Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Columns’ Category

Michael Duff says goodbye

Wrote a final column for the A-J, but it looks like they’re not gonna run it. Here it is anyway:

This will be my last column for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

In June 2008, I tried to brand this as an “Internet culture” column and explain how this space would be different from the cacophony of technology columns that were here before me.

The media was already full of people doing industry profiles and product reviews. I wanted to focus on the big picture, to take a moment each week and appreciate things that were threatening to pass us by.

New products are changing the way we communicate and the way we treat each other, but it’s all happening so fast, nobody has time to think about it. We’re so busy using these new toys, we haven’t stopped to consider the benefits of instant communication or the dangers of overexposure.

The A-J gave me the opportunity to do that, week after week, in a format that gave me tremendous freedom. It helped me prove myself as a writer and create a voice that I’ll be using for the rest of my professional life.

I have to take a moment and thank Terry Greenberg for launching a series of new feature columns in 2007. I have to thank Shelly Gonzales for helping me navigate the treacherous legal and ethical waters of modern journalism. And I have to thank Bill Kerns for pleading my case and treating me like a human being when I walked up to his desk with a manuscript in my hand.

I want to thank Beth Pratt and Karen Brehm for their consistent encouragement and feedback, and most of all I have to thank the copy editors who learned when to save me from myself and when to leave me alone. Special thanks to Leanda, and Glenys, and Leesha, and James for fixing my unquoted movie titles and removing a thousand Oxford commas.

The Avalanche-Journal has been very good to me. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities I had and the friends I made here.

I didn’t slaughter as many sacred cows as I wanted to, but I was always able to poke them with sticks. I was trying to think back to my “proudest moment” in these pages but all I can remember is the fun stuff.

I remember abusing senior citizens in Grand Theft Auto and requesting help from Batman when my phone got stolen. I remember taking shots at Nick Denton and interviewing a Peggy Olson impersonator on Twitter.

I once described my job as “explaining the Internet to people who hate the Internet,” but I hope that description isn’t as true as it used to be. I hope the technophobes in the audience were able to read this column every week and come away with a bit more respect for technology and the people who use it.

I hope you read this column and decided to be nicer to people on blogs and forums. I hope you read this column and felt a little bit smarter each week, even when I was writing about things you never heard of before.

I hope you gained a bit more respect for video games and video gamers. I hope you learned to be a bit more careful with what you shared on Facebook, and I hope you learned to forgive people who shared too much.

I hope the people conducting job interviews learned to forgive candidates who left inappropriate stuff on their public profiles, and I hope a few grandparents learned to use Facebook to get closer to their kids.

I can’t say where I’m headed next, but keep your eyes on www.michaelduff.net and feel free to follow me on Facebook or Google Plus.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought, to sum up what I’ve been trying to say for the past four years.

The Internet is the real world. The people are real, the commenters are real, the emotions are real, and the consequences are real.

Every comment, every blog post, and every video game avatar represents a real person, with their own set of quirks and vulnerabilities. We’re getting better at this whole “online communication” thing but we all have blind spots, and not everyone can express themselves well in this medium.

When in doubt, be nice. Don’t assume the worst about people, and don’t rise to the bait when people try to provoke you. Something about the Internet can make rational adults behave like spoiled children. Don’t let them get to you, and don’t let them drive you away.

The Internet is the future, and the future belongs to everyone.

Thank you for your attention and your feedback. I may not be in print anymore, but I’ll be around.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 2, 2011 at 04:32

Posted in Best Of, Columns

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

2009, the year blogging sold out

A year ago I wrote that 2008 was the year the Internet moved out of dad’s basement, the year that ended a decade of hype and told publishers it was time to put up or shut up.

The Internet moved out in 2008 and went through 2009 like a bewildered college kid. It took its first faltering steps into the real world and gave up on a lot of big dreams. 2009 was the year the Internet put on a suit and learned to suck up.

A lot of smart people lost their jobs in 2009 as web publishers panicked and ad revenue dried up. A dozen of my favorite bloggers lost their jobs as news sites rejected quirky, distinctive voices and turned into boring corporate media machines.

The Internet may be more useful, more profitable and more efficient as we head in to 2010, but sites that survived the recession did it by sacrificing style and personality, as if charm is a luxury we can no longer afford.

2009 was the year the Internet went corporate. There’s a blandness in the medium now. Even the snark has a tired, forced quality to it, as if everybody is just going through the motions, hyping the same tired stories over and over again, waiting for the next celebrity screw-up to sweep through and pay the bills.

2009 was the year the Internet surrendered to groupthink. I didn’t read Gawker because I wanted to see a bulleted list of what came out of Anna Nicole’s stomach. I read Gawker because I wanted to see my favorite writers react to current events. I wanted to read reactions and analysis from smart, funny writers that I had a relationship with.

Now all that personality has been stripped away and every blog on the Internet has become TMZ Lite. The success of TMZ.com dominated 2009.

No one can deny what Harvey Levin has accomplished over there.

TMZ may be a tabloid, but in a world obsessed with celebrity death and celebrity screw-ups, being first with revelations about Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson carries a lot of weight.

Any success is bound to attract imitators, particularly in a recession when sites are too poor to break news and too scared to write opinion.

The recession turned the Internet into a dull corporate echo chamber of fake news and manufactured outrage.

Here’s my advice to bloggers in 2010: Don’t try to be TMZ. TMZ already exists and they’re better at being TMZ than you are. Don’t try to compete with giants on their home turf. Focus on what makes your site unique — the experience, the opinions and the personality of your writers. Don’t parrot the gossip sites, react to them. Critique them.

Find a voice and trust it. Don’t worry about the 30,000 readers who rush in from Digg and leave your site in 28 seconds.

Focus on the 3,000 readers who visit you every day. Focus on the 300 readers who link you from their personal blogs and repost your stuff on Facebook. Focus on the 30 readers who write good comments and create a community that people will come back to.

Drop out of the tabloid rat race and tell us what you think. I don’t need to read the same three facts on 30 different blogs. Don’t just parrot TMZ. Give me something to read after TMZ.

2009 was the year of the pageview, the year that bloggers sacrificed long-term audience for short-term flash. Individual publishers and advertisers know better, of course, but the guys who write the checks are still focused on raw traffic.

I’d like to think 2010 will be the year that changes that, but pageviews have been an obsolete measure for years and they’re still holding on. The truth is, a short-term burst of site visits is worth almost nothing in real terms. Big spikes look great in PowerPoint, but it’s the boring, constant visitor who pays the bills.

Blog publishers, big and small, have to stop thinking about raw numbers. Stop worrying about the weather, the mercurial ups and downs of your daily site graph, and start worrying about your core audience.

Stop worrying about how to capitalize on the latest celebrity buzz and start worrying about who you have a relationship with.

Why are readers coming here and why do they come back? Who are they and what do they want? Put up the obligatory link to TMZ when the next celebrity dies, but take your time with the follow-up. Don’t tell us what we already know. Tell us what you think.

Step out from behind your corporate logo and let readers see you as a person. Nobody has a “relationship” with Gawker or TMZ. Readers have relationships with people who write. Encourage those relationships; encourage your writers to develop a voice and put stories in context.

Focus on what makes you unique, and make the Internet worth reading again.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 1, 2010 at 11:35

Posted in Columns

SGU, Galactica prove science fiction genre is ready to grow up

Slowly but surely, science fiction is growing up.

There’s always been a gap between the deep, thought-provoking stories of literary sci-fi and the shallow dumbed-down stuff that ends up on TV. Star Trek captured some of the depth. Shows like Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits introduced mainstream audiences to core sci-fi concepts, and now modern television is starting to use science fiction as a backdrop for mainstream adult drama.

There’s still a sci-fi ghetto, in print and on television, but the genre audience is increasingly passionate, organized and vocal.

There’s still a schizophrenic quality to modern sci-fi shows, like creators are constantly at war with their producers, struggling to save mature science fiction concepts from the impulses of studio execs who want to reduce everything to a succession of tired, comfortable tropes.

This conflict was obvious in the recent Battlestar Galactica series, a story that started off strong, with a series of flawed, interesting characters thrust into a lifeboat situation, and devolved into a fragmented mess.


Written by Michael B. Duff

December 18, 2009 at 12:50

Posted in Columns

You say you don’t care about Tiger Woods, but Google knows better

I have seen the Next Big Thing in news, and it’s not what you think.

It’s not a new cable network. It’s not a killer app for your phone; it’s not Google, and it’s not Rupert Murdoch, vowing to get rich by removing himself from phone books.

It’s an animated video of Tiger Woods spanking a porn star.


Written by Michael B. Duff

December 11, 2009 at 07:21

Posted in Columns, Google, Journalism

Designers reveal their favorite memories as World of Warcraft turns five

World of Warcraft turned five last week.

By way of comparison, heroin is 135, cocaine is 154 and we’ve been making alcoholic beverages for 9,000 years. I would put the debut of World of Warcraft on par with these events, comparable to when the first caveman fermented the first grape.

But this isn’t another tedious game addiction column; this is a tip of the hat to a game that has brought thousands of hours of reasonably-priced joy to people all over the world…


Written by Michael B. Duff

December 4, 2009 at 09:32

Posted in Columns, Games, Warcraft

Christmas is coming; don’t buy your geek the wrong gift

It’s almost Christmas and you haven’t done any shopping yet.

You know what to buy for your parents, your siblings and all the little kids, but what do you buy for the geek of the house?


Written by Michael B. Duff

November 27, 2009 at 19:32

Posted in Columns

Christmas is coming; don't buy your geek the wrong gift

It’s almost Christmas and you haven’t done any shopping yet.

You know what to buy for your parents, your siblings and all the little kids, but what do you buy for the geek of the house?

Your first concern is obviously price. The more you’re willing to spend, the easier your decision will be. The world is full of expensive geek toys. If you’re willing to devote some cash to the project, you can get your geek a game console. If they already have one, they probably want the other one. If you’re stuck trying to figure out what game system or software titles your teenager (or console-friendly adult) wants, just ask them.

Or, if you’re a purist, committed to the idea of a Christmas surprise, call their best friend on the phone and ask which games they want to play together that they currently can’t.

This is an important step that many people forget when buying gifts. It’s easy to make a mistake here. Parents and spouses who are not tech-savvy can end up with wasted money and hurt feelings if they buy their geeks the wrong hardware. Making the choice between Xbox and Nintendo, Wii or PS3, or PC and Mac is a big deal.

Some parents think all computers are created equal, but when you commit to a brand, you’re locking your kids into a specific platform, and if it’s not the same system that their friends have, you’ll end up wasting time and money on a gift that will never be used.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 25, 2009 at 15:33

Posted in Apple, Columns, Games

Unfriend is Word of the Year

The New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year for 2009 is “unfriend,” defined as “To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.”

In context, “He was spamming me with ‘Mafia Wars’ notifications so I decided to unfriend him.” Or, “She filled her journal with Polish nude photography links so I had to unfriend her at work.” Or, “I posted that Obama bowing video and all the Democrats unfriended me.”


Written by Michael B. Duff

November 20, 2009 at 19:39

Posted in Columns

Unfriend is Word of the Year

The New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year for 2009 is “Unfriend,” defined as “To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.”

In context, “He was spamming me with ‘Mafia Wars‘ notifications so I decided to unfriend him.” Or, “She filled her journal with Polish nude photography links so I had to unfriend her at work.” Or, “I posted that Obama bowing video and all the Democrats unfriended me.”

Unfriending is a tricky business, guaranteed to hurt feelings or start a fight unless your subject is oblivious to Internet stuff or just too famous to care. Although I suspect even famous people hurt a little when they see their friend counts go down.

I remember many years ago when a distant friend dropped me from her journal network because my entries “weren’t really relevant to her life.” That was six years ago, but I still haven’t forgiven her. Last week she wrote to ask how I was and I almost lost it. “Well, if you hadn’t dropped me in 2003 you would KNOW, wouldn’t you? My REAL friends already know how I am!”

Childish behavior, I know. Made even worse when you consider the number of nice, innocent people I’ve dropped from social networks over the years. I currently have 212 followers on Twitter. I follow 76 people. Now, of that 76, how many do you think I actually read?

I check Twitter five or six times a day, for two or three minutes at a time. I read the top few entries, then I get bored and wander off. In practice, I only read two people: New Media guru @jayrosen_nyu and social media powerhouse @rachelsklar. Not because I’m particularly fascinated by them, but because they both post so frequently their tweets tend to stick on my front page.

The reality that no social media tool has quite grasped yet is that we all have different categories of friends, and their posts are relevant to us at different times of day. When I’m at work, I want to read tweets from people I work with. Around 5 p.m. I want to plan my evening and read tweets from friends. In the early morning I want to catch up with pundits who work in my industry, and in the late evening I finally have time for celebrity tweets and snarky news links.

Twitter has recently introduced a list feature that should make this easier on me, but setting up lists is so difficult right now I haven’t found time to set it up.

I’m glad to see dictionaries recognizing the legitimacy of “unfriend” but I think we need some new words to describe different categories of friends. I need words to describe these friends:

1. The corporate executive who’s never had a real conversation with you but who’s just too important to drop.

2. The A-list celebrity who was funny for a while but now just posts about dogs and links to his merchandise.

3. The B-list celebrity who was nice to you once.

4. The senior class president who only tweets when he wants you to drop $78 dollars on a reunion ticket.

5. The A-list blogger who only posts links to his own blog.

6. The C-list blogger who incesscently retweets people you’ve read already. (This is me.)

7. The co-worker who tweets 20 times a day, mainly about cats and what she ordered at Starbucks.

8. The editor/boss you added so you can anticipate major projects before he assigns them to you.

9. The enemy you added so you can catch them saying something indiscreet.

10. The co-worker who added you so they can catch you saying something indiscreet.

11. The old girlfriend you added so you can catch her complaining about her new boyfriend.

12. The boyfriend you added so you can catch him complaining about your old girlfriend.

13. Tracy Morgan.

14. That musician you don’t actually listen to but added so your friends would think you’re cool.

15. That guy who was posting great stuff about #balloonboy last month but is now just a normal person.

16. That guy you added because he quoted you six months ago.

17. That girl with the hot photo who turned out to be a spammer.

18. The celebrity impersonator who used up all his good material on the first day.

19. The former cheerleader who doesn’t really like you but will cry if you cut her off.

20. That guy you used to work with who doesn’t care if you live or die now.

21. The guy you start to drop until you realize it’s @davewiner.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 17, 2009 at 18:27

Posted in Columns