Participatory Journalism Is Dumb

Seriously, it’s dumb.  When George Plimpton played for the Detroit Lions and wrote Paper Lion it was dumb, but white people were so charmed by the idea of a blue blood like Plimpton attempting to humanize the football players that haunted their youth that they ate it up.  When Morgan Spurlock ate McDonalds for a month and made Supersize Me it was really dumb, because he was doing something that no one really does, that no one ever even suggested that people should do, and pretending it made some kind of point.  Spurlock has set off a chain reaction of experiments in living stupidly.  First there was the cloying No Impact Man, who lives his life in New York making an ostentatious attempt to live his life with no carbon footprint.  Then there was the woman who tried to live without Made In China.  This particular thought experiment was repeated by a Korean tabloid news show, and both came up with the same conclusion: shoes that weren’t made in China are hard to buy.  You can see a preview for the Korean show here, and the page also contains several evocative pictures that will give you an idea of just how dumb this little experiment is.  Now there’s Catherine Price, the reporter who tried to live in total anonymity.  As a late-comer to the gimmicky field of participatory journalism, Price’s conceit is particularly thin.  She attempted to live anonymously, which meant buying a track phone and wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap a lot.  She bought a fake moustache but wound up not wearing it so much.  This is like something out of the old Maxim magazine (do the kids these days still read the Maxim?), something with a title like ‘How to go on the lam’.

I’m really tempted to end this post with a simple ‘All these things are dumb.’

But that would be an oversimplification.  They’re dumb in such a special way.  Plimpton’s work was dumb because it was really about him being an outsider trying something new.  I wonder what Plimpton’s aristocratic family and friends think about his chosen vocation.  He was really selling his own Brahmin persona to a slack-jawed nation of regular folks who loved the attention.  In that way he was not dissimilar to some of the Korean speaking foreigners who delight the sheltered Korean populace with their glowing praise, telling their subjects ‘Yes, you are interesting’. 

This new breed of journalists and filmmakers is dumb because it carries so many implicit assumptions.  McDonalds food is/is meant to be eaten on a daily basis.  Personally having as low a carbon footprint as possible is the best way to help the Earth, even when you live in New York City, which is in essence a huge project in energy consumption.  Composting your own feces while you live in Manhattan (rather than moving out of the city) is a viable way of lowering your personal carbon emissions quota.  The living without Made In China project probably least suffers from this type of implicit assumption, as I don’t believe there was a ‘this is good/bad’-type conclusion.  Nonetheless, what’s the point of the experiment, other than to give people a hazy sensation of unease at the thought of a powerful and important China.  Is there any way that Price’s anonymity experiment worked?  What’s the point of highlighting the fact that there is a lot of information about us floating around, and that this information is valuable to people doing advertising and market research?  I think all these twee little pieces do is give people the vague dusting of familiarity with the actual issues that lie at their heart that people crave.  They anecdotize* these issues, give people little stories to tell about big issues that they don’t actually understand.  Instead of saying something substantial about the effects of Chinese imports on American society, you can just say ‘That “Life Without Made In China” Lady couldn’t find any shoes to buy!!’  When a factoid like ‘You can’t go anywhere in Britain without being photographed 65 times!’ doesn’t exist, some intrepid/uncreative journalist will run out and make one up for your glib ass.

And in the end that’s the bottom line of such experiments.  They manufacture the means for you, the reader to be more glib; they soundbite-ize complicated issues and gut reaction-based political ideologies and make them sleeker and more transmittable faster.

*I thought I was coining this term but I guess I’m not. Although maybe I am the first to apply the specific meaning ‘create an anecdote to illustrate a given situation.
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~ by Joshing on March 5, 2008.

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