In Praise of the Boring

“Few have cared to think or talk about the uninteresting.”-Lord Alfred Douglas

This was the premise of an article Lord Alfred Douglas wrote when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University.  An essay in praise of the boring has comic potential. Potential, it must be said, the young man failed to realize in his Spirit Lamp article. He chose, instead, to complain about the tediousness of Oxford dons, as students are wont to do.

But I think he was on to something. He lived at the beginning of the era of the media celebrity. Oscar Wilde, himself, might have been the prototype of today’s stars. He sought attention and headlines for his personal traits– his bon mots, his manner of dress– before he had achieved much of anything. He used being known as path to a career rather than becoming known for having done something notable. That is the modern way.

Alfred Douglas, however, represented the old world. It was a world in which honor and dishonor were the main measures of a man.  Oscar Wilde always tailored his speech to his audience. Alfred Douglas said whatever he thought without much regard for how it would come across. “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” Wilde famously said. Douglas had no mask. He was, as Bernard Shaw would say “unpoliced.”

Oscar Wilde would have done well on Kickstarter. Lord Alfred Douglas, probably not. And perhaps one of the tragedies of his life was that he was so ill-equipped to navigate a world of fame.

I have noticed that people instinctively give money on Kickstarter to the thing that entertains in the moment even if, in the case of Bunch O Balloons, it has already achieved 800% funding.

A case in point is Nothing in a Bottle, in which a guy from Michigan named Dave, promises to send you a bottle of nothing.

nothingIt is a clever little post, he’s not asking for a lot of money, and he has nice lettering on the tag of his bottle of nothing. So he reached his goal.

The reason the famous “I’m going to make potato salad” Kickstarter went viral is that it made people laugh. People said, “Yeah, that’s funny, I’ll kick in a few bucks for the smile it gave me.”

Why not? But note the past tense. “It made me smile.”

Kickstarter was conceived to take potential energy of ideas and turn them into kinetic energy through financial backing. It is about supporting unrealized potential.

All of the entertainment value of the potato salad project was already realized in the Kickstarter post itself. It aimed to entertain, and it did. The people who support it are not actually paying because they hope the guy can pull off a potato salad.

This brings us back to the Alfred Douglas question. How do we support the uninteresting? That is to say, how do people and projects with an entertainment challenge make a go of it in a hype centered world?

Some projects are uninteresting because they cannot promise specific results and do not lend themselves naturally to clever premiums. Investigative journalism falls into this category. People generally recognize that investigative journalism is vital and in the public interest. It has also come into hard times as news organizations prune their budgets and 24 hour cable news channels compete against America’s Got Talent for eyeballs. Big news is a bottom line business, driven by ratings, and so the most sensational (and easy to cover) stories will lead.

Many people have suggested crowd funding as a means to support this important journalistic work, but it tends to fail and for the same reasons that big news organizations cut funding for long-term, high risk, no-guarantee investigations. There are no immediate results to show. Much of the research cannot be announced before the work is done. It is hard to hype and hard to make entertaining– even if the end result has the potential to be explosive down the line.

I looked up “investigative journalism” on Kickstarter and the first project that came up in the list has no backers.  (Admittedly in this case it could be because there is so little biographical information about the reporters. Potential backers can’t judge whether this team can carry it off or not.)

Research is another area that lacks entertainment value. Research is all potential energy. It should be, in theory, exactly the type of thing that Kickstarter would do best. It is not. When I looked up “research” four featured projects came up. All of them are 0% funded right now.

(The projects are for the creation of a platform for crowd sourcing cancer research— a kickstarter for cancer research if you will, research on humpback whales, a tiny house research project, and a guy doing genealogical research.)

Fixing a theater’s roof will always be less entertaining than videos about a new theatrical production even though the roof is necessary to allow those productions to take place.

So perhaps we should start to talk more about the uninteresting.

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