Friday, September 27

in/appropriate appropriation

soon enough friends come to know how crummy I am at keeping other people's secrets and gossip separate from all the regular small-talk conversation fodder. most of the time all of it ends up in the same box. mixed, shuffled, ready to be retold or cut-and-pasted however my random brain decides it might need to be thrown back into circulation.

there are times when this is more or less appropriate, of course, but as far as I know there aren't many laws against gossip. unless my friends start getting me to sign non-disclosure agreements, I'm probably okay. sometimes a tactless jerkface, perhaps, but not a dangerous criminal. after all--like Jefferson said, information tends to do that thing where "the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone."

a million social rules and conventions and expectations govern the paths information takes through our heads and pencils and mouths. nobody can really own them, but ideas do seem to become attached to certain people. specific iterations can seem to belong more rightly to one person or situation than another. how does this work? when I retell a rather funny story that was originally told to me by someone else months and months ago, I hardly need to ask permission, do I? if I'm quoting a film or the catchphrase of some advertisement, nobody's going to sue me, I hope.

I recently read (on the suggestion of friend Brandon) an article in Wired claiming that this giant half-empty digital notebook called the internet collects trillions of words every single day. "We compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media"--something like "36 million books," according to Clive Thompson. most of that content is probably personal, voluntarily composed, shared without compensation--thrown out there wild and open for not much reason other than why not? or just because we can.

and all this sharing is good for so many things, in so many ways. Thompson goes into this with a few examples. and it is neat to see ideas from this and that part of the globe bumping up against each other--getting mixed and shuffled, retold and re-pasted. we have new ways of making this work. hyperlinks and interactivity and creative commons. so much of this changing ideoscape is changing the ways we understand ownership and authorship. property and freedom. the ease of copying makes a lot of great things possible. maybe we should simply say it makes a lot of things possible, some of which are great and some of which might be sketchy.

friend Chris pointed out the other day just how much hype this new little plot of internet ground called Medium has been getting lately. it looks pretty neat. when Chris brought it up I knew not what he was talking about, but when I went to look, I realized I'd been there before. I'd noticed their sleek design and oddly time-stamped posts, each marked as "4 min read" or "6 min read," in recognition of just how crazy busy everyone's lives are and how important it is to map out and prepare precisely for just how much time you're gonna spend reading stuff off this screen in your lap (or on your desk or in your hand). weird, right? maybe somewhat helpful, but still weird.

so Medium is a semi-new realm of digital creativity or something, it looks like. why does it matter? what's it going to do? Medium itself has some answers, but are those good enough? I like the idea of experimenting with alternative ways of producing and arranging written content. but what about the answers to these questions about cake-having, cake-eating, credit, blame, and definitions? or responses to these questions about the iffiness of ownership, representation, and exclusion? these seem very important questions, I think. Marco Arment, in a footnote to that last piece, asks "what kind of magazine is Medium? What’s it about? Who’s it for? And if they narrow the focus enough to make that easier to answer, who gets left out?" that is a fascinating question. somebody always gets left out, you know. that is part of having standards and being unique. nobody can be everything. the internet tries, but even 36 trillion words is still not everything.

we might want to say it doesn't matter what ideas belong to who. once you put the words and thoughts and connections out there, they force themselves into the possession of all the people they bump up against. we almost can't help it, can we?

it's not so easy. the universe doesn't come out and tell us what's most important or how exactly we ought to value, share, guard, borrow, honor, credit, pay for, or otherwise handle the information we get from our fellow human beings. I don't know what the answers are. I can't even always figure out which kinds of confidences really really must be kept that way. and if I can't figure that out among my few hundreds of words of daily conversation, how can I expect the internet to figure it out for so, so many more times that number?

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