We the Internet

The use of teasing headlines is well established as a hallmark of Internet news sites. The reasons for them are also pretty clear: they are designed as click-bait, which is a way of keeping viewers on the site while more ads are fed to them. That’s the point of making us click a link to “read more,” and it’s the whole point of writing headlines like this.

There’s another characteristic of Internet headlines that has become almost as common and that I find less easy to understand. This is the use of an inclusive point of view, usually signaled by the pronoun “we.” As in “We can’t stop talking about [whatever]” or “[Something] happened and we’re amazed!” Such headlines can also be prescriptive, announcing that “We need to” do this or “We need to stop ” doing that.

This is not the sort of headline writing that you see in print. In fact, I have a hard time even imagining such a headline in print, at least at any time before the current dispensation, when the boundaries between print and digital publication have blurred. On many online news sources, however, it has become nearly ubiquitous. Why?

Obviously it’s mean to be catchy. Every headline is meant to be catchy. But what is it about Internet publication that has given rise to this particular form of expression? I’ve called it “inclusive,” in part to set it apart from the “royal we.” I don’t think that’s how it’s meant. Instead, the author is apparently looking to adopt a sort of collective voice, expressing a common sense proposition that “we” would be foolish to disagree with.

Is striking such a note also meant to irritate? Like most Internet writing, there is a real value to pushing people’s buttons. So when your immediate response to such a presumptuous headline is to think “Speak for yourself,” then the headline has done its work. Perhaps you’ll even be drawn to make a comment!

At least I think that’s part of what’s in play. Perhaps another part of it has to do with the way that news sites on the Internet are so divided into political silos that the headline is meant as a bit of preliminary streaming. “We” all think this, and if you aren’t one of us then you probably shouldn’t be here. Or: This website is a community of the like-minded, and it addresses itself specifically, and exclusively, to those who identify with the sentiments expressed in the rest of this headline.

Whatever the explanation, I can’t say I’m a fan of these headlines. They seem to want to co-opt my agreement with whatever they’re going to say before they’ve even said it. At one point that might have been enough to get me to “read more,” but I’ve learned to ignore them. This leads me to hope that they may go away. I know that’s probably wishful thinking, but I like to believe that at some point the Internet will start getting better.

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Screen time

I was recently re-reading Pierre Berton’s 1967: Canada’s Turning Point and was struck by the following factlet: among Canada’s middle class (54% of the population) the average time spent watching TV in 1967 was six hours and twenty-six minutes every day.

This seemed high to me, but not impossible. 1967 was still early days, right around the time stations were beginning to broadcast in colour. I wondered how things compare today, but then thought that given how much has changed this would be like comparing apples and oranges. We don’t speak of TV watching any more but “screen time,” which encompasses all of the time spent “consuming media” on our various devices.

It was only a bit later that I was watching a podcast with Timothy Snyder where he mentioned that the most recent (2016) Nielsen study had it that Americans spend over 10 hours a day looking at screens. This really did impress me. That’s well over half your waking hours! I looked around for some information and found a CNN story on the report that Snyder was referencing. Perhaps the most startling reveal in it was that the number was up a full hour from what it had been only the year before.

But wait, it gets worse! I thought that the amount of time people spent working in offices where employees have to look at screens for nearly eight hours a day might be skewing the results. But according to the report teens are spending 9 hours a day “consuming media,” and I assume most of this is not work related. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if work was included in the original figures. This is from the story as reported by CNN:

“We examine large trends in penetration, users and usage across all platforms, show how different demos and race/ethnicity groups spend their media time, and explore the contributions of heavy users,” Glenn Enoch, Nielsen’s senior vice president of audience insights, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

So, the report concluded that out of 168 hours in a week, we spend more than 50 with devices, said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who was not involved in the report but has studied how too much screen time affects children.

“The work week still takes up 40 of those hours, sleep at seven hours a night is 49, and if we assume all personal care — such as eating, bathing, dressing, preparing food — is three hours a day, then we have 58 hours a week left over for all other things,” Gentile said.

“This includes hobbies, sports, spending time with children, spending time with friends and romantic partners, reading, learning, exercise, participating in a faith community, volunteer work, house maintenance,” he added. “If people are spending over 50 hours a week with media for entertainment purposes, then there’s really no time left for any of the other things we value.”

Either screen time really is an addiction or else we don’t really value those other things in life we’re presumed to care about (friends, family) very much. Or both. Whatever way you look at it, this strikes me as scary. We really are giving up on reality.

Zombie chic

Perhaps he just wants to keep his shirt clean.

Why do the people in The Walking Dead wear body armour? I could understand heavy, metal-mesh gloves like butchers wear. Or some kind of padding or shielding for arms. Think of the way people use such protection when training attack dogs: you hold out your arm and let the dog grab hold of it. Even greaves for the lower legs would make sense when wading through a herd of crawlers. But why armour for your torso? When has a zombie ever gone for someone’s chest or back?

Everyday rudeness #4: Telemarketers

Of course telemarketers and telescammers are annoying. But when they’re rude as well their behaviour is, even more than in the literal sense, uncalled for.

I’ve developed a special technique for dealing with them. Once I know I’m being contacted by a telemarketer (usually a delay on the connection is enough) I only respond by speaking Old English. Specifically, since I don’t really remember much Old English, I quote the opening lines of Beowulf in the original. I repeat them in a quiet but confused and questioning voice, pretending to be someone who simply doesn’t understand English and doesn’t know what the caller is saying.

I started doing this because I was curious as to how the callers would respond. I figured they would just give up, maybe apologize (though probably not) and then hang up. After all, I get the impression that English, in most cases, is not their first language, so I thought they might have some sympathy.

This has not happened. Indeed, after only exchanging a few words I have been told on nearly every occasion to “fuck off” or “fuck you.” Then the caller hangs up. I honestly find this surprising. They are that mad at someone they don’t even know, who they have targeted for their annoying (and often fraudulent) scam, just for not being able to speak English? Shouldn’t I be the angry one?

Yesterday, upon my standard opening of “Hwæt? We Gardena?” I got an immediate “Fuck you, motherfucker.” Really. It’s bad enough they have to do such an annoying job, but do they have to be so rude?

Just visiting

Somebody took a wrong turn.

You never know what you’re going to see looking out your back window some mornings. When I lived on the farm this wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but I live right in the heart of the city now. I hope the little fellow made it home.

What killed criticism?

Arts criticism — whether we’re talking about the film and book reviewing you read online or in newspapers or essays in a more academic form —  is going through a period I would describe as worse than a bit of a rough stretch. My own opinion is that it is a genre of writing (separate and independent) that is dying, and it won’t be coming back anytime soon. Since I’ve spent the last twenty years being a critic I’ve had to do some thinking about what has happened. Here are a few of the things I’ve come up with.

(1) Irrelevance: beginning a couple of decades ago we started hearing about certain blockbuster films and books that were “critic proof.” What this meant is that they were going to be successful regardless of what any reviewer thought of them. Since then, this is a phenomenon that has only advanced. Near universal critical condemnation of the Transformers film franchise or the Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight novels has been laughed at, when not met with outright hostility, by “poptimists” (those who believe that commercial success is the only criterion for artistic merit).

(2) Information overload: I remember a book editor once telling me that back in the early 1980s it was possible to read every new Canadian work of fiction that came out. I don’t know if that was really true, but it’s the kind of thing that might be taken as expressing his sense of a now-lost, more innocent, less crowded, time. The fact is, there is no way to keep up with the avalanche of material that comes out of the publishing and film industry today. Especially if you want to do a responsible job. I mean by this that it’s still possible to go out and see every movie that’s worth seeing, but then there’s the background work you have to do. You can watch Psycho and Citizen Kane, but you can’t read everything that’s been written about these classics. And this is a situation that is metastasizing without remission. I love listening to DVD commentaries, but films like Fight Club and Hostel have four each. Then you have to make at least some attempt to familiarize yourself with what’s been written about these movies online. One person can’t keep up. Which leads to . . .

(3) The rise of the hive mind: in order to deal with information and opinion overload various review aggregators bring together as many reviews as they can find and condense them down to a simple score. Think of Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, GoodReads, or Amazon reviews. These sources can be helpful, but they have two unfortunate results: (a) they erase individual voices in a giant whole-population melting pot (no single voice, however expert in its judgment, is worth very much); and (b) they tend to flatten out extremes so that most books, films, and songs end up with scores or rankings in the mushy middle.

(4) The end of evaluative criticism: is this book/film/painting/song any good? For years, answering this basic question has provided reviewing’s reason for being. But starting about a quarter-century ago the universities – the basic training ground for most professional critics – gave up on trying to answer it. “Good for what?” they asked. Everything was relative. Critical attention drifted elsewhere, in particular into the field of identity politics and what Robert Hughes dubbed the “culture of complaint” or victimology. As a result, the principle role of the critic was abandoned. Left without any function or purpose, not to mention audience, critics withdrew further into irrelevance.

(5) The economy: just how many professional critics are there today in Canada? In North America? Not many. It’s another job that has become part of the freelance or gig economy. Decent-paying, even semi-permanent positions have dried up and disappeared along with review sections and book pages. Hard times for journalists and the news media in general is, of course, going to mean hard times for movie and book reviewers. We’re not high on the masthead.

(6) Public indifference: this is either included in or an effect of much of what I’ve already said. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, and no doubt others as well, people really don’t care about what critics think, or do, any more. And a lot of the time I can’t blame them. Too many critics have resigned themselves to being little more than writers of ad copy for the system, leading to a massive loss of public trust. Reviewers have, in turn, met this increased public indifference with professional cynicism, leading to a downward death spiral.

Well, should we care? I’m sure most of us don’t, but should we?

I realize times are changing, but I do think something is being lost. I think it’s important that we try to think critically about everything, all the time, and arts criticism is a great way to exercise our critical muscles and to show how it’s done by way of practical, public demonstrations of the critical mind in action. And I don’t think it’s being at all alarmist to point out that it’s a slippery slope that leads from giving up on criticism of the arts to giving up on criticism of just about anything else you can think of. This leaves the field open for anyone with something to sell – whether it be a book, a car, or a political platform – to operate free of annoying counter-voices.

Critics are not expendable or superfluous parts of some bigger machine. Criticism has a function that it should perform with an integrity all its own, as much as some people don’t like to hear that. We need nay-sayers now perhaps more than ever. We need critics, even if we don’t want them. This is why I am concerned about their current endangered status. It’s the weakest of predictions to make, but nevertheless I’ll prophesy that we’re going to miss critics dearly when they’re gone.