Rushkoff solves the riddle!

The reasons for fame are elusive. They certainly elude us in the case of Douglas Rushkoff, the inexplicably eminent media critic responsible for unreadable books like Coercion (we gave up the struggle in the page-20 range) and overstated books like Playing the Future. (This is not a religious diatribe, à la Macintosh vs. Windows. We are not antirushkoffian by policy. Indeed, Playing the Future was bang-on in focusing on a generation gap in sensory literacy – the kids today can take in a lot more stimuli at once than their parents ever could. We merely adjudge Rushkoff overrated.)

Anyway, l’homme Rushkoff has now settled what online content is, means, and does once and for all, with the finality that clients pay him thousands of dollars a day to deliver. (At, we offer taste, i.e., opinion, not some form of received truth.) Apparently content is something we use as a pretext for small talk at the office the next day. We all have some kind of nascent need to tell stories, apparently, and Web sites are stoking the conversational fires at workplaces from one end of Ohio to another, in Rushkoff’s worldview.

Readily confusing the last episode of MASH with the miscellanea that typify the Internet, Rushkoff wants us to believe that people talk about what they surf – as a means to “lubricate” conversations. (Any linguist will tell you that some words have meaning and others have function, like “hi.” How is this any different?)

Rushkoff concludes with the advice that –

Those of you who think you are creating online content, take note: your success will be directly dependent on your ability to create excuses for people to talk to one another. For the real measure of content’s quality is its ability to serve as a medium.

– which brings back unhappy memories of portalistas and their mass condescension. Portal sites assume the masses have vague and undefined interests, like “sports” or “entertainment.” Rushkoff assumes that people will find Web sites of surpassingly general interest and talk them up at work. The net isn’t like that. Internet content is about specificity.

If you need a conversation-starter at the office (has Rushkoff ever worked in a real one?), you’re going to refer to some phenomenon of safe general interest. (Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons: “How ’bout that... local sports team?”) As we explained in our dissection of portals, anyone who’s been online a while develops a portfolio of personal sites related to his or her pet topics. There’s probably a good reason why they’re pet topics. One such reason is “None of my friends, and certainly no one at work, gives a damn.” But other people online do. In cyberspace, no one knows you’re a dog. In meatspace, no one needs to know about your absurdly specific interests. (And we’re not even talking porn here.)

We at don’t exactly prance into work of a morning eager to talk up our colleagues about those neato Web sites we discovered on the topics of captioning, Maine coon cats, motorbikes, Ultimate®, triathlon, or any of the other cherished obsessions we nurture. Grice’s conversational maxims, and mere decency, keep us from doing that.

So why does Rushkoff think other people don’t have the same kind of common sense?

(And anyway, we all know what people do with Web sites they think other people will like: They mail a link, or write about ’em on their Weblogs. But talking about them at work? Please.)

Posted on 2000-07-07