Dismantling 'Internet Intellectuals,' Google+ and Other Dubious Concepts

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

By Published on .

One of the things about Google+ that was supposed to work us into a hot lather is Circles, the feature that lets us control who sees the stuff we post. This was not something Facebook had, until Mark Zuckerberg saw Circles and then rolled out Lists. Use Circles correctly and your boss can see your clever analysis of , I dunno, how awesome Google+ is without seeing pics from your weekend at the renaissance fair. Misuse it and, well, you might end up like Steve Yegge -- ordinarily probably a good thing, but this week not so much.

Mr. Yegge, a Google engineer, forgot to switch off public sharing when he used Google+ to post a 4,700-word scorcher on what's wrong with Google+. So instead of delivering a critique to fellow Googlers only, as he apparently meant, Mr. Yegge let the whole world watch a prominent Google staffer trash the company's latest major product rollout. In courageous fashion, Mr. Yegge left the post up there for a while, but it eventually came down. Don't worry, there are plenty of versions floating around. Here's a key snippet:

Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that 's not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there's something there for everyone.

Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: "Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let's go contract someone to, um, write some games for us." Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.

You can't do that . Not really. Not reliably. There have been precious few people in the world, over the entire history of computing, who have been able to do it reliably. Steve Jobs was one of them. We don't have a Steve Jobs here. I'm sorry, but we don't.

It's not every day we get to hear from a Heidegger-referencing anarcho-primitivist, so we'll call attention to a Q&A in The Atlantic with John Zerzan. Mr. Zerzan, who believes that technology destroys communities, was asked to weigh in on the passing of Steve Jobs. Talking with writer Ross Andersen, he raises some good questions about the toll of spending all that time staring at screens as opposed to say our loved ones' faces and about how much artistry can be found in Apple's top-down aesthetic dictates. He also takes a common-sense approach to some of the crap out there vying for our attention:

I was reading in the New York Times about this Baby Cry app for the iPhone that interprets the cry of a baby when it wakes up, whether it's wet or hungry or whatever. I look at that , and I think to myself the human species has been around for two million years and now we have a fucking machine to tell us what our babies' cries mean. If that isn't horrendous, I don't know what is . To me, that is just so telling about our dependence on this stuff, and you can say this is a loony example, but is it not indicative of where we're going?

To praise a review of a book you've never read is dangerous business, but justifiable in the case of Evgeny Morozov's evisceration of Jeff Jarvis' "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live." While the references to Mr. Jarvis's new tome are many, and vicious, what's most useful is an overall condemnation of the flattening of history that goes on with many new-media evangelists, or "internet intellectuals" in Mr. Morozov's skeptical terminology. As a bonus, he provides some Habermas to pair with your Heidegger:

The ubiquitous references to Gutenberg are designed to lend some historical gravitas to wildly ahistorical notions. The failure of Internet intellectuals actually to grapple with the intervening centuries of momentous technological, social, and cultural development is glaring. For all their grandiosity about technology as the key to all of life's riddles, they cannot see further than their iPads. And even their iPad is of interest to them only as a "platform" -- another buzzword of the incurious -- and not as an artifact that is assembled in dubious conditions somewhere in East Asian workshops so as to produce cultic devotion in its more fortunate owners. This lack of elementary intellectual curiosity is the defining feature of the Internet intellectual. History, after all, is about details, but no Internet intellectual wants to be accused of thinking small. And so they think big -- sloppily, ignorantly, pretentiously, and without the slightest appreciation of the difference between critical thought and market propaganda.

Scoop of the Week goes to The Guardian, whose Nick Davies reported on Wednesday that there was a very good reason for the resignation of Andrew Langhoff, a top executive at Dow Jones' European operation the day before. Or, rather there was a very bad reason he stepped down. Writes Mr. Davies:

The Guardian found evidence that the Journal had been channelling money through European companies in order to secretly buy thousands of copies of its own paper at a knock-down rate, misleading readers and advertisers about the Journal's true circulation.

The bizarre scheme included a formal, written contract in which the Journal persuaded one company to co-operate by agreeing to publish articles that promoted its activities, a move which led some staff to accuse the paper's management of violating journalistic ethics and jeopardising its treasured reputation for editorial quality.

The Journal, at least initially, did a rather unenthusiastic job of reporting on Mr. Langhoff's departure. Reuters would not make a similar mistake with its clunker of a news story rather lamely trying to peg George Soros as a funder of the Occupy Wall Street protests. And when we say lame, we're talking using-Rush-Limbaugh-as-a-source lame. Reuters' opinion side rode to the rescue, with blogger Felix Salmon blasting the chancre of a news story before it could fester too long. What could have been a prolonged exercise in ombudsman navel-gazing or unnecessary investigation was handled in a nimble fashion. Nice!

Reuters news stories like the one about OWS are held to a very high standard of integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. And there's lots in this article which tilts hard to the right.

There's the idea that Rush Limbaugh is a good place to look if you want someone to "sum up the speculation" and provide the news hook for the entire story. The idea that the Council on Foreign Relations is a "liberal cause". The idea that the protests were "triggered" by a campaign poster featuring a "battle-ready mob" of people "dressed in anarchist black". The description of OWS as "the so-called occupation"....

Reuters cannot -- must not -- get a reputation as a right-wing media outlet. We have to report the news as impartially as we can. In this case, there was no story, and nothing to report. Inventing a tenuous and intellectually-dishonest link between Soros and OWS might get us traffic from Matt Drudge -- but that 's traffic which, frankly, we don't particularly value or care for. Much more importantly, it serves to undermine the heart of what Reuters stands for. And we can never afford to do that .

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