Are monocles really making a comeback? Fact-checking the New York Times Style Section
[Update: The results of Lois Beckett's informal monocle poll are in. Let's just say you might want to hold off on joining the "trend."]
New York Times trend pieces like these, especially those found in its much-maligned Style Section, have long been a punching bag for loyal readers of the paper. As far as I can tell, when the Times says "trend" it means that a reporter found more than one person out of New York's 8 million who engage in a something a bit out of the ordinary.
For the average reader, bad trend pieces are as visible as ever. Before the Times went digital, many readers would simply avoid the Style Section, leaving it to wilt on the subway floor. Now that social media has turned each Times article into a discrete, sharable item, however, these pieces find their way to audiences they probably never intended to reach (after all, what's the point of hate-reading something if you can't tell your followers about it online?)
This week's offending article comes from Allen Salkin who highlights the purported resurgence of that one-lensed eyepiece of old, the monocle. As Martin Raymond, a British "trend forecaster" tells Salkin, “All of this is part of a sense of irony and a way of discovering and displaying old artisanal and craft-based technology.” Uh-huh.
I live in Bushwick in Brooklyn, which I suppose qualifies as a neighborhood that embraces "hip trends" or something. I have never seen a monocle in the wild. A unicycle, yes, but never a monocle. But how do I know for sure that monocles aren't on the rise? Perhaps the monocle-wearers of Bushwick gather in secret underground speakeasies that would never admit the likes of me, what with my department store jeans and unwaxed mustache. A claim like "Monocles are on the rise" can't be as easily fact-checked as "The Vietnam War ended in 1975."
Or can it? To find out, ProPublica reporter Lois Beckett made a survey to measure the true breadth of the supposed monocle phenomenon. It asks questions about location, latte-drinking habits, occupation, and of course, whether or not you've ever seen a real human being wear a monocle.
Beckett promises a full report later today, but she's shared some of her early findings in the meantime:
"self-identified Willamsburg 'techie' claimed to have seen someone wearing a monocle."
"Brooklyn 'Dad' claims to have seen someone wearing a monocle...in Portland, Oregon."
Sorry, Ren Faires don't count:
"Have identified an Astoria resident who claims to have seen a person wearing a monocle. 'It was a Ren Faire in San Francisco.'"
"Someone whose occupation is described as 'TIMBER' claims to have seen a monocle-wearer in North Idaho."
And the best one so far:
"Omaha woman: I knew an 'elderly former CIA agent in Newport' who wore a monocle, also 'carried a cane rumored to be filled with booze.'"
Beckett admits the results "may not be representative" -- indeed, 44 percent of the respondents as of yesterday afternoon are journalists (no word on how many are anthropomorphized peanuts or penguine man-beasts). But while it's not the most scientific way to verify a trend, it works a lot better than conjuring up a headline-worthy activity then finding the five or so people who engage in it.
Using the "crowd" to enhance traditional reporting is nothing new. The term "citizen journalism" has long been a staple of the new media thinkers' lexicon, and most recently we've seen this on display at Reddit (with less-than-promising results). But while using the crowd to fact-check breaking news may lead to witch hunts and misinformation, using it to fact-check something as low-stakes and easy to spot as monocles may be a far more appropriate use of the Internet rabble's time. Now let's just do it two or three more times, and we can call it a "trend."
[image via Digiart2001 | jason.kuffer on flickr]