Elizabeth Spiers

journalist & digital media expert

List.com

In the early days of commercial blogging, a certain web publisher who is not Nick Denton made some noise about suing websites with URLs that used “-ist.com” as a suffix on the basis that he believed that it was some sort of trademark-infringement-in-spirit of his network of sites, the URLs of which terminated that way.** I found the whole thing amusing and promptly assembled A List of Websites That Could Be Sued for having “-ist.com” in the URL.

Website no. 1: LIST.COM.

As it turns out, List.com is a parked domain and it probably costs a studio apartment in Bushwick to buy, but given what we know about the popularity of lists as both a print and web media convention, I’m surprised no one’s snapped it up.

That said, it’s hard to make the list format feel fresh when it’s so ubiquitous. Flavorwire does a few lists a week and there’s usually a sub-angle or unexpected interest driver that makes them work. (One that did well this month was Alison Nastasi’s 50 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. It worked in part because of the “weird” qualifier–the reader wants to know just how weird we’re talking–but also because Alison knows the subject matter well and if you’ve seen even five of the films, you’re either a film school grad or a serious movie junkie.) But we’re still looking for ways to really make the lists feel original.

Another good execution of the list format, and I’m a little biased here*** is OfAKind’s “10 THINGS” newsletter. The founders, Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, offer five picks each of things they love, are currently obsessed with, or just discovered and found interesting–which sounds like a generic enough formula, but what makes it work is their curatorial eye.  There are always two or three things on the list that I didn’t know about–a story they read, a restaurant they liked, a product they found compelling– and feel compelled to check out. It reminds me of Daily Candy when it was still Dany Levy’s personal list and everyone got it in plaintext, way back in the Dark Ages. Dany managed to find products and designers you’d never heard of and tell a compelling story around them. She had a good eye and journalistic/writing chops, which is rare. When I see commerce and content companies fail, it’s usually because they struggle with one or the other, or they overvalue one at the expense of the other.

Related: I like Lock’s lists on his personal blog. It’s a nice way to get a window into what he’s thinking about, and I’d imagine for him, it’s a mechanism for mentioning things that are interesting but don’t warrant a full post. So the upshot of this is that I’m probably going to shamelessly rip off Lock and do a weekly list of sorts as a recurring feature. Starting tomorrow.

** This is admittedly a not-very-blind item. A nearsighted item, maybe.

*** I met Claire and Erica when I was doing a workshop for entrepreneurs in 2010 or so, and am on their advisory board. I also don’t read 99% of the newsletters I subscribe to and I open theirs every time. It generally takes more than loyalty to make me do that, because my threshold for not reading is very, very low.

Criticism, Publishing and Abuse

Back from Miami. I tried to turn off while there, and was mostly successful. When on the rare vacation, I spot check email to make sure nothing’s on fire and try to immerse myself in reading and thinking (and relaxing). But my one failure this time was that I got a bit sucked into the Ed Champion / Porochista Khakpour situation on Friday. When Ed wrote his (in my opinion) misogynistic and creepy screed about Emily Gould this summer I had hoped for everyone involved that maybe he’d learned something from it, but wasn’t optimistic because it wasn’t exactly his first offense. So it was horrifying to see it happen all over again.

In the online chatter about it, there were a lot of tangential issues that came up and questions that deserve discussion–about the line between criticism and abuse, about the extent to which mental illness mitigates culpability for abuse, the inherently political nature of criticism, and the gray areas between confidence and delusion for the artist.

But there’s the attendant absurdity of Ed being so devastated by the refusal of the industry he thinks is so despicable and fucked up to publish his work. If he’s so convinced that the values of the publishing industry are perverse and cynical, self-publishing would seem to be a way around that. But the bottom line is, Ed wants the imprimatur of one of the big houses and puts so much stock in that sort of institutional validation that his threats to end it all revolve around not having a gig, not getting bites on the novel and not having a publisher. I think that’s why he tends to go after other authors (particularly those he perceives to be below peer level, apparently by virtue of the fact that they’re female and/or write about their own lives) instead of institutions or the people in publishing who actually determine these things.

Completely apart from Ed, there are questions that come up regularly in response to these sort of jealousy-fueled attacks about who deserves that kind of validation, the way publishing works, how the gatekeepers evaluate work, the potential deleterious effects of the winner-take-all dynamic at the top of the publishing food chain, and the opacity of the industry in general to would-be authors.

So I’m working on a post about the latter “apart from Ed” issues, but I want it to be a bit more polished–and godforbid, useful–so it’s not going up immediately.

saltpepper

I feel like these airline salt and pepper shakers are supposed to plug into an Apple product.

Weekend Travel Agenda

I’m heading for Miami tomorrow for a long weekend and while there may be some blogging, I have three priorities:

1) Sleep. My husband is adjusting to a new work schedule where he needs to be in an office at 5AM, and that requires an alarm going off at 2:30AM. This is not so much a problem for him, because he has a superhuman constitution where he needs four hours of sleep, never gets hungover and no amount of consumption of fried things and sugar ever results in a bigger waistline for him. His people will outlive us all on an evolutionary basis. (Geneticists: they are of Swedish and Norwegian stock, haplogroup J1c1b*.) I, however, need approximately seven hours of sleep. If I were a Silicon Valley type who believed that all physical and mental functions could be fundamentally engineered via willpower, the ability to quantify all things into minute units of measurement, an unwavering belief in meritocracy, a nutritional regimen that consists entirely of vitamin supplements and fillers, and a complete lack of awareness that all of these things are rooted in a strictly Western Judeo-Christian notion of progress that has some creepy right wing elements that I should at least be asking some questions about… I might consider this a moral failing of some sort. But I do not. I just need seven hours of sleep (metabolism, encroaching middle age, genetic makeup) and I’m not going to apologize for it. But the 2:30 AM air raid siren alarm has been screwing with my sleep, especially since my husband loves the snooze button more than he loves anything else in life, except Pavement.** So I need some bonding time with a pillow and unconsciousness.

2) Enjoying South Beach culture specifically, though admittedly in small doses. Miami has a great design district that’s growing all the time and has its own distinct culture that makes it unique and wonderful, but sometimes you just want neon pink Miami Vice-style Miami. The one Will Smith sang about. With the cocktails the color of anti-freeze and a barely discernible oontz-oontz-oontz in the background. Collins Avenue, really. Loaded with tourists, including me. I once described the Delano to someone as being “a Real Housewives of New Jersey-ish Ian Schrager place that’s also a bit like the set of a Stanley Kubrick film, and seemingly populated mostly with confused Europeans … ” while we were standing the lobby. And then, to my delight, an actual Real Housewife of New Jersey walked by me to check out with more Louis Vuitton logo-bedecked luggage than is available in their flagship store.  I would be really disappointed on some level if South Beach become less South Beachy.

3) Yardbird. Miami has a great emerging foodie scene, and I’m a sucker for southern and southern-influenced chefs. Is it the best, most authentic southern food EVAR? No. Is it really great? YES. But if you’ve been there more recently I have, I’d love any other culinary suggestions. (I will also consult Eater Miami, of course.)

* I have no idea what haplogroup. I made that up.

** If you’re wondering, he has reviewed that statement and confirmed its veracity.

 

I’m a little ambivalent about this WP theme. I like that it’s clean, minimalist, publishes entire posts to the homepage as a default. And it’s responsive design, so as far as I can tell, looks okay on mobile/tablet. But I’m not sure the type is great for longer pieces**. And I’d love to have a design where I could syndicate Instagram photos to a right rail or something similar. Any suggestions?

** That or Grandma Spiers needs an update to her eyeglasses prescription, which is entirely possible.

Things That Are Happening

No blog post yesterday–I started several of them and abandoned halfway through because I wasn’t feeling it. With a lot of professional writing, you just have to plow through and turn in a best effort, which is always painful because you feel like it’s incomplete work. But the luxury of writing solely (or mostly) for yourself is that if it isn’t working, you can just cut your losses. So this may or may not be the post for the day, but I thought I’d offer an update on some various projects. (Do we like my SEO-antagonistic headline?)

1) Selfie launches. I’m on the advisory board of Selfie, which is a mobile app that facilitates video conversations both publicly and privately. They’ll be launching a beta later today in the iTunes store. I think of Selfie as a bit like a non-expiring Snapchat with threaded conversations, but the co-founders, Alex Lasky and Hugh Dornbush, have a much more nuanced definition. Alex explains it in this video they made for Apple. When I first saw it, I thought it was squarely aimed at the tween demo, but the range of people using it is surprisingly varied. As Alex puts it, “We’ve got a beekeeper, a chess master, makeup artists, sneakerheads, nightclub doormen, fashion designers, yogis, models, pro athletes, and TV producers.” Personally, I’m a fan of the Dutch beekeeper. You can download the app here

2) New Flavorpill projects. I spend about half my time these days at Flavorpill as their Editorial Director, which for the most part consists of conceiving and executing new launches and expansions. I’m hiring a freelance editor and writer for a branded microsite that will be folded into a permanent site for Flavorpill in Q1 of 2015. We also just did a soft redesign of Flavorpill.com, the company’s events/things-to-do platform and we’ll be giving it a new name in a couple of weeks. (We decided it was a bit confusing to have both the parent company and the platform named “Flavorpill”. Gawker, Vice and Vox Media all have sites with the same name and it seems to work for them, but it’s a bit of a disadvantage if you’re just starting to ramp up.) And Flavorwire is expanding, with some new hires to be announced shortly.

3.) New D-Crit class! I’ve been teaching in SVA’s Design Criticism MFA program (now Design Research) for six years now, I think. I teach an online publishing course that, needless to say, has evolved quite a bit over the years. Every single one of my colleagues is more design savvy than I am, so I am the lowly Things On the Internet Expert. But I enjoy the program and enjoy teaching.

An aside: When I was in college at Duke I did a self-initiated project where I interviewed something like 40 professors to talk about how they felt about teaching in a research university because I thought I might want to stay in academia and do that myself. It was due diligence of a sort. More than one professor burst into tears during the interview and I learned more than you’d ever want to know about the travails of the tenure process and petty university politics. Several of them actively loathed teaching and would say so. It turned me off pretty quickly to any sort of full-time tenure-track position, but being an adjunct works nicely for me.

That said, I had some wonderful experiences there with people who really loved teaching despite the ridiculousness. I had two mentors in particular: I TA’d for and was a student of Alma Blount’s, who runs the Hart Leadership Program, and every time I’d threaten to do something stupid like go to law school, she’d roll her eyes and tell me that I was going to be a writer, whether I knew it yet or not. (She was right, of course.) Alma plucked me out of a giant intro class and took me under her wing very early, and for that I will always be grateful. Duke was a bit of a roller coaster for me and she was a stabilizing force.

I also adored Peter Feaver, who taught an enormously popular international security class and an ethics seminar that was among my favorites. The seminar was debate-driven and I usually played a role that’s probably best characterized as “the gleeful nihilist.” Both Peter and Alma demanded good writing from their students. Peter once lectured me on laziness in revision after I turned in a barely touched second draft of a paper–”Patterns of Normative Restraint in Iterative Terrorist Behavior”, or something that sounded equally silly and really just boiled down to: most professionalized terrorist groups act neither irrationally nor arbitrarily! He said it wasn’t a bad paper, but a terrible effort from me; I could do better. So I think of Peter as the Patron Saint of Excellence in Revision (Even Though Revision Is Sometimes Tedious.)

Excellence in Revision doesn’t happen as much in casual writing like this. (Sometimes Excellence in Copyediting doesn’t even happen.) But with the longer posts, I do tend to let them incubate for a bit and then take another look.

On Spanking (And Not the Fun Kind)

The New Republic has an interview with a child psychology expert about the damage inflicted by corporeal punishment.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I grew up in a home and an environment where corporal punishment was the norm and not the exception. Because the Adrian Peterson story is so high-profile, I think there’s a big conversation about how the African American community views corporal punishment, but as the Washington Post notes, “Most races spank their children, especially Southern whites who are fundamentalist Christians.”

My parents are Southern white fundamentalist Christians, and we grew up in a working class community where nearly everyone else was a fundamentalist Christian and about 65% of the population was white. I don’t think I can recall a single person I knew who didn’t get spanked as a kid. I also went to school for twelve years at a tiny segregation academy* that was not parochial, but still had teachers who felt comfortable reading Bible stories in class and taught Creationism as a competing theory to evolution. There were 32 kids in my graduating class and no black students. Corporal punishment was doled out as a response to any sort of misbehavior and the principal would even spank 16 and 17 year old guys who were on the football team.

So spanking was part of life–at school, at home and throughout the community. I got spanked and slapped across the face as a kid, and so did my brothers. And the fact that my parents did this made them no different from anybody else’s parents.

That said, I can tell you right now that if or when I have them**, I will never hit my kids. I don’t believe in it morally, philosophically–and I don’t believe it works.

My moral stance is simple: violence is not acceptable, except in self-defense. If you can get an assault charge for slapping an adult, the only way to justify doing it to a child is to argue that children are not fully human and deserving of the same rights. Which is, on some level, what many people believe, whether they choose to put it in those terms or not. But people who are Christian fundamentalists are never going to buy a moral argument because it’s too easy to assemble some literalist reading of Old Testament lore to justify the convenient notion that children are second-class citizens and property of a sort.

So while I don’t think it will necessarily persuade anyone I grew up with, I want to address the efficacy point. One of the reasons why corporal punishment is so prevalent is because people really think it works. Enough spankings and bad behavior stops. And sometimes, it does with small children, but not because the children in question have re-evaluated their moral calculus with regard to bad behavior. If it curbs or induces any sort of behavior, it’s simply because the child is afraid of being hit in response. That’s not character-building, and it does not teach respect. It only teaches fear and response, something that all animals with a working autonomic nervous system can understand, but which has nothing to do with right and wrong.

For me, it had that fear-inducing effect, up to the point where I was mentally and emotionally developed enough to expect that if an adult did something on my behalf, or to me, they should be able to provide a good reason for it. And I wanted to know what those reasons were very, very early. As in pre-school early. Very often in our household, those questions were verboten. And the older I got, the more questions I had. Why can’t I do this? What is the point of this? Why this and not that? “Because I said so” was my mom’s favorite phrase and if I asked again, it was not uncommon to get a slap in the face as a response. The question itself was ‘disrespectful”, that the answer was none of my business, and so on. I think the intended effect was to make me stop asking the questions altogether, which didn’t work. My mom also did this, typically, in a moment of exhaustion and frustration, usually with things that had nothing to do with me. She would get very distraught and upset, and I didn’t understand it because I just wanted a reason, and so I would stand there like some sort of tiny Alabamian Dr. Spock protesting quietly that what was happening was not logical. In retrospect, it was probably deeply irritating to her, but I still don’t think it warranted a palm to the side of the cranium.

As a result, especially in elementary school and my teen years, those kind of exchanges made me feel like the adult in the relationship, the one who was staying calm and being reasonable. And I began to suspect that the questions were verboten because she didn’t have an answer. (Thankfully, that sort of discipline never worked on me because a natural distrust of “I said so” authority and willingness to ask verboten questions are pretty much necessary qualities for journalists.) I also think part of the culture where I grew up made it difficult for adults to just say “I don’t know” in response to anything.

When I got a spanking it was still usually for something that was perceived as “talking back”, which is notable for the fact that I was generally a very quiet kid and didn’t do a lot of talking. But even then, I had a lot of strong opinions. My brothers got spankings for more conventional infractions. My dad did most of the paddle-to-the-rear spanking, usually beginning with a big This Is Going to Hurt Me More Than It Hurts You speech. (Offers to trade places out of consideration for Dad’s feelings were never accepted.) If that did any damage, I think it’s that for years I had a sort of Pavlovian response to anything that induced shame–and not just guilt-induced shame, either–a physical tensing up as if waiting for a spanking. If you train a child to have an animal response to a certain stimulus, sometimes those neurological wires get crossed. I wouldn’t just have that response when I fucked up, I’d also get it when someone had humiliated me through no fault of my own, when I felt shame for any reason (including bodily/sexual shame). Sometimes I still have that response, and at 37 years old, it’s just not healthy.

It’s not debilitating either, so I’m not going to suggest that I’m woefully and irrevocably damaged by my parents’ use of corporal punishment. I am not.

But do I think that sort of discipline made me a better, more productive person? No. I was a pretty well-behaved kid to start with–straight A student, generally obedient to my parents, not a rebellious child. Inasmuch as my parents are responsible for that–and they were, to a large extent–they shaped it via conversation and creating models for me with their own hard work and ethical examples. They taught me empathy by teaching me to be considerate of other people and trying to do that themselves in every day life. There is not a single thing that I learned to do right because someone threatened to hit me if I didn’t do it.

So it annoys me when I see people trying to make the case that corporal punishment made them a better person. The best case is that maybe it did, but frankly, they have no way of knowing that, because there’s no alternative experience to compare it to. The worst case is that it absolutely didn’t, and they suffered for it in ways they’re unaware of. For me, I can point to very concrete negative effects that went well beyond my childhood.

As Philip Larkin wrote,

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats…

Generally speaking, I don’t think my mum and dad fucked me up very much. Waaaay below average on the fucking up your kids continuum. (They were great! Five stars! Would totally be their kid again!) They were good, committed parents who worked their asses off for us and sacrificed their own needs constantly to ensure that we were taken care of and happy. And I am quite sure that I will fuck up my own kids (if or when I have them) in all sorts of new and innovative ways they would never even think about.

But, there is this: I will never hit them.

*If you don’t know what a seg academy is, read this. The short answer is that they’re cheap private schools that were created in the 60s to accommodate working class white people who didn’t want their kids to go to integrated schools. Most of them have been technically integrated now, including the one I went to, but I don’t think the environments are exactly welcoming to non-white people. I had some very positive experiences while I was there, and some great teachers–and I plan to write about that at some point, too–but I don’t see any point in whitewashing the bigotries.

** Yes, I do realize there are probably a million things I’d vow never to do as a parent–including “because I said so’s”, no babysitting with Disney movies, no refined sugar, blah blah blah. This is different.

screencrack

I think I just gave myself a tiny glass splinter attempting to use the phone anyway. According to my former nightlife reporter at the Observer['s ability to manufacture faux-trend pieces], this is some sort of badge of coolness. But I’d rather not be cool and have a screen that I don’t have to get a Tetanus shot to use.

I’m sending out my [now more quarterly than monthly]** newsletter tomorrow. If you have job listings you’d like me to distribute, please email them to espiers@gmail by end of day today.

** or every six months, maybe. At some point it will probably devolve into an annual email newsletter–perhaps around Christmas, with family photos and updates about how the plants are doing. If they live that long.

Self vs. Narrator *

Old Skool Blogger (TM) Jason Kottke has a post up about Internet fame, or fame in an Internet subculture, something he relates to because “Many moons ago, I was ‘subculturally important’ in the small pond of web designers, personal publishers, and bloggers that rose from the ashes of the dot com bust.”

He writes:

I realized fairly early on that me and the Jason Kottke who published online were actually two separate people…or to use Danskin’s formulation, they were a person and a concept. (When you try to explain this to people, BTW, they think you’re a fucking narcissistic crazy person for talking about yourself in the third person. But you’re not actually talking about yourself…you’re talking about a concept the audience has created. Those who think of you as a concept particularly hate this sort of behavior.)

The person-as-concept idea is a powerful one. People ascribe all sorts of crazy stuff to you without knowing anything about the context of your actual life.

This is something that happens with everyone who writes because the narrator and the self are two different things even when we try to use the former to intentionally articulate the desires and thoughts of the latter. But Jason’s post reminded me of something that former Flavorwire Deputy Ed Tyler Coates (crediting where credit is due) once described to me as his personal 80/20 theory, which is that everything you know about a person from his or her writing and various online artifacts is representative of maybe 20% of who they are, and the other 80% is probably not reflected at all. (I think he also hypothesized that the 20% of the asshole-ish things you write will be viewed as 80% of who you are, or something like that. Which is also probably true.)

I was thinking of that when I was writing about Shanley Kane for Matter, and trying to work out what percentage of Twitter Shanley had overlap with real life Shanley. I also thought about it when I decided to start blogging again here, because personal blogging is more reflective of real life me than most of the writing I do, and generally speaking, I like the distance that you can create as a writer between the self and the narrator.

I think I first saw the utility of that when I was writing Gawker because the narrator was consciously not me; it was a persona that was shooting spitballs at powerful people in New York and making insider-y jokes about how those power structures worked. It’s worth mentioning that Gawker didn’t have bylines at the time, so if you even knew I was the writer it was probably because you read about Gawker on another site or in the press somewhere. Was there some overlap? Sure. Both the Gawker persona and Real Life Me (TM) have a healthy distrust of authority and a penchant for a certain kind of mischief-making. And I have a certain sense of humor that was reflected in the posts, and you’d see it here, but the Gawker persona was also an un-self-aware snobby New Yorker that skewered New Yorker provinciality by exhibiting it. I can be un-self aware and probably snobby, too. But let’s face it: I’m from a town in Alabama that has a population of 4,000 and while I’d like to think I’m reasonably cultured, before I started writing Gawker, I thought Tina Brown was an MTV VJ, and if I knew where all of the power elites were lunching it’s only because I asked a lot of people and went to see for myself. (I later realized that this was called “reporting”.) And I didn’t move to New York in 1999 because I thought it was the only place that mattered. I moved to New York for the banal and uninteresting reason that I wanted to live in a large city and there was a job here at a tiny upstart social network that I found appealing.

Another variation on Jason’s “person-as-concept”: one of my closest friends writes a parody Twitter account of me, @wise_spiers. This person actually knows me incredibly well, and it takes both my best and worst qualities and blows them up into a funny and often-cringeworthy version of me. Sometimes it’s so spot-on that I’m not sure the people following it realize it’s parody, which results in unintentional hilarity. One tech entrepreneur I know suggested, and then practically demanded, that I get Twitter to shut down the account because it was “damaging to my personal brand.”** I went to the account to find that @wise_spiers had been Tweeting at the entrepreneur unflatteringly and the real concern was that it was damaging the entrepreneur’s personal brand. I relayed this, laughing, to the author, who immediately Tweeted the following:

Screen shot 2014-09-17 at 11.25.34 AM

 

The account has the added benefit (to everyone else) of keeping me humble. There have been times where I read it and think, “Jesus, do I really sound that oblivious/pompous/emotionally stunted?” And, well, yeah; sometimes I do.

I also mention all of this because I like meeting writers I admire in real life, and actually find it really enjoyable when they’re not what I expected from their writing. (Some people find this disappointing, and actually get angry about it. The writer was not as nice as they thought, smart as they thought, tall as they thought, etc., and failure to reflect those things in the writing is viewed as some sort of lie of omission.) I also have a few friends I knew before they became writers and it’s also interesting to see them differently on the page. I think it’s easier if you write in public to differentiate between the narrator and the writer, or to at least remind yourself that the 20% you’re seeing of the person is probably not the whole picture.

* Lindsay Robertson, who I’d love see blogging again, mentioned the other night that one of the advantages of personal blogging is that it must be refreshing to be able to write a headline without thinking about SEO. It is! And it feels subversive in the smallest, saddest possible way. So I’m going to write SEO UNFRIENDLY headlines here. Because I can.

** If I were materially concerned about my personal brand, I’d have made very different career decisions. And I wouldn’t have posted James Bond fan fiction last week.