Brian O'Neill: Pittsburgh's quirks endure, which is a good thing

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Pundits, hipsters, academics and philosophers have bemoaned the homogenization of America for generations now.

"Generica, generica, chains spread themselves on thee" -- that has been the song they've sung, more or less. Here's just one satiric example from

"All major U.S. corporations made the announcement today that the homogenization of what's left of the American culture is almost complete. Disney Entertainment Group, Coca-Cola Corp., McDonald's Restaurants, and Wal-Mart led the press conference, but were supported by almost every other corporation and media outlet in the entire United States, sources revealed."

You can guess the rest. You could write it yourself. Or you could go to the nearest interstate highway exit ramp to find roughly the same chain-heavy landscape you'd see around pretty much any other exit ramp in this paved land.

I confess to having been part of this chorus myself, blaming mass media.

Sure, we have local news stations, but they're undermanned and the classic anchor's voice is a could-be-from-anywhere vanilla flavor. Morning deejays and talk-show hosts adopt the same faux frenzy in every media market. In prime time, the same cars, beverages and miracle pills (with a list of side effects longer than the beer line at Heinz Field) are pushed on us before we can get to the mute button.

The one true mass medium open to us all, the Internet, may be what rescues us from this national sameness. The World Wide Web, which celebrated its 25th anniversary Wednesday, is nurturing the unique, the quirky and the local.

Some might ask how I've come to that conclusion, when the nation's most Googled question beginning with "What is ..." last year was "What is twerking?" The most Googled person was Miley Cyrus (followed by Drake, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber). The most Googled annual event was "Black Friday," followed by "Cyber Monday."

The likelihood that any of those searches will result in a doctoral thesis appears slim. Each of those searches was about mass merchandising, if not mass insanity, and those celebrities are national products as much as are Xanax or Pez.

Ah, but the Web can pull us in thousands of directions, and many of them lead home. America may have been unhealthily curious about a Disney Channel refugee and her gyrating tuchis, but that was the equivalent of gawking at a car wreck. The nation's keyboards long since have moved on to a healthy splintering of interests.

As a writer whose focus is on Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania, in that order, I can see where readers take my stuff. Their mantra might be called "home, tweet home."

I wrote a column last week on a guy from Providence who blew through town seeking allies and ideas for a budding movement called "Smaller Cities Unite!" The column heated the Twittersphere in Pittsburgh and Rhode Island -- and hardly anywhere else. That's as it should be.

Or take Pittsburgh cartoonist and storyteller Joe Wos. He retells a fairy tale in a children's book, "The Three Little Pigsburghers," written entirely in Pittsburghese, and he raises more than 6 grand online through Kickstarter in about 10 days. Where do you suppose the people pre-ordering his book live? It ain't Sheboygan.

Similarly, a man with Cleveland roots creates a coloring book, "Why is Daddy Sad on Sunday?" depicting the most disappointing moments in Cleveland sports. That's not only one of the great book titles of all time, it has raised more than 22 grand on Kickstarter. You can bet your autographed picture of Brian Sipe that nearly all of that money has come from fans of the beleaguered Browns, Indians and Cavaliers.

Mr. Wos has challenged the coloring book's author, Scott O'Brien, to a fundraising contest with the loser having to wear a team jersey from the other city.

"It wouldn't be the first time Cleveland has blown a big lead," Mr. Wos taunted.

Silly? Sure. Self-serving? Absolutely. But these are reminders that each hometown has its quirks and folklore. There are any number of more serious blogs and neighborhood chat rooms in each of these cities, too, homing in on things that boil the blood in their immediate environs and nowhere else.

Mr. Wos doesn't think it's coincidence that the emoticon, the ultimate in computer shorthand, was invented by Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott Fahlman. Pittsburghers have been verbally texting for years, Mr. Wos points out, shortening phrases by dropping the verb "to be" and so on.

That may not always be easy on the ears, but it should save us from trying to pronounce "homogeneity."

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947. First Published March 12, 2014 10:52 PM

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