Pity the Poor Oppressed Majority

Over on The Gameological Society, there’s an interesting article by Bob Mackey, in which he talks about a recent Kickstarter campaign for a video game and ultimately, whether there’s any validity to the concept of separating an artist’s work from the actions and beliefs of the artist herself.

In this case, the artist in question is Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim and designer of the newly Kickstarted game, which is a spiritual successor to 90s claymation adventure game The Neverhood. As promotion for the campaign built up, a writer for the GayGamer blog sent out a link to one of his own articles from 2011, pointing out some inflammatory anti-gay comments that TenNapel had made in the comments for one of his webcomics.

I was aware enough of TenNapel’s work to be able to recognize the name, and I had the vague idea that his political beliefs were diametrically opposed to mine, to say the least. I didn’t know much more, other than that a lot of people I respect were personal friends of his, and a lot of friends and co-workers were big fans. So for me, it was jarring to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds filling up with people excited about the Kickstarter and recommending that everyone back it, while on another page here was the guy comparing homosexual relationships to “letting a man take a dump in the ladies room.” I was incensed.

But in retrospect: should I have been so harsh? Those comments were from two years ago; do I want to be the person that holds every single thing a person says against him, indefinitely? I’m pretty certain I’ve never said anything as offensive as his analogy, but I have said a lot of things online in the heat of the moment; would I want to have those shoved in my face every few years? And sure, I’m reading his Tweets and every one of them is making my blood pressure go up a notch, but maybe he just gets defensive and doesn’t respond well to criticism? If he really were as loathsome as the impression I’m getting, why would so many people be giving him a pass on it? I know that before I came out, I was a pretty big homophobe, so I know from experience that attitudes can change drastically over time. How can I know whether he still holds the same views he expressed in that conversation?

A Martyr In the War for the Sanctity of Our Bathrooms

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Much like Beetlejuice, TenNapel will appear anywhere on the internet after his name is intoned enough times. And he won’t leave you wondering for too long exactly what his opinions are. And as it turns out, I’m left with the impression that I wasn’t harsh enough.

If you look through the comments thread for that Gameological post, you’ll see Mr. TenNapel leap in to attack the writer and make his case in response to the other comments. And it’s a non-stop parade of false equivalences, ignorance, bigotry, claims so false they’re nonsensical, and case after case of the tiresome, paranoid martyrdom of self-described conservatives who refuse to understand the concept of “tolerance.”

Among everything else, he says that his “take a dump in the ladies room” comment was taken out of context. If like me, you were wondering in what context it was appropriate to compare the loving relationship of two adults to taking a dump, then rest assured that TenNapel is just talking about how there are rigid exclusive sexual roles that everyone understands. He points out that he apologized for the comment in that GayGamer comment thread (and he did, more or less), and it becomes clear that he was apologizing for the “crassness” of the phrase “take a dump” itself. Actually comparing marriage to defecation is A-OK.

And not just defecation! At various points, he manages to compare homosexuality to Mormonism, Scientology, polygamy, and in a sense, Christianity. Don’t worry about the last one, in case it seems out of place; the comparison is only that they’re both belief systems that people are persecuted for. There’s really no point in treating any of it as grounds for conversation. If someone in the United States in 2013 is still unclear on the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual preference, he’s either never spoken to a gay person, or he’s been refusing to listen.

I’m more inclined to believe the latter, because throughout, he repeatedly insists that he’s the victim of character assassination from The Left. That the whole question of marriage equality (or “gay marriage,” since he’s still living in 2005 apparently) is nothing more than political theater, a culture war that secular leftists are waging on free-thinking, conservative Christians like Mr. TenNapel.

You really shouldn’t have to keep explaining this to a functional adult, but: if you get your way, my government denies me access to one of the most basic and fundamental of societal institutions. If I get my way, your life is not affected in the slightest. That’s not a political difference; that’s injustice. And what’s more, as loathsome as I find Mr. TenNapel, no matter how toxic his opinions are, or how opinions like his have made a travesty of American politics, or how much he’s corrupting my chosen religion by using it as a shield while refusing to hold to its most basic tenets of love, compassion, charity, responsibility and humility — even with all that, I’d never attempt to denigrate his marriage or deny him the ability to raise children. And that’s why I’m right, and that’s why I’m eventually going to win.

But, again. Nothing new. It’s so old, in fact, that I’ve been complaining about it for at least five years. The culture of victimization among self-proclaimed conservatives, who insist that there must be a leftist agenda setting traps for them in an attempt to control how everybody thinks. And all because they lack the most basic capacity for empathy. They insult or actively seek to harm people different from them, then cry “liberal intolerance!” and claim that they’re being repressed by people who think differently from them. All with no apparent sense of irony.

Just Business

The only reason I find it worth mentioning at all is because of the sheer weight of persecution that TenNapel has to bear, simply for being a conservative Christian who supports traditional marriage. I hope that that Kickstarter has a stretch goal of getting him a new Victim Card, because the one he has has been played so often, it’s in shreds.

In those comment threads and on his Twitter account (and presumably, elsewhere), he says repeatedly that sinister forces are smearing him and threatening his projects. (And still, somehow, they’re ultimately ineffectual because for every $1 he gets denied, someone else contributes $2 because they like to be able to think for themselves. But they’re still sinister and threatening the downfall of Christianity and ruining America). He went to the other people involved with the project and warned them that they’d get criticism from his involvement, but they stuck with him. All just because he’s brave enough to speak his mind.

And he’s not affected by any boycotts, but won’t we think of the poor homosexuals? His team is very inclusive, and it’s clear he doesn’t “hate” gay people because he works with many of them. Because, as we all know, gay people might not be good enough to get married or raise children, but at least they’re good enough to work to profit Mr. TenNapel. So when anyone boycotts the project because of TenNapel’s involvement, all they’re really doing is hurting all the innocent LGBT folks trying to make a video game.

Seeing that idea repeated over and over has finally clarified how I feel about the whole concept of “separate the art from the artist.” Since I’ve complained about this several times, as it relates to video games and comic books and chicken sandwiches, it might seem like I’d already made up my mind. But that’s not the case; I’ve tried to keep an open mind and tried to remind myself that some people just see a clearer line dividing a product from its creator.

But TenNapel’s repeated protestations make it clear that he wants nothing more than to shift all blame and culpability to other people. If you don’t back this project simply because of something he said, then you are hurting all the other people who worked on it. He warned everyone that there’d be this reaction because of other people who don’t like what he says. He’d be totally willing to remove his name from the project if it would help get it funded now that other people are raising a big stink.

Nowhere is there any sense of his responsibility. Nowhere does he make the connection “I say stupid shit about LGBT people, it ends up hurting this project that LGBT people are working on, maybe I should stop saying stupid shit.” Because that would be caving to the liberal agenda, and denying his commitment to Christianity on account of all that stuff Jesus said about marriage being all about genitalia.

Every single time something like this comes up, there are those who complain that boycotts create a chilling effect. And that’s bullshit. What they do is create a world where words and actions have consequence. Where people actually have to stop and think about how they’re affecting the other people they’re sharing the planet with. And you don’t get a pass for being a jack-ass just because you draw comics or wrote Ender’s Game or make delicious sandwiches.

(Incidentally, in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I was never interested in Earthworm Jim, and that I tried to play The Neverhood but didn’t get very far before I completely lost interest. That’s not meant to add to the dogpile, or denigrate anybody else’s enjoyment of them or excitement about the project; they’re just not my thing. I only mention it to admit that I’m not at all conflicted when I complain about this stuff. Every time I pass by a Chick-fil-a, it’s with a heavy heart, but I wouldn’t have backed this game regardless).

As far as I know, the game’s already gotten funded, several times over, in fact. I don’t have any particular interest in sabotaging it. But I do find it hypocritical to claim that it’s just business, that there’s anything mature or noble in enjoying one part of what a person puts into the world while ignoring the rest. It seems to me to say, “I’m going to remain free to say and do whatever I want, to give money to whichever cause I choose, without regard for whom it’s hurting. And you’re not only entitled but obligated to make sure that I’m not affected by my actions at all. Because to do otherwise would be petty.”

And it’s always pointed out that the people involved are wealthy or at least successful enough that they’re not impacted at all by a boycott. (But it’s still really bad that you’d suggest boycotting it, for some reason). That’s always designed to make it sound like your protest is pointless. To me, it just sounds like another way to try and denigrate the people who are protesting, to remind us that we’re powerless. My protest is a lot more valuable to me than the $10 pledge or $5 combo meal is to them. To paraphrase Mr. TenNapel: America has thousands of jerks unable to find funding for their projects every day. Take a number.

The New Closet

The real reason I’ve been thinking about this, though, is that I’m seeing a little bit of encouragement in the things that used to infuriate me. I’ve always been annoyed by comments that suggest we need to be patient before people are treated equally. That fairness takes time. I still don’t agree with that on the legal side; you shouldn’t need to wait for justice, and it’s still a travesty to put a minority’s rights up for popular vote. But on the social side, it’s heartening to see what a dramatic change has taken place just in the few years since I’ve been out.

I’ve always hated the hypocrisy of people in the majority claiming that they’re the victims. I get angry when they try to make it sound as if some cabal of Homo Leftist Atheists have constructed some Politically Correct PRISM program that monitors everything people say, just waiting for them to slip up and utter an un-approved phrase so that they can swoop in and attack. As America’s Sweetheart Ann Coulter once lamented, liberals have made it so that you can’t say the word “faggot” anymore without being sent to rehab.

And now, I keep seeing all these self-described conservatives simply overwhelmed with paranoia over Liberal Thoughtcrimes. They have to change all their terminology, so that bigotry becomes “tradition” and laws that break up families are called “family oriented.” They complain that their free-thinking ways are being oppressed by a society that hates them simply for being different. And they go absolutely ape-shit denying it whenever you call them a “bigot” even though honestly, girlfriend, please. It’s so obvious.

And it reminds me of how miserable it was to spend years watching what I said, afraid that I’d admit to liking someone it wasn’t socially acceptable for me to like, or that I’d use the pronoun it wasn’t socially acceptable for me to use. The constant everyone knows paranoia, the fear that I’d be shunned if anyone found out my terrible secret.

Except now, I can casually talk about my boyfriend, and admit to liking Russell Crowe movies for reasons other than “he seems like a pretty cool guy.” I was ashamed of something I never should’ve been ashamed of, and now the truly shameful behavior is being relegated to the closet. And I’m just petty enough to be enjoying the poetic justice of that.

My Problem with The Big Bang Theory

After some consideration, I have determined exactly what it is about The Big Bang Theory that makes me uncomfortable: It’s not funny.

Or more accurately: I don’t think it’s funny, while millions of other people — including many in my peer group! — absolutely love it.

And I think that’s ultimately the entire problem. There’s a blog post called “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory” that was passed around back in September of last year, and now for whatever reason has been getting a lot of circulation again in the past few days. In it, the author explains how the show doesn’t celebrate nerds, but simply continues to mock them. The character of Penny, the normal one, is the only character the audience is supposed to identify with; the others are supposed to be seen as weird and alien. Plus it’s a little racist, a good bit misogynist, homophobic, and it makes fun of people with genuine mental disabilities.

The only part of that post that I agree with is the one complaint that the author quickly dismisses: the show relies on lazy humor. It has references for their own sake, not as part of a well-constructed joke, or even to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and inclusion over a shared memory. The references just come across as pandering.

I wouldn’t be able to go into detail, since I’ve only seen a handful of scenes from the series and never a full episode; my opinion of the show sounds about the same as Angus T. Jones’s opinion of Two and a Half Men. But in one of those scenes, as the characters were fighting to be heard over the laughter, there was a whiteboard in the foreground covered with an Objective C class diagram. For those of us who roll our eyes whenever we’re subjected to ridiculous abuses of technology in CSI and the like, an accurate inclusion of something real computer programmers would actually use would seem to be entertainment nirvana. But in the show, it just sat there, inert. It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it, with the caption YOU RECOGNIZE THIS.

Turning It Off And Back On Again

You could contrast it with The IT Crowd, a series which inverted the power dynamic of The Big Bang Theory by making its nerds and geeks identifiable, and making its “normal” character the subject of mockery. You could say that, but you don’t have to, ’cause you got pronouns, you can say: The IT Crowd understood how to include familiar references without drawing attention to them. It made its references both more subtle and more absurd. The nerd-pandering EFF stickers and action figures and T-shirts (for which Graham Linehan requested recommendations on Twitter) are kept to the background and almost never explicitly acknowledged. The only episodes that were explicitly about technology were deliberately ridiculous, centering around Friendface or convincing someone that the Internet was a black box with a light on it.

While I think it’s true, more or less, that The IT Crowd flipped the predictable premise by making the nerds the heroes and making fun of the normals, I don’t think that says anything of merit. For one, because The IT Crowd wasn’t about IT any more than Father Ted was about Catholicism. And more importantly, because The IT Crowd didn’t choose sides. It made fun of all of its characters. It spent as much time making fun of Moss for being dysfunctional and weird, and Roy for being insecure, horny, and a little homophobic; as it made fun of Jen for being dense and shallow.

That blog post tries to compare Big Bang Theory to Community, and concludes that the latter is better, partly because the audience is meant to identify with Abed. I say that’s absurd; almost half the episodes showed how Abed is deeply dysfunctional. Community was meta-television — often self-consciously so — that made fun of the idea of protagonists vs. villains, identifying with any character over the others, and the entire premise of a situation comedy.

In fact, both Community and Big Bang Theory started with the same structure; Community presented itself as a fish-out-of-water premise with Jeff Winger as the normal guy surrounded by a bunch of crazies. It then dismantled that premise by making it clear that he was every bit as messed up as the other characters, but they all grew to depend on each other. That doesn’t sound so different from the first season or two of Big Bang Theory. The biggest difference is that Big Bang Theory focused on the old “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline, while Community referenced it, mocked it, rejected it, and then repeatedly used it.

Nerd Blackface

All of that leads me to two conclusions:

  1. The whole “geek chic” thing is gradually turning into something malignant; and
  2. Don’t attribute to complex social dynamics and inequalities of power what can be more easily explained by inequalities of talent.

For the first part: I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory described several times as “nerd blackface,” which makes this all heartbreaking because I absolutely love that term. But the problem with it is that it results in weirdly defensive over-reactions, and it relies on simplistic assumptions that act as if Revenge of the Nerds were a documentary.

For instance, that blog post, in which the author feels obliged to establish her [I’m assuming, based on the rest of the blog] geek cred. It’s always a little sad to see someone feeling it necessary to establish themselves as a geek when their blog is full of animated GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you’ve already made it quite clear you’re a nerd, and to be clear that is awesome. It’s like a few weeks ago, when the ridiculous “fake nerd girl” kerfluffle arose, and a lot of women responded by establishing themselves as legit nerds. Instead of doing the more sensible thing and simply pointing out that the entire notion of a “fake nerd” of any type is asinine and immediately dismissible.

Another example: this honest, heartfelt, and probably well-intentioned post (in Gawker-friendly list format!) by Annalee Newitz called “Six Good Habits I Learned From Being Bullied as a Geeky Kid.” Sincere kudos to Newitz for putting herself and her experiences out there, and it’s always welcome to see a reminder not to let yourself be driven by what other people think of you. But the whole thing seems to be predicated on the old ideas that nerds are somehow more discerning than the mainstream; and that the best revenge is being successful while seeing the people who bullied you fall to obscurity and realize that their best days are behind them.

The first idea is belied by The Big Bang Theory. It’s a Chuck Lorre television series, which almost by definition means it’s mainstream. And a ton of nerds love it, to the point of buying the merchandise, identifying with the characters, and naming scientific discoveries after catch phrases from the show. Plus it’s a mainstream television series that must have a sizable percentage of nerds on staff, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have whiteboards full of Cocoa Touch class names. (Or for that matter, have frequent guest appearances by celebrity nerd hero Wil Wheaton).

That Tumblr post specifically calls out Wheaton, Sara Gilbert, and Jim Parsons for being more or less Uncle Toms because of their participation in the show; I say that’s absurd. Their participation should be a clear sign that the whole notion of Jocks vs. Nerds is simplistic and exclusionary. “Nerd” isn’t some homogenous group — even if you try to subdivide it into geeks, dweebs, and geeky dweebs — everybody’s into weird stuff and has had their own experiences of feeling rejected or feeling like an outsider, to some degree. If that were in doubt, I’d think the revelations that Rosario Dawson knows Klingon and Vin Diesel plays D&D would’ve laid waste to that tired old notion. But still, I frequently see people trying to martyr themselves and put forth the idea that nerds are somehow The Chosen Ones, suffering nobly until their time in the spotlight. In fact, what they’re doing is anything but inclusive; it’s building an internet treehouse and attaching the sign “No Pretty People Allowed” out front.

The most blatant example of that is The Guild music video “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which I find disturbing in at least a dozen ways. How is it that a bunch of actors wearing unflattering hair styles and accentuating their overbites is not as much a case of “Nerd Blackface” as anything on The Big Bang Theory? Is it because actress and producer Felicia Day has firmly established her geek cred, while a Jewish television writer — who ends every episode of every series with a wall-of-text vanity card only legible to those who record the show and pause it — is one of those beautiful people jocks? (And while I’m at it, one of Lorre’s high-profile privileged early jobs was writing for Roseanne, just like another television series creator who never earned his geek credentials).

Even more important than the question of “who’s this coming from?” is whether it’s a good message to be sending at all. It ignores the fact that some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever encountered were nerds who themselves got bullied when younger and were trying to over-compensate for it in adulthood. Or that if you’re an adult and still complaining about the jerk who pantsed you in high school, that means you haven’t really gotten over it and moved on.

“Nerd” or “Geek” isn’t a protected class, and it shouldn’t be one. Some of the most awful people I’ve run into have been at nerd conventions, and some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered have been at board game conventions. The stuff nerds like isn’t necessarily any better or smarter than the mainstream; for the record, I don’t personally like The Guild at all, either, but I’m glad that it exists and that there are tons of people who can enjoy it. If the thing that unites a “community” of nerds is that they’re really, really invested in the stuff they enjoy, then shouldn’t that be the focus, instead of bitterness over the people who don’t appreciate it?

So essentially, I’m saying: Get off the 20-sided dice, we need the plastic.

How Not To Tell People How To Make A Rape Joke

And then there’s the attempt to attribute the problems of the show to some imbalance of power between Normals vs Nerds, or Gays vs Straights. That’s a lazy trend that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it’s worse than just a Geek Pride debate because it actually intersects with genuinely serious issues.

A couple of months ago, there was an internet controversy when Daniel Tosh insulted a heckler with a stupid and insensitive comment about rape, and hundreds of people were tripping over themselves to be the most vocal to condemn it. There was a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel — Internet go-to site for shallow social analysis — that correctly called out Tosh for being a moron, but then went off into straight-up BS territory by trying to establish what’s offensive vs. what’s acceptable, and trying to explain to readers how exactly to tell an offensive joke. The author insisted that it’s about context, that sexual assault is more statistically likely to be sensitive to more members of the audience than other horrific events, and that it is ultimately about making jokes from a position of power mocking those with less power. She concluded by trying to explain why when Tosh makes a rape joke it’s offensive, but when Louis CK makes a rape joke it’s funny: it’s because Louis CK has spent 20 years making it clear that he’s on the side of good, and that he’s against rape.

Which is bullshit. What makes one offensive and the other funny is that Tosh is an opportunistic hack, and Louis CK is actually an extremely talented comedian. Lindy West’s claim that there’s some kind of hierarchy of offensiveness, where sexual assault trumps cancer, AIDS, industrial accidents, and infant death, is just plain ghoulish. And her tortured attempts to explain it in terms of actuarial tables based on CDC data is 100 kinds of wrong-headed bullshit. The only difference between Tosh’s comments and Louis CK’s joke is that the author thinks one is stupid and the other is funny.

And she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Louis CK has built a career out of being an awkward misanthrope, and he’s made fun of women, men, rape, race, politically correct language, and repeatedly called his children little shits. A huge part of his stand-up material depends on shock value. Tosh’s depends on shock value, too. To imply, as that Jezebel article does, that Tosh actually believes what he’s saying, and he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because he may actually be in support of sexual assault and complicit in “rape culture,” is ludicrous. Louis CK didn’t spend the last 20 years earning the right to not have audiences automatically assume he’s pro-rape. Unless you’re a writer for a blog that makes ad revenue off of links to controversy, you should automatically assume that no one is actually making light of rape, until they prove otherwise.

What Louis CK spent the last 20 years doing is learning how to construct a joke. Louis CK’s joke that West quotes depends on shock value just like Tosh’s comments; the difference is that one was cleverly constructed, while Tosh’s comments are the shallowest version of “wouldn’t this be shocking?” possible. Tosh’s whole schtick is firing a shotgun blast of every racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive thing he can think of — and from what I’ve seen, I’d guess it’s literally every single one he can think of — and grin through the whole thing because he’s being naughty and subversive. There’s little cleverness or originality to it, and he almost never takes it any farther than the initial shock value. (I’ll admit that I’ve laughed at some of Tosh’s material on the YouTube clip show, but always when he takes the joke to an absurd extreme, instead of just going for the obvious “old joke about Mexicans/blacks/gay people/asians/women”).

A lot of people have defended Tosh by pointing out that he makes fun of everything and everyone, which is something that West acknowledges and then dismisses. She tries to counter by explaining how there are things that are appropriate and inappropriate to make fun of, which is missing the point entirely. The defense, such as it is, isn’t that Tosh is making fun of the wrong things. The defense is that by making fun of everything, he’s in reality making fun of nothing. It’s simply crossing the line for its own sake. Contrast it with, say, Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up routine is a similar uninterrupted string of offensive, shocking things, but who’s a lot more clever about making it clear whom she’s mocking. To put it in Big Lebowski terms: Silverman is clearly opposed to conservatism, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. Tosh believes in nothing.

What’s most heartbreaking is that the Louis CK joke that West quotes in her article isn’t really a “rape joke” at all, but instead makes fun of and dismisses her entire argument. The entire shock value of the joke comes from the initial implication that there’s ever an acceptable excuse for rape, or in fact that there are degrees of acceptability when talking about horrible things. It doesn’t depend on context at all; it’d be funny no matter who told it, because it only requires the audience to know the difference between right and wrong. Please, bloggers, if you’re going to take it upon yourselves to explain jokes to people, at least take a few minutes to study how jokes actually work.

Everything I Know About Human Interaction I Learned From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

And “how jokes work” gets back to why I’ve got a problem with that attempt at analyzing of The Big Bang Theory. It tries to drag in issues of social inequality, popular culture’s representation of women, and homophobia when the better explanation is that the jokes simply don’t work for some of us.

I blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or really, the fact that popular entertainment started getting really good around the same time that self-publishing in the form of blogs became really viable. It meant that “low art” like Buffy — which was designed to be as easy to pick apart as any good parable or fairy tale — got analyzed and over-analyzed, to the point where self-apparent interpretations were accepted as genuine insight. Back when colleges first started offering courses that gave literary analysis of Watchmen, or discussed Buffy in the context of feminism or folklore, people commented on how unusual it was. But it quickly became accepted as commonplace. That, along with Oprah and TV psychologists, meant that pop psychology or social studies came to be seen as on the same level as academics.

And anyone who thinks I’m being overly dismissive of “low art” or pop culture is free to read any of my long dissertations in defense of pop culture. In brief, though: my defense of “low art” and rejection of “high art” is not that low art is as nuanced or as complex, but that art is about communication, and there’s no inherent superiority of obscurity for its own sake. A piece of entertainment that is intended to be “easily digestible” — e.g. how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural to intensify the trials of adolescence and young adulthood — can be every bit as valid as something that invites multiple interpretations.

In any case, and whether that’s the actual cause or whether I’m full of it, the result has been a glut of shallow interpretations of media and popular culture passed off as more complex and insightful analyses. For example, using cultural context and background to determine the right way to make light of sexual assault. It’s similar to how some feminist blogs explain their use of the word “bitch;” or Dan Savage’s stunt attempt to “take back” the word “faggot;” or the people who twist themselves into knots explaining exactly how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use the n-word, based on the race and cultural background of the speaker and his or her audience. In reality, though, it’s all much more simple: the n-word (and for that matter, the c-word) is fucking irredeemably hateful and offensive, and no one should use it, ever.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same type of false logic used to try and explain how the game Cards Against Humanity is “problematic,” how certain scenes in American Horror Story are objectionable while others are fine as lurid entertainment, and why the violence in Tomb Raider is more objectionable than the violence in any other video game. With the first two, at least, it’s a misguided attempt to establish a “do not cross” line with something that exists entirely to make the “line” irrelevant. And all of them to one degree or another assume that modern audiences are primarily made up of sociopaths, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unable to tell even the difference between right and wrong. And yet, somehow able to discern what it is that makes death from AIDS or the Holocaust somehow less sensitive than sexual assault or racism. It assumes that the audience is actually reveling in or making light of the horrific, and then compounds that by suggesting that there are degrees of what’s horrific and what’s appropriate fodder for comedy.

Even worse than that, it makes discussions about actual issues spin out of control and descend into unproductive noise. It’s how “you don’t understand a joke” gets interpreted as “you can’t take a joke.” Or “your analysis has no merit” gets interpreted as “your premise has no merit” and then “racism/misogyny/homophobia don’t exist.” And why people so often get infuriated to hear “You’re over-thinking it,” when the actual complaint is “You’re making an easily-dismissible mockery of what is actually a serious but ultimately simple issue.”

Which is the most roundabout possible way of explaining my accusation: that article about The Big Bang Theory is over-thinking it. That’s not to say that smart, tech-savvy women aren’t grossly under-represented in the media. It’s not to say that homophobia is no big deal. It’s not to say that it’s okay to make fun of people with mental disabilities, and it’s not to undermine the damage caused by being bullied or socially ostracized.

All I’m saying is that you don’t need to mention any of that to explain why the jokes in Big Bang Theory feel uninspired and clumsy. Or if you do use that as your justification, then you have to explain why it’s okay for The IT Crowd to make fun of nerds and gay people, Community to make fun of the mentally disabled, and The Guild to pander to an audience of self-described geeks, but not okay when Big Bang Theory does the same thing.

Instead of trying to come up with a tortured explanation involving in-groups and outsiders, traditional inequities of cultural power, gender roles and role reversal, and institutionalized sexism and racism, the simplest explanation works best. All require people to be able to laugh at themselves, some people are simply better at writing jokes than others, and not everyone is going to find the same thing funny.

All The President’s Bad Dudes

BaddudesYesterday in Penny Arcade’s news post, Tycho delivered a pretty outstanding smack down to a misguided op-ed piece on Kotaku. That article was “Gaming’s Biggest Problem Is That Nobody Wants to Talk” by Jason Schreier.

There’s plenty wrong with that op-ed, and it’d be pointless to try and go over every objectionable aspect of it.

But I’ll try anyway. First is that the justification Schreier uses vacillates between camaraderie and antagonism like a join me or die! villain at the end of an action movie. Here, it’s Information wants to be free! The people have a right to know! Publishers, tear down this wall of secrecy! There, it’s Hey, it’s all good! We just all want to get excited about your game! The truth is neither: he just wants to get the Hot Scoops.

Schreier starts right off the bat mentioning Kotaku’s exclusive leak of info for Modern Warfare 3. Was this a shocking expose of information that The People needed to know? Hardly. So then it must’ve been simply a case of drumming up excitement for a much-anticipated title. But if that’s the case, then why make such a big deal about making it exclusive, releasing it before the publisher was ready, and making sure that Kotaku was first on the scene? The answer, obviously, is ad revenue. It’s frankly offensive to see someone trying to pass this off as some kind of public service.

Then there’s the recurring theme of the op-ed: I want PR divisions to do my job for me, even more than they already do. Here’s a choice quote that was already pulled out for us to ponder:

Square Enix wouldn’t even say how many people worked on one of their games. Even though I can just go in and count the credits.

So is the size of the team working on a game relevant, or even interesting to anyone other than the HR and accounting departments of Square Enix? Again, I’m skeptical. But assuming that it was: why didn’t Schreier just go in and count the credits?

Professional Trust or Corporate Lapdog?

Of course, “someone wrote something kind of dumb on Kotaku” is hardly news. The only reason it’s worth mentioning at all is because the op-ed, while dismissible, does reflect this image of games journalism that’s pervasive among writers, readers, and developers.

Tycho’s response nails the most salient point: getting information from game developers and publishers requires having a relationship of trust that comes from mutual benefit. Games journalists rely on publishers to get review copies and information about upcoming releases. Publishers rely on games journalists to get word out about their game. There needn’t be anything antagonistic about that as long as both sides are professional.

But Schreier starts his own op-ed with examples of how his site’s violated that trust. He dismisses the severity of the Modern Warfare leak by saying that the game sold well regardless, as if that not only makes it okay, it’s something that the publishers should be happy about. That just shows a tremendous lack of respect for the team that spent months (if not longer) developing a PR campaign for the game. With rare exceptions, the people running PR departments aren’t stupid. And even when they are, they know the value of controlling what information is released and when. Kotaku obviously knows the value of it, too, or else they wouldn’t be slapping EXCLUSIVE on their articles and going to great lengths to be the first to release it.

Publishers and developers know what happens when screenshots get released. A single pre-release image from a game can spawn huge message board or comment threads full of people making wild assumptions based on the smallest detail of a UI element. Once that starts, it becomes gospel, and anything that the publisher says in response will be summarily dismissed. Word of mouth can kill interest in a game even before it’s released, or on the flip side, have people extrapolating wild ideas and then being disappointed when the reality doesn’t live up to that. (Take the XCOM first person shooter as just one example).

He goes on to mention the leak of Valve’s proprietary source code with another dismissal of “no harm, no foul!” I don’t know what’s worse: if he’s actually that ignorant of the economics of game development and how much money went into developing that code, or if he’s disingenuous enough to try and convince readers that it doesn’t matter.

All of it leads to the same conclusion: he’s got no respect for the time, effort, and money that publishers put into developing and promoting their games. If his site is showing the publishers and developers so little respect, why should they show any more than the barest amount of respect to him as a representative of the site?

Of course, when you describe the relationship between developers and journalists in those terms, the response is invariably the same: You’re saying that games journalists should become corporate lapdogs for the games industry, reporting only what the publishers tell them to and when, abandoning any pretense of journalism and just becoming extensions of publishers’ marketing departments!

And that sucks, because even if you don’t take it to that extreme, the idea is still so prevalent that it makes the relationship between developers, journalists, and readers needlessly antagonistic.

Enthusiast Press or Investigative Journalists?

The problem is not recognizing the difference between the “enthusiast press” — games journalists and tech/gadget journalists are the two areas I’m most familiar with — and the traditional press. There is a difference.

And right there, I bet I’ve already alienated several of my acquaintances who work as games journalists. Because there’s this pervasive idea that if there’s a difference, that necessarily means that one’s better than the other. I must be saying that games writers aren’t “real” journalists.

That’s absurd. If anything, professional games writing (and general tech writing) is a superset of traditional journalism, at least in breadth if not depth. Obviously, you’ve got to be familiar with the subject, no matter what you’re writing about. But especially with games, you’ve got to be entertaining in addition to just being informative. You’ve got to be insightful and not simply objective.

Unless you work somewhere that has rigidly divided departments, you’ve got to be able to handle previews of upcoming releases as well as reviews of existing ones, and you’ve got to understand how they’re different in tone. You might be writing something based on nothing more than a press release and your knowledge of the industry. You might be writing an op-ed or a feature, and even that is further divided into writing about the social/economic side of games, or writing about the creative and technical side.

And, of course, at some point you’re going to be doing investigative journalism. Writing about working conditions in the industry, discrimination in hiring, discrimination in subject matter, the financial health of companies, studio closures, hirings, firings, and the state of games journalism itself.

That investigative journalism is part of the job. And it is, quite simply, different from the other types of writing that the enthusiast press is going to be doing. I think a lot of readers and writers believe that making such a distinction harms objectivity. It doesn’t. It simply requires developers and writers to be professional enough to recognize the differences.

And it requires readers to maintain enough of a tie to reality so as not to be crying foul at every imagined lapse of journalistic integrity, the moment a writer doesn’t demonstrate exactly enough skepticism over a press release or isn’t quite critical enough of a quote.

Keeping Them Honest

The traditional press has a responsibility to keep the public informed on the issues that affect them. Obviously, it’d be a shitty journalist who just repeated without question anything and everything a politician or corporate representative said to them. A traditional reporter has to be always on the lookout for a hidden agenda.

Here’s a super-secret exclusive bombshell, reported first-hand by a 16-year games industry insider: game companies want you to give them money. There’s no hidden agenda. With few exceptions (reports of Bobby Kotick’s secret kitten-blood-powered doomsday device funded by profits from the Call of Duty series are strictly hearsay) they are blatantly obvious in their motivations: they would like it very much if you would get excited about this game and then pay them for it, and in the case of MMOs, keep paying them for it every month indefinitely.

Mis-representing financial reports? Layoffs? Manipulating review aggregators or online comments? Unfair hiring practices? That’s news; that’s the kind of thing that the public “needs” to know. The plot of an upcoming first-person shooter? No.

And one of the many things that Schreier’s op-ed fails to appreciate: that’s the kind of thing that you’re not going to get from a company’s PR department anyway. See the above bit about wanting people to give them money. Trying to take a Woodward & Bernstein “the people have a right to know” approach to them is just lazy. If you’re doing investigative journalism, the first step is to try investigating. Ask the PR department for a response, obviously. But don’t just leave it there and complain that you’re blocked by a wall of impenetrable silence.

You’re never going to get everything you need for an investigative piece simply by talking to PR. So for everything else: why insist on such a suspicious, antagonistic relationship? You’re working towards a common end. You want information about a game, they want people to have enough information about the game to want to buy it. You don’t have to be skeptical that they’re trying to sell you something, because everyone is fully aware that they’re trying to sell you something.

Even more than that, they’re selling you something that you’re already interested in. If they weren’t, then you wouldn’t be putting up with the unfairly low income that games journalists are stuck with.


There are lots of things that games publishers and developers don’t want you to know about. Some of it is because it affects their bottom line or their shareholders. Some of it is because they’re simply not ready to show it yet. A professional is going to be able to tell the difference between the two. An unprofessional or unethical writer is going to treat it all the same.

And really, games writers should just know this from experience. They’ve played review copies of games, so they’ve seen first hand how often games can be an absolutely unplayable mess right up until the last couple weeks of polishing. They’ve seen how many hits a site can get for having exclusive info about a game, so they know how and why embargoes work to keep things fair among review sites. (And how much it sucks when a publisher gives one site an exclusive at the expense of others). These sites know the importance of timing and exclusives, so why act like it’s simply arbitrary when publishers put so much value on their own timing and their own withholding of information?

There’s this insistence that if a journalist has a mutually respectful, non-antagonistic relationship with a publisher, then that compromises the journalist’s objectivity or integrity. That unless you’re always playing hardball with publishers, then that means you’re in their pocket. Nonsense.

As I mentioned, I’ve got a friendly relationship with several games writers (or at least, I did before I wrote this). Most of them have written stuff that’s been critical of my work, or of the companies that I’ve worked for. It’s not just that that’s okay; I wouldn’t expect anything less. It’s professionalism. My job was to make games, their job was to report on the games. The thing that we all have in common is the thing that makes this “enthusiast” press: we all love games.

Of course you’re always going to find some developer getting butt-hurt when a critical review bruises his ego, or a publisher threatening to pull review copies from sites that don’t meet the meteoritic average for a game, or a journalist writing an amateurish attack piece on a game or a developer, or thousands and thousands of readers crying “bias!” whenever they read a review that isn’t 100% glowing of a game they love. But those should be considered the exception. We shouldn’t just assume that that’s how things are supposed to work.

(For the record, I have done a pretty good job over the years of alienating certain gaming sites. But in my mind, at least, it was never the result of negative coverage. It was the result of lazy or unprofessional coverage: going to a press event and talking about nothing but the booze; accusing the studio of cutting corners or being lazy; accusing the writing of being racist or xenophobic; and comments to the effect of “the writers/animators/whoever should be fired,” which is irresponsible for a message board, much less a paid review).

If you’ve got a political writer who seems unnaturally chummy with a politician, you have a right to be suspicious. But when you’re talking about game development — not the industry side of things, but the games themselves — it’s just plain counter-productive to insist on suspicion instead of professionalism and mutual respect. It’s a shame a piece like Schreier’s insists that we’re all on the same side, but then goes on to make it clear that we’re only on the same side as long as it ensures link-baiting exclusives and scandal pieces for the site.

Because I think we are all on the same side. If it’s not clear by now, I love hearing myself talk, and I especially love hearing myself talk about games. I like being able to pick them apart and see what works and doesn’t work. I like writing about the thought process that went into certain decisions. I like being able to write about stuff I’ve worked on and speculate on how it could be better. I like being opinionated about them, and calling out what sucks and what’s awesome. I like being able to go on message boards and get into it with equally opinionated, long-winded players.

So far, obscurity and long-windedness have kept me relatively safe. It’d be even better to rely on simple trust. To know that even if you’re not one of the “unfirable” people that Tycho talks about, you can still be open and transparent without the fear that you’re going to get quoted out of context in a post somewhere, or that someone’s going to take something that you’ve said and try to turn it into news — or worse, a scandal — instead of just asking you directly to clarify. I’ll stick with obscurity, thanks.

So basically what I’m saying is that everybody needs to chill the fuck out. Unless you’re working for a company that cares more about profits than about games, or you’re working for a site that cares more about page views and ad revenue from exclusives than about games, then we’re all united in our love of something that’s ultimately inconsequential.

A Thousand Points of Light

ImchatmillerscrossingIt’s a time-honored rule that for any headline that asks a question, the answer is always “No.” That doesn’t apply to “Is It Time To Let Movie-Goers Send Texts During a Film?”, where the answer is “Oh hell no.”

Actually, in this case, the old rule about New Yorker cartoons applies even more. “Christ, what an asshole.”

It’s fun for those of us prone to internet rage to get tossed a slow pitch every once in a while. Occasionally a response can knock it out of the park. Instead of having to think about actual issues that really are controversial and require a careful deliberation of the merits of both sides, we can all stand behind the idea that you’re a selfish jackass if you insist on turning on a bright light in a dark room full of people who paid to be there and aren’t cursed with your own irreparably shattered attention span.

In my day, we understood how light works!

Well, most of us can stand behind that, anyway. The only thing that’s worth commenting on at all is the lengths people will go to in order to rationalize bad behavior. Here’s an article about a similar proposal, this time in regards to the legitimate theatertheatre, that tries to pin the blame on the invention of the electric light and then make the claim that being an inconsiderate asshole is a time-honored tradition stretching back to the earliest days of live performance.

I remain disappointed that they didn’t take this to its logical conclusion, and propose that all concessions be replaced with maggot-laden legs of roast mutton.

After all, aren’t we being awfully short-sighted? How can we possibly expect a 17-year-old raised in the age of interactive entertainment to stay focused on the ponderous, Terence Malick-esque existential ramblings of the 21 Jump Street remake? In a world where teens and young adults have constant access to social media, isn’t it just selfish of us in the less-lucrative demographics to just demand that we can escape that for 90 minutes? When people have instant, personalized access to virtually every movie ever made, with the ability to start and stop it at will, while simultaneously updating IM, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, doesn’t it just make good financial sense for theaters to remove the only remaining aspect of their experience that makes them unique?

We’ve already learned that in the brave new world of digital distribution, the whole notion of “being paid enough money to keep producing content that people want to watch” is laughably outdated. As soon as all of us old farts still clinging to 20th century notions of propriety will die off already, the old concepts of “stealing” and “not behaving like an over-entitled shit stain” and “showing a basic level of respect for your fellow humans” will be revealed as the anachronistic, imaginary fantasies that they are. The one surviving multi-national media conglomerate will show $500 million productions free of charge, and audiences of the New Generation will talk to each other and send text messages to people not in the theater as a beautiful display of communal engagement and interactivity. And it will be glorious.

Being Katniss Everdeen

Being john malkovich
Man, I just can’t get a break. I was just recovering from the discovery that I’m a horrible misogynist-slash-“white knight” pseudo-feminist, and now I find out I’m a racist? If I’m this much of a jackass without even realizing it, I shudder to think what kind of damage I could be doing intentionally.

As it turns out, I got started on my path to white supremacy simply enough: I read The Hunger Games quickly, and I didn’t remember that one of the characters was described as being dark skinned.

I know now just how awful that is, thanks to the tireless work of the author of the Hunger Games Tweets tumblr and corresponding Twitter account. The account’s been keeping up the good fight by “expos[ing] the Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don’t know a damn thing about the books.”

The reason I’ve seen dozens of people linking to and commenting on that tumblr is because of a post about it on Jezebel.com. Jezebel fulfills the “Give Me Something to Be Angry About” requirement of Gawker’s media empire, and they hit pay dirt on this one. In the two days since the post was published, I’ve seen at least two dozen links to it and comments on it, just from people I know. And they’ve found it “jaw-dropping,” “nauseating,” “depressing,” “abysmal,” “heart-stopping,” and it made them hate humanity.

To them, I’ve got a couple of questions:

1) How much of that Tumblr did you read?

I got about eighteen pages into it. And when you start reading, yes, it does look like page after page filled with disgustingly racist messages from people both hostile and clueless. And there are several of those. I counted about 15 before I stopped digging.

But there’s a lot more of this. And also this. And this. This too. Also this. Plus this. And of course this too, which I guess isn’t racist because it’s making fun of an Asian name.

In other words, a lot of people saying “she doesn’t look like I pictured” followed by trollfaces, “deal with it” animated GIFs, and treatises about exposing a significant social ill. In other words, a tumblr.

2) What internet have you guys been using?

Because I want to start using that one. I like the idea of being so stunned at the sight of someone saying something stupid and racist that it makes me want to vomit. The internet I’ve been reading has me seeing at least one disgustingly racist comment every morning before lunch. The internet I’ve been using lets actual white supremacist groups have websites.

Yes, any one of those genuinely racist tweets and facebook messages would be gross enough to be worth calling out. It’d be good to see any one of those tools held responsible for what he or she writes. And like I said, I counted 15 of them.

But at the same time, I kind of already knew that there are at least 15 racist people on the internet.

Why is this getting such a disproportionate level of outrage?

May the Click-throughs Be Ever In Your Favor

A huge part of it, of course, is the perfect combination of opening weekend for a hugely popular movie franchise based on a hugely popular book franchise, and the internet’s favorite hobby: complaining about stuff.

Casting for The Hunger Games was announced a pretty good while ago, and that twitter & tumblr account have been around for at least a month, as far as I can tell. It’s an amazingly fortuitous coincidence that Jezebel ran the story this week.

I can only imagine the fight that went on at Jezebel headquarters: a crass young copy editor and webmaster a few weeks ago, saying “We’ve got a story here! Let’s run it now!” Then the writer of the post turns, measured in tenor but still barely able to contain the swelling rage — I am of course picturing a stately, distinguished white man playing the part in the movie, maybe Alec Baldwin or Sam Waterston overdubbed with Morgan Freeman’s voice. And then that writer says, “I don’t know how long you’ve been here, young man, but I’ve been here long enough to know that the name Gawker Media means something. It means honor. It means integrity. It means responsibility. And it means holding onto this goddamn story until we’re sure we have all the facts!

And finally, after the story was given time to grow and season, and coincidentally The Hunger Games had a successful opening weekend, it was ready. That writer took a moment to gaze out the window at a city in turmoil, a city whose demons had to be set free so that healing could begin. And the writer picked up a phone and said simply, “It’s time.” And then hung up without saying goodbye.

The internet needs sites that give people something to be angry about. It’s what drives social media sites in the first place. Gawker Media happens to have achieved perfect vertical integration — you can read Gawker.com to make fun of women, and then Jezebel.com to be outraged at people making fun of women. Personally, I get my daily outrage quota from ThinkProgress.org, and there Alyssa Rosenberg delivered a convenient two-fer of things to piss us off: the racist and sexist things that have been written about the movie.

(The misogynistic comments in reviews are legitimately awful, since a) they’re written by people who should know better, not clueless twitterers; and b) there’s no way they’re meant to be deliberately provocative, so it’s possible the writers aren’t even aware how gross it is to be complaining that a thin actress is too fat).

I’m all for a good open shaming of people being assholes. I just feel better about it when I know it’s sincere. Not just an attempt to ride the coattails of a young adult franchise from people still pissed off that Twilight was too Mormon to have significant non-white characters.


Those tweets and facebook messages are plenty gross, but the tone of much of that “Hunger Games Tweets” tumblr is just as toxic. They’re both fueled by ignorance, but now one’s running on a sense of righteousness and an awful lot of media exposure.

Mean-spirited but harmless “his name is Gale not Gail lol” stuff is what fuels significant portions of the nerd internet. Give it a cause and an audience, though, and it turns nasty. And a dozen genuinely repulsive messages get turned into a Significant Social Problem That Affects Us All. (That we will write a post about and then completely forget as soon as we stop getting internet traffic from it).

As I said, I’m one of the people who didn’t remember the description of Rue & Thresh as being black. Or of Katniss and Gale as being “olive-skinned,” for that matter. I also can’t remember the hair color of any of the non-Katniss characters, or whether they might’ve been left handed or homosexual. I didn’t remember because I didn’t care. It was never relevant to the story.

When I’m reading a book, I’ve got a default picture of everybody in my head. And it’s white and male until I read something that suggests otherwise. That’s not because I’m racist and misogynist, it’s because I’m white and male. Most books look pretty much like the parts of Being John Malkovich inside Malkovich’s mind, except instead of John Malkovich it’s a 50/50 mix of myself and, for some reason, Scott Adsit. It’s weird.

When a description becomes significant, I remember it. The relevant parts of the description of Rue — the character people are making the most fuss about — are that she’s young, small, stealthy, clever, and she reminds Katniss of her sister Prim. None of that has anything to do with her being black.

But now there are legions of outraged bloggers tripping over themselves trying to assign more significance to “I didn’t picture her as black” than is there. I pictured both her and Prim as looking like a younger Dakota Fanning, myself. So what? Why so eager to put a value judgment on that? They’re going to have their work cut out for them if they want to put a stop to people making assumptions. At best, it’s impotent internet rage — I’m using animated GIFs to make a difference! At worst, it’s accusing people of crypto-racism.

To be fair, there are a few glimmers of awareness, like saying that if the mentions of race aren’t relevant to the story “It really doesn’t matter.” But there’s really only one thing on that tumblr that I do agree with completely: “The outrage makes no sense.”

Winter is Coming! Direct to your home! For a new low, low price!

This began as a response to an interesting comment on my post about threats to pirate the Game of Thrones series. I got carried away, as I tend to do, and the comment became too unwieldy for the comment form.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to call anybody out or dominate the conversation, but that I think this is a genuinely interesting way to talk about the topic. It’s at least more interesting than watching people contorting themselves into knots trying to come up with a rational-sounding counter-argument to “People shouldn’t steal stuff.”

All the quoted sections are from comments by Tom Coates.

Why are you paying HBO $240 a year to get to see True Blood and a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones. If you think that’s genuinely what it’s ‘worth’ to see those shows, I think that you are—bluntly—wrong.
Is your argument REALLY that people should be paying $240 a year for True Blood? Because that just doesn’t sound in any way plausible. Not one bit.

No, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s why I no longer subscribe to HBO.

My argument was that for at least a year, HBO was getting (at least) around $240 from me for watching True Blood. So I was a more valuable customer to them than the guy who says “I don’t want all that; I’ll give you $40 for it. Deal? No? Okay, then I’ll steal it.”

My argument was also that there are millions of people like me who do subscribe to HBO and pay for their service. So when MG Siegler says that if he doesn’t like the terms, he’ll just take it for free, he’s not just hurting some faceless corporation. He’s taking advantage of stuff that millions of other people are paying for. It takes some mighty big stones to expect any sympathy from the people who are paying companies for stuff that he gets for free.


I’m guessing a lot of other people out there are NOT prepared to pay $240 a year to get to see True Blood, and that—frankly—many of those *would* be prepared to pay $40-60 to get to see the Season via iTunes when it’s broadcast. So you need (say) eight of those people to download for every one who buys HBO. That seems *entirely* plausible to me, frankly.

I’d be in that group of people who’d be prepared to pay $40-$60 to get the Season Pass on iTunes. The point of that blog post is that it’s unlikely that’d be enough.

I do think it’s being needlessly combative to dismiss all the actual numbers as being completely unknowable. It’s not that I agree with the claim that piracy numbers significantly equate to potential sales. I think it’s “needless” because even by doing the simplest, back-of-the-envelope calculations, the economics still don’t make sense.

Ignore the 8:1 ratio, and make it even simpler. Let’s say that Game of Thrones (instead of True Blood, just for the sake of keeping the conversation consistent) goes on iTunes the day after broadcast, for Siegler’s suggested figure of under $40 for an HD season pass. And HBO is actually $16/month on DirecTV, not $20. So one year’s HBO subscription is $192. $192 / $40 = 4.8, which means that you’d need a 5:1 ratio of iTunes season pass sales to HBO subscribers.

(Obviously, that ignores Apple’s cut, along with whatever deals it gets from DirecTV or Comcast. But it also ignores the fact that HBO doesn’t make all its money from selling one TV series through one source. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it even).

If a ratio of 8:1 is plausible, I’m assuming that you think 5:1 is plausible as well. But can you name any other TV series — or for that matter, any other product — that has seen a five-fold increase in ratings simply by lowering its price? I think that’s the part that’s completely implausible.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the finale of Game of Thrones (the highest-rated episode of the season) had 3.9 million viewers in the first night of broadcast. (The article goes on to say that the show averages 8.3 million viewers when you account for repeats, DVR, and on demand). This report puts it at 3.04 million viewers.

Are we supposed to believe that making the show available on iTunes would suddenly turn Game of Thrones ratings from 3 million to 15 million? Or even more unlikely, that you could convert 8.3 million viewers to 40 million? That assumes 15 million viewers would be interested in an epic fantasy series at all, much less that they’d be willing to pay $40 a head (no pun intended) for it.

A couple of obvious counter-arguments: this assumes that it’s either all subscriptions, or all iTunes season pass sales, and not a combination of both. It assumes that if HBO made its programming available same-day (or day after) on iTunes for $40 a season pass, that they’d lose all their subscribers. Obviously they wouldn’t lose all of them, but it’s clear to me that they’d lose a huge portion. There’d be very little incentive left to subscribe, unless you were one of the rare viewers who watched every series on the channel and you just couldn’t get enough of Kung Fu Panda 2.


And the even more obvious counter-argument: even by the generous, over-simplified example, they’d need 15 million viewers on iTunes + season passes to make the same revenue they get from 3 million viewers on subscriptions alone. But would they need all of those 15 million just to be profitable?

Obviously not, but it’s not as clear-cut even in the simplest calculation. Take that one estimate from The Hollywood Reporter that it cost $60 million to produce the series. Every discussion of Hollywood that I’ve ever seen says that a feature film has to make double its production cost in order to become profitable, because of marketing and distribution. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that it’s significantly less for TV series than it is for movies, and assume it’s 1.5 times the production cost. That would mean that GoT has a “break-even” point of $90 million.

I don’t know what Apple’s cut for TV shows over iTunes is, either, but just assume that it’s the same as for apps: 30%. That would mean that for every $40 season pass to GoT, HBO gets $28. By those numbers, a season pass of GoT would need 3.22 million season pass sales to break even.

That seems reasonable, right? They got 3 million viewers just in one night via subscriptions. But that’s the problem with directly equating ratings to sales: again according to Entertainment Weekly, the sales of GoT DVD sets are “through the roof” and broke all kinds of records. That record-breaking value: 350,000 units over 10 days.

That’s a much better indication of how many people are actually willing to pay for the whole season. I don’t know how to get the number of iTunes season pass sales for the same season 1 set of GoT, or if that information is even available to the public. No matter how much more convenient it is to buy stuff over iTunes than to pick up a physical DVD set, I’m pretty sure that that convenience doesn’t translate into ten times more sales. I would be stunned to learn if it’s even twice as many (700,000 units, still a good bit short of 3.2 million).

But that’s for a TV series that’s already a year old, and has had its big events long since spoiled all across the internet. Of course there’s going to be a drop in sales. How much do the sales increase if you reduce the time between broadcast and season pass/DVD set availability? I don’t know how to estimate that, other than to say “less than 2.5 million people.”

On the one hand, you’ve got a known market of 29 million subscribers, paying you $192 a year. On the other, you’ve got a demonstrated market of 350,000 customers, paying you around $30 a year. Somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the iTunes market.

We do know at least that MG Siegler and the guy from The Oatmeal have pledged to chip in $80 towards our $90 million estimate. Counting the actual bankable value of that, that leaves: $90 million.

If it’s silly for the RIAA and MPAA to directly equate piracy numbers to lost sales — and it is silly — then it’s every bit as silly to claim that those numbers significantly equate to potential sales. A company simply can’t make projections by treating torrent download figures as actual sales. A company can only make projections based on what people actually buy. I can’t imagine a TV exec would last very long if he could promise ratings would double or more, simply by opening the show up for download.

What I can imagine is that execs would be eager to do it if they had ample evidence it would actually work. When even a rough estimate fails to hold up — even though it’s based on numbers completely pulled out of my ass and still altered to make them more generous — I don’t see how the actual numbers could work.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Moreover, frankly, the world changes, and people’s business models have to change too. If all the other broadcasters think that they can make money by selling on iTunes the day after broadcast for a certain amount of money, then of COURSE expectations will be set for shows on HBO to be similar. And people will justifiably start asking ‘why am I paying so much for this’ or ‘why can’t I get it at the same time as I get all my other shows’.

And to those people, you point out: “all your other shows are subsidized by advertising.”

If anyone is paying $40 per season to watch Mad Men, which is broadcast with commercials on AMC, and is still confused as to why he can’t pay $40 per season to watch HBO shows immediately after they’re broadcast, then I’d suggest he’s not paying enough attention to Mad Men.

And anyone who underestimates the impact of advertising should consider this: an episode of True Blood a while back had two male vampires having sex with each other followed by one ripping the other’s heart out. The series regularly combines the “nudity,” “graphic violence,” and “adult language” warnings not just in a single episode, but in a single scene. HBO does have a standards and practices department, I’m assuming, but a significant part of the reason producers go to HBO is to be able to make content that’s not beholden to advertisers.

There’s Right, and then There’s What’s Right

And one way or another, whether it’s moral or reasonable or not, people are going to start moving to either other shows or they’re going to torrent it. Because it’s easy and it works.

Is that right? No. Is it basically inevitable? Yes. Does that mean that their existing business model might be under threat? Yes. Is that fair? Bluntly, that’s an irrelevant question.

If the question is irrelevant as to whether it’s unfair to HBO, then why is it relevant whether it’s unfair to customers? Why should HBO — or any of us — care whether or not Siegler is stamping his feet and complaining that he doesn’t get to watch Game of Thrones exactly when and how and for how much he wants to? He’s already demonstrated that he’s not a guaranteed source of income to HBO, and he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to take advantage of those of us who do pay for what we get. If fair is irrelevant, then why should I care what he says?

Saying “fair is irrelevant, this is business” is always the position that’s presented as if it were the most pragmatic one. But in fact, it’s so short-sighted as to be completely unrealistic. An economy where one party in every business transaction is treated unfairly is unsustainable. If someone can’t even speculate on a business model that doesn’t end up with HBO losing money, then that’s not saying “I want HBO to make its content more widely available.” That’s saying “I want HBO to go out of business.”

I don’t want HBO to go out of business. Not for HBO’s sake, but my own, so that I can continue to watch vampires having gay sex and ripping each other’s hearts out.

Sermons vs. Stupidity

And meanwhile, a whole bunch of people actually are moving away from cable completely, because it’s an expensive standing cost each month that they don’t need to pay and they don’t want to pay. They want to own the shows and be able to watch them when they want to. Again, if HBO’s business model doesn’t stand up under those circumstances, and other people’s models do, and if HBO isn’t prepared to find some way to change, then — and surely this is obvious — HBO will fail.

Again, there’s a difference between what is fair and reasonable and what is going to happen. We’re in a transitional period here. Obviously the possible viewers buying things from iTunes is likely to grow massively over the next ten years. And the desire to be able to buy bespoke, just the things you want, to watch when and how you want, is not going to evaporate. So, I’m afraid, one way or another, HBO are going to have to find some way to adjust to it.

HBO has been adjusting to “transitional periods” quite profitably for most of my lifetime. Before the rise of VHS and DVD, they distinguished themselves by being the most convenient way to watch movies at home. Then they distinguished themselves by being the only way to get sex & violence on TV. Then they distinguished themselves by being the channel that produces highly desirable series and shows them without commercial interruption. It’d be an enormous mistake to talk as if HBO is run by idiots who can’t tell which way the wind is blowing.

And the “whole bunch of people” who are moving away from cable aren’t yet enough to replace a subscription model. If the market were there, they’d be milking it for all it’s worth. But the market just isn’t there.

People keep acting as if my posts and comments are “moralizing” about piracy. But piracy doesn’t offend me nearly as much as stupidity does. When Siegler and others say that HBO can provide the same thing that ad-supported channels do, and that HBO’s resistance to do so is purely out of greed or artificial scarcity, that is a gross display of willful ignorance. The facts simply don’t support it.

When Siegler and others say that piracy is their only option, and that it effectively sends a message to the production companies, that’s just insultingly disingenuous.

It’s entirely plausible that yes, “over the next ten years,” the market will be such so that people will be able to buy their programming a la carte. Assuming it happens, that’ll be great! But that doesn’t change the fact that Siegler is saying willfully stupid and disingenuous things right now.

NOW how much would you pay?

Boy, do I feel foolish! For two years now, I’ve been paying anywhere from $60-$90 a month to a satellite TV provider, for hundreds of channels I don’t ever watch. I’ve been doing it to pay for the shows that I do watch, and I just had no idea that there was a better way.

Fortunately for me and millions of stupid people like me, M.G. Siegler’s got it all figured out. There are these things called “torrents” that let you download television programming from the internet for free, sometimes even before it’s broadcast in your area! All you have to do is:

  1. Download a BitTorrent client for your system.
  2. Find the torrent file for the show you want to watch.
  3. Tell yourself that you’d be perfectly willing to pay for the show if those damn media companies would only let you.
  4. Download and enjoy.
  5. Don’t put any additional thought into it, apart from rationalizing it on the internet.

Siegler’s devoted a lot of deep thought to this moral quandary:

The problem is that I’m not an HBO subscriber. Believe me, given the quality of their programming, I would love to be. Unfortunately […] You cannot give HBO your money directly. They will not accept it. They are fully in bed with the cable companies and are not going to get out of that bed anytime soon, because of what they get paid to perform their unnatural acts in that bed. A lot of money.
Because of the aforementioned naughty cuddling deal HBO has with the cable companies, they also cannot (or will not) offer up their content via a legal means, such as iTunes, in a timely manner.

Clearly, it’s HBO’s fault. They’re wallowing in cash from their dark dealings with the cable and satellite monopolies, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to give up any of that profit just for the sake of Doing the Right Thing.

It’s a tough decision, and Siegler is being extremely bold by being the first person on the internet to admit that he’s pirated media.

It brings me no great pleasure to do it, and I’m not technically sure that I’m allowed to say this, but I’m going to because HBO has left me no choice: I’m going to be pirating season 2 of “Game of Thrones.”

I’m going to be forced to scour the shady underbelly of the Web to find the show.


Again, I’d gladly pay for it. But I have no way to do so, outside of forking over an obscene amount of money on a monthly basis to a cable company, and/or waiting a year. I’m just not willing to do that. My hand is being forced.

And when someone posts a link to the webcomic The Oatmeal that said exactly the same thing as his blog post does, and which was forwarded to the Facebook and Twitter feeds of every single person on the internet a few weeks earlier, Siegler makes it clear why he’s writing: it’s “worth putting it into words again and again and again and again, until something changes.”

It’s clear: there is no other option.

Except, well, being patient and waiting for it to come to iTunes. Like adults without an over-inflated sense of entitlement do. That’s basically the approach that Andy Ihnatko suggested, in his post “Heavy Hangs the Bandwidth That Torrents the Crown”. That was one of the most perfect articles ever written about the topic. At least, it was before Ihnatko felt the need to qualify it with an addendum about how media companies force people into piracy. Apparently the notions of personal responsibility and “two wrongs don’t make a right” are too nuanced for the internet to be able to process.

Oh right, I forgot that there is one other option: paying for it with cable or satellite service and a subscription to HBO, like millions of other people do. But Siegler thinks that’s outrageous:

Why would I pay upwards of $100 a month for something I have no interest in? I just want HBO.
When I watched the first season of “Game of Thrones” this past week, I watched it through iTunes, where I happily purchased the entire season for $38.99 (in HD).

So as he repeatedly makes clear, Siegler is perfectly happy to pay for his television programming. Well… up to a point, anyway.

Let me see if I can piece together the terms of this transaction: it has to be less than $40 for the entire season. He has to be able to download it to his computer and watch it anywhere. And he shouldn’t have to wait any longer than HBO subscribers in any time zone in the world in order to watch it. If profit-hungry HBO doesn’t agree to those terms, the only recourse for the consumer is to download a torrented version.

Why is HBO being so damn unreasonable?

At The Onion’s AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff posted an article called “Patience and piracy: Why helping yourself hurts good TV.” It’s got more rational thinking and insight than a hundred Oatmeal strips stacked end-to-end. But, because of all those troublesome words and ideas, it didn’t go viral. (And because it didn’t have “Piracy” and “Game of Thrones” in the title, like Siegler’s post, it didn’t do as good a job of link-baiting. “I’m being forced to pirate Game of Thrones against my will!” is a much more internet-friendly title than “A Winter of Piracy is Coming.”)

Here’s where things get a little tricky. And speaking as someone who watches a lot of television, I have special insider knowledge of how media corporations do business that Siegler, a partner in a venture capital firm, couldn’t possibly be privy to. So excuse me for getting technical here, but bear with me: an epic fantasy series consisting of dozens of hours of footage filmed in various locations with several prominent Hollywood film stars is not an inexpensive production.

Whew, sorry to blow your mind with all that jibber-jabber. Let me dumb it down a shade:

We all know how TV works — you watch it for free or download a season pass for around 40 bucks on iTunes or Amazon. But then, this isn’t TV. It’s HBO. And over a decade ago, HBO responded to the decreased demand for their feature-length movie schedule by putting the spotlight on well-produced, innovative, quality original programming, and also Hung. And it’s not just the case that they produce “tentpole” series like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome — television series with feature film budgets. They also produce stuff that probably wouldn’t be feasible elsewhere, like Deadwood, Bored to Death, and even True Blood. (Which isn’t an epic production like the others, but still straddles the line between lowbrow enough for broadcast TV but still too raunchy and too niche for broadcast TV).

That model isn’t cheap. And I’m sure that HBO appreciates the thought, Mr. Siegler, but your generous contribution of 40 bucks before Apple’s cut isn’t quite enough to cover it. For that matter, your $15 a la carte subscription to HBO wouldn’t cover it, either. What covers it is that “naughty” relationship HBO has with the cable companies. It’s kind of like that $600 smart phone you bought for $300 plus a cellular contract.

Except there’s even more to it than that. HBO can afford to produce shows like Game of Thrones because HBO has established itself as a company that can produce shows like The Sopranos (and Rome, Deadwood, etc). People will pay for HBO because of the programming that they can only get on HBO. That exclusivity is baked into the value of the company, and therefore into the cost of its programming. They’ve sneakily hidden this fact into their shady deals with unscrupulous cable providers and by making it the tag line of an entire marketing campaign: “Only on HBO.”

If you can spend $2.99 for an HD copy of the latest episode of Game of Thrones at the same time as a cable subscriber who’s paying over $95 a month for his cable and HBO subscription, then there’s no incentive for him to keep subscribing. And then there’s nothing to separate the digital release of Game of Thrones from that of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, even though two of those series are subsidized by advertising and one isn’t. And there’s no incentive for HBO to keep funding weird, original, expensive, commercial-free television series.

None of this is really all that complicated.

But in this case it’s different, because Siegler and others like him really want to watch Game of Thrones and nothing else that HBO offers. Well, a couple of years ago I really wanted to watch True Blood and nothing else that HBO offers. What I did was I torrented an episode, and I felt like an asshole about it. Then I paid $20 a month for an HBO subscription. So please don’t anybody try to present a confession of “I didn’t feel like an asshole about it” as a battle cry of “I’m taking a stand against Big Media!”

Would I prefer to pay $40 or less to get a season pass of just the series I want to watch? Of course I would. But I was cursed with a conscience and the nagging tendency to think about things for more than a half second. And I quickly realized that paying for the stuff I don’t want to watch helps pay for the stuff that I do want to watch. And that the stuff I watch for “free” has been paid for with advertising.

(Incidentally, the next time I read anyone suggesting that digital versions of print media like books, comics, and magazines should of course be cheaper than the print versions, because the cost of printing has been removed, I’m going to devote all my energy to perfecting my slap-someone-over-the-internet technology. Don’t say you weren’t warned).

And am I suggesting that DirecTV and HBO are just barely scraping by with subscription fees and DVD sales? Of course I’m not. Both NewsCorp and Time Warner are doing quite well for themselves, last I checked. But I missed the day of ethics class where they told us that it’s okay to take stuff without paying for it as long as I was taking it from rich people. And unfortunately for me, their financial success doesn’t obviate my personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility is what it all comes down to, because that’s the part we actually have control over. Marco Arment, someone I usually agree with about everything except coffee, wrote a post (with diagrams!) called “Right vs. Pragmatic” in response to the Oatmeal cartoon and Ihantko’s blog post. And for most of that post, he’s right. The response to piracy from “big media” has just been bone-headed. All the litigation and legislation against piracy on behalf of the RIAA has been a failure both financially and in terms of PR, and now the MPAA is making all the exact same mistakes. The DMCA sucks. And it’s stupid to hold onto an outdated business model when there is still plenty of money to be made providing content through more accessible channels like iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

But in that entire post, there’s one very important point that Arment fails to emphasize: Responsible, grown men should not be throwing their fucking trash on the floor in the first place.

If you want to really make a stand, instead of just talking about it to make yourself feel better, then actually take a stand. Don’t buy TV from HBO if you don’t like the way they do business. Don’t help advertise it, either, by posting big pictures from the series on your blog and using the title in your post title and talking about how the show is so great that you’re willing to steal it. And if you like the show and would like it to be available on iTunes, then buy it on iTunes. If you want the show to be available on iTunes sooner, then buy a show you like that’s already available, and make it clear that there’s a demand for television through that channel that’s greater than what they’re seeing from cable or satellite subscriptions.

HBO execs have about a 0.0000% chance of reading a post on your website. They have a slightly higher chance of seeing your download of the torrent file in the logs of a pirate website years from now when the site gets threatened for shutdown. They’re guaranteed to read the income statements from Apple.

All that said: everyone should check out that Oatmeal comic one last time, and give him the final say. Scroll to the bottom of the page, after the big chunk of ads that help pay for his bandwidth, and read the last three words.

“Please don’t steal.”

Good for the Gander

Here’s something that’s objectively unfair: when a female blogger gets linked by Daring Fireball, she receives death threats and gets called a whore. When I get linked by Daring Fireball, the worst I get is that I’m “too wordy.”

I think it should go without saying, but I want to emphasize it while I’ve got whatever diminishing traffic this blog gets from being fireballed: Anyone who says that women and men are treated equally on the internet is an idiot.

They’re simply not. Men have the luxury of being called out for what they write, while women always have to suffer through personal attacks. That’s bullshit, and it’s not fair.

And even on top of that: when a man gets called a “moron” or a “dick,” it just plain doesn’t have the same weight as calling a woman names. Fair or not, we just have to remain conscious of that, and I don’t want that idea to get lost in a sea of words.

I still believe that the only way to fight that is to “rise above” it, although that makes it sound too charitable, since what I’m really saying is that we should be free to harshly criticize anyone’s work when we vehemently disagree. It doesn’t sound so noble when I describe it as: “We should all be free to call each other morons and assholes.”

I acknowledged in the comments that it’d be disingenuous to claim that people weren’t bringing Violet Blue’s online persona into it. But I was completely naive in underestimating how much baggage was being dragged in. That makes me uncomfortable, since the line’s gotten blurred between attacking an online persona based on the ideas expressed (which is fair), and attacking a person trying to do her job (which is of course unfair). I don’t know what it’s like to be internet famous or notorious, and I’m pretty thankful for it.

I mentioned the one time somebody told me to “fuck myself in the neck” on twitter. It’s obviously a laughably stupid comment, and there’s obviously no way anybody could feel threatened by it. Still, it did exactly what it was supposed to do: made me feel bad, and even a year or so later I can still remember it and who wrote it. Multiply that by 1000 or more, give everything a nasty personal spin, and yeah, that’s got to really, really suck.

I wasn’t so naive to be completely unaware that I’d be adding to an internet pile-on. I was aware that I was, and I genuinely regret that part of it. The only explanation I’ll give for that: I sincerely believe that in the 21st century, calling a man a misogynist is as offensive as calling a woman a whore. No it doesn’t have the same weight, but it has pretty much the same intention: completely dismissing a person based on his gender.

And accusing someone of being complicit in misogyny just makes my blood boil, since there’s just no way to respond to it without sounding hollow, the sexism equivalent of “but I have black friends!” It’s intellectually bankrupt, it comes across as “If you really weren’t misogynist, you’d already know what you did wrong,” and it turns genuine discussions of gender inequity to “Women Be Different From Men!” stand-up routines from the 90s, except not funny. So: exactly like stand-up routines from the 90s.

(And finally: this blog gets like 40 hits a day, tops, so the theme doesn’t even support replies to individual comments. I’ll get around to responding eventually. For now, let it be clear that I’m approving everything except the most transparently stupid comments and spam. That doesn’t mean that I agree with a comment, at all).

Guilt by Dissociation

I wasted the better part of the day yesterday, and a sizable chunk of today, responding to a post by Violet Blue called The Apple fanboy problem. The post doesn’t warrant that level of attention. It’s just unacceptable.

The perfect response came from Jeff Carlson on Twitter:

In a sane and just internet, you could leave it at that. Blue’s post is needlessly inflammatory, defensive, and it misrepresents everything that happened. And worse, it’s clumsily framed as an expose of some aspects of internet culture, when it’s simply a case of a writer being held accountable for something she’d written and instead choosing to respond in the worst way imaginable.

The Bad

There’s not much need in going through a point-by-point. Shawn King, one of the men called out in Blue’s post, recaps the situation in his posts Hear that noise? That’s Violet Blue’s backpedalling and Violet, Violet, Violet…. While it’d be possible to disagree with his tone or his interpretation, the actual events are all laid out, quoted and linked. Every publicly-visible thing written — posts and comments on the relevant blogs, not private emails or Twitter comments — about the whole nonsensical business.

While it’s not necessary to hold personal blogs to the standards of journalism (although it’d be nice), you do have to hold posts on a professional tech blog to those standards. Even if you want to call it “punditry” or “opinion” or “culture” writing, there are certain things you just don’t do.

You don’t dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as a “fanboy.” That’s the kind of thing that gets you laughed off of blog comments, much less actual blog posts. I don’t think even PC World is allowed to use the term anymore.

You don’t make ridiculous claims like “Women are already geek outsiders in Apple culture.” This is the computer brand that has been so associated with educators, artists, and publishers since 1984 that it’s even become a stereotype. That’s like saying “Vegetarians have always been outsiders in Greenpeace culture.” And that’s not even a case of catching Blue on a technicality or focusing on one poorly-worded or insufficiently thought-out phrase: it’s the premise of her entire article. When she puts herself forward as having insight into the culture of tech, that’s the first thing she’s supposed to get right.

You don’t call out people by name and accuse them of instigating an attack on you, when it’s right there perfectly clear in the public record that they did no such thing. Gruber’s link post quotes a relevant portion of her article with full context, and he mentions a valid point that two commenters (whom he correctly identifies!) made: that doesn’t look like a “booth babe,” but a developer. Accurately quoting a writer’s writing and commenting on it is not an “attack.” It’s a desperate stretch even to call it “chastising.”

You don’t present unsubstantiated allegations and anonymous complaints as if they were fact. She offers two completely unidentified quotes from people on the internet calling out Gruber — someone who’s notoriously contentious, but more on that in a minute — and presents them as evidence of some long history of unprovoked attacks from him and by the Apple community at large. We the readers are supposed to take these as serious indications of his character, even though it’s genuinely unconscionable that we should take any of the attacks on Blue from Twitter and elsewhere as if they were true indications of her character.

You don’t take a personal complaint, slap an Apple logo on it, and attempt to frame it as an Apple-related story. I still have no idea what was going through her mind, much less what was going through the mind of the editor who approved it. The most charitable explanation is that it was a sincere but inept attempt to turn one event into some kind of overall culture analysis. But at best, that would demonstrate a gross lack of awareness that nasty comments directed at writers happen everywhere on the internet, whether it’s about tech, politics, video games, comic books, and for all I know, even stamp collecting. And it makes absolutely no attempt to do any kind of research, interviews, or anything resembling actual reportage. The post is so inflammatory and filled with lazy generalizations, it’s hard to feel charitable about it. It’s a lot more likely that it was just a transparent attempt at link-baiting and a clumsy smear campaign.

But the worst example of laziness and sloppiness, is the deplorable way she continues to handle a simple case of mis-identification. Getting the wrong name for a photo subject is not, and never was, the issue. Even the woman in question, Zsófia Rutkai — who seems awesome and is one of the only people involved who’s able to come out looking reasonable — doesn’t care. No, the issue is that when called on it, Blue blamed everyone else for giving her bad information.

The witch hunt was based on inaccurate information about Macworld exhibitors that the men had provided to the public.

No. Shawn King and John Gruber, “the men” in question, didn’t provide the information. A commenter on the blog post did. King didn’t make the comment, and he didn’t “deliver the story to John Gruber.” King made a post about it, which got picked up by Daring Fireball as an afterthought. Blue included that info in an update on her post without bothering to check it.

Like everyone else, I assumed that Mr. Gruber and Mr. King were stating accurate and true facts.

No. Like everyone else, Mr. Gruber posted a link to a website that everyone with an internet connection is free to read. And Gruber actually correctly identified the man who left the comment. He didn’t state a fact, he quoted a commenter with a citation, “According to Tim Breen,” which is something Blue has yet to do.

Simply posting a link to a comment with the name of the commenter correctly identified — that’s closer to reportage than anything that Blue has done to this point. And yet, she paints herself as a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein for getting to the bottom of this breaking story — which, again, was never the problem people had in the first place — which just amounts to contacting a company and asking “hey, who is this?” (And one of her “attackers,” Shawn King, had already helpfully provided the link to the company, since this whole “Google” thing can be perplexing to those who aren’t part of the Apple Illuminati). And then, most galling of all:

People so eager to do a blog post takedown that they don’t check their facts for days, and do a follow up to take another shot at the person in the crosshairs… they must be pretty unhappy, right?

It’s just jaw-dropping. You can’t blame your readers for not doing fact-checking on an article that you wrote. Period. Failing to identify, and then mis-identifying, a person photographed in a puff piece about a tech show? That’s perfectly excusable and ultimately completely forgettable. Going on the defensive to a bizarre degree and blaming readers for your mistake? Inexcusable.

The Worse

And all that is just a small part of the sloppy mistakes, misrepresentations, and bizarre claims that make it abundantly clear it’s an example of bad journalism that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Unless, of course, the writer were to refuse to admit responsibility for making a sloppy but ultimately harmless mistake, and she instead tried to frame it as an example of institutionalized sexism, misogyny, and threats of violence against women.

Which would mean that those of us who do take accusations of sexism very seriously now have to waste our time going on the defensive about something that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

So take a step back, and look at the post that started the nonsense: MacWorld 2012: The Island of Misfit Toys.

It’s largely inoffensive. It’s a substance-free account of going to a trade show on a tech blog that never actually mentions tech. It gives a single anecdote from the show floor, goes into considerably more detail about the show/party that night, and then name drops Steve Jobs which I guess was supposed to count as some kind of eulogy. I’ve read more vapid reports of trade shows and press events on Kotaku. Hell, I’ve probably written stuff with less substance (but didn’t get paid for it, I feel obliged to point out).

Except the post has “MacWorld 2012” in the title, but the only bit that actually talks about MacWorld is a weird description that could be interpreted by any sane and reasonable person as being offensive to women.

Let’s be clear on this: Blue’s attempt at a rant about the sexism pervasive throughout the Apple community is the result of people in the Apple community pointing out to her that she sounded misogynist.

Gruber’s “chastising” “attack” quotes the relevant bit, unedited, in its full context, and says concisely and objectively what was objectionable. Blue sees a woman at a kiosk in a trade show and takes a blurry photo of her. Without once talking to the woman, because the woman seemed “sad” and her demeanor made her “unapproachable.” Then Blue writes an article calling the woman a “booth babe,” giving not her name or any of her thoughts about the show, but describing her only as a “pretty brunette,” and spending a paragraph talking about her “breasts that were packaged air-tight in a tight, branded t-shirt.”

It’s obvious and not completely relevant, but it bears mentioning anyway: if a man had written that, he’d have been virtually castrated by the “misogynist” Apple community within 24 hours.

The link on Daring Fireball doesn’t even say that much, though. It says what plenty of ZDNet commenters said: that the woman doesn’t seem like a booth babe, but a developer who happens to be a woman. (As it turns out, she works in Public Relations. Still not a booth babe).

Blue came right out of the gate calling people “fanboys,” blaming John Grueber [sic] for launching an attack on her, and trying to frame it as an issue of men vs. women.

What’s most telling, I think, is her cursory dismissal of the very idea that her post could be construed as misogynistic. She is, as she so often reminds us, feminist and sex-positive. She even links to an earlier post she’d written (good SEO!) as evidence that she didn’t mean “booth babe” as a pejorative.

It’s the article that begins:

CES doesn’t look much like a cutting-edge convention now that problems have emerged around the hired female models dressed in provocative outfits to be “booth babes” at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past week.

CES 2012 booth babes told press that women prefer raising kids to being in technology, men publicly harassed the babes for dates, and female attendees probably wondered if they’d accidentally wandered onto the set of Mad Men.

and then goes on with an extended fantasy interlude about what if the genders were reversed and wouldn’t that teach us all a thing or two about female empowerment? The women would be the ones who get all the respect, while the men stand around being objectified!

Blue tells us that that’s obviously how she meant “booth babe.” Which assumes that 1) people are not only aware that ZDNet still exists, but they read it regularly, instead of just googling for “MacWorld”; 2) the article in question doesn’t give a completely damning (and outdated) impression of booth babes as being nothing more than vapid models with no idea what they’re talking about; and 3) Blue’s internet presence is so pervasive that she can “take back” the term and coin it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means, all in the space of two weeks.

In that comment, Blue says:

One commenter on Twitter suggested I dressed her down for being “not slutty enough.” This is absolutely untrue. And is very revealing about the person that said it.

Speaking of something that’s very revealing about the person who said it: Let’s look at Blue’s defense of her use of “booth babe” with the most charitable interpretation possible.

Blue assumed that a woman at a kiosk of a trade show, notable only for being “pretty” and for having breasts packed into a tight T-shirt, was some kind of nebulous “woman dev, woman hacker,” (because same difference computers whatever!), and not someone who was there just to look pretty. And Blue felt perfectly comfortable bestowing her with this new female-empowering connotation of “booth babe,” meaning a woman who knows her stuff and has something substantive to say about the technology she’s representing.

So Blue took her picture without talking to her, and then wrote about her hair and her tits and how she looked unapproachable and “sad.”

Instead of engaging the woman, asking her about her experiences, her thoughts on women in technology, her comparisons of MacWorld to previous years, what it’s like to be a female developer, her name. The kind of things that reporters at trade shows do. Apparently there was only one woman at MacWorld whose impressions of the show were important to Violet Blue.

It was never just about getting a name wrong. It’s that even when you take Blue’s backpedalling at face value, it’s still offensively dismissive of women in tech.

The Even Worse

Which is why it’s so appalling when she tries to frame it as a case of “how the internet treats women.”

It starts in her attempt at a defense in the comments, and then continues all throughout her irresponsible “Apple fanboy” post. She starts right out describing it as “an online witch hunt” against “a female blogger” based on “inaccurate information about Macworld exhibitors that the men” had provided.

Correcting and dismissing Blue’s posts was never about Men vs. Women. It’s about accuracy vs. inaccuracy, good writing vs. bad writing, journalism vs. whatever the hell it is she’s doing, and misogyny vs. respect.

I confess to never having heard of Shawn King before his post was linked on Daring Fireball. But all Violet Blue had to do was to look on King’s blog, on the very same page as the posts that mention her, to see him calling out a male writer for inaccuracies in an article about MacWorld. King calls the writer a “moron” and says “this is why the public hates journalists.” Hostile? Maybe. I dunno, maybe the writer deserved it. But it’s sure as hell not sexist.

And John Gruber is one of the most prominent writers in tech, especially where Apple is concerned, so he doesn’t need my defense. But it’s not a defense, it’s a fact: Gruber doesn’t stage witch hunts against women. Period. He criticizes stupid things people say on the internet about technology. Trying to run an expose on him as having a long record of “hostility” is like printing a shocking expose about rampant “perversion” on the internet whenever Violet Blue writes about dildos. For each of them, it’s pretty much their thing.

And Gruber regularly calls out writers on their inaccuracies. He will tear a poorly-written and poorly-thought-out piece to shreds, but I’ve been reading Daring Fireball for years, and I can’t recall a single instance where he’s staged a personal attack. He’s rude, sure, and he’s outspoken, and he’s often controversial, and I frequently disagree. But it’s simply not hostile to point out when someone prints something wrong. People are supposed to stand behind what they write, even on the internet.

Not to mention that there are plenty of female tech journalists who write about Apple — just off the top of my head, I can think of Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica, and Lara June and Joanna Stern of The Verge/Engadget — and yet I can’t recall a single time that they’ve attempted to present themselves as the victims at the center of systemized sexism on the part of Apple “fanboys.” Whereas it only took one MacWorld for Blue to tear the lid off a shocking web of systemized misogyny on behalf of a cruel woman-hating Fanboy Tyrant.

Blue’s attempts to claim that the Apple community is hostile to women aren’t just irresponsible, they’re demonstrably false.

Yes, King’s posts are increasingly dismissive of Violet Blue. But he’s not dismissive of her for being a woman, but for demonstrating a near-complete lack of journalistic integrity. That’s the point that King has made from the start. Unfortunately, King’s posts on the topic are to discussions of journalistic integrity what Michael Moore is to corporate responsibility: there’s a perfectly valid point at the core that you’d totally want to agree with, but it’s presented badly enough that you just kind of want to dissociate yourself from it.

I don’t think King is wrong so much as tone deaf. Point-by-point rebuttals (though justified) and calls for petitions just come across as petty internet sniping. Giving a condescending post title like “Violet, Violet, Violet” just comes across as demeaning, even though it wouldn’t come across the same way if he were talking about a man’s writing. (And to be fair, how are you supposed to handle names responsibly and like an adult when someone puts a registered trademark after her pseudonym?) [Stupid assumption on my part deleted, with my genuine apologies.]

And of course, using archaic words like “bint” simply has more weight to it than saying “moron” or “jack-ass” or even “dick.” And like it or not, fair or not, when someone is manipulating a discussion to frame it as an example of institutionalized sexism — even when it’s not — you have to be careful with the words you choose. Because you will not be given the benefit of the doubt, and every valid point you make will be dismissed, in favor of focusing on how you say it.

The Reprehensible

So obviously, what I’m saying with all this is that it was perfectly valid to wish violence on Violet Blue and call her an “ugly whore.”

Except wait no, that’s not what I’ve been saying at all. And it’d be pretty disgusting to even imply that’s what I’ve been saying.

But that’s how this kind of manipulation always works. It’s unfounded, Us vs. Them, guilt by association. If you disagree with me, then you’re obviously supporting the viewpoints of Internet Fucktard Number 1056 over here. It’s the same kind of lazy, baseless attack of generalization as using the intellectually bankrupt term “fanboy.”

Except if you call me a fanboy, I’m going to laugh it off. If you call me a sexist, I’m going to get pissed.

I said earlier that I’d never seen female tech bloggers that I respect write an article about pervasive sexism among Apple pundits and their unthinking minions. They very well might have, and I’ve just never seen it.

What I can say with absolute certainty, though: I would never, ever want to read any of those women’s unfiltered email inboxes. And that’s just on the PC- and gadget-oriented blogs. I don’t even want to imagine what gets written to people whose “internet presence” intersects with video games, like Veronica Belmont and Morgan Webb. I’ve seen glimpses of what was written about them publicly, and it’s enough to make a person reconsider the advantages of eugenics.

People like to think of the internet as being some kind of great equalizer, but it’s certainly not. It gives everyone equal voice, but without giving everyone equal eloquence, intelligence, common sense, or decency. There are plenty of articulate, seemingly intelligent people who write absurdly misogynist things. There are plenty more people who just aren’t thoughtful enough to consider they might be saying offensive things, or aren’t well-spoken enough to speak about something without using slurs. (And a few thousand years of institutionalized sexism means that there are a lot more insulting words for women than there are for men). There is a small but not insignificant number of genuine psychopaths. And there are millions of people for whom it’s absurd and archaic to even think that women are in any way inferior to men.

And to someone who actually cares, the easiest and laziest way to get him to back down from an argument is to claim that he’s complicit in behavior that he’d never want to be associated with. And it’s bullshit. It sucks when it’s used as an attack, and it sucks when it’s used as a condescending “teachable moment,” like a year ago when an entire chunk of the internet was informed that they were complicit in violence towards women.

People say nasty stuff on the internet. The more outspoken you are, the more you’re going to attract. It sucks. I’m a regular reader of Daring Fireball, and I can’t even imagine how many times Gruber’s been called a “dick.” (I must be responsible for at least five or six, myself).

And I’m about as far from internet celebrity as you can get, and I’ve still had a few comments about the way I look and one guy (an Apple pundit, coincidentally) tell me to “fuck myself in the neck,” for one of the least contentious things I’ve said online.

“But it’s different for women.” Of course it is. There is still a huge category of people — men and women both — who will judge women based on their appearance before anything else. (Like, for instance, their hair color and the distribution of their breasts in a T-shirt). And women can never casually brush off threats of violence.

The question is how you’re going to react to it. Are you going to ignore it? Are you going to make a genuine attempt to educate people about it, with a reasonable adult discussion including real people who are affected by it? Or are you going to paint yourself as defenseless victim, posit anonymous gossip as fact, make sweeping generalizations, and label everyone who doesn’t jump to your side as a crypto-misogynist complicit in the horrific treatment of women? Are you going to act as if there’s no difference between the person who says “you made a mistake” and the idiot who says “you’re a whore?” Does the difference even matter to you?

I can have sympathy for being the subject of internet mob mentality. I’ve seen it happen twice just recently to people who completely didn’t deserve it, and I railed against it. They’re caused by people latching onto a piece of one-sided gossip and spreading it. You fight it by getting the facts out. You don’t by pouring gasoline on the fire, launching an unsubstantiated smear campaign of your own in an attempt at public shaming to deflect attention away from yourself.

I don’t believe that Violet Blue is actually a misogynist. I think she wrote something that undeniably comes across as sexist and dismissive, and the responsible thing to do would have been simply to own up to that — even acknowledging that it sounded sexist would’ve been more mature and responsible. But we’re supposed to just give her the benefit of the doubt and take it for granted that she’s not disrespectful to women, even though nobody else is entitled to that.

Making Money from the Network, or, The Workers Control the Means of Promotion

Karl Marx 001Almost immediately after it became clear that SOPA and PIPA were going to be “shelved indefinitely” (read: put on hold until they’re brought back in another form so as not to attract so much attention), there came the news that the Department of Justice had shut down and seized assets from Megaupload.

I was thinking that the timing couldn’t have been better: here was proof that the government already had plenty of power to take down infringing sites outside of the US, and SOPA and PIPA were completely unnecessary. The reason I jumped so hard onto the anti-SOPA bandwagon was only partly being a joiner, and mostly because it’s just such a transparent abuse of power: the MPAA and RIAA had been going batshit crazy attacking individual litigants for years, and they wanted to be able to circumvent the system entirely and just go after sites themselves.

And after reading an article on Ars Technica called Why the Feds Smashed Megaupload, I thought it’d be clear to everyone that these were the “bad guys,” and here was a clear case of the system working as it should:

As for the site’s employees, they were paid lavishly and they spent lavishly. Even the graphic designer, 35-year-old Slovakian resident Julius Bencko, made more than $1 million in 2010 alone.

The indictment goes after six individuals, who between them owned 14 Mercedes-Benz automobiles with license plates such as “POLICE,” “MAFIA,” “V,” “STONED,” “CEO,” “HACKER,” GOOD,” “EVIL,” and—perhaps presciently—”GUILTY.” The group also had a 2010 Maserati, a 2008 Rolls-Royce, and a 1989 Lamborghini. They had not one but three Samsung 83″ TVs, and two Sharp 108″ TVs. Someone owned a “Predator statue.” Motor bikes, jet skis, artwork, and even 60 Dell servers could all be forfeit to the government if it can prove its case against the members of the “Mega Conspiracy.”
But the government asserts that Megaupload merely wanted the veneer of legitimacy, while its employees knew full well that the site’s main use was to distribute infringing content. Indeed, the government points to numerous internal e-mails and chat logs from employees showing that they were aware of copyrighted material on the site and even shared it with each other.

The internet joins together to protest heavy-handed legislation, and the “industry” works within the system to take down one of the most egregious offenders. Win-win, right?

Maybe not. Ars Technica also ran “Megaupload wasn’t just for pirates: angry users out of luck for now”, part of the emerging backlash against the takedown as an abuse of power. Apparently, individual creators’ losses due to piracy are statistically insignificant, but the number of people who are for some reason keeping their sole copies of their work on file sharing sites are a legitimate concern.

On Twitter and his blog, Jonathan Coulton wrote about the takedown of Megaupload and how it’s a complicated issue. Because sure, for the people running that site to be knowingly profiting off of copyright-infringing material is “kind of a dick move,” but what about the people using the site legally? (Instead of Dropbox, Box.net, iCloud, Amazon Web Services, Google Docs, RapidShare, a private FTP site, or any of thousands of other sites and services?) And more significantly, does piracy actually hurt anyone, really?

Looking at the music business, yes profits have gone down ever since Napster, but has anyone effectively demonstrated the causal link between that and piracy? There are many alternate theories (people buying songs and not whole albums, music sucking more, niches and indie acts becoming more viable, etc.). The Swiss government did a study and determined that unauthorized downloading (which 1/3 of their citizens do) does not create any loss in revenue for the entertainment industry. I remember but am now too lazy to find links to other studies that say the same thing. I can’t think of any study I’ve seen that demonstrates the opposite. If there is one, please point me to it. So I have a lot of trouble with the idea that the federal government is directing resources toward an ultimately ineffective game of piracy whack-a-mole (with some unknown amount of collateral damage to law-abiding citizens), when we are not even sure that piracy is a problem.

Well, for starters: the Swiss government’s study, as described by completely objective research site TorrentFreak.Com, concluded that piracy doesn’t necessarily create a loss in revenue for the industry, since the people in their study who downloaded copyrighted material still spent about the same amount of money on concerts (and concert souvenirs), videogames, movies, etc.

Which, if anything, says that the industry is large enough to write off the loss. But how many of us are paid by “The Entertainment Industry?” How is that anything other than ominous to anyone who believes in the value of independent artists and objects to the idea of entertainment corporations consolidating into ever-growing monolithic entities?

I can’t speak for anyone else (seriously, I don’t speak for anyone else, including companies I used to work for), but whenever I would google for “Sam & Max” and came up with dozens of torrent listings, I never thought, “Well, that’s kind of a drag, but at least people are still buying Madden, so no harm done.” Instead, I’d usually think about what would be possible if you had enough revenue to make a game with no limitations and without being reminded about dwindling sales and niche markets.

Coulton talks about Tim O’Reilly’s Google+ post piracy’s effect on “the industry”:

Tim points out that he and a lot of other content creators have been happily coexisting with piracy all this time, and I’m certainly one of them. Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan.

Sounds simple. Make good stuff, make it easy for people to buy it. Oh yeah, and one more thing: get lots of promotion from famous people.

I’ve got no doubt that a significant part of Coulton’s audience discovered his music via YouTube videos, remixes, word of mouth, and the like. That’s not how I heard of him, though. I first heard of him through John Hodgman’s books, published by a subsidiary of Penguin publishing. And I never would’ve heard of Hodgman if not for his Mac ads (paid for by Apple, Inc) and his appearances on The Daily Show (broadcast by Viacom). I’m sure lots more people have subsequently heard of Coulton via his work on the Portal series (developed and published by Valve and distributed by Electronic Arts).

I like Coulton, but I’ve got to say that it’s disingenuous bordering on arrogant to reduce it to “make good stuff” without acknowledging how much goes into promotion. (Not just distribution, promotion). I say arrogant because it perpetuates this myth that everything’s a meritocracy — if your work were just better, you’d have a bigger audience. And it makes it sound like greed if you want to protect your IP.

So: make good stuff, make it easy for people to buy it, and spend lots and lots of money on promotion to make people aware that your good stuff even exists in the first place. And, I’m assuming, cross your fingers and hope that you’re one of the lucky ones who gets paid for his work to guarantee no net loss for the industry as a whole, not one of the ones who’s repeatedly told — by people wealthier than you’ll ever be — that piracy isn’t an issue.

For me, the topic of piracy always comes down to the same issue: it’s about fairness. It’s always made out to be some big, complicated issue with lots of gray area, and no doubt in legal terms it really is. But it ultimately comes down to individual responsibility, and as I see it, that couldn’t be more simple. We know what genuine fair use is, even if the RIAA and MPAA don’t. We can distinguish between genuinely legitimate sites and ones that profit off the work of others, even if SOPA and PIPA can’t tell the difference. We want people to be paid for their work, even if we forget about the work of PR and marketing people. We want people to be free to make cool things, instead of having creative decisions determined by accountants.

People are going to pirate stuff for as long as they can get away with it, that’s a fact. But it’s not a justification; “people are going to do it anyway” is about the weakest possible defense of anything. “Make it easy for people to buy it” means you don’t load your stuff down with egregious DRM in an attempt to grab every last sale at the expense of your loyal customers.

But the concept of “happily coexisting with piracy” is just plain bullshit. Saying “it does no harm” turns into “it’s not really theft, actually” turns into entitlement and then you can’t make a living doing what you love unless you’re employed by a huge company. I just hope nobody has the gall to act surprised when we end up in an environment where it’s impossible for indies to make a living.