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Thursday, December 15, 2016

If It Quacks Like a Duck, Who Is It?


Jingle-decorated safety pin from Romania

You know, I’m sure, the old saw that starts out, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...” Well, I want to tell you that that would not be your local philosopher-bookseller! You’d know that, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you be able to tell the difference after over nine years of Books in Northport? If you’re a friend and/or a customer or even if we’ve never met but you follow Books in Northport from afar, don’t you recognize my voice in these lines? And if a strange voice were to break in and take over Books in Northport, wouldn’t you know something was wrong? Wouldn’t your suspicions be aroused?

What the -- ?! Why on earth do I pose these silly rhetorical questions? If curious, please read on.

Insisting on holiday cheer
As a general rule, I am not one for compulsively checking blog stats. While now and then a post getting more than the usual daily attention can boost my spirits, seeing low numbers on things written from my heart can be discouraging, so why give myself the grief? Instead, for the most part, I just say what I have to say, post a link on Facebook, and the pay is the same (zilch!), whether no one reads or hundreds do. Once in a while, though, I get curious. I was curious the other day, and what I found on the stats report was, as Lewis Carroll had Alice say, “curiouser and curiouser,” to say the least. While stats for individual posts were unsurprising – pretty much as usual – total number of blog views had spiked. The spike was sharp and not explainable by a large number of views of any particular post or posts. What was going on?

A look at ‘traffic sources’ did nothing to dispel the mystery, largest numbers of visitors coming from Google or Facebook, as is usually the case. ‘Audience,’ however, showed a different story. There on the world map, with shades of green showing where viewers are located when they visit, the darkest green covered the area of the former USSR. The rest of the world paled in comparison. 

I shared the surprising result with David, who asked why Russians would be reading my blog. Well, I don’t think they are. Ten times as many Russians as Americans? Why would Russians feel a sudden hunger for a northern Michigan bookseller’s take on Hermann Hesse or scenes of our village in winter? I doubt there is anything in my content or CV fascinating to these new “viewers,” but in light of current events their presence is alarming, even if, as seems likely, "they" are machines rather than people.

Think about it. Blogger is a big deal world-wide. As the anniversary of Tienanmen Square approached, the Chinese government blocked Blogger, making it inaccessible to Internet users in China unless they were able to cobble together a circuitous alternate route to the blogs, and the same was true of Google and Tumblr.

(Do a search and read about it if you don’t believe me, but bear in mind that searches are tailored to individual searchers, and your results would not necessarily match mine. In that way, creators of algorithms need to take their share of the blame for Americans reading only news sources with views matching those they already had.)

Moreover, with the new Google Plus service (which I do not use), blogs can be automatically connected to Twitter, Facebook, Facebook Pages, LinkedIn, Tumblr, WordPress, Gmail, DO Note, Weebly and other sites and services. And now, think of all the bloggers who update using their mobile phones. “We’re all connected” means, among other more positive things, that we are all that much more vulnerable.

For over nine years, I have loved writing Books in Northport and connecting with people around the world -- those who actually connect, that is, not hostile, anonymous individuals, groups, or worms that only hover and stalk, with no interest in what I write, not even anything personal against me as a person or bookseller. Now I wonder how long I and other blogger friends will be able to maintain this precious outlet that has been for so long, for us and our readers, literary as well as social. I don’t know what might happen or when anything at all might come down on us.

“The personal is political.” Do you resist that idea? I’ll tell you, I’m really feeling it today.

Repressive governments are not interested in our fates as individuals, but they are very interested in restricting, in the most general, sweeping sense, our freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and the free exchange of ideas. It’s unlikely that darkness and silence will fall on us tomorrow – more likely we will be overwhelmed, day by day, by blinding metaphorical searchlights and fake news and enemies masquerading as friends.

If another voice breaks in here one day, though – or if your access is mysteriously denied – I'm telling you now, ahead of time, not to take it lying down. In fact, start now to do what you can. Think about it. What can you do? Now do it!

Flowers for freedom!



11 comments:

Peter Wolcott said...

All part of the global links we cannot avoid. Probably a broadcast to most innocent bloggers. On a happier note, we are blessed with wintry weather which incentivises us to stay in and read. Maybe I will start "Dead Souls" today. An appropriate title for these times.

P. J. Grath said...

Well, some of us manage to avoid some of those global links, though it would be a rare person who managed to avoid all of them. Anyway, you will enjoy DEAD SOULS, Peter, and I will forgive you that (cringe!) "incentivises"! THIS time!

Gerry said...

I've given a lot of thought to the probably disappearance of blogs like yours (and mine and those of other real people writing about real life and real places). Blogger and Wordpress apparently found it financially worthwhile to continue all these years, but the digital landscape is changing. I have two plans: (1) I want to be sure I can keep in touch with the "blogfriends" I've made all over the world and (2) I want to make a book of posts. Nothing lasts forever, but I'd like to be able to revisit some of the good conversations all of us have had with each other over the years. I use Torch Lake Views like a journal - a searchable journal! - when I'm trying to remember what it was like in a particular summer, or where it was I found that particular odd mushroom. I want to see Miss Sadie and the Cowboy bouncing around on the beach. I want to find a book you wrote about. I want to see Northport being its utterly quirky self. Books we can hold in our hands will be a good thing I think.

P. J. Grath said...

I've thought a lot about this, too, Gerry. Of course, the very word (or non-word, depending on your point of view) 'blog' comes from web + log, a log being a kind of journal. For me, as I suspect for you, also, the short blasts on Facebook and such will never be able to duplicate or replace our long, meandering blog visits. And yes, I'd love Books in Northport in a book -- but I think it would take several volumes at this stage of the game! And cost a fortune, no doubt.

Deborah Case said...

I print your blogs sometimes to give to people. I'm thinking I should have printed and kept them all. What will I do? Read, comment and think.

Farshaw@FineOldBooks.com said...

The positive response to repression and the like is not to sit quietly by and watch, but to mobilize, striking back in small ways every day. . Silence never worked before and will not work now. You expressed that so well,Pamela:

"Repressive governments are not interested in our fates as individuals, but they are very interested in restricting, in the most general, sweeping sense, our freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and the free exchange of ideas. It’s unlikely that darkness and silence will fall on us tomorrow – more likely we will be overwhelmed, day by day, by blinding metaphorical searchlights and fake news and enemies masquerading as friends.

If another voice breaks in here one day, though – or if your access is mysteriously denied – I'm telling you now, ahead of time, not to take it lying down. In fact, start now to do what you can. Think about it. What can you do? Now do it!"

May I repost it?

P. J. Grath said...

Deborah, thanks! Helen, be my guest!

BB-Idaho said...

"In that way, creators of algorithms need to take their share of the blame for Americans reading only news sources with views matching those they already had.)" That in a nutshell is the problem. Over
60% of web users get their news from Facebook. Many believe Fake New and denigrate professional journalists. Orwellian, IMO.

P. J. Grath said...

BB, there is a lot of attention focused on Facebook right now, regarding the matter of fake news. What most of us have known for a long time, though, but maybe forgotten is the way Google decides what results to show someone doing a search: the results you get are tailored to you, individually, based on past searches you've made and sites, commercial and noncommercial, that you have visited. So a dozen different people may well see a dozen different lists of search results, and everyone will see what fits best with what they've looked at before. Different points of view, challenges to preconceived conclusions? Not so much. I see a big danger there, as well as unfairness (i.e., no "level playing field").

Farshaw@FineOldBooks.com said...

You're write to protect your information; look what climate change scientists are doing!

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/12/13/scientists-are-frantically-copying-u-s-climate-data-fearing-it-might-vanish-under-trump/?utm_term=.317dc1d0323e

P. J. Grath said...

I heard about that, Helen. Glad they are doing it!