Tag Archives: marin gazzaniga

Facebook’s End-of-Year Video: What If I Don’t Like It?

If you’re on Facebook, you have no doubt been served up a year-end video that wraps 2016 up in a tidy little animated package, complete with soundtrack. I have to admit I’m a sucker for an animated slide show that I didn’t have to assemble myself. It’s like having Ken Burns as your personal scrapbooker and archivist. When FB made a slideshow of photos and videos I took of my husband handing out tissues at the marathon, I couldn’t stop watching it. It was a genius piece of ironic conceptual art that completely captured his wacky personality and made me and everyone who knows him want to laugh and cry at the same time. How was it so possible for an app to do this? AI has arrived.

But now Facebook’s end-of-year video is sending me into an existential crisis and threatening to un-do years of therapy. Because I *only* liked 1727 things this year.

This sounds like a lot, right? I mean, that means I liked an average of 4.73 things a day, every day for a year. And that’s in a year that, on average, had a lot of unlikeable things happen – at least in my opinion. So this should seem heartening. Maybe things aren’t so bad. Maybe Facebook is like a gratitude generator making us step outside ourselves and like things. (This is ignoring that a lot of the things I liked were probably posts complaining about current affairs.)

But the problem is, my friend Martha M. liked 37, 114 things.

Now, I am not at all surprised that Martha M. liked more things than I did. She is one of the most positive people I know, always quick with a compliment and a donation; an avid supporter of the arts and politically active. But are you seriously telling me she likes an average of 101.68 things per day? She is 20 times more positive than I am?

I was certain there was a clear mistake in the like-counter at Facebook.

But then other people started posting their like-numbers. Marian liked 18,078 things. An average 49.52 likes a day. And she’s pretty snarky. In fact a good portion of my sparing likes are probably bestowed on her posts about Sutton Foster’s outfits on ‘Younger.’

Could it be that I am a withholding like-r? And if so, what does it mean? Has Facebook stumbled upon a way to determine a positivity quotient? And mine is LOW? Could this be the reason for everything wrong in my life? How do I fix this? Maybe if I like more things on Facebook, I’ll finally sell that TV pilot or land that dream gig. Should I be giving the old thumbs up more generously to everything I read? I mean, I THOUGHT I pretty much clicked a thumbs up for most of my friends’ posts. Maybe I wasn’t on Facebook enough. Maybe I needed to devote more time to scrolling through my feed to like stuff. How many things could I like in a minute if I tried? I’d have to be careful about carpel tunnel, but I bet with minimal effort, I could add a zero to my like #. I mean, if rats in a cage can hit a lever….

And then it hit me. Mark Zuckerberg has built a giant Skinner box and we are all in it. Facebook is a giant behavioral economics experiment and we are being conditioned to like things. I am not the first to figure out that social media uses Skinnerian marketing to engage users. But seeing these numbers and the competitiveness it brought out really brought it home for me.

What is Facebook doing to us with this end of year tally? On the one hand, it points out how much time we must be spending in this Skinner box, and makes us vow to put “quit Facebook” on our 2017 resolution list. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with liking things.

Is there?



I Think Women Are Filled with Self-Doubt and Should Pretend We Aren’t

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain.

I’ve been writing a lot about women and entertainment lately and quite frankly it starts to get a little depressing to see our culture – and my social media feed – as a constant source of stories about gender bias. Even when I focus on stories about “powerful” women, there’s something about viewing the world through gender as limiting.

Which, of course, is the problem.

People talk a lot about unconscious bias when they talk about overcoming gender discrimination. Most of us who consider ourselves feminists assume we are immune.

Imagine my surprise when I came face to face with my own “unconscious” bias.

I was reading an interview with two TV showrunners in Variety, Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Alex Gansa (Homeland). I had stumbled on the article online and didn’t read the opening and didn’t know what Gansa looked like. In reading the Q & A, I assumed “Alex” was a woman. You might think this was very evolved of me, given that Homeland is a heavily plotted show about the CIA. But the reason I thought Gansa was female was that in the profile “Alex” talked a lot about how stressful the job was:

On the third, fourth episode of the first season, I was in the middle of a major nervous breakdown. I didn’t know how I was possibly going to do all the stuff I had to do. There’s a hill I walk up behind my house every morning and I just was clearly in bad shape. Jason Katims, who lives down the street from me, happened to be walking his dog. I just grabbed him, and said, “Jason, how am I going to do this job? I honestly don’t think I can do it.”

As I read this, I thought – I can’t believe the woman showrunner is talking so much about self-doubt! I started to get angry and debated whether to blame Gansa for not pretending to be more confident, or the writer for portraying a woman showrunner in this way.

Then I saw the photo and realized Gansa was male.

I was immediately impressed with his honesty.

So I had to confront several things:

  • I assume someone who expresses self-doubt is female.
  • I expect women in powerful positions to go out of their way not to express self-doubt, so as not to feed into this stereotype.
  • When I hear men express self-doubt, I think – wow, he must be confident to be able to express his vulnerability like that.

What a sexist hypocrite I am.

Another powerful showrunner, Jill Soloway (Transparent) got a lot of attention for comments recently about there being an “all-out attack” on the female voice. In it she admitted:

“I just want to make sure you know I’m always plagued by insecurities. The insecurities are always going to be there. Notice them when you’re there writing, when you’re trying to get your thing out there, when you’re setting up your night where you’re showing your films.

This is really no different from Gansa’s admission. The difference is in how I (and I assume some others) hear it: Men who voice insecurities are self-deprecating and brave; women who voice it are in danger of being viewed as weak or incapable. This is likely some combo of my own sexism, my own insecurity and self-doubt, and overcompensation for how I fear (know) women are judged compared to men.

Change will come from recognizing our own unconscious biases and starting to question them.

If We Don’t Pay Writers the Terrorists Win

I click on a headline. Read the set up, get hooked on the characters or the world I’ve been invited into, and then, without warning. It’s over. That’s it. The End. No development of plot. No point. Like a glass of water brought to the lips of a hostage and then yanked away.

Too much of what I read today has become a “so what” experience. Even when I click on a link to a piece in a respected periodical, I quickly discover they are blog posts and are over after a few paragraphs.

“They” will tell you – and by “they,” I mean those who pay writers– that it is the digital times we live in. There are too many places to get content. Too much competition for eyeballs which means lower ad sales, which means no money to pay content providers. (We are no longer called writers.) So pay is low, which means pieces can’t take a lot of time to write or be very long. Reporting is a luxury afforded to a handful of writers for a handful of periodicals that still publish on paper.

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A dollar/word (the going rate when I first wrote for magazines twenty years ago) is now only for writers with “a following.” (By “following” they mean Twitter. Not people who will, say, show up at a bookstore reading to hear you read your work in person). This is because people with followers can tweet. And, the theory goes, some of the people the writers tweet to will click on a link. It doesn’t even matter, really, if the followers read what they find when they get to the link, though it would be better if they liked it (and by “like,” they mean the act of pushing your thumb, to create a digital thumbs up). Even better, is if followers share it (and by “share” they mean re-post it to one’s “wall”). All of these clicks of the thumb can be used to convince an advertiser to spend money to post an ad on the website you are writing for, so that someone will click on the ad to buy a product, rather than read the short, unreported thing you have written.

That last paragraph is not satire.

In a book proposal these days, you need to include a section on your “metrics.” Which means the aforementioned followers, clicks, and shares. It used to be that writing a book was how you got readers. Now you need to show that you already have an audience of people who read 140 characters of your prose regularly. The assumption being that they will be clamoring to read 50,000+ of your words. This strikes me as a wrong assumption, given that most followers can’t be bothered to read your 140 characters regularly. I assume the reason for the metrics in a book proposal is to arm a publisher’s sales force with figures they can take to the bookstores to convince them to stock your book. And by bookstores I mean Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Though actually I guess I mean just Barnes & Noble because Amazon doesn’t need to stock your book. Amazon can just send a drone to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of your book and deliver it if one of your followers thinks about buying it.

I am worried about the state of writing. Not just because I make my living doing it. It has never been a lucrative job. I have had to write board game questions, books about dowsing, and episode summaries of The Wire to pay for my health insurance over the years. I can make more money producing videos or writing soap operas, and frankly, those jobs are more fun than sitting in front of a blank screen or pad of paper and trying to think something through carefully. What I am worried about is the lack of thought and rigor in the things I read. I am worried for what it will do to our individual and collective brains. I am worried for how it will impact our cities, our nation, the world.

Writing is how I think. Some people speak to think. Some write to think. And all of us read to feed our thoughts. As the state of writing gets reduced to blog posts and clickable headlines, nuance and complexity are lost. Maybe it is the reason our nation has been split into 51/49 party lines. We are becoming black and white (or red and blue, in this case) thinkers. No one has time to consider all of the angles. We “like” links on Facebook and post comments without reading the articles. Why read the article when the click-bait headline tells us all we need to know?

If we stop paying writers to report, to think, to make complicated points, we are at risk of forgetting how to think. We are at risk for losing our ability to see the other side of things. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that this kind of intellectual wasteland is what feeds terrorism.

I wrote a click-bait headline: If We Stop Paying Writers, the Terrorists Win. But I have tried to make the argument to earn it.

I could go on. I could post links to many of the lines in this essay, to point you to studies or articles that back up my assertions. But no one is paying me to write this. And it is cold and we need more oil for the boiler so I must turn my attention to something more lucrative. Like a listicle.

This is not an attack on “they.” It is not their fault. It’s how the business of writing is being allowed to deteriorate. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think the profession of writing needs to be saved. It is a matter of national health and security.

In the meantime, I leave you with this brief blog rant. (Though at 1000 words, it is nearly twice as long as today’s preferred syndicated column length.) And I urge you to read something long and complicated.