Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gawker/HRO/Tumblr

[NB: I just wrote this this afternoon because it's been preying on my mind for literally years and I didn't want to draft this and then never post it because I'm too lazy to edit it. There's a very high chance I'll be dipping in and tweaking it for the next few weeks. That said: let's rock. Also noted: as Mike D'Angelo points out, I don't "make the case that this sensibility is infecting general discourse," which is absolutely true: this is about some very, very niche stuff that has almost nothing to do with most of what's out there. This is some real ephemeral, micro stuff afflicting a tiny corner of the internet that -- demographically -- happens to be my corner, and frankly if you don't already have a good working grasp of Gawker/Tumblr/HRO I'd stop right now. Also: yes, this is a tad over-the-top and disproportionate. I acknowledge that, but that doesn't mean my vehemence isn't real.]

In the summer of 2007, due to a lot of unreplicable circumstances (long story), I was very comfortable financially without having to do much work. I was living in my very first apartment, a large, hardwood floor, nice-ish set-up in a terrible part of Brooklyn (the Bushwick-Aberdeen stop on the L, which is 13 stops into Brooklyn; I was a block from the projects). Since it was summer and I was still in college, I didn't know a lot of people; most of them had gone back to wherever they were from. So it was just me, my then-girlfriend and my laptop. Which is how I spent the summer of 2007 watching Emily Gould have a mental breakdown online.

Before we go any further, let me say that I don't have any real interest in Gould as a living, breathing human being; I say this because, judging by her Tumblr (which frequently consists of her freaking out about people saying mean things about her), she has the Google Alerts turned on like none other. I'm more interested in the language she helped create, which I personally feel is destroying the capacity for intelligent thought on the internet one listicle at a time. But this isn't really a personal thing; I'm not accusing her (or anyone) of deliberate mendacity/being a bad person. (I mean, she well could be, but that's none of my business.)

At the time, Gould seemed like a force for good. I'd been reading Gawker off and on since 2003 [IT SAID 2000, FIXED]; since I almost never have a TV, it seemed like good mental junk food and it fed into my obsession with New York City while I was still feeling stuck in Austin. Initially, Gawker was fairly phenomenal: they did snarky gossip about Manhattan media non-entities unknown to the rest of the country, creating their own mythology as they went. Then Gawker seemed to be jumping the shark (although in retrospect they weren't even close to their current nadir); it was unclear what they were focusing on (the site basically devolved into reblogging bullet points with commentary), and the schtick was getting calcified. Gawker went from a site with a narrative to a site selling only one thing: its voice. And that voice was, for a while, Emily Gould.

What Gould was doing seemed like a reasonable response to the position she'd been placed in: she would write completely bullshit posts about her personal life (accurately tagged "Emily's LiveJournal"), then she would engage in what seemed like passive-aggressive sniping against evil Gawker overlord Nick Denton (the Rupert Murdoch of New Media), and in the last two weeks -- after giving notice and serving out her term -- she went totally bats. Before Twilight and Teams Edward/Jacob, there was Team Emily in the Gawker comment squadron. The best part? No one in the real world cared at all. It was the most entertaining teapot tempest ever. (Aside: blogging at the pace Denton demands takes incredible mental stamina and the ability to write literately fast, which is one of the harder things you can do day-in/day-out. It's hard to really hate any of the Gawker writers per se; they're all clearly people of above-average intelligence hired to do basically demeaning work.)

With all the fun, I failed to notice the real point: Gould came up with and perfected a house style that Gawker now ruthlessly imparts to all its writers, to a degree that's kind of incredible. It's easier to imitate than explain, but basically it's passive-aggressive finickiness disguised as wit. Contractions are generally avoided, giving the prose an affectedly flat cadence that seems "deliberate" and "not like it was written in ten minutes to meet the insane post quota." Punctuation is soiled with great regularity; question marks are used where there's no question, exclamation points proliferate like a five-year-old shouting. The oddly childlike nature of the prose -- its deliberate suggestion of faux-naivete -- blends snark with tweeness, which is about as bad a mixture as I can think of. Chuck Klosterman got the tone absolutely down: "If you've spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you've probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It's supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It's the saddest kind of failure."

The problem with this kind of writing is that it precludes actually writing anything funny, or surprising, or fresh. It's an updated version of the problem George Orwell nailed in "Politics and the English Language" (which I realize may well be the most overquoted essay pulled out by anyone complaining about bad writing, but it's still the best): "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." This language isn't slovenly, but it's self-satisfied even when it's blatantly terrified. Example: a few months ago, a blogger synopsizing "The Hills" -- apparently mandatory for any website that wants traffic -- referred to it, pseudo-humorously, as a "Pynchonian text." This literally makes no sense, and there's no bullshit analogy she pulls out to extrapolate or justify it; it's just a reference whose sole function is to say "Look! Although I'm blogging about 'The Hills,' I'm actually a serious, literate person exercising my analytical/linguistic skills in the name of frivolous careerist bullshit so that someday I can write about something I care about. Just because I like this show doesn't make me an idiot." Which is sad, but doesn't make it any less annoying to read. And this stuff is all over the internet as a default style. I hate it so much: it makes personal tone a matter of robotic consistency.

Think I'm getting needlessly worked up over nothing? I'm just getting started. (Feel free to get some more coffee/beer; this is going to take a while if you have the fortitude to tough it out with me. God knows I'm sheepish about how long this is.) That, more or less, was Phase I of Language Stuff That Makes Me Hate The Internet More Every Day. (Trust me: no one hates the internet more than people who work "on" it in some capacity, and that goes double for me.) Phase II arrived with Tumblr, the easy-blogging format that actively celebrates incoherence, illiteracy and using loooooooots and looooooooooots of vowels and CAPITAL LETTERS FOR EMPHASISSSSSS in the name of "sincerity." The company's public face -- its optimal user, its alpha and omega -- is one Meaghan O'Connell, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice person but whose writing makes me want to claw my eyes out (or maybe just spill coffee on her iPhone, not sure which). At the top of her blog it says "Life is hard. Here is someone," which sounds nice and maybe like hard-earned wisdom -- life is difficult, here I stand with existential fortitude ready to battle it out -- and then comes falling apart with the sub-hed: "My name is Meaghan O'Connell and I am 25 and I live in Brooklyn and work for Tumblr and here goes nothing." All the Emily-isms are there: the deliberate overuse of "and" as a cutesy affectation (what those of us who sweated it out in Latin learned to refer to as "polysyndeton," technically), the conflation of name/location/technology as an emotional statement, the implication that we're just getting someone's bared soul and something brave is happening here.

If Emily Gould made "oversharing" fashionable (or controversial, or at least a buzz topic, or maybe just a stupid word), she was at least trying to write about it directly and clearly. Tumblr ups the ante, throwing every piece of moronic internet jargon and slang into the mix, shaking vigorously and downing the whole sewage cocktail with relish. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time close-reading this stuff or providing examples: it mostly speaks for itself. Meaghano (Meaghano!) would like you to believe that this has a lot to do with David Foster Wallace (a common delusion among Tumblr practitioners). Hence posts like this (there's way more where that came from, trust me), which invite us to contemplate that DFW's polemics against irony/investment in being honest and kind even when it's difficult/unfashionable have finally blossomed amidst a thousand dancing-cat .gifs.

Because that's what Tumblr comes down to. There's a vile sub-section of Tumblr-istas who I'm not going to name because they're crazily vigilant about monitoring themselves and prone to throwing long, maudlin fits about "people being mean on the internet" and so on and I don't need the trouble, but here's what they do: 90% of their posts will contain some kind of image (frequently animal based), LOLCATS-speak and/or songs that are "meaningful" that they have a lot of "feelings" about. (The fact that the word "feelings" has been rebooted as something inherently positive is completely insane, but let that pass.) Or they'll talk about "The Hills." Or whatever. But then -- like an '80s sitcom in sweeps season -- there will be A Very Special Post occasionally, about something that's clearly emotionally important to the person writing, generally concerned with a) a past relationship in its failing stages b) childhood traumas and fears remembered, frequently family-related c) getting drunk and experiencing a mental breakthrough. The prose will often emerge like a groggy, hungover New Yorker refugee: the prose will be "terse" (or someone's idea of terse), frequently in the present tense, laced with heavy doses of the maudlin and faux life lessons wisdom. We are then supposed to applaud the Tumblr person, who has proven that they can skim the tides of crap pop culture without losing their intellectual/moral seriousness; they're just saving themselves for the big moment, when they can speak for a generation.

It's all pretty terrible.

Let me be unambiguously clear, and perhaps unnecessarily harsh: if there was some kind of hypothetical scenario in which the late and sorely missed (we need him more than ever, honestly) DFW was invited to sit down and contemplate the contents of our leading Tumblr-ists/-istas, there's a 99.7% chance he'd be appalled at the spectacle of people congratulating themselves for sharing every last thought they have, especially the heavy emotional ones that they haven't really thought through. Among other things, Tumblr celebrates drunken babbling and deep feelings; it prefers them, because it's "sincere." (In other words: the bloggers may want to be DFW, but mostly they're an even shittier Dave Eggers.) And this is stupid; it's the opposite of rigorous self-contemplation. It's narcissism disguised as something brave and positive, and as community-building. Worse yet: it's actively corrupting the minds of potentially decent writers, turning them instead into little more than riffers of the moment.

Now: am I saying this is Emily Gould's fault? OK, maybe it is a little (although I doubt she thought people were going to be looking up to/imitating her). But this Phase II mixture is way more toxic than her original brew because it's perilously close to being completely incoherent; when you start labeling the paterfamilias "LOLDAD," it's time to pack it up and go home. It celebrates the worst of the internet as its crowning achievement, and it's freakishly self-righteous in the process.

This, finally, brings us to Carles and Hipster Runoff. The Carles "project" basically involves pissing all over everything, all the time; it's kind of hilarious. What Carles does is talk about "relevant" music and what we can sloppily shorthand "hipster lifestyle choices and accessories" in a deliberately obtuse tone, combining newly coined words with text speak and daring you to take it seriously. His biggest weapon: scare quotes, deployed frequently. He knows what he's doing though: he doesn't vomit them up as randomly as the Gould-ites and Tumblrs use exclamation points. What Carles has figured out is that putting scare quotes around even something so ordinary as, say, "going to a movie" points out how self-conscious someone who's invested in a "lifestyle" can be about how every decision and action they take will reflect on them. This is a reasonable thesis. (The fact that Carles predated the rise of Tumblr and accurately predicted what it would develop into is kind of remarkable.) His use of text-speak isn't celebratory; it's openly derisive and vaguely terroristic. It's an appropriately contemptuous response to the state of things; the fact that the Tumblr-ites have appropriated some of his language (especially the practice of using "bro" as a suffix -- cf. "dadbro") without seeming to get the joke tells you everything.

I used to really despise Hipster Runoff -- it seemed unbelievably self-loathing -- but lately it's grown on me, especially when "Carles" (or whoever's manning the helm; he, too, has a house style that can be learned) just riffs on "news reports," taking the logic Gawker has adopted (i.e., that the art of media aggregation and commentary is one of style rather than actually contributing anything to the conversation) to its logical conclusion, refracting everything through one myopic lens. The difference is that Carles' lens is actually funny, while Gawker is just a deeply cynical exercise in seeing how many hits one alleged photo of Britney Spears getting drunk can rack up. This basically destructive attitude has alarmed some people: in a long, breathlessly sincere missive on the subject, Nick Sylvester seems to literally propose that this kind of attitude will filter down to the children of current hipsters and deprive their childhoods of joy (" Why won't you let my kids be kids? They will be the better for it. And you were too--and I'm so sad you don't see that. I'm so sad you don't remember how fucking hard it is, being that age, not knowing fuck-all how anything or anybody works, let alone yourself."), which would be fair if it weren't the case that 99.9999999% of the global population will never come within striking distance of the site. Once again, allying yourself with emotion for its own sake gets the better of a writer who clearly is not without talent.

And so personal internet writing in 2010 is an unholy beast indeed, combining bad slang, sloppy emotions and an alarmingly monolithic sensibility (allowing for regional deviations). I don't have a constructive suggestion for any of this (plus in the Big Internet Picture I'm basically a nobody, so who cares) except the obvious: write often and try to improve, think hard, learn to create unflashy but not putridly functional prose that will allow you to express yourself lucidly. All of which seems to have gotten lost somewhere, which is why Emily Gould haunts my dreams: like Morrissey, she started something she couldn't finish, but other people are perfectly happy to finish it for her.

35 comments:

  1. You/this are/is incredible. Thank you.

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  2. Calling "The Hills" a "Pynchonian text" in a satiric recap is defensible, I would argue. The analogy certainly wouldn't win anyone a doctorate in Comp Lit, but clearly it's intended as mildly absurdist hyperbole referencing Pynchon's interlocking subplots and his evocative, slapstick surrealism.

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  3. This post was the perfect length - ironically long enough to scare off the zero attention span tumblr crowd that gets scared at "whole paragraphs." Of course, I just view the tumblr/internet media relation as the equivalent of the poem/novel - one is a short injection of creative energy. At least when it's pulled off.

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  4. @Peter Feld: That's a good point, but in context it just scanned as a reference without meaning. I didn't link to it because honestly it seemed unduly mean-spirited to mess up someone's Google results like that, but you could dig it up, I guess.

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  5. You know Tumblr is used for good as well as evil, right? Complaining about Tumblr monolithically is like complaining about Blogger or YouTube. Tumblr is a great vehicle for stuff like http://oldhollywood.tumblr.com/ or http://slaughterhouse90210.tumblr.com/

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  6. Or like the entire internet. Yeah, of course. I'm talking about a specific *kind* of Tumblr circle, as encouraged by the company's official representative. I get what you're saying -- Twitter is home to both valuable stuff and also Justin Bieber spamming -- but I'm cool with tackling this side of it.

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  7. Bravo, sir. Your best conviction of the accused is your own razor-sharp prose.

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  8. Wow. Nick Sylvester's really got some problems, doesn't he?

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  9. Very entertaining essay! I love a good rant. I think this was a good one.

    Didn't seem that long to me (in case you're still feeling sheepish) but I'm probably a little more used to reading in illuminated media than a lot of other people.

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  10. Just realized... you know, as bad as it gets, at least it's not this: http://wprobot.net/

    The internet could always be more evil and terrible, apparently. :(

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  11. I really liked your critique of lazy net prose, but you lost me when you started praising HRO. I wouldn't call Carles dangerous, but I do think his cynicism--which I don't find funny, I'll admit--is more of a contagion than an act of satire, and that even memes directly witnessed by only 0.00001% of the internet can trickle down. True, most of these things are deeply niche, but I think they're not as contained as you say--I've seen stylistic tics from all sources (G/HRO/T) creep into the public conversations of high school friends and older writers who should know better. We're not better for Gawker or Tumblr, but we're certainly not better because of the detached nihilism of HRO, either, and neither deserves praise.

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  12. I don't know if this was a typo but Gawker didn't launch until 2003, not 2000.

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  13. It boggles my mind that people give that "Carles" such credit, treating him like some kind of self-aware PoMo genius. The reality is that he actually IS the character everyone seems to think he's just "portraying." Try keeping that in mind the next time you read something he's written.

    Imagine a dim-witted fool bumbling into a room full of intellectuals. The fool says something completely stupid, the intellectuals assume it must be some kind of deep, reflexive, meta-ironic statement, and laugh and cheer him on. The fool has no idea why his statement is so funny to them, but he just keeps talking, voicing literally every thought that crosses his mind. Everyone keeps laughing. That's Hipster Runoff.

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  14. nice
    bushwick aberdeen is hardcore
    carles is a real shining light, IMO
    mr. dream is nick sylvester's band, I supported them on kickstarter a while ago
    cool post

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  15. You were way ahead of the game reading Gawker in 2000, since it wasn't online until 2003 - but someone else has already noticed this.

    Sadly, even though I have a Tumblr, I have trouble disagreeing with most of what you've written, especially your points about the death of decent prose. Tumblr is far and away not alone in killing good writing or even the concept of the same, however - if you'd ever tortured yourself with a look at a content farm like Assoc. Content (just bought by Yahoo, who is even now looking over in the early light and trying to gnaw its arm off, coyote in a trap-style) you'd see that sites like that are by far the greater danger.

    The Internet's inherent democracy, which supposedly gives just about anyone a chance to jump out in front of the pack and shine, is also its biggest weakness. It didn't start with Emily Gould or Tumblr, but it has, as you point out, achieved a particularly loathsome refinement there. I actually went back to a blogspot blog to do a certain kind of writing because the Tumblr gestalt is so firmly set against anything that doesn't echo the perennially bored Adderall addict take on "snark" and writing in general. Tumblr's clever dashboard setup silently enforces the Tumblr approach to writing. If you don't take a certain tone or post a certain type of ADHD-friendly media, you won't get "likes" and "reblogs" and since most of us are astonishingly insecure and desperately want to feel that even these Internet strangers are friends, we gear what we post towards what others will like. I felt much better about one of my Tumblrs when I decided to just treat it like Twitter without the 140 character cutoff and the other Tumblr I run, which is (perhaps tellingly) more popular was never intended to be for more than links, videos and the occasional brief commentary anyway.

    And HRO? I think I'm too old to bother.

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  16. Ok, to summarize:

    1. You hate Emily Gould.
    2. You hate Tumblr more.
    3. You love HRO - although you used to hate it.

    Do I have that right? I don't want to go back and re-read this ... there's a lot of words up there!

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  17. As noted above, the stupid 2000/2003 thing has been fixed.

    MisterHippity is here! But where is KarenUhOh?

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  18. nice blog.. have a view of my blog when free.. http://www.lonelyreload.blogspot.com .. do leave me some comment / guide if can.. if interested can follow my blog...

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  19. So people who write for fun on the Internet are largely bad writers, and tend to be self-important about the things they write.

    ...

    This is the opposite of insightful.

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  20. "People who write for fun" is not how I'd describe someone formerly employed by one of the largest online blog empires. Or for someone employed to be the public face of a blogging system.

    I'd call them "employees."

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  21. Your proximity to the very people you write about (age, educational background, career choice, etc.) makes this piece all the more vital. Thank you, Vadim.

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  22. Thank you for this. My guess is that most of those who actively disagree with this are people who feel compelled to publicly defend Emily Gould. I'd also guess that not even they could point to anything here that isn't true.

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  23. Anyone who thinks HRO is written without a heaping pile of irony is pretty thick. Sorry, anon, he isn't some stupid person stumbling into the room. The writer might not always be making amazing work (certainly some pieces have been better than always) but it's insanely clear to anyone with half a brain that it's not straightforward stuff. It's an obvious attempt at culture critique while remaining a successful (probably for monetary means) part of that culture.

    you may disagree whether it works or not, but I can't believe you really think they are just using "scare quotes," for example, haphazardly.

    In any case, I don't think anyone (including Vadim) is thinking about this in the same way people say "TXTING IS DESTROYING THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE" because there is a glaring qualifier about the subsection of our niche this actually effects right up top - the English language will be fine and will evolve as it always has... but it is a shame that some people who could have contributed in lovely ways to literature will probably end up stumbleblogging instead.

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  24. If no one else will name names, I will:
    Meaghano
    Tylercoates
    Maura whatever
    Anyone involved with the Coming and Crying project
    Various current and former Gawker writers (FEK, Emily Gould, etc.)
    Anyone associated with n+1
    Writers for The Awl who are not Balk and Choire.
    Tess Lynch

    One thing not discussed in the piece above is the constant use of italics as much as all caps, as in you guys and so on.

    These people are popular because we all want media jobs in New York and they have them because of their trust funds and Yale connections and ability to give BJ's to get what they want. They are essentially retailing what it means to be young and okay financially and in New York and getting play on a regular basis. It seems like a pretty good life, but I'd never want to write like these people.

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  25. Does this mean I have to set up a Google alert for "Tylercoates" now?

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  26. @the last anon Balk and Choire are guilty of this sometimes. But: "Balk's Cock" was the joke that kept on giving, and Choire's thing a few weeks back about not being able to come up with daily blog fodder resonated with me. So fine.

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  27. This was too long for Twitter? Really?

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  28. Pynchon is a surrealist? Weird. What if I write tl;dr? lol omg, wtf!

    I want to say that hipster runoff is the worst thing to hit blog land VISUALLY since the first color blind person went to metafilter. Whoever runs hipster run off probably spends three hours to make their posts look like a pastiche of a first year art students high school scrap book.

    Your post is well written, however it could use some shearing; thus my tl;dr joke. I feel your roundabout way of approaching your triple subject: Gawker, Tumblr, Hipster runoff was a detriment to your overall argument about the pathetic uses of language utilized by these illiterate scato-philes. <---speaking of pathetic uses of language.

    -peace

    mmmysterioussf

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  29. Vadim,

    My initial thoughts: It's rare that I actually read something and feel the writer has an admirable depth and grasp beyond the realms of bullshit "criticism" pieces. It's even rarer that I make it to anyone's blog, let alone all the way through a single blog post, since I hate them so much. Even my own. Nice work!

    A few minor criticisms: not sure what your age is, but it really isn't relevant. What's more important is your maturity level, and by setting up your piece with the disclaimer, "... frankly if you don't already have a good working grasp of Gawker/Tumblr/HRO I'd stop right now," you've already adorned your piece with it's own bit of HRO. I didn't know who Emily Gould, the Tumblr community of "new LiveJournal" writers are, or Carles, nor do I care. I write for a living and get paid to do it, and I don't have to follow self-deprecating nitwits like these to know when bad writing is afoot, in print or online.

    Maybe take a step away from these accidents. Really, it's ok ... nothing to see there ...

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  30. Imagine an old man, trying to figure out what this blog stuff is all about, stumbling upon this discourse at the end of a string of 6 or 8 links. It is an unexpected yet welcome treat to find something thought out, reasonably complete and written with an interesting mix of sardonic humor, cynicism and seemingly sincere analysis. You have given me hope that there is, indeed, something worthwhile to be found on these internets.

    On the other hand, I now feel compelled to backtrack and see for myself these people and things that have sparked your dyspeptic, if well presented, commentary. So, thanks...perhaps for nothing, perhaps for something, but for the moment at least.

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  31. I am likely guilty of some of the crimes you've mentioned, but it pleases me to read this nonetheless. I appreciate the reminder.

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