Saturday, July 17, 2010

Loss of sensation

Ladies and gentlemen; prescriptivists, descriptivists and children of all ages; Mr. and Mrs. America and all you ships at sea! Let's ban a phrase from news language now and forevermore, shall we?

The phrase is "become an Internet sensation" (in all its inflected variants), and the story at right -- Friday's Freep, page 2 -- is the one that set me off.

First and for the record, personal-peeve-wise: I have a basic dislike for being told by the AP (or the local fishwrap) what constitutes a "hard" or "disturbing" question. If the question is "how much business do I have telling Holocaust survivors what to do when they visit Auschwitz?", I find the answer pretty easy: Not much, thanks. And you?

The larger point, I hope, is about how and why and whether things become news stories -- specifically, whether "Internet sensation" is either true enough to be meaningful or meaningful enough to be measured for truth. Here's the top of the AP tale:

JERUSALEM — He’s a Holocaust survivor dancing with his family on what easily could have been his own grave.

A video clip of Adolek Kohn awkwardly shuffling and shimmying with his daughter and grandchildren to the sound of “I Will Survive” at Auschwitz and other sites where millions died during the Holocaust has become an Internet sensation. It’s also sparking debate over whether the images show disrespect for those who perished — or are an exuberant celebration of life.

The fight — on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere — poses uncomfortable questions about one of history’s greatest tragedies: What’s the proper way to commemorate it? Can a survivor pay homage in a way that might be unthinkable for others?

Good thing the AP is here to remind us of the Holocaust's positions among the world's greatest tragedies. But those don't sound like very challenging questions. One, there isn't a "the" proper way to commemorate it. There are lots. And two -- OK, let's try phrasing this a little differently. Can you think of any particular words that members of a (say) an ethnic group can use with each other but remain utterly off limits to the majority?

Wow, that was tough. Anyway, if this was a feature story, this is the point at which we'd say "He is not alone," because, sensation-wise, he isn't:

The spot became an Internet sensation, drawing more than 13 million views on YouTube.
(NYT, July 16)

Kratzer is the associate general counsel for Lexmark who became an Internet sensation a couple of years ago after he decorated his basement with $10 in Sharpie pens.
(AP, July 14)

Her rant became an Internet sensation and Cohen, who graduated from East Stroudsburg High School South in 2001 and was attending Montgomery County Community College with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian, parlayed the exposure into more media appearances. (Allentown Morning Call, July 12)

Anna Chapman, the Russian diplomat's daughter whose photos have become an internet sensation, played with her red hair, attempting to tie it back.  (WashPost, July 9)

Five years ago, Mr. Rebney's profane caught-on-video rants posted on YouTube made him an Internet sensation. (NYT, July 9)

Wall also fielded questions from the camp participants, one of whom asked if the point guard could perform the John Wall dance that became an Internet sensation during this past year when he played his only season at Kentucky. (WashPost, July 8)

Ariel Antigua, the 5-year-old Jersey City boy who's become an Internet sensation with videos of him hitting baseballs at around 90 mph with a 33-inch baseball bat, continues to turn heads in the professional media world. (Jersey Journal, July 7)

Cotter has become an Internet sensation by doing silly, morbid things with the dress, and then posting pictures and writing on the darkly humorous website, which he started with help from his brother, Colin, in May. (AP, July 7)

Organizers asked TV crews and reporters to stop filming, perhaps afraid there could be a repeat of last year, when camper Jordan Crawford of Xavier dunked on James, and the video became an Internet sensation. (AP, July 6)

The 28-year-old Ms. Chapman has become an Internet sensation, described as a "model look-alike who specialized in sultry-eyed, pouty-lipped, come-hither stares." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 1)

Justin Wagoner, who became an Internet sensation for his campout that started last week, could barely keep his eyes open as he talked about his weeklong stay in a tent on Knox. (Dallas Morning News, June 25)

That interview-slash-sermon-slash-rant, in which Louis C. K. lamented that modernity was being wasted on ''spoiled idiots,'' became an Internet sensation. (NYT, June 20)

This AP lede from the end of May could be the best in show:

The hypnotic video of mud, gas and oil billowing from the seafloor has become an Internet sensation as Americans watch to see whether BP's effort to plug the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico succeeds.
(AP, May 29)

Get the idea? It's awfully easy to declare an "Internet sensation," but nobody seems to have much interest in explaining how we might measure or recognize that phenomenon. As such, it's hard to tell from any of those other myriad forms of journalistic shorthand for "Some of my friends are talking about this, so here's a made-up reason you should be interested too." It's more or less the same thing as "raises eyebrows" or "stirs controversy."

Here's a news flash, kids. Whatever it is, the public isn't nearly as interested or attentive as you think. When Fox asked about views of Elena Kagan in the regular poll a few weeks ago, it found that views were "mixed." That's technically true -- but favorable (24%) and unfavorable (17%) views added together barely exceed the proportion of the sample (40%) who said they'd never heard of her.

Journalism ought to be actively working to make sure that people who want to pay attention to minor stuff like Supreme Court nominations can do so productively. That's fine. But we can afford to spend a lot less time seeking out and purporting to confirm the latest alleged supernovae of popular culture. Check back in six months and see how many of these Internet sensations raise anything more than a look of puzzlement.

Anyway: Ban is thus proposed. Offenders, take note.



Anonymous Luke Morris said...

I recommend "clogging the tubes." Tribute to Ted Stevens

10:24 AM, July 17, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@fev: seconded.

This reminds me of the promo copy (seen in potted author bios, among other places) where a person is described as a "founder" or even just a "contributor" to the "influential" blogs or sites $a, $b, and $c, none of which I've ever heard of. I'd like to see the empirical research that validates the claim.

11:58 PM, July 17, 2010  
Anonymous Bob L. said...

This Sunday's New York Times, Frank Rich's column, second sentence. It never ends.

8:39 AM, July 18, 2010  

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