Sorry to be distracted like this. I just got to wondering, like, how often does Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, like, just freeze up in the kitchen and think, “I was in the Beatles! And now here I am, peeling an orange! How does something like that happen?” I’m assuming that they occasionally peel oranges. The only reason I can imagine they wouldn’t is if they don’t like oranges. I realize that no life can be all transcendant experiences, but, you know,every now and then Buzz Aldrin must think, “I walked on the Moon and here I am peeling a banana. How?”
It’s a common longing. You run across a WordPress blog that’s thanking its 10,000th subscriber and its millionth page hit. The blog’s been around almost three months. You look at your own, soldiering on for years now and sometimes getting a comment besides your father saying “it’s great, I wish I understood a word”. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’ll explain.
I know why some blogs, some performers, some experience providers catch on. It’s personality. We pretend “personality” is something everybody has, but we’re fibbing. What we mean by “personality” is “stuff somebody does that other people wouldn’t choose to do themselves in that position”. It’s easy to form one. Just pick something other people wouldn’t do themselves, and do that. Then keep at it.
For instance, I like my mathematics blog. It’s comfortable writing and sometimes I do something I’m proud of. But I know it’s got this pleasant air of something safely ignorable all over it. If I wanted to change that I could. I’d use squirt mustard to write every equation on bread, and post photographs of that. The end of each post would be me eating this. Suddenly I’d have a blog people found interesting, if only to see when I eat enough mustard bread to regret my life. It would be a quarter of the way into explaining the Fredholm Alternative. I’d leave my readers in suspense about whether the Fredholm Alternative is a real mathematics thing or if I’m writing a 1970s political technothriller about fascist clones with space computo-germs. It’s both. INCLUSIVE OR! IT’S AN INCLUSIVE OR!
I won’t do that. Mustard photographs lousy and it’d be too much work to fix. And that’s part of why having a personality sucks. It’s a lot of effort to keep up. Edwin Land said, “do not do anything that anyone else can do readily”. While he was talking about making consumer cameras he’s right about making personalities too.
Even achieving personality isn’t an unvarnished good. When we say of someone, “he’s got quite the personality” we’re using all our available politeness. We’re trying to not continue, “that he’s using to bring the conversation back to common yet mistaken beliefs about the manufacture of float glass, again”. It’s fascinating, sure, but watching people do stuff we would rather not always is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing in a bright green outfit so eye-catching you can be seen through walls — “all part of my Chroma-Key cosplay, my dears”, you absolutely purr — or grabbing live porcupines and zerberting their bellies before they can file a stiff letter of protest. It’s thrilling to be part of such exotic goings-on, by which I mean being the part that watches without affecting it.
We like this sort of thing when we’ve got a safe distance from it and can flee without social penalty. It’s why personality does so well on stage and TV and online and in other places that have comforting, safe borders. When they venture outside those borders we’re dazzled and then disappointed, even if we’re smiling in the selfie they let us take. Too much personality’s a hard thing to take. If you have to deal with it all the time it gets to be kind of a prison.
But it’s a prison having a personality too. Once people know you’re going to react to something a particular way you have to keep doing it. A normal person can hear that chemists have discovered a new kind of industrial-grade blue dye and think anything they want about that. Someone with personality has to fit this news into what everyone expects. Suppose you’re the guy who knows a Yes song for every occasion, including karaoke night and the debut of new Tron movies. You know exactly what everyone you meet will talk to you about, forever. What if you somehow don’t have a Yes song relevant to industrial-grade color dye technologies? You’re doomed, or have to guess maybe They Might Be Giants have something on point. They don’t.
There’s some good news, anyway. If you show personality long enough it sustains itself, without your involvement. I know at least two people with such renowned interests in squirrels that they get every bit of squirrel-related toy, news item, or movie or TV show forwarded to them. Their friends do all the squirrel-appreciation for them. They don’t ever have to think about squirrels the rest of their lives.
So that’s why I’m not complaining about other blogs being way more popular, way faster, than mine. I didn’t even say I felt that. I just said it’s commonly felt. I don’t want to contract personality for that sort of thing. Should I have a personality at all? I don’t know; I’m doing well enough as it is. But then look back to Edwin Land’s advice, and consider the fate of Polaroid. It’s universally beloved and doesn’t really exist. How many of us will ever achieve that much?
To sum up: the concept of “personality” is a good idea, but it needs considerable work before it will be practical.
Hi there. I wasn’t away. That’s the first thing. Also, you keep promising you’re going to show me fewer tweets like that. You need to shore up that wording. Do you mean you’re going to show me fewer tweets that way, as in that form? Where it’s four days after the original post and even the guy who wrote it can’t remember what he was making a sly, snarky comment about? Or do you mean fewer tweets like “the stuff my friends wrote”? I get the feeling you’re promising me that.
Because that’s the hip thing with social media. You all start out with a simple model: you have friends. Your friends post stuff. You read it. Sometimes you post back. Sometimes they post back. Their friends post back. The friends of your friends post. They’re whack jobs. Your friends’ friends keep posting. You come to like people less. You infer that your friend honestly sees no difference in morality or intellect or human decency between these people and you. The fight takes on a new intimacy. After enough of this you go outside, resolved instead to roll down a hill all day. You see a squirrel. That fact reminds you. You go back to answering your friend’s friend. Finally you stumble across an interesting discussion about whether Cringer remembers the experience of being Battle Cat, and vice-versa, and if so how. It has an exhausting pile of citations from the ramshackle He-Man canon. You come away feeling staggered but forgetting what you were angry about. Then you see it again. It’s a simple model and one that might work forever.
Except that’s never enough. If the social media works then it gets famous. And like Ian Shoales explained, once you’re famous for doing something you don’t want to do that anymore. So the media gets fussing around with algorithms and rearrangements of timelines. Instead of showing people what they said they wanted to see, you go and show them something they didn’t say they wanted to see. Maybe something they said they didn’t want to see. It’s a weird business model. Imagine if you were flying to Albany, New York, because you had urgent business there. You had to go to Huck Finn’s Playland and yell at the amusement park for it not still being Hoffmann’s Playland, even though Hoffmann didn’t want the Playland anymore and he was just going to toss it out.
But then the pilot announces that, you know, we’re going to instead fly to Columbus, the world-renowned “Albany, New York, of Ohio”. Would you feel well-served? I guess it depends whether you could find something to berate in the Columbus area. I’m sure there are. There’s at least two creepy houses in the suburb of Worthington, for example. I seem to be making a case for this. Maybe it’s other businesses that are missing out by just giving people what they wanted. (Do not berate the Worthington creepy house the guy lives in. He’s taken enough abuse.)
But what we expect to see, or expect to not see, or who we expect not to get in bitter quarrels with, is beside the point. None of this is what we really want from social media, not even the stuff we know we want to see, like the Animals Wearing Glasses Daily Picture.
What we want is to find something that’s profound and breezy. We want to experience something insightful and whimsical. It should be eye-opening without ever entering unfamiliar intellectual and emotional territory. We want something epic while still being intimate. More, we want to be the sole true confidant of an enormous crowd. We want to say something un-improvable yet tossed off in a heartbeat. We want to go viral while being that single candle that alleviates some one person’s darkness. We want universal truths that still fit snug where we are in life. We want to do something that’s going to get put on millions of t-shirts, and we want to get a cut of each sale. We want to be reblogged by people we watched on TV when we were kids. We want transcendence with a glace at our cell phones. And then we want to hit reload and get another transcendent moment at least as good. Give us that and we’ll hit ‘like’ or ‘fave’ or whatever silly thing you want. We’ll even pretend to look at your advertisements for stuff we’ve never even known anyone who would ever want interspersed with ads for the thing we bought last week on Amazon.
And that’s what social media is all about, Twitter Master Command.
Hoping you will see to and remedy this problem swiftly I remain,
PS: Do it right and we’ll even forgive you suggesting Every. Single. Day. that we follow a person we wouldn’t run over with a forklift exclusively for fear of getting repugnant-person-guts in the forklift’s machinery.
PPS: Obviously Cringer remembers the experiences he has as Battle Cat. The interesting question is whether he remembers it as a thing he, Cringer, does while affecting a character, or whether he remembers Battle Cat as a distinct entity using what is sort-of his body. Please see enclosed citations, omitted for clarity.
What happened is The Onion AV Club respects its duty to the parts of popular culture that aren’t really popular or part of the culture anymore. So it discussed the end of Apartment 3-G. Under the “Great Job, Internet” column they published an essay aptly titled “Comics bloggers say goodbye to Apartment 3-G”. And I got mentioned in it twice. As a result there’s been a rush of people reading my description of “disjointed and unfollowable” plots. As I write this the day (the 24th of November) isn’t quite over. But it seems plausible I might see a thousand page views for the day alone. That’s on top of 873 for the day before. Goodness knows what the next day will bring. I suppose fewer. It’d be odd if people were even more interested in what The AV Club says about what some other blogger says about a comic strip they weren’t following another day later.
I didn’t just get a stray link, though. I even got to be the second block-quoted text. I’m between commentary from The Lovely Ladies Of Apartment 3-G commentary blog and The Comics Reporter‘s essay on the conclusion. I am delighted to be quoted, especially since it’s as “Another blog, meanwhile”. Perhaps my name is just a little too implausible for the AV Club’s readers. I know most people trying to read my name are stumped by what to make of it. The “Nebus” part, I mean. Most folks know what to make of “Joseph”. They make “Joe” of it.
I know that when someone on the Internet says “I am delighted by” something, it normally means “I am not delighted by” that thing. But when I say “I am delighted by”, I don’t mean anything so complicated as “I am not delighted by”. I mean, simply, “I am delighted by”. The baffling of people by my name is only part of it. What also has me truly delighted is that the AV Club’s article was written by Joe Blevins. I know that guy.
Well, kind of know him. He and I were both participants, back in the 90s, on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc. Usenet groups were kind of like web forums, except that you could read them using any software you like and they didn’t have ads crowding out your web browser and making them crash. And you could follow threads and sub-threads with ease. So you see why they couldn’t compete with the modern Internet experience. But he and I were both active members in the MiSTing community.
I’ve posted a couple MiSTings here. They’re the fan fiction version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, taking Usenet posts or bad fan fiction or whatnot and making fun of it. We’d post these to rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc, which was for Mystery Science Theater 3000-related activity. This included fan fiction. I haven’t seen Blevins in ratmm, as we abbreviated a phrase that already included four abbreviations, in ages. But then who has?
So this makes things a tiny bit different. This isn’t just any old writer coming across my name and having no idea what to make of it. This is a guy with whom I collaborated in making fun of Marrissa Picard stories not knowing what to make of my name. The name “Marrissa Picard” may mean nothing to you. This is because your life has gone right in some important ways. Trust me on this. Point is, after experiences like that, I would expect my name to get recognized even after a decade.
So is Joe Blevins snubbing me? I can’t imagine why he would, unless he’s still upset about losing to me in the Web Site Number Nine MiSTing Awards for 2002, category Best Single Riff. Back then I won a devastating victory with a line in “Jaded Views”. That was a Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic about two characters who were kind of like the authors, only they were badgers and didn’t realize they made themselves out to be terrible people. I’ll own up, I don’t think my winning riff was the best one published that year, let alone the best one I’d written.
I’m not saying that “Just because they’re trapped in a desperate struggle for survival against a crushing worldwide war machine doesn’t mean they can’t maintain a very active theater community” isn’t a funny line. I just think that even in that same MiSTing, I did better with the credit “Based on a sneeze by Harlan Ellison”. I’m just passing on what the voters for MST3K fan fiction awards thought at the time. Other folks may have done beter, and Blevins may have even been one of them. While I was delighted to have a fanfic award long ago, it’s not as though I’ve spent four days a week gloating about beating him out about it. For goodness sake, there’s my award for writing that sketch in which Tom Servo gets all huffy and thoroughly debunks the theory that Casper the Friendly Ghost is the afterlife fate of Richie Rich. I’m much prouder of that.
I hope he’s not snubbing me. I’m certainly not snubbing him. I am delighted by all this. And I’m delighted to learn that a decade-plus after we last had contact he’s gone on to being a freelance writer for a leading pop culture web site. He’s always been a funny guy and I hope he’s doing well enough to support his writing habit.
Meanwhile, I am already reaping lasting benefits of an extra 1500 or so page views in two days. I’ve already had literally more than one new person subscribe by e-mail to new humor blog posts. And the readership boost hasn’t been as pronounced over on my mathematics blog, but it has been detectable. And isn’t “detectable” all that anyone on the Internet wants to be? Yes. Yes it is.
I discovered Ian Shoales at a moment potentially dangerous for my own comic voice: I was writing a lot for an unread leftist student newspaper with delusions of grandeur (the newspaper, and myself) and I had a lot of space to fill. For my final semester as an undergraduate I even had the editorship of the humor section to myself and almost nobody submitting articles, which is what we called content back then, when the Internet was barely started. I could try imitating his style.
I couldn’t do it for more than a paragraph at a time, which shows that he was a professional humorist who’d been honing the character for years while I was a 21-year-old who thought he had to vent society’s frustration with the student government. That’s all right; I had space to fill a lot of paragraphs, and could experiment.
My voice recovered, although I’ve noticed how much it’s been mutating now that I’m trying to do a couple hundred words a day and seven to eight hundred words a week. Still, I was inevitably thrilled when an essay like this suggested Ian Shoales was interested in the same kinds of things I was interested in.
My big gripe with the world today is there’s too much information about the world, and not enough information about me. News is fine — don’t get me wrong — I want to know how much makeup President Reagan wore on Death Valley Days as much as the next American. I like to lie back of an evening and try to figure out just what word that rhymes with rich Mrs Bush meant. Paying attention to the news makes me feel like a citizen, all right, but it’s not going to make me any money. The only way to make money from the news is to be part of it.
I want to be quoted in the headlines. I want my picture on the front page. I want tobe photographed by contest winners as I walk briskly from my limo to my private jet. I want to be surrounded by stern-looking men with reflector shades and snub-nosed Israeli machine guns hidden under their three-piece suits. I want to pick out reporters with a firm jab of the finger and give hard answers to hard questions. I want to tie up traffic for a twenty-mile radius, for no good reason.
No, I don’t want to be President, or even a Presidential hopeful. I just want to be a media figure. I just want to talk to the press. And I’m ready.
Ian Shoales as news. It’s an exciting new concept, but it’s a bandwagon nobody seems willing to jump on. I’m used to being ignored, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, me being the camel, was the return of Doonesbury. Why the return of Doonesbury was news, I don’t now. I have to admit I didn’t feel even the vaguest sense of loss when Doonesbury left, and I can’t really say my life is fuller now that it’s back, but I can say I’m mighty disappointed that Garry Trudeau missed the boat. He could have included me in the Doonesbury pantheon of characters.
He did it with Hunter Thompson, why not doing it for me? I already look like everybody else in Doonesbury — painfully thin, dark circles under the eyes, slightly stoop-shouldered. I realize my acid tongue might make mincemeat of his other characters, but I think he could capture the essential me if he really tried — my great sorrows, my vast rages, my sage opinions, the laughter, the tears. Well, he wouldn’t have to worry about the tears. I haven’t cried since Old Yeller died.
Better act fast, Garry. I’ve got other fish on the line. I’ve already offered to be a hydrophobic dog for Garfield, a corrupt purchase officer for Beetle Bailey, a real Viking to show Hägär the Horrible how it’s done (you know, the kind of Viking who drinks mead from human skulls); I’ve offered to be Doonesbury for Bloom County, I’ve offered to marry Fritzi Ritz, or be Mr Goodbar for Cathy. Gimme a break, Garry, I wanna be newsworthy. If you don’t help me out, I might have to run for public office or even worse, go to work for a living. Call my agent soonest. My image is available, for sale or rent.
See, for visual interest, they included a photo of one of the squirrels — Alan — in a spiv outfit, and that was from a sketch that they thought was just “hack” and “too Monty Python pastiche, not enough us”. They’d been planning to drop it from the revue altogether, but with the press attention now they feel like they’re stuck with it. Worse, Alan doesn’t like being on stage; he’s happy developing characters and doing other backstage work and only ever went on in the first place because they needed somebody and the rest of the performing cast was already committed.
Well, I was sympathetic, of course, but isn’t it some kind of cosmic rule that when the public decides they like you, it’s going to be for the stuff you’d rather they didn’t like you for? Anyway, maybe in a couple weeks they can drop the whole sketch and Alan can go back to the work he really likes.