The Tragedy of Loren Feldman
Prominent videoblogger Loren Feldman had everything going for him. Named "one of the the freshest voices in digital media" by A-list Silicon Valley kingmakers, including C|Net's Charles Cooper, dubbed "a new age Lenny Bruce" by others, Feldman's upward trajectory into the top ranks of video blogging seemed unstoppable throughout 2007 and the Spring of 2008, accelerating markedly as Feldman launched a new series of videos brilliantly mocking the tech industry's most pompous tech bloggers using hand puppets.
Feldman's shtick (angry urban man on the rampage against technology industry snake oil salesman and false cyber-prophets) wasn't a new idea, but his execution brought a refreshing immediacy that was a perfect antidote to the widespread and cowardly practice of mass, anonymous flame-throwing that passes for discourse on the Web. Feldman's opinons were his own, he wasn't afraid to tell us who he was, and if you didn't like it, well tough. You could love Feldman, hate him, but you couldn't ignore him, because he was real -- a rare quality in a medium drowning in illusion enabled by rampant anonymity.
After years of struggling on the margins of the Blogosphere, the riches were poised to flow to Feldman, first from C|Net, which in early June signed Feldman and his production company, 1938 Media, to a writing and video production deal, and then Verizon, which was to open Feldman's brand of in your face, take no prisoners iconoclasm to the wireless carrier's 3 million VCast subscribers. If anyone was going to prove, after the Amanda Congdon/ABC fiasco, that Bloggers were ready to dish to the mainstream, it was going to be Feldman. And yet, in a blink of an eye, both of these "big fish" (as Feldman called them) dropped Feldman like the hottest of hot potatoes, hours after a controversial 2007 video, "Where Are The Black Tech Bloggers" surfaced, reigniting a firestorm of criticism that all had thought was forgotten. Today, Feldman has been reduced to fending off multiple attackers accusing him of racism from a lonely Twitter outpost, despite the fact that he profusely apologized about the whole affair more than a year ago.
There are lessons for us all in Feldman's dizzying rise and fall. While the Web allows an unparalleled level of creative freedom, content creators are still responsible for what they create, and the mere fact that a given "edgy" work was created one or ten years ago provides no protection against those offended by it. The greatest illusion of today's world is that we are free, whereas in fact we all live in a Panopticon where any past writing can be held against us. Whatever freedom we enjoy is constrained by its economic context. There is a vast difference between serving up a Blog post and making a few pennies against it via Adsense and serving up the same content through a content licensing agreement. It's not so much the money -- it's who you take it from, and Feldman should have known this. In Faustian fashion, if you're a Verizon subcontractor, you have to abide by Verizon's rules.
Of course, we all likely have skeletons in our closets, comments we made in the middle of the night that we regret making but cannot delete, or e-mails sent in piques of anger. What happened to Feldman can happen to any of us, and this kind of affair will increase in frequency as the Myspace/Facebook generations begins to confront the indelibility of digital communications. Feldman is a unique talent but like Faust, Icarus, and Lenny Bruce, he ran into a wall he himself created, and my hope is that he will soon stop blaming others and begin to more seriously think about the responsibilities that come with creative freedom.
The real tragedy of Loren Feldman is that 95 percent of the people who will now be exposed to his work through this controversy will not look past "Where Are the Black Tech Bloggers" to appreciate his other work, which is funny, probing, and right on the money. In the world of the Panopticon, things are neither forgotten nor forgiven, which makes it a uniquely terrifying medium for anyone seeking to push the envelope of discourse.