Too big to fail?

My boy Andy Bachman did a number on the new Cohen Center Study of follow-up programming for the alumni of birthright israel (Full disclosure, I had a small role in the study, in which I conducted preliminary interviews with people who work with young Jews in the SF Bay Area).

Bachman noted that when he served as the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center at NYU, he asked on a number of occasions for the rosters of birthright participants so that he could reach out to them while at NYU. He was told “no.” In other words, Andy asked for the chance to reach out to the students of his university, and BRI said that it would not share that information with him.

This kind of attitude persists through the study, which suggests that the newly-branded “BirthrightNEXT” arm of the birthright juggernaut ought to be the primary provider of services and programs for birthright alums. Not synagogues or concerts. Not independent minyanim or libraries or book clubs or magazines: but birthright israel itself.

The idea being that only birthright, because it provided a “powerful Jewish experience,” could possibly sustain the allegiance and interest of its alums. Now…. imagine if NFTY or Young Judaea or the Solomon Schechter Schools approached their work with a similar attitude….

Maybe, in the spirit of the “economic contraction,” the idea isn’t an expansion of programs, but a contraction of them — or, has birthright israel become, to use a popular phrase that usually refers to unpopular corporations — too big to fail?

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Community Glut

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. Basically, I’ve been wondering how they work, in three basic dimensions.
1. How people conceive of their own relationships within / senses of belonging to a larger group of people.
2. How people behave in conversation with the feelings in #1
3. How organizations — as formalized hubs for interaction — operate as combinations or ossifications of #1 and #2

I think that #1 and #2, above are part of an ongoing conversation. I don’t believe that membership is either wholly on the shoulders (and feelings) of the individual, and neither do I believe that membership is wholly behavioral. There’s something in the middle, and, I think, organizations play a big role in that process. But they may be creating more problems than they’re solving.

So, here’s my idea (which came to me while reading Clay Shirky‘s book Here Comes Everybody):

I think that American Jews have a glut of community. A glut of community organizations and a glut of community language and focus. Here’s why I think this: Shirky points out that most groups map out along a power law graph — that means that a minority of people are highly active, but that most people are only marginally so.

And, I think the assumption in the Jewish world — mistakenly — is that the more people that are more involved, the better the Jewish world (whatever that is) will be. In other words, Jewish organizations are hoping to beef up the very top of the power law distribution curve. BUT, as Shirkey points out, communities don’t work like they.

It’s not whether they should or shouldn’t — but they don’t. And, perhaps, some of the bloat and stagnation that American Jewish organizations have been known to experience could (And this is my thinking, currently) be a result of too many interventions, organizations, efforts, money being leveraged against what seems to be a pretty compelling argument for a power law distribution of community involvement and engagement.

So, what if the “problem of engagement” wasn’t a “problem” at all, but something caused by much of the meddling intended to ameliorate said “problem?” What if the problem is not that there is too weak a sense of “Jewish community” but that the sense is too strong?

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The Scale of Fame

There’s an interesting / frivolous / mocky article in a recent New York Magazine by Rex Sorgatz, in which he talks about “microfame.” You know, the kind that feasts and flourishes on the internet. Tila Tequila is just about the biggest example, or anyone whose YouTube video has been deemed a “phenomenon.” someone famous for something quite minuscule, and whose fame (both rise and fall) outstrips the amount of time spent preparing for said fame.

Sorgaz’s article lists eight steps to microfame. They’re pretty clever, and if you’re interested in that kind of thing, it would be worth a short experiment to see what happens if you follow Sorgaz’s programme.

But there’s a problem: There has always been microfame. There’s just more of it now, because there’s more infomation, and the pace of culture has increased — owing to the circulation of information — such that the turnover is greater, but the phenomenon is not new. To name a few off-line examples:

1. Jennifer Carol Wilbanks. aka “The Runaway Bride.” remember her?
2. Joey Buttafuco (and Amy Fisher)
3. John Wayne Bobbit.

And so on and so on. Frankly, if you troll newspaper archives dating back to the 19th century, you find case after case of this kind of accidental, fleeting, and — and here’s the kicker — at the time important fame. It’s fascinating, actually.

Sorgatz also argues that microfame is often (or at least occasionally) intentional, as in the spectacular case of Tila Tequila, who seems famous just for being famous, although she is certainly not a pioneer in that regard, either, she just figured out how to leverage myspace into a full-fledged career.

Microfame isn’t new, its just faster. So does the speed of culture matter? Is fast a distinct quality? Or, is it like Joseph Stalin said “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

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Information Overlord

Amidst the steady swirl of information that the internet has wrought, are all kinds of ideas, tricks, and guidelines for addressing how to best “manage” the onslaught of information. Aggregators, search engines, and “smart recommendations” along the lines of “if you liked X, you’ll probably like Y” kind of thing that appear on Amazon and Netflix.

Likewise, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point attempted (but did not succeed, IMHO) in laying out the internal logics of how and why ideas or fads take hold in the ways they do. (what was the Tipping Point of The Tipping Point? Just wondering).

And to the next person who can develop an algorhythm for predicting people’s tastes, she will win a Nobel Prize…. Is there a Nobel Price of commerce or advertising? But all these tools are intended to help sort through all this informaion, because, clearly it is some kind of a “problem.”

To face the problem, there’s a new organization called the Information Overload Research Group. You can find them here. Its an interesting cast of characters facing an almost insurmountable problem. Namely: we are invested and involved in a culture that produces more information than it can keep up with, and the internet is too good a vehicle for disseminating said information. The “solution” to the “problem” of information overload is not a more managable email-reading system (which is what the IORG offers by way of suggestion). It might serve as a short-term solution.

But we (and that’s the biggest WE possible. All of us involved in the internet in whatever way we are) do not understand — not at all, not even close — what this information explosion means, or how to navigate it. Yes, one strategy might be to be more judicious with your email, but it doesn’t address the larger, looming questions like:

1. How do people make decisions in the midst of all this information?

2. On what or whom do those decisions depend?

3. What is the place of “information” in contemporary culture?

I don’t know. But I’d like to find out.

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The Function of Culture

Maybe the function of culture is to be disfunctional. Maybe that, simply put, its its best and most valuable contribution, particularly in a millieu that is so deeply invested in order, functionality, streamlining, and operationalization. Maybe culture’s job is to befuddle that, at least a little bit, and to be illogical and nonsensical and troubling and a little bit askew.

This seems particularly important with respect to positivisim. Where else do people entertain and then follow through with ideas that they know will fail? Where else do bad ideas get so much attention or press? Where else are people encouraged to do things poorly, or to invest time and money and energy in futile pursuits? “In the name of art” seems like a kind of cop-out, and reifies what I think might be most valuable about culture in the first place: its place in confounding or at least challenging the idea that everything ought to be contributing somehow to the greater good.

And yes, keener brains will recognize that my statement at the outset suggests that culture’s privileged position here is a kind of contribution, but I’m not making that argument, so give it a little wiggle room. Really, I think I’m arguing here that that is precisely the paradox of culture — that it’s role is to not contribute. You might call that a contribution, but I would call it something else — not quite a contribution, not quite a paradox, not quite something else, but I like it. I like things that fail, that seem futile. And in actualizing or expressing that futility, there seems something valuable in that.

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We are all shills

So, there was this story by Hari Kunzru in the New Yorker a few months ago, and I can’t get it out of my head. It’s told from the perspective of a young, cosmopolitan man. Super hip. Cultural hyper-literate, ironic, stylish. Finds himself at a party talking to another, similar, guy — Raj — about the Raj’s favorite vodka. Turns out, a few paragraphs later that Raj came to the party to promote this new kind of Vodka, and that he is on the payroll of the vodka company.

In other words: he’s a shill.

Suddenly, the narrator is gripped with an existential crisis: is everyone who recommends anything a shill? What if someone recommends a book? or a coffee shop? Are they getting kickbacks, too?

Its a crisis that I think about daily. namely, are our relationships mediated by goods to the extent that who we are is determined — at least partially — by the things we consume and the things we love? And, if that’s the case, is there any way to be culturally engaged and not part of the free word-of-mouth service that we provide daily for everything from restaurants to chairs to pens to computers to candidates?

Is it possible to naively enjoy culture? Or even enjoy culture from an informed standpoint but one that is free of shilling? the narrator reduces himself to paranoia and eventually empties out his whole apartment because everything is tainted.

now, I’m not advocating that — nor am I naive enough to believe that there’s a “free” space outside of economics to enjoy “culture.” But I’m wondering if there isn’t a relationship between pleasure, culture, goods, and economics that is not merely shilling. Or, if, in the final instance, we are all just shills. for someone. or something. all the time.

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Making Decisions Appears to Rely on Other People’s Decisions

About a year ago, the New York Times ran a great story about a study from Columbia University about how people make decisions about culture. Apparently, people do not make decisions on their own — they rely very heavily on the decisions of others. In other words: information is cultural. Whether or not this is evidence for the “wisdom of crowds” or mass hysteria, I can’t say. What I can say, though is that this study should invite all kinds of questions about how people make all kinds of decisions.

The two researchers studied the behaviors of two groups of people and how they chose to download music. Both groups could select songs from the same basic pool. The first group used an interface that showed how many times a song had been downloaded — essentially: an indication of its popularity. The other group did not have access to this information. The researchers found that for the first group, popular songs got much more popular much more quickly. The second group showed greater parity among songs chosen for download.

What this might mean: popularity can be engineered.
What this might also mean: People’s individual decisions are informed by other people’s individual decisions. When we were little, we called this “peer pressure.” But I think there might be something more important at work here. And in the trades, we call it: culture.

Read the whole NYTimes story here.

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