Friday, March 26, 2010

How I Became Who I Am: My Most Influential Reading List

The blogosphere has been playing another one of those memes that hit every so often, and this time it’s My Most Influential books. These things are hard to quantify, of course, and I may very well change my thinking in the future. Like Ezra, I feel that many of the things I’ve read that’s influenced me the most have been non-books, especially in the past several years. My friends and their writing has influenced me greatly; I see vocabulary words and think of them, because those are words they use; I hear arguments, I think of them; I have adopted their thinking patterns because of them. But publications I have read for years, continuously, have also shaped my worldview: RollingStone (though I’ve gotten away from their political coverage the last several years), The New York Times (I think of high school and cringe), the blogosphere, the many, many, many magazine articles I’ve read.

And yet, if I’m going with my gut, I’m not sure if I can reach ten books.

  • The first is obviously The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life. I read it at the end of high school, and its contrarian outlook (especially on violence) and complete focus on media effects steered me into what I wanted to study. It blew my mind.

  • The Corrections: I want to write like this, a story so stuffed full of everything, with so much to say! These are the kinds of stories I deeply admire, the “social novels” that make me love Jonathan Franzen, for they take the personal and the political, and reflect how a person really is affected by every little thing.

  • The works of E.L. Konigsburg. Also a writer I very much want(ed?) to emulate. Her books were nothing like the rest of novels I consumed as a kid. There were no romantic hijinks, and the characters were not interested nor happened to fall in love and get significant others. Boys and girls were actually friends! The characters all had interesting lives, all had passions and hobbies they wanted to explore, and had problems that were neither commonplace nor depressing. Konigsburg got her ideas from newspaper features, and created stories from that jumping off point. I thought it was ingenious. She’s so good she’s won the Newbery medal twice, for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday.

  • Bobos in Paradise. I remember seeing the book in the featured section in my library back in 2000, and was very intrigued. I probably took it out a few times, but I didn’t get around to reading it until four years later. My god! So dense yet so wonderful, every chapter just needed to be absorbed.

  • The works of Malcolm Gladwell (minus Outliers, as I haven’t read it yet): The kind of pop-social commentary I love, one that draws from multiple disciplines. Academically, I am very much an interdisciplinary thinker, and I love how he poses interesting questions and the ways he goes about to find the answers. His technique has been widely copied.

I think back on my childhood and adolescence, where I went through periods of reading authors—Ann Rinaldi, Katharine Patterson, Judy Blume. I read a lot of historical fiction as a kid, a genre I sadly barely touch now. But I know that I like my setting and place to be very specific in my stories, and most of the fiction I’ve attempted to write has always had this quality. I also am a stickler for this, and I find that many people don’t bother to research the “recent past” as much as they should, as in a movie. In watching Julie & Julia, for example, I wanted to see if the computer Julie uses in 2002 was actually available at the time, and disliked how cavalier they were regarding Julia’s timeline.

I had another epiphany fall of my senior year. I was making paper dolls as a project on "As You Like It" for my Shakespeare class, and wandered downstairs to look at my bookshelf, mainly filled with my childhood favorites, for inspiration. The vast majority were about young, smart women who wanted to become writers. Of course! How had I missed this? No wonder I became who I am!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on Blogging, Technology and Gender, and What We Choose to Reveal About Ourselves

I had a very bloggy week, between watching Julie & Julia and Monday’s episode of House, which both revolved around women whose blogs got the better of them.

Julie & Julia received a lot of press for its portrayal of supportive husbands, on both women’s side. The Times gleefully wrote of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of middle-aged passion, but Julie’s husband was a “saint”, so much so that he objected to the label. Much is made of the Childs’ marriage, how passionate they were, but I found Paul Child to be supportive, but distant; in fact, both husbands in the movie were quite bland. Maybe that’s the point—they both were supportive characters, meant to prop up the leads, so they usually are less developed than the protagonists.

But other than that observation, it was Julie’s bloggy passion that stood out, in comparison to this week’s House episode, concentrated on a blogger who goes a little too personal with her diagnosis. Both women get caught up in blogging about their lives, neglecting their significant others, who come to resent their girlfriend’s hobby. (Tip: Get a boyfriend who blogs, or who at least likes the medium as much as you do.) This is reminiscent of Emily Gould’s fantastic bloggy piece in the New York Times nearly two years ago, where she recounts how blogging about her personal life wrecked her relationship and her life. All three women had successful blogs, the real-life ones turning into successful writers. All three were transformed by their hobby, sharing their love with others and eventually having their own audience. Both Julie and Laura Prepon’s Frankie worry too much about their audience; Julie, about actually having one, and Frankie, about what they think. She uses her blog as a crowdsource of opinion, on both the large and small decisions of her life, including the many major medical ones she faces in the episode. Their blogs become their lives, their reason for getting up in the morning. Julie’s Julia Child obsession is fueled by her blogging, and without it the structure of her project would fall apart, as she is documenting her progress. Frankie, too, is obsessed with documenting her life, and despite protestations from her boyfriend, feels she would be lying if she did not faithfully record or retell everything. Julie does not feel this way, though she does consent to not publicizing a fight she has with her husband (though by it being in the movie we presume that it is retold in her book).

The issue here, of course, becomes privacy. Sure, on the surface, Julie Powell’s project sounds fun, if daunting, and not particularly invasive; she is in charge of how much she chooses to reveal, and on the surface a cooking blog would not be one to draw readers.

But of course, that’s too simplistic. One of the women mentioned in the film who actually makes an appearance is Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer who made a name for herself (at least to this writer) by writing a column in the Times Magazine in the early part of the ‘00s, “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, about her meals and dates with a certain Mr. Latte, later revealed to be the New Yorker writer Tad Friend. “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, a kind of Sex and the City meets food, certainly had enough dish and romantic intrigue to make it more than just another food column, and, though it was on paper, had a bloggy feel to it, as it chronicled their burgeoning relationship. (The column also became a book.)

So why are all these bloggers women? Why is it that women feel the need to emotionally reveal themselves online, to chronicle their lives? Men seem to go about it in a much more analytical, data-driven fashion; Nicholas Felton has designed a number of what he calls “Personal Annual Reports”, yearly compilations of the minutia that makes up his life, and it’s fascinating: all the restaurants he ate at, the countries he visited, his most played songs on iTunes. Every year, the charts and graphs, not to mention what he actually records, get increasingly complex. (The MIT Media Lab has done similar projects, recording and analyzing personal, daily data of students.) Sure, I already know all the comments, the criticism: even a friend of mine, when I showed him Feltron, responded, “I know the irony of what I'm about to say as a man that Tweets but that's kind of self absorbed.”

Sure, it’s self-absorbed. But it’s a whole other form of diary, a multimedia one, life writ large. The data aspects makes it so much cooler, because it’s objective, and it’s a form that you can’t argue with; maybe that’s why men like it. There are so many ways to tell a story, and neither is completely right, for each time it’s told, it’s done a little differently, and they all give different sides to the same one.

The Internet, in all its lovely possibilities, has also given us a way to be anonymous and solicit anonymous opinions. That comes across in blogging—again with the choosing to reveal what we want. But there’s also the new ChatRoulette and, services that flip anonymity on its head.

ChatRoulette, memorably introduced to many (including me) via this New York article, is a basic service that automatically turns on a user’s webcam and randomly beams you into someone else’s browser, and they you. The only options are to engage, move on, or turn off. Most outlets have connected it back to the days of the “wild, wild Internet”, before it became safe for minors, where everything and everyone was searchable. Here, it doesn’t matter if your name or your face or your home really belongs to you, as you are only known by your face, and there is no tag—there’s not even a record of who you’ve been connected with. There’s no way to track, no searching, no user names, no login information, no password. Glorious freedom. And yet it’s scary and incredibly intimidating, a party game to play.
is a site, a meme if you like, that lets people ask questions of a particular user. The person can use his or her real name, or a version of it, if the person desires, and those asking the questions can also identify themselves, though they usually stay anonymous. People asking the questions are strangers and friends; maybe you’ll get something good. It’s a version of a Facebook application known as the honesty box, which always got someone in trouble; that’s what honesty tends to do. And yet it’s addicting, in a way, to say too much; God knows in this era of TMI that it’s hard to put a lid on. Lying is contagious too, but it’s confusing as hell; being openly honest, too openly honest, can be about connecting or prolonging the awkward, having something to say, maybe just making a funny.

So we have two sides of a coin here: a site where we are expected to divulge secrets to those asking, and another an interface where we are personally faced with random strangers, no accountability. The first is implicitly about accountability, though we aren’t supposed to be pegged; the second, an escape route if we wish it to be.

But of course, we often occupy on the assumption that more information is better, and that notion led to ChatRoulette map, where users’ IP addresses are tracked to see who is using the service at any time. You do not need to be engaged on ChatRoulette to use ChatRoulette map, as I discovered this afternoon. There’s an option to turn this off, for it ruins the fun for some people. Exposing IP addresses always has a whiff of creepiness, as it feels like Big Brother is coming down to watch.

There are plenty of people who say that both will be a fad, but in Internet world, there are few things that have escaped this designation, one being Facebook. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse, causing us both to escape and feel trapped by our past, and we eagerly take up the call whenever we need to do so.

P.S. I have a account. Ask questions, readers!

Also cross-posted on Notes on Popular Culture.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Getting My Geek On

LOVE this:

JESS3 / The State of The Internet from JESS3 on Vimeo.

And what's crazy is that more information than you think is outdated here. Favorite statistic: Facebook needs more than 30,000 servers to run, and they're still growing. Holy shit.