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Publish or Perish



My fatal flaw as a journalist was that I never cared if people read my work. That made me more artist than journalist, though talent-wise I was more journalist than artist. For a journalist, publication is everything; there is no point in the creation if it doesn't get published. The artist takes pleasure in the creation itself. What separates the true artist from the pop artist is that the pop artist strives for mass audience or mass consumption of the creation.

This is the age of the citizen journalist and the pop artist. 

What got me on this train of thought was an article by Mattathias Schwartz in The New Yorker last month about the origins of Occupy Wall Street. In it he says that Micah White doesn't use Facebook. White is the senior editor of Adbusters magazine, which came up with the idea and organized the first encampment. White calls Facebook the "commercialization of friendship," Schwartz wrote.

When I read that line I felt as if I had just taken the red pill from Morpheus. (Matrix reference, for readers who avoid insanely popular movies.) First corporations slap their names on our beloved baseball stadiums. They put ads under our feet in the subway terminals. They get us to turn our chests into billboards via logo T-shirts and sweats. Then Mark Zuckerberg comes along and figures out how to get us to stick ads on our daily chatter. For the sitcom Friends to seem at all realistic today, the producers would need to cover the coffee table in Central Perk with a link to Farmville.

Facebook has managed to commercialize our coffee klatch by tapping into a deeper trend: The compulsion to publish, something that once only the wealthy and the brilliant had the ability to do.

About 2,000 years ago Julius Caesar blogged his battles. Well, of course he didn't exactly blog them -- the Internet didn't exist for two millennia. But every day he dictated to slaves the exploits of the army he led and had a copy sent out via runner to Rome, where other slaves copied it and distributed it throughout the city. Since he was a Roman Citizen (a title which conferred elite status) you might call him the first citizen journalist. To communicate to a mass audience back then you needed a lot of money. Our history, I like to say, was written by those who could afford to write. After Guttenberg invented his press you no longer needed slaves to spread news about your exploits. Martin Luther could kvetch about the Catholic Church and have his ideas spread throughout Europe as people bought and passed around copies of his books.

Over 2,000 years, publishing became much easier and way cheaper. Now everyone can publish anything. News of their exploits, their complaints about the church, what they made for dinner, what they saw on the way to town, what their baby ate for dinner. Anyone can turn their thoughts into memoirs and publish them in book form via Kindle. And since they can publish, so many feel compelled to publish.

Rene Descartes once shocked the world with this notion: I think, therefore I am.

But nowadays, if you aren't on Facebook you don't really exist, and if you don't tweet you aren't important. I've got 150 "friends" who I can reach instantly. Why would I bother with one I can't? I Tweet therefore I am.

Except I don't. Tweet. I don't Tweet. I have had a Twitter account for years. I just can't get myself to post any tweets. I don't want anyone to read my unfiltered thoughts. I futz over my writing. I organize my thoughts before I write anything. I edit even my emails before I hit the send button. I once described myself to a colleague as "socially reluctant," and he knew exactly what I meant. I think many journalists are socially reluctant. At social events people expect you to converse with strangers, and in those conversations you are forced to air unedited thoughts to people who might take them the wrong way. It seems such a dangerous thing to do.

Now the world is one big, ongoing social event we can't leave. Maybe that's why everyone seems to smoke so much dope these days and drink so much alcohol. How many people can bear a party without a smoke or a drink?

Even our conversations with good friends resemble those at parties. Just as the talk gets deep, text messages or phone calls pull away one or more of our friends -- just as competing conversations pull people away at parties. At parties the combination of people talking over each other and over the background music can be deafening. In the virtual party that doesn't end we talk over each other online -- just look at the threads of posts on your Facebook page -- and it is difficult to concentrate on any one conversation because of the music we have playing in the background on Pandora or iTunes.

So here is my wish for the New Year and my suggestions for New Year's resolutions.

Make some actual time for your good friends. Meet in a physical place on a regular basis if possible, over coffee or tea instead of dope and booze. Shut off your phone and turn off your iPod. You might discover a new stimulant. It is called conversation.

Read more than you post and view more than you upload.

When you post and upload, give yourself time to first process your thoughts.

Make time for yourself. Sit on a comfortable chair or lie on your bed or couch. Put your phone in another room and put your computer on sleep mode. Close whatever book you are reading and turn off the TV, radio and stereo. Listen to your own thoughts. You might discover that you are one of the most interesting people you know.

Publishing is addictive. The more people read or view what you published or posted or uploaded or tweeted, the more addictive it becomes. But it is meaningless if what you publish has no meaning and if your audience is only half paying attention to what you say.

And if this party ever ends and you are like me, you will regret whatever it was you said.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She is waiting for the invention of a White-Out that will let her rewrite all her past mistakes.

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