Wednesday, December 22, 2010

If you want to write an article about a new technology,

first find someone who knows nothing about it.

This seems to be the operating principle behind handing out assignments at Salon, Slate, The New Yorker, and many other respectable, high-profile media outlets.

I was just enjoying "Master of Play," a profile of video game auteur Shigeru Miyamoto, in the most recent New Yorker when I came across this authorial aside on the third page:

"I am not a gamer. I took a few whacks at Super Mario, when it came out, in the mid-eighties, but mostly my video-game experience predated the Nintendo invasion and the unabating craze for home systems. I played arcade games, and I played them poorly; my quarters never went far. I usually wound up watching friends play, muttering over their shoulders in vain attempts to persuade them to play street hockey or Nerf football instead."

Now here's a question: couldn't The New Yorker have found someone who was a gamer to write this profile instead?

Not to pick on The New Yorker, or on the author of this piece, Nick Paumgarten, who goes on to present some genuinely insightful and even poetic observations on Miyamoto's work, from the satisfying pauses Miyamoto builds into each level to the intuitive rightness of Mario's jumps.

But this is something I have noticed again and again for years--when major media outlets cover Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Chatroulette, video games, e-readers, online dating, etc., etc. they send people who, by their own admission, know nothing about the technology they are covering and have never used it before.

And this phenomenon seems to be relegated to articles about technology and social media. I have never heard a sports commentator open up his discussion by saying, "Now, I don't know the first thing about baseball, but..." Or a book reviewer who chummily confides, "You know, I can barely read."

(I'm sure popular science and medical writers don't necessarily understand everything they are covering--heck, I used to write a wine column despite knowing almost nothing about wine--but I have never seen these other journalists explicitly call attention to their lack of expertise and make that lack the hook of their piece.)

Usually these pieces follow a similar trajectory: the writer signs up for a Match account, logs into Chatroulette, or tries his hand at Guitar Hero, fumbles around badly for awhile, and then throws up his hands at the wackiness of it all. He may go gratefully back to the old pen-and-paper ways he left behind, or in extreme cases suggest that this new technology will mean the ruin of civilization (on NPR yesterday a woman was making the very weak case that digital readers will lead to mass illiteracy). More rarely, he may have a conversion experience, as when Paumgarten mentions that he has become rather attached to the Wii that he borrowed for research on this article. Presumably the point is that we, the technologically clueless readers, will bond with the hapless reporter over his attempts to understand what exactly all the fuss is about.

Perhaps it is prejudiced to suggest it, but I suspect part of the problem may be the age of the writers--and the age of the magazine's presumed readers. But as a relatively young and technologically savvy person, I consume a lot of traditional media (often in non-traditional, ie., paperless, formats) and I find this trend both annoying and alienating. How about next time you want to talk about Twitter you hire someone who actually uses Twitter every day? I'm available...