The Revolution Will Not Be ‘Liked’

by Liz Colville

“Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?” — Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010.

It was a warm November day in downtown New York City. Jerry Hinks, a pale, wiry, middle-aged man with shoulder-length, visibly dyed black hair, was sitting in a booth in his favorite pizza place, where he had just ordered a thin-crust 12” with asparagus and prosciutto. I had ordered a plate of antipasto because I don’t like the way melted cheese sits in my gut for months on end. Jerry had his laptop on the table and was looking at traffic statistics for the website of his company, which gives budding musicians affordable studio space. He also manages and promotes some of the musicians who use his studio. On the website, bands perform exclusive video sessions and share their “process” for fans, whatever that means.

The website is a relatively new venture for Jerry. In recent years, he’s relied on his tight-knit East Village community to spread the word about the bands he supports. Now, “the Internet has changed everything,” he told me, his face glowing by the light of the computer. “How so?” I asked, folding my arms. Jerry looked surprised and said in a thicker-than-usual Brooklyn accent, “Really? You don’t know?” “Well, I hear this every day,” I responded. “And frankly,” I sighed, raising my eyes to the ceiling, “I’m getting a little tired of it. But, you know, I want to know why you think so, so shoot.”

Jerry laid his palms flat on the table. “Well, it’s pretty simple, Malcolm. I used to get maybe eight or nine people coming to these shows, you know? Sometimes 20, if it was a good night. Sure, lots of people would be at the bars drinking, and maybe they’d waft over to the stage. But since the website, and Twitter, Facebook … and all these wonderful things the young people are inventing, I now have hundreds of people coming.” He leaned over the table. “Malcolm,” he said, “I have to use entirely different venues now because the old dives bars aren’t big enough!” He laughed triumphantly. “And the dive bars are all closed,” I said under my breath. He didn’t hear me.

“That’s all fine and good,” I said, then raised an index finger in the air. “But these bands — wouldn’t you agree? — are terrible.” I looked down at my notebook for reference. “I mean, these names alone. Bags Bags Bags. Russian Dolls Infinitely. Tree of Strife. It’s horrible stuff.” “Have you actually listened to any of it?” Jerry asked me. “Yes,” I replied. “I have. My daughter is actually a fan of Bags Bags Bags, or wants to be in the band. I don’t know the difference. The fact is, there are too many bands in the world. We’re talking about thousands of misguided people who are making everyone around them broke and miserable and overcrowding this wonderful city. I mean, you talk about process, about sharing a process. What process? What is the process, Jerry? Do you know the process of actually learning how to play an instrument? Do they? Do they know how long it takes to actually become good at playing an instrument? TEN THOUSAND HOURS, Jerry. The fact is, few of them actually get that far. Perhaps you’ve read my book…” Jerry interrupted me. “What kind of music do you like, Malcolm?” he asked me. I said nothing, since he had interrupted me. Instead I slid out of the booth, which made a strange and slightly embarrassing sound as I did so. “Too many bands, Jerry,” I said, and walked out of the restaurant. Then I came back to give him a $20 for the antipasto. “Enough!” I added, dropping the bill somewhere around the level of Jerry’s head and letting it float dramatically down onto the table.

Left High and Dry By the Web

Carl Foster, a 20-something from Denver, Colorado, had a popular blog that combined his love of the triathlon with his love of food. “It was a marriage of good and evil,” he told me as we sat on his parents’ back porch in Denver (he currently lives with his parents). “I love food: you know, cheeseburgers, but also finer foods like cheese and wine. I decided I should try to love something healthy, too, like exercise. So I went big.” His voice got low and strange as he leaned forward in his rocking chair: “the Ironman.”

Carl’s blog posts about his exploits garnered thousands of hits per day, to the point that he was considering approaching advertisers. But it all went bust when Carl decided to throw a party for the 578 people who were “fans” of his blog on Facebook. Six people showed up. Carl hasn’t blogged since. He tells me it’s because he is in law school and has a part-time job, but I suspect otherwise.

I asked Carl what he thinks would have happened if he’d instead gone around the world and shaken the hands of all 578 fans and sat down for a meal with each of them, like presidents, ambassadors, and other normal, civilized, courteous people do. “Well,” he paused, looking out at his parents playing badminton in the back yard, “I guess more of them would’ve shown up to the party.” “Yeah,” I said, pushing myself gently back and forth on the porch swing. “I’ll say.”

Blog Speaks Louder Than Smile

Jade Van Booy is a recent college graduate living in Portland, Oregon. Jade is the manager of a vintage clothing store. The store, on a busy street surrounded by restaurants and other retailers, has a substantial following but is still feeling the effects of the recession. It came close to shuttering in early 2009. Jade also has a Tumblr, a kind of blog. “Blogging was the only thing that got me through those awful days when no customers came into the store,” she told me recently as we walked around her neighborhood. Being only circumspectly aware of social media, I asked Jade to elaborate on what her Tumblr work entailed. “On Tumblr, instead of comments, you receive ‘likes’ from people who ‘follow’ you,” she explained. “The ‘likes’ appear in the form of hearts.” “Wait, what?” I asked. “What do the hearts look like?” “Small and red,” she said. “Like Valentine candies, maybe, or the pattern on a little girl’s dress or headband.” “Oh.”

When people stopped buying clothing from the store around the fall of 2008, Jade decided to try to use Tumblr to bring customers back. She added her blog to the Tumblr directory under the category “Fashion.” She held contests. She created elaborate store windows and photographed them for her blog. She advertised her blog outside the store, and for several months, she said she saw more people writing down the URL on a piece of paper or on their hand than ever came into the store, proof that humans are becoming alienated and awkward thanks to technology such as the Tumblr in question. “I changed the store window about every two hours,” she told me, laughing. “People must have thought I’d gone crazy.”

I asked Jade if she had gone crazy. “Um,” she said, laughing nervously, “I don’t think so, Malcolm. Why?” I asked her why she hadn’t applied a proven, real-world strategy to try to get people in the store, such as donning a costume derived from the apparel in the store and going out in the street, with a sign and perhaps a bell, to get people’s attention, face-to-face, the “old school” way. The real way. “I guess I didn’t really think of that,” she said. I asked her why she hadn’t gone to the restaurant across the street and pulled patrons out of their seats and told them that it was urgent, that there was a beret from the 1910s waiting for them, or a gold lamé waistcoat, or a one-of-a-kind pair of riding boots. “You’re strange,” she said.

At that point we paused in front of the restaurant in question. “The people in there do look really bored,” I said, peering at a couple of women eating in the window, who were in turn peering out at me. I turned to Jade. “This is a blog we’re talking about!” I screamed, shaking her by the shoulders. “This is not real life!” “But it worked,” she said, stepping several feet away from me. I, too, began walking backwards down the street away from Jade, making a retreating gesture with my hands. Then I stopped. We stared at each other from about 100 feet away. “Everything’s great now,” she called to me in a sad yet reassuring voice. “We’re doing at least $2,000 a day in sales!” “Whatever, Jade,” I responded. “Malcolm, it’s OK,” she said. “Come back.” But I didn’t.