People Are Saying

Idly wondering whether the basic rules of the internet will be forgotten as “generative AI” gets more ubiquitous

Last night, we watched the first episode of The Acolyte. I don’t yet have a strong opinion of the show, one way or the other, so this post isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about how I went to IMDB to look something up about the series, and I saw that it had been review-bombed. As I read through the surprisingly lengthy outraged 1-to-3-star reviews, a couple of trends emerged: apparently, it has the worst writing of any Star Wars project to date, Disney and Lucasfilms [sic] should be ashamed, and the existence of a fire in outer space was the last straw for many, many dedicated fans.

Earlier this week, XKCD ran a comic about the objective superiority of electric motors over internal combustion engines. Comments across social media platforms were full of disappointment in cartoonist Randall Munroe for ignoring the environmental hazards of mining rare earth materials for EV batteries, the obvious fact that electric vehicles only benefit the automotive industries and prevent adoption of better mass transit, and that gas engines are necessary in the desert and/or the event of an apocalypse.

Earlier this month, collectible toy retailer Super 7 posted a message on their Instagram in honor of Pride month, asserting that they’ve always promoted inclusion and diversity ever since the company’s founding in San Francisco. There were dozens of comments in response, calling them out for pandering and going woke, and informing them that they’d lost a loyal customer.

The one thing that all these comments have in common is that they’re garbage. Not just in the sense that they’re wrong, but in that they provide nothing of value and just weigh down the target with useless noise. As they’re most often intended to.

Anyone who’s been paying any attention at all knows that public comments sections and centralized social media — which already had a well-deserved reputation for being toxic waste — fell off a cliff in terms of usefulness around 2018-2019, when people with enough money finally recognized their value as tools for misinformation and disinformation. At least for me, that was the point that it all turned from “unreliable source” to “useless cesspit.”

I don’t even put in the effort to be discerning anymore. I used to look for stuff that seemed suspicious. But now, I just assume that everything posted online from any source I don’t recognize is being made in bad faith. Not even in the sense of not trusting the “wisdom of the crowd,” since there are always going to be cranks and fools out there; but in the sense that we can no longer assume that the crowd even exists at all.

This latest round of noise-to-signal stood out to me because of its predictability. Even though I don’t put any stock in the actual comments, I still just take it as a given that modern Star Wars, electric vehicles, and LGBT equality, are going to be treated as “controversial” topics on the internet. Even when we think we’re being discerning, we’ve already been “infected” by the torrent of garbage, conditioned to assume that there’s controversy where none actually exists.

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Dead Meat and A Coward’s Guide to Horror Movies

Recommending an extremely popular YouTube channel that happens to be exactly what I’ve been looking for

It feels odd for me to be recommending a YouTube channel that has 6.5 million subscribers as if I were the first person to discover it. But it’s not the kind of thing that I’d normally recommend, and I only just found it recently, even though it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

The channel is called Dead Meat, and the bulk of the content is the “Kill Count” series, which gives a recap of a horror movie, calling out each time a character is killed, and then tallying them all up (with a pie chart!) at the end.

This is perfect for me, who’s got a fraught relationship with horror movies. I really, deeply want to love them. They’re interesting to pick apart, especially since all of the dynamics are often blatantly playing out across the surface, letting you find as much or as little depth as you want. At the same time, the entire genre is designed to refuse that kind of over-intellectualized analysis. They work best when they bypass all of the critical parts of your brain and go for an immediate reaction. As somebody who overthinks everything, I love watching something like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill, and not “turning off my brain,” but letting it target my brain directly and just enjoy it.

But that’s also why I can’t handle so many of them. I used to just say that I was a coward and leave it at that, but I think there’s actually more to it. When a horror movie clicks with me, I absolutely love it. But there’s a narrow window of tone, subject matter, violence, gore, performance, verisimilitude, and a dozen other aspects that, if a movie veers even a little bit out of the zone, it becomes completely intolerable for me.

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Fun Fact: We Can Never Truly Know Anything

Thoughts about how easily-digestible information ends up in the same state as most things that’ve been digested

As the algorithms have spent time getting to know me, they’ve learned (at least) two things: 1) I’m a nerd who enjoys learning quick, easily-digestible pieces of information; and 2) I’m pretty shallow and will pay extra attention to anything presented by a young, handsome man with a beard. So YouTube must’ve understandably believed it’d hit the jackpot when it started recommending videos from the “magnify” channel.

And it was correct; it’s an interesting channel, mostly dedicated to short-form info, mostly related to language and the origins of words, with particular repeated emphasis on different aspects of Christianity and their roots in Judaism.

Coincidentally, in the middle of watching a ton of the short videos back to back, I checked into a forum on Discord and saw someone repeating the (certainly, patently false) etymology of the word “posh” as an acronym for “port out, starboard home.” The coincidence jumped out at me, because this was a recurring topic in the newspaper column The Straight Dope — or at least its online message boards — which I used to read with beyond-religious devotion in the days before social media took over everybody’s attention.

I should make it absolutely clear that the “magnify” channel is both entertaining and interesting, which is its only real obligation, and that it at least seems both convincing and motivated by a real desire to inform. I have yet to hear anything presented on it that fails to pass my bullshit test. I’m not trying to disparage or cast any doubt on the channel itself, or its content. Just its format, which is driven by the state of online media in 2024.

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Now You’re Playing With Power!

Tabletop RPGs and my ongoing beef with social media’s corrupted version of progressivism

I’m not much into tabletop role-playing games, but my fiancé is, so I’ve seen quite a few videos on YouTube about Candela Obscura.

As I understand it, it’s the first game based on a system the designers made in conjunction with Critical Role, a popular group of actors who’ve spent years running their mostly-Dungeons & Dragons campaigns as web series. (And, among other spin-off projects, adapted their campaigns to an ongoing animated series on Amazon Prime). Again as I understand it, they were interested in developing a new system that could go beyond established D&D settings, and also would favor narrative more than mechanics, to be better suited to the type of content they were making.

There seems to be no shortage of videos on YouTube critical of Candela Obscura, most of them with hyperbolic titles calling out its inexcusable sins against the very fundamentals of RPGs. Along with accusations that they “ripped off” the game Blades in the Dark, the game is insensitive to marginalized groups or the neurodivergent, etc. Many of these are, of course, just clickbait looking for attention. YouTube’s gonna YouTube, after all. But some of them seem earnestly upset.

And even if I were invested in this genre of game, I would have no problem with people criticizing it, of course. Where I get annoyed is when the complaints are, invariably, presented as speaking Truth to Power.

After all, Critical Role is easily the most successful and well-recognized (i.e. I’ve heard of it) group doing what they do. Not only have they managed to turn their friendly games into a content creation and publishing business, but they’ve got tons of devoted fans. Which means they clearly need to be taken down a peg or two, I presume?

I know that when I think of high-and-mighty fat cats who are so rich that they’ve lost touch with the common man, I think of two groups: independent tabletop RPG creators, and voice-over artists. Maybe when they’re not lounging around in their mansions, or swimming in their money bins, they could deign to lower themselves to hear some honest and necessary feedback for once.

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We Interrupt This Broadcast

About the exodus of accounts from Mastodon, and all the things that make social media deeply unnatural

Featured image from the Wikipedia entry on Survivorship Bias, image By Martin Grandjean (vector), McGeddon (picture), Cameron Moll (concept) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102017718

For about as long as I’ve been using Mastodon, there’ve been people warning us about dire problems with Mastodon. Problems that threaten to take down the entire platform unless we take notice and do something about it.

Journalists warned us that we have to have quote-tweets and full text search, or they’ll have to abandon the platform. Waves of tech pundits have assured us that the sign-on process is far too complicated for the platform to ever replace the ease of Twitter.

And over the past few weeks, I’ve seen one account after the other announce that they’re leaving Mastodon (or significantly reducing their presence) because of tone policing, harassment, and the unwieldiness of the Mastodon interface when dealing with hundreds of notifications. The idea, most often, is that those of us who are invested in the platform need to be concerned about this, and we need to work harder to make a welcoming community.

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One Thing I Like About Tasting History

Good things can happen when people on the internet make an effort

I’ve gotten to be a fan of the YouTube channel Tasting History with Max Miller, which manages to hit the sweet spot that combines interesting, funny, and accessible.

The idea is pretty simple: Max Miller chooses a dish from some point in history, attempts to prepare (or recreate) the recipe, gives some historical or cultural context for the dish, then eats it. One thing that I love about the series is that there’s one thing Miller never says: “I don’t know how to pronounce that.”

Instead, if Miller encounters a term or a name in a foreign language, he’ll find an expert or a native speaker, learn the correct or preferred pronunciation, practice the correct pronunciation, and include only that in the video.

What impresses me the most is when he tackles episodes that deal with languages that can be difficult for Westerners, like Chinese. In this episode about nian gao, he’s careful to get the pronunciation correct, including the changes in tone, for all of the names. It’s often clear that he recorded it until he got it right, then edited that recording into the episode to make absolutely certain it was right, being careful to hide the edits and make it seem as natural as possible.

That kind of dedication would be pretty impressive for any show, I think, but is unheard of when it comes to a YouTube channel. Miller keeps the tone light, casual, and funny, but it’s also clear that he’s committed to getting the details right and showing respect to the cultures he’s talking about.

I haven’t had live TV in several years, so I watch a lot of YouTube1Years ago, I signed up for the ad-free version of YouTube, and I couldn’t do without it at this point.. Obviously, there is a ton of obnoxious behavior on YouTube, but something that’s disappointingly common, even among people I like otherwise, is the tendency to straddle the line between “casual” and “professional.”

They’ll make casual, chatty videos that say stuff like “Now, you guys know me,” and then complain about parasocial relationships. Or do insincere calls for engagement that mimic having a conversation with people in the audience, but with no intention of ever actually engaging with the audience. And to be clear, the problem isn’t that somebody with 1000 subscribers isn’t actually friends with each of them — the problem is that false sense of friendly familiarity.

But the most common is to simultaneously insist that yes, this is too a real job, actually, and not just some hobby, because I am a professional video content creator, and also that they’re not under any obligation to know stuff or get details right. “Research” for a disappointing number of people means “glancing at the Wikipedia or IMDB page.”

And it’s extremely common to hear “I’m not even going to try to pronounce that.” Maybe it’s well-intentioned, as if a mis-pronunciation would be somehow even more offensive than not bothering to say it at all. But it all builds up over time to give the impression that a lot of people are making a good bit of money off of YouTube (and Patreon) without making much effort.

So I appreciate Max Miller making the effort. It sounds crass to say, but it’s true: a handsome and charismatic guy with millions of followers could probably get away with doing a lot less. Instead, he acknowledges that he’s neither a historian nor a chef, but instead of making excuses, he just takes the time and effort to get the details as close to correct as he’s able.

  • 1
    Years ago, I signed up for the ad-free version of YouTube, and I couldn’t do without it at this point.

The Magic of Being Quiet for Once

Balancing a healthy skepticism about marketing with the humility to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Today there was an Apple marketing event to announce the new iPhone 15 and Apple Watch Series 9. I don’t want to tell Apple their business, but there was one big disappointment for me:

In the section where they show how two of the cameras on the new phones can be used together to record spatial (3D) video for the Apple Vision Pro headset, they show a woman on the beach somewhat awkwardly squatting to keep her musical family in frame. Then they say “spatial video lets you feel like you’re right back in that moment in time,” while cutting to the woman lounging comfortably on her living room couch wearing the Vision Pro headset. And all I’m saying is that it would’ve been one billion times funnier if they’d cut to her in the middle of her living room, squatting awkwardly.

Apart from that, I’ve got no complaints. I even thought the Octavia Spencer-as-Mother-Nature bit was fine.1Incidentally, was one of the Apple execs played by the Flight of Passage “you can… uh… fly” guy? Everything shown seemed like a worthy-if-not-jaw-dropping successor to the previous generation, and set the stage for future updates. I’ve spent the past few years developing for iPhones, so I’m on the update plan, personally, and am pretty much fated to get the new model every year until there’s absolutely zero reason to upgrade.2For me, the camera updates always justify the upgrade. And the guaranteed resale-ability of previous year’s models justify the environmental impact.

I had Mastodon open during the video. It’s blissfully much less of a “<tap tap> is this thing on?” type of venue than other social media, so the ratio of people being earnest to people trying to be funny to get attention is mercifully low.3On the other hand, the ratio of genuinely funny people to… not as much… is also lower than other social media. Still worth it. That plus the fact that I mostly follow game developers or tech journalists who are already mostly pro-Apple means that it was a reasonably pleasant, conversational experience.

And it reminded me of the announcement of the Apple Vision Pro earlier in the year, a special event where Mastodon was somehow graced with hundreds of posters who were all experts in AR and VR software and hardware, along with marketing, engineering, distribution, and sociological impact. You’d think it would be rare to find even one person who knows everything there is to know, and even if you could, their expertise would be at a premium — and yet that day, the internet was lousy with HMD gurus willing to share their enlightenment for free.

Continue reading “The Magic of Being Quiet for Once”
  • 1
    Incidentally, was one of the Apple execs played by the Flight of Passage “you can… uh… fly” guy?
  • 2
    For me, the camera updates always justify the upgrade. And the guaranteed resale-ability of previous year’s models justify the environmental impact.
  • 3
    On the other hand, the ratio of genuinely funny people to… not as much… is also lower than other social media. Still worth it.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

Ongoing experiments in social media

When I first heard about Twitter, I — along with a lot of other luddites — thought it sounded like the stupidest thing imaginable. But I decided to give it a shot, follow a bunch of people from different areas of interest, and started to get a real sense of community. Within a few months, I’d gotten to depend on it, not just as a social outlet and as my primary source of news, from global to hyper-local.

And then, after using it for a while longer, I realized that I’d been right the first time. There’s something rotten about Twitter, and it was there long before Musk bought it, and long before the “alt-right” discovered it as the perfect harassment platform.

When the tech media started discovering Mastodon, I heard a lot of people say that there’s no way it would become a Twitter replacement. I think it was meant to be a slam, but I’d say now that I agree, and that it’s a good thing.

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You Can Quote Me On This

Mastodon, Quote-Tweets, and why some people (like me) care a lot about how they’re used

Thanks to my friends having the forethought to set up a friendly Mastodon server for their podcast community, I’ve gone all-in on the platform1Well, and this blog, too, obviously. But for idle thoughts too mundane even for this blog to tolerate.. I really like it so far; it’s got almost everything I wanted from Twitter — “almost” because the chances of getting into a conversation with a non-tech celebrity I’m a fan of are about zero2Whereas on Twitter, I got responses from Neko Case twice! — and eliminates most of the things I hated about Twitter, aspects that were present long before some asshole bought the platform and made it impossible to keep using it in good conscience.

So I’ve gotten invested in Mastodon and how it functions. Instead of just re-inventing Twitter, this seems like the chance to take the lessons we’ve learned from other social media, and do it right this time. But it’s not just a question of technology, or even ownership, but of social engineering: being more mindful of how we use social media and what we’re choosing to put out there.

In particular, there’s the issue of quote-posts or quote-toots, or QTs so I don’t keep having to say “quote-toot.” They were frequently used on Twitter, but were deliberately not implemented in Mastodon, because of the potential to be used for harassment.

It’s a frequent topic of conversation on Mastodon, from people insisting that it should obviously be implemented, and people are going to do it anyway, so what’s the problem?

And there’s a definite undercurrent of arrogance that suggests the higher-profile proponents are obviously thinking of it as a publishing platform more than any sense of community. Objections to the feature are just dismissed as overblown or unimportant. There’s an automatic assumption that those of us don’t want QTs on Mastodon have to come up with a satisfying justification for why the feature shouldn’t exist, but there’s no sense that proponents are obligated to justify why the feature is necessary.

Personally, I’m not even completely opposed to QTs. If implemented correctly and used responsibly, they could be fine. My annoyance comes from people not taking the time to stop and think about these things and their implications, or how they fit in with the “core values” of the platform and what other users are trying to achieve. Anybody voicing an opinion on this one way or the other needs to at least demonstrate that they’ve put some thought into what QTs actually are, what they’re doing in a social setting, and how they will subtly or not-so-subtly affect how people interact with each other.

Continue reading “You Can Quote Me On This”
  • 1
    Well, and this blog, too, obviously. But for idle thoughts too mundane even for this blog to tolerate.
  • 2
    Whereas on Twitter, I got responses from Neko Case twice!

Long Live the Smarm

The Queen is dead. Now is the time of warring edgelords.

Update 09/14/22: I’d hope it wouldn’t need to be said, but “showing grace after someone’s death” doesn’t include “screwing over people needing essential services in a display of extended performative wealth-hoarding.” This post is seeming increasingly tone-deaf the more I hear about how England is handling the mourning rituals, but I was exclusively talking about people debasing themselves on Twitter either for yuks or narcissistic self-righteous indignation. Also: nothing in this post applies to the recent death of Ken Starr. Make fun of him all you want, because that guy was a really irredeemable bag of shit.

When I wrote about Michael Schur’s book How to Be Perfect, I mentioned how I was disappointed that he’d chosen to praise two of my least favorite essays ever published on the internet. One of those was John Scalzi’s probably-well-intentioned but disingenuously tone deaf analogy for the concept of “privilege” as playing a video game on the easiest difficulty. The other was an absolute piece of garbage from Gawker1Redundant? titled “On Smarm.”

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the visceral reaction I had to reading that essay; it was as if the concentrated nugget of evil from Time Bandits had been converted to HTML and was actually being praised online by seemingly dozens of people who should’ve known better. If I remember correctly, my eyes widened and I impotently screamed and pointed at the obscenity, like Carrie White’s mom, then ran away and took a shower, knowing that I’d never be able to wash myself clean of the stain of it.

Ostensibly, the essay was about the tendency of politicians, pundits, corporate media, and “authority figures” in general to stifle criticism or opposition via insincere, overwrought tone-policing. We saw a perfect example of this recently, when Beto O’Rourke called out some trash in the audience who was laughing after O’Rourke was talking about the Uvalde children who’d been murdered in their school. Plenty of people — including NPR, in their desperate attempt to both-sides everything — instantly began deflecting from the epidemic of gun violence in the US, instead running to their fainting couches and worrying whether it were appropriate for a prominent gubernatorial candidate to be using the f-bomb2My self-censoring might seem like a hypocritical example of smarm, but the fact is simply that I promised my mother I’d stop using the word in public.

On the surface, that sounds fine, even if it’s too shallow to qualify as significant social commentary. That kind of smarminess is abundantly obvious, and it doesn’t actually fool anyone who isn’t already eager to be fooled. Call out that nonsense if you want, but it’s not a genuine threat because nobody of substance is actually buying it.

The problem is that that trivially-true observation was used as the vehicle for defending the awful mission statement of Gawker, the candy coating wrapped around the poison pill that had passed undigested through Nick Denton’s intestinal tract. The morally bankrupt notion of shittiness as a public service. The disingenuous idea that being gossipy, crass, petty, bitter, hypocritical, and narcissistic is okay as long as you can make the case that you’re “punching up.”

If you had the misfortune of being on Twitter last Friday and the following weekend, seeing the reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, you’d quickly see that that although original Gawker is dead3Apparently a version of the former site has been brought back to life by people almost as adept at being self-righteously shitty and awful? I haven’t read it, and won’t., that mindset is still alive and in full force.

In both varieties, too. There was the predictable wave of smarmy and insincere In Memoriams, from politicians eager to distract attention away from whatever they’re doing wrong at the moment, and from corporations too eager to show how reverential they are. Even here in the US, they were excessive, so I can only imagine what a barrage of insincerity it was for people in the UK and other places that still have the Queen on their money. And in addition to being predictable, they were pretty transparent.

What stood out a lot more to me, though, were the people practically stumbling over themselves to be shitty about the death of a much-beloved woman. A lot of it was dumb and obvious but probably harmless; I’ve fallen hard off the wagon and have almost returned to my 2009-era levels of posting nonsense on Twitter, but even I’m knew enough not to make hacky jokes about chess, bees, or Freddie Mercury. But I was more struck by how many people were doing the virtual equivalent of dancing on her grave.

And then, the part that reminded me of Gawker and “On Smarm”: throwing a days-long shit fit when they got called out on it. They will not be tone-policed by royalists! “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is not just wrong, it is anti-journalism! Repeated comments on how this was a joyous occasion for Irish or Scottish people. And of course, all the variations on how people of European descent have no right to be telling “folks”4My new least-favorite thing on the internet is preachy, self-righteous types using “folk” instead of “people” as some bizarre signifier of community or identity, ignoring that the word “folks” has decades of connotations that are even more othering, making it sound like you’re talking about people from Appalachia or The Shire. from places that had been colonized by Europeans how they should be reacting to the death of their oppressor.

Now, I’m an extremely white guy from the United States, but I’m pretty confident in saying that one thing that unites us across cultures and nations is that talking trash about someone who just died is petty and shitty. Different people have their own ideas of when it’s justified, but that doesn’t make it any less petty or shitty.

I can think of at least 5 Americans alive today for whom news of their death will fill me with glee, because death is the only way they’ll ever face any consequences for all the terrible stuff they’ve done. I fully admit that I did feel satisfaction and vindication hearing of Rush Limbaugh’s death, for instance, and also Ronald Reagan’s, and being reminded that there were probably, somehow, people who loved them in life and were sad at their passing didn’t affect that feeling of petty satisfaction at all. That doesn’t make it any less petty, though; it’s just a level of personal shittiness on my part that I’m willing to accept and won’t try to defend by claiming it’s justified or at all righteous.

As adults, we can acknowledge that two things can be true at the same time: 1) The Queen served as a kindly, grandmotherly face on centuries of atrocities done in the name of the British Empire; and 2) That kindly, familiar face of stability was hugely important to millions of people. Of course it’s true that the image of a nice old woman who loved her dogs and had a pretty good sense of humor, is inseparable from the history of stolen wealth, colonialism, and scandals, both decades old and recent. Both as a figurehead, and as someone who was complicit to one degree or another.5I am one of those people who believes that how complicit you are in wrong-doing makes a huge difference. Are you actively making people’s lives worse, are you knowingly benefitting from it and refusing to make reparations, or are you just a representation of it? But if they’re inseparable, that means that you have to accept both.

There was a video going around on Friday, in which a member of the royal guard was telling a pretty charming story about the Queen’s sense of humor: An American tourist encountered them in passing, but didn’t recognize the Queen. When the guard said that he’d met the Queen before, the tourist got excited and asked Elizabeth to take a picture of the two of them together. It’s cute, but it’s also an example of how even a story intended to humanize her is entirely based on her being the Queen of England. The role was universally recognized even if the person wasn’t, and the vast majority of people in the world will never know the difference, or even if a tangible difference exists. (How much of a unique person is left when you’re born into a role and spend your entire life publicly serving it? Do I need to watch The Crown to know the answers?)

Anyway, for anyone trying to turn this into a teachable moment about the history of colonialism, imperialism, stolen crown jewels, or any of the other evils from a century’s worth of world history: your meme of the Queen meeting Margaret Thatcher in Hell ain’t it. Neither is your video of Irish dancing in front of Buckingham Palace. But then, they’re not truly intended to be teachable moments; they’re narcissistic displays that people try to dress up as being more righteous when they get called out for being vulgar or lacking grace.

That’s the part that reminded me so vividly of “On Smarm” and Gawker in general: the lengths to which people will defend their right to be shitty and awful. Mocking the death of an elderly, much-beloved woman is not just my right, but my duty! The thing I found most repulsive about the whole mentality of “On Smarm” was that it was so deeply cynical to the point of nihilism; it didn’t just reject insincere displays of false compassion or sympathy, it refused to even entertain the idea that public compassion or sympathy — or just plain good taste and grace — could ever be genuine. All of Gawker Media was rooted in the assertion that every one of you is as awful as we are, you’re just not brave enough to admit it! It’s an ethos that somehow manages to be more repulsive than Randian Objectivism, because it so frequently sucks in people whose opinions I actually care about.

And that’s not even getting to the rancid, rainbow-colored oil slick of hypocrisy floating on the top of it: it’s its own kind of smarminess, evident in the sheer outrage at being tone-policed by white Europeans who can’t understand the history of oppression that’s embedded in shitty, opportunistic mockery of somebody who just died. It’s still disingenuous self-righteousness, but at least the people who are publicly performing their Reverence For Her Majesty as a distraction are aware at some level that they’re being disingenuous.

Personally, I’m anti-imperialist (both in British and American flavors), and I think the monarchy should be abolished. Those aren’t in any way bold or controversial claims; I think they’re just table stakes for being a decent person in the 21st century. Which is what the whole question of “grace” ultimately comes down to: being a decent person. You don’t have to respect the United Kingdom, or the monarchy, to still be able to respect the people who are affected by it and who lived their entire lives surrounded by it. A lot of people, including myself, could be better educated about the details of history of imperialism and colonialism, not from the point of view of the colonists, but of the people affected.6In college I took a course in African History, because it was a topic I knew almost nothing about. It was essentially a course about Europeans, with almost nothing about the cultures apart from how they were affected — or outright devastated — by colonialism. But there’s a time for that, and it isn’t when someone is really sad because it feels like their grandma just died. Even if they’re sad because they’re focusing on the positive aspects of a public persona, and choosing not to focus on the bad while they’re in mourning. If you’re the type of person to stand outside of a funeral and shout “Your grandma is in Hell because of the British Raj!” there’s a word for you, and it’s not “activist” or “educator.”

  • 1
    Redundant?
  • 2
    My self-censoring might seem like a hypocritical example of smarm, but the fact is simply that I promised my mother I’d stop using the word in public
  • 3
    Apparently a version of the former site has been brought back to life by people almost as adept at being self-righteously shitty and awful? I haven’t read it, and won’t.
  • 4
    My new least-favorite thing on the internet is preachy, self-righteous types using “folk” instead of “people” as some bizarre signifier of community or identity, ignoring that the word “folks” has decades of connotations that are even more othering, making it sound like you’re talking about people from Appalachia or The Shire.
  • 5
    I am one of those people who believes that how complicit you are in wrong-doing makes a huge difference. Are you actively making people’s lives worse, are you knowingly benefitting from it and refusing to make reparations, or are you just a representation of it?
  • 6
    In college I took a course in African History, because it was a topic I knew almost nothing about. It was essentially a course about Europeans, with almost nothing about the cultures apart from how they were affected — or outright devastated — by colonialism.

The Ineffable Subtleties of “Ow! My Balls”

I get annoyed with a vlogbrother and defend a movie I thought was just okay

Well, I’ve already broken my pledge several times over: not only did I start a new Twitter account, but I’ve gotten to reading it habitually and even actually writing replies to strangers1But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?.

What set me off today was this tweet from Hank Green:

The movie “Idiocracy” is, at minimum, implicitly pro-eugenics.

And I mean, come on, man. It’s tough because I usually like (and occasionally really like) Hank and John Green; and I think they’re generally a force for good on the internet, both for helping make complex topics accessible, and for encouraging kindness, charity, and perpetual learning.

But that’s such a shallow and disappointing take that it seems like it was carefully formulated to irritate me as much as possible. It’s not even that I’m a particularly big fan of Idiocracy — I thought it was fine but not particularly deep or memorable past its core premise. Which, it pains me to have to explain, was satire. It’s as much “pro-eugenics” as A Modest Proposal is “pro-infanticide” and “pro-cannibalism.” And it’s not even that subtle about it.

We shouldn’t have to be explaining satire to grown-ups. And of course, I realize that “No but you see it’s actually satire!” has become the go-to defense whenever anyone says or makes something that makes them look like an asshole. But just because it’s been mis-used so often is no reason to throw out the concept altogether.

Maybe what’s needed is the YouTube IDIOCRACY EXPLAINED! approach, complete with an attention-grabbing thumbnail with big red circles and yellow arrows2I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.. How about we start with the opening, which sets the tone and makes one thing clear almost immediately: The movie is making fun of everyone.

The “High IQ” couple isn’t being put forward as a role model. They’re self-centered and petty. As the woman explicitly says that they don’t want to have children with “the market” the way it is, they’re shown against a background of increasingly fancier and more expensive homes. (While the children of the “Low IQ” couple lives in chaos and disarray). To spell it out: it’s a criticism of socioeconomics, not genetics. One couple is too focused on accumulating wealth for themselves to be willing to devote any of that wealth to children.3On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”

And even if you can’t let go of the over-literal extremely-online mindset, and are still convinced that Mike Judge and Etan Cohen were sneaking in a sincere pro-eugenics manifesto and disguising it as a silly comedy, then you could consider the entire rest of the movie. The whole story is about a thoroughly average person who’s forced to make an effort for the first time in his life, because he’s held up as superior to everyone else by a completely arbitrary metric. The movie makes fun of the whole concept of intelligence and wealth as signifiers of actual aptitude. It’s chastising early 2000s society for racing to the bottom, settling for the least amount of effort, and appealing to the lowest common denominator.4And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.

I hate it when people act like there’s one correct interpretation of any piece of art, but I mean, again: this movie is not that subtle. Which is why it’s so frustratingly ironic to see this movie in particular hit with such a shallow and dismissive analysis, since it’s so stridently criticizing us all for settling for less. It shows what happen if we keep lazily declining to engage with anything of depth, until we’re all buried under trash.

There are a couple of reasons this set me off. First is that I spend too much time online. I’ve seen too many examples of people gradually (and eagerly) descending into idiocracy, since so much of online media favors immediate engagement over thoughtful consideration. Blog posts like this one are an anachronism, and I feel very silly as I’m writing it, because it’s just not cool in 2022 to be devoting so much time to anything so inconsequential.

Instead, they’ve been replaced by explainers: web articles or video essays that aim to take everything from topics in social or natural sciences to the current most-SEO-friendly movie release, pick all of the meat off of them, and encapsulate them into an easily-digestible conclusion. The Green brothers in particular were among the first to popularize the short-and-accessible explainer format, and in a lot of cases, I think they’re great. I appreciate it when someone can take a complex topic and present it so that understanding the basics is easily accessible without scolding me for not already understanding the basics and still acknowledging that there’s much more complexity than can be easily explained.

But while it’s great for sciences and history, it’s just deadly for art and entertainment. The art itself is the explainer.

Which leads to another thing that set me off: I’m wondering how much I’m culpable in all this, since I tend to be such a proponent of accessible media. (By which I mean accessible to interpretation. I’m also a strong believer in accessibility for people with disabilities, but I’m not as vocal a proponent of it as I probably should be). I love writing about the MCU and Star Wars — and invite anyone who claims it’s shallow or juvenile to piss right off — because it’s fun and easy. They’re designed to be widely accessible but still have just enough depth that they don’t end up feeling like empty calories.

So I’m all over it when someone wants to point out easter eggs or bits of lore that I’m not enough of a True Superfan to have recognized, but I can feel the soul seeping out of my body when that turns into “explaining” the show or the movie itself. Especially when it just restates the most obvious interpretation of a work. Usually, this stuff isn’t all that ambiguous, so all you’re doing is restating the obvious in a much less elegant way.5One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.

I guess like everyone else who’s ever entered middle age and seen the culture being increasingly driven by younger people, I can’t escape the anxiety that they’re doing it all wrong and ruining everything. I’m generally for the resurgence in earnestness and rejection of unnecessary irony, but not if it’s at the expense of having everything dumbed down and over-simplified.

I get that there’s a lot more noise than there ever has been, and it’s increasingly hard to have patience for people who won’t just say what they mean. There’s a preponderance of people out there actively lying, obfuscating, and disingenuously arguing about things for malicious intent.6I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate. In fact, I spent some time wondering if Hank Green were pulling some kind of prank with his tweet, but a) that doesn’t seem like his style, and 2) it doesn’t really do anything with the idea, because there’s no twist apart from restating the satirical premise of the movie and calling it a “hot take.” (If that were indeed the “joke” then… okay I guess?)

But if it means that there’s no obligation to analyze a creative work at any level apart from what it says on the surface, and that there’s no obligation to consider whether your first interpretation might not be the one correct interpretation, then we’re heading towards shallower and shallower art. It starts with people believing that the “Twin Pines Mall” becoming the “Lone Pine Mall” in Back to the Future is some delightfully obscure easter egg that only a select few had picked up on. Continue for a few hundred years, and you get “Ow! My Balls!”7But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

  • 1
    But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?
  • 2
    I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.
  • 3
    On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”
  • 4
    And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.
  • 5
    One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.
  • 6
    I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate.
  • 7
    But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

Bargaining

Notes from a post-Twitter lifestyle (again)

I deleted my second Twitter account over a week ago, in response to the news that the Twitter board had agreed to sell the company to Elon Musk. Which makes it the second time an obnoxious Trump supporter drove me off the platform.

Actually, the buy-out was the kick in the pants I needed to leave, but it was getting increasingly clear how much I dislike Twitter long before the news. I had started to realize that I was checking it unnecessarily — just to see what was “news” — and worse, that I was finding myself having vehemently strong opinions about stuff that just doesn’t matter. And being cranky and irritable to people for no reason. The Twitter algorithm seems designed to keep me upset and on edge.

It’s kind of a drag, because I was looking forward to having a read-only account so I could check in on responses to Sasquatchers when it comes out on the Playdate next month. I have to admit it was a lot of fun to see reactions to the Playdate during its launch week, after following the work the Panic team has mostly-secretly been doing on the device and its development environment for years. I liked the idea of Twitter not as a social platform, but as a crass promotional platform.

Which honestly is just another excuse. There are plenty of independent developers who are plenty successful without having social media accounts. The “I need this account for work” idea is pervasive, but it’s not actually true for most people who don’t work directly in social media or PR.

And I saw so many of those types of excuses in my timeline that it made me kind of sad. It reminded me too much of all the times I’ve quit smoking, and my brain starts coming up with tortured justifications why it wouldn’t be that bad if I just bought a pack and had only one. On Twitter, I kept seeing these variants:

  • I need this account for my career: I definitely understand how this seems true, but I’m increasingly skeptical that it’s actually the case. I’m in no position to judge, because I’ve most often worked on projects that have other people dedicated to promoting them (and sometimes promoting me as part of it). But if it is true, then it seems like it should be the perfect spark to try and build a community that isn’t so dependent on a company you have absolutely no control over.
  • Wait-and-see: “I’ll wait to see if the deal goes through.” Or “I’ll wait to see if Musk institutes any changes.” Or “If he allows Trump back onto the platform, then I’m gone,” etc.
  • Much ado about nothing: “It’s not actually going to change anything.” I saw a ton of these, and I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be reassuring, or scolding people for making a big deal? In any case, if one of the crappiest billionaires alive takes over a communications platform to take it private, and you can’t tell the difference, then maybe that’s a sign it’s already a terrible place to be?
  • You’re no better than the rest of us: “None of you threatening to quit because of Musk will actually leave.” “You’re going to be back here within a month,” etc. These were the most pitiful, because they sound the most like dependence. After all, even cynical, performatively self-aware dependence (“This place is garbage, but it’s my garbage!”) is still dependence.

Last time, I tried both Microblog and Mastodon to “ween” myself off of Twitter. Microblog isn’t for me, and I’m skeptical that Mastodon is, either. (Although I do have a Mastodon account for anyone interested). I kind of hate to say it, but I think Mastodon really is Twitter without “the algorithm,” which makes it just as pointless as I first thought Twitter was back in 2007.

For now at least, Instagram remains my deeply problematic centralized social media platform of choice. It’s astounding just how much they’ve abandoned the pretense of providing a service to users of the platform, but still, it’s nice to have the outlet. Until that becomes intolerable, I’ll keep cranking away on this blog, hoping that RSS feed readers and Web 2.0 come back in a big way.

Edited for hypocrisy: I got tired of having to run the gauntlet of sign-up requests every time I followed a twitter link. My re-activated account is read-only for real this time, so if you see me commenting or doing memes or getting in arguments and such, feel free to mock me ruthlessly.