The story arrived in November of 1992—more than a year after the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” premiered on MTV’s “120 Minutes.” It was nine months after the Toronto Star asked: “Why is Seattle the rock capital of the world?” It was two months after the St. Petersburg Times told everyone’s grandparents that “the scene is dead.” That’s the moment that the New York Times finally went big on grunge—a trend that reporter Rick Marin called “a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon.”
In “Grunge: A Success Story,” Marin summed it all up:
This generation of greasy Caucasian youths in ripped jeans, untucked flannel and stomping boots spent their formative years watching television, inhaling beer or pot, listening to old Black Sabbath albums and dreaming of the day they would trade in their air guitars for the real thing, so that they, too, could become famous rock-and-roll heroes.
But the real absurdity, Marin suggested, lay in the fact that the entire “trend” of grunge was a fabrication, and he carefully unpacked the ways in which the media had built up the story of a trend.
Pity the poor onion. It is ubiquitous but always in the background, a key but supporting player in nearly every savory dish. It is the bassist of the food world: without onion, food tastes tinny and lacking, but nobody really wants to eat it by alone. This is a mistake, because the onion and all its allium relatives have a flexibility that few other vegetables have: a texture that can be either crisp or luxuriously soft, a flavor that can range from pointedly savory to sugary sweet, and an unusual physical structure that can be molded into whatever shape the cook desires. Of the alliums, my favorite, an underused sandy gem of the vegetable kingdom, is the leek.
Leeks aren’t fantastically popular here, but they should be, because their flavor and texture are like a refined, grown-up version of regular onions. Their individual leaves are thin and delicate, almost like noodles, and they can be used to add onion flavor to dishes that would often simply end up tasting like onion if a typical yellow or red onion was used. That’s why they’re often used with mild primary ingredients like potatoes and eggs; they augment rather than overpower. But they have abilities far beyond the supplemental.
Leeks are ridiculously hardy plants; their season is actually just beginning now, and some say their flavor will actually peak sometime in January, when most other plants, like most New Yorkers, have given up and are just Seamlessing falafel every other night. Leeks also grow in an interesting and very artificial way; though they look like stems, the part we eat is actually a tightly curled bunch of leaves, kind of like brussels sprouts. When they grow, to cope with the garbage winter weather they love so much, the part of the leek exposed to the elements becomes tough and hard and inedible—so farmers have to actually keep topping it with soil, leaving only an inch or two of leaf exposed to the air, in order to maximize the amount of leek that remains underground, pale white and delicious. Interesting, right? Bring that cool fun fact up at your next party.
In this month’s Wired, Adrian Chen visits the Philippines to speak with professional content moderators—the people who scrub all the dick pics and beheadings from the world’s biggest sites before they reach users’ eyes. It’s job that, he says, “might very well comprise as much as half the total workforce for social media sites.” Sarah Roberts, a media studies scholar at the University of Western Ontario focusing on commercial content moderation, is quoted in the piece. They caught up over chat.
AC: One thing I would have liked to include in my piece was how you got interested in studying content moderation.
SR: Well, it’s a pretty simple story. I was perusing the NYT one day and there was a very small story in the Tech section about workers in rural Iowa who were doing this content screening job. They were doing it for low wages, essentially as contractors in a call center in a place that, a couple generations ago, was populated by family farms. I call it “Farm Aid Country.” I say this as a born and raised Wisconsinite, from right next door.
So this was a pretty small piece, but it really hit me. The workers at this call center, and others like it, were looking at very troubling user-generated content (UGC) day in and day out. It was taking a toll on them psychologically, in some cases. I should say that I’ve been online for a long time (over twenty years) and, at the time I read this, was working on my Ph.D. in digital information studies. I was surrounded at all times by really smart internet geeks and scholars. So I started asking my peers and professors, “Hey, have you ever heard of this practice?” To my surprise, no one—no one-had.
This was in the summer of 2010. Right there, I knew that it wasn’t simple coincidence that no one had heard of it. It was clear to me that this was a very unglamorous and unpleasant aspect of the social media industries and no one involved was likely in a rush to discuss it. As I interrogated my colleagues, I realized that many of them, once they were given over to think about it at all, immediately assumed that moderation tasks of UGC must be automated. In other words, “Don’t computers/machines/robots do that?”