Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

12 MARCH, 2014

Show Your Work: Austin Kleon on the Art of Getting Noticed

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How to balance the contagiousness of raw enthusiasm with the humility of knowing we’re all in this together.

In 2012, artist Austin Kleon gave us Steal Like an Artist, a modern manifesto for combinatorial creativity that went on to become one of the best art books that year. He now returns with Show Your Work! (public library) — “a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion,” in which Kleon addresses with equal parts humility, honesty, and humor one of the quintessential questions of the creative life: How do you get “discovered”? In some ways, the book is the mirror-image of Kleon’s debut — rather than encouraging you to “steal” from others, meaning be influenced by them, it offers a blueprint to making your work influential enough to be theft-worthy. Complementing the advice is Kleon’s own artwork — his signature “newspaper blackout” poems — as a sort of meta-case for sharing as a modern art that requires courage, commitment, and creative integrity.

Kleon begins by framing the importance of sharing as social currency:

Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it — for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.

He later considers the seemingly obvious but underappreciated heart of sharing — something most obviously and gruesomely assailed by trolls and haters, but also routinely forgotten amidst our more subtle everyday negligence — and writes:

The act of sharing is one of generosity — you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

One of the myths antithetical to this networked generosity, Kleon points out, is that of the lone genius — a creator propelled by divine inspiration along a path of solitary work. But while this notion might be deeply engrained in our cultural mythology of genius, it is not only false but also toxic to the creative spirit, to the kinship of creativity that Robert Henri so memorably extolled. Kleon writes:

If you believe in the lone genius myth, creativity is an antisocial act, performed by only a few great figures — mostly dead men with names like Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso. The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements.

Instead, he borrows Brian Eno’s term “scenius” as a healthier alternative in conceiving of creativity:

Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals — artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers — who make up an “ecology of talent.”

[…]

Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.

Indeed, this is what history’s greatest booms of innovation embody, from the cross-pollination at the heart of “the age of insight” in early-twentieth-century Vienna to the broader cultural history of how good ideas spread. But more than a way to explain history, “scenius” is one of the best models for making sense of the modern world — as Kleon keenly observes, the internet itself is “a bunch of sceniuses connected together, divorced from physical geography.” Finding yourself a “scenius” to belong to is an essential part of making sure your work takes root in culture.

Another of Kleon’s life-tested pointers focuses on embracing the status of amateur — not in the derogatory sense, but in the revolutionary spirit that propelled H.P. Lovecraft’s Amateur Press Association, the proto-model of blogging. Being an amateur harnesses the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” — a state of openness to possibility that closes up as we get calcified in expertise. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright put it perfectly when he asserted that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” However, the gift of the amateur — or the “curious outsider,” a term I’ve used for myself — is not only an openness to uncertainty, but also a boundless enthusiasm with a sharp focus. Kleon writes:

Amateurs [are] just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it… Raw enthusiasm is contagious.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.

This intersection of the scenius and the amateur, Kleon argues, is a hotbed of creative power:

The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. . . . Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

This notion of doing what you love and sharing it also goes to the heart of a familiar quarterlife-crisis concern: finding your voice. Kleon offers the beautifully simple, if uncomfortable, answer:

The only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.

One of Kleon’s more unusual creative-centering strategies has to do with letting death put life in perspective — every morning, he begins his day by reading the obituaries in the paper. It might seem like an odd habit, but it’s actually a remarkable tool for clarifying one’s priorities. Citing Maira Kalman’s memorable observation that “the sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble,” Kleon writes:

Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length. Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. . . . Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.

In another section, Kleon advises to send a “daily dispatch” to your community, a practice that counters the equally toxic myth of the overnight success — something I feel very strongly about myself — and instead turns the invisible process of your becoming, as a person and an artist, into something people can see. Kleon writes:

Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance. Building a substantial body of work takes a long time — a lifetime, really—but thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. So forget about decades, forget about years, and forget about months. Focus on days.

[…]

A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now. . . . A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out — you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.

One way of knowing what to share is to understand the notion of “stock and flow” — an economic concept that Robin Sloan transformed into an apt metaphor for media. “Stock” refers to the timeless, evergreen stuff — things as interesting and meaningful today as they are in a year or even a decade. “Flow” is the reverse-chronology feed of short snippets of the present, things that “remind people you exist” — tweets, Instagram photos, and so forth. The key is to keep up your flow without letting it detract or distract from your stock, on which you continue working in the background. But the two aren’t diametrically opposed — with some pattern-recognition, bits of flow can coalesce into stock. Kleon writes:

Social media sites function a lot like public notebooks—they’re places where we think out loud, let other people think back at us, then hopefully think some more. But the thing about keeping notebooks is that you have to revisit them in order to make the most out of them. You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking. Once you make sharing part of your daily routine, you’ll notice themes and trends emerging in what you share. You’ll find patterns in your flow.

When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.

Indeed, this notion of fragmentary accumulation of big ideas is closely linked to one of the most important points Kleon makes, a throwback to his first book: Our minds are constantly assembling bits and pieces from the things we are exposed to, our interests and our influences, which we then combine into our own ideas about the world. But the two processes — collecting and creating — are intertwined. After all, as Amanda Palmer eloquently reminded us, “we can only connect the dots that we collect.” Kleon writes of the osmosis:

We all carry around the weird and wonderful things we’ve come across while doing our work and living our lives. These mental scrapbooks form our tastes, and our tastes influence our work.

There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”

Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do — sometimes even more than your own work.

One of Kleon’s most urgent points, by virtue of being the least understood and least applied in our day-to-day lives online, has to do with our integrity around acknowledging this interplay of curating and creating by giving credit to others whenever we share their work. Kleon captures this contemporary conundrum beautifully:

If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care. When we make the case for crediting our sources, most of us concentrate on the plight of the original creator of the work. But that’s only half of the story — if you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it.

[…]

Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work. This sends people who come across the work back to the original source. The number one rule of the Internet: People are lazy. If you don’t include a link, no one can click it. Attribution without a link online borders on useless: 99.9 percent of people are not going to bother Googling someone’s name.

And here comes the money quote, which I couldn’t second more zealously and which I wish could be sticky-noted onto ever computer screen in the world — a neglected but essential form of modern media hygiene:

What if you want to share something and you don’t know where it came from or who made it? The answer: Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.

The rest of Show Your Work! goes on to explore how Vonnegut’s taxonomy of the shapes of stories applies to sharing your art, why giving “freely and abundantly,” in the words of Annie Dillard, is the key to reaping great rewards, how finding your people helps you find yourself, why asking for help without shame is the only way to get it, and more.

If you haven’t already, do treat yourself to Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and his disarmingly wonderful blackout poetry.

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25 OCTOBER, 2013

Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome

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How the dynamics of papyrus scrolls explain Facebook.

We’ve already seen that modern social media come from a long lineage of primitive predecessors — from the florilegia of the Middle Ages, which predated Tumblr by half a millennium, to Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, the Facebook of its day, to Edison’s early “viral” cat videos to Félix Fénéon’s analog “Twitter” of early 20th-century France. But it turns out social media originated even earlier than that, in ancient Rome. In Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years (public library), history-whisperer Tom Standage takes us to task with debunking our presentism bias by tracing the surprising, scintillating history of what we know as “social media” today. And it turns out we owe it all to the famed Roman statesman Cicero.

In 51 B.C., the Roman Republic passed a new anti-corruption law, requiring high-ranking government officials to take up posts in the provinces. Cicero himself, much to his dismay, was appointed regional governor of Cilicia, a province in present-day Turkey, inconveniently far from Rome’s hotbed of political activity. Anxious about falling behind on critical knowledge about the power dynamics in Rome, Cicero had only one hope: The sophisticated information-exchange network the Roman elite had developed. Standage explains:

At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. Instead, information circulated through the exchange of letters and other documents which were copied, commented on, and shared with others in the form of papyrus rolls. Cicero’s own correspondence, one of the best-preserved collections of letters from the period, shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends elsewhere, keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others, and providing his own commentary and opinions. Letters were often copied, shared, and quoted in other letters. Some letters were addressed to several people and were written to be read aloud, or to be posted in public for general consumption.

When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he could distribute it by making copies available to his close associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered. Books circulated in a similar way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from person to person. Anyone who wished to retain a copy of a speech or book would have it transcribed by scribes before passing it on. Copies also circulated of the acta diurna (the “daily acts,” or state gazette), the original of which was posted on a board in the Forum in Rome each day and contained summaries of political debates, proposals for new laws, announcements of births and deaths, the dates of public holidays, and other official information. As he departed for Cilicia, Cicero asked his friend and protégé Marcus Caelius Rufus to send him copies of each day’s gazette along with his letters. But this would be just part of Cicero’s information supply. “Others will write, many will bring me news, much too will reach me even in the way of rumor,” Cicero wrote.

With information flitting from one correspondent to another, this informal system enabled information to penetrate to the farthest provinces within a few weeks at most. News from Rome took around five weeks to reach Britain in the west and seven weeks to reach Syria in the east. Merchants, soldiers, and officials in distant parts would circulate information from the heart of the republic within their own social circles, sharing extracts from letters, speeches, or the state gazette with their friends and passing news and rumors from the frontier back to their contacts in Rome. There was no formal postal service, so letters had to be carried by messengers or given to friends, traders, or travelers heading in the right direction. The result was that Cicero, along with other members of the Roman elite, was kept informed by a web of contacts— the members of his social circle — all of whom gathered, filtered, and distributed information for each other.

This was the dawn of “social media” as we know it today, even though it wasn’t called that, or called anything at all. (Befittingly, though Standage doesn’t draw the connection, Cicero famously believed that if a word was absent from Greek society, it was because the thing it needed to describe had become so prevalent that people had stopped noticing its existence.) The platform on which it unfolded then was one of papyrus scrolls passed around by hand, but the mechanism of transmitting information via a human-powered network was analogous to anything we see on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and platforms we’re yet to imagine. Following Cicero’s web were numerous other examples of the same phenomenon unfolding across different platforms and periods:

Other notable examples include the circulation of letters and other documents in the early Christian church; the torrent of printed tracts that circulated in sixteenth-century Germany at the start of the Reformation; the exchange and copying of gossip-laden poetry in the Tudor and Stuart courts; the dueling political pamphlets with which Royalists and Parliamentarians courted public opinion during the English Civil War; the stream of news sheets and pamphlets that coursed through Enlightenment coffee houses; the first scientific journals and correspondence societies, which enabled far-flung scientists to discuss and build upon each other’s work; the pamphlets and local papers that rallied support for American independence; and the handwritten poems and newsletters of prerevolutionary France, which spread gossip from Paris throughout the country. Such social-media systems arose frequently because, for most of human history, social networks were the dominant means by which new ideas and information spread, in either spoken or written form.

But just as this increasing reach and power of social media was gaining momentum, the nineteenth century screeched everything to a halt:

The advent of the steam-powered printing press, followed in the twentieth century by radio and television, made possible what we now call “mass media.” These new technologies of mass dissemination could supply information directly to large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but their high cost meant that control of the flow of information became concentrated in the hands of a select few. The delivery of information assumed a one-way, centralized, broadcast pattern that overshadowed the tradition of two-way, conversational, and social distribution that had come before. Vast media empires grew up around these mass-media technologies, which also fostered a sense of national identity and allowed autocratic governments to spread propaganda more easily than ever before.

And so we get to the present time, which Standage argues is in many ways a return to the ethos of Cicero’s time — the democratization of tools that the internet has precipitated has allowed us to reclaim ourselves not as a “mass” to be addressed unidirectionally but as a thriving social organism of multidirectional information exchange once again. With that, of course, comes a set of concerns about whether and how much this ubiquity of information exchange has trivialized public discourse, what it might be doing to our brains, how it’s impacting our ability to live offline, and other such familiar refrains of the techno-dystopian complaint choir. (Meanwhile, there’s a heartening case to be made for how the social web is actually making us smarter.)

But Standage’s most important point, which he goes on to examine in detail in Writing on the Wall, is that much like the technologies themselves, the concerns about them are nothing new. What a historical exploration of these analog antecedents afford us is not only more dimensional perspective on our present preoccupations with social media but also the ability to discern the habits, attitudes, modalities, and information systems that best serve our needs as individuals, as communities, and as a civilization.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Aesthetic Consumerism and the Violence of Photography: What Susan Sontag Teaches Us about Visual Culture and the Social Web

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“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

Ever since its invention in 1839, the photographic image and its steady evolution have shaped our experience of reality — from chronicling our changing world and recording its diversity to helping us understand the science of emotion to anchored us to consumer culture. But despite the meteoric rise of photography from a niche curiosity to a mass medium over the past century and a half, there’s something ineffably yet indisputably different about visual culture in the digital age — something at once singular and deeply rooted at the essence of the photographic image itself.

Though On Photography (public library) — the seminal collection of essays by reconstructionist Susan Sontag — was originally published in 1977, Sontag’s astute insight resonates with extraordinary timeliness today, shedding light on the psychology and social dynamics of visual culture online.

In the opening essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag contextualizes the question of how and why photographs came to grip us so powerfully:

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.

The lens, one of 100 ideas that changed photography. Click for more.

More than anything, however, Sontag argues that the photographic image is a control mechanism we exert upon the world — upon our experience of it and upon others’ perception of our experience:

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.

What makes this insight particularly prescient is that Sontag arrived at it more than three decades before the age of the social media photostream — the ultimate attempt to control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. The aggression Sontag sees in this purposeful manipulation of reality through the idealized photographic image applies even more poignantly to the aggressive self-framing we practice as we portray ourselves pictorially on Facebook, Instagram, and the like:

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.

Online, thirty-some years after Sontag’s observation, this aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self-assertion — a forcible framing of our identity for presentation, for idealization, for currency in an economy of envy.

Even in the 1970s, Sontag was able to see where visual culture was headed, noting that photography had already become “almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing” and had taken on the qualities of a mass art form, meaning most who practice it don’t practice it as an art. Rather, Sontag presages, the photograph became a utility in our cultural power-dynamics:

It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

She goes even further in asserting photography’s inherent violence:

Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon — one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring. Popular taste expects an easy, an invisible technology. Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger. Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.

The camera obscura, one of 100 ideas that changed photography. Click for more.

But in addition to dividing us along a power hierarchy, photographs also connect us into communities and nuclear units. Sontag writes:

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

One has to wonder, however, whether — and how much — the family circle has been replaced by the social circle as we construct our online communities around photostreams and shared timelines. Similarly, Sontag notes the heightened use of photography in tourism. There, images validate experience, which raises the question of whether we engage in a kind of “social media tourism” today as we vicariously devour other people’s lives. Sontag writes:

Photographs … help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time. It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.

[…]

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it — by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.

Out of those souvenirs we build a fantasy — one we project about our own lives, and one we deduce about those of others:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

But Sontag’s most piercing — and perhaps most heartbreaking — insight about leisure and photography touches on our cultural cult of productivity, which we worship at the expense of our ability to be truly present. For most of us, especially those who find tremendous fulfillment and absorption in our work, Sontag’s observation about the photograph as a self-soothing tool against the anxiety of “inefficiency” rings terrifyingly true:

The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

From 'Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.' Click image for more.

At the same time, photography is both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it:

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

This seems especially true, if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines — our very lives — are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself. And so the photographic image becomes an affirmation of our very existence, one whose power is invariably addictive:

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.

[…]

It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.

On Photography remains a cultural classic of the most timeless kind, with every reading unfolding timelier and timelier insights as our visual vernacular continues to evolve. Complement it with 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, the curious legacy of image manipulation before Photoshop, and the history of photography, animated.

For more of Sontag’s brilliant brain, see her wisdom on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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