Our Scientific Obsession
We have always been enthralled by journalism that purports to explain a new or recent scientific/technological occurrence; even in 1844 we were falling for Poe’s faux-account of a hot air balloon that crossed the Atlantic at 25,000 feet in three days (but were thus primed for his obvious satire about an ancient talking mummy one year later). A cynical analysis of this cultural craving could lead us to assert a sort of Big Brother corollary, where we (the people) blindly trust them (the people in charge) to show us the Truth. There is definitely an ignorance-is-bliss element to our need for the omnipotent explanatory piece of sci-tech journalism. But a more practical explanation is that we merely want to understand the cultural context of—and to get a behind-the-scenes peek into—the inventions that did not exist twenty years ago but that we now use every single day of our lives.
But similar to all the people who obsessively latched onto Poe’s balloon hoax, I, too, feel the same pang of exhilaration each time I encounter another long-form magazine story that quenches my desire for understanding technological progress. In the past three years, popular magazines have explored the phenomena of Facebook, Craigslist, Groupon, and Twitter by publishing the kind of articles that, if you’re interested in the subject, you wish would continue beyond their 8,000 words. Each article follows the same blueprint: a semi-provocative title; a simple narrative arc; a simpler history of the industry and the tech tool’s place in it; a quirky protagonist, usually the founder, who is a normal-person male genius (it’s always a he) who accidentally stumbled into an obvious billion-dollar venture; and a handful of gravity-defying assessment lines. The writing in these articles is sharp but easy to comprehend, and the story is smooth and clear, with the stakes perfectly staged: the piece of technology becomes something that, as Joe Hagan writes about Twitter, “not only changes the nature of the world but eventually makes it hard to remember a world in which it didn’t exist.” And I am always convinced.
Here are my four favorite articles.
1. Twitter, New York magazine, October 2011.
Semi-provocative title: “Tweet Science.”
Quirky protagonist: CEO Dick Costolo, “a former improv comedian whose bald head and square-framed glasses give him the look of a walking exclamation point.”
Gravity defying assessment line: “But as Twitter grew, it finally became clear to Twitter’s brain trust that the relevant analogy was not a social network but a broadcast system—the birth of a different sort of TV.”
2. Groupon, Vanity Fair, August 2011.
Semi-provocative title: “Groupon Therapy.”
Quirky protagonist: Founder Andrew Mason, a trickster who “once spread a rumor in his office that he owned 20 cats.”
Gravity defying assessment line: “Groupon’s strategy, like the game of Risk, was world domination.”
3. Craigslist, Wired magazine, August 2009.
Semi-provocative title: “Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess.”
Quirky protagonist: Founder Craig Newmark, who “says there is nothing he would care to do with” upwards of billions of dollars, since “he already has a parking space, a hummingbird feeder, a small home with a view, and a shower with strong water pressure.”
Gravity defying assessment line: “Craigslist gets more traffic than either eBay or Amazon .com. eBay has more than 16,000 employees. Amazon has more than 20,000. Craigslist has 30.”
4. Facebook, New York magazine, April 2009.
Semi-provocative title: “Do you own Facebook? Or does Facebook own you?”
Quirky protagonist: Article author Vanessa Grigoriadis, a Facebook “late-adopter” who uses the site as a “tool for exceptionally mindless, voyeuristic, puerile procrastination; crowd-sourced pesky problems like finding a new accountant.”
Gravity defying assessment line: “This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand.”