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It was mid-summer and I was putting the finishing touches on a long essay. But then, predictably, things slowed down. Each of the finishing touches cried out for their own finishing touches, and the endpoint skipped away from me, snickering. My editor waited on the West Coast in polite silence. The essay’s subject was the British poet Geoffrey Hill, and he was not helping. The great man decided to set up camp somewhere over my left shoulder. Every time I gazed away from the keyboard or wrote a shoddy sentence his face floated into view, wearing an immense and accusatory scowl.

More… “Hero-Death”

James Chapin is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. He is the author of a forthcoming novel set in 1800s Florida.

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One of the small corners of YouTube not dominated by cat videos belongs to the downright oddest and most dismaying cultural oddities of the 21st century: the YouTube boy-celebrity. They aren’t real celebrities; you’ve never heard of them, the entirety of their careers to date has begun, escalated, and flourished without touching your life in any way. But in their insular world, their experience mimics actual celebrity to an uncanny degree: these YouTube boy-celebrities have publicists, social media managers, endorsement deals, and copyrighted brands. They have flunkies whom they feel free to humiliate, overwork, and confront with screamed demands. They pack tens of thousands of hysterical fans into auditoriums for live events like VidCon and Summer in the City. They know how to hold microphones onstage in Dean Martin-old pro styles; they’re visibly terrified during manager-mandated mingles with their audiences; quite a few have been embroiled in sex scandals; they have, almost to an individual, at some point in the last four years yelled the stereotypical celebrity line, “Do you know who I am?”

We don’t know who they are, and their brand optimization management teams aren’t happy about that fact. The central problem with the kind of cross-branding those management teams yearn for derives from the typical YouTube boy-celebrity origin story: a cute, epicene young thing buys a bargain digital camera, sets it up in his bedroom, and proceeds to vamp for attention. They did nothing else but vamp; unlike all previous incarnations of the teen-boy heartthrob crush, these boys were offering only themselves, only these four-minute windows into their bedrooms. David Cassidy and his brother Shaun had to at least make a token effort to sing and act; likewise the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, who had serious professional dance coaches to learn those intricate floor shows. Even Justin Bieber (discovered on YouTube) made a pretense of having — or wanting to have — musical talent. Not so the YouTube boy-celebrity: with him, all pretense of purpose is stripped away, leaving only the hair, the eyes, the lips … what you see is quite literally the extent of what you get.
More… “Boy Toys”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.

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Tweets get more press, Youtube clips boast a better market cap, blog rants have nostalgia working in their favor — but is there any mode of expression more suited to the web than the before-and-after photo? TakeTwo, a new iPhone app, allows aficionados of the form to use their “before” photos as visual overlays when composing their follow-ups — thus ensuring close matches of perspective and other pictorial variables in shots that may end up being taken months or years apart.

 

It’s a useful tool, but the truth is the before-and-after photo has been ready for the current era of ruthlessly short attention spans and hyper-efficient communication strategies for well over 100 years now. In an 1897 edition of the Denver Medical Times, a contributor notes how well the “before and after photographs” in… More…

These are days of crisis for the publishing industry in general and for journalism in particular. The grand newspapers of record — like the New York Times, the London Times, Le Monde — have been slashing budgets and trying to figure out ways to survive in the transformed media environment that the Internet and financial instability have wrought.

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

The web retailer Zappos gives you 365 days to return or exchange any item it sells, and applies no additional shipping or restocking fees when you do so. LL Bean allows you to return or exchange any item “at any time” if you are no longer 100 per cent satisfied with it, and it applies only a $6.50 shipping fee for this privilege. Under such generous, flexible, friction-fee terms, when shipping and restocking fees are eliminated, when return labels are provided beforehand, when receipts aren’t necessarily required for verification, every product a retailer offers essentially becomes a gift card that can be used to purchase any other product in its line.

 

In theory, of course, a gift card says, “I understand your virtues are so rich and complex, your tastes so refined, that only you yourself can be… More…

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in the middle of a patchy square of lawn that fronts a fading seaside motel, a plywood sign emblazoned with orange spray-paint letters announces the motel’s latest amenity: free Wi-Fi. A continent away, in the gray outer reaches of San Francisco, in a part of town where tiny, dingy laundromats outnumber Starbucks by a ratio of about five to zero, the tiniest, dingiest laundromat in the neighborhood displays a similar notice in its smudgy front window. This sign is fashioned from laser paper rather than plywood, but the slapdash aesthetic and straightforward message are the same: free Wi-Fi.

 

In between these two down-market outposts of communitarian idealism, approximately 42,361 other establishments — including a truck stop in Gila Bend, Arizona; the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky; and the oldest strip club in… More…

The economy is still so weak that one in eight Americans now relies on food stamps to help pay their grocery bills, and yet in May, Mission Minis — a San Francisco purveyor of expensive pygmy cupcakes — experienced such high demand that its exhausted employees were threatening to quit after several marathon days of grueling baked goods preparation. To satisfy the city’s appetite for these Justin Biebers of the dessert world, one Mission Minis employee reportedly spent 52 hours baking, boxing, and taking orders.

All across the country, Average Joe small businesses are enjoying similar boom times in the midst of a recession that has laid the titans of Wall Street to waste. An “unassuming, slightly cramped” spa in New York with a reputation for rudeness suddenly attracts 2,570 blotchy Manhattanites in search of deep-pore cleansing. A… More…

In 1909, E.M. Forster published his short story “The Machine Stops” as an antidote to H.G. Wells’ optimistic tales of the future. Set in a world where The Machine (read: the Internet) controls all aspects of life, and a person can communicate with friends through “Plates” (read: Skype) or push a button (read: e-mail) and have their work sent in, there was never any reason to walk the surface of Earth ever again. All a person could need was in his room, where he wasted away, pale and untouched, like Vashti, the story’s subject.

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. 327 pages. Prometheus Books. $25.98. A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. 320 pages. Granta Books.

“There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing…. More…

A common complaint about the Internet, whether it’s being leveled by a journalist who just lost his newspaper job or someone who found herself the target of online rage, is that it’s such a shallow, spiteful place. While it’s a ludicrous statement — the Internet is merely a medium, not anything homogeneous — the complaint is valid in large, and vocal, parts of the online world. It’s odd that in this age of loosened borders and individualism, online you can be drowned out with boos and hisses just by stating an off-center position. Sure, the idyllic promise of the Internet is that it can bring you news from around the world and expose you to people and things you never would have seen otherwise, but in reality many of us use it simply as an echo chamber.

What Is Good and Why: The Ethics… More…

 

In the earliest days of e-commerce, it didn’t matter if you were ordering from a little old lady on eBay or a venture-funded start-up like Amazon or Webvan: Every transaction was a crap shoot. You browsed virtual stores that didn’t even have the dubious glossy authority of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. You studied photos of vintage furniture, Oprah’s latest book club pick, meat. With a leap of faith, you clicked on the Order button and surrendered your mailing address and credit card number. There was no droning customer service representative to reassure you that the enterprise you were dealing with was at least legitimate enough to hire a roomful of disaffected high-school dropouts. There was no stamp to lick, or any other tangible evidence to suggest this transaction was truly taking place. Who knew buying pet food or… More…