October 15, 2006

History Lesson, Pt. 986

So here’s the story so far, see?

      I began writing “Slackjaw” in July of 1987 for a scrappy little weekly paper in Philly called the Welcomat. The original notion was that every week I would document some of the more interesting goings-on in the city’s underground art and music scenes.

      It wasn’t long, however, before I came to realize two things. First, although I was still fairly new to Philadelphia, it quickly became apparent that the most interesting things going on in town were all being produced by a very small circle of people, and they all knew each other. That right there was a limitation. Second, in many cases it occurred to me that what happened on the way to and from these various events was often much more interesting than the events themselves.

      So over the course of just a few months, the column evolved—perhaps “devolved” works better here—from an arts & entertainment column to a column about, well . . . me.

      It still makes me wince to write that, but there’s just no getting around it. “Slackjaw” became an autobiographical column, and that’s how it would stay—documenting drunken escapades, bar fights, memories, hatreds, misguided opinions, bad decisions, physical collapse and more drunken escapades.

      Time wore on. I moved from Philly to Brooklyn in 1990, but continued writing for the Welcomat. Then the paper was taken over by graphpaper-brained corporate nitwits who didn’t get the joke and quickly killed it off. The column was then picked up by a Manhattan-based alternative paper called the New York Press.

      More time passed, and I continued writing about myself. Meanwhile other things were happening.

      In the early ‘90s, I began receiving phone calls from Derek Davis, my former editor at the Welcomat, who was all hepped-up over this new thing he’d just stumbled across called the “world wide web.” According to Derek, you could use your home computer and a telephone line to check out the latest news from Wales, that afternoon’s rugby scores from Australia, even see real-time pictures of the coffee pot in Berkeley’s physics department.

      It was really something, he said.

      At our old paper, we had to make a trip down to a composition shop in South Philly every week to cut and paste each issue together by hand. Maybe that’s why Derek’s first notion was to create a digital magazine—no paper, no X-Acto blades, no distribution concerns—where he could present some of our old writing in a form that could be read and enjoyed by people in Guam and Czechoslovakia, not just those losers in Center City Philly.

      (This is all going someplace, mind you.)

      I thought it was kind of an interesting idea, but something that was ultimately of use to geeks, but very few others.

      Well, I guess you can say I was mistaken about that. I’d forgotten about the porn industry. And where porn goes, rest assured others will follow.

      Yes, so, as we all know now, that Internet thingee took over the world. The New York Press finally began posting the paper online in 1998 (which, in retrospect, was pretty quick for them—in 1995 they were still struggling with the notion of “voice mail”).

      I continued to write stories about myself, same as ever. Wrote the stories, turned them in, let the editors do what they wanted with them, so long as I got my check. I continued, you might say, to stubbornly live and work in a world that was fast disappearing around me. I preferred newsprint. I grumpily refused to have an email account or Internet connection at home. I refused to own a cell phone (and later an iPod, a Blackberry, or any of those other newfangled gadgets everyone seems to need). Hell, I didn’t even have cable.

      Everything was fine in spite of it all. I wrote stories about myself and everyone was happy.

      (Well, “happy.”)

      Then in the early years of the 21st century, with the Internet and various other techno-doo dads in firm control, something happened.

      Overnight, it seemed, everybody in the world had a blog.

      On the one hand, this was potentially a very good thing. It represented a kind of true democracy. Publishing and music had been taken out of the hands of the corporations and given back to the people. Everyone had a voice, everyone could post their opinions and detail the minutiae of their daily lives, offering it up to millions of online readers world-wide for consideration.

      And what did we get out of it, this grand democratic experiment? Well, we got some deep media analysis and criticism (“That guy on House is HOT!!!), some profound political insights (“Bush is FUCKED, man!!!), and an honest appraisal of contemporary private life which reflected meaning and truth to all of us (“That chick on CSI is HOT!!!)

      As my girlfriend Morgan pointed out, it wasn’t just 14 year-olds writing crap like that, either—it was people in their 30s and 40s, it was so-called “educated professionals”—and that’s just scary. All those exclamation points.

      In sharing their true thoughts and concerns, the masses revealed that they were a pretty boring and pretty damn stupid group of people.

      Morgan also pointed out that people didn’t need editors anymore, or proofreaders or fact checkers. No one to tell them “this story’s for crap,” “this is really banal,” or “you’re writing in no known human language.” Rewrite? What’s that? The very concept seemed alien to them.

      Is this what democracy means? Is this what we can expect from it on a grander scale? If so, well then god (or Satan) help us all.

      I’ll tell you this much—bloggers have put the hard lie to my long held notion that “everybody has a good story to tell.”

      No they don’t. It’s that simple.

      As Reid Paley put it once, “it’s a world of drag queens suffering under the delusion that they’re real women.”

      For it all, they just can’t disguise the fact that they’ve got nothing to say—and even if they did, they couldn’t say it well. Yet they insist on putting it down, for some perverse, sad reason.

      As if to prove this, take a look at the evolution from blogs to MySpace sites. Users, in many cases, don’t even have to worry about writing semi-coherent sentences anymore, choosing instead to reduce their lives and personalities to a collection of statistics, blurry photographs, and a list of favorite bands.

      But I’m kind of digressing.

      What really pisses me off about this whole business is this, see? Put simply, the blogger revolution fucked things up for me. Hey, if you’ve got millions of people out there writing about the bland and awful truth of their daily lives, all screaming “look at me” at the same time, and they’re all doing it for free, why in the hell would you pay some old blind crank to do it?

      My position at the Press was terminated in June of 2006. But like the proverbial phoenix (albeit a blind one with a bad cough, sore knees, a lump on his ass and too many bad habits to count) here’s “Slackjaw” again, thanks to the good graces of Electron Press.

      Oh, I’m fully aware of the irony involved in attacking blog culture as I begin a weekly (in general) online column, but we’re just going to shut up about that. I may be an idiot, but I’m no fool. Besides, this is by my count my 986th column, and there are still too many stories left to tell. And now that I’m working from home, I can tell them in my underpants!

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

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