May 14, 2007
A better way to read text on a computer screen
The headline notes a subject of much interest to me.
Long story short: New research appears to demonstrate that as we read, our brain is simultaneously trying to filter and discard words above and below the ones we're focused on, dividing our attention and impairing speed and comprehension.
Very, very interesting, as were the many comments (click here, then scroll down) occasioned by the piece, which follows.
- Live Ink offers better way to read text online
Did you know our primitive brains weren’t wired very well to read this paragraph?
Scientific research conducted by Walker Reading Technologies, a small Minnesota startup that has been studying our ability to read for the last ten years, has concluded that the natural field of focus for our eyes is circular, so our eyes view the printed page as if we’re peering through a straw.
thestraw.jpgAnd a very bad-behaving straw at that, because not only do our eyes feed our brain the words we’re reading, they’re also uploading characters and words from the two sentences above and below the line we’re reading.
Every time we read block text, we’re forcing our brain to a wage a constant subconscious battle with itself to filter and discard the superfluous inputs. This mental tug of war slows reading speed and diminishes comprehension.
When our ancestors first invented written language about 5,000 years ago, they unfortunately didn’t have armies of neuroscientists standing by to tell them block type was the wrong way to format their papyrus rolls. But fret not. Help is on the way.
Walker Reading Technologies’ CEO and co-founder, Randall Walker MD, believes he and his team have developed a solution with a product called Live Ink that allows online publishers to improve reading speed and comprehension. Live Ink works by analyzing written language for meaning and language structure, and then applies algorithms that reformat the text into a series of short, cascading phrases [top]. It breaks complex syntax into simpler syntax, which makes it easier for the brain to absorb the material.
The company presented its latest findings yesterday at the sold out Digital Book 2007 conference here in New York.
Early results have been encouraging. According to Walker, a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that students who read text books in Live Ink are adding 10-15 percentile points on nationally standardized reading tests. Non native English speakers are seeing similar improved proficiency.
A more detailed article about the technology and science behind Live Ink can be found here.
If the technology lives up to its promise, Live Ink represents a veritable breakthrough that could change the way people read online content. With eyeballs moving from dead tree media to a screen near you, readability of online text will become a competitive differentiator for many online content providers.
In 2003, the company signed a big licensing deal with Holt, Reinhart and Winston, one of the world’s largest publishers of textbooks and a division of publishing giant Reed Elsevier. The deal allowed HRW to integrate the Live Ink technology into the company’s line of online text books.
Now that the company has proven its technology (through the HRW deal, and Dept. of Education study), it’s looking to aggressively expand by signing additional licensing deals with publishers of ebooks, blogs and newspapers.
The company has protected its intellectual property with a portfolio of international patents that its says covers 80 percent of the global economy.
The company was founded in 1996, and has taken in a little over $4 million in angel capital from private investors and $400,000 in U.S. Department of Education grants in 2001 and 2002. The company is profitable. Randall Walker tells VentureBeat the company is currently evaluating whether to fund its next stage of growth from cash flow or from a new funding round. If the company pursues a new funding round, Walker says the company may for the first time entertain funding participation from top-tier VCs.
Although Live Ink offers the potential to improve world wide literacy and support the growth of screen-based reading, it still faces the challenge of overcoming our entrenched reading habits. Since grade school, we were all taught to read block text. It’s not perfect, but it’s comfortable and familiar.
Yet the Internet has a way of forcing rapid evolution of communication habits, especially when the communication methods are faster, easier and more direct. One only has to look as far as email, cell phones, or recent innovations such as texting and Twittering to understand that we humans crave immediate communication. If Live Ink is truly a breakthrough, those who use it will have competitive advantage over those who don’t. At a minimum, Digital Ink reminds us that as human evolution collides with Moore’s Law, we’re bound to learn more about ourselves.
Much more about this new technology here.
Color-Coded Key Ring Rack
From the website:
- Color-Coded Key Ring Rack
Find the key you need with just a glance!
With this color-coded system, there’s no more guessing which key goes to which door or lock.
Simply assign a color to a key and you’ll choose the right one every time!
Here’s a neat way to organize that jumble of keys in the junk drawer, and keep track of which key opens what!
This wall-mounted rack comes with six colored tags that make it easy to identify the key you need.
Ideal for use in the mudroom, garage and kitchen.
Holder and tags are painted metal.
Approx. 7½"L x 3½" x 1¼"D.
Mounting screws included.
This would seem especially suited to younger children, but not if they're colorblind.
Seems to me shaping each tag differently might have been a nice additional touch.
'5 Injured in Fires Caused by High-Tech Toilets'
Above, the headline of an April 19, 2007 Asahi Shimbun story reporting the results of a survey by Japan's National Institute of Technology and Evaluation.
As a result, Toto, Japan's top toilet titan, is recalling 180,000 of its warm-water Washlets, marking the biggest toilet recall ever in Japan.
For those of you who are worried, the toilets in question are Toto's Z-series, manufactured from March, 1999 through December, 2001.
In what smacks of a cover-up, it turns out Toto became aware of the problem by mid-February of this year but remained mum until its hand was forced by news reports of problems.
The model in question caught fire in March, 2006 and twice in March, 2007.
It also generated smoke on 26 separate occasions between May, 2004 and March, 2007.
The Japan Warm Water Bidet Council handed over its findings to the government last Wednesday, May 9, 2007.
I must say that though I've had many bathroom-related issues over the years, I've yet to observe smoke or fire emerging from the room.
But I digress.
Leo Lewis, Asia business correspondent for The Times (UK), reported in an April 18, 2007 story that Toto is now blaming the debacle on substandard Chinese parts and workmanship.
Here's the article.
- Détente hit as high-tech WC sets off fires down below
Only days after Tokyo and Beijing patched up years of bitter division, the new détente could be jeopardised by a spate of exploding lavatories in Japan that is being blamed on shoddy Chinese workmanship.
In a setback for the high-tech Japanese lavatory industry, more than 180,000 Washlet units are being recalled because they may burst into flames.
Dozens have already done so and the recall itself — formally announced in every big Japanese newspaper — has triggered an understandable panic in bathrooms up and down the country.
The scandal centres on Toto, the largest Japanese manufacturer of electronically controlled lavatories and the company responsible for the notorious Washlet — a unit with an automatically warmed seat and a function that washes and then blow-dries its user’s fundament.
In a move destined to sour business relations across the East China Sea, Toto is now blaming substandard Chinese parts for the debacle. Although beloved by Japanese themselves, the controls of the Washlet — a formidable armrest bristling with a baffling array of multicoloured buttons, lights and dials — have long been the bane of unsuspecting foreigners. The problem most usually arises from a confusion between which of the flush and bidet controls is correct.
The machine’s various functions require it to remain connected to the electricity mains around the clock. In certain models, a stretch of poorly insulated wiring can become scratched, short-circuit and play havoc with the heater that warms the bidet water to a precise temperature. This can cause the Washlet’s plastic seat first to melt, then ignite.
Inspired to terror by uncompromising evening newspaper headlines such as “Toto to fix buttock-scorching bidets”, nearly 50,000 Washlet owners yesterday jammed the company’s information lines. Although no injuries have yet been reported in connection with Toto’s combustible conveniences, many “near-miss” victims have come forward to describe horrified disbelief as their lavatories unexpectedly set themselves ablaze.
Now, with the atmosphere of fear increasing, a pair of darker secrets has come to light. The first is that the fault with the units may originate in Shanghai. Seven years ago, and without informing its customer, one of Toto’s key component makers shifted its factory from Japan to China.
All the reported incidents, a Toto spokesman said, occurred after its supplier switched the location.
It emerged yesterday, however, that Toto may not have been a wholly innocent victim of shoddy Chinese workmanship. It engaged in an attempt to cover up the incidents for several months before being forced to go public for the sake of Japanese posteriors.
Toto, which sells about three million high-tech lavatories every year, was yesterday joined in humiliation by its closest rival, INAX, whose management also admitted that it had failed to report properly a series of incidents involving its products.
The Toto and INAX scandals come amid a series of embarrassments for corporate Japan, which depends heavily upon its reputation for high product quality. Sanyo, Sony, Toyota and a variety of other household names have recently been embroiled in product recall incidents.
From the website:
- Massage Mouse
Hands-free electronic massage feels like the fingers of a Chinese massage therapist.
Unlike other handheld massagers, Massage Mouse doesn’t make you stretch and strain to reach the aching muscles on your back.
Designed so it can be used anywhere, it’s so compact you can keep it on your desk and use the base as a document holder.
Powered by a 9-volt battery, Massage Mouse can be used anywhere, even while you work at your computer.
You'll enjoy a deep massage that relieves muscle tension and discomfort in as little as 20 minutes.
Just put the reusable massage pads in place and relax as the adjustable-intensity massage changes from tapping to grabbing to kneading.
It changes randomly in frequency and duration so skin and muscles won't become desensitized to the massage.
FDA-registered and safe for healthy people.
When people walk by and ask how come you're wired to your document holder, it might be best to pretend you don't speak the language.
'Lies, damn lies, and statistics'
I got to thinking of this memorable quotation yesterday when I happened on a webpage at BurrellesLuce featuring my Insecticide Chalk post of May 3, 2007.
BurrellesLuce is a company that provides, among other things, media monitoring — long story short, you pay them to find out what others are saying about you.
I found the link to BurrellesLuce while I was noodling around in my Sitemeter statistics pages.
When I clicked on the link I was taken to a page that, over a reproduction of my post, complete with internal links, read as follows:
- Source: Bookofjoe
Audience: 87,960 ([provided by Nielsen/NetRatings]
Headline: INSECT LINE DO NOT CROSS INSECT LINE DO NOT CROSS INSECT LINE DO NOT CROSS
Under the above were a link to my post and a PDF file of the post as saved by BurrellesLuce (top).
What am I to make of this?
Because I must tell you that the number 87,960 is rather disconcerting to me, seeing as I thought I was still working my way up to 10,000 readers a day as has been the case since I hit 5,000 daily about 18 months ago.
If Sitemeter's that far off from what's actually going down, then maybe it's time to reassess my advertising-free policy, what with traffic that could provide some serious ka-ching hereabouts.
Now, maybe BurrellesLuce's number is the sum of all bookofjoe page views since the post appeared nine days ago (I'm writing this on May 12): I suppose that could be the case and the number is in the right ballpark.
Still, it's startling.
From the website:
Chop. Store. Go!
The cutting board that stores & serves, too.
Here’s the easy way to prepare toppings for tacos, chili, baked potatoes and more!
You get four storage sections, a cutting board and a lid that covers all!
Prepare salad toppings or nacho ingredients, then slide them into storage containers below as you chop.
Ingredients stay fresh inside while stored in the fridge or on the way to the picnic.
To serve, just lift off the cutting board to reveal the four 2½ cup sections.
Separate lid snaps over the board.
The blog as job
In yesterday's New York Times magazine, switched-on technology writer Clive Thompson told what to me was a very fascinating story about how Jonathan Coulton (above, next to the guitar), a 36-year-old Brooklyn musician, two years ago quit his job as a computer programmer to become a full-time singer and songwriter.
Long story short: he's doing it — but the resulting lifestyle, with its unending demands on his time to remain interactive online with his legion of fans, looks awfully similar to a real job.
For example: "Every day, Coulton wakes up, gets coffee, cracks open his PowerBook and hunkers down for up to six hours of nonstop and frequently exhausting communion with his virtual crowd."
Watch a video about how Coulton got big if you're not in the mood for words.
If you'd rather read about it, here's the eye-opening Times piece.
- Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog
Jonathan Coulton sat in Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn, his Apple PowerBook open before him, and began slogging through the day’s e-mail. Coulton is 36 and shaggily handsome. In September 2005, he quit his job as a computer programmer and, with his wife’s guarded blessing, became a full-time singer and songwriter. He set a quixotic goal for himself: for the next year, he would write and record a song each week, posting each one to his blog. “It was a sort of forced-march approach to creativity,” he admitted to me over the sound of the cafe’s cappuccino frothers. He’d always wanted to be a full-time musician, and he figured the only way to prove to himself he could do it was with a drastic challenge. “I learned that it is possible to squeeze a song out of just about anything,” he said. “But it’s not always an easy or pleasant process.” Given the self-imposed time constraints, the “Thing a Week” songs are remarkably good. Coulton tends toward geeky, witty pop tunes: one song, “Tom Cruise Crazy,” is a sympathetic ode to the fame-addled star, while “Code Monkey” is a rocking anthem about dead-end programming jobs. By the middle of last year, his project had attracted a sizable audience. More than 3,000 people, on average, were visiting his site every day, and his most popular songs were being downloaded as many as 500,000 times; he was making what he described as “a reasonable middle-class living” — between $3,000 and $5,000 a month — by selling CDs and digital downloads of his work on iTunes and on his own site.
Along the way, he discovered a fact that many small-scale recording artists are coming to terms with these days: his fans do not want merely to buy his music. They want to be his friend. And that means they want to interact with him all day long online. They pore over his blog entries, commenting with sympathy and support every time he recounts the difficulty of writing a song. They send e-mail messages, dozens a day, ranging from simple mash notes of the “you rock!” variety to starkly emotional letters, including one by a man who described singing one of Coulton’s love songs to his 6-month-old infant during her heart surgery. Coulton responds to every letter, though as the e-mail volume has grown to as many as 100 messages a day, his replies have grown more and more terse, to the point where he’s now feeling guilty about being rude.
Coulton welcomes his fans’ avid attention; indeed, he relies on his fans in an almost symbiotic way. When he couldn’t perform a guitar solo for “Shop Vac,” a glittery pop tune he had written about suburban angst — on his blog, he cursed his “useless sausage fingers” — Coulton asked listeners to record their own attempts, then held an online vote and pasted the winning riff into his tune. Other followers have volunteered hours of their time to help further his career: a professional graphic artist in Cleveland has drawn an illustration for each of the weekly songs, free. Another fan recently reformatted Coulton’s tunes so they’d be usable on karaoke machines. On his online discussion board last June, when Coulton asked for advice on how to make more money with his music, dozens of people chimed in with tips on touring and managing the media and even opinions about what kind of songs he ought to write.
Coulton’s fans are also his promotion department, an army of thousands who proselytize for his work worldwide. More than 50 fans have created music videos using his music and posted them on YouTube; at a recent gig, half of the audience members I spoke to had originally come across his music via one of these fan-made videos. When he performs, he upends the traditional logic of touring. Normally, a new Brooklyn-based artist like him would trek around the Northeast in grim circles, visiting and revisiting cities like Boston and New York and Chicago in order to slowly build an audience — playing for 3 people the first time, then 10, then (if he got lucky) 50. But Coulton realized he could simply poll his existing online audience members, find out where they lived and stage a tactical strike on any town with more than 100 fans, the point at which he’d be likely to make $1,000 for a concert. It is a flash-mob approach to touring: he parachutes into out-of-the-way towns like Ardmore, Pa., where he recently played to a sold-out club of 140.
His fans need him; he needs them. Which is why, every day, Coulton wakes up, gets coffee, cracks open his PowerBook and hunkers down for up to six hours of nonstop and frequently exhausting communion with his virtual crowd. The day I met him, he was examining a music video that a woman who identified herself as a “blithering fan” had made for his song “Someone Is Crazy.” It was a collection of scenes from anime cartoons, expertly spliced together and offered on YouTube.
“She spent hours working on this,” Coulton marveled. “And now her friends are watching that video, and fans of that anime cartoon are watching this video. And that’s how people are finding me. It’s a crucial part of the picture. And so I have to watch this video; I have to respond to her.” He bashed out a hasty thank-you note and then forwarded the link to another supporter — this one in Britain — who runs “The Jonathan Coulton Project,” a Web site that exists specifically to archive his fan-made music videos.
He sipped his coffee. “People always think that when you’re a musician you’re sitting around strumming your guitar, and that’s your job,” he said. “But this” — he clicked his keyboard theatrically — “this is my job.”
In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply. This is not merely an illusion of intimacy. Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube.
So musicians dive into the fray — posting confessional notes on their blogs, reading their fans’ comments and carefully replying. They check their personal pages on MySpace, that virtual metropolis where unknown bands and comedians and writers can achieve global renown in a matter of days, if not hours, carried along by rolling cascades of popularity. Band members often post a daily MySpace “bulletin” — a memo to their audience explaining what they’re doing right at that moment — and then spend hours more approving “friend requests” from teenagers who want to be put on the artist’s sprawling list of online colleagues. (Indeed, the arms race for “friends” is so intense that some artists illicitly employ software robots that generate hundreds of fake online comrades, artificially boosting their numbers.) The pop group Barenaked Ladies held a video contest, asking fans to play air guitar along to the song “Wind It Up”; the best ones were spliced together as the song’s official music video. Even artists who haven’t got a clue about the Internet are swept along: Arctic Monkeys, a British band, didn’t know what MySpace was, but when fans created a page for them in 2005 — which currently boasts over 65,000 “friends” — it propelled their first single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” to No. 1 on the British charts.
This trend isn’t limited to musicians; virtually every genre of artistic endeavor is slowly becoming affected, too. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and Rian Johnson (“Brick”) post dispatches about the movies they’re shooting and politely listen to fans’ suggestions; the comedian Dane Cook cultivated such a huge fan base through his Web site that his 2005 CD “Retaliation” became the first comedy album to reach the Billboard Top 5 since 1978. But musicians are at the vanguard of the change. Their product, the three-minute song, was the first piece of pop culture to be fully revolutionized by the Internet. And their second revenue source — touring — makes them highly motivated to connect with far-flung fans.
This confluence of forces has produced a curious inflection point: for rock musicians, being a bit of a nerd now helps you become successful. When I spoke with Damian Kulash, the lead singer for the band OK Go, he discoursed like a professor on the six-degrees-of-separation theory, talking at one point about “rhizomatic networks.” (You can Google it.) Kulash has put his networking expertise to good use: last year, OK Go displayed a canny understanding of online dynamics when it posted on YouTube a low-budget homemade video that showed the band members dancing on treadmills to their song “Here It Goes Again.” The video quickly became one of the site’s all-time biggest hits. It led to the band’s live treadmill performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which in turn led to a Grammy Award for best video.
This is not a trend that affects A-list stars. The most famous corporate acts — Justin Timberlake, Fergie, Beyoncé — are still creatures of mass marketing, carpet-bombed into popularity by expensive ad campaigns and radio airplay. They do not need the online world to find listeners, and indeed, their audiences are too vast for any artist to even pretend intimacy with. No, this is a trend that is catalyzing the B-list, the new, under-the-radar acts that have always built their success fan by fan. Across the country, the CD business is in a spectacular free fall; sales are down 20 percent this year alone. People are increasingly getting their music online (whether or not they’re paying for it), and it seems likely that the artists who forge direct access to their fans have the best chance of figuring out what the new economics of the music business will be.
The universe of musicians making their way online includes many bands that function in a traditional way — signing up with a label — while using the Internet primarily as a means of promotion, the way OK Go has done. Two-thirds of OK Go’s album sales are still in the physical world: actual CDs sold through traditional CD stores. But the B-list increasingly includes a newer and more curious life-form: performers like Coulton, who construct their entire business model online. Without the Internet, their musical careers might not exist at all. Coulton has forgone a record-label contract; instead, he uses a growing array of online tools to sell music directly to fans. He contracts with a virtual fulfillment house called CD Baby, which warehouses his CDs, processes the credit-card payment for each sale and ships it out, while pocketing only $4 of the album’s price, a much smaller cut than a traditional label would take. CD Baby also places his music on the major digital-music stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster. Most lucratively, Coulton sells MP3s from his own personal Web sites, where there’s no middleman at all.
In total, 41 percent of Coulton’s income is from digital-music sales, three-quarters of which are sold directly off his own Web site. Another 29 percent of his income is from CD sales; 18 percent is from ticket sales for his live shows. The final 11 percent comes from T-shirts, often bought online.
Indeed, running a Web store has allowed Coulton and other artists to experiment with intriguing innovations in flexible pricing. Remarkably, Coulton offers most of his music free on his site; when fans buy his songs, it is because they want to give him money. The Canadian folk-pop singer Jane Siberry has an even more clever system: she has a “pay what you can” policy with her downloadable songs, so fans can download them free — but her site also shows the average price her customers have paid for each track. This subtly creates a community standard, a generalized awareness of how much people think each track is really worth. The result? The average price is as much as $1.30 a track, more than her fans would pay at iTunes.
Yet this phenomenon isn’t merely about money and business models. In many ways, the Internet’s biggest impact on artists is emotional. When you have thousands of fans interacting with you electronically, it can feel as if you’re on stage 24 hours a day.
“I vacillate so much on this,” Tad Kubler told me one evening in March. “I’m like, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this intimacy with our fans. And I’m not sure you can have both.” Kubler is the guitarist for the Brooklyn-based rock band the Hold Steady, and I met up with him at a Japanese bar in Pittsburgh, where the band was performing on its latest national tour. An exuberant but thoughtful blond-surfer type, Kubler drank a Sapporo beer and explained how radically the Internet had changed his life on the road. His previous band existed before the Web became ubiquitous, and each town it visited was a mystery: Would 20 people come out? Would two? When the Hold Steady formed four years ago, Kubler immediately signed up for a MySpace page, later adding a discussion board, and curious fans were drawn in like iron filings to a magnet. Now the band’s board teems with fans asking technical questions about Kubler’s guitars, swapping bootlegged MP3 recordings of live gigs with each other, organizing carpool drives to see the band. Some send e-mail messages to Kubler from cities where the band will be performing in a couple of weeks, offering to design, print and distribute concert posters free. As the band’s appointed geek, Kubler handles the majority of its online audience relations; fans at gigs chant his online screen-name, “Koob.”
“It’s like night and day, man,” Kubler said, comparing his current situation with his pre-Internet musical career. “It’s awesome now.”
Kubler regards fan interaction as an obligation that is cultural, almost ethical. He remembers what it was like to be a young fan himself, enraptured by the members of Led Zeppelin. “That’s all I wanted when I was a fan, right?” he said. “To have some small contact with these guys you really dug. I think I’m still that way. I’ll be, like, devastated if I never meet Jimmy Page before I die.” Indeed, for a guitarist whose arms are bedecked in tattoos and who maintains an aggressive schedule of drinking, Kubler seems genuinely touched by the shy queries he gets from teenagers.
“If some kid is going to take 10 minutes out of his day to figure out what he wants to say in an e-mail, and then write it and send it, for me to not take the 5 minutes to say, dude, thanks so much — for me to ignore that?” He shrugged. “I can’t.”
Yet Kubler sometimes has second thoughts about the intimacy. Part of the allure of rock, when he was a kid, was the shadowy glamour that surrounded his favorite stars. He’d parse their lyrics to try to figure out what they were like in person. Now he wonders: Are today’s online artists ruining their own aura by blogging? Can you still idolize someone when you know what they had for breakfast this morning? “It takes a little bit of the mystery out of rock ’n’ roll,” he said.
So Kubler has cultivated a skill that is unique to the age of Internet fandom, and perhaps increasingly necessary to it, as well: a nuanced ability to seem authentic and confessional without spilling over into a Britney Spears level of information overload. He doesn’t post about his home life, doesn’t mention anything about his daughter or girlfriend — and he certainly doesn’t describe any of the ill-fated come-ons he deflects from addled female fans who don’t realize he’s in a long-term relationship. (Another useful rule he imparts to me: Post in the morning, when you’re no longer drunk.)
There’s something particularly weird, the band members have also found, about living with fans who can now trade information — and misinformation — about them. All celebrities are accustomed to dealing with reporters; but fans represent a new, wild-card form of journalism. Franz Nicolay, the Hold Steady’s nattily-dressed keyboardist, told me that he now becomes slightly paranoid while drinking with fans after a show, because he’s never sure if what he says will wind up on someone’s blog. After a recent gig in Britain, Nicolay idly mentioned to a fan that he had heard that Bruce Springsteen liked the Hold Steady. Whoops: the next day, that factoid was published on a fan blog, “and it had, like, 25 comments!” Nicolay said. So now he carefully polices what he says in casual conversation, which he thinks is a weird thing for a rock star to do. “You can’t be the drunken guy who just got offstage anymore,” he said with a sigh. “You start acting like a pro athlete, saying all these banal things after you get off the field.” For Nicolay, the intimacy of the Internet has made postshow interactions less intimate and more guarded.
The Hold Steady’s online audience has grown so huge that Kubler, like Jonathan Coulton, is struggling to bear the load. It is the central paradox of online networking: if you’re really good at it, your audience quickly grows so big that you can no longer network with them. The Internet makes fame more quickly achievable — and more quickly unmanageable. In the early days of the Hold Steady, Kubler fielded only a few e-mail messages a day, and a couple of “friend” requests on MySpace. But by this spring, he was receiving more than 100 communications from fans each day, and he was losing as much as two or three hours a day dealing with them. “People will say to me, ‘Hey, dude, how come you haven’t posted a bulletin lately?’ ” Kubler told me. “And I’m like, ‘I haven’t done one because every time I do we get 300 messages and I spend a day going through them!’ ”
To cope with the flood, the Hold Steady has programmed a software robot to automatically approve the 100-plus “friend” requests it receives on MySpace every day. Other artists I spoke to were testing out similar tricks, including automatic e-mail macros that generate instant “thank you very much” replies to fan messages. Virtually everyone bemoaned the relentless and often boring slog of keyboarding. It is, of course, precisely the sort of administrative toil that people join rock bands to avoid.
Even the most upbeat artist eventually crashes and burns. Indeed, fan interactions seem to surf along a sine curve, as an artist’s energy for managing the emotional demands waxes and wanes. As I roamed through online discussion boards and blogs, the tone was nearly always pleasant, even exuberant — fans politely chatting with their favorite artists or gushing praise. But inevitably, out of the blue, the artist would be overburdened, or a fan would feel slighted, and some minor grievance would flare up. At the end of March, a few weeks after I talked with Kubler in Pittsburgh, I logged on to the Hold Steady’s discussion board to discover that he had posted an angry notice about fans who sent him nasty e-mail messages complaining that the band wasn’t visiting their cities. “I honestly cannot believe some of the e-mails, hate mail and otherwise total [expletive] I’ve been hearing,” he wrote. “We’re coming to rock. Please be ready.”
Another evening I visited the message board for the New York post-punk band Nada Surf, where a fan posted a diatribe attacking the bass player for refusing to sign an autograph at a recent show, prompting an extended fan discussion of whether the bass player was a jerk or not. A friend of mine pointed me to the remarkable plight of Poppy Z. Brite, a novelist who in 2005 accused fans on a discussion board of being small-minded about children — at which point her fans banned her from the board.
When Jonathan Coulton first began writing his weekly songs, he carefully tracked how many people listened to each one on his Web site. His listenership rose steadily, from around 1,000 a week at first to 50,000 by the end of his yearlong song-a-week experiment. But there were exceptions to this gradual rise: five songs that became breakout “hits,” receiving almost 10 times as many listeners as the songs that preceded and followed them. The first hit was an improbable cover song: Coulton’s deadpan version of the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot rap song “Baby Got Back,” performed like a hippie folk ballad. Another was “Code Monkey,” his pop song about a disaffected cubicle worker.
Obviously, Coulton was thrilled when his numbers popped, not least because the surge of traffic produced thousands more dollars in sales. But the successes also tortured him: he would rack his brains trying to figure out why people loved those particular songs so much. What had he done right? Could he repeat the same trick?
“Every time I had a hit, it would sort of ruin me for a few weeks,” he told me. “I would feel myself being a little bit repressed in my creativity, and ideas would not come to me as easily. Or else I would censor myself a little bit more.” His fans, he realized, were most smitten by his geekier songs, the ones that referenced science fiction, mathematics or video games. Whenever he branches out and records more traditional pop fare, he worries it will alienate his audience.
For many of these ultraconnected artists, it seems the nature of creativity itself is changing. It is no longer a solitary act: their audiences are peering over their shoulders as they work, offering pointed comments and suggestions. When OK Go released its treadmill-dancing video on YouTube, it quickly amassed 15 million views, a number so big that it is, as Kulash, the singer, told me, slightly surreal. “Fifteen million people is more than you can see,” he said. “It’s like this big mass of ants, and you’re sitting at home in your underpants to see how many times you’ve been downloaded, and you can sort of feel the ebb and flow of mass attention.” Fans pestered him to know what the band’s next video would be; some even suggested the band try dancing on escalators. Kulash was conflicted. He didn’t want to be known just for making goofy videos; he also wanted people to pay attention to OK Go’s music. In the end, the band decided not to do another dance video, because, as Kulash concluded, “How do you follow up 15 million hits?” All the artists I spoke to made a point of saying they would never simply pander to their fans’ desires. But many of them also said that staying artistically “pure” now requires the mental discipline of a ninja.
These days, Coulton is wondering whether an Internet-built fan base inevitably hits a plateau. Many potential Coulton fans are fanatical users of MySpace and YouTube, of course; but many more aren’t, and the only way for him to reach them is via traditional advertising, which he can’t afford, or courting media attention, a wearying and decidedly old-school task. Coulton’s single biggest spike in traffic to his Web site took place last December, when he appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” a fact that, he notes, proves how powerful old-fashioned media still are. (And “Weekend Edition” is orders of magnitude smaller than major entertainment shows like MTV’s “Total Request Live,” which can make a new artist in an afternoon.) Perhaps there’s no way to use the Internet to vault from the B-list to the A-list and the only bands that sell millions of copies will always do it via a well-financed major-label promotion campaign. “Maybe this is what my career will be,” Coulton said: slowly building new fans online, playing live occasionally, making a solid living but never a crazy-rich one. He’s considered signing on with a label or a cable network to try to chase a higher circle of fame, but that would mean giving up control. And, he says, “I think I’m addicted to running my own show now.”
Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world. Neither would, say, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, a singer who was initially so intimidated by a crowd that she would sit facing the back of the stage. What happens to art when people like that are chased away?
It is also possible, though, that this is simply a natural transition point and that the next generation of musicians and artists — even the avowedly “sensitive” ones — will find the constant presence of their fans unremarkable. The psychological landscape has arguably already tilted that way for anyone under 20. There are plenty of teenagers today who regard themselves as “private” individuals, yet who post openly about their everyday activities on Facebook or LiveJournal, complete with camera-phone pictures. For that generation, the line between public and private is so blurry as to become almost nonexistent. Any teenager with a MySpace page is already fluent in managing a constant stream of dozens of semianonymous people clamoring to befriend them; if those numbers rise to hundreds or even thousands, maybe, for them, it won’t be a big deal. It’s also true that many recluses in real life flower on the Internet, which can famously be a place of self-expression and self-reinvention.
While researching this article, I occasionally scanned the list of top-rated bands on MySpace — the ones with the most “friends.” One of the biggest was a duo called the Scene Aesthetic, whose MySpace presence had sat atop several charts (folk, pop, rock) for a few months. I called Andrew de Torres, a 21-year-old Seattle resident and a co-founder of the group, to find out his story. De Torres, who played in a few emo bands as a teenager, had the idea for the Scene Aesthetic in January 2005, when he wrote a song that required two dueling male voices. He called his friend Eric Bowley, and they recorded the song — an aching ballad called “Beauty in the Breakdown” — in a single afternoon in Bowley’s basement. They posted it to MySpace, figuring it might get a couple of listens. But the song clearly struck a chord with the teen-heavy MySpace audience, and within days it had racked up thousands of plays. Requests to be the duo’s “friend” came surging in, along with messages demanding more songs. De Torres and Bowley quickly banged out three more; when those went online, their growing fan base urged them to produce a full album and to go on tour.
“It just sort of accidentally turned into this huge thing,” de Torres told me when I called him up. “We thought this was a little side project. We thought we wouldn’t do much with it. We just threw it up online.” Now their album is due out this summer, and they have roughly 22,000 people a day listening to their songs on MySpace, plus more than 180,000 “friends.” A cross-country tour that ended last December netted them “a pretty good amount of money,” de Torres added.
This sort of career arc was never previously possible. If you were a singer with only one good song, there was no way to release it independently on a global scale — and thus no way of knowing if there was a market for your talent. But the online fan world has different gravitational physics: on the basis of a single tune, the Scene Aesthetic kick-started an entire musical career.
Which is perhaps the end result of the new online fan world: it allows a fresh route to creative success, assuming the artist has the correct emotional tools. De Torres, a decade or more younger than Coulton and the Hold Steady, is a natural Artist 2.0: he happily spends two hours a day or more parsing notes from teenagers who tell him “your work totally got me through some rough times.” He knows that to lure in listeners, he needs to post some of his work on MySpace, but since he wants people to eventually buy his album, he doesn’t want to give away all his goods. He has thus developed an ear for what he calls “the perfect MySpace song” — a tune that is immediately catchy, yet not necessarily the strongest from his forthcoming album. For him, being a musician is rather like being a business manager, memoirist and group therapist rolled into one, with a politician’s thick hide to boot.
A look behind the curtain here at bookofjoe: we do things a bit differently than Coulton.
For one thing, my crack email team (as if) continually interacts with my legion of fans, readers and whatnot during working hours (ours, not yours).
Thus, most people who email us get a response within minutes if the email arrives between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Time (GMT –4).
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