May 3, 2012

Our Ambivalent New Media Landscape

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What is the issue?

For all of its short life, the internet has been a weird frontier, where the long-term value of just about any new cultural invention is almost impossible to guess at. Me, I’ve been interested in it since I was an adolescent girl trying to meet cool older guys on newsgroups — a detached and colorless universe that to me was on the same continuum as the clicky Hypercard shareware adventures I played on my Dad’s Macintosh Quadra.

Maybe that’s how I came to see video games as existing on an ‘interactive entertainment’ spectrum, with degrees of culture in common with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and any number of online spaces where people make inputs, they get a response, and then they develop a culture around those interactions.

That’s probably why I think of some of what I do as ‘new media criticism,’ but I’m not sure the extent to which that’s an oxymoron. I mean, in writing on video games we have a lot of debates about the ‘role of the critic,’ or, like, about what is ‘criticism’ versus ‘reviews’ versus journalism or whatever else.

Clearly we don’t really know what all that stuff is, beyond instinct. Most of us didn’t go to journalism school or whatever. With some stellar exceptions, I feel like most people who went to journalism school aren’t any good at being writers of any kind on the internet, because the academic institution was like ten years behind the online and social media revolution, but I digress.

Like, I feel like media criticism is to an extent an established discipline, but in what way are traditional ideas of ‘criticism’ relevant to what we’d call ‘new media’? Is the glut of 90s-nostalgia Tumblrs operated by ironic 20-year-olds a phenomenon worthy of a note in the cultural history books, or is it aberrant, unnoticed?

Will future historians look back on today’s high-concept cable TV melodramas — the ones that focus on the role of marginalized people in archaic patriarchies  — and their contemporaries, the pop culture ‘girl power’ shows, and call that dichotomy some kind of 21st century feminist milestone? Can we call it that now without knowing how relevant it’ll be later?

Who knows, really. The speed of information and meme transmission online is so unholy fast that we’re almost forced to judge the value of nearly everything by the reaction it garners. Like how you judge the severity of a wound by how much biology rushes to its site, and how quick. Voting on urgency with clusters of platelets. This is the new media landscape, and the long-term impact and overall quality of any art or information is unprecedentedly challenging to grasp. Potentially impossible.

And this means you can make absolute sh-t, and no one will know it’s bad so long as you cause enough of a splash online. And, I mean… in an environment where short-term impact and large-scale reactions are paramount to both culture and economy online, maybe those measures do actually surmount preconceived critical notions of what is ‘relevant’ or ‘good.’

But how would I know? Recall I am a ‘new media writer’ for a living without any education thereto — there are people irrevocably in debt to their desire for such an education, and yet here I am: a self-styled critic with a grasp tenuous at best on traditional definitions of the role of the critic in media, making a living because for some unknowable reason people are drawn to the way I write, whether it’s because they love it or hate it, whether because I’m correct or incorrect.

I wrote a fairly popular article here satirizing the stigma of the freelance writer; I ‘subverted’ the advice-column format to ‘recommend’ aspiring writers drink, procrastinate, marinate in personal angst. On an email thread for people in my profession a veteran writer lambasted what he saw as my flippant attitude, stolidly declaring that professional sensibilities must come above all artistic notions.

He’s mostly right, but I work more than he does (possibly why he flew off the handle); I’m more prolific, a more popular writer than he is. Probably it’s even ‘unprofessional’ for me to recount that ‘off the record’ conflict here, but I don’t really care: Make me think and you become my work. I’m an exemplar of the climate I describe.

And as a product of my age, I’m more interested in understanding and communicating the culture and context of a popular thing than in stabbing at some universal idea of whether [x] is ‘good’ or not. I am not traditionally educated enough to know whether this makes me a good critic. Maybe it is my ability to articulate all of this that makes me ‘good.’ Probably my point is that it doesn’t matter.

Especially when it comes to art, all the education in the world can’t lend total objectivity — it’s just that fact has just never been as clear before as it is in the social media climate, where we can be privy to hundreds of thousands of opinions at a glance, touch the randomness of consensus, the unpredictable cocktail of factors that determines popularity.

Like, is the ‘@bigoletitties’ Twitter feed art, parody, or is it ‘completely racist’? You decide! Spend half a second on some word-vomit for your ambiguous Facebook page or your parody Twitter: Congratulations, you’re an ‘internet poet.’

After I finished writing this I read it out loud to someone and he goes, “You sound like Phil Silvers yelling as he drove his own car into the swamp.” And I was like, “who’s that?”

I looked it up and I felt pretty sure he was referencing The Simpsons anyway. TC mark

image – Shutterstock
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