Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Webster's Dictionary selects 'overshare' as Word of the Year

I woke up Tuesday morning and found out my blog had been linked by an unusual source — the dictionary.

Webster’s New World Dictionary has selected “overshare” as its Word of the Year. They link to a variety of great sources, including the original piece by Emily Gould and to me.

Specifically, they link to my column about The Overshare War and to the Rex Sorgatz post that inspired it.

Webster’s defines: overshare (verb): to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval.

I’m delighted to see “overshare” get the respect it deserves. Oversharing isn’t exclusive to the Internet, but before the Internet, there was a limit to how much trouble an individual act of oversharing could cause. Oversharing at a dinner party might be awkward, but real-life indescretions are less likely to travel around the world and be archived in Google.

I’m generally pleased with Webster’s definition and I’m always happy to have my name associated with “alarmed discomfort.”

Now that we’ve accepted “overshare,” I’d like to define its opposite. “Undershare” may not sound as cool as the original, but it’s an important concept, and I’d like to get it out there.

undershare (verb): to ruin a blog with vague, stilted or legalistic prose, as in a political speech or press release

If readers are expecting honesty, candor and personal disclosure and end up with legalese or corporate boilerplate instead, that’s undersharing.

This goes back to the first column I ever wrote. If it’s not personal, don’t call it a blog. I’m not saying Chris Matthews needs to post pictures of his kittens at MSNBC, but blogs need to sound like blogs — clear writing in short paragraphs, written as if you’re talking directly to the audience.

Generation Y really is The Overshare Generation. They’re used to getting their information straight up, unfiltered and direct. They don’t just ignore obective prose, they’re actually put off by it, as if anyone writing in third-person has something to hide.

I’m not saying every news story needs to sound like a blog post (yet), but Internet readers expect an intimate first-person voice, even when they’re reading about Darfur or the stock market.

Undersharing happens on the personal level as well. When a family member turns their blog into a commercial for Herbalife, for example, or when a beloved Usenet personality turns his blog into a half-assed advertisement for his newspaper column…

Oversharing may look like a fad, but I believe it represents a larger cultural shift. The baseline of our public discourse is changing. Readers have grown suspicious of press releases and corporate doublespeak, particularly after what’s been done to our economy.

These bank failures were facilitated by a culture of deception that used weasel-words and clever accounting to hide the truth from investors.

The economic collapse has made readers suspicious of vague numbers and vague language. Readers need straight talk and hard facts, interpreted by people who don’t believe everything they read. Increasingly, we’re going to see people turn away from “official” information sources and seek out sources that sound like real people.

Bloggers need to engage their audience on a human level. I don’t care if you’re blogging for PETA, General Electric, or the White House — if you want your readers to take you seriously, you have to show them the person behind the screen.

Anything less is undersharing, and in a world crippled by half-truth and broken promises, it’s a luxury we can’t afford.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 16, 2008 at 13:33

Posted in Culture

Capsule review of Neal Stephenson's Anathem

“Look, it’s a Vout! Peaceful monks who devote their lives to the study of philosophy, science, and math!”

“KILL HIM!”

“STONE HIM!”

“BEAT HIM WITH STICKS!”

“He used devil-science to save my life! Dump him the river!”

“Watch out! He summoned science-ninjas to save himself!”

“Run away!”

I’m paraphrasing, of course. The real version has a lot more made-up words, and takes about 60 pages to present this scene.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 16, 2008 at 08:07

Posted in Culture

Groping Hillary: Obama should pardon Jon Favreau

Groping cardboard women is not a crime; even if it’s Hillary.

Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau sparked a minor scandal last week when the Washington Post published a picture of him groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

December 9, 2008 at 11:17

Posted in Culture

All the sad, young unemployed bloggers

Four of my favorite bloggers joined the ranks of the unemployed this month.

Alex Balk and Choire Sicha of Radar Online lost their jobs last Friday, as Radar Magazine folded its print operation and turned its web operation over to the editor of the National Enquirer.

Staffers were locked out of their computers and put out on the street so fast, they didn’t even have time to steal office supplies.

Ana Marie Cox lost her stipend for campaign coverage and started a pledge drive so she could continue on the trail with McCain.

Defamer’s video blogger Molly McAleer lost her job in the latest round of Gawker layoffs.

These are four of the best writers on the web. So why are they lounging around in their pajamas today, begging for donations and scrambling for freelance work?

Option 1 – Duff is wrong – Intellectual honesty demands that I start with this one. Maybe these writers that I love so much are only funny to me — only funny to a misanthropic microculture that only spends money on DVDs and frozen yogurt.

Option 2 – Everybody’s broke – Entertainment sites exist on the economic fringe, supported with “luxury surplus dollars” that are now being spent on mortgage payments and CEO severance packages. By the end of the year the only growth industries will be in medicine, law and canned food.

Option 3 – Advertisers haven’t figured out the web yet – The people who run companies are age 40 to 60. The people who visit these web sites are 18 to 34. Online sales professionals aren’t just facing a technology gap; they’re also facing a generation gap, trying to explain the relevance of ads that, to the uninitiated, are just pictures on a screen.

The generation gap also affects perception of content. Cutting-edge web sites are quirky, profane, intimate and mean — operating right on the legal edge. This writing style is likely to annoy, frighten, or soar over the heads of corporate advertisers, driving them to “safer” content, even if it is from the National Enquirer.

Option 4 – Bad management – As Nick Denton admitted in the Gawker layoff announcement, “Writers on all of our sites have done exactly what we asked them to: work harder than the competition and grow the audience. It’s my commercial judgment that’s been at fault.”

It’s easy to blame management for this. A lot of people resort to freshmen-level Marxism when they hear news like this. Denton and company make great villains, but I think it’s more useful to examine the fundamental assumptions that drive their business.

The Gawker sites introduced a controversial bonus system last year that tied blogger pay to popularity — granting bonuses based on the number of pageviews that their posts generated. Writers lost a chunk from their regular salaries but became eligible for big bonuses when one of their posts struck oil.

The model worked, increasing Gawker site traffic by 69% in a year. But advertising revenue didn’t keep pace with page views, forcing Denton to cut bonuses and raise base pay.

It seems like a simple formula: talent = pageviews = $$$. But now those rules are changing. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between popularity and revenue. Advertisers are running scared and site managers are struggling to keep up.

Option 5 – “Balk is a jerk” – Celebrity bloggers are a new phenomenon. Pop stars are manufactured by record companies and literary stars still work within a kind of guild system, but blogging isn’t a true art form yet. Bloggers have made great strides, but the Internet is still a media ghetto.

In a just world, bloggers like Balk and Sicha would be rock stars, but the powers that be don’t respect their medium yet. Mainstream pundits vacillate between contempt and hyperbole. They know the Internet is important, but they don’t understand why. Contempt for the Internet is so ingrained, even their Internet hype stories sound condescending.

This climate makes it hard for bloggers, even great ones, to charge what they’re worth.

Huffington Post vlogger Jason Linkins described Radar Online as “an island of misfit toys.” Brilliant people who didn’t really belong in traditional media found a home there. Radar picked up a handful of Gawker castoffs (alternately referred to as Gawker Exiles or Gawker Survivors) and hosted a little utopia online. And like most utopias, this one was short-lived. Ana Marie Cox calls this crew “the Typhoid Mary’s of media.”

Cox said, “We are not good employees. No one will hire us. The world is too square. We are a bunch of round things.”

Maybe these folks really are too quirky for corporate media. But I prefer to believe Option 6.

Option 6 – Superstar bloggers are ahead of their time – To paraphrase John Edwards, there are two Internets. First we have the mainstream, casual, prime-time Internet. These folks think of the Internet as a supplement to TV and radio. They get their news from CNN and the Today Show and visit web sites they see on TV.

They surf major news sites and circulate kitty pictures in email. They use Google to check movie times and look up trivial pursuit answers, but they don’t really belong to the Internet. Their tastes, their lifestyles and their media expectations froze in 1996.

The other group has adopted the Internet as a fundamental part of their lives. They host blogs, use RSS feeds and keep up with friends on Twitter. These people are connected 24/7. They send text messages while they sleep and check email before they put their pants on.

They are young, smart and upwardly-mobile, but there aren’t enough of them yet. They’re hyper-literate, hyper-critical and hyper-connected. These are true alpha consumers. They want to be first with a new gadget, first to review a great book, first to complain about a bad movie and the first to celebrate when an old brand does something new.

They’re sick of the old media paradigm and are desperate to see something new. The key to attracting this group is subversion. You can’t just sneak your commercial onto YouTube three days early and call it “viral.” You can’t just put your marketing copy on Twitter and pretend you’re 2.0.

You have to change the way you talk to them, and the quickest way to win them over is to slaughter a sacred cow. It’s not enough to put a young model in a hot new dress. You have to pan the camera over and show the ripped jeans that she changed out of.

You have to establish a context of subversion in your ads and on your web site, to prove you’re not taking yourself too seriously. The Internet generation rebels against anything that smacks of pretension or self-importance.

These people know all the standard PR tricks and are violently allergic to corporate boilerplate. That’s why sites like Gawker and Radar are so popular, even when they’re raw. Generation Y is sick of committee thinking and committee writing. Blogging is the antidote to this. In this context of subversion, sloppy links and strange word choices can actually work in your favor, adding to the raw, intimate appeal of your site.

This style goes against 50 years of advertising guidelines and a century of professional journalism.

I think these bloggers are suffering because they got it right too soon, giving Internet alpha consumers what they wanted before advertisers were ready to pay for it.

Our economy is contracting right now. Everybody is holding on to their cash, scaling back and preparing for the worst. But the downturn won’t last forever. Internet alphas may be turning to cheaper luxuries, but the fundamentals are still the same.

Maybe you’ll be selling frozen yogurt instead of iPods this year, but the cool kids still need their snark fix, and you can’t catch smart readers with lame writing.

I think this is where Denton went wrong, and where Radar is about to go wrong. Denton changed the focus of his site, alienating his core audience and casting a wider net. Gawker sites dominated the Internet alpha market and hit a ceiling. Denton’s consumers were high-loyalty and high-value, but there weren’t enough of them to keep his numbers up.

He tried to expand his appeal and bring in the TMZ crowd. It worked. Pageviews went crazy but these new visitors had no particular loyalty to Gawker or its community. They were just clicking on shiny things, killing time between Lolcats.

That’s what happens when you cast a wide net. You get more fish, but quality suffers. Gawker pageviews skyrocketed, but the quality of its product and the cachet of its brand went down.

I’m not trying to bash Denton here. Commercial blogs are not vanity projects and they are not charity. Publishers have to strike a balance between quality and quantity of users.

Focus too tight and the audience will be too small to support you. Cast the net too wide and your loyal readers will leave. It’s a delicate balance and no one has it right yet.

All I know is that a dozen of the best writers on the Internet are facing unemployment this month. The future of journalism is strung out in a series of New York apartments right now, ready to work for a fraction of what they’re worth.

What happened to all those obnoxious Internet millionaires? Does anybody have any money left?

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 29, 2008 at 14:42

Posted in Culture, Gawker, Gossip

The ultimate secret to blogger success? Pretend to be a girl

UPDATE: Jezebel and I seem to be having a bit of a disagreement. The first part of the disagreement seems to be about which ugly, scary libertarian dork I am. I am this one. I am writing about this one.

This isn't the Libertarian guy either
I wasn’t able to find an authoritative picture of my subject, but he described this pic as “closer to the real me.”

I’m afraid some points in my column were a bit vague, making it easy for Megan to misunderstand me. You know all that stuff I wrote last week about ignoring criticism and staying above the fray? I’m about to break my own rules and respond to some of Megan’s points.

1. I know exactly how smart Ana Marie Cox is and would never want to imply that she become popular just because she was hott. Being hott and using “unladylike” language was a big part of her appeal, but she capitalized on it by mixing humor with serious commentary. To dismiss her as “a girl talking dirty about politics” would be a big mistake.

2. There is a difference between being knowledgable about economics and being obsessed. Libertarianism attracts the obsessed. I know this from personal experience and I have $400 worth of economics texts on my shelf to prove it. Want to see some Laffer curve statistics from 1993?

3. My main (perhaps poorly-expressed) point was: Putting up a pretty mugshot can get you some temporary, low-quality hits, but if you want to be taken seriously, you have to back it up with real insight. When I said female bloggers have “come into their own” I was thinking specifically of AMC and Rachel Sklar. Megan’s post makes it sound like I’m denigrating some of the women I was trying to praise and I wanted to clear that up.

4. And of course, Michael Duff IS pictured in the column and my primary subject was not. It’s too late to repair the damage to my self-esteem, but if Jezebel could fix their artwork, I might be able to shave a few weeks off my therapy.

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The ultimate secret to blogger success? Pretend to be a girl

My favorite Internet hoax was executed in 2005, by a Libertarian blogger who was tired of being ignored by his community.

The self-styled “Libertarian Man of Mystery” complained:

“When I had a blog as my real self, no one linked to me, no one left any comments, it was as if the blog existed in a vacuum.”

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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 17, 2008 at 11:24

Posted in Columns, Culture

Why I like Keith Gessen

You remember how things ended during every 80’s sitcom? When Dad and the kids would sit around at the end of the show and recap what they’ve learned?

It’s time for one of those.

Yesterday I tried to make a lame inside joke in Keith Gessen’s blog, referencing Alex Balk and Choire Sicha. Alex, Keith and Choire are three of my favorite writers, and I love them all for different reasons.

Choire is an outstanding journalist, in the big-J sense of that word: get the story, nail down quotes and throw in some snark to make it 2.0.

Keith writes an utterly sincere literary mag called N+1. Keith is a Writer, in the big-W sense of that word — devoted to digging up intensely personal, emotional material and wrapping it up in a bow of universal truth.

Balk is a Blogger, dishing out everything in quick bites, serving up sharp, funny bits of gossip in micro-paragraph chunks.

I expect credit for these labels, by the way, when somebody finally makes a tarot deck based on Internet celebs.

I made a joke in Keith’s blog yesterday, based on the assumption that these three men were friends, recently reconciled after a series of blog feuds. Turns out the term “reconciled” was a bit optimistic.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of that feud. VGI sums it up here, if you care.

A lot of people in the blogosphere hate Keith because he doesn’t play by the same rules that everyone else is using. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for him because I know exactly what he’s doing wrong and exactly where it’s coming from.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 2, 2008 at 13:59

Posted in Culture, Gawker

Is snark killing the web?

“There’s this ‘new generation’ that has grown up online only knowing blogs as having snarky comment areas and never realizing it used to be a personal, intimate space where you’d never say anything in a comment that you wouldn’t say to a friend’s face.”

That’s a quote from Matt Haughey, a quote that’s haunted me for a month, ever since I saw it on Rex Sorgatz’s Fimoculous blog.

Rex and Matt are self-identified members of the “old guard” — guys that started blogging before blogging was cool — before journal scripts and social networking sites put every angsty teenager and every narcissistic college student on the web.

I started my first blog in 1992, when web publishing required a degree of technical skill. The requirement for HTML coding created a barrier to entry, so the only people who had blogs were geeks who already made web pages for a living, or dedicated diarists who really had something to say.

Or, in my case, people who were so simultaneously lonely and full of themselves that every random thought in their head was deemed worthy of publication.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

September 29, 2008 at 04:07

Posted in Culture

A Hacker's Guide to Women

Mystery (Provided by VH1)What if I told you there was a secret formula that could get you any woman you want? What if I told you all the things you’re scared of — dating, flirting, courtship and the club scene — what if I told you those were all just games? Games you can learn, the same way you learn programming, mathematics, guitar and chess?

The magic is real, and it’s sweeping through the Internet like wildfire, turning geek boys into pick up artists like a virus that rewrites DNA.

It’s called The Mystery Method, and it’s the latest evolution of the “How to Pick Up Girls” books that have been around since the ’50s. The Pick Up Artist subculture has been a driving force on the Internet since its inception, when the Usenet group alt.seduction.fast launched the careers and fattened the wallets of men like Ross Jeffries.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 28, 2008 at 19:23

Posted in Columns, Culture

Tagged with

Duff and the Hacker

Back in the 80s I ran a bulletin board — a kind of primitive web site that you had to call and connect to over the phone. These systems had message boards, file downloads and live chat, but mine could only support one person at a time.

I come home from class one day and find my board gone — not just down, but gone. Deleted. Destroyed. Wiped off my hard drive like it never existed. I called my friends and connected to every board in town, initiating a city-wide manhunt for the jerk who took me down.

I had no proof, but I found a suspect — a small-time hacker who liked to brag about all the ways he could destroy a bulletin board. I don’t remember his handle, so I’ll just call him “RaZor.” RaZor talked big, and my friends said he was smart enough to kill a bulletin board, so I called in some favors and learned his real name.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 22, 2008 at 19:54

Posted in Best Of, Culture

The Overshare War

I loved the word “overshare” the first time I heard it. Now, six weeks later, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again.

Emily Gould popularized the word in a May 25 article in the New York Times Magazine. That column sparked a massive public debate, with a small army of bloggers trying to judge the value of intimate personal blogging. Call it “The Overshare War” — the battle between fans of artistic personal disclosure and the people who hate it.

The emergent champion of the overshare “movement” is a writer named Rex Sorgatz. There is no movement, of course, but I think this debate is important and I want to link it with big important words.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 5, 2008 at 01:36

Posted in Columns, Culture, Gawker