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In the Physical World, No One Knows You’re a Dog

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I received a telling little media jolt this morning in the quiet of my living room, a reminder of how the perpetual connectivity of the internet has changed our brains.

I started to read a story on the front page of the paper edition of last Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section. (There’s an archaism for you…”Leisure.” It’s something we all used to either have, or aspire to have. Now we don’t seem to be interested. But that’s another topic.)

As I began to read Michael Kimmelman’s article about an an oddball surviving relic of the Communist era in Bulgaria called the House of Humor and Satire, I reflected that because of its obscure subject I likely would not have read this particular article online, where I do most of my newsy reading in a rush; but positioned on the front page, right next to three color photos of Pee-wee Herman, the title, “Take My Bulgarian Joke Book, Please,” caught my eye.

The act of flipping to page 20, where the article continued, signified my commitment to reading it in full. And that’s when it hit me.

I’ve turned to page 20, so I’m not just scanning the “home page” now. I’ve “clicked” on something. Now “they” know that I, or at least someone, has “viewed” this page. Has, presumably, read this article. Someone will get credit for it. The editor who chose to publish it. The writer. Someone.

Except that they wouldn’t because I was reading the physical paper.  I was engaging in internet-think. We know, or assume, without having to even think about it consciously, that when we click, someone’s keeping track. We may be signed in, so they actually know who we are, or we may be anonymous, but someone’s at least counting.

No one’s counting who reads a particular article in the printed paper. No one even knows that I didn’t buy this copy. I was reading someone else’s.

The strange thing is, I have a small but real feeing that I want credit. I want it known that I read this. I want it known to the publisher, the editor, the writer, that I, or at least somebody, read this. In the internet age, it seems wrong that they don’t get credit for my visit to that page—and just as wrong that I don’t get some kind of credit too, some acknowledgment, if only psychological, that I’ve joined the fleeting “community” of people-who-have-read-this. Reading it in my living room on a sheet of paper, I remain alone and unknown. Reading it online, I would have joined something.

I’ve never been a “joiner.” When it comes to creative effort and such, I tend to go my own way. But on the internet we’re all joiners. Even people who are naturally solitary have gotten used to that. And the physical paper doesn’t give it to us.

As the last generation that grew up reading on the couch and striving for “leisure” dies, printed newspapers will probably die with them, in the same generational ebb that will put an end to, say, politically significant opposition to same-sex marriage. And when newsprint does die, we will have lost a way to be alone with our thoughts and the thoughts of someone else. Is that a loss that matters? Maybe it will actually be a positive evolution. There’s something a little sad about reading in isolation and having no way to connect with fellow readers (or even the writer). And there’s something wonderful about gaining that ability.

But I sure do get tired of staring at a screen sometimes.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Points all taken. When writing this article I was interested in the psychological changes living our (reading) lives online can have, not so much the merits of one or the other. To my mind, online and print both have merits. One of the greatest merits of print is how much more comfortable it is for reading long pieces. I simply can’t read LONG articles or books online. Well, technically I can, but it’s much less comfortable and my comprehension suffers. Perhaps those who have grown up with everything always online don’t have this problem – or if they do, don’t realize it.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    No, John, its got nothing to do with hiding something negative. Its got everything to do with the fact that where I go on the internet is really nobodies business. Nobody needs to know my true identity.That’s called privacy. When I visit a site (store,etc) in the physical world, they may be able to count how many people have shown up but they don’t know who I am. So, why should it be any different in a virtual environment.

    But, see, this is what nostalgia does to people. I mean, if reading the paper in the comfort of your home, all alone, was such a great creature comfort then why did people feel the need to read them in the library or at coffee shops. The sound of the paper when turning a page drove me nuts (especially those freaks that snapped it into a shape they wanted in order to read a particular column). Then these people would leave their trash all over the place. Sorry, I don’t miss it…

    I’ll take the quiet & anonymous browsing on my computer screen any day.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus (#22) writes, “I don’t miss the blackened fingers afterward.” It’s remarkable how many readers mention those unavoidable ink stains from handling newsprint. Future historians may deem it trivial, but smudged fingers may be a factor in the precipitous decline of newspapers. People had to put up with that for centuries because there was no alternative. Now, thanks to the Internet, we can read news without having to wash our hands afterwards.

    Jon Sobel (#23) writes, “Wouldn’t it feel weird to go out of your way to anonymize yourself when reading online, as if you have something to hide?” Come on, Jon. Randomly check out commentary threads here at BC or elsewhere on the web. The majority of posters have anonymized themselves. Why? Do they have something to hide? Of course they do: their identities!

    I don’t see how anonymizing oneself when reading online would be any weirder than doing so when commenting online.

  • Wouldn’t it feel weird to go out of your way to anonymize yourself when reading online, as if you have something to hide? Especially if you don’t have any particular reason for doing so. With newspapers, the issue never came up.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Weren’t people, at one time, complaining that we were not connected enough? And, now we have people complaining that we’re connected too much??

    IMHO, if print media wanted to stay relevant then they would have offered more diverse coverage in their paper(s) instead just trying to make sales. So, how does a newspaper fit more stories? They could have incorporated the internet by directing their readers to this other diverse content that they offer on their own website instead of making the intertubes out to be the devil.

    So, sure, you may not be so alone when reading a story online.but, only if you want them to know you’re reading it. There are plenty of tools to help keep your anonymity when you are traversing those intertubes. Plus, I don’t miss the blackened fingers afterward…

  • As all the editors are also writers, your argument again makes no sense.

    You appear to be trying to argue simply for the sake of it. Now where have I seen that kind of behaviour before? Oh yes, teenagers! In fact I was a particularly argumentative teenager; reading your remarks is like looking into a time mirror.

  • zingzing

    bet you weren’t so quick to say that as an editor, alan. or during all your time here pointing out writing flaws… you can’t blame the initial error on the editor. they should catch it, yes, but writers fuck up, then editors don’t catch the fuck ups, and that’s what creates the fuck up. so the writer has to make the initial mistake, right?

    and really, when you criticize the anonymous editor behind someone’s article, it’s the author who catches all the flak. you’re pissing off the wrong people. or maybe you’re pissing off the right people. but you’re missing your targets.

  • I’m not seeking help from editors. They can go to hell. I explicitly asked for advice from writers. BIG difference. Writers know what they’re talking about.

  • Alan, I didn’t imply anything, I simply pointed out the facts as they were at the time. I don’t like to jump to conclusions.

    I can’t speak for the site but to my way of thinking it doesn’t seem hugely unreasonable that it takes a while to get things done; frustrating indeed for many, including me, as that may be…

    As I’ve said before, Alan, I fail to understand why you constantly want to take such an aggressive line when simple communication will get the same job done, particularly at a time when you are also privately seeking help from the Blogcritics community with your self-publishing project.

    What is going on here? Obsessive compulsion to make mountains out of molehills? Excessive perfectionism? Just simply enjoying butting heads? Lack of all social skills? Enquiring minds want to know…

  • zingzing

    why don’t you offer up your services as an editor, alan?

  • What’s at issue is the double standard applied by Internet editors to their own work and to that of the print media. Internet editors readily excuse their mistakes even when they would never let a print medium so easily off the hook for similar mistakes.

    In comment #13, Christopher Rose (an Internet editor), asks, “Is it not the case that we don’t actually know why it took a while to get this fixed? Nor what the ‘attitude of those in charge’ is?” Rose implies that I ought not to criticize Internet editors unless I know why it took six days to correct a simple pie chart (or even to get Technorati to acknowledge that it was wrong), nor should I question the attitude of those in charge, unless I have inside knowledge.

    Comment #14 is a response from Jon Sobel (another Internet editor), who falsely claims I took this discussion “far off topic,” but admits that it “shouldn’t have taken that long” to replace the botched chart. Sobel, of course, evades the points raised by Rose. Sobel does not explain why it took six days, nor does he clarify the attitude of those in charge–something Sobel is ideally posititioned to do, since in this case he was in charge.

    Whenever I criticize Blogcritics editors, they become defensive, stonewall the issues, and insinuate that I as a mere reader have no business questioning their superior attitudes. If only they were half as good as they think they are, I’d have nothing to complain about.

  • Aah, Technorati; know nothing about that site at all. At least the issue was fixed, which is good.

    As to going off topic, we actually like that at BC!

  • No, Chris, this discussion went far off topic… the erroneous chart was in the Technorati State of the Blogosphere report, not a BC article. Alan was complaining that it took a while to get it fixed. It shouldn’t have taken that long, but we did get it replaced with a correct chart.

  • I’ve no direct knowledge of this, but is it not the case that we don’t actually know why it took a while to get this fixed? Nor what the “attitude of those in charge” is?

    Alan, for future reference, my understanding is that the best way to get a published error fixed is to send an email to the editors email that is included in the writer guidelines you were sent when you became a writer for Blogcritics…

  • zingzing

    well, the article and the chart are what they are now. no matter how long it took them, the chart is now accurate (i guess, i haven’t seen the thing). the attitude of those in charge will quickly be forgotten. at least in this instance.

    the nature of this medium is that it can be corrected at the source. and that’s pretty cool. but nobody “in charge” has to do anything if they don’t want to. that’s the nature of being in charge.

  • My point is that the nature of the medium matters less than the attitude of those in charge.

  • Not to mention all those print media weeklies and monthlies. No way to present a quick correction there.

  • zingzing

    yes, alan, but in the print media, the correction would be noted, but the original article would stay the same.

  • I hope it’s germane to follow up something we discussed on this thread yesterday (comments #3 thru #7). Technorati’s botched pie chart, which I was the first commenter to question, has finally been replaced. It turns out that all five slices of the original pie were wrong!

    Given that the present Blogcritics article contrasts the print media with the Internet, perhaps a few words of reflection might be permitted on how Technorati (which owns Blogcritics) handled this matter.

    I first notified Technorati of their mistake 3½ hours after they published their article. At least four subsequent commenters also questioned the chart. Finally, following my online argument here yesterday with the article’s author, and nearly six days after publication, the botched pie chart was replaced.

    How many readers will seriously argue that the print media would not have done a better job at making this correction that did Technorati? We live in the Internet age, when online documents can be instantaneously corrected. Yet surely even the most technologically obsolescent daily newspaper, if notified within 3½ hours after publication, would have rectified their mistake by the next edition. Why did it take Technorati six days?

    It’s simple. Because those responsible were neglectful. My point is that the nature of the medium matters less than the attitude of those in charge.

  • You’re right, the numbers don’t add up and we’re working on correcting it. As to the other point, it was about the larger generality, which my personal experience made me reflect on, but sure, I agree – a person can certainly feel isolated and ignored online and I’m sure it happens plenty.

  • Saying that the U.S. was included in the North American segment does not clarify anything. As it stands, the five segments add up to 100%. Removing the standalone U.S. segment, on the premise that the U.S. was included in the separate North American segment, would leave a pie chart representing only 67% of the total. What accounts for the other 33%?

    And besides, what are you getting so touchy about? I brought this up here merely to illustrate that a reader can be as isolated and ignored on the Internet as in the print media. Will you at least concede that point?

  • What on Earth are you talking about, Alan? I just said I’m going to have it clarified. Meanwhile, for your benefit, the answer turns out to be that yes, as the numbers would suggest, the US was included in the North America block. And as I also said, I agree with you that the chart was confusing and should be clarified.

  • You’re kidding, right? Your name is listed as author of that article. And now you’re telling me that someone else should have answered my question about your mistake?

    When a Blogcritics article appears with my name as author, I take ownership. I don’t wait for someone else to answer a question about a factual matter in my piece; I either defend that issue in a timely manner or admit that I’ve erred.

  • Has no one responded in the Technorati comments to your question about that confusing North America pie chart? I found it just as confusing myself, and various people besides you have posed the same question in various forums. I’m going to ask someone from the Technorati team to clarify it, if it hasn’t already been done.

  • zingzing

    yeah, but at least you’re not just talking to a newspaper. you’re talking to a computer screen. so much warmer. and no backwards newsprint on your lips after. the smudge is on the other face now!

  • There’s something a little sad about reading in isolation and having no way to connect with fellow readers (or even the writer). And there’s something wonderful about gaining that ability.

    I’ve enjoyed the articles in Blogcritics’ culture section over the past month or so comparing the print media experience with the Internet. Besides yours, I’m thinking in particular of Wendy Scott’s Will Technology Kill Book Publishing? and The Demise of Handwriting. It’s definitely a topic worthy of continuing examination.

    In this instance, I think you’ve overestimated the sense of involvement, not so much among readers as co-commenters in a thread attached to an online article, but more so between a writer and readers on the Internet. As a reader/commenter, I’ve often been frustrated by some writers’ strict refusal, or perhaps blithe negligence, to respond to reader comments.

    Recent case in point: 4 days ago (11/3/2010 12:34:22 PM), I posted a comment on the thread to your Technorati article State of the Blogosphere 2010 Introduction. Actually, it wasn’t a comment per se; it was a question about the pie chart in your piece. I also posted the same question later that day in the General Discussion Forum at the Blogcritics bigtent site. In neither instance did you reply.

    I mention this to illustrate that a reader can be made to feel just as isolated and ignored on the Internet as in the quiet of his living room perusing a week-old edition of the Sunday New York Times. Sometimes “progress” is no progress at all.