On-Line and Off-Line Discourse(s)

The magazine “Popular Mechanics” has been at the forefront of investigating – and debunking – 9/11 conspiracy theories. They write:

“The results of our research appeared in the March 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics. That cover story, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” provoked a strong reaction on the internet and in the mainstream media. The online version of the article remains the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times.”

That’s great! So what do they do with the most-read article in the website’s history?

“…we decided to extend our original investigation and publish a book-length version of our findings.”

NOOOO!!!!

You really couldn’t write a better script for – and I don’t like using this term, but have to in this case – an “old-media” company misunderstanding the existant and emerging models of readership than this one.

The whole thing is even more bizarre – for reasons I will explain shortly – because, as they state outright, this investigation seeks not to tell the story of 9/11 but “th[e] book aims only to answer the questions raised by conspiracy theorists themselves.” [emphasis in original]

So why do I find it strange that they’re writing a book? Let me explain.

Having a well-read magazine with a trusted name remains, for the time being, a pretty good and reliable way to make money, and “Popular Mechanics” remains a lead title in Hearst Corporation’s stable.

Writing a book, as has been the case more or less since books were invented, remains a pretty good and reliable way to not make money. To horribly simplify it: a tiny number of books make large amounts of money; a slightly larger number of books make enough money to feed their authors. The vast majority of books fall don’t do either, but rather fall into categories of cost/benefit analysis – namely, does a title make enough over break-even for the publisher to offer the author another contract, or not? The author, in these cases, is earning the satisfaction of publication and not a lot else.

Further, the vast majority of books sell very few copies. Shockingly few.

So while the publication of this book stands a good chance of making some – but almost certainly not bank-breaking amounts – money for the Hearst Corporation (not least because much of the book is apparently comprised of already-published material that has already paid for itself with magazine advertising), the authors will stand to benefit very little, at least in financial terms.

Okay. So why write a book? Well, unless one really really enjoys making money primarily for one’s corporate masters, presumably the motivation is intellectual – namely, a desire to engage with a readership in exploration and discussion of an issue. The book’s editors certainly seem impassioned on the topic when they write,

“The work of comprehending the events of 9/11 is not finished. It is vital to understand exactly what went wrong that day and to make sure it does not happen again. There were lapses and shortcomings on the part of government agencies in the months and years leading up to 9/11. Every American wishes our government had been more alert and better prepared. And every American is entitled to ask hard questions. But there is a world of difference between believing that our government should have known what was coming and claiming that someone did know and deliberately did nothing–or, even worse, actively perpetrated attacks on its own citizens. By deliberately blurring that line, conspiracy theorists exploit and misdirect the public’s legitimate anger over the events of that day.

Some argue that alternative 9/11 scenarios are valuable in that they promote skepticism of a government that has not always been as open as many would like. But a climate of poisonous suspicion will not help America adjust to the post-9/11 world. And the search for truth is not aided by the dissemination of falsehoods.”

The book is not a lark – these are people who clearly care about getting the results of their extensive investigative reporting, editing and writing into the popular discourse to combat what they see as a “poisonous” and unseemly line of thinking. And when you’re talking about an article that’s the website’s historically most popular, one that more than 850,000 people have printed out – well, that’s a pretty sizable readership, no?

No. Or at least – probably not.

9/11 conspiracy theories abound, and have quickly and widely found currency and community because of the Internet. There’s just no two ways about it: the basic fact of the Internet’s anonymity and ease of access to any and all information has allowed lines of thinking and investigation that would previously have been the province almost solely of leaflet-Xeroxing cranks to become accessible to previously-unimaginable numbers of people. While the authors of the book do mention (only to deride) “…Wikipedia, the open-source online encyclopedia, and Loose Change, the 9/11 conspiracy documentary that has become a sensation on college campuses,” what they fail to note about Loose Change is that it has become a “sensation” because it is freely acessible on the Internet – primarily through Google Video but also through YouTube (where a search for ‘loose change’ also includes a Spanish version and several videos de-bunking its claims).

Loose Change, too, would likely be relegated to much, much smaller audiences – those willing to make time for public viewing of DVDs or tapes passed through college and other fringe communities, or those willing to manually make those copies themselves – if not for the Internet. Or, more likely, it simply wouldn’t exist without current levels of information communications technology – the ability of a few individuals to find, piece together, edit and distribute video for little more expense than the already-sunk cost of a computer is a very recent and still pretty mind-blowing idea.

So if the degree of awareness and reach of 9/11 conspiracy theories is due almost entirely to the Internet, then it should be little surpise that the success of articles purporting to debunk these theories would also follow from their availability on… the Internet. Indeed, it’s so obvious as to be a tautology – an article that is “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times” can be classified as an enormous success because it’s “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times.”

It’s clear that the article hit a nerve, and that it was able to reach a broad and interested audience. It’s still the top result when you Google “9/11 Conspiracy Theory.” For that matter, it’s the second result when you Google “Popular Mechanics.”
But it also seems to be clear that the authors and editors at “Popular Mechanics” don’t really know why the article was and is so massively successful and popular. Or maybe they do – maybe they realize that they tapped into a massive online community, and figure that their good work (since, clearly, “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com [that] has been printed out more than 850,000 times” means it’s good work) will encourage enough of those hundreds of thousands to buy the book that it will become a big success. And who knows – maybe they’re right.

Another possibility – and one that maybe they haven’t considered or internalized entirely – is that a great many of the people who’ve read the article online disagree with it entirely.

And that is manifestly the case – after the article itself, searching for “9/11 popular mechanics” leads to pages and pages of results of discussion on the article, with almost all of it expressing something rather less than fondness for the “Popular Mechanics” article. “Lies” is a popular modifier.

So am I saying that, given the enormous negative reaction to the article, that its authors and publishers misattribute page views and article-printings for agreement, and that it is not in fact a success? I am not saying that; in point of fact I’m relatively certain that a great many of the readers of the article have agreed with it, and found it a satisfying and well-researched antidote for the uncomfortable charges and avenues of discussion among 9/11 conspiracy theorists (or as the community refers to itself, the 9/11 Truth Movement – more on that here). What I am saying is this: the attention both positive and negative (it’s difficult to count how many thousands of words have been written de-bunking the “Popular Mechanics” de-bunking) paid to the article is a result not of its journalistic merits, or lack thereof. Rather, it is a consequence of the article filling a previously-vacant role in a massive online conversation, that of a major institution addressing not the “consensus narrative” of 9/11 but addressing the critique of that narrative. And it’s further my argument that, if “Popular Mechanics” wanted to effectively leverage their role in that conversation, it’s not the content – which it’s clear many of the article’s readers disagree with – that is their chief asset. It’s their position of institutional engagement with the 9/11 conspiracy theory/Truth Movement – and that position is online.

Now – developing a strategy to actually capitalize on their position might, especially in the higher reaches of Hearst Corporation, have ruffled feathers as being “diluting the core brand,” pulling “Popular Mechanics” away from its usual apolitical gadget-wrangling. Publishing a paper book is a safe way to leverage the article’s popularity precisely because it stands so little chance of any large impact. And it should come as little surprise that a 105-year-old core-brand magazine of a major international media conglomerate is thinking, as they say, “inside the box.”

But what might a winning strategy have looked like? That is a far different question, because there’s no one clear right answer – and probably a lot of different answers depending on the definition of success. They could, for example, have

  • used the article as a jumping-off-point for the creation of a 9/11-debunking community website, an analogue to 9/11 Truth.org. Maybe they’d get accused (as they already are) of being corporate lackeys for consensus reality – but I’ll bet they’d have some pretty excellent traffic numbers, and that’s all advertisers really care about. And for a wood-pulp magazine to be getting some of that sweet ‘Net-ads dollars right now is a big coup.
  • sold the book in both paper and digital formats, with digital copies substantially cheaper, and perhaps either making the intial few chapters free (though they probably are already, as much of the book is recycled from the inital reporting) or eventually making the digital copies entirely free, as several authors have done recently with successful and well-regarded novels
  • something else entirely that I’m not clever enough to think of (admittedly, this covers a wide range of possibilities)

The one thing I’m confident in saying they shouldn’t’ve done is what they ended up doing – they had a fascinating opportunity and chose a perfectly boring solution, whose tepid reception will likely convince them that the opportunity wasn’t really that fascinating in the first place. The jury is still out on a lot of questions regarding, “how to do business/have conversations on the Internet,” but there’s one approach that keeps failing time and again. When you stumble onto a new-media success, don’t try to stuff it back into an old-media box; don’t tell your users that they’re using your product wrong and that this is the way they should be using it, that this is the way this conversation should go.

[Note: I had originally intended to tie this discussion in with the profound failure that is New York Times Select, but will leave that for a later post.]

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One Response to On-Line and Off-Line Discourse(s)

  1. stinker says:

    Be sure to check out the book “Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory” due out in March by Dr. David Ray Griffin.

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&EAN=9781566566865&itm=2

    http://www.amazon.com/Debunking-11-Mechanics-Defenders-Conspiracy/dp/156656686X/sr=1-4/qid=1168895874/ref=sr_1_4/102-3028549-2492937?ie=UTF8&s=books

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