July 9, 2012
How Louis C.K. Won the Internet: The comedian Louis C.K. has been trying some innovative, customer-friendly business models. But what they're really about is treating the Net as a chance for a moral do-over.
Representing scholarly knowledge: You don't want to get it to narrow. You don't want to get it too broad. You want to get it juuuust right. And very messy.
Contest: Particles that explain mysterious Internet behaviors.
Longtime readers of Joho know that issues begins with a series of boxes much like this one in which I engage in a set of throat clearings and vocal exercises. I have, however, for your convenience crowdsourced my neck work via Amazon Mechanical Turk to an international swarm that is even right now inserting thousands of "ums" and "ers" into random conversations across the Net.
Louis C.K. now famously sold his latest comedy album over the Internet direct to his audience for $5, with no DRM to get in the way of our ability to play it on any device we want, and even to share it. After making over a million dollars in a few days (and after giving most of his profits to his staff and to charity) Louis went to great pains to schedule his upcoming comedy tour in venues not beholden to their TicketMasters, so that he could sell tickets straight to his audience for a flat $45, free of scalpers. So far he's made over $6 million in ticket sales.
But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.
There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis' actions and by his succes: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.
Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That's why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.
We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.
It's difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net's loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker's site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.
But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.
I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he "won the Internet" is anything except playful overstatement. I'm instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.
We responded this way, I'd suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, "Look, I don't really get the whole 'torrent' thing. I don't know enough about it to judge either way." He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he's placed in us. He's thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he's applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.
And herewith begins a couple of paragraphs of unnecessary digression...
This is coherent with Louis' comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.
Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn't depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters's are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you're likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won't give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can't resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn't actually bald according to Larry's principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry's life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.
Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can't think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle "Thou shalt not be a dick." So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn't honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he's acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word "fag" with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I'd like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)
And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn't Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.
So, here's why I think this is relevant.
The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there's no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I'm not saying it's obvious how to apply that rule. And I'm certainly not saying that we'll succeed at it. But now that we've been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?
That's what Louis C.K.'s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let's try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.'s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.
Nothing more than that. But also nothing less.
[A version of this was posted at the Harvard Digital Scholarship blog.]
Neil Jeffries, research and development manager at the Bodleian Libraries, has posted an excellent op-ed at Wikipedia Signpost about how to best represent scholarly knowledge in an imperfect world.
He is admirably realistic, acknowledging that we're not going to start from scratch and design some perfect standards that everyone will perfectly follow. Given those constraints, he asks, what's the best way to increase the interoperability of the knowledge and data that are accumulating on line at at pace that provokes extremes of anxiety and joy in equal measures? He suggests the Dublin Core approach of finding some basic attributes that we can all agree on, and leave the wrangling over details for later. We're seeing the same sort of approach at Schema.org. Schema.org lets you insert invisible metadata directly into an HTML page, and because the big search engines are behind Schema.org, you can be assured that those delicious breadcrumbs will be noticed and followed.
But Neil proposes that we go further: "Rather than always aiming for objective statements of truth we need to realise that a large amount of knowledge is derived via inference from a limited and imperfect evidence base, especially in the humanities," he says. "Thus we should aim to accurately represent the state of knowledge about a topic, including omissions, uncertainty and differences of opinion." These are riches far beyond the scope of simple schema like Dublin Core, but if we have the simple metadata in place, we can afford to iterate on the subtleties and complexities.
Neil's proposals have the strengths of acknowledging the imperfection of any attempt to represent knowledge, and of recognizing that the value of representing knowledge lies mainly in its getting linked it to its sources, its context, its controversies, and to other disciplines. It seems to me that such a system would not only have pragmatic advantages, for all its messiness and lack of coherence it is in fact a more accurate representation of knowledge than a system that is fully neatened up and nailed down. That is, messiness is not only the price we pay for scaling knowledge aggressively and collaboratively, it is a property of networked knowledge itself.
Well, those goshdurn eggheads at CERN seem to have found the Higgs-Boson particle. As I understand it (which I don't), the Higgs-Boson imparts matter to other particles by creating some mysterious massy field. Whatev. Physicists suspected the particle existed because of what they took to be its effect. Now it's our turn to invent possible particles to explain Internet phenomena. For example:
Explains why the frequency with which a group sends you a message is inversely proportional to how inclined you are to back that group.
Explains why the more censorious the posting, the more likely the poster will be exposed as a perv.
Explains why as soon as an online business is perceived as financially over-valued, it seems to have less practical value to its otherwise happy users.
Send your entries to me at [email protected], and you may win absolutely nothing!
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