I’ll start with a brief update on the Ebola content being churned out by the six sites I selected. As far as I could tell, the Student Blog hadn’t posted anything new on the virus, although the website that hosts the blog had published an article headlined “Ethical dilemmas of giving Ebola drugs to the people who need them most.” Pinterest didn’t have much of anything, other than recommendations of other health-related pins. The three feed / list / compilation sites (Reddit and the two Twitter pages) had been restocked with the latest items on Ebola, as they are basically gateway sites that don’t publish original content. And as expected, the Washington Post had published a number of items on Ebola — including articles and photo galleries — since I had first checked in.
The nature and standing of the sites strongly factored into their abilities to keep up with the latest on Ebola and continue to publish fresh and original items. With its huge staff and high standing, the Washington Post is able to post about Ebola almost daily, including articles detailing the latest developments, videos for consumers who prefer watching to reading and graphics that complement or bolster the text. The compilation sites also are able to keep up with the developing story, largely because their work doesn’t consist of reporting and writing — instead, reading and hitting “share.” That isn’t to say curation is completely artless; those who run such sites must consume a lot of news themselves, try their best to ensure nothing significant falls through the cracks and decide which stories to share from the ocean of online content.
While my knowledge of Pinterest is quite limited, I feel confident in saying it isn’t a surprise to see that Pinterest isn’t taking a lead in Ebola-related reporting. Consumers of news who would be interested enough in Ebola to read about it online are more likely to visit other sites for news on the virus; it doesn’t seem like Pinterest’s place. The site that hosts the Student Blog clearly can’t keep pace with the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times, but the site’s strict focus on health and medicine forges a niche in which the site can operate effectively alongside media giants. It seems to me that the site that hosts the Student Blog has targeted those interested in medicine as the core of its readership, probably knowing it couldn’t compete with larger publications by posting straight-forward news stories.
I reviewed the Ebola-related links posted by my teammates and chose six to investigate further. The list of six is diverse when it comes to content, approach and professionalism. I tried to assemble a mix of big and small publications, each addressing the Ebola outbreak in different ways and from different perspectives. A couple of the links I chose take the form of lists or feeds, in which are links to other publications and websites that have posted about the Ebola outbreak.
The Student Blog (No. 1 on my list) is a science and medicine blog that discussed in considerable depth the causes, symptoms and outcomes of the Ebola virus. The post clearly was intended for a niche audience (the science community or those familiar enough to understand its vernacular). The Student Blog generates the type of content to which the Twitter pages (Vox and Ebola News) posted links. These feeds act as a kind of folder for Ebola-related news. Not all the posts on either feed has to do with the virus, but most of the posts do and with varying angles: the political vs. human sides of Ebola.
The rest of my listed consisted of posts by the Washington Post, Reddit and Pinterest. Each link brought something different. The Washington Post story, while relatively basic and more shallow than the post by the Student Blog, was probably the most comprehensive and informative of the trio. The story was mostly text but incorporated a nice graphic that illustrated the potential spread of the disease. Like Vox and Ebola News, the Reddit link is a compilation of other links, some of which are more controversial or incendiary than others. Reddit’s system of voting “up” or “down” might contribute to a different culture than found in most publications. The Pinterest story seemed quite surface-level in its treatment of science and medicine — simplifying language and not going too deep into the virus — probably because the type of consumer who would go to Pinterest for news on Ebola likely isn’t looking for a thorough analysis.
Richard Kadrey is a New York Times bestselling author who has inked eight novels since 1988. This spring he tweeted 50 fiction prompts in about two hours. An example: “The flan lay a few feet away, but the zeppelin was already listing badly to port. Martin had an idea, but he’d need the queen’s umbrella.” Give the man a Pulitzer already.
Kadrey’s exercise is silly but practical. He engages the Twitter community by asking users to finish his prompts or write their own. It’s like aerobics for the creative mind. It fights that internal voice that says, “Your idea sucks. Why even bother committing it to paper (or, in this case, a screen)?” Throwing up on the page allows you to polish and take inventory of your rough drafts and underdeveloped ideas, which are almost guaranteed to suck in the first place.
Of course, some of Kadrey’s prompts are better than others. This one reads more like one of Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts” and is almost inarguably brilliant: “It was the last day of summer, and the Miller kids were fishing by the lake. They didn’t catch much. Their parents’ heads made lousy bait.” Subtle, unassuming and macabre. A lot of fun, too.
Who knew that Henry David Thoreau, during his more than two-year solitary retreat in the Massachusetts wilderness, whittled erotic woodcuts and routinely was antagonized by an exceedingly clever raccoon? Writer Michael McGrath spent three days this spring tweeting from Thoreau’s perspective, one minute unleashing a one-liner oozing with wisdom and the next admitting he had read that one-liner on a bathroom stall. Thoreau’s friends — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and a cast of woodland creatures — play supporting if not villainous roles. To think, all this led to one of the most beloved and widely read pieces of American literature to date.
McGrath’s exercise works about as well as a one-man show can work. It’s possible he could have benefited from some conversation or banter, from giving voice to Emerson, Alcott and the raccoon. These figures seem distant and undefined. But perhaps that was intentional by McGrath. Perhaps it’s meant to simulate Thoreau’s solitude, the distance he likely felt from the rest of civilization. Actually, it seems only fitting now that McGrath should go it alone, as Thoreau did for two years, two months and two days at his cabin near Walden Pond.
McGrath manages to keep his concept from growing stale. Thoreau’s failed attempt to catch the raccoon with a glop of apple butter, to which the raccoon helps itself to more of from Thoreau’s cupboard, is kind of cute. Predictably, we’re all richer for the experience come the last tweet. Thoreau has found a little balance in his life and seems at least marginally adjusted (though, at last check, he was searching for a fake girlfriend to accompany him to a party of Emerson’s — he wanted to make Alcott jealous). And I learned to live a little more deliberately; at least I think I did.
Mat Honan’s concept is interesting, and his piece is well-written and amusing. What would have happened had he “liked” everything on Facebook for another 48 hours? Had his News Feed already evolved into some twisted climax community of corporations and special interests — a relative stasis? Or was Facebook only getting started? Probably not the first thing.
Perhaps the degradation of Honan’s mental health would have prevented him from going much further. He said 48 hours was all that he could tolerate; how long would it have been before the dread of hitting “like” filled him to the point of abandoning Facebook — and by extension the experiment — altogether? Facebook and the corporations and special interests it boosts appeared more concerned with collecting “likes” and establishing a News Feed presence than they did about giving users a chance to breathe. That’s not surprising, but when a News Feed is overrun with corporate messages and fodder for people at each of the political spectrums, it stands to reason users would be turned off and might begin using Facebook less. “Liking” everything is an extreme example, an accelerant that rapidly makes Facebook less enjoyable. But even for people who “like” only one page or one article (everyone, at some point or another), “bombardment” isn’t too strong a word to describe what Facebook does next.
Honan writes a story that precisely supports Andy Warhol’s message in the artist’s interview with Art News. Funny how Warhol refers to consumers becoming machines, which essentially is what Honan became for 48 hours. Honan’s News Feed also became more mechanical, more cold and more calculating. What’s interesting (and quite ingenious on the part of Facebook) is that Honan hadn’t simply become a machine that operated in a vacuum. His “likes” took over the News Feeds of his friends, sometimes occupying as much as 70 percent of a feed, according to the piece. Honan had become a recruiting mechanism, a machine to create more machines.