Thursday, May 24, 2007

What do You Want to Hear

The traffic on this site has drifted downward to a paltry 1 or two hits per month. Half of those can be ascribed to my compulsive checking of my own site. I want to see whether some oversexed religious fundamentalist cop or stray smartass has stopped by and left a pithy or obnoxious remark. Generally speaking, no luck.

Of course I could drive more traffic to the site. That would be a simple matter of stringing together some popular key words. Like “Lindsay Lohan Dirty Sanchez” or “Paris Hilton Rusty Trombone” so that whoever searched on those terms would see my site. I would never do that though. I mean do I really want page hits coming from people who’ve searched google for “Watersports and the NFL?” I don’t think so. I no more want the eyeballs of those perverts than I want clicks from someone looking for “Tom Cruise is Gay” or “Brittney’s mmf orgy with George Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Eminem, lil Wayne, Ann Coulter, Katie Holmes, Jessica Alba and America’s Top Model with American Idol Winner Kelly Clarkson in a new home with a low mortgage rate while they read information about car loans, Canadian drugs like OxyContin and sorted out game cheats for PS2, PS3 and the Wii. Lebron James and Rudy Guiliani failed to show.”

And this is one of the interesting things about contemporary information culture. It’s somehow so open that it’s closed off. You go to the same two or three websites every day and you’re frustrated that there’s nothing interesting there. Sometimes you go to google with the intention of finding something edifying. When you get there you realize that faced with all the theoretical information in the world, your meager curiosity fails you. Confronted with this infinite mass of information, the average person is a bit like the casual hiker who wants to climb Mt. Greylock and finds himself at the foot of Denali. You either turn away daunted and go watch TV on the web, or you type the words “girl on girl” into the search engine and feel faintly ashamed of yourself.

I don’t intend this observation as a call to action, or even as an especially deep observation. But it does touch on something about mass psychology and it drives the information that we consume.

The same mentality of keywords and images rules magazine covers, television news coverage and just about any mass media you can think of. Several years ago I was writing an article for a consumer business magazine. The story centered on the actions of a bunch of old white guys. While weighing the piece’s cover potential the editor in chief asked me, “Are there any women in this story?” He knew damn well that a magazine with a bunch of old flabby men on the cover will not move from the news stands. A magazine with a comely woman on the cover will sell. All magazine editors know this. It is the reason why most magazines, for both men and women, feature a pretty woman on the cover. That’s fine. The problem with it, in this case, is that he gave me an editorial mandate to try to find a woman that could be put into the story. Rather than investigate the story for what it was, I was told to shape the story through my reporting so that they could run a sexy girl on the cover. I failed in this mission, but I can’t honestly say that I didn’t try.

I am all in favor of giving people what they want. This is America after all. But the tyranny of this kind of market research is becoming more and more noxious with each passing year. When was the last time you looked at a major magazine cover and said, “Ah, there’s something I haven’t read before?” You haven’t. You turn on your $120 a month cable system and you see endless reruns of spin-offs from Surreal Life, which is itself a spin-off from the Real World. You flip the channel and land on some variation of Pimp My [ride, house, truck, prosthesis] and then move on to a show featuring either two good-looking idiots going on a date arranged by a television producer or nominal humorists commenting on the actions and attire of celebrities. When was the last time you walked into a Barnes and Noble and saw a stack of books by the checkout line that weren’t pink and didn’t refer to rutting of young white women who live in major metropolitan areas?

Those are the shows that sell. Those are the books that sell. But are they? Whenever I look at any kind of reporting on the state of the media I read about dwindling audiences. Hollywood box office receipts are off. Music sales are down. Book sales are down. Television viewership is way off. Most magazines are on the verge of bankruptcy. No one in his right mind listens to terrestrial radio any more.

It’s as if people are actually sick of the same shit being spoon-fed to us all the time. Who would have expected that?

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