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Is this what happens when you start with Twitter?

19 Jan

You begin by trash-talking justifiable targets like Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, branch out into meeting movie stars, and end up back in jail?

images.jpeg It’s a question Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman might well be asking himself at this very moment.

Following his headline-making escape from a maximum security prison last July, the diminutive drug lord accrued more than half a million Twitter followers, enjoying his occasional insults to people most Mexicans don’t like anyway.

But the fame seems to have gone to head. He started thinking that what he really needed was a movie made about his life, and got in touch with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. She, in turn, got Sean Penn to come along with her on a trip to one of El Chapo’s jungle hideaways so he could write an article about it for Rolling Stone.

Now Mexican justice authorities are suggesting that El Chapo’s yen for fame, not just notoriety, contributed to his capture earlier this month. That clandestine visit with the stars apparently played some role in giving police, according to the New York Times, “the break they needed: actionable intelligence of his specific location.”

The truth is, I myself have consistently wondered if I too should be on Twitter. After all, I have just published a new book, and could use the publicity. Twitter, I guess, is one way to get publicity although I’m still not quite sure how.

But I do recognize that tweeting and celebrity-dom are somehow entwined. Not only can you follow your favourite celebrities’ thought processes via their tweets, but you are, in a sense, a sort of celebrity yourself if you are on Twitter, if you can boast vast crowds, or even small crowds, of anonymous followers.

All of which has got me pondering the very nature of celebrity. After all, El Chapo is already well known as a larger-than-life character who controls a vast empire of crime and death, and has earned gazillions in the process. He’s got a beauty-queen wife, a legion of gun-toting minions, and sway over a considerable number, no doubt, of Mexican politicians.

And it’s interesting how Penn himself, along with his 11,000-word article underscores that celebrity power.

His article, as Joel Simon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, “was not an interview and certainly not a piece of investigative journalism. It fits more neatly into another journalistic genre: The celebrity profile. Penn’s story is an exercise in myth making that for the most part lets El Chapo tell his own story.”

The context is important here. Mexico is a dangerous place for journalists who question and illustrate the extraordinary damage to Mexican society by its combination of unaccountable politicians and unassailable drug cartels.Way too many of them have paid with their lives.

However Penn’s article was, first of all, mostly about himself – naturally. He’s a celebrity too. But he also shied away from asking Guzman hardball questions about the consequences of what he does for a living, and even had the magazine send him a prior copy of the article to make sure he was okay with everything.

This is probably normal for celebrities. When I approached Penn’s organization in Haiti for my book about aid, I was told I had to sign a similar agreement before they would consider allowing me into the Internally Displaced Persons camp he was running in the Pétion Ville Golf Club. (In the end, I signed it, but never did pass on what I wrote before publication.)

Our obsession with celebrities, as opposed to the newsworthy, seems to have opened up an increasingly ample definition of what the term even means. It has provided an ever-broader platform to the talentless and unremarkable, people who have nothing worthwhile to offer, not even entertainment value. And in the case of El Chapo, quite simply a violent cartel boss with no idea of the harm he and his ‘business competitors’ are causing.

Maybe El Chapo is now regretting his desire to clamber onto this platform. Maybe he is seeing how fame can also be a two-edged sword. As the pathetic images of him post-arrest inspire everything from piñatas to popular social media jokes, he seems to have very quickly gone from being an unlikely counterculture icon to a figure of ridicule.

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Figuring Out Amanda Lindhout

24 Sep

blue_sky_199297Amanda Lindhout has been in the news again lately and I am having a hard time knowing what to make of this young woman.

The details of her past few years are stark and dramatic. As a cocktail waitress from small-town Alberta, she saved her money and used it to travel to places where she could write the kind of exotic war correspondent articles that would make her a serious journalist. She went to Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Iraq, but never really managed to enact this transformation, the only publication anyone in North America would have seen her work being the Red Deer Advocate.

Then, 2008, she went to Somalia — where she and a friend were promptly kidnapped. Their parents managed to scrape together ransom money, the pair were freed, and upon returning to Canada, Ms. Lindhout did two things: establish a charity and write a book.

Now the latter, I can understand. Memoirs of appalling experiences and how they have been survived are popular, the best written of them garnering both acclaim and media attention.

But the former, the setting up a personal charity devoted to “empowering Somali women,” leaves me a bit uneasy.

Ms. Lindhout’s book, A House in the Sky, was co-written with a New York Times writer, an excerpt featured in its pages a couple of weeks ago. It has received positive reviews, and brought Ms. Lindhout, already a prolific public speaker, spreads in magazines like Elle and this month’s Vogue.

But she has also come in for a share of criticism. Opinionated columnists like Margaret Wente  and Andrew Cohen have called her everything from naive and reckless to narcissistic and self-indulgent. The not–so-latent subtext of their comments — that, in some way, Ms. Lindhout deserved what happened to her — are seriously disturbing.

To a certain extent I can identify because I have been a freelancer almost all my life. I financed may of my early forays with money from waitressing, and while I wonder at why Ms. Lindhout could pay for such expensive travel, including the guide and two body guards she hired in Mogadishu, with no one buying her articles, I totally get that impatient impulse to cut corners and just be there. To investigate and write about what others seem to be missing, seek out those voices that are not being heard and experience the thrill of seeing the results in print.

I also, however, remember being vigorously told off by the late Paul Ellman, the Observer correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s, when I said I was planning to go to the town of La Palma and make contact with FMLN guerillas. Paul was a big partier and a bit of a reprobate, but he was so deadly serious about the potential consequences — the sheer folly — of putting myself in such danger that I allowed myself to be dissuaded. Was it the right thing to do? Or was I just being chicken?

Just a few months later, I learned that Nick Blake, an affable young American freelancer I’d met briefly in San Salvador, had paid for his bold journalistic ambitions with his life. Nick had also gone off to meet guerillas, the Guerilla Army of the Poor, in Guatemala, and was captured and shot by the Guatemalan military. Back then, if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were not kidnapped. You were killed.

Freelancers flocking to areas of danger and controversy is nothing new. But apparently, they are being increasingly relied on for material by news outlets that can no longer afford to send staff writers to such places. All of the costs associated with these assignments — safety training, insurance, fixers, security personnel — can be saved by agreeing to take ‘on spec’ something some enterprising young person manages to send in instead.

And it is also understandable, I realize, that Ms. Lindhout’s emotional solution to the devastation of 15 months of beating, rape, starvation and terror would be this turn towards good works. As she herself said in a television interview shortly after setting up the Global Enrichment Foundation, “Establishing this foundation is the first step towards making sense of what happened to me and using it to do something good in the world.” The psychological impulse, the need to counter something horrible by concentrating on altruistic acts, is probably quite normal.

But, does it also not raise some troubling issues? Should the motivation for offering to offset the horrors of poverty lie in the need for psychological salvation? Or because it is inherently wrong that such poverty exists? Are people donating to the Global Enrichment Foundation because of what happened to Ms. Lindhout, or because of what happens every day to people in war-torn and conflicted nations? Is there a danger that this charitable endeavour, however good its programs and intentions, is all about its founder rather than the situation of the destitute it wants to help?

Maybe I would not be writing about this if her humanitarian projects were anonymous, rather than being branded by her own personal tragedy. Maybe she is forging a vital and morally principled connection between her tragedy and those of others. Or maybe it’s an attempt to seek admiration and positive attention. In the end, these are questions probably only Amanda Lindhout herself can answer.

 

 

Comedy — and Life — Through The Back Door

12 Sep

Last week, the media conglomerate spawned by Brazil’s O Globo newspaper – founded in 1925 – issued an unusual, if tardy apology. It said ‘sorry!’ for having supported Brazil’s military dictatorship for more than three decades.

Of course it had always been clear that the Marinho family supported the dictatorship — this wasn’t news to anyone — but the idea of apologizing for one’s past ideology is. And it can’t help but make me wonder if O Globo’s admitting to past mistakes arises from the fact that it, along with most traditional media, is less and less relevant a source of our news, entertainment and ethos.

It is also probably true that, at the time, any news outlet that did not want to be shut down at the time, was obliged to show support for the military government and all it stood for, including its economic plans and the hierarchical system it embodied.  Thus the poor were poor because they were lazy and resentful, not because they lacked rights and resources. The rich were rich because they were naturally superior beings.

This was still very much the view when I first went to work in Brazil in 1987 and my daily read was the Jornal do Brasil, which has since gone bankrupt and been bought out by O Globo. And that is also why I am such a big fan of film-maker Nelson Pereira dos Santos and particularly his incredibly moving film made in 1957, Rio Zona Norte.

Yet that accepted understanding of hierarchies is still very much part of Brazilian culture and one of the reasons the current Workers party government finds itself in such an ideological bind. Here are the people so long excoriated by the powers-that-be, now itself in power, and playing politics completely according to its corrupt and self-serving rules.

And hence the increasing lack of relevance of traditional media that has a hard time evoking what average Brazilians think or feel, and what their lives are really like.

But now, with new media offering all kinds of alternative outlets, we can not only find the British documentary, Beyond Citizen Kane,  about the Globo dynasty the company tried so hard to suppress — but also a comedy program like Porta dos Fundos. Its name means ‘the back door’ and it has been making and running dozens of skits on its own YouTube channel, watched by millions of people.

Here is a sample taken from the New York Times (only because it’s in English, because I highly recommend any Portuguese speakers check out the real thing) featuring a mock response to the recent demonstrations by the President and her cabinet.

There’s nothing particularly new or earth-shattering about the concept or the material. Just a refreshing viewpoint we would not be seeing if the technology of media hadn’t advanced as much as it has — and if a bunch of enterprising young folk hadn’t decided to take advantage of it.

Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug

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The Haiti earthquake of 2010 has inspired rather a lot of books and articles describing  personal experiences of its extraordinarily destruction — or maybe it only appears that way to me as I do my own research on the effects of development aid and philanthropy in a nation that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next without much, if any, signs of progress.

Now author and activist Beverly Bell has added her voice to those of writers like Paul Farmer, Amy Wilentz, and Jonathan Katz with Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

But it would be a mistake to think she is simply giving us another version of the same horrific scenes and tragic stories of injury and loss.

There are verbal pictures of sidewalks replaced by “ground concrete that looked as if it had been through a blender, and rebar bent like bread-wrapper twist ties,” and anecdotes of people finally making it home only to find that their entire family was dead.  What makes Fault Lines unique is that it is the only book I have come across which grounds the earthquake and its aftermath in the points of view of people who have been largely missing from the rest, those of Haiti’s many, usually ignored, grassroots social movements.

It is thanks to Bell that we learn, for example, of the relief project set up by the Association  for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of Port au Prince to provide daily meals to people who had lost everything in the earthquake. With some international support money, APROSIFA contacted 60 neighbourhood street vendors and paid them to purchase food from Haitian farmers and cook meals for ten to fifteen specific homeless families. Officially, the project provided food for approximately 4800 people every day. In fact, that number was far higher, she writes, “because when the women finished serving those they were responsible for, they kept dishing out food to hungry folks who dropped by until their pots were empty.”

In Belair, another extremely poor part of the Haitian capital, an organization with a long history in the neighbourhood called Solidarite Ant Jen (Solidarity Among Youth) took over a damaged kindergarten and began offering shelter and meals to four hundred displaced, along with medical and psychological care.

And in the country’s Central Plateau, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay provided lodging, meals and clothing to several dozen of the estimated 600,000 earthquake victims that fled the damaged capital and thus received no international disaster aid at all. The movement took up a collection to help peasant families inundated by the sudden return of traumatized relatives and even slaughtered two cows so they could bring food to patients at the Partners in Health hospital in nearby Mirebalais.

It is not that international participation was entirely absent from these projects. In Belair, water was delivered by a Canadian non-profit and some funding came from a German company. But unlike the vast majority of well-meaning emergency aid efforts – often surrounded by foreign soldiers and in some cases throwing sacks of rice out of helicopters “as if we were dogs,” as many complain to Bell — these alternative programs were set up and directed by Haitians. In these few salient cases, our good intentions met their terms,  their requirements.

The difference is summed up by APROSIFA’s Rose Anne Auguste when she points out that local organizations like hers “have our own vision of reconstruction for our country. We have a philosophy that corresponds to our reality, not the reality of the international community. What we want is for the international community, the foundations and agencies, to hear our philosophy and our dream for our people, our country.”

But that indigenous vision was rarely taken into account as hundreds of international agencies, large and small, scrambled to deal with symptoms — the medical emergencies and the lack of housing, food and water. It was also largely ignored during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase as well. As the tide of cash that flowed into Haiti in the early months of 2010 receded again, what has been left littering the shore are hundreds of examples of foreign plans and initiatives that fail to meet the needs of Haiti’s vast majority of poor.

“Corporations with little or no knowledge  of Haiti,” Bell writes, “were brought in as volunteers to plan, kick off and even staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the actor with the single greatest operational influence over shaping the reconstruction model after the quake.”

Talk about Haiti with most people and they will inevitably ask what happened to all the money that was pledged and donated by governments, international lending institutions and regular folk like them. The short answer is: we just don’t know. A lot went back to donor governments, with the United States, for example, using half of its $1.3 billion relief funding to pay itself for its emergency efforts and security.

Of the just over $6 billion in financial aid from global donors, including Canada, almost 90 percent went to non-Haitian organizations. Less than ten percent — $580 million –went to the Haitian government, and less than  one percent — $36 million — to local Haitian NGOs and businesses. As a Canadian International Agency press release announcing an initial grant of $150 million put it, every dollar would go “to facilitate rapid action by trusted and experienced humanitarian agencies.”

But how those agencies spent, and on what, is considered proprietary information. While some of it may have been helpful, “the lack of transparency,” writes Bell, “has also empowered opportunists to disregard standards, quality and honesty.”

The justification used by the majority of big donors, many of which have been working in Haiti for decades, is that local institutions and government lack “absorptive capacity,”  the ability to use the money properly. Yet as Solidarity among Youth volunteer and psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois tells Bell, “what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the thirty-five seconds of the earthquake is finding themselves, from one day to the next, standing with bowls in their hands and waiting for someone to give them a sheet so they can sleep. This dependence is terrible for people’s identity. People need to know we can count on ourselves. We have the capacity.”

As Fault Lines so clearly shows, the 2010 earthquake response only mirrors the inadequacies of decades of top-down development aid, with impoverished Haitians obliged to take whatever they can get rather than designing and implementing their own ideas for social and economic progress, supported by our collective solidarity. Well-intentioned as many non-profits may be, what they cannot do, says Bell is “alter the structural nonaccountability between  their employer, the government of their host country, and the people with whom they work. The agencies’ foreign funding, largely foreign staff and political relationship with Haiti dictate much about their effects in Haiti.”

More heartening news however can be seen in the continued combative response of dozens of organizations, which may have lost their offices, their only computer and even their own members in those fateful thirty-five seconds of devastation. Fault Lines describes how they have demonstrated against donations of Monsanto seeds, and for proper housing. They have forced the courts to bring criminal cases against men who raped girls and women in the IDP camps. Their relentless campaigning may seem modest, even puny, compared to big, publicity-grabbing schemes like five-star hotels and the Caracol Industrial Park, like a shout in a hurricane. But they are the best hope there is for solutions to the vast inequality that lies at the intersection of Haiti’s social and economic tectonic plates.

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

(A slightly longer version of this review came out today in Rabble.ca)

Media Awards — With a Difference

18 May

Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico CityWhat do a documentary film called The Bengali Detective, a 20-something Somali-born model and Indonesian artesanal tin miners have in common?

 

They were all featured in one way or another at what was for me an unusual awards ceremony in London earlier this month, a combination of top-end cocktail party and thought-provoking look at a few of the multitude of fascinating stories from the developing world British viewers are offered on a regular basis by their national media. The annual event is put on by One World Media, a non-profit that promotes and supports media coverage of, to put it broadly, developing world issues.

 

The Bengali Detective, from Native Voice films, is about a team of detectives, actually, who investigate crimes in Kolkata, and attempt to win a talent show with their Bollywood dancing. The model, Samira Hashi, took part in a documentary made by BBC Current Affairs, visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, from which her parents fled when she was a baby. And the tin miners were the subject of the winner of One World’s Press category, an article called Death Metal by The Guardian’s Kate Hodal.

Inside Voladora Radio

For me, personally, the work of both nominees and winners, from journalism students to field-seasoned documentary producers, brought a mixture of admiration (for the dozens of examples of excellent reporting), jealousy (as I couldn’t help recall the many times my article ideas here were met with the ever irritating ‘but-what’s-the-Canadian-angle?’ response), curiosity (to know more about the many fascinating stories to which we in the audience were briefly introduced) and a recognition of the way our nations and cultures the world over are woven together in a vast web of strange, comic, tragic and compelling situations.

That we can only scratch the surface of these worlds through such stories about them is frustrating yet challenging. There is so much going on, so many characters — from Josephat Torner, an albino man in Tanzania who tries to counter the terrible superstitions that have lead to the murders of people with albinism, to former Afghan member of parliament Azita Rahfat, who decides dress one of her four daughters as a boy to gain social respect — and so many struggles in the world around us. Why would we not want to know about these things?

Yet in a recent podcast put out by the Center for Global Development in Washington, Nicolas Kristoff said he was “deeply concerned about the collapse in coverage of global news,” particularly in television.

“Your average news consumer is much less exposed to international stories, and those that they are exposed to are particular, segment stories,” he says. “It tends not to be development stories and I think this is going to be a real blind spot in the US and also, to some degree, globally.”

The contradiction here of course is that we are better able to access global stories and news more easily than ever. We are more avid than ever for information that should help us make better decisions socially and politically. Average people are more aware than ever that we live in an inter-connected world.

Yet national media are more convinced than ever, it sometimes seems to me, that domestic audiences are turned off by anything that is not local and trivial. It is easier to inform ourselves about the Kardashians than Kazakhstan, Kolkata or Cairo. We are encouraged to skim and peruse, to flip through pages, keep our brains on stand-by mode, rather than glue our attention to stories that are factual, compelling and meaningful.

One World Media and its annual awards go a long way to countering the inanity, just as their fellowships and student programs help younger journalists to both learn about and take on reporting in the developing world.

Like the super educated scientists who must spend their days working for Big Pharma searching for weight-loss remedies instead of a cure for malaria, I am sure that most smart journalists would rather be chasing unique and amazing real stories than providing free publicity to people who don’t need it. I have always believed that the whole point of being a journalist is to discover and write about the interesting aspects of reality, to be lucky enough to find curious stories that reveal more than first thought — like my article from Mexico about obligatory literature classes for beat officers to try to combat police corruption — and to give a voice, as many of the winners’ speeches noted, to the voiceless. It should be about explaining the world and shedding a light on its injustices as much as informing the public.

This is not the first time, I know, that I have written about this. But as can be seen in my earlier post ‘From Underdogs to Watchdogs,’ a short article about Ayiti Kale Je, or Haiti Grassroots Watch, what One World Media also suggests is that independent, investigative journalism can also, in its own words, “contribute to international development worldwide.”

In a world where ignorance is a tool in the hands of governments, big corporations and the global elite in general, independent information is one of the few arms with which people can fight back. So there is a thread here that is not hard to follow. What we write and what we read, what we film and what we watch, all matter. How we support independent media in nations wracked with poverty, inequality and corrupt governments matters even more.

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

A Comment on Comments

22 Sep

(Photo by Rick Hanz)

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s online business section published an article I wrote (an assigned article, I might add) that looked at why women in the business world tend to be more cautious in applying for promotions. It is a complex issue and took a lot of work, not all of which would, of course, fit into the customary assigned length of 900 words.

The article garnered 48 comments, and perhaps only one or two of their writers seemed to have actually read the article — I’m not kidding — much less understood it.  (Many thought it was a poll and were disgruntled at the lack of choice!)

Most of the comments, however, were downright misogynist and pretty nasty. “I’m sick of hearing that “more needs to be done for women,”” wrote Cut the Crap, while another commenter suggested that, “Most women are not as capable. Hence, their smaller numbers. It’s not rocket science. Or maybe it is, which is why women don’t understand.” A third said, “I try to hire nothing but women, 25% less pay and approx 30% more work out put! Arrogate gain of 55% over the average male. Capitalism 101, love it!”

(Not sure what his line of business is but knowing how to spell doesn’t seem to form any part of it.)

While the comments section is prefaced with a reminder that “Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed,” who is going to pay attention if they can make, and get away with, the kinds of comments like those sampled?

What’s more, apparently stupid comments that don’t follow the rules are left alone, because it looks as if the article’s premise was a well-chosen one that excited lots of “reader feedback.”

I have to say they made me yearn for the days when a journalist simply wrote an article, it was printed, and that was that — unless someone felt irked or appreciative enough — to sit down and write a letter to the editor, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope and mail it.

The experience only served to augment the feeling I often have that it makes little sense, really, when you think about it, for a writer to do research, marshal either facts or interviewees’ opinions and views into readable form — and then have anonymous people say what they think about your work. An opinion piece is one thing but a straightforward article?  Why should that turn into a kind of strange chat room exchange of ranting about something that has nothing to do with the information it contains? As if the research a journalist has carried out is nothing more than just one other view, no more or less valid that those of the reader, and that everything is relative.

Are the comments sections really more democratic? People used to say of the free press that the press is only free for the corporations that own it. Nowadays with the millions of blogs and self-published work out there in cyberspace, that is increasingly no longer the case.

So, I can’t help but ask myself, just what is the point?

Then I read a blog post by a doctor friend of mine who often works in Haiti, talking about the country’s National Palace, crumpled into what looked like a pile of broken meringue and now being carted away by Sean Penn’s JP/HRO organization.

My friend felt that this was good riddance, that the palace had long been little more than a den of corruption and represented “Haitian politics, ruthless dictators, and failed presidents.” Money for a new palace, he suggested, would be better spent on the people, ensuring them at least a modicum of decent, free medical care.

But then someone commented on this, in terms both genuine and politely critical. Whatever the actions of the people who had lived there and run his nation, he said, the palace had been a source of pride for its beautiful contours, and a symbol of culture in a place where people often have little access to either. And he referred to the World trade Centre destroyed on September 11th: had it not been an important psychological decision to rebuild?

My friend acknowledged this point of view but still felt that saving the lives of the sick and injured was equally if not more salient. And a final comment in turn acknowledged the blogger’s viewpoint and his work in volunteering his medical knowledge to help the poor.

A civilized and heartening exchange between two people who respect each others’ opinions. Both of their viewpoints might be seen as valid and merit an open discussion, rather than vociferous attempts to see who is the bigger blowhard.

If only more readers who felt the urge to publish their thoughts were half as thoughtful — and sane.

Attack of the Sock Puppets

6 Sep

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I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised — but I was — when I read about the small business a man in Oklahoma named Todd Jason Rutherford set up a couple years ago. He paid strangers he found on Craigslist $15 to write book reviews for which self-published authors in turn paid him between $20 and $100, and soon had websites like Amazon flooded with reams of positive feedback on thousands of vanity-pressed books.

Some of his reviewers spent not much more than fifteen minutes perusing the tomes they then showered with online compliments, doing as many as 70 reviews a week. Mr. Rutherford was doing so well that, according to the New York Times, “he had plans for a multi-million dollar review business.” Then, he apparently angered one self-published author of sad diary entries who started complaining — also online. Business fell off, Google suspended his advertising account and Amazon removed some of his reviews.

The story made me wonder about not only about the until recently latent need so many average people have to see their work published, to seek “validation,” as one of Rutherford’s customers put it (the one who complained, actually), but also, apparently, to have their electronic output fulsomely praised. Is it human nature — or in the writer’s nature — to seek adulation?

Admittedly, I have over the years heard all kinds of people in all kinds of places mention how much they wished they too could write and publish a book. But I always assumed that probably the hard work, determination and craft this required tended to persuade them that “validation” might be just as forthcoming from other things, like doing their job well, raising a family that loved them, being a good friend, and so on.

Internet publishing, however, has proven just how wrong I was. According to a data firm called Bowker, there were 51,237 self-published books in 2006. Last year, there were more than 300,000 — in both print and digital form — and by 2015, that number will double.

What’s more, the notion of popular creativity that informs what I might call the ‘good’ side of self-publishing has also been left somewhat tattered by reality. Crankiness, rather than creativity, is what drives most of its output, for another interesting factoid in the NYT article had it that an overwhelming number of self-published books are “trying to prove creationism.” Others are grinding axes of various sorts. And many more, bizarrely, are written to make money.

Thus, telling your friends and family you have actually written a book is not enough. That’s where Mr. Rutherford came in, providing, as he commented in a Publisher’s Weekly blog post on the practice, “affordable book promotion assistance for the masses.”

Now the Guardian has highlighted another kind of review fraud they’re referring to as “sock puppetry.” Along with reviews that are really just advertising, traditionally published writers are adding to the confusion by writing glowing descriptions of their own work under false names.  And they’re not exactly mincing words either. The Guardian quoted one crime-writer whose puppets described his work as a “masterpiece,” and himself as “one of the most talented authors of today,” whose “ability to craft the English language is breathtaking.” Wow. Even Shakespeare, were he alive and able to wrap his head around the entire digital publishing phenomenon, might blush.

Worse, some are taking to the online review pages to slam the competition, kicking verbal sand in the faces of authors crowding the top spots of their genre.

So, what to make of this? Well, if writing is one’s passion and/or livelihood, there’s no doubt that a good review is nice to see. A bad one can be emotionally devastating and being ignored potentially even more so. As a writer myself, I understand this.

At the same time, the whole notion of publishing companies acting as so-called gatekeepers to personal expression is falling apart. Any self-published author might point out that, for example, no one published John Kennedy Toole during his lifetime, or more than a handful of Emily Dickenson’s poems, or Jane Austen’s novels until just six years before her death. They might also add that traditional book publishing is a shrinking and much-mergered business, and that book reviewing is also often a question of who you — or your publisher  — knows, and is itself finding less paper space than ever.

That’s really the point of the online review, as Amazon has recognized. Since most people are purchasing their books — whether digital or printed — online, reviews on the same page can help readers make their choice.

Or as Kate Pool, deputy general manager of The Society of Authors told the Guardian, “All of these seem to me to be the flailings of an industry in a state of major transition – from long-established traditional grooves into nobody is yet entirely sure quite what.”

So while I might council authors, self-published or not, to get a grip, that’s probably not going to happen. It would be nice if literary expression could be taken more as art than commerce, and people with emotional issues could seek other ways to find a purpose in life other than sharing their probably pretty ubiquitous sufferings.

But we live in a world where competition is the art and that much sought-after “validation” is hard to define, let alone find. An alienating world where opinions don’t seem to count unless they are written, however badly, and published — to glowing fake reviews.