Recently I read an interesting piece by design advocate Chappell Ellison: How to Take Criticism.1 I found it a slightly bizarre experience, in that while I kept wanting to agree with it – I’m not a fan of merely “insults as review” approach either – I ended up disagreeing at nearly every turn instead. Any piece which reduces Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s contribution to film criticism to merely their thumbs up or thumbs down is simplifying their work a little too much for me.2 That’s my problem with the piece as a whole: I think it’s coming from a good place, but lacks nuance.
But of all the parts of the article I’m not sure about, it’s Chappell’s approach to comedy in criticism which I found hardest to swallow. And there’s one particular example given as a bad example of criticism which I want to dissect a little. Let’s take a look at the logo for the University of California, and then a criticism of it posted by some random person to social media:
“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.”
Chappell Ellison thinks this review is worthless:
“These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.
They are jokes.
They only benefit the joker.”
And I just don’t think that is true in the slightest. Surely that’s only true if you think that jokes can’t be meaningful – and if you think that, I’ve got a shelf of comedy DVDs which prove otherwise.
Moreover, the actual point which the above joke makes is fairly obvious. Let’s rewrite it with the joke removed:
“The new logo for the University of California looks too much like one for a Children’s network.”
Now, you may agree with that criticism, or you may not. (I can see both sides.) But either way, the criticism of the logo is certainly not meaningless; the idea that a logo might take some incorrect visual cues and not properly reflect the organisation it was designed for is a good, solid piece of crit. Sure, it’s not the most in-depth piece of criticism ever written. But as Chappell herself says in the article: “To be a good critic, you don’t have to start a blog or write essays.”
The only reason a person might think the above doesn’t work as criticism is if you think framing the point in terms of a joke renders it meaningless. And this endlessly seems to be a problem with comedy. Over here is someone who thinks criticism expressed comedically doesn’t work. And over there is someone else, who dismisses sitcoms in favour of “serious, meaningful” drama. It’s all part of the same thing.
Criticism framed comedically is meaningless? That’s some of the worst criticism I’ve ever read.
Kate Lee, “Introducing The Message”, 22nd April 2014:
“One of the tenets underpinning Medium is that people write better together – or, as Ev has written, “Don’t write alone.”
In that spirit, The Message is a new collection for collaborative writing. We’ve gathered twelve writers and thinkers across technology, media, culture, and academia to publish together in one place—and demonstrate that the sum is greater than its parts. Think of it as a modern version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table, whose members, in the course of conversing on a constant basis, collaborated on creative projects. We hope that, like the Round Table, The Message will allow for a flowering of ideas, robust debate, and thoughtful discourse.”
And so it did. Over the next year and a half, The Message published such things as the story of Tilde.Club, forcing your child to play old videogames, or how to scale Kim Kardashian’s backend. And while it never became a must-visit publication for me, I often found myself on there without even realising it.
And then, in 2016, it spluttered to a halt. Three articles about the Berenstain Bears in January, a piece about Zuckerberg and India in February, and then finally a piece about some fellow called Alexander Heffner on May 22nd. That was two years ago to the very day.
Since then: nothing. Not a single article published. Crucially: not a “we’re closing, goodbye, but there’s loads of other cool stuff on Medium”. Absolutely sod all. The Twitter feed is silent too. The project just… stopped.
OK, so it’s not exactly hard to find out exactly what happened, at least in vague terms. See this article on Business Insider, from June 2015:
“Two weeks ago, publishing platform Medium — which has become known for tech and culture blogs like Matter, Backchannel, The Nib, and The Message — announced a change in its direction.
Medium now wants to become more of a social network rather than a publishing platform. But this comes at a great cost to its full-time and freelance staff, people familiar with the matter told Business Insider.”
And although the article goes on to state that The Message was undergoing some “reshuffling”, rather than shutting down entirely… clearly plans changed. And the mention of budget cuts probably tell you all you need to know.
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Medium itself is still going strong, of course. Here’s a blog about their latest developments. Which – and let me be absolutely clear about this – I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.
Because I can’t forget how they dealt with the death of The Message. How they didn’t have respect for the publication’s readers, how they didn’t bother to do an official goodbye post. How they just abandoned it, and moved on to whatever the company set its eyes upon next.
How frankly, they couldn’t be bothered to do something like this. Wind up the project respectfully, and move on.
And why do I care so much? Because communication with your readers is everything when it comes to ending projects like this. I can deal with it on a personal blog, which is often just one person with far too much going on in their life. It’s not ideal, but it’s at least understandable. But Medium is a commercial company, and there are simply higher expectations. If you have an audience who is bothering to read what you’re putting out there, you owe it to them to actually tell them your publication is closing. As far as I can tell, Medium has made absolutely no official statement about The Message whatsoever. As much as anything else: it’s just rude.
There’s also some rather unpleasant implications which come from not shutting down The Message correctly: it gives the distinct impression that the company never cared about this set of writing in the first place, despite the words quoted at the top of this article. Because if they cared, they’d want to give it a dignified end. So if they didn’t care about this, how do I know they actually give a stuff about what they say they care about now?
Finally, and perhaps worst of all: it gives me absolutely no confidence that Medium will treat its current readers and writers with any respect whatsoever. If the company wants to change tack, they’ll change tack, perhaps silently, and damn everything else.
That’s their right, of course, and good luck to them. But I don’t trust a company like that with my words.
Dan Nosowitz, “I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore”:
“The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn’t really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.
But… I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.
(It’s worth reading the whole article; it’s short, and I’m not about to quote every relevant piece of the article here.)
Here’s my own experience: when I first got proper access to the net at university back in 2001, I ended up with tab after tab after tab open, as I got lost in a spiral of links. These days… I end up with tab after tab after tab open, as I get lost in a spiral of links. The above from Dan isn’t something I can relate to at all; I can still find loads of things to do. A quick glance through the Trivia section on TV Tropes is all I need to end up reading endless fascinating stuff on obscure blogs. I can get stuck in much the same way on Wikipedia’s list of hoaxes, or spend hours lazing about on The Cutting Room Floor. And a visit to The Digital Antiquarian always lasts rather more time than I can officially spare to it. That’s just four examples out of hundreds.
Now, do I think that people spend too much time on social media these days in lieu of other stuff? Yes, I do, myself included.1 And there are many, many abandoned blogs that I wish were still updated. But that doesn’t mean the web is suddenly a wasteground. There’s always something for me to read or do online.
To be fair, Dan does go deeper than the above quote from his piece suggests:
“There is an argument that this my fault. I followed the wrong people; I am too nostalgic about bad blogs; I am in my 30s and what I used to think was fun time-killing is now deadly. But I don’t think so. What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.”
Maybe I’m lucky in that my work life barely involves the internet, except to check a few TV listings here and there. The net has never been about work for me. But then, I spend my work hours watching television for up to 12 hours a day… and then go back home and keep watching it while I have my tea. I’m not sure my work being online would affect me having fun on it too.
Anecdotally, however, here’s something which might be worth discussing. Because it’s true that I spend a great deal of time clicking around websites in a spiral of hot web action: but how many other people actually do that these days?
It used to be that when people visited one of my sites, they would have a look around and see what else was there. These days, that rarely seems to happen, according to my logs. People might come to Dirty Feed to read something that was linked to on Twitter… but they won’t click through to anything else and see what other things I’ve written.
Now, this could obviously be because people think what they’ve just read is complete shit, and they sure don’t need any more of that, thank you very much indeed. But I’ve talked to people about other websites, and this seems to be a common thing. Many people just don’t seem to click around like they used to. They’re far keener to go back to their Twitter or Facebook feeds rather than hanging around on a website, even if they found what they read interesting.
And this is something I find odd… because if I like something somebody has written, I’ll always look and see what else they’ve done. I might not read their entire oeuvre. But I’ll have a click around and see what else is on offer. A quick scroll through their archives to see if something catches me eye is the least I’ll do. And I’ll often end up with my aforementioned endless steam of open tabs.
Of course, the web has changed a lot in the last fifteen years. But I’m not sure it’s changed so much that it’s impossible for people to find fun things to read or do. I think some people are just getting out of the habit of clicking on a link and seeing where it will take them. And that’s a bit of a shame.
* * *
One final thought. If the above doesn’t resonate with you, and if you really do feel you can’t find enough fun stuff online like you used to, the beautiful thing about the web is that you can do something about that.
More to the point, the web makes doing that very easy. For instance, a lot of TV made these days isn’t quite to my taste, shall we say. But there’s not much I can do about that. I can’t make the audience sitcom of my dreams, and blast it out to the nation. But I can write silly things online for free, and publish them.
Take my recent set of articles about Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton plays. They didn’t set the world on fire; in fact, relatively few people read them at all. I got a bit grumpy about that at first, slightly embarrassingly, but then decided to take my own advice: numbers aren’t everything.2
The point is: those articles are something I wanted to exist in the world… so I went out there and wrote them. And we can all do this, or at least all of us who are in a position to write pontificating articles about the state of the web. If you’re not happy about the web as it is, you can go out there and do something about it.
So if the internet’s not fun for you any more… go out there and help make it fun again. None of us can change the world. But we can bend it, just a little. And if enough of us bend it, we might just get somewhere.
At this festive time of year, I thought I’d talk about something pleasant for a change. So, what about that Max Landis, eh?
“Netflix’s first blockbuster movie, the $90 million fantasy-actioner Bright, is a steaming pile of orc shit; a nonsensical garbage pile featuring elves, orcs, a checked-out Will Smith, Chicanx gangster stereotypes worse than those regrettable “Homies” figurines (a trademark of its director David Ayer), and a slow-motion shootout set to Bastille that’ll make you want to go full Sam Neill in the final third of Event Horizon – that is, rip your own eyes out and run around naked attacking people.
It is also, according to the testimonies of several industry people on Twitter, written by an alleged sexual predator.”
If you don’t know the full story, go and read the full piece over on The Daily Beast. I’ll wait – I’m not going to recap the whole thing.1
You back? Good. Now, as is my usual practice, I’m not going to talk about the main issue here; I can offer no insight into that whatsoever. Instead, I’m going to go off at one of my usual tangents. The following is in no way as important as the real discussion going on elsewhere… but I think it is important, in its own way.
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Gather round the campfire, fellow pop culture writers. Uncle John has something to say. You can sit on my lap if you like. Of course I don’t insist you sit on my lap, Henry. Calm down.
What’s that, Betty? You don’t stick things on the internet for other people to enjoy for free? Go off and read some of my other stuff, then. This piece isn’t for you.
The rest of you: listen up. Recently, I’ve heard a lot of you complain how difficult it is to get your stuff noticed online these days. No, no, this isn’t about you, specifically. I’ve heard a lot of people say it. Hell, I put myself in that category. Take a look at this Tumblr post I made back in 2013.
I’m not going to patronise you and tell you I can make everything better. You might get something from this, or you might not. But the below is how I deal with writing online, when there’s just so much stuff out there it’s difficult to get any kind of attention at all. You might think I’m just talking load of old shit. But I’ve found it helpful, and I thought it was worth getting it all down in case anyone else found it helpful too. Especially seeing as it’s the the end of December, and we’re all busy figuring out our plans for next year.
(I’m also going to leave out any talk about money – from Patreon or otherwise. Whether the below is helpful or not, I definitely can’t make anyone rich.)
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Sometimes, you read something which manages to encompass a philosophy so different to your own, in just a few short words.
Take, for instance, this post on kottke.org. Not the image, by Jessica Hische, but the short blogpost underneath by Jason Kottke himself.
“It’s been a loooong couple of days / weeks / months / years / decades / centuries / millennia, hasn’t it? Sometimes you have to laugh, just a little. And then back to it. Thanks for the chuckle, Jessica Hische.”
The idea of laughter as a break, before you get back to the real stuff. I just can’t get my head around that.
Laughter is the real stuff, for me. As much as possible. It’s who I am, it’s what I think life is. Whether that’s sitting in front of Steptoe and Son, or whether it’s lying in a hospital bed in intensive care, convulsing with laughter because of something someone said, in pain for every single second of it.
Personally speaking, “and then back to it” reads like the most depressing five words in the world.
It means back to… nothing.
The owner of a prominent podcast network tweets:
I sit here on holiday in France: a trip made possible by technology. I made that trip with my girlfriend: we met 15 years ago, through technology. I’m currently writing on a laptop, able to share my thoughts at the touch of a button: something made possible through technology. And I’m here at all because I survived pneumonia last year: an infection which nearly killed me, and which I only got through because of, y’know, technology.
Technology is what we make it, and we can make it for good or evil. And of course, there needs to be far more focus on making it work for good right now, which is something Silicon Valley needs a sharp lesson on. But to say “technology is generally bad for us” avoids the very issues which we need to focus on, just as much as the tech bros who laud technology over everything. Both are distasteful.
All of which I thought was obvious, and I’d never bother writing about this usually. But I thought the owner of a podcast network famous for many, many tech-orientated shows saying the above was especially perverse, and worth pointing out. Where wan platitudes replace considered thought we all lose, whatever those platitudes are. And much like this mistake from Jeffrey Zeldman, people look up to Dan and his like for an example.
Still, if I was making shows about something I thought was bad for us, I’d run as far away from them as possible. Through some flowers, perhaps, holding the hand of someone I loved. But don’t trip up and smash your head on a rock. You might need some of that damn technology to fix that.
Last month, I complained about The Independent not knowing that porn is allowed on Twitter. Today, I regret to inform you that TechCrunch does not know that porn is allowed on Twitter.
Yes, TechCrunch. The site self-described as “a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news”. Oh dear.
“I’ve been following the rise of social media for most of a decade and I was angry – but not surprised – when most social media services actively shut down erotic images a few years ago even as they simply accepted all other content without comment.”
Twitter has never shut down the posting of erotic images.
“It is obviously in Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook’s best interest to keep the kids from seeing boobs but where does that interest in public comfort stop?”
Twitter didn’t do this. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook all have very different attitudes towards “seeing boobs”.
“If we’re measuring from some esoteric vision of absolute freedom (except for boobs) then Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t be policed at all.”
TWITTER NOT ONLY ALLOWS BOOBS, BUT ALSO SPUNK-COVERED BOOBS.
If you’re going to write an article about what Twitter will and will not allow on its service, I suggest you read through their policy document. You might save yourself an awful lot of embarrassment.
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I’ve written a lot in the past year or so about what I like to call internet archeology. Whether it’s revered web designers destroying communities, podcasts destroying their archives, or simply historically important web tutorials disappearing, there’s one recurring idea: hey, don’t just yank your stuff offline, man.
But you don’t need to take my word for it about how bad this is. A certain Tim Berners-Lee, in his seminal 1998 essay “Cool URIs don’t change”, covers everything you need to know on the subject.
“In theory, the domain name space owner owns the domain name space and therefore all URIs in it. Except insolvency, nothing prevents the domain name owner from keeping the name. And in theory the URI space under your domain name is totally under your control, so you can make it as stable as you like. Pretty much the only good reason for a document to disappear from the Web is that the company which owned the domain name went out of business or can no longer afford to keep the server running.”
But why should I care, Tim?
Why should I care?
When you change a URI on your server, you can never completely tell who will have links to the old URI. They might have made links from regular web pages. They might have bookmarked your page. They might have scrawled the URI in the margin of a letter to a friend.
When someone follows a link and it breaks, they generally lose confidence in the owner of the server. They also are frustrated – emotionally and practically from accomplishing their goal.
Enough people complain all the time about dangling links that I hope the damage is obvious. I hope it also obvious that the reputation damage is to the maintainer of the server whose document vanished.
Yep, makes sense to me. We’re all agreed, yes?
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I’ll admit it. Whenever I write an article I’m particularly proud of, I enjoy going on Twitter and yelling about it at the top of my voice. I don’t know whether that’s a particularly brilliant side of my personality, but it’s there. I’d be a bloody liar if I said I didn’t enjoy people telling me something I’ve written is good. TELL ME SOMETHING I’VE WRITTEN IS GOOD, DO IT.
And yet sometimes… that’s just not what I’m aiming for. Sometimes I write something I want to write, but I know most people who follow me on Twitter just aren’t going to be interested. Or sometimes I write mainly to work a few things out in my head, and if anyone else enjoys the piece, that’s a bonus. Or sometimes I just want to write something small – a piece which might be fun for a reader to come across randomly when browsing a site, but not something anyone would want to visit a site just to read.
When I first ran a blog – now stupidly deleted off the web, but partially available on The Wayback Machine – things were different. Social media was far less of a thing: people would see you had written a new piece through your RSS feed, or even – shock horror – just from visiting your site. Amazing. These days, very few people see any of my stuff unless I tweet about it, or somebody links to it on Facebook.
I can deal with that. But sometimes tweeting about something I’ve written feels right… and sometimes it just kinda feels wrong.
Some pieces don’t want to be tweeted about. Some pieces don’t want that attention foisted on them. Some things absolutely do not warrant me waving my arms around above it, yelling “Look at me!” Some pieces just want to exist… ready for the right people to stumble across them. That used to be so easy. Now, it isn’t. Social media is about yelling to get attention in a way that an RSS feed is not. These days, something has to be made a fuss about… or it disappears into the ether. And that’s a shame.
I will not be tweeting a link to this post.