Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Zed Shaw As Performance Art

Somebody recently shared with me an interesting point of view about Zed Shaw. Zed has in the past claimed to have studied ninjitsu. Since he also has written very successful software in Ruby, namely Mongrel, there are really only two possibilities: either Zed has not actually studied ninjitsu, or Zed is a literal Ruby ninja.

If Zed has been trained to attack silently and disappear into the shadows without anyone noticing, he is most well-known for disregarding his own training and not using those particular skills.

I think many Rubyists might remember a Zed-like rant of my own, directed against a certain prominent person in our community with a taste for the game Werewolf. To avoid spreading the drama any further, and because it amuses me, we'll call this person Biff.

Zed posted a rant about more or less everybody in Rails being allegedly horrible, singling Biff out for particular criticism and indeed abuse. What bothers me most about all this is that I launched my rant only after looking at Biff's behavior in the light of Zed's rant, then cautiously re-examining it, over the course of months if not years, and coming to the conclusion that Zed had been onto something.

Every other accusation Zed made, I never saw evidence of, but with Biff, I still believe Zed was onto something; in fact, I stand by every word of my criticisms against Biff. But I've taken them offline, because the way they're interpreted frequently surprises me and/or angers people. Defending and/or clarifying those words wastes valuable time and energy, with absolutely no payoff at all. Likewise, I'm reserving the right to take this blog post offline at any time. I have no interest in feuding with Zed.

But I am interested in reviewing him as a piece of performance art. I bring him up for a simple reason. Zed's infamy illustrates exactly what is so damn weird about social media: social media is both social, and media. Zed is a human being, or course, but to some extent, Zed the icon is just a media construct. When Zed rants about me, or I rant about Biff, are we putting on a show for the public, or interacting with our own social group? The answer is "yes; both." The two are blurring together.

In a Campfire chat room, where you can interact by pasting images just as easily as by typing text, people will alternate images and text to suit their mood. For instance, here's a conversation which contains no words:

Despite the absence of words, you know the conversation is about burritos. Communication via Campfire can take on the feel of a comic book assembled in real time. Interacting with your social group blurs into putting on a show for them.

Social media turns spectacle into communication and communication into spectacle; and in a few short years, the world will not only be filled with young people who have never known otherwise, those young people will start shaping the world we share with them, and they will do it based on a youthful, innocent assumption that spectacle and communication have always been one and the same. That's going to be some weird shit.

Zed's spectacle/communication blend is so one-sided in its emphasis on spectacle (and further complicated by metagaming) that it's impossible for me to guess what he's actually like as a person, beyond the few times I've met him in person, offline, unencumbered by media, during which times he seemed perfectly rational and totally nice (and in fact, at which times, I strongly believed that we had made friends). As a participant in social media - that is to say, as a Friend in Facebook terms, or a Followee and/or Follower in Twitter terms - I'm sorry to say that I don't dig Zed. But as a subject of social media, he's fascinating.

In 2008, discussing internet fame, I said:

A lot of people like to hammer the idea that celebrities are gods, and certainly, when Britney Spears backs up traffic, paralyzes my daily commute, and magically summons helicopters just by visiting a courtroom, it's possible to see her as some strange, demented goddess, just because of the tremendous power her whims and moods can exert over strangers. She gets sad and the traffic changes. But I think it's much more realistic to see celebrities as words. Their fame gives us common reference points all over the world. I might not see my cousins in Canada very often, but if I tell them the woman I'm dating is basically Elaine from Seinfeld and my boss is basically Beck, the signal/noise ratio is incredible. That's a very detailed picture of my life from a relatively small number of words.

Just for the mental exercise, flip it around. Imagine telling somebody you're dating Beck and your boss is Elaine from Seinfeld. Same characters, but you've just described an infinitely different life in a very small number of terms which anyone in the English-speaking world can understand...

If celebrities enable high-resolution conversation, micro-celebrities constitute words in domain-specific languages... DHH and Paul Graham [have become human shorthand for two contrasting models of high-tech entrepreneurship].

In our domain-specific language, Zed has become a potent word, an icon of programmer rage; to some extent, his sanity or insanity is a moot question. Sane or insane, he'll own Reddit's programming page for years to come. He plays the angry, brilliant cowboy programmer so well that if he didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. But in his reckless antagonism, he reminds me of Lindsay Lohan. I once read an article where Lohan was quoted as saying something like, "as bad as it looks, you want your face in the tabloids every day," on the assumption that this operated as a measure of star power and therefore as a guarantee of future acting work. Unfortunately, the effect her arrests have had on her career does not lend credibility to that theory.

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. I'm no authority on Zed's career, don't claim to be, and don't want to be. But I can tell you the conclusion I've reached from my own career: no amount of brilliance will ever change the fact that you need to be able to get along with people.

I think part of Zed's iconic status on Reddit and Hacker News, in fact, comes from the fact that most programmers realize this on some level, yet harbor secret wishes to go all cowboy loco, eliminating everything from their lives but code, caffeine, and an indestructible, almost delusional sense of righteousness. In that sense, the man's a terrific entertainer; I hope he starts doing YouTube video blogging, as you can get a revenue share from that if you run up sufficient traffic, and I have a feeling it'd be a terrific show to watch. I wouldn't watch it myself, but I'd expect it to do well.