July 25, 2011
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Single Minded

Behind the NY Times paywall, Virginia Heffernan wraps up her columns on The Medium, by which she means “the Web,” with an epitaph.

Anyone who’s honest with herself knows that the Web stopped being a great place for consumers of culture a year or two ago. You think you’re reading the Web these days, but it’s reading you — gathering data on you, trying to sell you stuff, pushing you to other links. On the Web, reading is shopping. And sometimes you don’t want to shop.

She sees the Amazon Kindle Single – long form nonfiction sold for a dollar or two, like an 18th century pamphlet – as an alternative to the insistent commerce of the Web.

I should be sympathetic, having just given a talk at Web Science that began:

Last week at Hypertext, Dame Wendy Hall

Reminded us of what we might forget:

The Web is large and new, it flourishes,

It seems to go from strength to strength, and yet

We do not know how strong it really is.

We must remember that we still could wreck the web.

But Heffernan’s specific complaint is absurd. If we cannot “consume culture” in the presence of capitalism, where then shall we do it? In the pages of the publicly-traded New York Times conglomerate? Perhaps with some performance art at MOMA – their current piece is made possible by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art through the Annenberg Foundation. If that’s too mired in capitalism, we could hear a concert at Carnegie Hall, built by U.S. Steel and now “sponsored by Bank of America.” We could see a Broadway show – musical theater has never been much involved with marketing, right? – or see a ballgame at the home of the New York American League Baseball Club Inc., informally known as the Yankees®. Yes, Virginia, if you find yourself unable to consume culture in the presence of vulgar trade, you really might have a problem, but the problem’s not the Web’s.

Why should we recoil in horror at the idea that we read the Web and the Web reads us, anyway? What otherwise is the point of performance? Yes, some sites want to manipulate us into further exchanges of value. How does this differ, exactly, from the ambitions of a beautiful young actor to build a following? Or the street musician’s hope that you’ll drop a coin in the hat?

The Amazon “single” is interesting because it uses a technical change – the popularity of eBook readers – to launch a change in literary distribution, the ecology that moves writing from creators to publishers and on to readers, and moves money from readers to publishers and creators. That’s important.

Advertising on the Web is a mess, not because commerce is degrading but because Web advertising today is filled with incompetence and sleaze. In a world of VC-backed domain squatters and nearly-respectable SEO scammers, advertising-supported sites sell too many ads (and run too many lousy ads) for bargain prices. Magazine publishers have known how to handle this for a century – the old New Yorker was built on attracting costly, good-looking, and scarce ads as much as on the legendary taste of Ross and Shawn. So, for that matter, was the old Vogue. This is not exactly secret knowledge.