Archive for February, 2010
I’m a great fan of Matt Taibbi‘s work, and I’ve also long been a fan of Mark Ames and his now-defunct Moscow-based rogue magazine, eXile (that link leads to its new home, which basically just hosts the archives).
I found eXile after studying under John Dolan (who I’ve written about before), the paper’s sometime-co-editor and, for a while, a lecturer at Otago University, where he taught the advanced writing and poetry classes that marked my high-point of university study.
Dolan as a teacher was a strange mix of cynicism and optimism, railing against society and all its capitalist masters while at the same time warmly encouraging expression and imagination through writing. He spoke of his relationship with eXile once or twice in class, and from there the curious found out more.
When Dolan left Otago to do his full-time stint at eXile, I chased him by email and wrote a story about him and his experience with the magazine. Turns out I was a good seven years ahead of the zeitgeist!
Vanity Fair has just published a long and fascinating, web-exclusive story about eXile, Ames and Taibbi, detailing the personality politics behind the magazine. Dolan features in the story, and I was interested to find out he taught Ames, too. Awesome.
By the time he got to Russia, Ames relished rejection, he says. At U.C. Berkeley, he’d rebelled against the “bland liberal consensus” by flirting with right-wing politics, getting into arguments with humorless lefties, and falling under the wing of John Dolan, a literature professor and campus cult figure who liked Ames’s personal essays and macabre short stories, loathed though they were by his fellow students. Ames still remembers Dolan’s first somber career advice: “He said, ‘You’re talented, but one thing you’re going to have to get used to is that you’ll never get published in The New Yorker.’” Dolan also introduced him to that urtext for masochistic littérateurs everywhere, Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, the story of a doomed anarchic plot hatched by amateurs.
Dolan is also quoted in the piece and described as a “first-rate” literary columnist:
By most accounts, Ames slept with as many women as any Moscow expatriate of the period. “Russian women liked the kind of sternness and scariness he had that didn’t work in California,” Dolan says.
One of Ames’s first regular columns was “Death Porn,” which rehashed stories of grisly murders and suicides from police reports and Russian media, printing them alongside crime-scene and autopsy photographs. He was most renowned and reviled for his regular “Whore-R Stories,” for which he hired prostitutes and then wrote about them. Like corruption and casual death, prostitution was a reality of Russian life that every reporter saw, often more than saw, but refused to discuss in straight terms.
“Everyone in Moscow at the time—and I mean everyone—used prostitutes. That’s what Moscow was in the 1990s. But no one would talk about it,” Dolan says. Ames seems to have had no need to pay women, and the column appears self-serving only until you read it. Some of the pieces’ poignancy and attention to detail call to mind Studs Terkel’s Working. But Terkel only listened; Ames partook.
John Dolan moved to Moscow and started a first-rate literary column in which he was an early outer of faux memoirist James Frey. But The Exile was never much of a business, and Moscow was changing. It had become expensive and clean and was taking on an ominous neo-Soviet flush. The expats had gone home, and journalists, including Americans, were being killed. Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, whom Ames knew, was gunned down in 2004. “Even the snow seemed archaic and doomed,” says Dolan, who left in 2006. The Exile nearly collapsed in 2007, before a group of private investors bailed it out.
I wrote about Dolan’s Frey expose back in ’06. Because that was how I rolled.
These services via GPS, maps, or location check-ins on mobile devices or computers allow people to instantly let others know where they are. And, now the gloss has rubbed off from Facebook and Twitter, they are being touted as the next big thing.
But I can’t for the life of me figure out why they’re so great.
Of course, advertisers will love it. By knowing where exactly people are, they can deliver tailored marketing messages direct to their targets. That’s why Foursquare is hooking up partnerships galore with big-name corporations.
Consumers, on the other hand? Well, plenty of people will like the free pizzas and coffee discounts they’ll occasionally get as a result of obsessively checking in to particular places, and some may actually appreciate the targeted advertising (are there really people like this, or is this purely a marketer’s fantasy?), but is it really worth letting the world at large (or even just your followers) know where you are, even part of the time?
Not so long ago, I had a guy trying to track me down. He was suing me because he didn’t like a story I wrote about him a while back, and he had threatened violence on me. He knew I was in Hong Kong, and I was pretty okay about that, but I was uncomfortable with the fact he had done a few Google searches and found my parents’ old address. Even while I was confident his threats would come to nothing, I didn’t like that he was trying hard to locate me. At one point, laughably, he sent me an email with the subject line ‘I’m Tracking you down’ and attached a screencap of a map that located my ISP in Sha Tin (nowhere near where I lived at the time).
He wouldn’t have needed to go to such lengths if he had been following me on Foursquare back then. Of course, I could have blocked him from following me, but it wouldn’t have been at all difficult for him to create a fake account and sneak under my radar. For all I know, he may one day again want to find me — which means I’ll probably never use a service like Foursquare.
But that’s not the only scenario in which it would be inconvenient for people to know where you are. What if one of your followers is a stalker who suddenly turns up at a bar you’ve just checked into? What if the same happens with a ‘friend’ who’s actually someone you’ve been trying to avoid for a while? What if it’s your editor chasing you down for that piece you were supposed to file last week? What if it’s your landlord who has just realised that instead of paying the rent you’re blowing your money on booze?
The obvious response to a lot of these questions will be, “Well, you can choose to be discreet with your personal check-in policy. You could check-in at a place only when you’re comfortable with everyone knowing where you are.” But is there ever such a time? Because, when you check-in, you’re basically saying, “I’m comfortable with running into anyone who can see my location right now”. That’s a big call, considering how different moods, settings, atmospheres, environments, and social groups can influence social interaction, to say nothing of the fickle nature of social dynamics within groups of friends.
Another response might be: “You can limit your followers to only your ‘true’ friends”. But what if one of your enemies is a friend of one of your ‘true’ friends and sees your location status pop up in his Twitter feed, or email, or on Facebook or whatever? What if your stalker happens to be an ace hacker and hacks into one of your ‘true’ friend’s accounts?
Last week, a new site called Please Rob Me arrived. The site used Foursquare users’ Twitter streams to show when exactly they had checked in to places that weren’t their homes — a perfect burglarising (one of my favourite words) opportunity. Brilliantly, that site has stopped publishing that feed and the founders hope to gift it to an organisation that raises awareness about online privacy issues.
I’m not a social media skeptic. I find Facebook useful as a way to connect with friends and kind-of friends, and to find out about events and get in touch with people for work. In fact, it’s a really, really useful journalistic tool. Twitter is too. It provides me with links to lots of great reading I wouldn’t otherwise stumble across. I like Buzz and Google Reader for similar reasons, and I like using all of the above to discuss shared interests with friends and contacts.
But Foursquare? I can’t see the use in that. Except for advertisers and stalkers.
Update: Another problem I see with Foursquare: If one of my friends is a user and we’re hanging out together, what’s to stop him checking in to Foursquare and letting his friends know where he is? Most of the time, that wouldn’t be a problem. But if this friend had friends who I didn’t want to see — for whatever reason — I would likely end up resenting him if his check-in resulted in the uninvited appearance of one of those people I didn’t want to see.
The only way I can see to stop this is to start asking people in advance not to check in to Foursquare when we’re meeting in a social situation, which, of course, could get ridiculous.
That situation, too, is similar to a problem I have with Facebook: that anyone who has a photo of me can post it on Facebook for their friends to see. Even though my privacy settings don’t allow anyone to see which photos I’m tagged in, people who know my face will be able to identify me in these photos, and I have no control over where, when and who they’re posted by. Pretty soon we’re all going to have to behave like celebrities who are hounded by paparazzi — we won’t be able to do anything stupid in public for fear of photographic evidence making it on to Facebook and in front of the eyes of friends, friends of friends, family, enemies, employers, prospective employers, media, and whoever else. I pity you if you plan to one day run for office.
I’d be interested in hearing a counter argument from avid users of such services. Spike, for instance: I read your blog and follow you on Twitter and I see you frequently check-in to various places around Hong Kong. Why do you use it, and how useful do you think it is?