12angrymen

How Scott Tobias Turned the Film Critic Community on Twitter Into a Thoughtless Mob

“I don’t see any need for arguing like this. I think we ought to be able to behave like gentlemen.” — Juror Four, Twelve Angry Men

Scott Tobias is a 41-year-old man who lives in Chicago with a wife and daughter. In 1999, he started work at The Onion, where he became the film editor at The A.V. Club — a print supplement that is bundled with The Onion in eight cities. According to Quantcast, The A.V. Club has a global monthly online reach of 1.9 million unique visitors. Tobias also contributes reviews to NPR, whose ethical handbook specifies this high-minded guideline:

Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.

At the beginning of this week, this seemingly mild-mannered man, who had graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and had worked on a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies at the University of Miami, devolved into a defamatory diablo on Twitter.

Over two and a half days, Tobias, who has nearly 15,000 followers, posted approximately forty-nine tweets which implied that a man, who has nearly 6,000 followers, had wronged him. Rather than participating in a civil and constructive dialogue, Tobias preferred arrogance and indecency and used his influence to vilify this man on Twitter before the man had a chance to see or respond to his tweets. Tobias never thought to contact the man by email until the wrongful insinuations he had put forth had propagated among his peers. That man was me.

As Richard Cooper has astutely observed, when a figure on Twitter climbs his way up the social hierarchy after racking up followers like a rabid pachinko addict, there’s the risk that he’ll develop a weird and entitled attitude against anyone sending him a critical tweet. And Tobias became just that: a small-time ochlocrat who hoped to shut me down because I had the audacity to question his stance on a tweet widely perceived as unthinkable.

Tobias called me “vile” and “fucking insane” and “a miserable, hateful, shameless, sliming little cretin.” (The worst I had called Tobias was “spineless” when he would not answer a question.) He summoned the wrath of such cultural figures as Slate‘s Dana Stevens and Dan Kois, HitFix‘s Daniel Fienberg, and several others, who never thought to question Tobias’s position or investigate the facts. They preferred to feed Tobias’s blind and unthinking fury, which had emerged well after the underlying issue involving The Onion had been resolved. It came about because I had not removed a photo that was well beneath the mildly irreverent temperature set by The Onion in publishing such images as one featuring doctors hovering over a sickly Fidel Castro (published on February 26, 2013) or the infamous juxtaposition of 6-year-old murder victim JonBenét Ramsey (published on August 9, 2012). It came about because Tobias wanted revenge.

* * *

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On Sunday night, The Onion had posted the above tweet during the Oscars ceremony. This thoughtless verbal assault on Quvenzhané Wallis, a nine-year-old actress nominated in the Best Actress category for Beasts of the Southern Wild, raised many hackles. The Onion deleted the tweet an hour later. Nobody at the time took responsibility.

That evening, on Twitter, I sought vital answers. Why didn’t anybody at The Onion or The A.V. Club wish to be held accountable for the tweet’s underlying misogyny?

On Sunday night, I entered into a seventeen tweet volley with two editors at The A.V. Club: Scott Tobias and Todd VanDerWerff. VanDerWerff was fair, civil, and unimpeachable throughout the exchange. When the imbroglio hit a low point two days later, it was VanDerWerff who provided insight into The Onion‘s operational structure and tried to mediate in the comments. On Sunday night, as The Onion was being profusely lacerated, VanDerWerff would respond with calm, kindness, and grace to a woman who had raised concerns about the casual sexism on The A.V. Club‘s forums:

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By contrast, Tobias was hostile to dialogue.

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So I wrote an article about the Onion‘s tweet and the exchange I had with Tobias. The article was accompanied by a photo of Tobias, with the “cunt” tweet positioned across The A.V. Club‘s logo to his left.

I cop to the possibility that it may not have been a good idea to put the photo up. But in the early stages of the affair, nobody had deemed the photo especially noxious. Before The Onion apologized for the Wallis tweet on Monday morning, nobody had said a word in my article’s comments about the photo’s apparently offensive qualities. It was only after I issued an apology to The A.V. Club in the comments that Tobias showed up, decrying my “non-apology apology” and bringing up the photo issue on this website. In examining Scott Tobias’s Twitter timeline, we discover that just before The Onion‘s apology, Tobias’s concerns about the photo had nothing to do with the tweet’s juxtaposition:

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The photo’s copyright did not belong to Scott Tobias. My subsequent investigation revealed that the photo belonged to The Onion, Inc. Tobias never had the right to assert copyright.

The photo did not libel or defame Mr. Tobias in any way. It depicted very clearly what I wrote about in the piece: a disembodied tweet lingering at a slight diagonal angle in The A.V. Club‘s environment as Scott Tobias stands with a reluctant grimace to the left. The photo did not sully Tobias’s image and likeness in any way. There was certainly no malice intended by this contextual abutment. It merely illustrated how misogyny exists in our culture, how it isn’t going away anytime soon, and how men often stand in place grimacing as the atavism continues.

Tobias’s motivation to remove the photo shifted from vanity to a case of hypothetical libel, as suggested by HitFix‘s Daniel Fienberg:

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It was clear that these guys didn’t know what they were talking about, but the suggestion of libel kept Tobias licking his lips. While all this was going on, I wasn’t even on Twitter.

* * *

I first became aware that something was going on when Tobias had left a comment on this website on Monday night. At the time, I was unaware of his public requests to remove the photo on Twitter.

When The Onion apologized on Monday morning, I thought that the matter was closed. I have said nothing further about The Onion, The A.V. Club, or Mr. Tobias on Twitter since that morning. (I would hold my silence as the nasty accusations, fallacious charges, contemptible threats, and scabrous suggestions, all instigated by Tobias, poured in over the next three days.)

I had stayed offline during most of Monday to get some work done. But I did briefly poke my head from the thickets of real life at 5:52 PM to offer an apology in the comments:

Since The Onion has stepped up to apologize for its tweet, I feel that I owe The A.V. Club a modest apology. While I still believe, as I specified in the piece, that The Onion and The A.V. Club should be beholden to some form of institutional values so that nastiness like this does not happen again, and while I feel that those who work for a publication should be intimately familiar with the way in which regrettable tweets set a tone, and while I feel that the seventeen tweets I offered over the course of 45 minutes (eclipsed by the scores of tweets from A.V. staffers over a period of seven hours throughout much of today, while I was busy working) do not constitute “mindless harassment,” I should have been more circumspect in contacting the people directly responsible for the Twitter feed.

In the interest of clarity, I should note that, even though I mentioned the “scores of tweets from A.V. staffers” in my comment, this was based on a cursory glance at Twitter on my phone in the afternoon, when I had tweeted a Richard Ben Cramer quote. I did not see tweets from Tobias calling for the photo to be removed.

What I did not know was that Tobias, not pleased in being challenged, had initiated a plan to condemn me on Twitter and attempt to destroy my reputation. (The complete timeline of events is presented in this detailed graphic.)

On Monday afternoon, at 1:36 PM EST, Tobias tweeted a public request for me to remove the photo. I did not see it. There was no Twitter notification by email. At 10:27 PM EST, Tobias tweeted a second public request. I did not see it. There was no Twitter notification by email.

Tobias had not emailed me.

At 10:25 PM EST, Tobias left a comment on this website, which I approved and read shortly thereafter. I replied at 10:57 PM EST, asking Tobias to address his concerns through formal correspondence.

Curious about what Tobias was referring to, I went to Tobias’s Twitter feed and learned that Tobias accused me of being “vile,” called me “fucking insane,” and had suggested to his followers that I had deliberately rebuffed him.

Again, I had not seen his tweets before then.

I am normally quite happy to remove photos when people ask. I have done so in the past. But Tobias’s harassing behavior is not how you go about getting a photo removed. And when I went to the trouble of getting the notice necessary to remove the photo, something that was not my obligation, the process took two days.

I was unclear about the copyright being asserted and I wanted to be absolutely pellucid on the facts. This was because I had not been entirely circumspect about The Onion‘s organizational structure with my initial article. For this, I was pilloried by Tobias’s peers as “a terrible asshole,” “a cunt,” “a real cunt,” “a fucking cunt,” “a world-class creep,” “an awful troll,” and numerous other epithets that flowed late into the night. I was condemned for being slow and methodical. I had not received a takedown notice.

I contacted people at The Onion on Wednesday and Thursday morning (including CEO Steve Hannah, TV editor Todd VanDerWerff, and HR Coordinator/Office Manager Theresa Lyon), apprising them of the full situation and instructing them that I would need something specifying (a) copyright information on the photo, (b) contact information for the aggrieved party, and (c) a statement asserting in very clear language why the material is not authorized, and also requesting a public apology. (In fact, I have yet to receive any apology, either private or public, from Scott Tobias or anyone at The Onion or The A.V. Club.)

It was never my job to educate Tobias about copyright law. There is a formal process to remove a photo. But despite working in the media business for at least fourteen years and being married to a lawyer, Tobias did not follow the procedure. As the detailed timeline demonstrates below, he was more interested in devoting his energies to harassment. (If you can’t see the image in full, right click on the image in your browser and select “View Image” and click again to zoom in.)

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The collective outrage was never about the photo. It was about power. In the 1980s, Heinz Leymann investigated mobbing, a collective form of harassment in the workplace which he defined as “hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one of a number of persons mainly toward one individual.” As cafes have increasingly transformed into offices, Twitter has created a new virtual “workplace” atmosphere.

When I learned what Tobias was up to on Monday evening, I informed him by email that he was harassing me and that I only wanted to deal with third parties. He continued to harass me and it caused people such as Darren Hughes to make violent threats:

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Tobias’s tweets inspired a few hundred additional tweets from his peers which hurled more invective along these lines. As the timeline graphic clearly demonstrates, not once did Tobias seek to mollify his followers. He was the ringleader in a campaign built on collective harassment. It’s the kind of behavior one associates with 4chan, not purportedly high-minded cultural critics or people who work for The Onion and NPR.

Tobias’s tweets also inspired an effort by Slate staffers to suggest that I was a troll. It was precisely the linguistic switcheroo that Richard Cooper had identified in his essay on Twitter hierarchies:

The hideous term “trolls”, previously reserved for the kind of racist or neo-Nazi filth people put in YouTube comments sections to get a reaction, was now being used to apply to the phrases “yawn” and “one step up from a mumsnet post”.

From Dan Kois, Slate senior editor:

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From Dana Stevens, Slate film critic:

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The irony of cultural critics smearing a critic of a critic has not been lost on me, nor has the irony of male critics who who are more offended by a mild photographic juxtaposition than a misogynistic tweet directed at a nine-year-old girl. This upholds the very point that my piece and the accompanying photo argued: that institutional values within today’s cultural outlets prohibit an examination of casual misogyny. With professionals like this, who needs critics?

* * *

It was amazing to me how Twitter had inspired the 21st century’s answer to The Ox-Bow Incident. I was never contacted or afforded a perspective. There was one creepy “assistant professor” who was spending his time between classes harassing me and stopped doing this after I called his program coordinator. The narrative that Tobias created left zero room for painting me as anything less than a baleful menace. All I had done was put up a photo and raise my voice. I never insulted anybody during the Sunday night exchange. I certainly hadn’t killed anybody or defended phone hacking. The reaction was tremendously out of proportion with the purported offense.

Scott Tobias had turned the film critic community on Twitter into a thoughtless mob.

In the end, I decided to remove the photo: not because of the harassment and not because I was pressured. Even though Tobias had harassed me and publicly crucified me before I had ever had the chance to respond to his requests, decency and compassion were essential parts of journalism. He had not been especially decent or compassionate to me, but I wanted to believe that there was a decent human being somewhere inside Scott Tobias. I wanted to be kind when the others were being quite unkind.

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I took steps to get The Onion to send me a formal takedown notice and eventually heard back from A.V. Club general manager Josh Modell.

With the official takedown notice in my hands, I quietly removed the photo.

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Within twenty minutes of the photo’s removal, Scott Tobias acknowledged this on Twitter. But he did not apologize for his conduct or for riling up his peers. Indeed, the tone here was rooted around celebration and “victory” rather than dialogue and decency. In Tobias’s mind, he had “won.” I don’t know if he has learned anything.

You can’t tar people because they haven’t responded to your timetable. I fully admit to being guilty of this in the past. Now that I’ve seen it from the other side through Tobias, I better understand why patience is essential. Without patience, we dehumanize ourselves by viewing other people as blank lemmings who fall into a natural pecking order.

I don’t know if the film critics who harassed me on Twitter are even cognizant of what they’ve done. Did Twitter turn them into monsters? I’ve certainly tweeted my share of foolish and angry sentiments, but it has never occurred to me to incite my friends to harass anyone writing something critical abiout me. As Nagasawa put it so well in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, “A gentleman is someone who does not what he wants to do, but what he should do.” (To which Watanabe replies, “You’re the weirdest guy I’ve ever met.” To which Nagasawa replies, “You’re the straightest guy I’ve ever met,” just before paying the bill.)

The high road doesn’t get enough credit in American life. It takes a hell of a lot of courage not to respond to beasts who want to bring you down. They are so eager to destroy and shame that they lose their sense of humanity. Yes, we all make mistakes. And we can’t expect people to react in the way we want them to. But isn’t it better to behave like a gentleman?

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Why The Onion Must Be Held Accountable for Its Vile Tweet

(2/25/2013 11:50 AM UPDATE: As Jim Romenesko reported, The Onion has issued an apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

During last night’s Academy Awards, The Onion, a well-known satirical newspaper operating in Chicago, decided to row its barge into choppy waters. The Onion called Quvenzhane Wallis, a nine-year-old actress nominated for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a “cunt” on its Twitter feed:

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In less than 140 characters, The Onion betrayed and violated 25 years of satirical good will. For unless you are a sociopath, there is nothing funny about calling a child a “cunt” — especially when there isn’t any additional context to the purported “joke.” It’s possible that the tweet was meant to mimic some of Academy Award host Seth MacFarlane’s misogynist misfires such as the insinuation that Wallis would be ready for George Clooney in sixteen years. Still, if one doesn’t apply a modest dose of narrative artistry, a joke falls dead in the moraine. And it was this vital part of comedy that was clearly ignored by the nameless person at The Onion who concocted the tweet. Because of this, the tweet became nothing less than thoughtless hatred, an act of bullying where a Twitter feed with a very large pull used its power (4.7 million followers) to attack someone verbally.

Here’s what the Onion failed to do: When Hustler published a fake Campari ad of Jerry Falwell on the inside front cover of its November 1983 issue, the descriptive details were reasonable enough to be considered fabricated and absurd. A fictitious interviewer asked a fictitious Falwell about his “first time” and the result was a clearly ridiculous incestuous affair in an outhouse. Falwell sued, but he wasn’t able to win. Because the humorist behind the parody performed the basic professional duty of supplying a narrative. And because of these vital details, all clearly wrong and all clearly part of a joke, Hustler won an unanimous verdict from the Supreme Court.

Until last night, The Onion had maintained a commendable comedy reputation with narratives along these lines, although The Onion had been pushing the envelope more in recent months. One reads, for example, this commentary from “Joe Hundley” — a piece that the Onion‘s defenders (nearly all of them male) offered to those appalled by the tweet. But the reader immediately understands the irony of professed victimhood behind the act. Unlike the tweet, it is not mere invective, although there is unpleasant language conveyed for the sake of verisimilitude. Nor are any of the supporting characters in the story real figures. Whether you find Joe Hundley’s commentary funny or not, the piece takes on the qualities of Hustler‘s Campari parody and is defensible.

The Onion‘s tweet was especially troubling because the newspaper courts a largely male demographic, with 48% of its readership making $75,000/year or more, and there is undeniably privilege when a newspaper with a largely white, male, and affluent audience with just under 5 million followers on its Twitter feed picks on an African-American girl who is the daughter of a teacher and a truck driver.

As of early Monday morning, the offending tweet had been deleted from The Onion‘s Twitter feed. There was no acknowledgment in the Onion‘s Twitter feed that the tweet had been deleted, and there was no apology on the Onion‘s Twitter feed or its website. But there was a lot of understandable bile.

Now I don’t wish to suggest that the word “cunt” be prohibited from public speech. However, those who elect to use it in public dialogue need to understand the implications of the word, especially when it is directed at children. There’s a world of difference between what The Onion did last night and how George Carlin’s famous routine used “cunt.” Carlin was careful to illustrate the meaning of “cunt” and six other words. He was not using it to insult people, although people were insulted by his demystification of “cunt.”

But if someone is going to use “cunt” for hateful purposes — and there is truly no other interpretation of the Onion‘s tweet, whether the hatred was intended or not — then the organization or individual which employs such usage needs to be held accountable. As Gawker‘s Camille Dodero exposed last week in horrific detail, bullies with a power base can make an innocent person’s life quite miserable. Could not the Onion tweet, ratcheted up by others with too much time on their hands, be used to similarly hurt Quvenzhane Wallis? We take the risk every time we send something out into the universe, but sometimes we need a bit of forethought.

On Sunday evening, I put forth the proposition on Twitter that anyone who worked for The Onion and The A.V. Club, a print edition bundled with The Onion, should be held accountable for this tweet.

I called out members of The A.V. Club. Scott Tobias, film editor of The A.V. Club, claimed that because he and his writers do not write for the Twitter feed, they should neither consider the impact nor be held accountable for what their employer does. TV Editor Todd VanDerWerff, said that he “had literally nothing to do with the Onion.” I asked a point blank question to both Tobias and VandDerWerff:

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VanDerWerff replied with a fairly straightforward answer and explained that he has no regular contact with The Onion, which I thought at the time to be a fair and reasonable reply, until I checked his LinkedIn page and discovered this among his job duties:

Planned TV coverage with a freelance staff of several dozen. Editing that coverage. Wrote 10-15 pieces per week.

No contact with the Onion at all while managing several dozen freelancers? Really?

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However, the other striking aspect about VanDerWerff’s reply is that he had the decency to offer a direct answer to my question.

Tobias did not.

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As a film editor, Tobias almost certainly coordinates with people who work at The Onion. But he suggests in this tweet that The A.V. Club, a print supplement that is bundled with The Onion not unlike a newspaper section, is a publication that is as discrete as a separate magazine. This is misleading. One does not typically get Entertainment Weekly folded into an issue of Time. Nor is The Onion on the level of Time Warner. Time Warner employs 32,000 people. It is believed that Onion, Inc. employs 70.

I pointed out to Tobias that he was quite obligated to the company that signed his paychecks. Unlike VanDerWerff, he could not put himself on the line and respond with a firm position. He finally did answer my question, but his response is quite telling.

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So let’s break this down. Despite the fact that he works with people at The Onion, he is “not responsible.” In other words, Tobias has such lackadaisical journalistic standards that he could not care less about how the tone set by one part of The Onion (in this case, the Twitter feed) affects the section he edits.

Now it’s possible that I’m applying too much institutional value to The Onion‘s operation. But when I was on staff at a computer magazine, I learned very quickly the degree to which other editors and executives put pressure on you to adhere to the magazine’s standards and principles. As an articulated example of this, you can look no further than the very clear ethos adopted by The New York Times:

The company and its units believe beyond question that our staff shares the values these guidelines are intended to protect. Ordinarily, past differences of view over applying these values have been resolved amiably through discussion. The company has every reason to believe that such a pattern will continue. Nevertheless, the company views any intentional violation of these rules as a serious offense that may lead to disciplinary action, potentially including dismissal, subject to the terms of any applicable collective bargaining agreement.

Tobias doesn’t appear interested in such guidelines (if, indeed, any are in place), much less having a discussion about how an Onion staffer’s misogynistic breach might affect his operation. He’s “not responsible.” That’s how little he cares about The Onion and that’s how little he cares about the right tone.

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As Laurie Penny argued in November 2011, “If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions.” And it’s this unthinking idea of “not taking responsibility” and not taking a stand that allows casual misogyny to perpetuate. It is Tobias’s refusal to address challenges and this need to get approval from the people who already like him which kill the dialogue.

I’d like to think that The Onion and Tobias were better than this. I’d like to believe that they have it within them to do some soul-searching on what this failed joke really means for the work they do. But as long as The Onion circles the wagons, they’ll remain part of the problem that won’t go away, no matter how much they try to ignore it.

2/25/2013 11:50 AM UPDATE: As Jim Romenesko reported, The Onion has issued an apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

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Why the Block Button Encourages Fear and Threatens Community

On Monday night, I discovered quite by accident that a midlist author had blocked me on Twitter. Not unfollowed, but blocked. This had come after nearly a year and a half of mutual help and steady correspondence. In recent months, this author confided to me about his problems. I made several gestures to meet up with the author on his next trip into the city so that we could talk about this in person. I believed in his talent. I knew a few people who could help him out.

After I had interviewed the author before an audience, we pledged a get together. He didn’t respond for weeks. He had secured what he needed. Now I could be dropped. It was probably impetuous of me to conclude this, much less assume that the author was capable of responding to email or even following up on his many pledges while on the road. On the evening that the author next rode into town, the two of us exchanged hostile words through that woefully unsubtle and impulsive form of communication known as email banged out on smartphone keyboards. Neither of us came across very well. Shortly after this, the author’s wife, who had a much wiser head about the way men emote than the two foolhardy men here in question, sent a diplomatic email trying to find out what happened. I thanked her for her email and explained my frustrations, apologizing for my part in the exchange, and pledged a cooling off period. Weeks later, I discovered that the author had blocked me on Twitter. He had also blocked my longtime partner, who had no role in the dispute whatsoever.

I know that I behaved badly and the reasonable email from the author’s wife helped me arrive at that conclusion. I also recognize that nobody is under any obligation to follow anybody. But isn’t blocking over the top? Pushing the online world’s answer to the big red button is something one reserves for a cyberstalker, a full-bore troll, a spammer, or a truly dangerous individual, not a former acquaintance that you had a vitriolic spat with.

Yet the power to block people on social media over pedantic offenses has encouraged many otherwise sharp blades to push down their capacity for tolerance and ratchet up the fear. It’s a remarkably contemptuous response to the paradoxical nature of existence. For who among us hasn’t uttered rash words or muttered moronic quips? The block button is free speech’s answer to the gun-toting libertarian who holes up in his bunker, claiming that he doesn’t need government services to put out the fires or stop crime or service the highways or take out the trash or maintain the sewers. It is an ideal that sounds noble in theory, but is precipitous in practice. As Jacob Silverman argued in Slate back in August, offense or disagreement doesn’t have to be toxic.

In writing this essay, I don’t wish to make the same mistakes that New York‘s Nathan Heller did two weeks ago, approaching this complicated subject from a privileged and blinkered position. Back in May, Richard Cooper pointed out how Twitter media bigshots shut down their critics. This was followed in October by a lengthy post from Neil Bomb’d about how comedians employed their fans to bully detractors in numbers. This week, Chris Brown and his followers attacked Jenny Johnson on Twitter with deeply misogynist remarks. There are also Laurie Penny’s ongoing reports about the sexual bullying of women and girls online, the IDF’s recent aggressive use of Twitter to foment ideological conflict, and sites which pilfer pictures from social media in the name of scummy extortion.

The block button is the very instrument which has permitted these many unpleasant online conflagrations to flourish. It is a poor and inefficient mechanism that has deigned to place judgment in the hands of the users, but that has mostly encouraged our worst instincts and clearly not learned from history. It was the hideous phrase “blocked for stupidity” which attracted Cooper’s notice. Bomb’d reports that a user named MissSpidey tried to report abusive users to seek understandable redress. She became suspended from Twitter for “aggressive blocking.” Not only does the block button incite users to feel anger and retaliate when on the receiving end, but it can’t even be properly used in its native mode.

I believe that getting beyond all this will involve either extirpating the block button from our social media interfaces or resorting to more enduring human qualities that don’t require any particular software platform. As I noted back in August, it isn’t an epidemic of niceness that’s the problem, but a paucity of kindness and respect. If we can stop erecting massive edifices that get in the way of conversations and we learn from the free flow that has permitted a thousand cat videos and a million animated GIFs to bloom, there’s a chance of improving how we communicate.

* * *

Before the block button granted every individual the power to stub out any vaguely offensive viewpoint from a timeline, there were comment moderators. The comment moderator had the thankless yet invaluable duty of sifting through tens of thousands of comments each month in an online forum, flagging highly offensive or disruptive remarks that went over the line. Not only did this system create a third party that arbitrated disputes and explicated motivations in a respectful and relatively neutral tone, but it permitted users and moderators alike to strike an acceptable compromise between preserving distinct voices and perpetuating a healthy community.

Lessons from 11 years of community (my SXSW 2011 talk) from Matt Haughey on Vimeo.

In a video adapted from his 2011 SXSW talk, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey smartly outlines some vital maxims he learned during eleven successful years of community moderation. He suggests that community moderators refrain from being overprotective. “I mean, we’ve come to the conclusion,” says Haughey at the 4:15 mark, “you know, putting up barriers when necessary, only after they’ve been permissive for years and years. And I like to think of this as a concert. You know, you don’t want your security at the front, between the band and the crowd, pushing the crowd back. That’s not really what you want moderators to be. You want them to be kind of part of it. Participants in it.” Haughey also mentions in the video that the burnout emerging from constant complaints from users causes moderators to turn into bad cops, losing sight of the initial reasons why they organized the community in the first place. Haughey also says it’s helpful to give users a forum to vent and offer feedback.

But as comment moderating power has shifted from third party mediators to individual users, the distinctions that retired community moderator Elliot Guest observed between someone who deviates from the accepted norm, someone who hasn’t read the full context and who enjoys tossing out acronyms like “tl:dr,” and someone who sets out to instigate chaos for chaos’s sake have become mangled. As individual users block with their emotions, anyone even remotely belligerent becomes a troll. Negative feelings perpetuate additional negative feelings. And instead of a thriving democracy, online community deteriorates into little more than a collection of volatile city-states perpetually at war with each other.

It didn’t help when many of the Web’s rosy pioneers encouraged the block button as it became a more prominent part of online existence. In 2010, Derek Powazek wrote:

I propose that blocking people on sites like Twitter or Flickr should not be interpreted as an insult. I propose that it’s simply taking yourself out of someone else’s attention stream.

If I block you on Twitter, my tweets no longer show up in your timeline. If I block you on Flickr, my photos no longer show up on your contacts page. In these settings, this is the only way for me to remove myself from your attention.

Not an insult? With all due respect, what could be more egomaniacal than Powazek’s “one strike” policy?

If you post a tweet that bothers me for any reason, no matter how small or petty, it’s extremely likely that you’ll do it again. It’s so likely, in fact, that I’m going to save myself the annoyance and just unfollow you now. After all, you’re not on My List of People I Must Be Okay With, and I’m not on yours. I’m just choosing to have one less brief annoyance in my day.

I’m bothered by all of this, but it would never occur to me to put Powazek on the same level as George Lincoln Rockwell. That’s as preposterous as forcing some drunken lout in a bar to vanish into thin air using a Samsung Galaxy and a pair of chopsticks. It’s simply beyond the laws of real world physics, yet faith in online simulacra has us thinking we can bend the rules. Well, it didn’t work for gamification advocates like Jane McGonigal and it won’t work for social media. The human spirit is too muscular and manifold to be packed into a digital valise.

Moreover, the willingness to write off some figure who tells us something we don’t want to hear, and to do this over a mere 140 character message, is nothing less than an irrational and unhealthy fear which fails to account for the distinct possibility that there may be some positive quality contained within the petty annoyances. It is a declaration against outside-the-box thinking, representing a growing incapacity to reckon with vital human realities or topics we may need to think about.

Nobody wants to be told, for example, that the global temperature could rise by 4 degrees Celsius as early as 2060, but it’s a very real consideration that even a neoliberal organization like The World Bank has warned against. Suppose that something like this or, for those who still think climate change is a hoax, the indisputable scientific fact that the carbon atom has six electrons is a petty annoyance for someone like Powazek.

At this point, the common fantasy expressed on Facebook and Formspring of being able to block people in real life takes on a more sinister and anti-intellectual quality. It becomes no different from a creationist attempting to block Darwin from being taught in the classrooms or an NYPD sketch artist resorting to racist stereotypes because he has blocked out the possibility that a suspect who killed three Brooklyn shopkeepers is some guy with a moustache. Perhaps most perniciously, it has the result of reducing thoughtful adults to oversensitive sixth graders plugging fingers in their ears and barking “La! La! La! I can’t hear you!” at every opportunity.

I’d like to think that most people, including the author I described at the beginning and me, are better than this. Online culture is disastrous in accepting people’s faults. It encourages a scorched earth mentality with a single click. What would happen if the people we disliked were allowed in our timelines? Perhaps if other people we trusted were retweeting and referencing these debauched or hopeless souls, we might reconsider our opinion. We might come to know them better, or at least as well as online communication will allow. We might see, as we often do when hanging out with somebody in real life, that one’s time on this earth is too short to roll out the howitzer over something small or petty. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that the most daring thing for young people to do “is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” I can’t think of a more deliberate cancer to court than blocking somebody over a stupid tweet. But until someone comes up with a better idea to manage the trolls, the button remains irresistible.

hurricanesandy

Hurricane Sandy: The Right to Yell Flood in a Crowded Twitter and Why Peter Vallone Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About

As Hurricane Sandy ravaged a vast swath of the Northeast on Monday night, a hedge fund analyst and conservative troll named Shashank Tripathi was spreading misinformation on Twitter under the handle @comfortablysmug.

In a barrage of tweets all beginning with the mealy allcaps cry BREAKING, Tripathi claimed that Con Ed was shutting down all power in Manhattan, suggested that Governor Cuomo had been trapped in Manhattan, and declared that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded.

While many authorities and journalists swiftly corrected Tripathi’s pathological lies (including Con Ed’s official Twitter account), Tripathi’s 140 character dispatches were retweeted and favorited by enough people to become a problem. Gullible media professionals like CNN meteorologist Chad Myers and The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross reported the NYSE prevarication as truth. Tripathi’s true identity was exposed by BuzzFeed’s Jack Stuef. Not long after, a vocal lynch mob formed sharp pitchforks with their tongues. Tripathi offered an apology on Tuesday night after many hours of silence.

Tripathi’s deceitful tweets have led to a vibrant discussion on how Twitter works as a medium. While many television reporters opted for the aesthetic allure of standing in a flooded area with tall boots and flapping windbreakers, Twitter proved an invaluable and more constructive medium to seek out and confirm leads. People who lived in devastated areas were understandably keen to communicate what was happening, with the information promulgated at a swift and unprecedented rate. As the storm crept its way past the coastline, users were uploaded ten pictures per second to Instagram. Over the course of 21 hours, there were more than 1.1 million Twitter mentions with the word “hurricane.” Of course, it is a universal truth that a hungry Internet in want of more information will invent what it can to cope.

https://twitter.com/AHurricaneSandy/status/262736402075246592

The misinformation spread through text was matched by misinformation in imagery, with The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal establishing an online forum to distinguish true photos from the doctored ones. Such resources as Madrigal’s page demonstrated how false information could be equally combated with a healthy dose of skepticism and a small amount of research.

New York City Councilman Peter Vallone wants to put a stop to all this. On Tuesday night, he announced that he wants to seek criminal charges against Tripathi. But why stop there? Does not CNN and The Weather Channel also bear some responsibility for failing to corroborate Tripathi’s tweets? Furthermore, should not free speech extend to a fake storm’s declaration of wanton corporate destruction?

But we really don’t need to dabble in silly rhetoric. Because Vallone doesn’t quite understand the way the law works. Oddly enough, much like Tripathi, Vallone prefers speculative sentiment and attention over the facts. And while Vallone has every right to tweet what he wants, he is regrettably not as amusing as a pumpkin spice hurricane.

The common parallel being trotted out is Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous opinion in Schenck v. United States, in which he noted that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” This condition created a “clear and present danger” limitation in American free speech which endured for fifty years. Yet the “danger” inspired by Tripathi’s trolling was quickly stubbed out by authorities and journalists who reacted and corrected and rightfully questioned the source.

Vallone offers the “fire in a crowded theater” example in his remarks to Buzzfeed. But this is incorrect, reflecting a paraphrased standard of Holmes’s opinion that was replaced in 1969. If one shuttles forward to the “imminent lawless action” standard established with the Brandenberg v. Ohio ruling, Tripathi’s tweets become even more difficult to criminalize. As First Amendment Scholar David L. Hudson, Jr. noted on the fortieth anniversary of Brandenberg, imminent lawless action did not apply in NAACP vs. Claiborne Hardware Co. when a NAACP field secretary threatened violence against those who refused to boycott white businesses. Moreover, in Rice v. Paladin Press (1997), the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a publisher to print a manual on how to kill people. Tripathi didn’t go nearly as far as either of these cases.

The problem resides with belief culture and the ongoing erosion of journalistic standards. We’ve seen examples of this with ABC News’s misreporting in the Aurora shooting and Tony Scott’s death, as well as CNN and Fox News announcing the wrong Obamacare verdict in June. If Tripathi must be tarred and feathered by wild-eyed councilmen from Queens who don’t understand free speech law, then we must also extend the batshit vigilante impulse to CNN’s Chad Myers and The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross, who were just as culpable in spreading misinformation.

I’d like to propose a saner and more reasonable alternative. Instead of seeking a scapegoat to drown in the Gowanus Canal without a fair trial, why not educate the public in critical thinking? If the information is wrong, it should not matter whether it emerges from a troll or a CNN anchor. Why not trust the people to distinguish between outright lies and hard facts? Common sense pulled the Northeast through the largest storm ever recorded. It can also defeat the online trolls, whether they are hedge fund analysts with too much time on their hands or Queens councilmen who prefer spewing ignorant drivel over community leadership.

Is the New York Times Banning “Tweet” in the Newsroom?

This morning, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha reported that New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett had issued a memo to the newsroom suggesting that “tweet” (that verb used to refer to the act of posting on Twitter) was being actively discouraged within the Gray Lady’s mighty halls. The memo, which announced that “‘tweet’ has not yet achieved the status of standard English” went on to express dismay about “tweet” being used as a noun or verb. How could a word — reflecting a colloquialism, a negologism, or jargon — ever be used in a serious newspaper? Corbett advised using the staid “say” or the vanilla “write” as a surrogate.

Rumors then began to circulate on Twitter — in part, promulgated by The Awl — that the Times was banning the use of “tweet” entirely. New York Times Artsbeat blogger Dave Itzkoff was the first to declare that the ban was not true. Yet there remained the matter of confirming the memo’s veracity.

I contacted Corbett, and he confirmed that the memo published by The Awl had indeed been disseminated around The New York Times. “I specifically say that ‘tweet’ may be acceptable in some situations,” wrote Corbett in an email. “I’m basically urging people to view it in the category of colloquialisms, which we might use in for special effect and in contexts that call for an informal, conversational tone. But we try to minimize use of colloquial language — as well as jargon — in straight news writing.”

In other words, if a New York Times reporter is using Twitter to get a quote from a source for a big news story, the very practical notion of using “wrote” instead of “tweeted” is sound policy. But does “tweet” get an outright ban? Hardly.

Linkrot on Steroids: The Problems with URL Shorteners

As Simon Owens recently observed, tr.im — a service that shortened URLs — is now gone. The links that it once helpfully compressed are now useless. For those who may have passed on a link to a pal, tweeted a particularly helpful article, or otherwise stopped an unruly URL from breaking in two because of a monitor’s constraining width, this metadata means nothing. How long will it be before all the other URL shortening services are about as valuable as a maniac with a fetish for smearing Crisco on random monitors or some sad and anonymous man who wastes his entire weekend on the Internet pretending to be somebody else on Twitter? Twhirl, the Adobe AIR app aiding folks in posting silly thoughts and links to Twitter, presents us with digg.com, is.gd, bit.ly, snurl.com, and twurl.nl as link-shortening options, all desperately needed if anyone expects to use the 140 character limit. But will these shorteners even exist in six months? Shouldn’t the mad scientists at Twitter come up with an in-house standard to ensure some longevity? (All this, of course, assumes that our tweets, or anything we put online, is even permanent — a subject I rambled at length about last week.)

There’s also the problem of linkrot. The ever-shifting Wikipedia page suggests that Tim Berners-Lee was the first person to warn against these constantly changing links. Some extremely lazy excavation reveals that Jakob Nielsen was on the case on June 14, 1998, pointing, with unintentional and unanticipated irony, to “a recent survey by Terry Sullivan’s All Things Web.” But the link today is no longer good. I consult The Wayback Machine, waiting a few patient minutes for some hopeful snapshot of the Sullivan site in question, getting a total of 91 versions between 1998 and 2008. And of course, a click to one of these surrogate McCarthy functions takes another 40 seconds, and I don’t know which version is even the optimal one. And I find dramatic differences between the last version of the site in 2008 and the first version of the site in 1998. To name just one modification, the 2008 version reveals that the survey was conducted in April 1997. I am directed to the actual survey, which thankfully still maintains its original URL. But for how long?) There is no such date in the 1998 version. The 2008 version compares three State of the Web surveys. But what if we want to know what Terry Sullivan wrote about the original survey in 1998? The new page gives no indication that Sullivan changed the page and doesn’t address us to an older version. (I should point out that the Guardian has, And if you try and call up All Things Web in Firefox 3.5.2, you get a 403 error. What was once public is now private or “down for maintenance” (as of August 9, 2009, 9:13 PM EST). Nielsen has referenced only general details in his piece, as well as the original URL, which the patient types will attempt to extract through the Wayback Machine.

But let’s say that Nielsen had used something like tr.im to point to Sullivan. Would we be able to conduct this experiment? Instead of having 91 versions of Sullivan’s website to examine, we’d have to perform some guesswork, assuming the page was referenced by others and assuming that this was the only page in which Sullivan wrote about the “recent survey” in 1998.

Let’s also consider that all of the content and all of the links that we type into Twitter (or, for that matter, a webmail service) involves relying on a third-party website. A third-party website that has been prone to outages, lost tweets, lost followers, and lost information. What steps then is Twitter taking to ensure that all of the data generated at a historical moment is preserved? What are the URL shorteners doing to ensure that the regular versions of URLs are preserved?

Five years from now, will anyone investigating the manner in which CNN and The New York Times relied on Twitter for its news about recent events in Iran be able to check the original data that these ostensible reporters relied on? Will these reporters keep any notes they generated? Will their links still be good? Will the New York Time‘s links still be around? (Hell, will the New York Times even still be around?)

Our cavalier refusal to ask these questions only exacerbates the problem of linkrot. There are thankfully methods of backing up your Twitter data, but how many Twitter users will even do this? We are forced by necessity to shorten the links, but “abuse of the service” may cause it to be temporarily disabled. Bit.ly helpfully offers a “history” of recently shortened links. And it even tracks the URLs that you’ve recently shortened even if you’ve never signed up or signed in. But days later, the history is cleared.

Just for fun, I performed an advanced Twitter search on all uses of “bit.ly” on Twitter through February 28, 2009. “No results for bit.ly until:2009-02-28.” I know this cannot be. But let’s give Twitter the benefit of the doubt. All uses of “tinyurl” on Twitter through February 28, 2009? “No results for tinyurl until:2009-02-28.”

These search results are, as anyone who has used Twitter and URL shorteners in the past two years, outright wrong. Twitter lacks the resources to preserve our data from six months ago. How can we expect it to preserve our data six months from now? In our great rush to adopt tools of change, our failure to backup the data we’ve already generated is the Internet’s equivalent to the explosive silver nitrate film stock and reckless cataloging that has permitted only 10 to 15% of silent movies to survive, with the remainder thought to be lost forever. (And who knows if there will be some online answer to Carl Bennett?)

But then many of the prospective answers to these questions depend on how much we value the services we’re using, and just how much we’re willing to waste our weekends on a desperate effort at tenuous restitution.

updikejuggling

Alain de Botton on Responding to Critics

(This is the second of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

Technology

Many people are only just waking up to how blurred web technology has made the boundaries between public and private. It used to be easy to know what a public statement was. It was one written for a newspaper or for a radio or television broadcast. But the web has made it harder to discern what is meant to be public and what private. A huge number of people now read newspapers only on the web, alongside other web windows like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. This equalises the difference between the two, it potentially places a Facebook status entry on the same level as the headline of the foreign affairs section of the New York Times. Simply on the basis of visual appearance, on your screen, there is no difference between the might and authority of a comment in the New York Times, and a note written in a blog run from the proverbial bedroom.

So it becomes hard, as a reader, to measure the degree of intent behind any statement one reads — and as a writer, it becomes hard to judge how seriously one’s words are going to be taken and how large the audience for them will be.

How to review a book

Mr. Crain reviewed my book for The New York Times on Sunday 28th June, 2009. The book was accorded a full page review, a relatively rare honour, and was the third review to run in the pecking order. In other words, this was a prestigious slot in the most prestigious paper in the largest book market on the planet. The power of the New York Times in the world of books can’t be overestimated. A review in the paper can close down a book or make its fortunes. With books pages being cut right across the world, it remains the authoritative place for information.

updikejugglingGiven this power, the onus on any reviewer is to use it wisely, a wisdom to which there is no finer guide than John Updike and his six rules of reviewing as laid out in his collection Picked Up Pieces. Updike’s concern was for fairness. This did not mean that he wanted every book to be praised. Rather, he wanted every book to be given it’s ‘fair due’. The end of a fair appraisal might mean the book was not recommended, but the author and reader could feel that the reviewer had kept his or her side of the bargain. Updike recommended that the reviewer try to understand what the author was up to, enter imaginatively into the project, and most of all avoid any kind of attack that felt ad hominem.

I have been in the writing business for 15 years and have received many bad reviews. However, when I read Crain’s review, it was apparent that it was unusually uninterested in adhering to Updike’s six golden rules of reviewing.

What can one do with a bad review?

There is no official right of reply to the judgement of reviewers. One cannot sue, complain or do anything that counts. One has two options: stoicism (batten the hatches). Or Christianity (turn the other cheek).

There is a third private option. To write to the reviewer in the hope of giving them a sense of their power and influence — and the effects to which they have used it. The hope is that by doing so, the reviewer may with time come to reflect on the matter and when they are next presented with a book, they may (and this is a very hopeful idea indeed) adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

I hence found my way to my reviewer’s website and there, in what I thought was a comparatively private arena, sent him a message that was deliberately hyperbolic and unstoic, the equivalent of a punch in words. The idea was to reveal honestly what effect he had on me.

The problem with overhearing people in private moments is that they don’t follow the rules of civilised society and hence offend our sense of propriety (that’s why the rules are in place). All of us, if cameras were turned on during our moments of rage, disappointment, fear and vengeance, would wince if the footage were then played back to us or – even worse – were played back to an audience of strangers. We value privacy for precisely this reason: it protects us our immaturities from wider display.

It can be appalling for all concerned if the private spills out – for example, if a guest was listening to a marital argument, both the guest and the marital couple would be appalled.

The reactions of others

My altercation with Caleb Crain has attracted a peculiar amount of interest at heart because its nature as a private communication has been misunderstood, both by me – and those looking on. It has widely been taken that I have written back to The New York Times directly to complain. Instead I wrote to Caleb Crain to speak very directly to him and not principally to the world at large. I feel very sorry that this tiff has been broadcast so widely. The embarrassment is as akin to an argument with one’s spouse being inadvertently broadcast to one’s work colleagues or a private letter appearing on a widely-read internet site.

I have been naive here. My conclusion is that one has to be extraordinarily careful about the internet. Nothing that one types here that others could potentially access should ever be phrased in ways that wouldn’t make one happy if a million other people happened to see it. There should only be measure and reason – or else it will be judged along exactly the same criteria as one would judge an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

I continue to maintain that the subjects of unfair criticism have the right to protest and perhaps in heartfelt ways too – they should simply take extreme care that absolutely no one is watching or recording them doing so.

debotton2

Alain de Botton Clarifies the Caleb Crain Response

(This is the first of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Caleb Crain reviewed Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. While regular NYTBR watchers like Levi Asher welcomed the spirited dust-up, even Asher remained suspicious about Crain’s doubtful assertions and dense prose.

debotton2But on Sunday, de Botton left numerous comments at Crain’s blog, writing, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

As Carolyn Kellogg would later remark, this apparent enmity didn’t match up with the sweet and patient man she had observed at an event. While de Botton hadn’t posted anybody’s phone number or email address, as Alice Hoffman had through her Twitter account, de Botton had violated an unstated rule in book reviewing: Don’t reply to your critics.

But the recent outbursts of Hoffman, de Botton, and (later in the week) Ayelet Waldman — who tweeted, “The book is a feminist polemic, you ignorant twat” (deleted but retweeted by Freda Moon) in response to Jill Lepore’s New Yorker review — have raised some significant questions about whether an author can remain entirely silent in the age of Twitter. Is Henrik Ibsen’s epistolary advice to Georg Brandes (“Look straight ahead; never reply with a word in the papers; if in your writings you become polemical, then do not direct your polemic against this or that particular attack; never show that a word of your enemies has had any effect on you; in short, appear as though you did not at all suspect that there was any opposition.”) even possible in an epoch in which nearly every author can be contacted by email, sent a direct message through Twitter, or texted by cell phone?

I contacted de Botton to find out what happened. I asked de Botton if he had indeed posted the comments on Crain’s blog. He confirmed that he had, and he felt very bad about his outburst. I put forth some questions. Not only was he extremely gracious with his answers, but he also offered a related essay. Here are his answers:

First off, did you and Caleb Crain have any personal beefs before this brouhaha went down? You indicated to me that you found your response counterproductive and daft. I’m wondering if there were mitigating factors that may have precipitated your reaction.

I have never met Mr. Crain and had no pre-existing views. The great mitigating factor is that I never believed I would have to answer for my words before a large audience. I had false believed that this was basically between him and me.

What specifically did you object to in Crain’s review? What specifically makes the review “an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value?”

My goal in writing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was to shine a spotlight on the sheer range of activities in the working world from a feeling that we don’t recognise these well enough. And part of the reason for this lies with us writers. If a Martian came to earth today and tried to understand what humans do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that all people spend their time doing is falling in love, squabbling with their families — and occasionally, murdering one another. But of course, what we really do is go to work…and yet this ‘work’ is rarely represented in art. It does appear in the business pages of newspapers, but then, chiefly as an economic phenomenon, rather than as a broader ‘human’ phenomenon. So to sum up, I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world — and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range, from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics. I was inspired by the American children’s writer Richard Scarry, and his What do people do all day? I was challenged to write an adult version of Scarry’s great book.

The review of the book seemed almost willfully blind to this. It suggested that I was uninterested in the true dynamics of work, that I was interested rather in patronising and insulting people who had jobs and that I was mocking anyone who worked. There is an argument in the book that work can sometimes be demeaning and depressing — hence the title: Pleasures AND Sorrows. But the picture is meant to be balanced. On a number of occasion, I stress that a lot of your satisfaction at work is dependent on your expectations. There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time — and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…’ All this I tried to bring out with relative subtlety and care. As I said, Mr. Crain saw fit to describe me merely as someone who hated work and all workers.

Caleb Crain’s blog post went up on Sunday. You responded to Crain on a Monday (New York time). You are also on Twitter. When you responded, were you aware of Alice Hoffman’s Twitter meltdown (where she
posted a reviewer’s phone number and email address) and the subsequent condemnation of her actions?

I was not aware.

Under what circumstances do you believe that a writer should respond to a critic? Don’t you find that such behavior detracts from the insights contained within your books?

I think that a writer should respond to a critic within a relatively private arena. I don’t believe in writing letters to the newspaper. I do believe in writing, on occasion, to the critics directly. I used to believe that posting a message on a writer’s website counted as part of this kind of semi-private communication. I have learnt it doesn’t, it is akin to starting your own television station in terms of the numbers who might end up attending.

You suggested that Crain had killed your book in the United States with his review. Doesn’t this overstate the power of the New York Times Book Review? Aren’t you in fact giving the NYTBR an unprecedented amount of credit in a literary world in which newspaper book review sections are, in fact, declining? There’s a whole host of readers out there who don’t even look at book review sections. Surely, if your book is good, it will find an audience regardless of Crain’s review. So why give him power like that?

The idea that if a book is good, it will find an audience regardless is a peculiar one for anyone involved in the book industry. There are thousands of very good books published every year, most are forgotten immediately. The reason why the publishing industry invests heavily in PR and marketing (the dominant slice of the budget in publishing houses goes to these departments) is precisely because the idea of books ‘naturally’ finding an audience isn’t true. Books will sink without review coverage, which is why authors and publishers care so acutely about them — and why there is a quasi moral responsibility on reviewers to exercise good judgement and fairness in what they say.

The outlets that count when publishing serious books are: an appearance on NPR, a review in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. There are of course some other outlets, but they pale into insignificance besides these three outlets. Of the three, the New York Times Book Review remains the most important.

Hence I don’t for a moment over-estimate the importance of Mr Crain’s review. He was holding in his hands the tools that could make or break the result of two to three years of effort. You would expect that holding this sort of responsibility would make a sensible person adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

In the wake of Updike’s death, partly as a tribute to him, my recommendation is that newspapers all sign up to a voluntary code for the reviewing of books. This will help authors certainty, but most importantly it will help readers to find their way more accurately towards the sort of literature they’ll really enjoy.

If you were to travel back in time on Sunday morning and you had two sentences that you could tell yourself before leaving the comment, what would those two sentences be?

Put this message in an envelope, not on the internet.

rockwellfamilygrace

Family Disgrace

rockwellfamilygrace

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, nobody can make you feel inauthentic without your consent. And the phony who uttered the onerous words recorded by the good and kind Don Linn should be whacked in the kneecaps. Just so the phony can decide whether or not there is indeed a metric that can be applied while excruciating pain shoots through legs I realize that these are strong words, but they are necessary ones, I think. If you cannot feel and you wish to advocate emotional capitulation, then you have no business being an expert or speaking before a crowd. For there is no strategy for living. Life simply doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of taking in and emitting anthracite deposits of objective data. If you really need some hokey maxim to start with, life is what happens when you make other plans. But why settle for Werner Erhard-like comforts? If you can pretend that you know what you’re doing and you can improvise around the mad anarchy on your own terms and truly appreciate other people in the process, then you’ll probably get a lot farther than those foolishly pursuing “the metrics to assess whether you are successful.” Twitter can neither help you live better nor transform you into a better person. Like any helpful tool, it can enhance your life and direct you to the right people and permit you to exchange sound ideas and giddy concepts with people who are excited. But it is no replacement for real life. Nor is it landscape to be carved up by the avaricious marketing people. Ten conferences or twenty boot camps couldn’t possibly tell you how to stick with a vision and connect with others who have similar ambitions. Twitter, Facebook, Augmented Reality, and the flashiest technological tool shooting off the tip of your tongue can’t possibly help you understand why that person across from you is lighting up and smiling and getting excited. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to summon forth that same energy in yourself, find common ground, and make that passion happen, and make the passion of others happen. If Twitter can get you there, that’s fantastic. But what are you saying to the world when you tint your Twitter photo green instead of summoning up an original thought about Iran? How authentic — whether strategically authentic or genuinely authentic — are you when you’re so determined to run with the herd?

On a lighter (and possibly more disgraceful) note, here’s another interview I did with the good Austin Allen of The Abbeville Manual of Style. I do have a plan to save the publishing industry and it involves loganberry mint juleps.

Unfollowed

Dear @MyFriend:

You unfollowed me on Twitter today, and I simply haven’t been the same. There are salty beads of sweat slithering and agitating the angry furrows of my aging forehead and my left testicle has just popped out of my boxers. I am considering switching back to briefs, but I don’t think this will help. And I don’t think any of this will encourage you to follow me again on Twitter. But I must tell you the truth. Because you are, in no small sense, responsible for all this. I bought some fresh glue from a Duane Reade so that I’d have a new habit to take up. Something to help me through the sadness. But nothing can distract me from the dismal truth. Forget the economic upheaval. Thanks to Twitter, I now have some inkling of how David Kellerman felt. I wonder how many followers he had when things got bad for him. My guess is that you would not have unfollowed David Kellerman if you knew that he was on edge. I don’t know if I’m on edge, but the glue sure is helping. And I’d probably do the same thing that David Kellerman did, but I’m too cowardly and too lazy to hang myself right now.

All this is your fault. I followed you, knowing then that you had around 700 followers, some of whom were following me. When I followed you, I thought you might eventually follow me, and that the two of us might follow each other for life. It would be like a marriage. We’d be committing to each other, but we wouldn’t have to live with each other or cook or clean or shout at each other or eventually pay alimony. I retweeted your posts, figuring you would eventually see that I was fond of you and hoping all the while that you would follow me right back. And sure enough, you decided to follow me when you had around 925 followers.

Well, I was quite impressed. And to show my appreciation for your act of kindness in a prominent social network, I believe I bought you a beer once, or maybe it just happened to be another person who had your name. (You know Twitter. After a while, you see the fail whale everywhere.) We may have felt each other up in a broom closet at some point. Who knows for sure? But we definitely had some fun, if it was indeed you. The real details aren’t important. What’s important is the pithy bits of significance we express online. The problem, of course, is just how well we know each other or whether this whole Twitter thing even begins to encapsulate anything close to the social experience.

But now I know that it doesn’t. Because you unfollowed me. And if social networks actually mattered, then this cruel act would never have occurred. Now I don’t know if I can approach Twitter the same way. Because you have unfollowed me, I cannot DM you to clear up this misunderstanding. I am here by my computer, begging you by email to follow me again. To consider my emotional well-being over your organizational convenience. I mean, I simply don’t understand why you follow someone like @stephenfry, but not me. It’s not that I’m as smart as @stephenfry. But @stephenfry doesn’t tweet nearly as much as I do. And I’m more inclined to @reply you. Has @stephenfry ever @replied you? You see, I have. And while I may not have @stephenfry’s clever wit and conversational acumen, wasn’t there some small solace in knowing that someone was out there @replying to you?

Perhaps you’re one of those fools who believe that Twitter isn’t the center of the universe. Or maybe you’ve fallen asleep right now and you’ve lost your grip on the bottle of Pilsner Urquel and it’s all dribbled down your loud Hawaiian shirt. (I also feel uncomfortable using your first name or assuming that these biographical details are true, but what else do I have to go by other than your tweets? These details came from tweets that you posted, respectively, “8 hours ago,” “1 month ago,” and “3 months ago.” I have carefully studied all of your 1,247 updates.) Maybe I’ll never know you through Twitter. Maybe I’ll never know myself. But surely you must understand that there’s another person at the other end who will eventually figure out that you’ve unfollowed him, and who will spend many hours weeping.

I thought we were friends or, at least, acquaintances. Did you ever really like me? Or was your follow just a put-on? I won’t sleep easy until there’s an explanation. Or maybe you can just send me a check for $6.00 (beer plus tip) to recompense me for the expenses I blew. You were, after all, simply pretending. Or you can just follow me again and we can act as if nothing ever happened. Alternatively, if you know of a good therapist who you can recommend to me — someone who is on Twitter and someone who I can follow — I think you owe me at least a reference under the circumstances. My ethical core is this: I would never unfollow my worst enemy, in large part because I wouldn’t follow him in the first place. You’ve caused me endless emotional distress, confusion, and psychological pain. I wish I could unfollow you right back, but I can’t seem to quit you.

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

gcpublishingwestlake

Grand Central Spams Twitter While Westlake’s Corpse is Still Warm

gcpublishingwestlake

Not less than 24 hours after the news of Donald E. Westlake’s death was broken by the New York Times‘s Jennifer 8. Lee, Grand Central (Westlake’s publisher) has seen fit to flood Twitter with endless retweets of what others have written about Donald E. Westlake, while simultaneously promoting Westlake’s final novel, Get Real.

How would you like it if some huckster was trying to sell you something while you were attending a funeral? In all likelihood, you would punch the huckster in the face. Unfortunately, Grand Central can’t be punched in the face through Twitter.

Adding insult to injury, @GrandCentralPub has been offering a retweet every one or two minutes, polluting all of the collective tweets. So when one searches for “Westlake,” one now has to sift through endless garbage promulgated by the Grand Central people. These “marketing efforts” not only deface Twitter’s community with crude spam, but they are exceptionally crass and highly insensitive towards the feelings of those who loved and revered Donald E. Westlake.

Other publishers, such as Soft Skull and Algonquin Books, have actively engaged with other people on Twitter, participating in conversations but without any prolific marketing efforts. But Grand Central Publishing simply doesn’t get it. Grand Central lacks the maturity and the understanding to view Twitterers as human beings and apparently perceives you as unthinking consumerist sheep. Because of this, I strongly urge all fellow Twitterers to block and unfollow Grand Central. If Grand Central can’t sit at the grown ups table, they need to be relegated to the kid’s room where their base and tacky efforts will be responded to with the appropriate puerile responses.

[UPDATE: For what it's worth, Grand Central has now apologized, although they have interpreted these feelings as "feedback."]

Revised Thoughts on Twitter

Twitter has changed everything for me. I say this after last year’s unsuccessful initial plunge. Back then, I did not understand Twitter and dismissed it, as Tito Perez suggested in the comments, with the reactionary zeal of an old fogey waving a scolding finger at blogging. Perhaps part of the problem was that Twitter hadn’t quite found its sea legs. Much like the early days of blogging, Twitter was then an unruly expanse of stray text messages. It was a bit like attempting to sail in a murky lake littered with barnacles and driftwood. You’d hear sharp cracks against the hull when all you really wanted to do was sail forward.

But now that I’ve warmed up to it considerably, I’ve found Twitter to be an essential medium that can be used to collect interesting bits of information and communicate with others. It’s something of a conceptual lab, where everyone can throw around crazy ideas. It’s also a handy way of checking in on friends. Much like Wikipedia, it provides invaluable (and possibly untrue) leads that you can independently corroborate. And when you verify something, you begin to think about it. And when you think about it, you begin to write in some relatively cogent form. Twitter may very well be one of the reasons why my already overactive brain is capable of churning out a livelier conceptual stew. (In cases like this, where concepts often threaten to dislodge the noggin, I find it wise to heed ZeFrank’s helpful advice about “brain crack.” Assuming people are using Twitter the way that I am, perhaps Twitter is, in its own way, assisting people in departing from their brain crack.)

Because the medium is communal, and because there are so many tweets that fly across your screen, the power laws controversy that riled up bloggers back in 2003 may not necessarily apply here. I understand that there have been efforts to log the most popular Twitter users, but such exercises miss the point of tweeting. Yes, you’ll find John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Warren Ellis, and Shaquille O’Neal. But since you determine who you follow, you likewise determine how Twitter works for you. You can avoid the charlatans who want to sell you things, the newspapers and websites who spam you with thirty links in three minutes, or the narcissists who want to drag you into the morass. And when someone tweets you out of the blue, you then find another interesting soul to follow or tweet with. Somehow, it all works out. It never becomes too overwhelming. As someone who was around during the early days of blogging, which some have framed as a golden age of possibilities, I find myself having similar thoughts about Twitter. Yes, it will likely become monetized. These mediums always do. But for now, enjoy it while it lasts. It’s a tool that can work for you.

It is possible to spend too much time on Twitter and get on a mad roll of prolific tweets. With the exception of important political events or live coverage, I try to avoid such exercises out of deference to my followers, who I know are following other people. (I remain quite surprised that apparently some people are interested in what I have to say within 140 characters. You will not find much pith within this barrier.) To negotiate Twitter, one must practice some restraint. Just as one must practice some restraint in relation to the Internet. Because I’ve seen good people go mad. Twitter, like anything, can overrun your brain. And it is vital to think.

But Twitter has also had a positive effect on this blog and my writing in general. I find myself writing slower here and faster on Twitter. Suddenly, the roundups that I’ve generated sometimes seem like extraneous exercises. I’ve become more inclined to go on mad tangents. After all, I’ve already thrown the link around on my Twitter feed. I find myself more enthralled with the long form. More willing to be some kind of half-assed chronicler. Maybe Twitter is just what the blogosphere needed to mature. It’s not so much about who links where. It’s now about the voice, which is what attracted many of us to this medium in the first place.

The folks who run Twitter have found a way of making feeds work for us. Just about any self-respecting geek has long hoped that RSS feeds would catch on. But they haven’t. At least not in the way that the feed founders intended. Mechanisms such as Google Reader, Twitter, and podcasting permit us to visualize and use the feed in a way that makes it work for us.

Having said all this, I don’t see how Twitter can make any money. So many people use it. And there are often regrettable Twitter outages. But there is no Con Ed representative to shout at. If these outages come at times when you need to sift through information, it can feel something close to withdrawal from a drug. Yes, one can plant some of the information into a blog entry. But it doesn’t feel the same. The Twitter interface is very particular.

For now, the great circus carries on, sans advertisements or sponsored links. The truth of the matter is that we’re all waiting for Google to buy it. But in the meantime, many of us can use it and feel that we’re now in the midst of something exciting. Until Paul Boutin writes his premature elegy for Twitter sometime in 2010.

My experience with Twitter has caused me to attempt a shift in direction for this blog. Something akin to what I tried with the Filthy Habits incarnation of this site before I returned back to the quasi-Reluctant voice. I’m going more long-form. I’ll be putting up posts that are around 600 to 1,000 words. Strange essays. Prose exercises. I’ll even review a few things here. Books and movies. Etcetera. I think this website is probably going to be more like a newspaper column than a blog. And I’ll still happily edit anything that people want to send me. But I have no conscious plan other than long-form musings. I’m going to see how this all plays out while I do it. If you’ve liked the short form, well, you can always follow my Twitter feed.

I have Twitter to thank for this wholly unintentional development.

Twitter

Like Bud, I’ve found myself becoming something of a Twitter addict, embracing the space limitations and encouraging more impulsive streaks to fleck madly upon this microcanvas. I don’t think any of my tweets are particularly compelling, but Twitter is certainly a good deal of fun. And in a strange way, it’s actually helped me a little as a writer.

My own Twitter history has taken some twists. For a long time, I was dormant, putting up a tweet every two months or so. I had first attempted to use Twitter as a depository for pithy sentences in the style of David Markson. But this proved to be folly. This form did not serve the function. Then I used Twitter to vent about the personal, figuring that nobody was reading. But this was not the case.

Strange people began following me, seeming to believe that there were pivotal things that I was saying within this form. But now I’ve finally figured out Twitter’s purpose, which is more of the social-informational variety. I Twittered the two conventions and didn’t have to worry about how obvious my observations were. (Of course, as any improv teacher will tell you, what seems obvious to you may not be so obvious to another). I’m using it as a place for strange links. Strange as it may seem, I’m using it to ensure that just about every sentence I write is fueled by emotion.

But, most importantly, I look forward to reading other existential juxtapositions summed up in 140 characters. I’ve seen people come out of hiding because of Twitter, emboldened by a tweet and discovering that they do indeed have something to say about a circumstance. Bloggers and writers who are limited by what they are expected to write do not seem to experience the same concerns writing about other topics. Since we’re all limited to 140 characters, the playing field is level. We’re all limited to brisk declarative sentences galvanized by a steady supply of two-letter and three-letter words. Because of this, the more corporate tweets appear, well, laughably corporate. Of course, I’m sure the corporations will figure out ways to sully Twitter, just as they helped to take some of the fun out of blogging.

But for now, Twitter is not a bad place to check up on those who are swamped by email (and, hell, we all are) or those who don’t answer their phones. I’m certainly not on there all the time. And I’m certainly not advocating a life lived almost exclusively by intertextual communication. Contact with others is too important to the human spirit if you expect it to grow. But Twitter is a nifty technological apparatus offering a number of helpful ways to connect with others while learning more about the unexpected niceties of your first instinct.

Cysted Twitter

Maud has a very interesting post on how Twitter may very well be doing its part to divulge publishing deals to the public. What’s fascinating about all this is that, unlike blogging, corporate blocking software won’t prevent some folks from Twittering. They can, after all, type in sentences from their cell phones. You no longer need a keyboard to blog. Because the Twitter people have made this all so easy. So if there is now such an overwhelming urge to confess (the new form of resistance?), then why not encourage workers to do so anyway?

I must likewise confess about my own confessions. In the early years of this blog, when I had a day job, about 90% of the posts were composed on the clock. The fact that most of my co-workers were not readers made it all somewhat esoteric. To this day, I still heighten and downplay minute words and phrases just to see how close the readers are paying attention. Indeed, the scary verities elucidate remarkable yammering from unexpected nomina.

As to whether I have a Twitter feed, and whether I confess anything there, well, the Internet’s a grand adventure, isn’t it? To me, Twitter seems to be blogging’s answer to the David Markson novel. But now that every word we type is fair game for speculation, a whole grand cabinet of fun has been presented to me.