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Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell by goosecommerce
October 13, 2009, 2:42 pm
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags:

Or, Everything New Under The Sun?

It Shines For All

It Shines For All

I.

Recently Wired ran a story on a fascinating media company, Demand Media, which has created a whole new way of generating, and then producing and distributing, general interest videos and articles.

Naturally, my first thought was of antebellum New York.

Demand Media’s process works like this: the company has two algorithms that allow it to transform users search terms into specs for short evergreen videos or articles (think:“How to Tie Your Shoes” on YouTube), which they then bid out to a vast army of freelance copy editors and videographers at a few dollars per item. The resulting media is plugged into the conglomerate of websites DM owns (eHow.com is one), which then earns revenue from ads playing next to the video or text. Et voila! The demand and supply curves for new content are made to meet almost immediately, for the benefit of Demand Media’s shareholders.

By figuring out how to commoditize — or rather, commoditize further, as cheap evergreen stories have been around for hundreds of years — and mass produce the general content article and video, Demand Media has taken the structures of the new media environment to heart in an unprecedented way. But it’s also a classic case of using capital to replace labor (via technological automation); and it faces the classic trade-off of late-stage capitalist production: mass-production techniques produce low-quality goods.

Or, as the article’s enormous subtitle puts it:

“A fiendishly clever startup knows what we are googling – then churns out thousands of cheap videos and articles to meet our every whim and wish. Why the future of online content is fast, disposable, and profitable as hell.”

But content’s past is prologue, I would argue.

II.

Over the last few years, there has been a small trend  to look to the 17th and 18th centuries — when technologies of print really came into their own —  as analogous to our own time of changes in information production, distribution and consumption, in order to understand how these shifts affected, or could affect, communities of discourse, and power relations. The somewhat tired, but oft-cited comparison of bloggers and pamphleteers, for example, or work on the information management strategies of the early modern French absolutist state (see David Bell’s recent piece in the New Republic“The Colbert Report”), offer a couple of different takes on this theme.

In the case of the new production line that Demand Media has put together, the early modern era doesn’t really work. It lacks…steam. I think the better analogy is 1830s newspaper industry — specifically the creation of what is known as the “penny press” in antebellum New York City. Even the bio of Demand Media’s founder — seasoned huckster Richard Rosenblatt — reads an awful lot like that of some early 19th century millionaire (in Roth’s article, at least), especially the multiple early failures.

In both cases, new audiences prompted a rethinking of the production process in response to new technology — search algorithms, rotary presses — which in turn changed the business model, and, not incidentally, how content was produced. By the end of it all, you have far different types of media production, distribution, and consumption than previously existed, all because of some tinkering with different links in the production chain.

III.

Beginning with Benjamin Day’s penny daily The Sun, the 1830s saw the rise of cheap newspapers which featured content markedly different than the public documents, poetry, political rhetoric and commercial news that were the mainstays of the press across the country.

The key innovation of these papers, for our purposes, was that they figured out that new printing technologies would allow the targeting of a mass audience; and to reach and keep the attention of that audience, they began running stories and features that appealed to the masses, rather than political groups and commercial men. Papers were also distributed differently; rather than selling them as year-long subscriptions, they were sold in bulk, and at a discount (2/3rds of a cent) to street urchins (sorry, “newsies”) who then sold them on the streets — the so-called “London model.”

But content’s the key change. The main leaders in these papers were not political news or financial reports, but rather juicy, comical crime reports, scandalous society pages, and a new class of evergreen stories that looked at the individual lives in great metropolis — human interest stories. All grist quite similar to Demand Media’s videos in its interoperability, if not its dramatic arcs (I doubt many of DM’s videos feature ruined society heirs or drunken sailors). With their combination of the mundane and freakish, these papers were democratic in their spirit — salacious, populist — though not necessarily so in their politics (Horace Greeley’s Tribune, for example, strove for a respectable middle-class reformist tone).

To give you a sense of how different these papers were, it helps to know that prior to the 1830s, most newspapers, even those in major cities, were a losing proposition. To keep afloat, they were either produced as advertisements for larger printing businesses, or as political ventures — “party organs” in the term of the day — funded by a party, or through the patronage its members controlled (government printing contracts, mainly).

The new penny press papers, by contrast, were much more focused on the bottom line, with the newspaper itself serving as the main source of revenue. This increased focus on profit, unsurprisingly, had the effect of accelerating innovation in the industry (at least in particular directions). In addition to the new types of stories, many of the other structures we now identify as characteristic of the media — timeliness, wire services, foreign correspondents, objectivity — came out of the pressures and requirements of running a successful enterprise in what quickly became a highly competitive, but often highly profitable, sector. And it was out of these new institutions, over the course of the 19th century, that Benedict Anderson’s theory of newspapers and national identity really starts to come into play.

IV.

To come back to that aside about objectivity: one of the unintended results of the profitability of these papers is that they emerged as information distributors without clear financial ties to established political interests — a characteristic that some editors used to spin out new theories of the importance of an objective press. Over time, some of the editors of the penny press began to see themselves as tribunes of the people, important counterweights to established political — and sometimes economic — interests. One early penny press editor opined that “An editor must always be with the people — think with them — feel with them — and he need fear nothing, he will always be right — always be strong — always free“.

Philosophical bromides aside, the “objective” press — independent from political parties, not beholden (in theory at least) to political bosses — grew out of the creation of the new revenue streams the mass market allowed. It was the logic of capitalism, not Jacksonian ideology (though that helped), which led to the character of the modern news business — including its establishment as the “fourth estate.”

Thus did an important pillar of modern civic life develop, at least in part, out of attempts to sell disposable content fast, and profitably; which leads us back to Demand Media’s business model. What does it mean that consumers, in the aggregate, now set article topics? Is this going to make the available supply more mediocre, in the end? Or will this recent revolution develop along lines set during an the earlier revolution in industrial information production? Who knows. I wouldn’t hope for much; but as with so much in the historical analogy game, it at least suggests some possibilities.

PS: for the curious: I think some of these same issues — about the organizational forms that capitalism encourages, and their relation to democratic politics — are raised, albeit in a somewhat oblique way, in this awesome Orgtheory post about democracy and corporations.


1.) Daniel Roth, “The Answer Factory,” Wired 17.11 (Nov 2009). Hilariously, the article is not yet online. Link to come someday, maybe. Update! now with more links!

2.) Seriously, the guy has been investigated for fraud multiple times, and, during his time at drkoop.com he sold patent medicines (“Dr. Koop’s Men’s Prostate Formula Pills”). And like every google-savvy serial entrepreneur, he is also the proud owner of a meticulously tended Wikipedia page.

3.) James Gordon Bennett, Courier and Enquirer, 12 November 1831, as quoted in Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940(NY, 1941), 232.

4.) Similarly, this is not the same story as that told in Jeffrey Pasley’s “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Pasley covers the explosion of political newspapers in the 1790s and thereabouts; by the 1830s, these were old hat, though given new life by the rebirth of intense partisan conflict in the election of 1832 and Jackson’s presidency more generally.


Image cite: Wallyg,”NYC – Civic Center: The Sun Clock,” Flickr, CC License.

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Umbrellas, Giant Melons, and Queen Victoria by goosecommerce

Or, Homely as Sin on Horseback

umbrella

It’s newspaper research time! Some highlights from today’s scanning:

“Women and Umbrellas in Ireland” Southern Patriot (Charleston, SC), 31 Aug 1842, p. 2

Dr. Hagan, in one of his letters from Dublin, says that many of the ladies of Dublin are surpassingly beautiful, while some are as homely as Sin on horseback. But the impression of a stranger on seeing the ladies and gentlemen of Dublin, as they spring into their cars and dash through the streets is highly favorable to their personal beauty, sprightliness and energy.

Of the penchant of the Irish for umbrellas, he says: ‘The Irish seem to have a passion for umbrellas. I have seen men carry umbrellas, and I am certain the paper maker would not give sixpence for all the clothes on their back! I have seen some pretty girls decently clothed, with bare feet, and an umbrella over their heads to protect their faces from the sun!’

“A Mammoth Melon,” Southern Patriot (Charleston, SC), 31 Aug 1842, p. 2

The Raleigh Register says: A muskmelon weighing forty and a half pounds, measuring forty-five inches in circumference on average, was sent us a few days ago, in a very polite manner, by Mr. J. A. Barry, in whose garden on Eden’s Sound, it grew. Mr. Barry informs us that, from a piece of ground about 100 feet square, he has obtained nearly 200, several of them weighing from 20 to 31 lbs.

“Variety is the Spice of Life” [aka misc. column], Southern Patriot, 3 March 1843, p.1


The Pickayune, in giving an account of late weaver riots, says ‘Sheriff Porter was severely wounded in the rumpus.’ We had imagined that the sheriff’s wound was in the breast!

As evidence of the onward march of civilization, it is said that the French have sent a guillotine to Algiers.

Epigram on the Chinese Treaty

Our wars are ended – foreign battles cease. –
Great Britain owns an universal peace;
And Queen Victoria triumphs over all,
Still ‘Mistress of herself though China fall!’


Image cite: Special, “umbrella,” Flickr, CC License

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Great Moments in Taking Things Completely Out of Context by goosecommerce
August 13, 2009, 11:09 am
Filed under: Archival Follies, The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags: ,

Diplomatic Despatches* Edition

Giraffe

“Feeling excited by the Death of the Duke of Orleans.”

~Edward Everett, U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, to Daniel Webster, Secretary of State, 18 July 1842, Despatch No. 17.


* Yes, they spelled it “despatches” not “dispatches.” No, I don’t know why.

Image cite: Swiv,”What?,” Flickr, CC License

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Print is New Media by goosecommerce
August 8, 2009, 9:37 pm
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags: ,

Or, Back in My Day, We Used to Write the Newspapers By Hand — Both Ways!

Random Google hits are fun:

Between 1844 and 1854 there were at least three handwritten newspapers published in the frontier town of Washington, Iowa. They were the “Domestic Quarterly Review,” the “Washington Shark,” and the “Quarterly Visitor.”

While calling Iowa part of the Old Northwest is a bit of a stretch (it was part of a separate land grab, part of the Black Hawk territory), this sounds pretty interesting. Also, my next band/baseball team/journal is going to be called “The Washington Shark.”

Here’s the paper from whose abstract I pulled the quote:

Roy Alden Atwood,“Handwritten Newspapers on the Iowa Frontier, 1844-54,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism (63rd, Boston, MA, August 9-13, 1980).

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The Engine of American Diplomacy by goosecommerce

Or, Choo-Choo! Goes the Tariff Negotiation

Mariposa

One of the clichés of East-West relations in the early modern era was the attempt to use representations of Western technology – especially maps and model machines – to awe non-Westerners into submission. Perhaps hoping for a repeat of Columbus’s trick with the lunar eclipse, Euro-American statesmen and diplomats apparently thought that the mere suggestion of the advanced state of Western civilization would be enough to persuade proud sovereigns to open ports, lower tariffs, and alienate land for the benefit of the major Atlantic-basin powers.

Needless to say, things rarely went down that way. In developed parts of Asia – and especially in China – these attempts repeatedly failed. The most famous of these faceplants was probably Great Britain’s 1793 embassy to China, led by Lord Macartney. The Chinese emperor declared the fancy clockwork the Brits brought – lugged across the world at great expense, and costing many man-hours to assemble – as “good enough to amuse children.” Bafflingly, the stopped cogs and wheels the Brits brought as gifts failed to make the gates to the Middle Kingdom fly off their hinges.

However, this failure – as in so many other instances of cross-cultural contact – did not impede others from flattering through imitation.
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The Romance of the Tapirs by goosecommerce

Also, A Blog Jubilee

Tapir

To celebrate the fiftieth post on this here blog* I thought I might share a sweet little story I found today. Who’s day isn’t improved when theorists of organic American nationalism, tapirs, and romance are in the mix?

Here’s the context: Francis Lieber, famed German-American jurist and political economist is writing to his BFF** Samuel B. Ruggles to tell him that he’s safely returned home from his visit to NYC. After spending most of his letter begging Ruggles to help find him a job at Columbia College because (ironically) he hates life in Columbia, South Carolina, he lightens the tone by recounting a “ludicrous scene” he saw on the train ride home.

To wit:

… My journey was plain, hum-drum, as most [railroad] journeys are. One ludicrous scene I witnessed. You may remember that the platforms in the depot at Baltimore run a long way on both sides of the rail, and are on a level with the cars, when they come in. I was in the first and stepped out; an elderly gentleman was standing near me, waiting for some one. When the next car came in, I saw a woman looking anxiously out of one of the windows; the gentleman reached toward her, and, she protruding her lips, he tried by an equally elongated mouth to catch the proffered kiss, but the cars moved on, so did the woman and consequently her lips, which she stretched longer and longer; the elderly man ran astride on the platform and as the horses moved faster than he, his mouth in turn stretched farther and farther, as one might imagine an India rubber tube would do, if it could be attracted by some magnet.

My fancy could not help imagining some enamored tapirs, stretching their trunks farther and farther toward one another, to catch the token of love, yet without success. On this whole scene moved, car, woman, man, trunks and all until they passed me and I thought I felt the old man’s funnel, formed of his mouth, brush my occiput, while the woman’s swept my nose in front. The scene was abundantly ludicrous and yet deeply touching to me, who was hastening to his wife and children. And altogether, is not that which is touching of itself, the more so for being manifested in some thing ludicrous? Is not this the secret of many of the most moving, nay harrowing scenes of Dickens’s, e.g. all those dreadful scences at Squeer’s school?? The contrast heightens the effect, as also the part that the people not caring for the ludicrous exposure show only the depth and earnestness of their feelings. …

~Francis Lieber to Samuel B. Ruggles, October 10, 1842, Francis Lieber Papers, 1830-1872, Library of Congress

Lieber, in addition for his gift for political philosophy, had, at times, a certain way with imagery. (Remind me to show you his ode to the idea of a Panamanian Canal sometime).

And before you ask: yes, the first rail cars were indeed powered by horseflesh, not steam engines. The cars even looked like stagecoaches (sorry I don’t have a pic, but use your imagination).

I’m not sure if in this case horses were just used to maneuver individual train cars around the station, or if they were actually pulling train the whole way. I suspect the latter, as Baltimore was early in railroad development. In any case, a good reminder that one of the key innovations of railroads was the lower coefficient of friction (μ) on land –- not just the application of steam power.


* 153 days old, more or less, today. Who knew? Don’t worry, I won’t mark every anniversary like a hyperactive moonstruck tween couple.

** No but really; their correspondence is quite touching.

Image cite: guppiecat, “Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus),” Flickr, CC License

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Boisterous Despotism by goosecommerce

Or, which organ do you thump and twang on?

Passion flower

Since Thomas Jefferson has recently graced the august web pages of the New York Times I thought it might be of interest to share some thinking I’ve been doing on of his more famous predictions.

In The Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson at one point ponders what the American system of slavery means for the ideals of the Revolution, and the formation of individuals reared as masters. Though he ends on a hopeful note, the passage is not a cheerful one:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. … The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.
….
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? … Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever… I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust…the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

~Thomas Jefferson, “Query XVIII: Manners,” in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

Jefferson wrote that in 1781, towards the end of the critical days of the Revolution; it was first published in English in 1787. The key point, I think, is that he highlights the dangers to political liberty that flow from American slavery. Those raised to be masters become passionate, wrathful despots; and despots can’t long maintain republican liberty.

This ambivalence on the fate of liberty in a nation supported by slavery came to mind, in a more personal dimension, as I was paging through two diaries the other day, one by a northerner, George Templeton Strong, and one by a southerner, James Henry Hammond. (1)

In many ways these men, though contemporaries and elites, could not be more different. What really struck me, though, in paging through each of these diaries, was how much happier Strong seemed to be, at least compared to Hammond.

You can see the difference even in the way they each begin their diaries. Strong hit the ground running, with a minimal amount of introspection, detailing how he registered for his sophomore year at Columbia. Hammond, on the other hand, left us a pathetic confession:

Columbia, S.C. 6 Feb. 1841
I begin this diary from almost purely selfish motives – Alas how few things do any of us do from better ones. “I want a friend.” Circumstances…have combined to prevent me from having a friend to whose sympathetic bosom I could confide anything. …

Strong populates his pages with notes about his day’s work, his observations of his friends and family, and lots of humor:

February 29, [1836] MONDAY. I have taken up my pen again after an interval of two months, caused partly by my ardor for laziness and partly by my ardor for science, exemplified in blowing up my hand. Memorandum. Never to pound chlorate of potassium and sulphur together again without thick gloves and never to pound them at all when I can help it. …

He took special delight in nerding out on, and playing, the new pipe organ he had commissioned, which, because it took up his entire parlor, he nicknamed “Goliath”:

December 16 [1840] … Post and I thumped and twanged on Goliath to our hearts’ content. I’m pleased with it on the whole. The dulcinia and hautboy are unsurpassable, and the diapasons and flute are very good, quite good enough for me…

Hammond, on the other hand, manages to record even public celebrations with a mixture of hypochondria and condescension:

[Columbia] 28 June [1842]
This is the day of the celebration of the opening of the R[ail] Road. It is to be a much larger affair than I expected. … I am very sick of it and wish I was at Silver Bluff [his plantation]. I have a dull pain in my right side. It is my liver thumping my ribs. … I expect to take no part but must be there. I hate a crowd. …

Partly, this difference in tone – continued, I might add, throughout the entirety of each of their diaries – might be attributed to Strong’s youth; in the 1840s, Strong was in his 20s, still a young man on the make; Hammond, on the other hand, was in his 30s and 40s, and with personal and public responsibilities – and ambitions – that weighed heavily upon him.

But I think the difference runs deeper, and actually has to do with the social and political environment in which each lived. Strong was a young Whig lawyer living in the bustling (and highly flammable, in his account) metropolis of New York. Hammond was one of the richest men in South Carolina, a plantation owner and major politician. Strong defined himself by his refined taste, his wit, and his work ethic. Hammond defined himself by his mastery and power.

That Hammond’s role as master defined him is clear from his diary, and clear to his biographers.(2) By all accounts – including his own – he was the narcissistic, passionately wrathful despot that Jefferson feared slavery would create. One of his biographers calls him, with justice, “a tough-minded son of a bitch,” elaborating further that:

By his own testimony we can judge him flawed. He owned hundreds of slaves, who died off at a great rate. Almost alone among the planter aristocracy, he clearly documents his proclivity for sexually exploiting his female slaves. In addition he debauched the young, the very young daughters of a fellow planter, his brother-in-law, a despicable practice then as now and certainly very dangerous then, when the code duello was still in fashion.
~The Secret and Sacred, viii, xvi

Aside from all the damage that Hammond inflicted on others – not a short list – slavery rotted him from the inside, even as he regarded slavery (and famously so) as a natural and organic part of a just society. He could never be carefree and happy like Strong; his power would not allow it.

This is not a perfect illustration, of course. These are but two individuals, and rare ones at that, for their intensive detailing of their daily lives. But from all my other reading in the archives of urban Northern capitalists and Southern planters, I think it is a pattern that repeats widely in this era.

I think it gets at a larger truth, the truth Jefferson knew, but never could bring himself to act on: liberty and slavery cannot coexist without consequences, even for those that benefit most from the coerced labor of others.


Image Cite: Nganguyen, “Passion fruit flower,” Flickr, CC License

(1) Allan Nevins and Milton H. Thomas, ed. The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Vol. 1: Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 (New York: Macmillan, 1952)

Carol Bleser, ed. Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)

(2) One of the best works on Hammond is the work of Harvard’s current current president: Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1982)

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