June 17, 2024

I’ve got a relatively short list of things for this month:

Everybody is talking at the moment about Facebook and its problems— and some of the criticism is certainly deserved. But I was interested in Ian Bogost’s slightly different take in “People Aren’t Meant to Talk This Much”. His argument is that there is something much more basic wrong with social media platforms in general, which is that they place no limits at all the volume of users’ posts— either the number of them, or their reach. (Twitter, of course, puts limits on the length of individual tweets, but all evidence suggests that this is a trivial limitation.) The emphasis on “engagement,” or the size of the response that a piece of content generates, encourages users to seek out the largest possible audience and the largest number of responses, regardless of the quality of those responses, or their net effect. Thus “A bitter tweet that produces chaotic acrimony somehow became construed as successful online speech rather than a sign of its obvious failure.” If, instead, people were limited in how much they could post, or who their posts would be available to, they would have to think more deliberately about what they were saying, and who they wanted to hear it.

Imagine if access and reach were limited too: mechanically rather than juridically, by default? What if, for example, you could post to Facebook only once a day, or week, or month? Or only to a certain number of people? Or what if, after an hour or a day, the post expired, Snapchat style? Or, after a certain number of views, or when it reached a certain geographic distance from its origins, it self-destructed? That wouldn’t stop bad actors from being bad, but it would reduce their ability to exude that badness into the public sphere.

Bogost goes on to point out that social media tend to collapse the differences between different relationships, or different kinds of relationships. He draws for this on Mark Granovetter’s famous distinction between “weak” and “strong” social ties— the idea that Robert Putnam even more famously drew on in Bowling Alone. Very simply, the idea is that in normal life we have strong, close social relationships with relatively few people, and weaker, more casual connections with a lot of others; social media tend to obscure this distinction, lumping everyone together as an “audience” and making it harder for users to understand who to trust, and to what degree. “Trusting weak ties becomes easier, which allows influences that were previously fringe to become central, or influences that are central to reinforce themselves.”

He also points out that Google’s ill-fated social media platform, Google+, actually took these differences into account with its idea of circles. I was a fan of Google+ and was sad when it died, so that was an argument I was primed for, but it does suggest that there are design choices that really could reduce, if not actually eliminate, some of the problems with social media today— and which don’t require breaking up large companies, regulating them as monopolies, etc. I’m not sure how far I think such measures would get us, but it’s worth thinking about Bogost’s initial question: “What if people shouldn’t be able to say so much, and to so many, so often?”

“Edo Moji”, by Émilie Rigaud, is a short blog post about the different brush lettering styles used on Japanese signs and advertising. As she says, all of these styles developed in the Edo period, when Tokyo (Edo) had become the capital of Japan, and the country was generally closed to foreigners. Each style of lettering had a specific use, reflecting (to varying extents) both practical considerations (like the surface on which it would be painted) and symbolic ones— for instance, the style used for theatre advertisements left little negative space, to symbolize a packed house.

The new Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap is an amazing collection. You might be familiar with The Anthology of American Folk Music, originally released in 1952. That was very much the product of a single sensibility (that of musicologist Harry Smith); it was also inevitably full of holes, since so much of the music it sought to collect was recorded in dubious conditions, issued in small numbers on fragile media, and so on. This new anthology seems much more like the product of a committee— which might sound like a bad thing but probably isn’t, in this case. Of course, people (me included) will quibble with individual choices— do we really need Vanilla Ice?— but some of that is because of inevitable differences in ideas about what the purpose of this kind of collection is. They are clearly (as it seems to me) not trying to compile the “best” songs, necessarily, or the biggest hits; it’s more about representing the range and development of the music. I haven’t had a chance to absorb anything like the whole thing yet, but I was struck immediately, in the first song (“Fatback,” by King Tim III, a song I hadn’t heard before) by how close it was to a DJ just talking over funk and disco records while stretching out the breaks— which is exactly how the music began. Then, a few tracks later, you get “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”. It’s the first instance (as far as I noticed, anyway) of scratching, and even though he’s mainly working with some of the same songs that appeared earlier on the collection, it sounds radically different, and immediately much less dated— at least to my ears.

Anyway, from the perspective, you can see how Vanilla Ice fits in, as a representative of an era when hip-hop was becoming a form of pop, and record labels were looking to appeal to a more general (read: whiter) audience. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s a better song that I remember it being. Both Chuck D and MC Lyte were on the selection committee, so I’m sure they have their reasons.

The Smithsonian haven’t put it up themselves, but several people have assembled the songs from the collection into Spotify playlists like this one.

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