14 June 2008

Grits at the Ritz

Audio geeks of yore used to build their custom stereo systems from expensive German-made components, and the finishing touch was a placard that said something along the lines of:

Das Machinenwerken ist nicht fur Gefingerpoken
und Mittengrabben by das Dumkopfen.
Ist easy Snappenspringen und Blowenfusen
mit Poppencorken und Spitzensparken.
Das Rubbernecken Touristen keepen
das Hands in das Pockets und watch
der Blinkenlights.

People thought this was incontinence-provokingly funny. Not the Hogan's Heroes German, but the fact that it was printed! And not just printed, but printed in a Fraktur-like typeface that looked like a real WWII German poster.
I call it grits-at-the-Ritz humor: An expensive, elaborate delivery system makes you think you're going to get something important and valuable, and then--wham! You get a plate of grits. Or a stupid fake-German sign.
In the vinyl-record era, when people saw anything set in type, they assumed it was important, because typography and printing required machines that cost a small fortune and took years to learn how to use. The folks who made novelty-shop tchotchkes knew they could get a laugh by contrasting the important-looking printing process with the dumb gefingerpoken gag.
You don't see the gefingerpoken sign on audio systems anymore, and not just because it's too big to hang on an iPod. Anyone can set type and print a sign now, using machines that cost a few hundred dollars and require virtually no training. In the 21st Century, setting a joke in type doesn't make it funny.
But grits at the Ritz is the idea behind a whole new class of entertainment, from The Real World to EBaumsWorld. We're so accustomed to the broadcast media bringing us "professional" entertainment, we can't help but laugh when we see somebody being a total dork on television!
But YouTube and its ilk are changing all that. Amateur-grade video is becoming the default, and when that happens, the media will lose their ability to bestow importance on the message (or make it funnier). We won't be able to leverage the Ritz-iness of media to make audiences pay attention to our grits, so we'll have to make better messages.
The most powerful example of a medium conferring importance on its content is books. It's at the core of how I define publishing mojo: "For centuries books have been the vehicle for the best that human culture has to offer. . . . publishing mojo [is] the conviction that what we are making is valuable, and deserves all the care and creativity we can muster." Every 21st-Century publisher's mission statement should include learning to create value in a world where value is no longer derived from the laborious book manufacturing process.

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