Reading List – Viral/Spreadable Media and Journalism

A few things I’m planning to read this week, on the subject of viral media and journalism. In theory, I’m going to write a follow-post in about a week about what I’ve learned:


Tim Carmody on what’s good about Malcolm Gladwell’s journalism

Malcolm Gladwell has come in for a lot of criticism over the last couple of years – for a variety of reasons, I suppose:

  • He just got too over-exposed – or rather, lots of people started trying to do his thing – and didn’t do it as well as him
  • Perhaps he has also suffered a bit because, in a way, he’s a kind of personification of Ted-ism – and there is a backlash against that at the moment
  • People really didn’t like his piece on Twitter, social media and revolutions and political activism
  • His last book was the closest he’s come to what he’s always being accused of – business guru/management theory.

Of course, the thing about Gladwell is that the best things he does are the essays/features for the New Yorker. When he does a book, he, or his editors, push a larger story/provocative angle. That doesn’t always allow Gladwell to do what he does best – which is investigate and play around with new ideas/research – often about something hugely popular/taken for granted/kind of ubiquitous.

Tim Carmody does a great job of detailing the many strengths of Gladwell’s journalism in the latest addition to Nieman Storyboard’s Why’s This So Good series (as well as coming up with a good reason why Gladwell’s piece on Twitter (Small Change) didn’t work.) Riffing on Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on ketchup, Carmody starts with a list of things Gladwell does well:

  • He’s quotable, but also ‘paraphrasable and anecdote-able’ – I guess the point is that he’s great at packaging up intriguing facts in a form you can pass on in some form.
  • He’s good at stories that identify something counterintuitive (in a way, this is what lots of journalists try to do – few do it as well as Gladwell.)
  • He’s a ‘master of misdirection and the slow play’ – he weaves different strands, A stories and B stories and other disparate threads into an open exploration of a topic or idea – Carmody calls them ‘intelligence games’ and says that, at their best, they don’t come with ‘business-retreat-ready takeaways’, which seems right to me.

There’s loads to think about in the piece – one of the best in this series – but the last point might be the most interesting in terms of long form journalism. I guess one of the reasons people (writers and readers) are drawn to long form is that they’re looking for journalism with narrative complexity and depth; they want to read factual stories that do a better job of reflecting reality than the standard inverted pyramid formulaic storylines journalists usually serve up.

The problem is, long form journalists’ model of complex narrative is, for the most part, the nineteenth century novel (Tom Wolfe is the grand-daddy of this approach – Michael Lewis is, I guess, the leading modern practitioner).

But there are lots of other sorts of narrative journalists could work with – not just traditional realism. There are other novelistic approaches they could adapt. And approaches from other media. For example, the complex multi-level narratives of modern TV drama, with A, B and C storylines. One of Carmody’s points is that, among all the other clever things Gladwell does, this mixing of multiple storylines is a key part of what makes his work distinctive.

It’s definitely a point worth making. When Gladwell was being profiled everywhere, he was praised for the ideas in his pieces – all that stuff from social psychology etc. And that’s fair enough. But perhaps he hasn’t had enough credit for his craft too. Or his way with a story – or stories.

The truth about all type posters?


Not sure if this is completely true – but it is kind of funny. And the whole type poster/sexy text thing is perhaps a little overexposed. The picture is by Daniel Seidi Kano and is all rights reserved, so I shouldn’t really post it here – but I have linked back – and it did appear on his Tumblr – 2 Color Ideas, which is also good fun. So go check both out.

Rob Walker – Cyberspace When You’re Dead

Just realised that the Penelop Umbrico image of multiple sunset pics, aggregated/assembled from Flickr, which I posted yesterday, was from ‘Cyberspace When You’re Dead’, the New York Times, Sunday Magazine piece by Rob Walker. And that I’d already blogged it on my dormant Tumblr, a year or so ago, when I was going through a brief phase of tracking this kind of thing.

8,799,661 Suns `From Flickr (partial) 3/8/11, 2011

You see a lot of images like this these days. Actually, you’ve probably seen this kind of thing a lot for a while now, if you’ve been looking.

The picture is by Penelope Umbrico and was found on the Rencontre Arles site. Actually there’s lots more of this kind of thing on her site – lots of New Aesthetic-y pixellated, Flickr-ish overloaded ‘similarly different, differently similar’ image grids. That probably doesn’t make much sense – I should find a better way to describe her work. I should probably think about it a bit more.

But it does seem very much of the times…

Some more images:

Sunset Portraits by Penelope Umbrico

Sunset Portraits, 2011

Instances of books being read, 2007

Instances of Books Being Read (from home-decor and home-improvement webistes and catalogs), 2007

There are lots of other really nice images, too big/complex to put here – I liked Views from the Internet (2008), From Catalogs (done in 1998) and Dogs on Pillows (not sure when this one was done).