Nearly everything in life has sped up, and most cultural events-from books, movies, and TV shows-are hyped up. Hence, most information is presented to users faster but is often exaggerated or misleading. Moreover, everyone is multitasking, so emails, BlackBerries, and text messages converge. Bucking the tide is a website that makes one cultural recommendation a day. That's right one a day, not two, three, or five, just one.
Welcome to Very Short List (www.veryshortlist.com), the website that offers the latest cultural, technical, and even website tips. How does Very Short List make cultural recommendations that haven't been publicized enormously?
Its mission statement says that it is committed to making "excellent new and sometimes vintage entertainment and media recommendations that you may not know about because they haven't been hyped to within an inch of their lives." Unlike other websites that accept freebies, the site says "it operates independently of commercial considerations."
Very Short List (VSL) is owned primarily by the Observer Media Group, which runs the weekly New York Observer newspaper. IAC/InterActive Corp., the conglomerate (it owns Lending Tree, Ticketmaster, and Match.com) run by Barry Diller, holds a minority ownership interest in it.
Instead of suggesting the latest over-praised Dan Brown novel, VSL recommends under-the-radar-screen The Amnesiac, a novel written by Sam Taylor about a 30-year-old arts journalist who can't remember his past. It also recommended the obscure nonfiction work Your Brain on Cubs, which consists of a series of essays edited by Dan Gordon about the neurological impulses triggered by baseball. A recent description for a leisure-time activity was Walk Score (www.walkscore.com), an inventive website that encourages walking in cities and offers tips on where to take the best walks.
Sara Vilkomerson, who doubles as an editor at VSL and The New York Observer, said, "We like to keep a healthy mix of different genres on Very Short List." Hence, the site highlights movies, books, photography exhibitions, DVDs, and CDs. In early January 2010, VSL recommended the re-release on DVD of Downhill Racer, a '70's Robert Redford film, and the TV mini-series Brick City.
Vilkomerson says VSL sorts through the multitude of books, films, and DVD releases and chooses the best of the lot to recommend. She wants VSL to operate as a "friend who has read a book, enjoyed it, and can point readers to it."
The site generates buzz. Back in mid-October 2009, when few had heard of it, VSL touted Precious, the independent film that has caused quite a stir. In its description, VSL said, "See the movie that's getting all the early Oscar buzz." Precious had its share of admirers, and Oprah Winfrey was one of its producers, but VSL was one of the first sites to publicize it.
VSL is constantly scanning the web and culture to unearth the overlooked recommendation. For example, it recently highlighted Wired's "Best Science Visualization Videos of 2009" (www.wired.com). Vilkomerson said this video appeals to people who aren't science geeks and noted it provided imaginative shots of how the high-magnitude earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault could impact southern California.
Sometimes VSL recommends cultural events that have been hyped and overexposed. For example, in early January 2010, VSL recommended Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, a nonfiction work by reporters John Heilemann of New York magazine and Mark Halperin of TIME. Game Change triggered considerable publicity because of Sen. Harry Reid's, D-Neb., gaffe about President Obama; the book was excerpted in New York and discussed on every political website, major daily newspaper, and nightly news shows. Why recommend a book that its readers already know about, which goes contrary to its mission?
VSL is free to all subscribers, and users can sign up and get its one recommendation delivered to their email address daily. VSL derives its income from display ads and occasionally has advertising-sponsored emails sent to its subscribers. Despite those sponsors, advertisers do not influence editorial or selections in any way.
Launched in 2006, VSL was the brainchild of five friends, Kurt Andersen, one of the founders of Spy magazine and host of Studio 360 on NPR; Michael Jackson, CEO of USA Entertainment (not the deceased pop singer); Tim Nolan; Emily Oberman; and Bonnie Siegler. Interviewed in May 2008 on The Charlie Rose show, Andersen said that its one recommendation can drive traffic to a website by 100% or boost book sales.
Andersen said the site started spontaneously because he "felt plugged in but wouldn't it be nice to have a service we trusted?" He said its goal was to find gems on the web, and the group meets weekly to review about 25 possible recommendations. Some of his favorite recommendations in the past included the Icelandic band Kurr and an interactive Bob Dylan promotion. All previous descriptions are available on the site's "archive" link.
VSL helps people be first to see Precious or the little-known book about how baseball affects the brain by just one recommendation a day.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.