Posted by: dougery | March 2, 2011

The Delicate, Potentially Impossible Art of Recommendation

“Yo, dude(tte). You should totally check out ‘band / movie / book, etc’!”

You have more than likely had someone in your life, possibly me, accost you with the above declaration. Or maybe you yourself, in all of your cultured awesomeness, have felt compelled to drop this line on somebody else. A friend, a co-worker, a complete stranger. Speaking of complete strangers, it is estimated that 98% of tweets are variations on the pop culture recommendation, i.e.:

“I just got back from seeing the King’s Speech and man was Geoffrey Rush smoking hawt.”

This missive could be read as an invitation for others to go out and witness said perceived hawtness.

The point is, recommending things is a ubiquitous part of modern life. It has been around well before social media made recommendation spamming (if not) socially acceptable (then socially unavoidable).

Yet there is an art to this, the most delicate of personal space intrusions. And yes, what you read / listen to / and watch are definitely a part of your personal space, they are the very bookshelves and LCD screens of your soul. That might be a little bit of hyperbowling, but you get catch my drift. One doesn’t like to be bludgeoned by other people’s ‘stuff’ so it makes sense to try to come to grips with how we foist things onto others.

So how does one go about dropping a recommendation? I’m glad you asked. There probably isn’t a definitive answer to this question (I know, like, total drag that I’m giving up so early in this post, right?), but it wouldn’t hurt to delve into one’s own social history to learn how our reception of recommendations changes over time. To figure out exactly when our bony little pop cultural carapaces take shape to protect us from an art world too big to ever completely understand.

When one is young, everything is a recommendation. Or nothing is, depending on your point of view. By the time you begin to be socialized (read: go to school), suddenly your world is inundated with ‘stuff.’ That kid on the bus in the seat in front of you listening to the whiny alt-rock seems cool. So you buy Siamese Dream and now you are the kid with the whiny alt-rock leaking out from under your headphones. Are you cool? That remains to be seen.

In high-school I, for one, had few friends. If you did, well congratulations and I hate you. I’m kidding, I don’t hate you, at least not now, although I might have hated you then, what with that fashionable hair-cut of yours and the whole not having to wear coke-bottle glasses, you insufferable jerk). I generally lurked about the outside of small packs of some of the more unpopular students in the halls, listening to what they talked about and trying to follow along. Every Monday a line-by-line dissection of the previous night’s Simpsons episode would erupt so eventually I watched this show too. It might be the first oblique recommendation I have ever followed, and one that has paid countless dividends.

As the references changed, I tried to keep up. What the hell was a Vogon? So I read Hitchhiker’s Guide. Lump sat alone in a boggy marsh? So I tried on the Presidents of the United States of America (the band). And so on and so forth. Of course these were the nerdy kids and what they knew. Your guess is as good as mine what the cool kids talked about.

This might have gone on indefinitely except for the intrusion of, gasp, college, where everyone came together as equals (more or less) because we were all there because we wanted to be (more or less) rather than because we had to be (a la high-schools across the country). College is where one’s understanding of the world truly does get blown to smithereens. There is just so much stuff that other people have been absorbing all their lives that you couldn’t possibly have encountered.

Office Space, Radiohead, DFW, The Big Lebowski, email (yeah, I’m old), Weezer, The early works of John Cusack, Daft Punk, Paul Klee, James Joyce, South Park, and on and on ad infinitum.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really listen to music until college when suddenly I became the world’s biggest snob/hypocrite. I would publicly bemoan all of the DMB blasting from frat guys’ houses all the while secretly enjoying the goofy and painfully bad white dude beat-boxing of Jonathan Davis and Justin Timberlake. The more I learned about Fugazi and the Minutemen, of Maus and Duchamp, the more unapproachable and closed-minded I became.

This is the natural course of evolution amongst liberal arts majors.

The breaking point is of course, graduate school. MAPH, my own personal strain of grad school, was a haven of misfits just like myself. If the pop-cultural world around us was one giant piping hot kettle, then we were the tea-bags that had steeped for far too long, befouling the water around us to the extent of becoming bitter, bitter sociopaths. Again, I do not want to speak for everyone and perhaps this is just me.

At this point one learns that if you are going to ever get anyone to take your recommendation seriously, you need to lighten up a bit.

Enter: irony, nostalgia, the casual embrace of stuff that for all intents and purposes largely sucks, but you are so far beyond actually caring what other people think that you like, totally don’t care what they think. Or something.

This kind of detachment of self does give one perspective though. If we can champion stupid shit like Joe Dirt or Three Wolf Shirts then likewise, we can’t get all bent out of shape when someone else does the same. One no longer can  (or at least shouldn’t) judge others by what they like.

Okay, so maybe this a lie and/or impossible. I still recall the look of horror on a young man’s face (not me, actually, not this time anyhow) when one of my best friends boldly declared her love of U2. And to her credit, there was no irony here or nostalgia, just pure adoration, lumps and all. Something many young people are completely incapable of expressing. This was not the first brick of awesome I had noticed in her wall, but in retrospect it might have become a prominent cornice-piece.

The point is, to mix literary references once more, by this time in our lives my MAPH colleagues and I had waded through so far into the river of blood which is art that it would take just as much wading to get back out as it would to continue forward.

Thus the giving-a-shit slowly receded. Or maybe that is just us getting old.

Now I pretty much ignore everything. Not really. But you learn who has similar taste (Sensei, the AV Club, Hitler, whatever) and you latch onto them like a remora on a Great White. If something works out, the book you borrowed was terrific, the show you went to see rocked, you return the favor when you can. And if that works out in return, well, congratulations, you are well on your way to becoming a novice at the delicate and potentially impossible art of recommendation.

Reading: Vertigo by W. G. Sebald



  1. Uh, the cool kids talked about sex, obviously.

  2. well, the nerdy kids talked about that, too, in their own way. Most of it was misinformation that was frankly more terrifying than it was in any way alluring.

  3. Doug, I was highly enjoying your post, anyways. But when i got to here:

    “The breaking point is of course, graduate school. MAPH, my own personal strain of grad school, was a haven of misfits just like myself. If the pop-cultural world around us was one giant piping hot kettle, then we were the tea-bags that had steeped for far too long, befouling the water around us to the extent of becoming bitter, bitter sociopaths. Again, I do not want to speak for everyone and perhaps this is just me.”

    I busted out laughing.

    It certainly was not just you.

    And I hearted you then and I continue to heart you now!


  4. That was a great post Doug. Like Babs, I also loved your characterization of MAPH. As a historian, I’ve always been better friends with dead people, so I think that definitely addresses your “sociopaths” charge. Anyways. I really liked the post, but I was wondering if you’d thought about semicolons. I started using them a while ago (before a lot of other less hip people); they are awesome. Oh, but stay away from colons; they’re a little bit too self-consciously retro according to Pitchfork.

  5. Thanks, dudes. I was happy with how this post turned out and am glad others have found some kernels of enjoyment.

    Babs, I totally heart you right back.
    Jason, I’m all about the em-dash (and parentheses of course).

  6. That is the best description of MAPH I’ve ever read/heard, and I think that’s saying something as we’ve all spent a piece of the years since trying to describe it and never quite managing.

    Also, I appreciate the shout-out and being equated, in a way, to the AV Club AND Hitler. That is a first.

  7. ha! great snapshot of maph. and i fear i am the pure adorator of u2. who on earth was the young man?

    and i have one word for you: INTERPOL.

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