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kottke.org posts about Tressie McMillan Cottom

The Conversation Has Never Been Wider

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2021

I am still listening to the excellent interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Ezra Klein Show, but I wanted to highlight this exchange right at the beginning of the interview because I think it’s relevant to a lot of our shared interests, especially if you’ve been online reading blogs or personal sites for 15, 20, or even 25 years:

EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.

[LAUGHING]

There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.

There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that — before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.

Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.

They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.

That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.

So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce it, but even I get a little — I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.

EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.

Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.

Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

Look, as someone who benefitted hugely from it, I miss the golden age of blogging as much as anyone — productive discussions in comment threads, the community alchemy of Flickr, Google Reader, cross-blog conversations, the Open Web, small pieces loosely joined, etc. etc. etc. — but over the past few years, I’ve felt a lot less nostalgia for it for exactly the reasons McMillan Cottom & Klein are talking about here. Make the Internet Great Again is, in many important ways, as short-sighted, futile, and limiting as, well, you know.

Forget Book Trailers: Book Playlists are the New Hotness

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 30, 2018

Book trailers are already such a thing that there’s whole weekly columns devoted to them, a whole slew of tips and tricks; a veritable ecosystem. People want multimedia with their books. But what if the new hotness wasn’t a trailer at all? What if it was something that lots of us already do anyways, with a much lower barrier for entry?

I’m talking about book playlists, music that reflects the theme or the time and place of the book, a non-audiobook soundtrack that enhances and embellishes the written word. I love this idea!

Now, there are, as I see it, two ways to go with playlists period, and book playlists in particular. First, you can go big. Spotify and other music services can support hundreds of songs in individual playlists, and there’s no reason why you have to have just one. You can literally drown your reader/listener in sweet tunes to listen to while they read, to get psyched up while they’re waiting for their books to arrive, or to have a way to interact with the world of a book they might not even read or by.

This is the approach Questlove took when making a playlist for Michelle Obama’s blockbuster Becoming. It’s over a thousand songs split into three playlists, covering 1964 (Michelle’s birth year) to the present. Amazingly, as far as I can tell, there’s not a dud in the bunch. These selections are ridiculously good.

The other approach, which is a little more feasible for most of us, is to make a playlist about the length of an old mix CD — about 80 minutes, for those who don’t remember (and 60, 90, and 120 for those who remember back to cassette tapes). This is best exemplified by Tressie McMillan Cottom’s outstanding book playlist for her new essay collection Thick (now available for preorder). Here, too, the selection is terrific — and if I can say, a touch more personal and intelligible than Questlove’s epic collection.

If I ever write a book (and that day seems farther away every year), I’m definitely doing this. Hmm — I wonder what a Kottke.org playlist would look like? [smiles mischievously]

Update: Brett Porter points out that Thomas Pynchon created a playlist for Inherent Vice that includes songs mentioned in the book. Kyle Johnson notes that largehearted boy’s Book Notes series consists of book playlists by various authors each week inspired by their books, including “Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.”

The Amazon Echo

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2016

Amazon Echo

It’s been very interesting to see the Amazon Echo not only succeed as a consumer product but to enter the realm of pop culture (see also also also). Somehow, the Echo is officially A Thing.

But Amazon doesn’t make Things. Apple makes Things…Amazon just sells stuff for cheap. Aside from the Kindle,1 many of their other consumer products have not taken off (the Fire Tablet, despite the 7” model selling for only $50 now) or have plain flopped (hello Fire Phone). But somehow, the Echo became a surprise hit.

When it launched, Amazon’s critics jumped to mock the company. Some called it a useless gimmick; others pointed to it as evidence of Amazon’s Orwellian tendencies. Then something weird happened: People decided they loved it. Amazon never releases data about how its products are selling, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners issued a report this month saying that Amazon had sold more than 3 million devices, with 1 million of those sales happening during the 2015 holiday season. About 35,000 people have reviewed the speaker on Amazon.com, with an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5.

Perhaps even more important to Amazon is how dozens of independent developers are writing apps that work with the speaker’s voice controls. You can use Alexa to turn off the lights, ask it how much gas is left in your car, or order a pizza. This is doubly surprising given how far behind Apple and Google the company was in the area of voice control when it started. The Echo may have seemed like a superfluous toy at first, but it now looks like a way for Amazon to become the default choice in a whole new era in the way people interact with computers and the Internet.

One the Echo’s fans is my friend Anil Dash, who wrote about it last night:

More positively, Echo is meaningful because it’s also the first hugely popular smart device that’s connected to a place rather than a person. (Video game consoles are obviously dedicated to the living room, too, but they’re a purpose-specific device, and none have crossed over into general app platforms.) Apps for places are different than apps for people.

Tressie McMillan Cottom picked up on something Dash wrote about dads loving Echo and wrote about modern families and equality.

One of the great debates around family, the social institution, is that gender parity cannot be achieved unless men are held as responsible for managing the second shift as are women. And, data show that many men are making that shift. It’s not yet a staggering number. It’s not a tipping point. But there’s maybe enough data for social scientists to agree that its a nascent trend: some men are becoming more involved in the critical minutiae of the second shift.

Maybe Dads love Alexa because Dads are suddenly as responsible for ordering the paper towels as Moms.

I don’t have one and I don’t think I’ll buy one anytime soon, but all this interest sure does make me curious.

  1. The Kindle is sort of A Thing, but only because you can’t read the books sold for it using anyone else’s device or app…you have to use a Kindle or the Kindle app on iOS or Android. I mean, I love my Kindle, but if Amazon had any compelling competition in the e-reader space, it (or someone else’s reader) might be a lot better.