Wednesday, 22 March 2006

the glittering breadcrumb trail

Since I read Zadie Smith's On Beauty last December I've thought about it more than I'd have expected to given that it struck me at the time as being kind of overstuffed - or kind of a "fragmented stew", perhaps. (If you've read it too, you might enjoy Amardeep Singh's recent Valve post, about the novel & what it suggests about how poststructuralist art theory copes - or fails to cope - with aesthetic pleasures of various kinds.)

One of the elements among the stuffing that I did think was perfectly judged, as in it had the exact density of a chunk of real lived experience, was the strand of commentary on Googling, specifically on students Googling their professors, but with an obvious parallel in any authority figure with a visible public record being Googled by many less conspicuous people under his or her jurisdiction. (See p 142 for instance.) The Googling is done in the interests of coldly assessing the Googled One's social cachet and status and influence and general utility to the Googler, and all the Googled One's efforts to be charming and worthwhile and interesting in person are defeated in advance by the poor impression left by his involuntary internet presence. (I'm afraid I read this as deriving somehow from the novelist's own experience of celebrity, but since it carries on from ideas started in The Autograph Man that's probably not right.) "Googling" - which I associate with ogling and goggling and other sleazy voyeurisms - is a fitting name for this activity.

I suppose this sort of problem has been around exactly as long as celebrity culture, but the self-published internet rolls it out to a vastly greater number of people and makes it all a great deal more personal and intimate. And the live, comment-enabled, realtime self-published blogosphere makes it more personal and intimate still.

(A small digression: there are some times when a blogger is justified in wishing to say something about some public figure without running the risk of having that person show up themselves; for these occasions, a very clever Duck had the idea of using an acrostic to spell out the name & whatever is to be said about it. This has the extra benefit of quarantining the post from every species of Googler, confining its readership to those who were there already, so to speak.)

Searching for information on the net about an ordinary living person is not a psychologically simple event. To begin with, in order to search for a person you do need to know something about them in the first place - in many cases you already have the option of asking for information from the person directly, so the connotation of stealthiness is inbuilt from the start. Along with the weird passive-aggressive projections inherent in the scenario outlined above, there is also the stigma attached, in some quarters, to searching for yourself - autogoogling or the tellingly named vanity googling - though I think the widespread likening of this practice to "checking for lumps" is nearer to the mark. At the bottom of both points of view is the assumption that representations of the self on the internet are outside personal control in an ominous and negative way. (I like to think that this is basically not true and unless you independently make a major arsehole of yourself you're unlikely to be seriously impugned.)

Which is why it gives me a small shock and an irrational nasty feeling when my blog is visited by a public figure who I've mentioned by name, as happened yesterday - Sandy McCutcheon commented on a recent post (rant really) triggered by some nonsense from the pen of Gerard Henderson. I hadn't said anything nasty about Sandy (whose comment was perfectly chipper) so why the discomfort? Partly, I think, because I had offhandedly alluded to him as a sort of mediascape thing or object in the same modality as a newspaper or a magazine, then he unexpectedly showed up in real person mode, and it can't be altogether nice to read about yourself represented so flatly. I also imagine, perhaps wrongly, that most autogoogling is done defensively and with the expectation that some of the material turned up will be childish or malicious. (Edit: deleted a few lines, see comments re: why)

The main reason this kind of unforeseen visitor is startling, though, is that it's most uncanny, like a magic summons in a story: intone the Name and the genie will appear! M.R. James has several stories about unsuspecting antiquarians who call up ghosts and vampires by repeating incantations they don't know the meaning of; Rumpelstiltskin and other Name of the Helper folktales get at the same material. No matter how much you know about the workings of Technorati and so forth, it still feels like strong magic when the Call is Answered.

I intended to finish off this post with a small experiment in blog occultism: into a chunk of some nineteenth-century novel I meant to insert various people's names and wait to see how many of them would follow the trail of breadcrumbs. But having written all that about ghosts and spirits and so forth I'm actually a bit scared to mess with forces beyond my control!


Susoz said...

You're assuming that S Mc found your post by auto-Googling. That's one possibility. But it was cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo and it's possible he peruses that site to keep his finger on the pulse. Or he may have been pursuing the Henderson article and responses to it.
Anyway, his response was apt and funny.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yes, agreed. I'm more wondering why autogoogling, & other kinds of googling, get a bad press in general, than saying anything in particular about S McC -- he's just the latest in a surprisingly long line of people who appear to comment on posts mentioning their own names, here and at other blogs I read.

Zoe said...

The future is acrostic!

Konrad West said...

I think that celebrities autogoogling and commenting on sites where they are mentioned will become more common as blogs become more mainstream and as the tech-saavy kids of today grow up.

At the moment, some companies blog (though mostly tech ones), and a small cabal of celebs do too (though they tend to be either writers or techies too).

In the future, when blogs become so integral to media/branding/pop culture that almost all celebrities have them, it won't be anything special. It's just weird when it happens now.

redbarren said...

white teeth one of my fave books, amazing first book. saw zadie smith a good 7 years ago at melbourne writers festival and she talked about eminem lyrics. tres funk. also red autograph man very quickly. havent got new one yet (read the reviews like yours) face author david foster wallace - infinite jest. safran foer and krauss, the corrections and shantaram also big fans of. anyway. comments. bb

ThirdCat said...

a propos of Helen Garner in The Monthly I was a bit disappointed by that too. Although I'll not hear a bad word said about her and deeply regret I wasn't able to catch her at Writers' Week. Staying on the a propos of nothing theme, I was completely unable to find someone to care for my little boy on the day she was speaking. And if I'd taken him along, well then she would have heard a torrent of words.

Tragically, as I write, I hear the sound of my precious, perfectly-sized bodum hitting the floor and thus reaching the end of its meangingful life. Oh. Tomorrow is a disaster before it has even begun.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I think Garner is a special case; if she has autogoogled, think of the many horrible things she would have found said about her -- enough to skew anyone's perceptions of the internet. And there is an awful lot of vile stuff out there. Um, out here. Look at some of the comments threads at T*m Bl**r's.

Thirdcat, if you had brought your little boy, she probably would have got down off the stage and spent the afternoon colouring in with him. (So you still wouldn't have got to hear her ...) She was good. Listening to her talk about re-learning fencing in her fifties was a highlight -- 'I learned to fight with a sword.'

Ray Davis said...

Occult manifestation is a brilliantly right metaphor. There you are, just scribbling away, and -- WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!?

The print equivalent is when someone you think of as a name turns out in person to have read something by you. But flesh and paper present fewer occasions.

In either case, though, I think the shocks become less sharp over time. If M. R. James protagonists persisted, they'd end up as blase as Buffy's Mr. Giles.

Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks for those interesting comments. Thirdcat, how was your coffeeless morning?

I have just deleted the lines mentioning Helen Garner. They didn't belong in this post. When I read your comments I got interested enough to run Google and Technorati searches on her name. There is not much out there that's negative or dismissive about her work. So I did what I should have done in the first place as I wrote my post & had a better hunt through old piles of magazines - and this time, I *did* find the exact line I'd paraphrased from memory. It's in the essay about Russell Crowe, Monthly, Oct 2005 (emphasis added):

"I hate the internet about movies, its flood of shallow, hysterical opinion, but I roamed around and found an interview with the director of 'The Insider', Michael Mann."

HG was not writing about the online reception of her own work at all, and so the remark is completely irrelevant to a post about autogoogling and uncanny online interactions.

I am still a bit disappointed by the general sentiment - it's 90% right, but how unfair to the other 10%! - but not enough annoyed to hold it against the author. Who is a national treasure.

I fear I begin to protest too much but it's best to spell these things out.

ThirdCat said...

You can't protest too much on your own blog. I remembered the paraphrased words quite well and knew there was no discussion of autogoogling. Maybe I should have commented on the substance of the post and not the aside. A reflection, I suspect, of how sensitive I am to criticism of the interwebs (for what reason I do not know). Interestingly, I had forgotten 'the movies' bit.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yeah, I forgot it too. Interestingly is right. And I'm pathologically sensitive about criticism of the interwebs.

I began to write about why but surely it'd be a classic case of teaching grannies to suck eggs.

From the vantage point of those not yet embedded in it, the internet must look enormously full of shit. I don't always remember to make due allowance for this. t.i.m b.l.a.i.r and company make so much noise they drown the rest of us out.

Galaxy said...

Not on topic, I'm sorry, but does one win a prize if Baz doesn't appear in any of the pictures on Baz Lotto?

On topic. I wonder why people pick on the internet as a repository of shite. There is a 'flood of shallow, hysterical opinion' in every medium. I suppose the difference is one of accessibility...

I had a positive experience with an author who commented on my musings on her work. I had a very civilised exchange with a blogger who read my comments about his blog. Then there was the blogger who declared he was proud to be a bigot.

Lucy Tartan said...

I'm afraid you do not get a prize for anti-baz. But I have a feeling it's statistically even rarer than a full house, so you do get to feel special.

That was a terrific post of yours, Galaxy. Any writer would have to be delighted to receive that kind of serious attention to their work, and as I remember it the author seemed delighted.

She was a blogger herself too wasn't she? So did that have an effect on how you felt about having her visit your blog? I can picture that it would make it seem less strange as she is already in the loop.

Ampersand Duck said...

Shucks, thanks for the mention. It's a handy form of encryption if you can bear the thought of writing awful poetry.

Still have to read On Beauty. I want to own a copy for the same reason you bought yours -- because the cover makes me drool every time I see it in a shop. I may be lucky and score a secondhand copy this weekend at the Book fair.

Lucy Tartan said...

'every time I see it in a shop' - and haven't the bookshops been pushing it hard! It's front and centre everywhere you go.

You mentioned last week the upcomingness of the book fair. SIGH Canberra is far and life is unkind.

R H said...

Helen Garner was a poor writer; a yuppie's Barbara Cartland.
Monkey Grip wasn't bad, but very weak in places, which makes it not good. Everything else she's done since has been a continuation. Her male characters aren't even steroetypes, just effigies, wheeled in and out on cue.

Garner's fans are all female, and no wonder. It's just kissy-kissy.
"Brad seems to be paying a lot of attention to Erica today; drying up now as she washes the dishes. Has he forgotten we fu---d last night?"

Garner nowadays is trying to hold her ground, being hostile to newcomers, that's all.

Nothing new.

Lucy Tartan said...

I disagree with just about all those opinions, RH, and some of the things you present as facts are wrong. Have you read Joe Cinque's Consolation? It's very unlike her earliest novels - it *is* something new - and I think you'd appreciate it.

R H said...

No I haven't read it, and won't. The title alone gives me the sh-ts.
She's a one-book writer, and should have stopped there. Frank Hardy made the same mistake. So have others.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I'm still worried about Thirdcat's caffeine withdrawal.

ThirdCat said...

I'm okay (thanks for asking PC)...there's another bodum. It's just that it's a big one and I never get it quite exactly right like I nearly always do with the small one. You know? And I can't justify buying myself another at the moment. You know?

I have put On Beauty on hold at the library. Which means I should be able to read it sometime in the next year.

R H said...

Seriously, I will give it a go if I can find it at a library or somewhere. I might sneak into Borders and race through fifty pages. She's easy to read, very skilled that way.
Thanks Laura. And sorry for the rudeness.

Ampersand Duck said...

I'm with Laura on this one, RH.
I think JCC is a move along for HG.

(sorry for sounding like a public service annual report)

Galaxy said...

She is a blogger, so she was interested in the rest of the blog rather than just what I wrote about her work. I don't know whether she autogoogled, I suppose I assumed she had some kind of media monitoring service. (I noticed around the same time that a lot of visitors were coming from Rehame--could easily have been unrelated, but it raises another issue. Corporations or people who employ monitoring services are taking notice of the blogsphere much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of many). It still felt strange because her response was so quick, but it certainly made a difference to her approach since she wasn't beginning with the conviction that blogging is one of the signs of the imminence of the Apocalypse ; )

genevieve said...

Lucy there was a similar moment last year on the US litblogs when James Wood went over to the Reading Experience to have words with Dan Green. It's worth a look.

And not to divert traffic or nuffink, there's a link at yours truly about an article by James McConville on why academics should be blogging. I don't think the Internet is looking quite so full of shit these days. I've just convinced a library studies supervisor who doesn't blog at all to let me write an information guide to Web 2.0. The 'read-write' Web is coming, guys.

dogpossum said...

On the topic of 'the Internet's full of rubbish':

I've recently discovered that you can contribute to wikipedia - - and, perhaps more excitingly for wordnerds like myself, you can edit it! I've been reading through the 'back door' stuff, make that the 'kitchen table' stuff at wikipedia. It's facinating for so many reasons! I'm enthralled by the whole cooperative editing/contribution to knowledge thing. And by the complicated community that's developed around it.

I'm fascinated by the emphases on 'NPOV' writing (ie non point-of-view: you're not supposed to write POV, which I adore as a concept - it's so old fashioned! I love it!), on not publishing 'original work' or 'new research' (they suggest that you publish in a journal or book or something instead), and by their insistence that you 'be bold' and get in there, editing or contributing. It's such an interesting contrast to academic writing. It's also really interesting for me, who writes on vernacular dance, which has no published history for the most part.
As an example: the entry on 'krumping' seems to be based almost entirely on the film 'Rize'. I've suspected 'Rize' is pretty much 'made up' - it could all have been a completely falcified document. Whose existence has actually made krumping 'real'. The wikipdedia entry on krumping, then, is essentially 'new work'. Its content is spurious for its dependence on a film as evidence. Yet it seems that finding any published work on krumping would be very very difficult, and that the act of publishing on wikipedia is way of 'making krumping real' or at least 'verifying' it.
There are similarly facinating discussions about films/books - filmic adaptations of books (which you might be interested in mz Tartan). The discussion on 'Starship Troopers' is excellent: there are conflicts over entering information from the film into the book's entry.

The best bit of all this is that anyone can edit an entry. When you choose 'discussion' from the tab at the top of the entry, you can see pages of discussion about the editing and content of an entry. People have 'editing wars' - where they edit and re-edit each others work (there's an entry on the 'lamest edit wars' in the wiki which is worth reading).

It's wonderful stuff if you're interested in public discourse and individual participation therein. Or even better if you're into the idea of 'public knowledge' and 'contributing to knowledge'.

And if you're a compulsive editor like myself, it's even more addictive: see a typo, fix it! It's GREAT!

NB when I say 'it's excellent', I'm mostly just expressing my delight in reading this sort of strange, public interaction between strangers. I love odd, eccentric battles in esoteric topics which mean very little to anyone outside the area. The social interaction and process of it all is excellent. But it's not necessarily 'excellent' in terms of Serious Academic Contributions to Knowledge or Usefulness. But it's certainly fun.

Sandy said...

Just to clarify about auto-googling etc. The reason I was directed to your fine blog was because as I have a novel just published my publicist forwards all media mentions in order to keep me informed of the reach of her work.

Having said that, I enjoyed reading your posts and the comments because as a fellow blogger ( in a very different sphere - Morocco) I am also interested in the way the blogosphere works on cross posting and google searches. Almost 60% of the traffic to my own blog comes from google and that has been so for some months now. The rest arrives from blog links or tags.