The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade Comedian Bo Burnham wrote and directed this debut comedy about a girl approaching the end of eighth grade (trailer). Seeing this movie makes your present life look pretty darn good! So while it’s funny, it’s painfully so. Been there. Or someplace similar. While American adolescence has been typically miserable for generations, today’s added dimension is the unrelenting pressure of social media.

The awkward, socially ignored Kayla creates self-help vlogs on topics like “putting yourself out there” and “growing up.” They are mainly a way for this suburban teen to articulate her own confused thoughts and give a pep-talk to herself, because at some point we see her usage stats. No one watches them.

Though New Yorker critic Richard Brody complains that the introvert Kayla has no friends and seems to have no interests (forgetting her participation in the extremely forgettable school band), he’s overlooking not just the video production, but also the way constantly scouring social media dominates Kayla’s day. There’s no time left for swim team or cheerleading practice or piano lessons.

Elsie Fisher does a remarkable playing Kayla. In fact, all the kids are perfect, including “mean girl” Kennedy (played by Catherine Oliviere), for whom Kayla is a non-entity or worse. Message from Kennedy to Kayla: “hi so my mom told me to invite you to my thing tomorrow so this is me doing that.” Kayla is reticent, slightly hunched, but moving forward doggedly, whether to class, a pool party, or, well, life. You have to admire her, including her drive to help others.

At one point, a boy makes a pass at Kayla. Women watching this film will see an all-too-familiar dynamic when he turns what happens into her fault and she ends up apologizing.“Sorry,” she keeps saying, when of course she should have punched his lights out.

Contrast this role and performance with that of Tom in the much-hyped Leave no Trace. Unlike director Debra Granik, Burnham gives Fisher plenty to do, and she does it, with all the stumbling and uncertainty of a thirteen-year-old trying to live up to expectations, but not quite sure what those are.

Kayla’s relationship with her father, a single dad (Josh Hamilton), is what you’d expect. He reaches out, but most of the time she’s too absorbed in her own world to think he’s anything other than embarrassing. Points for hanging in, Dad.

To quote Kayla, “Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.” Absolutely.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 87%.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob

cell phone camera

photo: rocksee, creative commons license

By Wendy Hornsby –Maggie MacGowen is an almost-forty-year-old American, dedicated to her documentary filmmaking career and engaged to delightful Frenchman Jean-Paul Bernard, about a decade her senior. Though he says his job is “in business,” she realizes it is something far more consequential and lets him keep his secrets.

She’s in Paris to rendezvous with him and look for some documentary film work there, as they plan to marry. She’ll stay at number 7, rue Jacob, in a flat inherited from her biological mother, a Frenchwoman she never really knew. After her mother died, she learned she has a half-brother, a grandmother, an uncle, and nephews in France, still practically strangers.

Her inheritance isn’t just the flat. Maggie and Jean-Paul now own all three buildings of a former convent, including a mysterious basement library. Many people want the library’s contents, including officials from the diocese, the Vatican, and the Louvre, whom Maggie’s mother believed should have the religious books. The library also contains a number of illuminated manuscripts created for 17th c. Russian regent Sofia Alekseyevna. These are of almost inestimable value, since most such treasures were destroyed during the Revolution.

Almost before Maggie can unpack, Jean-Paul sends an urgent summons and a request for her to meet him in Italy. She follows his ominous instructions—burner phones only, cash, no credit cards—to the letter. When she finds Jean-Paul, he’s been injured. A drone dropped a bomb in front of his vehicle. This is an exciting set-up for the cat-and-mouse game that takes the pair from Venice to Ravenna and across Italy.

Hornsby’s novel is a cautionary tale about how easily people’s location can be tracked these days. First, a simple tracking device was attached to Maggie’s coat. Then someone uses social media to broadcast a call to “find this couple!” Photos of them are posted by dozens of casual passersby, as if Maggie and Jean-Paul are targets in some terrifying Pokemon Go universe.

The instructions change from “find them” to “stop them” with a reward attached, and the risk goes through the roof. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially expose them. Whether all the technology can be used exactly as Hornsby uses it here, the story bears the stamp of “Oh yeah, I can believe some idiot would try that.”

But what do their pursuers want? Are they after Maggie, with her film exposé about unexploded landmines? Or is Jean-Paul the real target? Or is it 7 rue Jacob itself, and its hidden library of precious illuminated texts? My questions about the initial attacks on Jean-Paul weren’t ever satisfactorily answered, but in the thrill of the chase, I set them aside. Again, though, the motivation is weak.

From the streets of Paris to the canals of Venice, to the several other locales in this story takes, Hornsby establishes an alluring sense of place. She has a clear writing style and creates significant tension around the threat to Maggie and Jean-Paul, as well as a warm and sexy relationship between them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ties to Maggie’s new French family that complicate whatever she decides about her unexpected, many-strings-attached inheritance.

Using Images in Your Online Media

Shu Qi, the Assassin, China

Shu Qi as The Assassin

Do we “judge a book by its cover”? Yeah, we do! In a blog post this week, author Kirsten Oliphant focused on the importance of visuals for attracting book purchasers, blog post readers, and social media shares. Posts and tweets with pix are almost twice as likely to be read, regardless of topic, as those without. Facebook users know this, uploading some 350 million photos every day!

Searching for the exactly right photo for my blog posts is a fun part of the process, a reward to myself for completing the writing. When the content doesn’t easily lend itself to visualization, it can be an interesting challenge.

I depend heavily on Flickr images licensed through creative commons, because the terms of use are so clear, and have found great images on Pixabay. Generally, “stock photo” images seem stiff and unnatural to me. The producer had a message in mind, and that doesn’t ever match my message.

Scrolling through my file of images from this year so far, I see several I especially like. One of my favorites is at the top of this post—a still from the movie The Assassin—just because it’s so beautiful. Others favorites: the memorial to Britain’s World War I dead, an art installation around the Tower of London (clicking on it takes you to a description of the installation), below, used to illustrate a review of the play Remembrance Day, which is Britain’s Veterans Day, celebrated with red poppies as in the U.S., traditionally.

poppy poppies Beefeater London

A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

Julius Caesar, bust

Julius Caesar (photo: William Warby, creative commons license)

And, this one, at right, such a powerful image of Julius Caesar, used to illustrate my March 15, “Ides of March” post about an exhibit of crime photographs at the Met.

Oliphant’s post reinforces the value of “branded visuals” that have a consistency of style that links them uniquely to an author. The image of the eerie, disused Eastern Penitentiary may be the closest I come to a branded approach, as it’s the header for my website and Facebook page, as well as appearing on my business cards. I snapped that picture; I own it.

Oliphant provides helpful sources for free stock photos, other guidance about using images, and reviews some of the top free image-editing sites. And, just think, if you’re doing a lot of writing, every great picture you come up with saves you, what? a thousand words?  Her complete post appears on Jane Friedman’s excellent website.

New Authors’ Wishful Thinking

wishbone

(photo: Dayna Bateman, Creative Commons license)

The SheWrites website recently posted a Brooke Warner essay on ways aspiring authors can be tripped up by wishful thinking. If you’re an author—or a friend of one—you may recognize these thought patterns. I do! Their root is often simply impatience. After spending so much time writing the book—years, maybe—we want to move on. Warner says:

  1. New authors shortchange the time spent on their query letter, proposal, and marketing strategy, in the hope it can be planned and implemented in “a matter of months.” I am a prime example. I have sent out query letters for my “finished” manuscript, been mostly rejected (or ignored), worked on the manuscript more, revised my queries, tried again; lather, rinse, repeat. Finally, having worked with an external editor, I’m so much closer to having a publishable manuscript than when I was first querying—but I didn’t realize that then!
  2. Authors hope they can avoid doing promotion by outsourcing their social media activities. Although there are services that would do this for me, I’ve never considered it. I learn a lot from doing my own social media, and while I’m not 100% successful, at least it’s me, not a “a hollow message” that potential Facebook friends and Twitter followers see.
  3. As a last resort, they purchase social media lists. At best, a short-term strategy. Doesn’t work.
  4. They hope to avoid the additional delay and expense of having a book copyedited and proofread. I don’t know whose fault it is—ultimately, no one should be more committed to a good outcome than the author—but I’ve seen so many books lately that were not given the chance to be their best. Is this just a cosmetic quibble? When I see a book that consistently calls an Italian gentleman Signore Rizzo, when it should be Signor Rizzo, it shows me the author has a tin ear. And if he makes that kind of error (among so many others), how much care will have been taken with every other aspect of the writing?

Ultimately, authors must not be trapped by wishful thinking, because the competition is so tough. “Take this as a reality check that it’s hard, especially as a debut author, not only to sell books but also to get a book deal, to get serious media attention, to get reviews.” Eyes wide open, says Wagner, give authors the best shot at avoiding disappointment and achieving a satisfying publishing experience. But it’s hard not to wish it were all a little easier . . .

Fan Fic Fest

Sherlock, Freeman, Cumberbatch

Martin Freeman (Watson) & Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) in Sherlock

Last night a high-powered panel of experts discussed fan fiction and its uneasy relationship with traditional media, moderated by Anne Jamison, author of Fic, and oft-quoted academic expert on this phenomenon. (She teaches the fan fic class I’m auditing at Princeton.) Fan fiction, in essence, is taking existing characters (from Elizabeth Bennett to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sometimes both at the same time) and creating new plots and storylines for them. One of its fundamentals is that people write it for love of the characters, not for money. On the panel were New Yorker tv critic Emily Nussbaum, Jamie Broadnax, creator of the website Black Girl Nerds, commentator Elizabeth Minkel of The Millions and The New Statesman, and intellectual property attorney (and fan) Heidi Tandy.

Traditional media often treat the huge and hugely diverse fan fiction universe in what the panelists observed is a mocking way, as if it were made up solely of young women who want to write about male-on-male sex. That trope is called “slash,” it is alive and well, and it really got going with Spock/Kirk fan fic. Now there’s a huge Johnlock (John Watson/Sherlock Holmes) fandom. (Find some well-written Johnlock material here.)

By contrast, the X-Files spawned a lot of het (heterosexual) fic written by people who really thought Scully and Mulder should get together. And, of course, the runaway financial success 50 Shades of Grey began as E.L. James’s fan fic based on the Twilight series.

Though sex is an important component in some fan fiction, and though a lot of it is written by young women, it’s a much more diverse field than commentators typically acknowledge. Meanwhile, there’s something unseemly, panelists agreed, about highly paid stars and showrunners snidely critiquing the writing of people who are doing it for free.

Interestingly, some tv shows are courting the fan fic community, counting on its obsessiveness to uncover Easter eggs in the story and faint clues and parallels and arcane references. Sherlock (though Benedict Cumberbatch has run afoul of the fan fic world for some of his critiques of it) uses many fan fic tropes, and the first episode of Season 3 included a group of fan fic writers as characters, creating their explanations for how Sherlock was not dead, even after the fall witnessed at the close of Season 2. Panelist Minkel has covered these developments nicely.

The Sherlock showrunners draw on many sources—not just the “canon” of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories—but all the movies, books, and other derivative works about Holmes that have been created subsequently. Fan fiction, the practice of live-tweeting shows, and other possibilities are cracking open the tv screen, and, in the future, popular programs will likely exist both within and outside their scheduled allotments.

Fan fic is a great big and raucous world, and if you’re at all curious, here are some places to start exploring or toe-dipping: Archive of Our Own (AO3), which reports it contains almost 18,000 fandoms, has more than a half-million users, and 1.6 million works; and the FanFiction Network, which used to be the most popular fan fic site, but is being outrun by AO3.

The tagline of Jamison’s book is the possibly aspirational “Why fanfiction is taking over the world.”

Life Plus 70

copyright

(artwork: Christopher Dombres, Creative Commons license)

Copyright is a battlefield for creative types—authors, bloggers, musicians, and artists. As both a producer and a user of digitized content, I want the rights to my creative output (such as it is!) protected and strive to respect the rights of others. At the same time, I want to enrich my content with good graphics, audio and video content, and the resources of other works.

A recent Louis Menand article in The New Yorker crosses into this fraught territory, starting with a little history. Legal backing for copyright began with Britain’s 1710 Statute of Anne, and, in the United States with Article I of the Constitution, giving Congress power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1790, the law set that time limit at 14 years, renewable for another 14. By 1998, as a result of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the time limit was extended to the author’s life plus 70 years—which some regard as a lengthy prison sentence for creative works.

Menand points out how different our attitudes about copyright are in the print versus the online worlds. “If , a year from now, someone else, without my permission, reprints my article . . . I can complain that my right to make copies is being violated.” Most people, Menand asserts, would agree with that. But if a Web site (like this one) posts an article referencing Menand’s piece and hyperlinks to it on The New Yorker website (as this one does), that seems normal in today’s world. Even a service. Courts have questioned the propriety of this, and it remains a grey area.

Meanwhile, billions of files are being downloaded—perhaps 40 billion a year—and an estimated 94% of these downloads are illegal and unmonetized, to the tune of $552 billion so far this year, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Tru Optik (“Game of Thrones” has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most illegally downloaded TV series).

Despite the uncertainties, various bibliographic initiatives worldwide are attempting to digitize the content of written works. Most visible in this country is Google’s effort to scan all known existing 129,864,880 books by 2020, an effort that has been plagued by numerous lawsuits. Google settled with publishers in 2012, and authors plan to appeal a negative ruling a year ago that deemed Google’s efforts “fair use,” since only “snippets” of text are provided for works under copyright protection, unless the copyright owner has granted permission for a more expansive view. However, the status of copyright protection is not always clear, as many potential rights-holders are unknown. (Google Books is a boon to genealogists, I can tell you.)

These disagreements arise in part because of a fundamental conflict in people’s understanding of the purpose of copyright. On one hand are those who think that, as Menand put it, “individual rights are intended to promote public goods.” These are the people, like the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who want to see works moved into the public domain for sharing, education, and entertainment. Historian Peter Baldwin characterizes them as “Silicon Valley.” On the other hand are those who believe the right to control one’s works “is not a political right. It’s a moral right.” These are people who want to maintain absolute control—Hollywood and the music industry.

The latter view comports more closely with European than Anglo-American views on the matter. My literary hero Charles Dickens conducted several popular speaking tours in the United States, in 1842 and thereafter, in which he read from his works. They added to his fame here, but his purpose was as much to fight for U.S. copyright protection for his and other foreign works, something that didn’t happen until the early 1890s.

The “moral rights” view is what gives the Broadway producers of Urinetown the ability to sue Akron’s Carousel Dinner Theatre for using “significant aspects” of the original Broadway production—direction, choreography, and design—beyond the script and songs for which the Ohio theater had a license. At the other end of the control spectrum, Menand says Samuel Beckett and his estate were well known for requiring theater companies wanting the rights to produce his plays to comply literally with Beckett’s stage directions. (Perhaps this is why all productions of Waiting for Godot look so bleakly similar—in form as well as content.)

On the Web, the problems and opportunities for misuse of others’ content are multiplied. It’s temptingly easy to obtain words, pictures, film, and music files to repost. The perils of doing so are described here and here. While one might think the sea of website postings offers virtual invisibility for a tiny misuse or sloppy repost, technology works against the user, through imbedded code that might as well put a flashing red light on an unauthorized use and search engines that patrol the web looking for them.

When I started my blog two years ago, I was clumsy in attempts to find good pictures for my posts and used a couple that were found and taken down and replaced with flashing warnings. Embarrassing, to say the least. Now, I check the “labeled for reuse” status in Google Images, have a slight preference for Creative Commons licensed pictures, or use one of my own. I also like the free and low-cost options at Imgembed, and while I can use those purchased photos on my website, I haven’t yet solved the problem of using them in the related social media promotion.

Yesterday, I posted a lighthearted exchange about Eminem and M&Ms, and found a trove of photos linking the two. Most appealing—and found with a second search under “labeled for reuse”—was a graphic portrait of the star created out of the candy. Perfect! I looked at the source website, which is an aggregator of cartoons and images that has lots of rights information for submitters but no information for reusers. I posted the photo, then, working on this article, pulled it down and sent the aggregator a permission request, returned to me as undeliverable. I know somebody “created” that artwork and should have credit. Absolutely not worth it to use it.

In one of my novels, I want to refer to lines from “Burnt Norton,” the wonderful T. S. Eliot poem. I’ve heard his estate is prickly about granting usage rights, even though a “Burnt Norton” Google search generates some 2.87 million results. I’ll work around it. There’s only so much time to write, and none at all to sit in endless conferences with intellectual property lawyers.

Additional Resources:
The Copyright Wars – by Peter Baldwin, 2014.
Stanford University Libraries Copyright and Fair Use Center – helpful advice, including for Web usages

Is it “social” or is it just “media”?

social media, word cloud

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

Whether, as some surveys show, Americans who use social media really spend more time on it than on any other Internet activity—including email—they do spend a lot of time there. A 2013 survey pegged that at an average of 3.2 hours a day. Social media have become integral to the marketing strategies of many organizations and businesses, and marketing professionals spend the most time there. A free industry report says a quarter of marketers spend six to 10 hours a week on social media activities—finding and posting content, analyzing efforts, scoping out the competition—and a third spend 11 hours or more.

Small businesses, especially, struggle with the time commitment to social. They’d like to cut back. But how? This interesting article from Buffer has some suggestions, as well as revealing graphics. In total, their ideas add up to saving more than six hours a week. And, here’s where we find out how different the social media experience is for companies who embrace the “media” side of social media and small-time operators like me, who are still clinging to that word “social.”

Significant time-saving, they say, can be achieved by automating your social media posting, and they have some suggestions. This must be what the annoying people on twitter do who have posts every six minutes. Here’s the gist: “buy my book!” “my book is awesome!” “people say so!” I unfollow them. While I want my posts to prompt people to go to my website, yes, but because I wrote something that really captured their imagination, not because I wore them down.

They also suggest budgeting some time every day—maybe a half-hour—for finding content to post. “Setting a time limit makes you more productive,” they say. And they have specific suggestions: five minutes each on twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, five minutes Googling for news, and 10 minutes exploring top niche blogs and websites. There are some useful tips here, though my trolling through publishing, news, and writing websites is one of the greatest benefits of having my own website with its constant hunger for new material. Though sometimes I feel like I know more and more about less and less.

Spread the Love

W.H.Auden, brownstone, Brooklyn

W. H. Auden’s Brooklyn home (photo: farm4.staticflickr.com)

Wired’s Mr. Know-It-All—a favorite feature of the magazine—provides answers to the ethical and practical challenges of the digital age. A question this month concerns friends who get “hundreds of likes” for every photo they post and whether there is really any point in adding one’s own tiny click, as it’s unlikely to be noticed in that cricket-storm of positive feedback. Hmmm.

Mr. Know-It-All dives into literature for his response by quoting a poem by W.H. Auden (1907-1973). Auden, contemplating the stars crowding the sky, recorded their sublime indifference to humans, which might lead one to think in the scheme of things, why bother with that “like”? Except that he continues to Auden’s next verse, which says the caring imbalance between yourself and the firmament is inevitable, and if caring cannot be equal, then let “the more loving one” be you. “Brilliant, right?” says Mr. Know-It-All. “The guy really understood Instagram.” So, pound that “like” button into stardust.

And why rampant “liking” doesn’t apply to news outlets and ads on Facebook!