Friday, May 08, 2009

Signal Number Three

The story of the Great Book Blockade was probably revealed sometime within March and April of this year by writer Robin Hemley, and eventually picked up by a few sources (which included the everpresent Philippine Genre Stories) as an obvious affront to Filipino readers. The issue received some measure of journalistic coverage mere days afterwards, when Manuel L. Quezon III's recent column appeared in the pages of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

At the moment, things seem to be rapidly coming to a head. The fledgling Bahay Talinhaga web site has emerged as the primary source for non-biased information regarding the issue, and actually features the result of correspondences with some of the major government players. The Book Development Association of the Philippines has gone as far as to release a strongly-worded statement on its side of the matter, and Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales now finds herself slowly being drawn towards the center of what's starting to look like another nasty blogstorm. Given such previous examples as Malu Fernandez and DJ Montano, this is not one of the most eviable positions in the world.

As I've arrived rather late to the party, I won't cover the situation proper in this blog. If you want a summary of the entire issue, I strongly recommend that you drop by any or all of the links above. If you must read one, go for the Bahay Talinhaga link — it makes for an excellent few minutes. But suffice to say that it's all about the price of books, and how it's starting to seem as though Philippine Customs unwisely decided to grab a stick and starting poking at the hornet's nest. (Strangely enough, Stephanie Meyer is indirectly involved.)

Viral occurrences like this seem to sweep the local blogging community every few months or so, to the point where they should really be taken into account by the larger institutions. You may be the most respected organization on this side of the Pacific, or you may be the most unassuming individual among our seven-thousand-plus islands... but once online opinion becomes completely polarized against you, then you might as well get ready for the worst ride of your life.

Blogstorms are an interesting phenomenon. They combine the virality of Internet media with the force of public opinion, with a little bit of armchair activism in the mix. They're easy to underestimate, and can nonetheless hit you with the force of a Mack Semi. In some cases, they can herald incredible popularity. In other cases, they can ruin lives... at least until the next controversy comes along.

I suspect that blogstorms are indicative of a human mentality that we used to see only in the newspapers: The media brings up a public scandal of some sort, the public eats it up for as long as it remains on the front pages, and eventually we all get bored with the news and move on to the next one. If it's not a collapsing pre-need firm, it's a failed pyramid scheme. If it's not a case of political corruption, it's a case of government incompetency. If it's not a basketball rivalry, it's a boxing championship.

If there's any distinction that comes with the blogstorm, it's the fact that we don't need the media to whip us into a frenzy. All that we need is a substantial story, a ripe set of circumstances, and a well-written article to pull us in. From there, it becomes a question of how many people post comments, how many people write responses, and how many people Twitter about it to an audience of followers. Google placement usually goes through the roof after only the first hundred links or so... and all this can possibly happen within the first few days.

The strangest bit is that we probably don't know what sort of article can possibly trigger such a massive response. I'm fairly certain, for example, that Hemley didn't expect his post to start the domino effect. Any number of marketing agents have tried — and failed — to harness the power of online opinion, which only implies that this sort of thing needs further study. I mean, it's not like we can explain it as a mere meeting between warm and cold fronts.

Today, it's books. Yesterday, it was Gucci. Last week, it was OFWs. It's funny how our minds can flit from topic to topic, and open up the absurdities of human behavior in the meantime.

That said, this is the sort of thing that probably passes for entertainment in my side of the world. In a sense, this is why some people watch news programs with a reverence that borders on, say, the latest season of CSI. This is interesting stuff, no matter how uncomfortable Ms. Sales probably feels whenever she approaches a computer nowadays.

Now, don't get me wrong — the "Great Book Blockade", as McSweeneys.Net has so dramatically dubbed it, is a serious issue. After all, the reputation of our "respectable" government agencies is at stake, not to mention the future of our reading public (which turns out to be a very sizeable lobby).

But that doesn't mean that we can't watch how this controversy unfolds and apply its lessons to countless other blogstorms that we're likely to see. I mean... even writers have to be scholars sometimes.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Kyu has just pointed out that, while the original article was published at McSweeneys.Net, the actual author happens to be Robin Hemley. This blog regrets the unfortunate error, has corrected it in the above post, and will execute the perpetrator by firing squad tomorrow morning.