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Poling the Proles





A number of years ago I was trying to calm the fears of a parent who's child was interested in the net. He had heard stories about kidney stealing sex fiends who want to teach your kids to crack into Area 51's computers to steal the Roswell secret. I told him those cases were rare. The net is text based. That kids were willing to spend money to read was unquestionably a Good Thing. The net is a library card with a sugar coating. As a recent study suggests, as long as you keep your kids away from the music of the Spice Girls, they should do okay.


Fast forward to 1998. I take it all back. Random House, Western civilization's sole remaining publisher of books, has posted on its web site a poll of the century's 100 best novels. Actually, the site has two polls. One is the top 100 books selected by an esteemed panel of judges. Random House's panel included Arthur Schlesinger and Gore Vidal. Curiously, none of the judges placed William Shatner's Tek Lords in the top 100.


The same cannot be said for the reader's choice poll. Netizens were free to vote for their own favorites. Netizens slotted Captain Kirk in at 55. Readers actually placed Shatner above Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Vidal and company put Joyce's Ulysses at number 1. Readers put Ayn Rand at number 1. I can only assume Random House threw a vote Rand's way whenever some joker voted for Mein Kampf.



Does James Joyce have a building named after him on the McGill campus? One can see how netizens felt Willian Shatner's place in literary history was in need of reconsideration.



Are people stupid? Most certainly. But consider their reasoning for putting Shatner ahead of Joyce: Did Joyce ever publish a book that was turned into a TV series? Are there any web pages devoted to Joyce singing "Mr. Tambourine Man"? Does Joyce have a building named after him on the McGill campus? One can see how netizens felt Shatner's place in literary history was in need of reconsideration.


The beauty of the net is we're no longer tied to media controlled by gatekeepers. Printing and broadcasting are such horribly expensive endeavors that it's not often we let Everyman have his say. He might only manage a mumbled "hi mom!" So, traditional media organizations tend to solicit the opinions of so-called experts.


Netizens can occasionally be surprising when the gatekeepers open the sluice. My friend Terry Brown, who's quite a bit smarter than me and normally gets a lot more bothered by civilization's decline, managed to find some comfort in the Random House poll. He was surprised to see the lesser known The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and William Gaddis' The Recognitions making the reader's choice cut.


A surprising move by a few netizens can sometimes turn into a full-blown movement. People Magazine, to promote its "50 Most Beautiful People" issue, let netizens vote for the sexiest things on two legs. Leonardo DiCaprio, the early leader, found himself losing badly to a Howard Stern show character known as Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf. Netizens spread the word via email and newsgroups to go to the People site and vote for the dwarf. In the final tally, Hank polled 230,169 votes; Leo could only muster 14,471 fans.


If you believe there's no such thing as bad publicity, People magazine did well. For a few weeks, adding another vote for ol' Hank was a popular morning ritual among programmers and engineers who wouldn't normally patronize the People site or read its banner ads. I can see People running a similar contest next year and selling a lot of ads for laptops and network servers instead of haircare products and home study courses in small engine repair.


If you believe even People magazine must be run by reasonably intelligent human beings, the poll helped serve notice that what plays to the masses in the real world doesn't necessarily play to the digerati. Lifeforms that buy magazines in grocery stores are not the beautiful people. They, however, honestly imagine a nose job and a new pair of track pants would easily land them in the bottom half of the list. People who are on the net are not the beautiful people either. They at least know they're ugly and don't need to be told how badly they lost out in the genetic lottery.




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Copyright 2002 Karl Mamer

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"Copyright 2002 Karl Mamer (kamamer@yahoo.com)"

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