Monday, March 25, 2013

Anti-Search: What About The Unexpected?

1994, when anti-search was king!
When I hear about new and improved searching on the internet, I sometimes think, "Hey, what about anti-search?"

Anti-search, of course, is finding what you were not looking for. 

You might think, who needs anti-search?  We've been taught to think of anti-search as a source of frustration and a waste of time.  Like, if you're looking for maps of San Jose, and you end up at a Dionne Warwick video, you might be annoyed by that most 21st century source of annoyance:  What, I have to Click Some More to Find What I Want?  What an outrage!

But back in the day, finding what you were weren't looking for was a crucial part of what made the internet wonderful.  If you were around, you might remember that giddy sense of suddenly finding that there were communities you'd never imagined, obsessions you'd never dreamed existed, and people who combined attitudes and interests in ways you'd never have thought possible.

That happens less and less often on the internet.  Part of it is improved search.  Part of it is the "walled garden" problem of social networking.  It's been pointed out lately that the companies that enable social networking have an interesting in closing off access to information.  If you want to view something posted on Facebook and you're not a member, you don't see that page.  You see an invitation to join Facebook. It's no longer the open internet. 

But it's worse than that.  Because in addition to the control of information problem, you're just less likely these days to find what you're not looking for.  You're seeing what your friends find interesting; you're using hashtags to find out about what you want to find out about; you're connecting with people you've chosen to connect with because you share interests and a point of view.

It's like Dear Internet, Plz Can You Show Me People Like Me?  Thx!

The problem of walled gardens is compounded by the problem of missing anti-search. 

We think of anti-search as a frustration and a waste of time because we've been encouraged by various forces to think of searching as basically a consumer activity.  Like, "I'm looking for X."  "Oh, here's X!"

In comparison, anti-search is surprise and and finding what you weren't actually looking for.  In a way it's like the experience you often have when you're in a large city.  I live in a large city, and one of the many things I love about it is the frequency with which I have the anti-search experience:  seeing people and being taken by surprise, having no sense what's going on with them and no fixed framework to slot them into. 

With respect to the practical steps we might to take to bring anti-search back into our online lives, it does seem perverse to make search engines less effective.  But perhaps more of our time-wasting on the internet could be happen outside the walled gardens, outside the bookmarks even, just following links and seeing where they take is.

We might call it "surfing" the internet.  Hey, just a thought.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Marketplace Misbehavior, Or, The Conditions Of The Possibility Of The Haggler

Great Fish Market, by Jan Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There are a lot of things about modern life that I don't like, but I love The Haggler.

You know this column?  Officially, it's the consumer complaints and consumer advocate column of the New York Times.  But the author, David Segal, writes it with such style and aplomb that it goes way beyond complaints and advocacy.  It's got everything:  biting sarcasm about inept management styles, score-settling with companies who screw over their customers, and generally harassing the great harassers of life. 

The Haggler has no fear.  The Haggler names names.  The Haggler calls a liar a liar and a thief a thief -- right there on the New York Times website. 

For example, this true gem of the genre starts with The Haggler getting one of those robocalls meant to intimidate.  "This is your second and final notice" the automated voice says, and it offers credit help.

Being The Great Haggler, instead of hanging up and cursing like the rest of us, Segal presses "1" for more information.  He gets a guy on the line.  He's got some questions.  Simple stuff.  "Sure I'm interested," he says.  "Where are you located?" 

Click.  End of conversation. 

On observing that even this "softball question" gets him hung up on, he gets curious, and with a little research uncovers masses of complaints, fraud and misrepresentation, and shady companies doing business under the name of other shady companies.  Eventually he ends up with the names of two individual people, working out of their home. 

I don't want to ruin the ending for you, but my heart lifted up when, after they stop returning his calls, The Haggler leaves them a voicemail warning them:  this is your second and final notice.

The Haggler appears once every two weeks.  This seems to me about .0001 percent of the consumer advocacy we need, want, and would enjoy.  Speaking for myself, I'd read The Haggler every day.  I'd read a whole newspaper that was just The Haggler.

However.  Much as I love The Haggler, we all have to deplore the misbehavior that makes it possible.  The conditions of the possibility of The Haggler:  not good.


Those conditions, of course, include consumer maltreatment on the part of individual companies and institutions.  But those conditions also include the non-action of various oversight and regulatory agencies. 

In the case described above, a state consumer protection agency had actually done an investigation -- but when they found that the phone number was for a location that seemed to be a residence, they gave up.   Since "there was no evidence of telemarketing," their investigation had "reached a dead end."  They didn't seem to notice what, to The Haggler, was obvious through easily accessible public records -- that the  the people listed as running this ridiculous operation were the same people listed as living at that address.

I'm sure there are many forces coming together to cause the decline of the responsible agencies to actually find and fight fraud, deception, and other kinds of misbehavior.  Maybe one of them is the lurking idea that these problems are somehow self-correcting -- that if a business doesn't run itself properly, it won't get any business, so there's no need for oversight.

But as The Haggler's cases involving huge corporations like Samsung and Sears show, that's not the case.  As the crazy foreclosure stories of the last few years show, that's not the case.  There are all kinds of finagling, and there are all kinds of ways of hiding the fact that you're finagling.   Good publicity:  something you can pay for.

Just look at the Better Business Bureau, for example.  This independent non-profit organization is supposed to encourage self-regulation by formalizing ratings and creating a mechanism of dispute resolution.  But lately the BBB has been charged with simply rewarding payments with high ratings, and with rewarding companies who "address" disputes over refunds by taking "reasonable steps" -- steps like telling the customer, "No, I'm sorry we can give you a refund."

You can get all the details at -- you guessed it! The Haggler.

If the formal institutions that were supposed to deal with marketplace misbehavior had the resources and motivation to do what's necessary, that could free up David Segal to take on other interesting problems of modern life.  Like writing a guide to life.  Rule 1 can be taken from the instructions for writing to The Haggler:

Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key.

Good advice for everyone.

Monday, March 11, 2013

We Are All PR People Now

I'm sure you've noticed that these days it's never enough to do something good, interesting, intelligent, creative, or worthwhile.  These days when you do the actual thing, you're just getting started.  Because what you have to do next is get people to care.  You have to publicize.

Obviously if what you've accomplished is in any way creative, forget it.  If you've written a book, recorded a song, painted a painting, then you've taken only the first baby step.  Next up:  how are you going to reach out to your Friends and Followers?

But increasingly that problem is a problem with everything.  It's not enough to do your job.  It's not even enough to do your job and showcase your abilities and accomplishments at your job.  Now you also have to show the world that the job you have is a necessary one -- that if no one did this, people would be sorry.  You have to prove it's a crucial spot in a crucial industry.  

That's right:  you have to do PR for yourself, your job, and the area in which you work. 

Of course it's true in love and romance.  If you're looking for love these days, it's not enough to be a nice person.  It's not even enough to be a nice and attractive person who has a lot of friends.  You have to be able to craft the perfect attention-grabbing profile.  How else will you stand out from the crowd?  

For me this is one of those things that once you start to notice it, you don't think "Wow, weird!" You think "Hm, why didn't that happen before?"  I mean, if you think about the basic metaphor of modern capitalism, that we're all negotiating the best deal to get what we want, in all domains of life, what's the logical conclusion? 

Right:  that as the bargaining mini-corporations we all are, we all need PR departments.  We all need to set aside resources for our advertising budgets.  And we all need to monitor our brands. 

Thinking about it this way, I got to wondering, what's next?  I mean, there's nothing in the logic of that idea that makes it stop at a certain point.  What's to prevent it from moving beyond "I need to get the attention of the book-reading public" to "I need to get attention from the emergency staff of 911?"  The implications of the mini-corporation:  where do they stop?

What's next in the March of the PR Penguins? 

1.  Please approve me for a walk in the park

Dear Department of Parks and Recreation,
I am writing to apply for permission to go for a walk in the park on the last Saturday in May.  I realize with demand as it is, you can only grant a small fraction of requests.  So let me assure you that I would be a most suitable choice.  I'm twenty years old, and I recently received a score of 98% on Hot-Or-Not.com.  I guarantee that I will bring an attractive date with me, given that my profile views on Match.com have skyrocketed since I posted photo results of my breast enlargement.  I promise to tell my thousands of Twitter followers what a nice park you have!  Thanks!

2.  Doctor, can I have an appointment?

Hi, I need medical attention and I was hoping to make an appointment.  Wait -- don't put me on hold!  I'm not one of those annoying people begging for antibiotics for some bullshit flu or ingrown toenail.  I promise I'm  a most interesting case, sure to capture your intellectual interest, and, if treated effectively, to catapult your hospital to fame and riches. 

I can assure you my disease is difficult to understand, but not too difficult:  about a year ago I was featured on the "Think Like a Doctor" series at The New York Times and several people out of thousands were able to diagnose me from a brief write-up of symptoms.  I have a blog with thousands of readers where I'll post about my progress, thereby increasing your visibility.  Take me doctor, I won't let you down!

3.  Mommy, Daddy, please stay my parents?

Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I hope you will keep on being my mommy and daddy.  I know I am bad some times and I don't do good at school.  But weren't you happy when I scored more goals than Johnny Clark last week at soccer?  And if I'm gone, who will make your dinner guests laugh by singing Qué Sera Sera with a peanut up his nose?

In case these appeals to pure sentiment are insufficient, let me remind you that the data show that last year 85 percent of your Facebook "likes" come from my friends and their parents, under direct instruction from me.  The example of the Cabybara video also comes to mind.  Those videos don't go viral by themselves, you know.

Sever our relationship, and you can kiss that ego-boosting fame and approval goodbye.

Hope we can work something out,
Your son, Jeffrey

Monday, March 4, 2013

Funny Not Mean?

The Three Stooges
I like funny.  When it comes to lightening the mood, I'm never one for positive thinking or a sunshiny point of view.  I regard life as ridiculously short and full of stupidity.  If you tell me things are grand, I'll look at you with suspicion.

But if you tell me things are funny -- well, yes.  It's almost a tautology.  What could be more essentially humorous than the condition of humanity?  Trapped between the godlike ability to create the internet and the insane fragility of being laid low by a hangnail?  We are in a paradigmatically comedic situation.

Personally, I'm almost always up for something to laugh about.  I remember years and years ago when I had been seeing this one guy for a long time, and then he was seeing someone else on the side, and then for complicated reasons we happened to be standing next to this other person's car having a fight and shouting and swearing ... suddenly something on the seat of the car caught our eye.  "She's reading the Quran?" we said in unison.  For some reason, this made us hysterical.  Fight over, time to go home, tomorrow is another day, yada yada yada. 

I used to assume everyone shared my taste for the comedic.  But not so.  I remember when I working at this bookstore in my early twenties, and we were allowed to read books on break, and I would often take a book of comics and humor writing to look at with my coffee.  Norma, right?  Doesn't everyone treat the ills of minimum wage with a little Thurber, Kliban, and Doonesbury?

Anyway, one day this very serious-minded but friendly young male employee, who was just above me in the hierarchy, looked at me in a very serious-minded but friendly way, and said, "So, you like humor?"  I wanted to say, "Yes, idiot, who doesn't like humor?  Are you stupid?"  But it's a good thing I didn't.  Because no, not everyone likes humor.  It's not even close.  I don't know what's wrong with all those people, but there it is. 

Because I like funny, I enjoy making people laugh.  I would do it more if I knew how but it's not always that easy.  The big stumbling block, for me, is the difficulty of being funny without being mean.

A lot of funny is kind of mean.  If you make fun of someone, it can be very funny, but it can also be very mean.  A lot of people seem to get great pleasure -- and great laughs -- out of seeing others suffer.  My own father, as I understand it, was a fan of the Three Stooges.  Isn't that just laughing at other people getting fingers popped into their eyes?  Gross. 

But I've often thought:  I'm not into mean.  I'm into nice.  Funny and nice -- it's not always an easy combination. 

One way to be funny without being mean is with goofiness, like slipping on banana peels and making funny faces.  But that's not for me.  If you know me, you won't be surprised to hear me say that, for whatever reason, I'm constitutionally incapable of being goofy.  I can't say I regard it as a great loss.

It's OK to be funny and mean if you're picking on someone your own size.  When The Onion runs a headline quoting God as saying,  "At Times It Felt Like The Pope Had One Foot Out The Door,"  that is funny, and in the world we live in, picking on the Catholic church is in no way bullying the defenseless.  Mean, but in an entirely appropriate way. 

In my quest to become funnier, I've been considering taking a humor writing class.  Someone suggested the Gotham Writers Workshop classes, and I found there's one on humor writing.  On the syllabus for week 3, we have 

People – Finding the stupidity in people. Round and flat characters. Showing vs. Telling. Methods for showing characters. Ridiculing groups of people.

That is awesome.  The idea of studying how to find the stupidity in people and then how to ridicule them effectively in groups made me laugh out loud and actually made me kind of happy for the rest of the afternoon. 

I take this to show that maybe I'm not all that above mean after all.  Maybe getting touch with my inner funny requires getting in touch with my inner mean. 

I don't know, but I'll let you know how it goes.