Poptimist: On trollgaze, streams, and nanoculture.

By Tom Ewing via Pitchfork

We So Excited

If I were handing out an award for 2011’s Best New Genre, I’d pick trollgazeVillage Voicemusic editor Maura Johnston’s inspired coining for pageview-junkie tracks like "Gucci Gucci"and Heart2Heart’s "Facebook Official". Trollgaze wins not because the music’s good— some of it’s fine, some of it’s wretched— but because it nails a real anxiety among older critics. We grew up in the 1980s or 90s when the question “Is this for real?” seemed important, whether you sought the authentic or pushed back against it. With this music the question barely exists— even asking it puts you out of a loop. Rebecca Black’s "Friday", for instance, might have been quite sincere, but the shape of the web event around it matters far more than any intention.

But trollgaze as an idea also reflects a wider concern. A trollgaze track is utterly web-native: It’s not built to exist in a record shop, a TV channel, a collection, or even an mp3 playlist. Its natural habitat is the stream— that ceaseless flow of information we access every time we use social media. Trollgaze is something you see sandwiched between other status updates, tweets, or posts, fighting for attention with every other picture, stray thought, polemic, or advert. Its button-pushing crassness and ambiguous motives make it an evolutionary nightmare: music perfectly adapted for life in the stream.

I loved listening to music when I was 20, but I don’t remember feeling that the ecosystem of cassettes and record stores and newsprint music writing was a particular paradise. I think I just loved being 20.

And people worry about the stream, for many different reasons. Depending on whom you ask,it’s addictive; it changes the shape of our brains; it destroys intellectual property; it destroysintellect; it’s a frivolous waste of time; it strangles originality; it annihilates privacy; it’sreducing us to lists of keywords; it’s reinforcing iniquitous power structures; it’s turning us into products. Ranged against this coalition of naysayers are marketers, techno-utopians, libertarians, and, it must be said, an awful lot of ordinary web users, who swell the numbers of social-media users to ever more boggling levels. Their immersion in the stream is grist to the pro or anti factions alike.

Many music critics— and music lovers— fret about the stream too, for broader reasons than the quality of Kreayshawn. A constant theme of this column has been nostalgia, not so much for music itself, but for ways of listening to it: the besieged sense that there was once a proper way to approach music, and that this is vanishing, scorched by technological novelty. I’m not very sympathetic: I loved listening to music when I was 20, but I don’t remember feeling that the ecosystem of cassettes and record stores and newsprint music writing was a particular paradise. I think I just loved being 20.

But I don’t have to be in love with the past to think that the stream’s effects on existing bits of culture is problematic. Many people feel that, when music is rolled along in the online stream, its context is washed away and its value risked. They aren’t just being wistful— they simply want music to be special, and that specialness seems threatened. The same goes for lovers and critics of almost any artform. They see the stream’s relationship to the art they love as parasitic: existing music, TV, art, books, comics— anything is simply raw material. At best this means the delight of discovery and the pleasure of curation; at worst it means art is ground up, swallowed, and forgotten.

Is there another way to look at it? We could try and shift perspective, to think of the stream as a cultural form in its own right— one with its own principles, virtues, thrills, and tensions. A thing we tackle critically, not simply celebrate or damn. In other words, we could stop imagining the stream as a vector for pop and start thinking of it as a kind of pop itself.

The Ideal Copy

To do this I’m going to need a more descriptive word than “the stream.” In the spirit of reblogging and reusing, I’ll borrow one from journalist Bill Wasik, the man who invented flashmobs and produced the best critical guide to web culture so far in his 2009 book, And Then There’s This. He called the ideas, tropes, and micro-events that swirl about in the stream “nanostories,” coining the word with a winningly self-conscious air. So I’ll call what I’m talking about nanoculture. It encompasses the streams we create, curate, and consume online, and the stories that flow through them, and the things we do to that stuff: sharing it, liking it, revivingit, changing it, arguing over it.

And Then There’s This came on as a playful take on the Malcolm Gladwell-style business bestseller. It’s a collection of case studies of Wasik’s own experiments in the field: the jokes he started, the ideas he got bored of, the sites he launched and threw away. One of them was the short-lived blog "Stop Peter Bjorn and John", a fictitious cry of pain at the buzziness of"Young Folks" and— by implication— the fierce turnover of blog bands. Of course the blog simply accelerated Peter Bjorn and John’s buzz, as Wasik doubtless guessed it would.

One of the most energizing things about nanoculture is that it’s a culture of making: building things, trying ideas out, and exploiting loopholes.

Wasik’s book has not entered the business canon. Business books thrive because they make you feel like you’re being let in on a great secret. And Then There’s This did too, but with a wink, constantly undermining itself and you, making you realize that the great secret might actually be a really dumb secret, and you were the rube for trying to chase it. Between the lines you could pick up on a few points about nanoculture, though. The most useful advice being: just get on with it. One of the most energizing things about nanoculture is that it’s a culture of making: building things, bodging, trying ideas out, working around limitations, and exploiting loopholes. An idea is worth nothing unless you act on it. That ethos reverberates across the online world, from the current business fashion for “lean” and “agile” companies, right down to the reckless, constant self-sharing of stereotypical social media-ites.

But what gets made, and who controls it? In a series of posts several years ago on “spreadable media,” the academic Henry Jenkins put his finger on the great faultline in nanoculture— its equivalent of “major label vs. indie,” except far more fundamental. Jenkins’ posts were intended to destroy the concept of “virals”— criticizing the idea for casting people as unthinking hosts for information and giving all the power to the media owner. Instead, he proposed, the same marketers and creators who cared about virals should start thinking about “spreadable” media, putting the emphasis on the people who passed it around, changing it and deepening it in the process.

Of course the idea of “viral” was not so easy to shift, because the concept— far from being wrong— tallies precisely with the interests of a lot of players in the online ecosystem. Jenkins’ opposition to viral and spreadable content is at root an opposition to two kinds of copying: replication and imitation. Replication is perfect— the content is preserved unaltered. Imitation is imperfect— the content changes as it spreads. On the side of replication are advertisers looking for a spot that will “go viral,” Facebook and its “frictionless sharing,” Apple and its beautifully sealed interfaces, and most content owners. On the side of imitation are fan communities, wikis, and the great meme-hives of the web like 4chan and Reddit. Most of the big social-media services have feet in both camps. Twitter, for instance, birthed the hashtag, a beautifully imitative conceit— but it also changed its protocol on retweets to make them pure replicas of other people’s content, cutting off one avenue for cultural mutation.

Usually Bubble

Replication and imitation aren’t just alternative ways of behaving in nanoculture: Different things bloom or wither under each condition. Imitation is collaborative: It might be technically possible to dig back and find the originator of, say, Socially Awkward Penguin orPrivilege Denying Dude, but the knowledge would be perfectly useless. Whatever life or value these things have lies in their reuse. When something replicates, on the other hand, following the trail backwards can be illuminating, perhaps ending up at digital marketing agencies, PR people, or political groups. All of whom could exploit imitative culture too, but often shy away from it because control over the message remains so vital to them. What imitation and replication have in common, more often than not, is transience.

Most critics of nanoculture point to its ephemerality as a serious problem: Even friendlier commentators, like Wasik, tend to agree. When he contemplates his nanostories en masse he feels a hollowness that’s awfully familiar to anyone who’s looked at a chart of “top virals.” Though the sites and networks that host it are still young, nanoculture seems terrible at producing works that outlast their flush of fame. You could argue, with some justice, that we should hardly expect it to. We tend to see lasting artifacts as the purpose of pop culture, but maybe great movies and records were just the happy by-products of a particular energy that finds more efficient expression in the internet’s punishing turnover.

Even if that’s true, it’s not a cheerful prospect. There’s an awful inversion of effort in nanoculture, particularly the viral, replicating kind. One of the things that’s great about pop is the way a few minutes of work— a song, a performance, or a single photo— could ripple and resonate for decades, not because it was consciously trying to stand the test of time, but because somebody happened to capture the vitality of a moment or gesture. But the world of viral content is full of vastly elaborate work designed to produce a single fleeting effect— a tremble of happiness or surprise that’s just enough to make you share them. The effort that goes into making, for instance, a video where a herd of sheep form a giant LED display, seems absurdly disproportionate to the attention any given viewer will pay to it. Sheep! Lit up! Cool! The End! Maybe that’s a glorious absurdity, and making a lot of people briefly happy is nothing to be scoffed at, but even as a pop lover the constant diet of quick-hit awesomeness served up by virals grows sickening fast.

We tend to see lasting artifacts as the purpose of pop culture, but maybe great movies and records were just the happy by-products of a particular energy that finds more efficient expression in the internet’s punishing turnover.

But that’s more of a problem for the replication side of the stream— imitation is just as transient, but the effort is distributed as well as the reaction, so it feels livelier and grows stale less quickly. It also exposes one of the most common misconceptions around nanoculture, a carry-over from broadcast media: the belief that the right way to measure the success of a thing is to measure how many people it reaches in aggregate.

This made a certain amount of sense for pop records or films, because the availability of those things was so tied to their popularity. Aggregation mattered because broadcasters used it as a guide: If 20 million people bought an album, its level of visibility in the mainstream media would be massively higher than if 20,000 bought it. Specialist media would see similar effects but at a smaller scale— Pixies were a bigger deal than, say, Bitch Magnet because far more people liked them. So it seems natural to look at social media in the same way and imagine that the aggregate number of hits or views is the important thing about it— all the more so because, to advertisers and content owners, that often is the important thing.

But at the individual level, this isn’t really the case. Success in social media is equal to reproduction, but for a single user experiencing nanoculture as a personalized stream of information, local success and global success look virtually the same. If you follow 200 people on Twitter, and those 200 are all talking about Lana Del Rey, you don’t necessarily have good information about whether anyone outside that likes her. Your own stream is flooded, and scale dissolves. This is what writer Eli Pariser calls “the Filter Bubble"— the insidious power of the stream to bring you only what you want to hear, turning you into a local market of one. This can distort your understanding of reality— though no more so than reading only one newspaper, you might argue— but it can also offer useful insulation from constructs like "virality."

Playing Video Games

In Retromania, Simon Reynolds is damning about the stream and its effects on existing pop culture and on its users. His book’s argument about music’s revivalist habits has caught most of the attention, but for me his sharpest observation is on how nanoculture dissolves time, creating a perpetual present where the old is just as now as the new. This nails a particular sensation, but Reynolds’ spin on it isn’t positive: He describes users as feeling stretched and drained. Bill Wasik, on the other hand, describes well the perpetual boredom of the meme master faced with the same conditions.

Taken together, these diagnoses reminded me of something— Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's mapping of how people experience activities. Csikszentmihalyi's map plots the doer's level skill on one axis against the level of challenge they face on the other, and creates a wheel of felt experience from apathy to arousal. Boredom fits onto the map— it happens when skill is reasonable but challenge is low. And the sensation of jittery stretched-ness Reynolds describes seems to match the anxious side of the map where the level of challenge (the flow of new information) is higher than one's ability to deal with it. The optimum state in Csikszentmihalyi's model is flow— where both skill and challenge are high and an individual finds him or herself in a state of complete immersion.

Perhaps nanoculture is best understood as the finest version yet of the web as a game-like experience, in which flow can be achieved but so can boredom, relaxation, control, or any other state of mind.

The map has become particularly popular among game designers, who are looking to create experiences which directly challenge players across a range of skill levels: Promoting flow can become a goal. The immersion of the flow-state, where a player loses track of time, feels similar to Reynolds’ perpetual present. Perhaps nanoculture is best understood as the finest version yet of the web as a game-like experience, in which flow can be achieved but so can boredom, relaxation, control, or any other of Csikszentmihalyi’s states of mind. In a way, it’s sad that the word “surfing” caught on so early as the description of what people do online. Using the web back then was more like diving— plunging into an endless otherworld looking for treasure. Social media is a truer match for the surfing metaphor— content comes at you and you ride it as best you can.

I recognized from experience both Wasik’s and Reynold’s descriptions of post-web tristesse, but the idea of flow matches my own peak experiences with social media— diving into discussions, making delighted connections between unrelated links, meeting new music, or thinking at just the right pace. It seems to offer a way into criticizing nanoculture on its own terms. The positive aspects of nanoculture— the ethos of making, the collaborative creativity of innovation, the intimacy and mutual support of a network— seem to me better designed to promote flow. When nanoculture becomes smoothed-out by replication or homogenized by aggregation, this state is much harder to achieve.

Nanoculture isn’t going to disappear— it’s too vibrant and bolshy to be cowed or worried into respectability. It’s forever exploited and forever surprising.

But imagining a criticism for nanoculture doesn’t bring with it a natural role for the critic. The individual stories that make up social media don’t resist criticism, but they resist the idea of an outside arbiter, a non-participating critic. Hindsight and distance are vital parts of a critic’s armory, but they’re close to useless in nanoculture— you end sculpting explanations for the success of one thing rather than another, when it was most likely random anyhow. The way to criticize this stuff is to join in— making your own, commenting and imitating when you can add something. Sometimes the thing to do is nothing: Do not feed the trollgaze, as it were.

This advice also points out something important about nanoculture: You have a relatively high degree of control over it. Not complete control, but enough that you can vary your inputs and your level of involvement and your “challenge.” It’s unwise to be utopian about this. The mainstream enablers of nanoculture— Facebook, etc.— change their systems repeatedly and not always in the user’s favor, and for all their generalizations almost every critic of the internet has cogent points. This remains a game in which the best move is often to quit.

But nanoculture isn’t going to disappear— it’s too vibrant and bolshy to be cowed or worried into respectability. At its imitative, collective best, it has a familiar junkyard energy: it’s demonized, lionized, and cashed-in on. It’s forever exploited and forever surprising. It’s ephemeral and debasing, shocking, pointless, and stupid. It makes me feel old and sentimental to say it, but it feels very much like pop once felt, and it deserves— though does not want or need— our understanding.

View text
  • #Pitchfork #Poptimist #Kreayshawn #Gucci Gucci #trollgaze #Rebecca Black #streams #nanoculture #Malcolm Gladwell #viral
  • 2 years ago
  • 2
x