serial can’t pick another murder mystery, unless it just wants to be the murder mystery show, which is not what the “one story, told week by week” theme seems to aspire to. So already it will have blown perhaps the most successful formula for a weekly installment show. Indeed, they probably can’t pick much of anything that resembles a mystery without just getting typecast. But if they don’t pick some kind of mystery, then the very allure that got us listening will quickly disappear. The comparisons will inevitably ensue of how fascinated we were by season one and how drab the comparative predictability or sedateness of season two is. When combined with what I argue above is the almost guaranteed disappointment of how the first season ended, excitement about this new debut podcast is likely to plummet.

Especially when I am just skeptical that they can find a story as intricately compelling and intriguing as Adnan’s, murder mystery or no. It’s clear they don’t have a second story lined up yet, or even the idea hashed out. Koenig was clearly intrigued enough about this story that it justified the entire idea for a spin-off since it would take more than just one TAL episode to tell it. But given the stories swirling about how unprepared they were for the runaway success the podcast has had and how that, in itself, has impacted the story, I really doubt they’re ready with something that can trump or even come close to the enthrallment of this season. And thus they will go from the greatest formula of success (the unexpectedly great) to the greatest formula for disaster (the hyped disappointment).

Indeed, our expectations determine so much of whether we will like or dislike something. Nothing is ever so devastating to us as something we think will be great and winds up being less than our expectations. This is what makes betrayal perhaps the most awful thing a person can experience – it is not just the trauma of the loss, but the fact that it is so different than our expectation of trust, that makes it so painful. This is why we have sleeper hit movies and big-budget disasters – the former surprise us and exceed non-existent expectations, while the latter are probably better than we think, but fall so short of expectations that they seem almost like betrayals. This is why we have a mystique around underdog stories (arguably Koenig’s best possible hope for recapturing the magic of season one), because they are not just about victory, but victory that no one could have expected.

But the other thing that will be hard to recreate about Serial (and something that, if I’m right about the negative impact of the inevitable ending, they won’t want to try to recreate) is the liveness of it. At the time she’s been making the shows, Koenig does not know if Syed is guilty or innocent. We are living this story and its agonizing twists right alongside her. If she chose another story, say, the rise of the underdog Rutgers University Debate Union and its improbable run to National Finals, the same people who’ve created the Serial subreddit would have looked up the ending and discussed it by the time they’d heard the end of episode one.

So all Koenig has to do is successfully end Serial’s first season with the exoneration and release of Adnan Syed, then find another story that is (a) happening live or so obscure as to be un-Googleable, (b) not a mystery but has the same appeal of a mystery, (c) just as compelling, twisty, and uncertain as Syed’s story, and (d) has a resolution that is more satisfying than any alternative to Syed’s exoneration/release would be.

I don’t envy her this. Though I do envy her success as a storyteller and wish her the best, despite my predictions of Serial’s downfall in our hearts. I certainly don’t think she or her staff can be blamed for us eventually growing to dislike Serial, if I’m right about that. She found an amazing story and is telling it really well and deserves all this following. I just feel like I have to warn her that we’re all likely to turn on her by this time next year. But make no mistake, I’ll be listening every Thursday in the hopes that I’m wrong.


*I also note that, which I am footnoting so as not to further derail the narrative of the main point of this post, she was a regular reader of this blog and probably still is and I think about 45% chance I have an e-mail in the next week either protesting this characterization or, possibly, saying she happened to move to Baton Rouge eight months ago and we could reprise our coffee. To which I guess I will pre-emptively say: I don’t even know anymore. I remain quite grateful for the semblance of resolution and repair that was done in the brief series of meetings that fall, but the palpable danger and alarm I feel about that individual is still literally breathtaking. And whether that is mostly of her construction or mine is part of what makes the idea of mysteries and sociopaths so dramatically interesting in the first place. After all, when I saw the movie Gone Girl earlier this fall, I was torn between the similar reactions of “I’d find that totally farcical if I hadn’t known PLB” and “there are more of them out there!” And honestly, Gone Girl is the same runaway success that Serial is for largely using the same formula, including a possibly wrongfully accused murderer and a wanton sociopath who is very convincing. But we get to know what happens in the end, mostly.