Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for November 2007

Gawker jumps shark; columnist drowns

My latest column is essentially a 600-word love poem to Nick Denton. I didn't post it here because if you're reading this blog, you don't need to see the column.

The Gawker column was aimed at print people, attempting to explain the phenomenon of Internet publishing (and Internet writing styles) to people who don't get it.

I'll confess to being a Gawker fanboy, if only to lend credibility to my disappointment now. I'm a fiction writer in my spare time, so I tend to think of people as archetypes.

I paint Denton as a kind of folk hero — a pioneer, not because of his medium, but because of his message — the outsider ethic that defined Gawker for most of its life.

I admired him for putting writers front and center, for hiring writers instead of journalists, for taking hard shots at easy tagets and never letting the insiders get too full of themselves.

Ten years later, Gawker is so inside it's imploding, so flush with success that it's about to crawl down its own throat.

Two of Gawker's editors quit this week. Their resignation post sounds like genuine expressions of artistic disgust. The call for their replacement reads like corporate boilerplate.

The publication that used to skewer print journalists is now trying to recruit them.

Gawker has lost a lot of good talent recently. The elephant in the room is pageviews, a payment system that rewards writers based on raw popularity.

Democracy in action, a formula that is guarenteed to hit the lowest common denominator, at the expense of everything that made the publication great.

And it's not just happening at Gawker. Our entire media structure is caught between elitism and pandering — between dull, condescending news coverage and shrill, tabloid sensationalism.

Gawker was an oasis of unfiltered words for me, a perfect balance of blogger guts and New York charm.

Now they're trying to be journalists, and I find myself mourning the loss of something I can't even describe.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe I'm exaggerating the influence of elitism vs. populism and the holy quest for ad dollars will make Gawker a better place.

Or maybe Gawker is like every other good thing I've found on the net — enjoying a fleeting period of excellence, caught between obscurity and arrogance, right before they kill the golden goose.

If I'm right, readers will punish Gawker for crossing the line. Pageviews will follow the talent and Denton will be left with a big empty house.

UPDATE 12-4: Make that three editors gone in three days. Josh Stein quit today. Rats deserting a sinking ship or misguided idealists who can't handle the brave new world? I guess that depends on how the ship does.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 30, 2007 at 19:51

Posted in Gawker

Duff: Check out the hottest magazines on the Web – not available in print

Duff: Check out the hottest magazines on the Web – not available in print

The hottest magazines on the Web aren’t magazines at all. While most entertainment mags are losing audience, Nick Denton’s Gawker site is drawing 300,000 visitors per day.

Denton manages a suite of 14 Web sites, covering everything from travel to videogames. His flagship site, Gawker.com, started as a witty, acerbic guide to New York – sharp young outsiders poking fun at the elite.

Now, after ten years of snark and gossip, Gawker hasn’t just chipped away at the elite, they’ve redefined what elite is.

Gawker editors cut their teeth making fun of figures in mainstream media, only to get snatched up and hired away by the very publications they’re mocking.

New York publishing moguls may not have a sense of humor, but they know good writing, and Denton’s blogs are all about good writing.

These blogs succeed by putting words first. While mainstream media sites are packing in widgets and cramming links into every inch of screen space, the Gawker sites are stripped-down, almost austere by comparison.

These sites aren’t built on traditional journalism. Instead, they market themselves as the antidote to traditional journalism – a delicious mix of gossip, humor and innuendo that would send most magazine publishers running for their lawyers.

The blogs aren’t aggressively obscene (unless you count the porn blog) but they are clearly written for adults. And now, with the addition of user comments, the editors are frequently upstaged by their audience.

Gawker is my favorite Denton property, but the empire isn’t built exclusively on snark and celebrity gossip. Denton’s game blog, Kotaku, offers outstanding coverage of video games and Internet trends, while a sister site, Consumerist, helps shoppers find deals and get fair treatment from arrogant corporations.

Defamer covers Hollywood and celebrity gossip. Deadspin offers a twisted take on sports and Jezebel is to women’s magazines what the Sex Pistols were to rock ‘n’ roll.

The future of magazines has arrived, but you need a Web browser to see it. Text isn’t dead, it just let its hair down. The Denton blogs have defined a new writing style for the Web, and the old guard magazines are struggling to catch up.

Crisp, rude, funny and informative – this voice doesn’t sound like journalism. It sounds like a dorm room bull session, like nightclub chatter, lubricated by good music and a few drinks.

Readers in the 18-34 range eat this up. Gawker’s audience is 75 percent young and 66 percent female.

In an age where most publications are struggling to attract young readers, Denton is putting them to work.

Gawker commenters generate a staggering amount of content now. While the editors toil for moderate wages, dozens of brilliant writers are contributing for free, cracking jokes at the party, becoming micro-celebrities in their own right.

And of course, these sites are not for everybody. Older readers are likely to find themselves bewildered or even repelled by the tone of these blogs. Denton’s sites have taken a lot of heat (and lost a few advertisers) over the years, but you can’t redefine an industry without breaking some eggs.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 30, 2007 at 13:46

Posted in Columns

Duff: Avoid the pain, drama of TMI online

Duff: Avoid the pain, drama of TMI online

Call them the TMI Generation. TMI stands for Too Much Information – a slang term people use when friends or co-workers start revealing too much of their personal lives in public.

The declaration of “TMI!” is usually accompanied by backing away and frantic hand gestures, as if trying to physically ward off details about your uncle’s operation or elaborate descriptions of a co-worker’s nightclub exploits.

Bad enough in real life, but the Internet has taken TMI to a whole new level. We’ve seen an explosion of personal blogs since 2000 – public journals and online diaries, Facebook and Myspace and an alphabet soup of dating sites that urge you to reveal your deepest desires to the Net.

Internet veterans call it “Open Source Life” – an ethic of online exhibitionism that encourages people to record audio, stream video and post intimate photos of themselves at all hours of the day. Tools like Twitter and Facebook encourage people to post snippits of text throughout the day, sharing details about what they eat, what they buy and who they snuggle up to in real time.

My favorite example of an Open Source Life comes from jakobandjulia.com – a joint venture run by an entertainment reporter named Julia Allison and a New Media tech developer named Jakob Lodwick. A lot of people like to tell their friends when they start a new relationship; Jakob and Julia issued a news release.

Julia and Jakob already had personal blogs, so when they got together, they decided to take the romance public. They decided to make jakobandjulia.com a public celebration of their love – the good times and the bad, chronicled in painstaking detail.

The couple — wildly exhibitionist and impossibly photogenic – made for good reading most of the time. Then, at the end of November, Jakob lost his job. He was asked to leave the company he founded and everything seemed to go downhill. Jakob and Julia had a big fight on Dec. 3 and by Dec. 5, the relationship was over.

The Web site they started as an expression of love quickly became a forum for hurt feelings, as Julia cursed Jakob and railed at him for being an insensitive jerk. At one point Jakob says, “I don’t think a public Web site is the appropriate forum for this type of discussion” and Julia retorts, “This was your idea in the first place.”

And so we see the downside of an Open Source Life. Julia ran back to her personal blog and started talking about how great her previous boyfriend was. Ouch. One of the peanut gallery said Julia would eventually regret posting her 20-something ramblings in public, and I am forced to agree.

I know how embarrassing this kind of public disclosure can be because I did it for 10 years. Around 1996 or so, I was obsessed with Web-cams and online diaries. I posted long screeds about my personal life, systematically creeping out friends, family and total strangers with my most intimate thoughts.

I’ve deleted most of it, but it still surfaces from time to time. Trust me, no matter how smart you think you are at 25, by the time you hit 30 you will regret everything you used to think. Eventually there will be a service for people like me, an organization you can pay to remove every trace of yourself from the Net.

This is particularly dangerous with teenagers who like to post intimate details on Myspace. And no, this isn’t the usual journalistic fearmongering about child molesters on the Net. I’m talking about the dangers of emotional revelation. You run a lot of risks when you open your life to the public. Most people reading won’t understand the full context of your life. Most commenters won’t even read beyond the first paragraph.

The Net is full of people who like to insult strangers and judge people based on incomplete snippits of text. You think you’re sharing your life with an intimate circle of online friends; then the party crashers show up and you end up defending your choices to people who’ve never even met you.

High school is already a crucible of insecurity and peer pressure. Now, with search engine archives and 24/7 access to the Internet, the drama of your high school years can be captured for eternity, ready to be dug up by jilted lovers and prospective employers long after you’ve outgrown yourself.

I understand the appeal of an Open Source Life. Something deep inside us longs for openness and honesty. We all want to share ourselves and be loved for who we really are. But words are tricky things and not everyone who views your Internet face will understand what they see.

Most people with Internet journals would be better served with an email list. Keep in touch with family and friends, but be selective, and keep your secrets out of Google. Your future self will appreciate the discretion, even if you don’t quite understand it now.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 28, 2007 at 13:47

Posted in Columns

Duff: Striking writers are fighting for their piece of the Internet pie

Duff: Striking writers are fighting for their piece of the Internet pie

By the time you read this, the Hollywood writer’s strike will be three weeks old. And at the risk of sounding biased, this looks to be the most clear cut case of good vs. evil since David beaned Goliath.

Network execs sound particularly arrogant this time because they think they’ve figured out how to produce television without writers.

They think they can keep us distracted with game shows and reality TV while they work through their cache of scripted programs.

But “Heroes” fans won’t wait forever, and reality shows are old news. I’ll confess to being a fan of old-time game shows, but the modern variety are like cotton candy dunked in glitter.

There’s no substance here. Modern viewers need stories – characters, dialog and plots we can sink our teeth into. Look at what HBO has done for primetime TV.

Shows like “Rome,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” have carved out an audience and raised standards for free and pay TV alike. That’s the kind of entertainment people are hungry for – the kind of quality that comes from strong writing.

So what does all this have to do with the Internet? Everything. The writers want a flat 2.5 percent cut of new media revenue, and the execs are talking out both sides of their mouths as they try to deny it.

In one speech, Viacom chief Sumner Redstone brags about the revenue potential inherent in “convergent advertising deals” while in another he says new media “won’t yield enough revenue to pay writers for at least the next five or six decades of my life.”

The writers say networks are using the new medium as an excuse to cut their residual rate, just like they did when home video was new.

The writers took a serious pay cut to help the fledgling home video market and they never got it back. The Writer’s Guild pushed for a bigger cut of DVD revenue this time but took it off the table in the last round of negotiations before the strike.

Don’t let the networks fool you. New media is about to explode as a platform and a revenue source. Streaming video of primetime shows is viable, practical and paid for.

NBC and HBO are poised to launch a new service called Hulu, a Web site that will feature, not just current shows, but all your old favorites, ad-supported and in high quality.

It’s not fully implemented yet, but you can preview the service at video.aol.com.

The writers aren’t striking over some abstract prediction of the future. The Internet is about to change the way you watch TV, and writers are fighting for their piece of the pie.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 23, 2007 at 13:47

Posted in Columns, TV

Facebook offers faster ways to ruin your marriage

This Facebook widget crap has gotten out of hand. It caters to the lowest instincts of the Internet user — the doodad-collecting, quiz-taking, LOLCAT-worshipping masses.

And now they've found a new way to ruin your marriage.

I just got a news flash across my Facebook feed:

“This HOT OR NOT user wants to meet Greg Wharton!” This appears beside a microscopic picture of a girl who appears to be posing in tight shorts.

Which I read as, “Greg Wharton is about to cheat on his wife with THIS WOMAN! Sign up, and see if she has a sister!”

There is an alternate possibility. The girl in the picture may actually be Greg's wife, in which case they're just bragging.

Either way, this is more information than I needed.

Do they already have a status dropdown for this?

Michael is cheating on: his wife/a test/his taxes.

There has been an invasion of corporate execs on Facebook lately. Executives from our parent company have popped up with these cute, sanitized “my boss made me join Facebook” profiles and started adding rank and file employees from the A-J.

There's nothing quite like the cold chill you get when you find out a corporate VP has added you to his Friends list.

Like getting a LiveJournal comment from your dad.

I can already see the emails. “Hey Duff, I saw those pictures on your Facebook. I didn't know they made leather pants in your size, ha ha! Can we blow that up for the Christmas party slideshow?”

Facebook must be stopped.

UPDATE: And if all that's not bad enough, now Facebook is ruining Christmas.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 21, 2007 at 12:08

Posted in Facebook

Political blogs on Lubbock Online

We've got a couple new bloggers here at Lubbock Online. The staff has been scribbling here for a while, but now our political blogs are live, and both sides are ready to throw down.

In the right corner we have Dr. Donald May, a.k.a. Mr. Conservative.

And on the left we have Freda McVay, a.k.a. A Liberal Lubbockian.

Whatever you believe, I hope you'll agree that it's good to have both sides represented, and I hope you'll share my enthusiasm for the addition of political blogs to Lubbock Online. We've got two pillars of the community here — smart, passionate people who know their stuff and are willing to fight for what they believe in.

I think good blogging comes from passion, and I think politics is worth getting excited about, so I'll be following both these folks as they lay out their positions here online.

I could give you a 600-word civics lecture about voter apathy and the virtues of blogging for political advocacy, but let's face it — at the end of the day, I just like watching grownups fight.


Written by Michael B. Duff

November 20, 2007 at 16:39

Posted in Politics

CBS don't need writers to write news good

CBS news writers have authorized a nationwide strike, and once again, the execs aren't worried. They say they've got plenty of nonunion writers who can pick up the slack.

And in the news today, President Bush said a lot of boring stuff and some guy in Russia wigged out at a cabinet meeting. Back to you, Velveeta.

And then, like an hour ago, this criminal dude was all like, “I'm escaping with teh cash!”

And the cops were all like, “Nuh huh.”

And the dude was all like, “Yeah, huh.”

And his car was all like VROOM!

Then the cops were all, “We put down spikes on the road!” and the criminal dude got all crashed.

Then a van came and the driver got even more dead than the first guy.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 20, 2007 at 14:06

Posted in Humor, TV