Thursday, November 12, 2009

And I'll Cry if I Want To

Hello? Mr. Counterman at the Fancy, Overpriced Bakery I Swore to my Husband I Would No Longer Patronize Because They Charge $9 for Coffee and a Muffin?

A word, please.

When I asked you to walk me through your selection of fancy, overpriced cakes, you oh-so-imperceptibly scoffed when I asked if this one was Oreo. And launched into a ever-so-slightly condescending explanation of how it was made with uber-fancy Valrhona dark chocolate.

"Have you ever had Valrhona?" you asked. A whiff of superiority clung to the air.

"I don't think so," I said sheepishly. "But really? It looks like an Oreo cake to me."

"Well, it shouldn't," you said, ever-so-slightly patronizingly.

I bought it anyway. It was my birthday, you know. My husband was too sick to get me a cake. And it looked good, whatever the hell it was.

But dude? Valrhona my ass. That is an Oreo. I know from Oreos. Don't mess with me when it comes to Oreos.

That is all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Experts? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Experts

Years ago, during the first Dubya presidency, I heard a story on NPR that stopped me dead in my tracks. Just like when the Challenger exploded, I remember exactly where I was when I heard it.

The piece was about how the fact that President Bush didn't have a -- how shall we say? -- intellectual bent really resonated with voters. Like it was a selling point.

People actually liked that he slipped up so often. That he made grammatical mistakes while speaking and spouted non-sequiturs. And that he didn't seem like a wonk, with his head all crammed full of...complicated ideas and whatnot. Apparently that made him more likable. Relatable. People wanted a president who seemed like an average guy, just like them.

Not surprisingly, they re-elected him. Well, sort of, but I'm not going to get into that now.

Me? I'm not ashamed to say I like my Presidents smart. Crazy smart, actually. Sooooo-much- smarter-than-me-it's-not-even-funny smart. Rhodes Scholars? Bring it. Harvard Law Review editors? You got my vote, hon. I want the person with his or her finger on the nuclear button to be so frigging brilliant they can barely be conversant with me. I like my Presidents, in other words, to be...experts.

I was honestly floored that my fellow Americans did not share this view. It was a wakeup call for me, having grown up in a family where smarts were the coin of the realm, trumping just about everything else. You wanted my four brothers and me on your It's Academic squad, not your basketball team.

I've been thinking about that NPR piece a lot lately.

Because there's a trend at play in the social media world that I find worrisome, and it's an offshoot of the same social forces that apparently helped elect George Bush twice. (If it isn't particularly worrisome to you that a man like him could be President of the United States for eight years, maybe you shouldn't read any further.)

It's been said a zillion times that one of the great things about the explosion of social media is its great democratizing effect. And I get that, really I do.

I'm constantly telling my husband what a thrill it is to discover the voices of bloggers who are not professional writers but who regularly craft absolutely haunting, honest, charming or uproarious prose. (Heather, Megan, Stephanie and Ashley come to mind off the top of my head.) I'm so delighted that blogging has allowed their voices to be heard so widely. I also said years ago that the guy who used to write the Bachelor recaps for Television Without Pity deserved a Pulitzer prize.

Nor is it lost on me that that the online readers are often just as funny as the celebrity panel on Us Weekly's Fashion Police. (True story: I was supposed to have a tryout for the Fashion Police right around the first week of September, 2001. It, um, never happened.)

There's a flipside to that same democratic impulse, though, that I find troubling. In this great information revolution, we're throwing the baby out with the bath water. It's undeniably heady to have so many easy means of information transmission at our fingertips, both inside and outside traditional media channels. Just about anyone could, say, send a tweet right now to Wolf Blitzer. Or write a long blog post about how they feel about CNN.

But we're biting off more than we can chew. We're appointing ourselves experts on anything and everything, spouting off simply because we have easy means to do so, not necessarily because we have anything valuable or credible to say. Good, trained reporters are losing their jobs left and right, in favor of doing journalism on the fly by wikipedia and twitter, even when that can sometimes mean getting just about everything wrong.

There's almost no way not to sound hopelessly old-fashioned and/or defensive (I was, after all, a print journalist), but there's something to be said for the trained information gatherer, the careful vetter of sources. Someone who can listen to a cacophony of information, much of it contradictory, and make level-headed sense of it. Someone who's trained to search for unvarnished truth and know when they're being spun. Someone who's trained to talk to experts and glean what's valuable, separating the information wheat from the chaff.

To wit. Last week I saw a link from a popular mom blogger who'd been invited to write a guest post on another blog about carseat safety, specifically about the benefits of keeping your child rear-facing. Sure! I'll write your guest post. I have a laptop! And a Starbucks down the street! With WiFi! The only problem was that said mom blogger apparently didn't really know anything about carseat safety; her post basically had her repeating some anecdotal Snopes-ish urban legends she'd heard on when to turn your baby forward facing. But now that post, inaccurate as it is, becomes part of the body of information on the subject.

Then I followed a link touted as "really good information" about the H1N1 vaccine. This time it led to a post from another mom blogger, who admitted the difficulty of finding credible information supporting the anti-vaccine position. But luckily, she had found some. Well, sort of. Her sources included a few natural health websites and blogs I'd never heard of, one I have heard of, and not in a good way, (the infamous mercola.com,) a Baby Center mom blog post "with over 100 comments," and my personal favorite, some squirrely, conspiratorial youtube videos of unknown provenance. Oh wait. I forgot the story from Inside Edition.

Once upon a time, in the old timey days of publishing, I was a fact-checker for Time-Life ("Coincidence? You be the judge.") Books, where we had to use something quaintly known as "red check sources" to verify the accuracy of what we printed; none of these, I can assure you, would have passed the red check source test. And I'm not trying to slam said blogger. Really I'm not. I'm sure she fervently believed she was doing readers a service. They thanked her in droves in the comments, actually. I'm just sad that in their zeal not to be taken in by the party line, to RESEARCH THIS INFORMATION YOURSELF, as one of those youtube screeds warns, people are, rather ironically, being taken in. Just not in the way they thought.

This isn't about the vaccine per se. I am not going to use Clever Title TK as a forum to debate the merits of the H1N1 vaccine or get into how the mainstream media is in bed with big pharma and hoodwinking us all about the evils of vaccination. I'm more than happy to admit I have absolutely no credentials to do so. That's just not my thing. I'll leave that to the... (wait for it) experts. (I will, however, thank Queen of Spain for this post, which makes the brilliant observation that refusing the vaccine has become the "hipster parenting move of the moment" and asks us all to "take off our tinfoil hats." OK, I just tipped my hand, didn't I?)

What I will do is argue passionately that while the channels for information distribution can be democratized to the nth degree, and everyone and their cousin's plumber can have a blog and a twitter feed and can make movies on their iPhones and slap them up on youtube, the stubborn fact is that all information is just not equal. Just because something has been published somewhere on the Internet does not automatically lend it credence. Some information is reliable and credible. Some is not. Credibility isn't intrinsic; it needs to be earned. And I will never trust the information coming from your cousin's plumber's sister-in-law in a Facebook comment as much as that coming from the CDC. If you don't want to get the H1N1 shot, that's your prerogative. But please don't tell me that I should be moved not to because of something you saw in the comments of some random blog on Baby Center for God's sake. Please. (I can't help thinking of the person who commented on a recent Newsweek movie review by calling the author -- who happens to have been my brother Daniel -- a "real dick" and a "tool." There are some super people out there in commentland, I tell you.)

I can't help but wonder if this is yet another splinter of the creeping narcissism I wrote about last week. Is it that same seemingly endless hunger to examine our own lives closer and closer, to hear our own voices rather than listen to the words of others? Is that why we have we become so afraid to put our trust in experts?

“It’s shocking,” science journalist Michael Specter, author of the new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, recently told Wired. “We live in a country where it’s actually a detriment to be an expert about something.”

How sad is that? I think we need experts. I like experts. I like expert doctors and expert urban planners and expert Presidents. I like expert washing machine repairmen and expert teachers and expert chefs. I like that they all know things that I don't have to. It's a good system. It works for me.

And before you get all up in my face screaming elitism, I'm well aware that experts are never infallible, and that there will never be a true consensus on who qualifies as one. I know that there are instances when the government, even its scientists, hasn't acted in our best interests. I know we have to advocate for ourselves, even in a democracy. I know the media is far from perfect and Jayson Blair and blah blah blah blah. I know. I know.

But I am not going to allow the random comments of 100 people on a Baby Center blog post -- are they virologists? epidemiologists? doctors? high school graduates, even? -- become the equal of the warnings of the experts at the CDC, in all their peer-reviewed bureaucratic glory. Ever.

And maybe even more importantly, I refuse to be made, in this upside down world, to feel sheepish or worse -- actually stupid -- for valuing genuine expertise, both scientific and otherwise, with all due respect to your neighbor's manicurist's babysitter.

Yes. You heard right. I'm coming out of the closet. I'm an information snob.

My name is Jennifer. And I trust experts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wordless Wednesday: Fall Rocks...

and then it sucks.


Double click to see in all its glory. And that's only part of the yard, mind you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Showtime

It's no secret that I love me some good Internet fakery.

I blogged earlier this year about stumbling upon a blog I sensed -- and later proved -- was a fraud. The woman behind it, who had the unmitigated gall to represent herself as a mother devastated by the death of her small daughter, actually wasn't a mother at all, but rather a career scammer with a criminal record to boot. (Note to self: never post stock photo of infant on blog and say it's your daughter; too easy for curious reader to be puzzled as to why a family photo is named "newborn-baby-girl-three-3-days-old-face-closeup-1-DHD.jpg." And then a quick google just might lead them right to a free online image gallery.)

Just a few months later, my brother Matt, who had been one of my three trusty sidekicks in the case of Scooby Doo and the Imaginary Dead Daughter, called me all excited. There was a story on CNN about an even bigger blogger being exposed as a fraud. This time it was the "April Rose" hoax perpetrated by one Beccah Beushausen. Beushausen had strung legions of devoted readers along for months, blogging in great detail about her heartbreaking pregnancy with a child she knew would die at birth, a child who...she totally invented. (Note to self: never try to pass off photo of a doll as photo of a real baby. Those people on the doll forums are totally eagle-eyed, I tell you.)

So naturally, my interest was piqued when I heard that a story causing quite a buzz throughout the twitterverse -- a story I confess I initially passed along without verifying -- turned out to be how shall we say? not quite as it seemed.

I am not going to rehash the details of Nicole White's fifteen minutes of virtual fame; this post does it far more thoroughly than I could ever hope to. The Cliff's Notes version? White used Twitter and her blog to disseminate a highly melodramatic account of having overzealous TSA agents in the Atlanta airport take her 18 month old son away from her while they were being searched at security. It was a story that she apparently knew would generate enormous media interest. (Check out the screen shots of her twitter feed here.) The only problem was that nine different security camera angles begged to differ. Oops.

Nicole White's response to being called out was to insist that she had shared something called "her truth." my truth was told, shared, tweeted out in the hopes of changing something for the better, she wrote in that trademark high school literary mag lowercase prose, in a post entitled "ownership." i own that. it’s up to you whether or not you choose to believe it. (So we each get our own versions of the truth these days, to disseminate as we please? Suh-weet! I knew I loved the interwebs.)

Maybe I'm just jealous. On our way to Boston this summer, those same persnickety TSA agents actually snatched LaLa, Alec's much adored constant companion, right out of his hands as we were about to walk through the metal detector. Full-on hysteria ensued until the two were happily reunited at the end of the belt, but somehow I failed to seize the opportunity to use my trauma (LALA's GONE! THEY TOOK LALA!) to become a minor Internet celebrity. Oh well, there's always next year.

Anyway, as I said before, this post isn't about proving whether or not Nicole White lied about what happened in that airport. Instead, I'm going to get all meta on you.

In one of those awesome moments of serendipity that only Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan could have concocted, the White story broke the very same day as that ghastly Heene family perpetrated Jiffy Pop-gate, using a similarly terrifying story about a missing child to generate interest in them for a reality show. A story that as we all know, turned out to be false. They presented a distorted version of their "real" lives to broadcast to the world via television. Or, more to the point, they whored out their six-year-old son and scared the shit out of eleventy billion people watching live on CNN so that they could get on tv. (And I'm not even touching the part where the kid then puked on the Today show in the middle of being interviewed. Or that his name is Falcon.)

The TSA and Heene dramas are part of a much bigger cultural ripple that I find alternately fascinating and horrifying: people's lives are increasingly turning into a kind of for-profit performance art. For better or worse, the endless proliferation of media technologies have allowed us countless vehicles for documenting our day-to-day lives in excruciating, mindboggling detail. (Lunchbox blogs, anyone?) And because we have become ever aware that we are, on some level, being watched, we increasingly play to the gaze.

I see it in the faux shock of the spoiled teenagers on My Super Sweet 16 when, inevitably, the car with a ridiculously huge bow is wheeled out for them. There's always a car, kids, always. That's just what happens when you go on this show. Stop pretending we think you're surprised.

I see it in the trainwreck of Jon and Kate Plus 8. Just as McLuhan predicted, the medium trumps all, and the reality these reality shows claim to document inevitably becomes tainted through the very process of showing it. What started as a show depicting the real lives of a family with eight children became a perfect inverse of itself: the Gosselin family's real life became about being on the show, and more and more of what they did/ate/wore/played with (Crooked Houses! Let's play in our Crooked Houses! Wait, did someone just say Crooked House?) became a construct of the show. Eventually, it seemed there was no "real" life left to document. Their very lives, in other words, became a kind of performance. (In one episode, Kate chastised Jon for referring to something having happened in a previous "season" rather than a previous year.) And not surprisingly, their once very real marriage -- a ten year partnership that produced eight very real children -- gave way under the pressure. Didn't the advertisers feel even a little bit...dirty? And why are people, both famous and not, still lining up in droves to be on reality shows?

I see similar forces at work in the blogosphere.

Heather Armstrong, queen of the mommy bloggers, now supports her family of four simply by sharing her family's life -- the cute outbursts, the quirky food aversions, the mind-numbing sleep deprivation -- with millions of readers through her blog. Which means that advertisers sponsor her...life. Don't get me wrong. Given the opportunity, I'd probably do it, too, but am I the only one who thinks there's something a little Truman Show-ish about it all? (Scratch that. I just googled "Dooce" and "The Truman Show." I'm not the only one who thinks that.)

But anyone who blogs publicly, from Heather Armstrong on down to, well, me, is, in effect, conducting a kind of performance. Until we reach that futuristic moment when our actual, unedited lives are streamed live to our "viewers," by blogging we are putting forth versions of ourselves to be consumed. We choose which moments we share, even the unattractive or painful ones, and we choose the words and photos we use to present them. We might be entirely honest, constructing personas that are quite reflective of our "real" selves. But we are, on some level, performing for an audience. And just like being on reality tv changes your reality, the fact that scores of people are paying attention to (and potentially paying money for) your life via your blog changes things, in ways both subtle and not. When traffic to that blog about the contents of your child's lunchbox starts spiking, you feel that much more pressured to actually make your child the kind of lunches that you want people to see on the blog. And voila! The act of blogging has changed, ever so slightly and entirely benignly, your real life. (I believe that mommy bloggers have, via this mechanism, actually forged a new model for contemporary motherhood, but that's a whole 'nother post.)

As the stakes become higher and higher, with more and more eyes watching and more and more advertisers paying, that same benign impulse that makes you pass over the Lunchables in favor of the quinoa salad allows those who traffic in exaggeration and embellishment to waltz right in and take advantage. In this climate, it's rather easy to embellish, and not that much harder to entirely manufacture drama wholesale. It's the Internet equivalent of a publicity stunt during Sweeps Week.

Mercifully, the most egregious lying liars are almost always tripped up eventually by some stubborn piece of evidence of the real world that they've failed or forgotten to hide: a photo, a video or an IP address. But often not before they've sucked in an eager audience which then feels betrayed.

And why does it matter? Because playing to the camera really works.

I'll leave you with a bit of a math problem. (And thanks to Amy at SecretSpinelessWhine for opening my eyes to this.)

For the eight months prior to posting about her TSA experience, (or should that be "experience?") SiteMeter shows that Nicole White's blog received a total 22,512 visitors, for an average of 2,814 a month. But in the month of October, when she told her TSA story, she got an astonishing 161,225 visitors. That's an increase of 5,629 percent. (Or so says the Internet percentage calculator I used.) 'Nuf said.

Now I'd love to stay and chat with you all about this, but there's a homemade spaceship in my backyard that I've been sorely neglecting. I'll be sure to tell my boys to wave for the cameras.