shows n stuff

March 30, 2006

To get back on top of the self-promotional thing:

We’re playing tomorrow night at Roboto with The Drift. Come see. Maybe go see Lovers too if you want.

Then, next Thursday, April 6: Emperor X – Franklin Delano – Aydin – .isha&zetta. at Modernformations.

Here are some MP3s for you to listen to and get psyched for the show:

emperor x –
right to the rails
shut shut up
island long dirt dealership

franklin delano:
please remember me
sounds like rain

Whereas, this is the kind of weather in which I can sit outside and read a book and feel okay about myself and not like a waster of time, and,

Whereas, I’m not getting too far with the OED book because there are too many stodgy old white dudes with attitudes, and,

Whereas, I’ve heard that as a person interested in the writing of nonfiction I must read this book, therefore be it

Resolved that henceforth I will commence trying to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans.

When I started it at lunch today I was sitting on a bench by the fountain and there was a man sitting on the next bench playing WDVE and occasionally bursting out yelling a chorus (“IIIIII DON’T WANNA WORK!!!!”) or yelling at an unsuspecting passerby (“YOU’RE LATE!!!”).

I was alerted recently that some folks from the workplace might be getting together a kickball team to compete in the Pittsburgh league of the World Adult Kickball Association. You pay $65 per person and get the added bonus of a t-shirt.

A better idea is to lay down $8 (plus shipping I guess) and get “Huckleberry Eater,” an album by a band/dude called Kickball. I’ve been jammin it hard lately, after being a jackass and missing the show here. What can I say? I don’t remember what I did that night, but I was up to something, and I didn’t really think I’d like them. They were touring with some permutation of Mt. Gigantic, who I generally find to be tolerable, and I thought they’d be some Plan-It-X style band that I’d not really care for. I was wrong. Q got the CD and it’s really good and as my penance for missing the show, I’m telling you all to get your hands on it.

A long post that hopefully comes off more as an analysis and commentary than as a rant.

As promised, a response to the discourse on MySpace, currently being thrown down by danah boyd and Abe and William from abstractdynamics, and surely many others. I know you’re on MySpace, and so is your dog and your cat and your favorite band. I’m not saying I don’t like people who are on MySpace, I’m not saying everyone on MySpace is a bunch of suckers, even. Just offering my criticism of the site, as I think a number of things about it that are worth thinking seriously about are often overlooked. Bear with me while I sound like my mom for a couple thousand words.

I think the foremost question regarding MySpace ought not to be whether it’s a bottom-up, malleable internet community controlled by the youth who use it or a method by which “they” can perpetrate their power- and profit-driven schemes (because surely it’s a mix of both); the question ought to be, how does MySpace and its architecture affect the way in which its users (and even to an extent its non-users) communicate, and is its effect positive or negative?

Much of boyd’s essay explores critically the amount of control networking communities like MySpace and Friendster wield over the way their participants make use of the site – postulating that perhaps when a site tries to place strictures on the purposes for which it can be utilized, it flounders, whereas when a site adapts to fit the ways in which the users want to use it, it succeds.

She’s probably right. I’m not so much concerned about the desires of the MySpace crowd and how to cater to them, though. My concern is more this: there are elements in the interface of MySpace (and other networking sites like LiveJournal, but perhaps they’re most apparent in MySpace) that force users into a shallow discourse in which they reflect upon themselves as a conglomerate of consumer choices and empty descriptors and in which they market themselves as a commodity. To hold it up as a project of and by youth culture reduces youth culture, I think, to something completely superficial, based on social networking and devoid of serious thought and discourse. We already have parents, teachers, television and advertising of all sorts to make young people feel like they’ve got nothing real to say, that they’re simply a bunch of preferences plastered onto a body.

To compare MySpace and LiveJournal to youth-based expressions of mass communication that I find to be more palatable: zine culture and blogging in the blogspot-typepad-etc. sense, which I (and others) would look at as a contemporary twist on zine culture in ways, while they can contain superficial personal-information wankery and reductive self-description, are much more conducive to permitting the user to express herself/himself in more complicated and self-directed ways, as their templates (literal and figurative) are more skeletal in nature. If the blog is related closely to the zine, we could perhaps say that the MySpace page is in the same way comparable to a business card. LiveJournal would fall somewhere in between on this scale in that, in its design, it privileges the complete written thoughts of the user (a user’s main LiveJournal page is the blog section, which often includes a small photo) but also includes more traditional “networking” features — communities based on shared interests, etc. — and encourages users to augment their blog posts with superficial information that may or may not be pertinent to the post, such as what music they’re currently listening to and what their “mood” is. (“Mood” can be made up by the user or chosen from a bunch of “presets” as it were. The presets come with funny faces.)

Look at someone’s MySpace page. Preferably someone you don’t know. Where do your eyes go first on the page? If you’re like me, they go to the picture, then to the “General Info” section, then to the “Friend Space,” then to the “Comments.” Such is the design of the page – our eyes are drawn to things that stand out graphically, and thus on MySpace we follow a zig-zag down the page, skipping at first the user’s contact information, “blurbs” and blog, then getting back to them on our second sweep.

These are the building blocks of our understanding of other people and of ourselves on MySpace, based on the interface we’re given. Our appearance (first and foremost), the books we read, the records we listen to, the movies we watch, the people we think of as heroes. While they’re things that surely inform the people we are, they’re also dangerously one-dimensional. In life we often meet people who listen to music that isn’t what we ourselves listen to, or read the same books as us, whom we still get along with wonderfully; using MySpace as a networking tool, we might easily discount such people as uninteresting to us based on those very aspects of them. Beyond that even, there aren’t opportunities to posit opinions on things like politics and current events; entertainment is privileged as the definitive aspect of the MySpace user’s life. (This seems to not take into account the fact that naming favorite books – or movies or music for that matter – can in some cases give a very clear view of one’s politics, but I’m acutely aware of that; I think that it’s more complicated than that, though, since we tend to pick and choose our tenets from others’ works and few of us can seriously say that we agree 100% with our favorite writer or band or director.)

Where danah boyd says that MySpace allows personalization, which other similar sites don’t, I disagree to a great extent. It does allow for a certain amount of personalization, but only on the most shallow aesthetic level; changing the background of one’s main page to be polka-dotted doesn’t count as liberating as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think she fails to recognize this, but I think she doesn’t put the proper stress on it.

Moving on, we’re directed to the user’s “Top 8” friends, a fairly recent development in the design of the site that has/had some users in an uproar; as a MySpace user, you’re essentially forced to rate who, among your online friends, are your favorites. This is another major aspect of your existence as interpreted by MySpace. Clearly in day to day life we’re seen with our friends and judged to an extent on that basis, but I think few of us would, first of all, willingly rate our friends in that manner or, additionally, want people we’re interacting with to base their opinions of us on who our friends are. Rating friends will of course end up causing some trouble in people’s friendships, on or off the internet, and I question whether the decision to make the “Top 8” a standard feature was actually the result of user feedback or simply a misguided effort to allow for the very sort of user control/influence that boyd claims is the feature that distinguishes MySpace from other similar sites in a positive way.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of MySpace to me is the “comments” feature – a way of communicating with your MySpace “friends” that is public but at the same time ostensibly a communication between two people. There’s a feature of MySpace that allows you to communicate privately with other members, analagous to emails or private messages on a message board. But then there are comments – messages you leave for your MySpace friends that show up on the front page of their profile as part of their online package – a way to say hi, to drop a line, and to get some attention from anyone who looks at your friend’s MySpace page. It’s kind of like approaching a friend while she/he is talking to a bunch of friends whom you don’t know and just saying hello, so that those friends will notice you – then leaving them all a business card so they can “check you out.” It’s not a simple facet of youth culture as far as I’m concerned – it’s like a job fair, or a speed dating session, or something similarly uncomfortable and intrinsically self-promotional.

Another important aspect of MySpace, and one that hits close to home for me, is its use as a promotional tool for bands. In the interest of full disclosure, my band does have a MySpace page. We didn’t for a long time, mostly because I was uncomfortable with it, but I’m okay with it because, from what I understand, it helps as a communication tool when you’re working on booking a tour for yourself. To be honest, the fact that everyone uses it and that’s what makes it such a useful tool turns me off to it even more, but that’s just my difficult personality showing through. Since I’m not the one doing most of the booking, I leave it to the bandmate who is doing that to make the decision on MySpace.

Despite the fact that it eases communication both between fans and bands and between promoters and bands, I don’t necessarily buy MySpace as a positive development for DIY music communities. I look at it as comparable to the rise of the CD-R and low-priced computer-based recording equipment and software: these are things that make it easier for bands to promote themselves, which is nice but as a result they’ve also clouded the field so far as bands are concerned. When every band with a month of practicing and no shows under their belt has a MySpace page (since it’s free) and a CD-R of poorly-recorded music (since Dad bought them a couple mics and they have Garage Band on their Ibook), people (labels, local music writers, promoters, potential fans) have that much more to wade through in order to get to the bands that actually care, have put considerable work into what they’re doing, and will be around in another month. (Note that I don’t mean to be an elitist asshole and discount those bands’ efforts – just to say that, while month-long high school bands are excellent formative experiences, so many won’t last enough to be worth a second look for most people.)

As far as an exploration that isn’t a full-fledged essay goes, I think I’ve covered the bases I hoped to. I think, as noted, boyd is correct technically in her assessment of why MySpace does better for itself than Friendster did and why MySpace will likely soldier on where other sites have failed. But I also think that she skims over the more important questions (which she brings up quickly then discounts as not mattering, because what matters in the context of her argument is what “kids” care about, and having a more complete palette of ways in which to express their existence isn’t something “kids” care about.) I think the abstractdynamics guys bring a good point to the table in exploring what’s done with all the data that’s gathered on MySpace. But I also think they neglect to explore (in that post at least) what we as MySpace users do with that data ourselves, which is the biggest threat in my eyes.

I’m sure I’ve left things out of this, so ask questions/make points in the comments section if there’s something important that you think I neglect or have wrong, of course. Also, I fully admit to being overly naive and idealistic and theoretical in ways.

required reading

March 26, 2006

I’m working on/reworking something I wrote — gosh, almost a year ago, about MySpace, and the qualms that I have with it. What I put together previously wasn’t as well thought-out as I’d like for it to be, but now I have some prompts: witness posts by the abstractdynamics dudes and by hardcore blogger Danah Boyd about the phenomenon. I’ll be responding shortly — in brief, I think both arguments give the site more credit than is due, and ignore some inherent flaws and/or problems in the design and interface that make MySpace (and some other online networking communities) problematic. I’ll try to point out those flaws.

After you’ve read those, and only after you’ve read them, your reward is this: “He Kicked Him . . .”

I could barely move myself to get out of bed this morning, fighting a sick bug of some sort and dead from not enough sleep. I managed to get out and get to work only a little late, and was glad for my boss’s sake that I hadn’t called off sick because one of my co-workers did, and another was on a vacation day, and she was all by her lonesome until I showed up, and the phone wouldn’t stop all morning. I slogged through the day, heavy on my feet, and as I walked home, fantasized about how I’d collapse on the floor upon re-entry to my house.

Then, as I headed down Bayard toward Craig and passed the gas station at the corner, I looked into the parking lot and saw, heading for his Cadillac, none other than Pittsburgh Celebrity Defense Attorney Jim Ecker, mentioned in these very pages before as an amusing bizarro celebrity sighting.

Jim Ecker (you may know him from such hits as, “Jeff Habay, Crazy Legislator;” “Ronald Taylor, Racially Motivated McDonald’s Massacre Shooter;” and “Robert B. Winston, Jr., Funeral Director Who Kept Stillborn Infants In Boxes”) is currently defending the horrible creepy psycho who kept a girl locked up in his room for ten years. Needless to say, he’s had a lot of explaining to do to the press in the last two days.

I felt a great deal lighter and more energetic with this visual confirmation that there was someone around who surely had a much tougher day at work than I.

book report

March 23, 2006

So, I actually finished a book for once, that being the one I alerted you earlier, The Bride and the Bachelors. I guess the last chapter, the one on Merce Cunningham, was added for the later edition that I had, and wasn’t in the original run, and it sort of shows, like in the time between writing the first edition and writing the Cunningham piece, Tomkins lost his ability to write with any sense of tension whatsoever. The entire book was “eh-ok,” methinks, and I wasn’t blown away by the writing style the way I expected to be, but by the end it was really feeling like something a high schooler had written: lots of “this happened, and then that happened, and then . . . that was it!” No killer scenes that told me anything about Cunningham (the one person profiled whom I knew the least about), no rewarding endings.

Next on the docket: Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was written by Lynda Mugglestone, who has a wonderful name.