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by Rob Horning

21 Jan 2009

In a patronizing piece of pseudo-sage advice, Slate tech columnist Fahrad Manjoo tells us to get over ourselves and just join Facebook. Everybody’s doing it, and the law of network effects demands that you follow through and get with the program.

Whenever network effects are invoked—the more people who use something, the better it becomes for all users—there always seems to be implied coercion. (I’m remembering my father and many others insisting that I must get a cell phone, since they all had them and expected me to be subject to the same perpetual availablility.) Often, as in Manjoo’s piece, the coercion manifests as an accusation of snobbery and elitism.

I was reminded of a quote from an Onion story, “Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn’t Own a Television”: “I’m not an elitist. It’s just that I’d much rather sculpt or write in my journal or read Proust than sit there passively staring at some phosphorescent screen.”
Friends—can I call you friends?—it’s time to drop the attitude: There is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook. The site has crossed a threshold—it is now so widely trafficked that it’s fast becoming a routine aide to social interaction, like e-mail and antiperspirant.

Ordinary people use antiperspirant and Facebook, therefore you should too, unless you vainly think you are extraordinary. Just as, according to Manjoo, it is now “an affectation not to carry a mobile phone,” it has become false and phony not to go along and get along, and maintain a Facebook account, where your self-constructed identity can be made more accessible and public domain, open to penetration by a variety of marketing efforts and data-collection initiatives. Of course, Manjoo insists that the “finely grained privacy controls” allow users to make of Facebook what they want, and insulate themselves as much as they find necessary. Somehow that network of controls, maintained ultimately by the company itself, is in Manjoo’s estimation preferable to the ultimate control we can seize for ourselves by simple nonparticipation. But now Facebook is the “Wikipedia of people,” (I thought Wikipedia already included people. Hmm) and failing to list ourselves is counterproductive to our own interests. And without “ambient awareness” of our friends, we will lose touch with them—we’ll cease to know them by the standards of friendship that Facebook has ushered in. Manjoo explains the New Friendship this way: “Just as you can sense his mood from the rhythm of his breathing, sighing, and swearing, you can get the broad outlines of his life from short updates, making for a deeper conversation the next time you do meet up.”

But why bother meeting at all? Through the magic of ambient awareness, I can have friends on my time, while I’m multitasking. Rather than muster the concentration for a reciprocal exchange with a particular friend, I can blast out an update or a funny picture or my wry commentary on a link. (Kind of like I do on this blog—hello, friends!) Ambient awareness seems a lot like selective attention, the ideal relationship mode for overcommitted, self-centered people. Facebook allows us to follow one another as though we are all celebrities, to be regarded admiringly from afar. Such admiration requires no direct interaction, just updating. The friend-friend relation is transformed into a celebrity-fan relation, and we flip-flop between those distinct fantasies, enjoying the vicariousness and the voyeurism on one hand, and the egomania on the other. As American Scene contributor Matt Frost puts it, “Facebook is like a breeder reactor of solipsistic fatuity.”

Frost’s analysis of the difference between blogging and updating Facebook is apropos:

A good blogger lives in constructive fear of two things: writing for everyone, and writing for no one. Recognizing that your boss, your kids, or even your future self will be able to read your work long after you’ve written it should impose some temperance and moderation, while the knowledge that every one of your readers could simply opt out should encourage selectivity and creativity. Facebook, however, smashes both of these healthy constraints to self-expression. The semi-captive audience of all those friends fosters the illusion that somebody cares what you had for breakfast, while the exclusivity of the network implies that your more ill-considered announcements will be charitably received. Reading the status updates of long-lost friends and acquaintances convinced me I’d like them better if they stayed lost for longer.

Ouch. But memory does a much better job of bringing to our minds what we want to think of people we have known than a Facebook page does. Facebook is an assault on memory.

by Matt White

21 Jan 2009

The scream is blood curdling. It sounds like something from a horror film. But it’s not. It’s Jerry Lott, better known as the Phantom, and that scream is the first thing you hear on one of the most ragged, raw, frantic songs my ears have ever heard. “Love Me” was recorded live in one take in the summer of 1958 and is an explosion of out of control ramshackle energy. Lott was a country singer who turned to rock ‘n roll after hearing Elvis Presely for the first time in the mid-‘50s. Calling himself the Phantom and wearing a lone ranger-style mask he apparently spent three months recording his first song “Whisper Your Love” and decided he wanted to do something quick and loose for the other side of the record.  Thus, “Love Me” was born.

After Lott’s opening howl the guitar starts playing a sinister-sounding rockabilly riff and Lott makes an unintelligible noise before commanding to his bandmates “Let’s go!” The bass slides in, then the drums and the Phantom starts his Elvis-like singing. When the music stops and he moans the title he sounds desperate and out of breath. At forty-three seconds in we’re already halfway done and a guitar solo starts off unassumingly, sounding like it could be any other rock ‘n roll solo. Is it possible Lott’s noticed too that it was somewhat formulaic and tepid? Because just after the solo starts you can hear him away from the mic yell “Come on, let’s go!” and suddenly the band is tearing into their instruments with such intensity that they seem to fall out of your speakers. “Keep going!” Lott calls out as the drummer wails on a cymbal that sounds more like a garbage can lid. On the last verse Lott is barely able to get the words out and when the music stops he’s breathing like he just ran a marathon. As he repeats the title the “love” simply becomes a grunt and only the “me” remains.

Tragically, the Phantom’s music career was cut short in 1961 when he sustained severe injuries in an accident that sent his car tumbling 600 feet down a mountainside in South Carolina. “Love Me”, however, lives on as an example of ferociously fun, chaotic, rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form.

by Jason Gross

21 Jan 2009

I’ll return to the New Kingpins series soon but I couldn’t resist this excellent summation of the now (thankfully) former head of the FCC Kevin Martin, explaining how he was not only a failure but also a scumbag who demoralized and fragmented his group too.  No wonder he’s being compared to Bush.

by David Pullar

21 Jan 2009

Six months after it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, I’ve finally managed to read Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.  When I first came across it, I had no particular interest, suspecting it of being overlong and a little pretentious.  Over time, I began to question my snap judgement and I’m thoroughly glad I did.

A Fraction of the Whole is big, it’s true, but not excessively.  Despite involving two separate narrators and spanning forty-something years and three continents, it maintains a remarkable cohesion.  That’s probably because narrators Jasper and Martin Dean, the father-and-son duo at the novel’s centre, are far more alike than either would like to recognise.

Attempting to draw but one theme out of the book (and it’s stuffed full of the things) is a challenge, but it’s probably the power of inheritance and the difficulty of escaping its influence.  Sure, that’s two themes, but they’re closely related. 

Jasper commences the novel as a young man, imprisoned for reasons unknown.  At a loose end, he begins to reflect on the curious legacy of his father Martin and Uncle Terry, Australia’s most hated and most admired man respectively.  We’re not initially told how this eccentric rural family managed such notoriety, but it all comes out in Toltz’s discursive and rambling narrative.  If Jasper is a little bit prompter as an autobiographer than Tristram Shandy in reaching the event of his birth, it’s still a long way into the book.  There’s a lot of family history to cover.

The picture that emerges is of an intelligent boy completely denied a chance of normality by a brilliant but unhinged father.  Martin Dean’s equally strange childhood has left him conflicted by powerful urges—a tendency to megalomania and an overwhelming cynicism about the entirety of human endeavour.  Jasper is really just trying to stay out of trouble.

Toltz’s creations are brilliant.  They are true to life, unpredictable and likeable in spite of their visible failings.  Subtly, Toltz is nudging us towards the question “Is normality all it’s cracked up to be?”

The dysfunctional Deans’ abnormality often looks like good fun.  They create publishing scandals, build mazes, join the criminal underworld, break hearts and have their hearts broken in return.  There are precious few “ordinary” people in A Fraction of the Whole and they’re not nearly as fascinating.

While creating a portrait of a family, Toltz almost accidentally assesses a half-century of Australian history.  There’s our love of outlaws and “larrikins”, our obsession with sport and our tendency to cut down achievers or “tall poppies”.  There’s also our uneasy place in the world—both our fear of cultural inferiority and our fear of refugees in leaky boats.  It’s a lot to cram in, but Toltz manages it easily.

For all my scepticism about literary awards, there’s often good reason for their selections.  A Fraction of the Whole is an amazing achievement.  Spending time with the Deans and their skewed view of the world will make your life a little bit richer.

by Sachyn Mital

21 Jan 2009

After being postponed a week due to snow, the NEXT Music Charity Concert Series (in support of Big Brothers and Big Sisters) at Rack ‘n’ Roll in Stamford kicked off January 16th with a performance by Jukebox the Ghost. While the name Jukebox the Ghost doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the trio’s infectious songs got the patrons grooving whether they came to see the band or were just there shooting pool. Having been likened to Ben Folds, Jukebox perform similarly fun, piano-driven indie-pop that gets fans enthusiastically clapping and dancing along with the music and their nuanced lyrics. The D.C. based band even contains a Ben, the lead singer Ben Thornewill plays piano, and is accompanied by Jesse Kristin on drums and Tommy Siegel on guitar.

After Chris Bro, a DJ on 107.1 The Peak, made his concert series introduction, Jukebox the Ghost took the stage encouraging the mixed audience to draw closer. Several girls, who seemed a bit too young to be in a bar, appeared to be loyal fans of the band (or perhaps of boys in a band). And then there were folks intrigued by the sounds of the warm-up piano-tinkling who pulled away from their billiards table to listen. Jukebox performed several songs off their album Let Live and Let Ghosts, as well as a couple of newer ones. The second song, “Hold it In”, got people clapping along to the particularly catchy piano melody punctuated by Ben’s “whooo”-ing. “Victoria”, which might lyrically hint at a Ben Folds song with its inclusion of the word ‘bitch’, had even more people shaking to its drum stomp sound.

Before the encore new song of “Nobody”, Jukebox dove into an enjoyable rendition of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumber/Carry that Weight/The End” - a song whose broad familiarity appealed to a good many in the bar. This Ben and the band engaged the crowd all night, cracked jokes with each other, noted the irony that they had only one song about a ghost (and home foreclosures) and gave a spirited little shout for Obama. If one is comparing the studio tracks to the performance, a lively concert from Jukebox the Ghost is much more satisfying. Demonstrating their admirable spirit, Jukebox’s first show of 2009 earned them many new fans—they have an auspicious future ahead.

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