Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Flagging Discourse: Plagiarism, sensationalism, bad logic

I’m noticing a recent spate of carelessness among movie writers and reviewers, and I think it’s a good opportunity to step back and consider one or two of the innumerable changes wrought upon public discourse (okay, so I’m specifically talking about film writing) by the changing media environment. Not that these things can be blamed exclusively on the blogosphere and the accessibility of the Internet, but it’s through that open, fluid, voluminous forum that many transgressions find their audience, and it’s through these channels that many offenses come to light.

Just to sum up: a couple minor print reviewers (college newspaper writers) and one larger-scale online reviewer (the custodian of a popular blog) have been pegged for stealing reviews from major outlets. Tom Perkins, Alex Petrosian, and David Eng have all been exposed as unceremonious plagiarists. In the cases of Alex and Tom, we may be able to chalk it up to their being lazy college students, desperate to keep their positions as staff movie reviews at their school publications. Why would you be desperate enough to expose yourself to scorn and embarrassment, I can’t fathom, but hey – at least these guys learned that creating original written content for a professional publication requires more than just “liking movies and stuff.” It’s less understandable on the part of Eng… first of all, his blog is entirely a hobby, so he has no special status or social standing to maintain by generating new reviews all the time. Second, he’s an adult who works in PR, which substantially amplifies the WTF quotient of his infractions.

But I’m not just talking about plagiarism, am I? I’m talking about discourse in general, which also includes the many original thoughts floating around out there. In particular, I’m going to note Armond White’s negative review for the universally praised Toy Story 3. Now, Armond is certainly an original thinker (“contrarian” even?) and he deserves his place in the discourse, but after you’ve given him an honest shot, you should read Paul Brunick’s spot-on deconstruction of White’s post. The problem isn’t that White disagrees with everyone… it’s that his nay-saying is a sugar-coating over sloppy logic and critical inconsistency.

Consider also the recent row between feminist celebrity blog Jezebel and The Daily Show. Following the hiring of Olivia Munn as a correspondent, The Daily Show found itself the target of a scathing critique from Jezebel, whose writer interviewed some ex-employees and some prospective employees who didn't work out. From their testimony, Jezebel fashioned an accusation that Jon Stewart and his staff have created a work environment that's unfavorable to women. The females of The Daily Show responded fairly quickly.

Does Jezebel have a right to criticize The Daily Show, however beloved it is by the general liberal community? Of course. However, The Daily Show actually does hire women correspondents as part of its markedly diverse staff, and furthermore, this criticism was leveled at the show after hiring a female to a position. When you consider the tension between supporting hiring of women in general, and critiquing appearance-based hiring practices specifically... and when you consider that on the whole, The Daily Show's feminist track record is pretty solid compared to every other outlet imaginable... the whole Jezebel article starts to seem a bit silly and sensationalistic, and perhaps motivated by some force other than justice and honest criticism (as Slate's Emily Gould suggests) -- like page views, perhaps.

I have no doubt that the open-forum environment of the Internet has contributed to this sloppiness. If there’s anything you can credit to the Internet, it’s that it’s created a massive glut of public discourse… I’m sure, since self-publishing technologies became a media mainstay, the amount of writing available to the general public has increased by exponents of exponents. Once, the biggest gateway to finding a wide readership was getting your foot in the door. Now, the door is wide open, and everybody’s stuck their foot in at once. This room isn’t big enough for all these feet.

I suspect that in the not-too-distant past, public discourse felt like a complex but healthy ecology of relationships. The people who had audiences related to one another through things like influence, reaction, critique, agreement, disagreement, comparison, and contrastitude. I’m sure this mode still prevails in some communities, like specialized academic writing, where technical proficiency and peer review still filter worthy writing from idle interest. However, in the world of editorial opinion… a world once framed by newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, radio talk shows, and television programs… the filtering methods have broken down, and I think we’ve started slipping out of a give-and-take discursive environment. Something scary has replaced it.

What is this scary thing, whose shadow all opinion/idea writers have felt cast over them? It’s the monster of PURE VOLUME, the endless ocean of assertions and arguments and noise created by a completely accessible media environment. We’re not relating to each other anymore, so much as competing against an undifferentiated mass of discourse that’s grown far past our ability to assess its general shape… and unfortunately, past some peoples’ ability to cope with it. The plagiarism, contrarianism, and general sloppiness cited above are all defense mechanisms for confronting this overpowering wall of opinions and ideas.

If you’re looking for an audience, you’ve probably already felt pressure to keep up a high level of creative output. Group blogs have found a nice way of doing this, assembling a bunch of writers to create a Voltron of public recognition. Some individuals have simply adapted, like Roger Ebert, who’s done a TON of writing since he lost his voice. However, the pressure to remain visible in the oversaturated discursive landscape has driven some people to copy-and-paste content generation, and it’s driven others (Armond White and Jezebel!) to sensationalistic contrarianism without the logical chops needed to take such an argumentative stance.

I have to throw in a qualification that, honestly, may sound like a complete cop-out reversal of this whole diatribe. I realize that I’m among those squawking voices on the Internet, the beneficiary of free media, who’s never been accepted to a serious publication, or vetted by a panel of peer reviewers. I think accessibility – the current fertile environment for new ideas to blossom, the massively democratic ecology of fresh voices – is one of the greatest things to happen to communication since, like, ever. I think it’s awesome that so many brilliant media agents – The Constant Viewer, XKCD, Pictures for Sad Children, Ze Frank – have come to prominence, and blessed my intellectual life with their wiseness. So I’m NOT saying blogs are destroying film criticism, or public discourse, or anything else.

What I’m suggesting is that now that we’ve had revolutions in accessibility and volume, maybe it’s time for a new revolution in selectivity, quality, and commitment, and involvement? Maybe somebody (Google + Wikipedia, with Technorati consulting?) needs to find a way to blunt the pressures of endless volume and key-phrase dependence, and provide a new way for content to be scrutinized, filtered, and interrelated – a different set of pressures, I guess.

In the meantime, it’s nice to see that in our wide-open webtronic world, bullshit generally gets identified and called out. Out here in the discursive fray, nobody is above scrutiny.


Myula said...

This was a great piece Jesse. I thought you made some really insightful comments without placing blame. Unlike many other blogs, this piece encouraged readers to think critically about what's going on in internet media discourse without telling the readers what specific opinions they should have...if that makes any sense.

Unknown said...