Thursday, December 1, 2016

Frankenstein's Monster or How we Monetized Ourselves into the Shitcan

A few years ago I went back to college to get my MA.  One of the classes I had to take was called "Monetization and the New Media." One of the first questions one of the teachers asked was, "Who wants to start their own business?"  Three out of 17 students raised their hands.  These were liberal arts majors trying to figure out how to get paid for the arts they already knew, or budding journalists looking for a paycheck.  Everybody knew that traditional journalism was, if not totally dead, coughing up blood like mad. One day we took a field trip to the L.A. Times newsroom and it was like a mausoleum.  Bats flying out of it, cobwebs everywhere.  No, seriously, there was nobody in there, just a bunch of deserted desks, devoid of personal items, no reporters, no collegial banter between hotshots chasing down big stories.  There were a couple of computer screens lit up to monitor stuff going on in cyberspace but that was it.

In the Monetization class the teacher wanted us all to become entrepreneurs, to learn to market our own stuff.  Smart lad that he was, he was going gangbusters.  One of his favorite approaches was getting off the freeway at accident sites then walking back up the offramp in hope of the big scoop. Mostly he got yelled at for crossing the police lines, but I guess once in a while he sold some video.

But that was years ago, like 2014, and things have changed a lot since then.  Liberal Arts students take the monetization shit to heart now and as the recent presidential election has shown us, they ain't fucking around.  Some bright monetizer finally figured out that the echo chambers of the Internet were just dying to be filled.

Until recently, like most people probably, I didn't realize what echo chambers sites like Facebook actually are.  People interact with like-minded people, reading and commenting on stuff they like and ignoring stuff they don't.  It's easy.  You just stop following someone who annoys your or if they really make you mad you can bring out the big guns and "unfriend" them.  I hardly ever unfriend anyone because I don't want to hurt feelings, but this election cycle I finally had to offload a guy. I knew him a million years ago and we became FB friends a few years back.  He kept posting things about how Hillary should be in jail, investigated by a grand jury, or tried and shot at dawn.  Finally I couldn't take it anymore.  Oh, I made perfunctory attempts, like asking why all this horrible shit should happen to Madam Secretary  But he told me I was naive, that he thought I was smarter than that, bla, bla, bla.  Unfriend.  Bam!

I'm fairly careful about the news I take in.  I realized long ago that  you have to triangulate the truth, which means going to different outlets and reading different takes on events.  I go to the Guardian, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, which okay, is highly skewed but anyway it's not a real paper, just a news aggragator and I like the baby animal videos.  I like The Washington Post. Sometimes I read The Daily Beast and even check out Buzzfeed.  There are journalists I respect and some not so much, but if somebody's making an honest effort to get at the truth I'll read what they have to say.

But what that plucky monetizing, no-paycheck-anywhere-on-the-horizon journalism graduate student figured out was that what all those crapped out, haggard, grey-haired, overweight, alcoholic journalism professors had told them on the QT was Wrong!  There was still plenty of money to be made in journalism.  All you have to do is make a bunch of shit up.

On NPR I heard about a guy just the other day.  I was stuck in a traffic jam going either into or out of L.A., I can't remember which.  This guy lives in Santa Monica, makes 30K a week and has 24 writers working for him.  What those writers produce is 100% bullshit, which is funneled onto the Facebook pages of people inclined to believe pretty much anything that reinforces the beliefs they already have.  Of course I didn't know what my ex-Facebook friend was talking about when he said Hillary should be in prison.  How was I to know she murdered an FBI agent, chopped up his body, then destroyed it with acid in a bathtub.   It wasn't in any of the newsfeeds I read.  But it was in "The Real Story" and "Atrocitities of Democrats Run Amok" and "Why the Left Wants to Cut up Your Babies." And it was there because it was manufactured for money.

It makes sense, in a uniquely American way.  We don't make much actual stuff in this country, I mean besides hamburgers and cheezy crust pizzas and giant sized lattes with 4500 calories each.  So this latest generation of entrepreneurs figured out that they could make a lot of money simply by making up the news.

It's really dangerous to teach young people things.  They're likely to go out and not just do them, but improve on the original idea.

Or how about Marco Chacon?  I read about him this morning in The Daily Beast.  At first he comes off all ironic-like, one of these to-clever-by-halfs millennial wankers who want to see how many undereducated rubes they can fool.  So he'd write fake news stories, create fake hash tags like #NeverEverHillary, the stuff would get passed around the echo chambers of social media, and all the sudden the guy's a success, probably for the first time since he first pooed in his little yellow potty chair.  Not only did people believe his fake news stories, they passed them around and his statistics started going through the roof.  He wrote stories about The Deep State, and Hillary Clinton not just fainting, but being terminally ill.  Like-minded Facebook users passed  this garbage around and believed it to to be true.

And voila.  We got Donald Trump for president.

I'm kind of torn in my feelings about this brave new world.  On the one hand, these guys just created products, sold 'em, and made loads of dough.  It's capitalism at it's best, right?  They correctly understood cyberspaces that needed filling and transformed things really.  They innovated, thought "outside the box."  We live in a "post fact" world now, or so I'm told.  For many people, this is convenient.  Facts are bothersome, hard to remember and sometimes challenge long held beliefs.   But they do have a tendency to raise their ugly heads bye the bye.  May the Lord have mercy on us all.

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