“Demand Better Curation”
I’m really scared for my generation, you know. The thing that scares me most is Tumblr. I hate what Tumblr has become… Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. It just kills me. Then you’ll meet them and they’re just the biggest turkey in the world. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate.
Known more for his music than his cultural commentary, Drake is asking something here about the increasingly blurry lines defining the roles of web users. In his New York Times profile of David Karp, Rob Walker explains how the Tumblr founder and CEO has divided the site’s community into three categories: “creators” (those “who post their own photographs, original writing and so on”), “curators” (“who cull, heart and reblog the best of this material for the benefit of the biggest group”) and “consumers” (who… well, consume). But what Drake’s alluding to is a whole other set of user that removes the lines between the three, their role as curators defining how they consume media in the creation of their own online identities.
The difference between the type of curator that Drake is speaking of and those identified in Percolate’s “What is Curation?” video is an important one: While both can lead consumers on a unexpected journey, chasing the white rabbit into previously unexplored corners of the web, the latter actually helps sift through the media abyss, singling out worthwhile information, and often “adding value” by lending context through their own ideas and opinions. The former are rebloggers.
Which isn’t to say that reblogging is worthless. It isn’t. Those who reblog with ambitious regularity often assemble cavernous portfolios of unique and interesting content. But all the same, there is a certain emptiness in living vicariously through other people’s moments, isn’t there? In his article titled “The Naked Appeal of Instagram,” David Carr questions the need for more creators. “On services that allow uploading of big batches of photos, the average number of times a photo is looked at is between one and none,” Carr writes. “People are often too busy producing media content — whether updating Facebook with beautifully filtered Instagram pictures or Tweeting about Naked Cowboys — to consume much of it.” Using the same premise, I question the need for more rebloggers, basking in all the beautiful projections on their Tumblr sites and Pinterest pages, hoping that someone (anyone!) stumbles across them and sees the collection as a reflection of themselves.
Curation is different though.
“Whether in tweets, in blog posts, in podcasts, or in newsletters, be ruthless with your attention. Trim things down to a point where you’re only taking on the most nourishing of writing.” This, I believe, applies to curation as much as it does consumption. The Internet has given everyone a voice, leaving us equally able to curate as we are to consume. Some adopt a strategy of blanket-curation, throwing everything new or fresh or remotely interesting online and letting other consumers make their own value distinctions. Others assume the role of tastemaker, selectively making the decisions themselves. Both have their place, but the former contributes to what Jonathan Haidt calls “the paradox of abundance,” which he says “undermines the quality of our engagement.” How many content-overload websites can you monitor before you become overwhelmed by volume? How many share-explosions does it take before you remove a friend from your Facebook feed? How many Tumblr pages can you pay attention to before the reblogs become a blur?
Thoughtful, honest, and caring curation isn’t entirely different than creation. After all, the topics you choose to research, to blog about, and to discuss with friends all begin with the process of sifting through the media abyss yourself and singling out worthwhile information. So, here’s the challenge: Create less disposable “content” and concentrate on supporting work that will mean something to you slightly longer than the time it takes to press “like” or “reblog.” Demand more of your own Tumblr sites, Twitter feeds, personal blogs, and status updates, setting the tone for the web you want to see. Demanding better curation by others means demanding better curation from ourselves.
(Originally published August 29, 2012)
“Reconsidering Foie Gras”
In “The Amazon Doctrine” Michael Heilemann compares how easy it is to trust a brand relative to how profit-focused, or “driven by business reasoning,” they are when dealing with customers. “When did Amazon last make a move that screwed you over as a customer in the name of profit,” he asks, before shooting down Twitter for having “gone insane” in killing their desktop client (the most recent initiative to safeguard where and how the service can be used).
Never mind that I don’t give a flying intercourse about ‘Who to Follow’ and ‘Trending Topics’ nonsense that is continually shoved down my throat. #foiegrasjokehere
I’ve thought about this plenty in the past, especially as I made my own attempt at pursuing a living online. More and more though, even despite Heilemann’s assertion that such narrowly focused companies will have a hard time succeeding, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that many would actually try to move on from their force feeding ways.
For those unfamiliar, foie gras is duck or goose liver that’s been fattened by force feeding the animal. Some denounce the process as being cruel to the animal, while others take an opposing view. Comedian Joe Rogan falls in the second group,
You ever see them force feed a duck? They take the duck, they stick its stupid head under this faucet, they pour some grain down its throat, and they pull it out. It takes five seconds. And you think that it’s terrible? That’s terrible to an animal that you’re going to kill and eat, really?
The actual foie gras debate aside, take a step back and reconsider Heilemann’s bit about how the pending death of Twitter might be by the hand of the company’s own aggressive attempts to monetize the service. I can’t help but look at sites like Buzzfeed, which I actually enjoy, without a similar thought coming to mind: Even if Twitter or Buzzfeed succeed financially, are they “screwing over customer’s in the name of profit” to do so? It all depends on how you look at it.
“I get the attempt to control the stream in an effort to monetize it,” adds Heilemann. And likewise, I get the trend of packing sidebars, headers, post footers, RSS feeds, and every other remaining inch of white-space (or whatever you’d rather call non-monetized real-estate) in an effort to drive income to your business. Businesses have to make money, and there are very few ways for online content-producing companies to do so aside from milking a few extra pageviews (or browser refreshes, reloading ads, and inflating marketable metrics) to make things work. Is this force feeding? Maybe, maybe not. I will say this though: The line between force feeding and content presentation is downright nonexistent when websites use slideshows, something which not even Buzzfeed utilizes. As Rogan continues his rant, things begin to sound familiar,
I’ve watched them do it. It’s ridiculous. They take the thing, grab them buy the neck, stick its mouth on it. And they get sort of used to it after a while. They just kind of [sit] there, they pump grain down their throat, then they let them go. Then they’re done for the rest of the day, they wander around…
A couple months back I was talking to a friend about this — I named Complex as one of the biggest abusers of the process, burdening readers with 100-page click-through slideshows ad nauseum — and he broke things down from his perspective as a publisher, telling me that he too didn’t care for them but has learned to accept them because point blank: they work. “I stopped trying to fight it,” he told me. And believe me, I get it. There doesn’t seem much use in arguing them because they work. They work, but they can always be done better (meta alert: a good slideshow about how foie gras is made). And when they suck, there’s always an alternative.
If you head over to one of my favorite hip hop blogs today you’ll see that the Passion of the Weiss crew has released a great post counting down “The 25 Greatest Outdated Rap Slang Words.” By Complex standards this should be nothing but a weighty 27 page click-through extravaganza, including an introduction page and a concluding “Related Articles” slug. But Weiss kept things simple, with everything on one page, all there for you to digest as you please. That, and it’s a good read. (I suggest you checking it out.)
Now, is one method better than the other? Again, it all depends on who you ask. Not unlike foie gras, some will denounce the click-forcing process as being cruel to the reader while others encourage it.
If your only method of generating income is capitalizing on pageviews, then I get it. Having users (don’t lie, they’re not readers anymore) clicking away until a glossy haze forms in their eyes, the whole experience becoming a blur regardless of how used to it they become: all of that serves a purpose, and good on you for capitalizing on it. But if your goal as a publisher is to deliver something in a manner that gives your readers as little trouble as possible, a slideshow is absolutely unnecessary. Both might work, but it’s up to you as a reader and a publisher to choose which method you want to see survive. As Michael Heilemann adds, “It may take years, but if it really is Twitter’s intent to kill the desktop client, it will definitively mark the end of my use of the service.” And as for myself: You’ve lost my trust with slideshows, and I’m tired of clicking.
(Originally published September 11, 2012)
“Why Eminem Still Matters”
Nearly 15 years ago Eminem’s “My Name Is” set a new rap standard when the skinny white MC found fame by filtering his generally abasing wordplay through an obnoxious Labi Siffre sample. While the single’s music video mocked both celebrity and lowest common denominator Ameri-slob entertainment, the track stood out as much for its shock value (or at least anti-PC value) as it did for Marshall Mathers’ talented self-deprecating storytelling. Once shine began to wear thin there, the life-cycle of 1999’s The Slim Shady LP was extended with “Guilty Conscience,” a track that found the rapper continuing to infuriate, casting his lyrical devil (justifying a robbery, date-rape, and murder) opposite Dr. Dre’s voice of reason. The single went platinum. Twice.
This divisive M.O. carried through to The Marshall Mathers LP which followed in 2000, an album which has since been championed as one of the best hip hop LPs ever despite its violent, misogynistic, and homophobic lyrics (which is OK because it’s not real life, it’s art). Marshall Mathers has since struggled with addiction and fame along the way to becoming one of the biggest selling recording artists of all time, and with minimal googling you can find a more comprehensive history written by someone far more adept at relating that story. The point here isn’t to rehash or play up history, but to recognize how much has changed in approaching why Eminem flashing a few familiar fingers in 2013 — as he did last month with his Instagram debut — has come to mean so much.
In recent weeks Eminem has released a song in connection with a hugely popular video game series, announced that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 will drop in November, and unveiled a new music video, appearing on screen as a reborn version of the white-tee wearing, bleach-blonde-rocking agitator who closed out the ’90s by making fun of deflated celebrities. Much of why the globally recognized Eminem™ brand matters now boils down to its worth as a commodity though. Putting the track’s obvious market gains (“Berzerk” will see one million digital downloads before long) to the side, Eminem simply making news helps almost everyone related to the music business eat.
The media bubble is obvious: Good or bad, Eminem doing anything gives every interested outlet an angle to generate highly-clickable content. Talking heads and media farms use this avenue to spew re-contextualized histories (not unlike that which started this article) with the editorial payoff remaining huge: minimal research yields major returns. This is why we collectively need people like Miley Cyrus to do things like what Miley Cyrus is doing: not only to exploit her behavior now, but to resurrect her VMA performance’s cold, limp corpse and prop it up as a somehow relevant event when she returns in her 30s with Bangerz 2.
The driving force behind The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is going well beyond the bare-minimum however, conveniently pre-packaging a story for anyone willing to slap together even the most basic of blog posts. Beyond simply co-opting the original album’s pre-established greatness, the “old school” branding and marketing behind the release offers pageview-hungry publishers too many points of entry to fail. “Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop” riffs Em early on in “Berzerk,” and immediately we’re off to the races…
Music blogs got away with casually “Shady’s back”-ing it, while the bigs went on about how “Berzerk” is “a total banger” that’s “one for the purists,” its video ripe with “plenty of throwback imagery” along the lines of “[a] boombox bigger than LL Cool J’s wildest dreams.” This isn’t even to mention Rick Rubin mean-mugging it for the camera or the “So Whatcha Want” visual-scraping: It’s an editorial Christmas come early. “Berzerk” also allowed newsy news-type outlets to follow the younger MCs are hungrier than Eminem, so he should watch out path, because… whatever. None of these articles are to be outdone, however, by the slew of bloggers who simply embedded the track and asked for readers to “Take a peek below and let us know what you think in the comments,” if they even bothered to bait the hook at all. The Ghost of Jay Z Past lurks right out in the open, “Rap mags try and use my black ass / So advertisers can give ‘em more cash for ads.”
Until the pageview economy completely dries up, we’ll continue to see everyone with a basic grasp of the web utilize this sort of thing to their benefit. In that sense, taking issue with the whatever it takes to round out a slideshow approach is useless. What’s more, arguing that extensive Eminem coverage is somehow unwarranted at this point would seem entirely oblivious to the nature of the media landscape in which we all participate. The importance here comes not with quantity of news impressions, but with how the media’s message has primarily promoted and advanced the manufactured “old school” storyline to the benefit of the deception that Eminem is somehow actually sincere now. Marshall Mathers wants us to believe that K-Fed and Khloe Kardashian disses are just lazy lyrical references, and not a calculated marketing move. Marshall Mathers wants us to believe that his line asking “are you bozos smart enough to feel stupid” is about the dumbing down of Eminem, and not victory for commercial misdirection. Marshall Mathers wants us to believe that “Berzerk” exists for reasons having nothing to do with commerce. And it’s working.
There’s a difference between sounding old school and just sounding old. Yet saying that “Berzerk” sounds old here isn’t an insult, it’s just what it is: Beastie Boys and Billy Squier samples aren’t exactly Next Level Shit in 2013. But what they are is safe, and safe still sells: for the next three months “Berzerk” will be the theme-song to Saturday Night Football. That’s right, the same guy who rapped “You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked? / Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts / Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up” on The Marshall Mathers LP will now present the seasonal college football soundtrack for a Disney-owned property with MMLP2‘s lead single.
Eminem isn’t “bish”-biting and having Kendrick push him out of the way in the “Berzerk” music video because he recognizes the changing of the guard, it’s because doing so is a selling point of the song (media baiting) while also taking a sly jab at those who aren’t catching onto Eminem’s “stupid” character: The old man doesn’t even get it! The same thing goes for Mathers’ appearance on ESPN, where the story should have been less about how a historically insecure human acted awkward on live television and more about how Mathers sold us on the idea that he doesn’t care about marketing despite hawking his Beats By Dre jingle on one of the world’s biggest television channels. Compton’s new king might win the cred game, but until Kendrick can move Chryslers that argument is moot. (Though… you don’t think four-wheeling with Robin Thicke and 2 Chains could be commercial grooming, do you? Let’s not forget who the executive producer behind good kid, m.A.A.d city was.)
Do you really think that there’s no connection here? That Dr. Dre serving as executive producer for The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is just a rekindled connection between old friends? Dr. Dre is the co-majority shareholder of Beats Electronics, the nation’s largest headphone and audio equipment manufacturers (to the tune of $1 billion in annual sales). Eminem fits nicely as a spokesperson for Beats Audio, and “Berzerk” conveniently conforms to the brand’s ongoing aesthetic, serving nicely as a promotional soundtrack. (The fact that Beats Electronics closes the circle by also providing premium audio systems for Chrysler is amusing despite being secondary here.) This isn’t Illuminati-talk, this is Eminem proving that he’s winning where younger MCs still can’t even begin to compete.
What’s to be done when no one’s buying records? How about reintroducing an artist to a ripe market with an ample expendable income, like, let’s say, video game buyers, and piggybacking momentum by promoting their new album in connection with a franchise that has sales figures in the billions. And this is just the start… The current push behind The Marshall Mathers LP 2 has ensured that current media saturation will lend authority to whatever sponsorship opportunities present themselves once the album is actually released. (Eminem is so hot right now!) In the process, Marshall Mathers is showing us all how it’s still possible to make a tremendous amount of money from music (without the nuisance of touring) in an era where very few are actually able to do so: By playing a scripted “stupid” card to stimulate media and consumer interest (you’ve read this far, haven’t you?), using a conveniently amplified throwback persona to groom the appearance of authenticity, and maximizing strategic corporate branding opportunities to ensure that the major label system remains afloat for at least one more quarter. From that standpoint alone, Eminem might matter now more than ever.
(Originally published September 24, 2013)
Creative Solutions for Online Success
(Originally published November 21, 2013)
“Social Media is a Waste of Time”
Ask any number of web 3.0 engagement consultants, cross-platform mediaspace engineers, or buzzword-barking online strategists and they’re likely to tell you that your success as a professional-anything will be defined by your ability to properly cultivate and engage an audience through social media. After all, there are now well over a billion Facebook users, a couple hundred million people using Twitter, and no fewer than a several dozen knuckleheads who still somehow believe the resurrected Myspace isn’t already a complete failure. If you’re not tapping into that audience, how exactly do you intend on getting your message heard?
Or is merely having your message heard the goal? In our ever-developing “attention economy” it’s becoming exponentially more difficult to maintain the interest of a “fan,” “user,” or “consumer,” let alone actually sell them something (even if that “something” is free). Within such a paradigm, attention in and of itself might be perceived as a victory, but unless you can pay your Comcast bill with re-tweets, merely capturing someone’s attention online doesn’t actually mean much.
When entering the marketing world, I began by determining what I wanted my “brand” to represent and how I wanted to develop my online “presence” within the context of finding new projects and clients to work with. Part of the work aimed to assist artists looking for guidance in navigating the ever-murky social media abyss… and considering that, I figured, “Shouldn’t I then develop, manage, and cultivate an online audience of our own, thusly proving my mighty prowess in the social media domain?”
Social media’s peak value — at least in terms of Facebook and Twitter — is largely behind us, with widespread “interaction” typically bearing meaningless real life returns. (And that’s even if you actually know what you’re doing!) Further, social growth is cumulative, and its trends directly relate to a sphere of influence that hypothetically develops with both time and ongoing interaction with others, as those elements relate to perceived influence and authority online. Considering how little people actually pay attention to their social media feeds now, starting from scratch this late into the evolution of various popular online platforms might not be worth the investment of time. Or at least that’s what I decided for myself.
All of this isn’t to say that social media isn’t useful: it can be. If you enjoy using Google+, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace, Instagram, StumbleUpon, or Reddit, navigating those networks and interacting with other users on them can be very fun and fulfilling. And if you do so with a long-tail focus of building a personal following surrounding your “brand” (or whatever you’d rather call it), your investment of time might be rewarded with a potentially-marketable audience. But my goals weren’t related to the pageview economy, nor did they have anything to do with how many impressions my website received, or how many prospective clients I launched myself at through social-spamming campaigns.
A balance of real-life and online connectivity is a wonderful goal to aim for, but dedicating my time to a uniform social media strategy and believing that this veil of productivity would later result in anything more than a light sprinkle of realistic leads was too questionable of a position to take… Especially when the reality is that face-to-face interaction has yielded all (A-L-L!) of the paid work we ever found. While big social media metrics are sexy, and online interaction is the special ingredient that helps define success for countless artists, brands, companies, and impresarios, in determining how to move forward in a world where I am actually able to keep the utilities paid and food on our plates, I’ve determined that social media is a waste of my time.
(Originally published January 13, 2014)
“Stop Putting Social Media Buttons On Everything!”
Until inanimate objects become connected to some evolved inter-dimensional future-net, slathering social media buttons all over non web-based advertisements will remain a silly and useless strategy.
Until that day comes, the world will be divided into two groups of people: Those who believe that branding on magazine advertisements, peanut butter jars and barbecue sauce labels are all better off for the appearance of social connectivity, and those who tap Facebook ads on bus stop advertisements, only to be trapped in a stream of infinite buffering, unable to connect to the web. When it comes to marketing and social media, we all need to start asking “why” more.
Like, until people can press Pinterest buttons printed on cereal boxes, only to then be directed to the brand’s “Good Eats” board, then why do these sort of offline ad placements exist? So that brands of ill-informed strategy can show some shred of hip-with-it-ness, or to bank on the massive what-if of having a customer pay attention enough to actually notice an advertisement, only to then search that brand’s name, track down a social media page, and maybe somehow then “engage” online in some sort of meaningful way? Seems like a bit of a stretch.
Let’s say adding a Facebook button to the bottom of a heart-friendly butter substitute container worked, and a health-conscious customer ended up “liking” that brand’s page. How many steps are there between customers “connecting” with one of that company’s many social media accounts, and that company actually making a sale? Or are sales even possible? “Why” is social media even necessary then?
Boosting Twitter followers and Facebook likes for the sake of having more Twitter followers and Facebook likes isn’t always useless, because they can actually embellish authority. Does having more followers make someone a better Presidential candidate? Maybe not, but it might be a significant indicator of popularity relative to a brand’s competitors or contemporaries; which is something virtual passers-by might pay attention to (a well-populated party is always more attractive than an empty room). But if the perception of authority is all that’s important, why clog up paid advertisements with useless third-party buttons when tossing a few handfuls of quarters at vendors on Fiverr will “enhance” your fanbase metrics just the same.
If a company’s bottom line has anything to do with increasing income though, more social connections are largely meaningless unless those followers can be converted into customers. This brings us back to “why?” If the goal of using social media is to boost perception of relevance, then including Instagram buttons on your company car’s vehicle-wrap might make sense. All that ultimately says, however, is that your company is aware Instagram exists, but has little to no idea how to actually use it.
So when creating that next above-the-urinal print ad spouting the advantages of a newly constructed downtown parking garage, maybe it’s worth asking “why” you’re adding instructions for pissers-by to “follow you” on Facebook. Then the next step might be asking “why” you’re investing time in maintaining a Facebook page for a parking garage, in the first place.
(Originally published January 13, 2014)
“The Ultimate Musician’s Guide to Navigating the Entire Internet”
Just because you know some online basics, your high school friend is your “manager,” or your Rap Genius page is pending verification, does not make you a Professional Musician. What follows is a jumping-off point for those looking to make the leap, five New(-ish) Rules written for amateur artists looking to go pro.
#1) Educate Yourself
Those who create remarkable things are rarely the same people who are good at selling those things. While promotion and sales are critical skills for musicians looking to go pro, knowing where to start and who to trust along the way can be tricky. Part of the problem is that everyone with an interest in the “music industry” and a business card can tell you they know What’s-What and are willing to help (for a fee). The answer here isn’t to immediately hire someone else to promote, manage, or book your act: You’re better off just educating yourself.
While hiring marketing and promotion assistance could be beneficial, don’t forget that every dollar you spend on your music is one more dollar you have to earn just to break even. And while many don’t have finances in place for this sort of help anyway, most have (at least a little) spare time to spend educating yourself. There are countless online resources to aid in that process, ranging from Digital Music News to Hypebot. Do yourself a favor: Check the technique being spread around online, and monitor evolving technologies, services, and trends. If music is your job, it’s also your job to never stop learning.
#2) Ask More Questions
With or without anyone’s help, artists need to figure out a way to differentiate themselves. If you’re struggling with this, yourself, it might be helpful to begin asking some questions: Why should people give me their attention; why should they care enough to listen to my “elevator pitch” (let alone 30 seconds of my music!); what am I doing to differentiate myself?
If you’re thinking about sending emails to media: Great! But as The Smoking Section’s David D. wrote back in January, “[W]hat song do you have prepared to drop next week? What videos have you filmed? What can you do to stay on everyone’s mind? Because in this warp-speed era, if you disappear for three months it’s like you never existed in the first place.”
What if you’re successful with your pitch? Are you even ready for that? What resources do you need to reach your goals from there? Do you need money? How will you budget any expenses? Have you considered a budget? What are the steps you need to take to make that happen? Can you perform live? Can you tour? What are you doing right now to help work toward that? What, exactly, is your plan?
#3) You Don’t Need an Amazing Website
You don’t have to revolutionize the platform, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a functional website. The must-haves are standard: It must be mobile-friendly; it must be browser-compatible; it must be easy to use; it must speak to your goals. Strategy surrounding that last point comes back to planning: iTunes sales, free downloads, mailing list subscribers, or social media interaction… What do you want visitors act on when they see your digital business card? It’s easy to go overboard here, but only give visitors what they need. Anything beyond that may detract from your website’s goal.
#4) Social Media is (Sort of) Useless
Chances are good that you won’t be “discovered” through Reverbnation. But simply going where more people are isn’t a recipe for success, either: A well groomed Pinterest account, for example, probably isn’t the one thing standing between you and a successful career as a musician. It’s easy to get caught up in playing with Twitter and Facebook — and they can actually be helpful — but don’t be surprised when third party platforms fail you.
TIME recently published an article reporting that (unpaid) content posted on Facebook pages now only reaches around 6% of followers. Think about what might happen if you invest all your energy into Twitter, only for it to limit the reach of “unpaid” tweets? What are your “followers” and “likes” actually worth?
One simple tool to help avoid this problem is a mailing list. It ensures that artists can reach out to fans on their own terms. No different than any of the other tools you can use to reach fans though, a mailing list isn’t going to do you much good without purpose, strategy, and consistent execution.
#5) Your Music Can Be a Hobby
The web has created countless avenues allowing individuals to innovate their way to an income, but chances are good that your music will never pay your bills. This isn’t about being “good enough” to be a professional musician; this is about looking inside and asking whether or not you’ll hate every step of what lies ahead as a “professional musician.” Which brings us to a vital question: Are you ready to sell yourself?
This doesn’t mean “selling out,” or fundamentally changing your music to cater to some broad commercial market. What this means is, are you prepared to regularly try to convince strangers to give you their money in exchange for something you’ve created? More importantly, will you be able to keep trying in the face of broad-stroke disregard? Are you ready to reach out to that thousandth person even though the first nine hundred and ninety nine ignored you?
Just because you make music, and enjoy making music, does not mean “professional musician” should be your trade.
(Published May 29, 2014)