The Use of Abandoned Shells

Picture a movie poster for a film that wants you to think it’s artsy. (here’s one) It probably features the laurel leaves icon. These markers originally symbolized a handful of important film festivals. Then it became important for every city, even neighborhoods inside cities, to have their own film festival. There also the significant differences in the “winners” and the few dozen or even hundreds of “selections.” The festival laurels conjures to the viewer the implicit value associated with scarcity despite the potential vast gap between the connotation and reality.

This is what George W.S Trow called the “use of abandoned shells.” In a world of no context, invoking the image of great things is very powerful, even if those things are fractions of what they once were. As media has fragmented and become abundant, we become more dependent on symbols. We turn to markers that are hollow. Why? Because there are no alternatives. There is no new sense of scarcity—that this matters because it was one of the few that made it.

One of the potential promises of the internet was the idea that all the great stuff being created by people in every corner of the world would be collaboratively filtered and recommended to us. The reality has been somewhat different. Our filters have utterly failed us. Or, we have failed ourselves. It’s natural that algorithms that are supposedly more in tune with what we “like” would be incapable of judging the things we do not yet know we desire. Our resentment towards “editing” or “editors” undermined the skills and authority in the process of recommendation, leaving us with only algorithms (or aggregation without endorsement) And we celebrate algorithms because they seem great compared to nothing.

You write a book. Or release a movie. Record an album. Sell a product. A blogger at the Los Angeles Time’s reviews it, what does your blurb about it say? It says “‘A true gem!’ – LA Times”. You hide the qualifier. You shouldn’t need the superlative at all. Collaborative filtering should have got it to your audience.

The bill of goods we’ve been sold is unsatisfying. It’s false too. Because the reality is most blog posts came from press releases, planned announcements, conferences, “leaked” documents, spokespeople, filed lawsuits, launch dates, the interview circuit—pseudo events. This was supposed to go away when everybody was a reporter. We have more boots on the ground, authentic artists, the long tail…

There are hundreds of these hollow shells whose meaning has fallen away while the demand for their association has risen dramatically. We need them badly. This isn’t my opinion; this is apparent in how we continue to return to them despite championing their demise. It tells me that deep down we have trust issues. We love our blogs and self-publishers and yet we don’t believe them. We pretend to want an economy of abundance where all content is all of equal quality—everyone is an artist and deserves their muse. Secretly, we crave to hear what is good, what is worth our time, that someone smart looked at this and placed it in its proper context. We salivate for this and the marketers exploit and pander to it.

What these people are trying to do is trying to find some, any, stamp of approval. They desperately need something that says “this is not like those other things.” You’d trust just about any print publication before “as featured in the Huffington Post” but in a pinch it’ll do. Especially before you bothered competing on merits or the importance of the subject matter. The other day I saw a book that had been blurbed by people without titles after their names. It was not because their reputation was self-evident. The author knew what he needed and an empty allusion to it was better than nothing.

In case you think its just marketing materials, look closely. Reporters use what I think are best called “substance words” to give status to flimsy stories. The weaker the subject, the more blogs lean on words like exclusive, official, “documents show”, “we’ve learned”, or “sources say.” Nicholas Carr complained that in line linking is a cognitive distraction but he’s actually been tricked by the swindle; often it’s to evoke the image of direct sourcing when the connection between the speculation and the facts is tenuous.

Try to think about music as more than just a set of prescribed notes. It’s the interplay between the notes, the resonance of the various sounds coming together and a sense of a generative order. Now, try to think about it back the other way. It seems empty—not like music. Banks have rules to limit their exposure to risk. They may require investing in bonds above certain ratings, capping the amount of leverage traders can use or hedging assets in one industry with assets of similar value in another. This ideal portfolio becomes a kind of symbol of risk-avoidance, an allusion to the past when finance was comprehensible, when it is really a simulacrum. Welcome to the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Or, an oil rig has safety reporting mandated by their lawyers or government regulations. Each of these guidelines is designed to the end of not having to think about surprises anymore. The notes are hit, the end state is experienced but in the middle is reality where shells become inadequate or meaningless or feigned. Just like putting laurel leaves on a movie poster.

So it’s hypocritical and bankrupt and a lame part of our internet culture. Why should that matter. For starters, it becomes a lot more common as media gets worse because crap needs to be dressed up. Critically though, it lays a subtle but pervasive distortion over our reality. Everyone is selling and conning and we hardly even know it. Our emotions are being triggered by simulations—unintentional or deliberate misrepresentations—of cues we’ve been taught were important. We read some story and it feels important, that the news is real and the principles of reporting took place, but it’s not. Each part of it was an illusion stacked on top of a slightly less illusionary notion until the final product floats as its own self-creation.

But most importantly, it’s a ponzi scheme that is running out of new investors. It’s more than just ironic to see products from new media depend on old media for credibility. After a time, the old symbols cease to mean anything. They’ve been taken for all they are worth. Apart from a handful of exceptions, there isn’t anything coming to take their place. Concepts like iterative journalism trade on bad incentives. They favor what is now, over brand, reputation or trust. (the root of the power of what they usurped). In algorithmic editing every featured piece is replaceable by another (and it in turn by another), leaving the aggregator with no authority to call its own. We’ve taken the infrastructure of context for granted and lost the imperative generate more of it.

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