Elizabeth Spiers

journalist & digital media expert

Goodbye summer; hello flu/cold/strep season

So the move to Bay Ridge went pretty well. This is our new backyard:

backyard

But it was exhausting (moving always is), and the downside is that I managed to pick up some nasty infection that seems determined to take me down. This is what I woke up to this morning:

thermometer

 

I have antibiotics and hopefully that’ll help, but there is never any good time to be sick. I have/had a lot of work to do this week, and it’s hard to get it done while burying your face into a pillow, moaning, and wishing for an early painless death–preferably aided by lots of morphine.

In the last couple of years, I’ve tried to implement little lifestyle changes that would be healthier–VB6 on weekdays, running, trying to get a decent nights’ sleep and so on. But I totally fell off the wagon in the Spring/early summer, and I would imagine that contributed to what I’m now referring to as mini-Ebola.

So I’d like to get back on the wagon, and am the kind of person who needs goals, deadlines and structure for that sort of thing. Any suggestions about how to kickstart?

 

 

Goodbye, Downtown Brooklyn; Hello, Bay Ridge

Tomorrow we’re moving from our high rise apartment in Downtown Brooklyn to Bay Ridge. (For all the usual reasons: we found a place with a lot more space for less money, and we both work mostly in downtown Manhattan, so the commute isn’t bad.) It’s not the Next Next Next Brooklyn neighborhood, but we’re too old for that shit anyway. And we’re too young for a Metro North commute, so Bay Ridge it is.

So last night at dinner, we played a game of Goodbye, Downtown Brooklyn. It’s like Goodnight, Moon, but with artisanal foodstuffs and gentrification. There are a lot of things we’ll miss. Here are a few:

rooftop

Goodbye, ridiculously awesome rooftop view.  (If you want this view, it can be had for quite a bit more than than it cost last year. Which is part of why we’re moving.)

Goodbye, Junior’s. We know you’re leaving too, but still. We’ve only had your cheesecake once, but you were an excellent source of neighborhood gossip. (Goodbye Tim, the bartender.)

Goodbye, lady who walks her pet bunny on Court Street. I hope none of the neighborhood dogs mistake it for food.

Goodbye, crazy sneaker/cell phone/tattoo/jewelry store on Fulton Mall. We never had a need for all of those things at once, but you would have been terribly convenient if we had.

sneakerstore

Goodbye, walking distance to Pok Pok NY. We will miss you terribly, even though we will probably be skinnier for your loss.

Goodbye, proximity to every subway in existence (A/C, F, 2/3, 4/5, N/R/Q). We can no longer seat-of-the-pants it to make it on time to meetings. Hello, R train.

Goodbye, Dining Room. And the regulars who work in the district attorney’s office and J.P. Morgan back office. Never again will we be exposed to such an abundance of pleated khakis and smartphone belt clips.

Goodbye, dude selling gospel CDs outside of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. You remind me of the Southern Baptist church I grew up in, and I will probably never again hear Amazing Grace at 120 decibels in such close proximity to a Duane Reade.

Goodbye, Forest City Ratner buildings. We never before wondered what it would be like to live in an office park, but we now know.

Goodbye, Gowanus Yacht Club. You weren’t really in the neighborhood, but we’ll miss you anyway. But we figure that if certain people in the background of this photo can trek all the way from Chelsea to visit you, we probably can too.

gowanusyc

Goodbye, Downtown Brooklyn.

 

On Photoblogging (Some Unstructured Thoughts)

THE SERIOUS [ALONGSIDE] THE FRIVOLOUS 

So I needed to migrate the blog today to implement Disqus and it was a little wonky, which precluded any blogging. I originally had a post ready to go up about conflict photography, which falls under the previously discussed category of Anything I Care About. Since I couldn’t get it published earlier, I’d rather publish it when people are back from Labor Day vacations and maybe paying attention. (This is where professional media experience definitely affects blogging: I know when everyone is probably tuned out.)

But looking at it in the context of other things I’ve published (or intend to publish), it just reminds me that this is a personal site, and it’s going to have the sometimes awkward oscillations between the serious and the frivolous that any personal site would. Which probably makes for an inconsistent, not terribly coherent read. I don’t feel bad about that, because this is not a discrete media publication; it’s just a reflection of my interests, thoughts, moods, etc. And even in the context of stand-alone media publications, I think that sort of dissonance is relevant. I always liked Jonah Peretti’s explanation of Buzzfeed’s mix of stories:

Sometimes we use this metaphor of the Paris cafe. You go to a cafe and you have a copy of Sartre you have a copy of Le Monde and you’re reading your philosophy and you’re reading the news of the day. And then, if you’ev ever been to Paris you’ll see there’s always a dog under the next table, so you bend over to pet the dog. When you turn away from the philosophy and pet the dog, you don’t become stupid. When you flirt with the person at the next table, it doesn’t mean you can’t understand the philosophy anymore. It just makes you human.

That said, I think for very practical reasons it’s difficult to run an omnibus commercial media publication that caters to all sides of the human experience and really engages with them, but I like the idea that you could in theory create a publication that would do that. (I think this is the ultimate goal of sophisticated discovery mechanisms and nuanced personalization.)

TEXT & IMAGE & IMPRESSIONISM

One of the salient features of early blogging about technology and politics was that there were so few people doing it that complete strangers would feel no compunction about emailing you to edit and make suggestions on posts. And maybe it was the approach, but I don’t remember thinking they were presumptuous assholes for doing so, either.

On the upside, it was a heavy incentive to become halfway decent at self-editing as fast as possible. (In the intervening years, my ability to structurally edit has improved and my ability to copyedit has gone embarrassingly downhill. I write entire sentences and leave out phrases that occurred in my brain and apparently never made it to my fingers. I don’t know why this is, but I’m not ruling out very early dementia.)

But as cellphones and then smartphones became ubiquitous, it became easier to capture a moment, and sometimes a feeling, with an image instead of a wall of text. As a writer, this might in theory make me nervous, but it doesn’t. I think language has some class barriers that image capture does not, and I like the fact that almost anyone can poignantly document their experience and viewpoint without having to learn how to compose a structured essay or write a compelling lede. Not because it’s easier or requires less artistry, but because if you can do it, an image makes an impression (or doesn’t) immediately. And it conveys so much more information so quickly. There are plenty of opportunities to lose/bore/turn off the reader in a written piece. With an image, it’s one powerful shot. Or a collage of images that tell a story impressionistically yet powerfully in a way that text technically can, but rarely does.

I say this as someone who is a terrible, execrable photographer, but admires great photographers immensely. There’s nothing like a really powerful image to make you feel inadequate as someone who only has text at their disposal.

AND THAT WAS A BIT OF A LONG WIND-UP, BUT…

That is why I love the rise of photoblogging. I feel like I have a better sense of what people care about, what they think is important, without the barrier of having to write and describe it in 500 words, which not very many non-writers are willing to do. Which is why I’m integrating some of my Instagram posts here. But I’m aware that a re-gram with a dry comment about the TSA bending over backward not to suggest that ammunition might be an unreasonable thing to transport on a passenger flight might look a little odd alongside a sincere post about why freelance photographers in combat zones need more institutional and public support.

But that’s the key difference between blogging under your own domain and trying to write for a specific audience. You don’t have to choose.

The upshot here is that you’ll see posts about Silly Things (TM) alongside things that I actually think are important. And per Jonah Peretti, I don’t think one necessarily undermines the other.

If you had properly labeled the Bibles, on the other hand…

image

 

I’m glad that the TSA helpfully clarifies here that you can bring ammunition on a plane, just not in hollowed-out Bibles.

Housekeeping

Disqus should be working now for most of you, but I just migrated the site and it’s taking a while for everything to propagate.

(And I need to clean up the rest of the site. The consulting page hasn’t been updated since before I went to the Observer, I think. )

Anything I Care About

Fred Wilson has a post this morning referencing my note about the difference between blogging on a platform like Medium and maintaining a personal blog: namely, that you control the domain and the look and feel. But he also touches on something else when he writes this:

When I started blogging here at AVC, I would write about everything and anything. Then, slowly but surely, it became all about tech and startups and VC. It is still pretty much that way, but I feel like I’m heading back a bit to the personal blog where I can talk about anything that I care about

When I do write for Medium, I think I’m writing for a specific audience: mostly young professionals who work in the tech industry. That will probably change as Medium expands and develops a larger readership. There are of course fewer people reading here, and if there is a specific audience, it’s a lot broader and largely composed of people who know me in capacities outside of the tech industry. But regardless, I don’t have to write as narrowly as I do when I publish in a regular media outlet. The upside of that for me is that I don’t feel compelled to stick to a particular topic. I can write about, as Fred put it, “anything I care about.”

When I was a kid, seven or eight years old or thereabouts, I used to make copious lists of things I liked and didn’t like. I don’t remember why. I think some of it was about asserting identity and defining myself by those likes and dislikes. I remembered it a few months ago when I was skimming Susan Sontag’s notebooks and found an entry from February of 1977 where she did exactly the same thing as an adult. A sample:

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, Wagon-Lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, pen knives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: Television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins ["bolsters"], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.

Sontag would have been about 44 when she wrote that. (I too like the color blue and dislike baked beans, but I had to Google to find out what a traversin is, and I must confess: I am ambivalent.)

A similar set of lists could have probably been compiled from reading my personal blog years ago and I imagine the likes would have included the Ukrainian punk band Gogol Bordello, Christopher Hitchens (before he turned hawkish on Iraq), Brass Eye, the Bulgarian Bar on Canal & Broadway, bourbon, game theory, blogging, the Arms & Armor room at the Met, Duke basketball, James Bond movies.

Thirteen years later, the list is probably a bit different. (Add: the novels of Edward St. Aubyn, super-spicy Thai street food, Yes, Minister, pop neurology… ) That said, I did recently drag my friend Megan McCarthy through the Arms & Armor room specifically to see an exhibit about Bashford Dean, who was the original curator and is pictured here, looking like the proprietor of a Bushwick artisanal cocktail bar:

Bashford Dean

Bashford Dean

I still love the Arms & Armor room.

But I look forward to talking about interests here that are outside of my usual writerly purview, which tends to be tech/media/finance.

I Promise to Be a Worse, More Prolific Writer.

As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t publish very often—an article here and there, a random essay every now and then. The biggest reason for that is that I loathe pitching stories. (If you’re an editor and you want me to write for you, your best bet is to come to me with an idea.) And I’m not a beat reporter, so my byline appears pretty rarely in any sort of traditional publication.

That said, I actually write fairly regularly; it’s just that most of it never sees the light of day. That is somewhat by design. I write to clarify my own thinking and the unwieldy process of doing that isn’t necessarily something I’d want anyone to see. It involves a lot of bad writing and bad thinking, and like everyone else on the planet, I prefer to present both my thinking and writing to be presented in the best light.

My fiction writing process is different, but similar in that respect. It involves a lot of tinkering and playing around with ideas that go nowhere most of the time. I probably write a lot more bad fiction than bad non-fiction. There are enough loose snippets of dialogue and half-written scenes littering my various computers that I should probably buy an external terabyte drive just for CRAP WRITING.

But I also have a hunch that there’s a downside to not writing in public more often. Or, let me clarify: not writing badly in public, which is what much of blogging is, even if you’re halfway decent at self-editing. In my case, I think I’ve developed a hesitancy to take risks. I’m not as inured to negative feedback as I used to be and my perfectionistic tendencies, which serve me well in other areas, stifle my creativity.

And I think of a quote Freud excerpted in The Interpretation of Dreams, wherein Friedrich Schiller tells a young poet who complains about his lack of prolificity, ‘You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

So in the interest of rejecting later and discriminating less severely, here is my contract with you, the reader: I will write mostly badly and more often. Not so much that either of us want to slit our wrists, but more than I’m doing now.

Do feral children habitually sleep in Verizon trucks?
Do feral children habitually sleep in Verizon trucks?

Here I Go Again On My Own

Inspired by Lockhart Steele’s return to personal blogging, I’ve decided to give it a shot myself–with the caveat that if this ends up being Not Fun after 30 days, I will go back to Not Blogging. I haven’t really blogged on a regular basis since I left Gawker in 2003 and having to do 12 posts a day (and seven days a week, originally) burned me out pretty badly.

But now I’m at the opposite end of the continuum; I’m usually working on one or two long-form writing projects, but not very much writing gets done in public otherwise. And there are things about blogging that I miss. I like consistently writing for an audience and getting feedback. It helps me work out my arguments and thoughts about various issues and clarifies muddy thinking.

And I miss being able to engage other people online in discussions that are actually productive. In the days before comments on blogs, you could generally have a thoughtful conversation online without everything degenerating into madness and chaos simply because responding to a post required that you wrote a post on your own blog and linked back. This created a certain level of default accountability because if someone wanted to flame you, they had to do it on their own real estate, and couldn’t just crap all over yours anonymously. So in the spirit of old-school blogging, I’ll approve comments here, but am much more likely to engage if you create a blog post of your own and link back.

So what am I going to blog about? I’m not totally sure. But I’m going to copycat Lock and say I’m committed to one post a day, and if it’s fun, I’ll probably do more here and there. Some of it’ll be stereotypical protoblogger stuff: what I had for lunch, how I feel about the President, what I think about The Media. But I anticipate that this’ll a lot broader than my original blogging was. If I get stuck, I might use prompts–Quora questions, inquiries from readers, etc.–and I’ll duplicate some of my Instagramming here. (I’m sorry if that’s annoying to the four people who follow me on Instagram, but I feel like there’s some overlap between Instagramming and personal blogging.) And I might post some short fiction snippets.

I also take requests. But I can’t tell you what The Restaurant of the Summer is because that’s not my bag. But if you tell me, I will book a reservation.

Our nation's finest print newspapers are selling replicas of the Titanic. Can't tell if this is self-awareness or just coincidence.
Our nation’s finest print newspapers are selling replicas of the Titanic. Can’t tell if this is self-awareness or just coincidence.