Don’t rush

The news cycle runs at hyper speed now. About one week ago, a group of students from Covington High School Catholic High School were filmed at the Lincoln Memorial behaving in a rowdy fashion in front of Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

A video of the incident received near-universal condemnation on Twitter, most of it coming from liberal online personalities. This was followed by a conservative backlash that came with more video showing further context and insisting that the situation was perceived unfairly. A counter-backlash followed, plus an apology tour by the teen in the video, Nicholas Sandmann, in which he claims that nothing untoward occurred. All of this took place in less than a fortnight.

[If you’re looking for an even-handed assessment of what actually happened at the event, I’d recommend this piece by Josh Marshall, who assessed each piece of evidence and links out to more so you can make some decisions yourself.]

I recently read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he runs down a number of situations where the internet tried to destroy someone’s life. A terrible joke about AIDS in Africa became an international meme and blew up a woman’s life. A woman took a jokey photo at Arlington National Cemetary and lost her job helping people with learning disabilities. Time after time, the internet mob has shown that it is willing to annihilate people, seemingly randomly, if they step out of line in a way that strikes the right nerve.

Ronson’s thesis in the book is that shaming lessens us all. It can leave the subject irrevocably scarred, and it changes the mob doing the shaming too. It reshapes our values in ways that are troubling and make us less compassionate and more violent.

As a result of the book, I’ve tried to publicly shame people less often these days. But it can be a challenge because Twitter makes it so easy. Have a thought? Want to ruin someone who’s offended you? Fire off a tweet! It’s all very tempting and sad.

That said, I don’t think my approach is for everyone. I’ve tried not to condemn people for shaming, because one of the weaknesses of Ronson’s book is that it doesn’t delve into all the times that internet shaming has actually been unequivocally beneficial, such as when it is done in the name of justice, and the last recourse for people with no other options.

But one thing I have concluded I can do and recommend: Wait before tweeting. Think before tweeting. Deliberate before posting. Mull it over before blogging.

The Phillips-Sandmann video felt like it was genetically engineered to tap into all the sensitivities of our day. A group of white kids stood around a Native American war vet, seeming to mock him. The video is the video; the response to it revealed our sensitivities and anxieties. To one side, public shaming felt like it was necessary, because what other response could there be? This might be the only way to make this child pay for his insolence! If you’re on the other side, there’s a need to defend this innocent child from a liberal mob that’s ignoring the facts.

No matter what your assessment, I think it’s safe to say that all sides were bloodied in the fiasco. But to me, one thing remains clear: the rush to judgment benefits no one. I really appreciated Casey Newton’s take on the situation, in which he shares lessons from this incident.

I do think there was value in watching more video of the protests as it emerged before offering up a take. The more angles of the conflict that I watched, the more unsettled I was by the teens’ behavior — and by their chaperons’ inaction. Not everyone has the luxury of waiting until day four of a story to have a take. But a lot of members of the media … do? And if you do, you might consider holding your tongue, at least for 24 hours or so. It’s here that Twitter’s incentive system deserves criticism — the earlier you tweeted the first video, and the more incendiary your view, the likelier you were to have it shot into the algorithmic stratosphere. (One Vulture contributor was fired over the weekend after saying that he wished the teens were dead.)

Don’t rush. If it’s not a time-sensitive situation, the target of your outrage will still be there in a day or two. Plus, you’ll probably have a lot more information from which to craft your position.


Some more news and links from the week:

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently:

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch review – The choice is a lie

[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]

About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.

The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.

At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.

In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).

There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.

Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?

Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.

I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?

All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.

I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.

If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).

That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.

In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.

My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.

Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.

Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.

The stories we tell ourselves

I’m always a fan of a good Heather Havrilesky advice column:

Shame creates imaginary worlds inside your head. This haunted house you’re creating is forged from your shame. No one else can see it, so you keep trying to describe it to them. You find ways to say, “You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, aging rapidly, and poor. Do yourself a favor and leave me behind.” You want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what you’ve become.

It’s time to come out of hiding. It’s time to step into the light and be seen, shame and wrinkles and failures and fears and all.

I found this column to be very powerful because of its emphasis on the narratives we tell ourselves about our own lives. Anything can be viewed differently in hindsight. In fact, it often should be.

Defy Media is shutting down

Todd Spangler, writing for Variety:

“Regretfully, Defy Media has ceased operations today,” the company said in a statement released Tuesday evening. “We are extremely proud of what we accomplished here at Defy and in particular want to thank all the employees who worked here. We deeply regret the impact that this has had on them today… Unfortunately, market conditions got in the way of us completing our mission.”

The company at one point reported having nearly 400 employees. Defy did not confirm its current headcount, which has shrunk in recent months as it pared back the business in the hopes of staying afloat.

The company’s in-house studios had produced 75 regularly scheduled shows. It’s not clear what will happen to the Defy brands going forward, but the company indicated it’s seeking buyers or partners for the properties. Defy’s brands, which include Smosh, Smosh Games, Clevver, AWEme, Break and Made Man, have more than 140 million followers across YouTube and social media, according to the company.

I’m not stunned by this development, but I’m saddened by it. I have no idea how well or how poorly Defy was managed (poor management can put any company out of business) but it says something about the industry when even a company that manages some of the internet’s biggest video brands can’t make things work. Basically, the “pivot to video” didn’t work out and we are still in the middle of the fallout from it.

See also: Vice Media on track to reduce its staff by up to 15%.

‘Ready Player One’ and nerd culture

When I first saw Ready Player One, I was deeply unsettled by how the film handled nerd culture. It seemed to encourage the aspects of fan gatekeeping that has made online discourse so toxic. It made fandom into nobility. It made nerds into undeserving heroes. It was also just a noisy mix of different homages, action scenes, lights, and colors. I wasn’t a fan.

Youtube channel Renegade Cut has put together a smart video essay explaining why the message of Ready Player One is so toxic. I hope when people watch a film like this, they understand that these kinds of subtle influences can have real and unfortunate consequences.

Twitter bans Alex Jones

Yesterday, Twitter finally banned Alex Jones and Info Wars from its platform:

In a Twitter thread, Buzzfeed reporter Charlie Warzel explains why this banning took so long:

Twitter likely sees this decision as being consistent with its rules (despite the fact that many have complained about Jones’ behavior on the platform for years). In August, when deplatforming Jones gained momentum, Twitter will argue it did not want to appear reactive by banning. Nor, it appears, did they want to ban him retroactively for old violations (which is why when CNN and others provided old examples of violating tweets, they issued Jones a warning/made him delete the tweets). Of course there’s a *huge* disconnect between this vision (which Jack sees as transparent and consistent enforcement) and what other people felt (that Jones was constantly acting in bad faith and that he would continue to harass, etc). […] Twitter sees this as part of bigger way to gain user trust. Reality is that is likely a naive view. People will be mad Jack et al didn’t do this faster. Folks on far right will see this as yet MORE censorship. If this was all a way to gain trust…not sure you can say it worked.

I’m relieved that Twitter has made this decision and saddened that it took this long. That said, I’m back on Twitter. A few people have asked me if my newsletter will continue, given that it was created in the wake of me leaving Twitter. The answer short answer is yes. Expect regular updates via email/blog post for as long as I can keep doing them. (If you’re new here, welcome! Subscribe to my emails here.)

The long answer is that being away from Twitter has really made me realize the effects that Twitter had on my life, both positive and negative. There were many things I missed about being on the platform: the film community, the hilarious memes and turns of phrase by the witty people I follow, the feeling that I was constantly up-to-date with the news, the ability to promote my work to a large audience and get it seen by thousands.

But I also realized all the terrible things about Twitter. I spent so much of my days refreshing it constantly for no reason in particular. I saw how the site is designed to reward only extreme opinions. Every day was just a constant stream of people dunking on each other and getting hundreds of thousands of retweets/likes in return. (Just look at Twitter Moments during any given day to see how the site facilitates and encourages this)

Most importantly, I was dismayed at how the site completely eliminates nuance. There are heroes and villains. If you participate, you are either the person being annihilated, or you are the person behind the gun, joining into the dogpile.

I welcomed the opportunity to write these newsletters/posts. It gave me the chance to step back and try putting together a complete argument. It forced me to slow down and think more deliberately about what I put out into the world. It prevented me from instantly sharing every passing thought in my head.

I’m grateful that you’ve taken the chance to be on this list and let me communicate with you directly. I think it’s made me a better thinker and honestly, a better person. So, thank you.


  • The most extraordinary story this week was the publication of an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times seemingly admitting that we are witnessing an administrative coup in the White House.
    • I found the follow-up interview with the section’s editor to be a fascinating tight-rope walk. I was also stunned that he didn’t seem to understand how big of a deal this piece would be, and the intensity with which people (including reporters at his own paper) would try to uncover the author’s secret identity.
    • David Frum at The Atlantic captures my thoughts on this whole affair: “If the president’s closest advisers believe that he is morally and intellectually unfit for his high office, they have a duty to do their utmost to remove him from it, by the lawful means at hand.”
    • Pod Save America also has a good perspective on the op-ed: it feels extremely self-serving and accomplishes nothing.
  • I’ll be at XOXOFest in Portland this weekend. If you’re around, hit me up via Twitter/email/whatever and say hi!

Vimeo pivots towards being a tech company

Sara Fischer, writing for Axios:

Vimeo, the 14-year-old video service that started as a platform for indie filmmakers, is changing its business to focus on selling software tools to its community of millions of social creators, instead of being a video viewing destination, its CEO said in an interview with Axios.

The pivot allows Vimeo to go after a less competitive social “SaaS” (software as a service) market that focuses on stock images and video, as opposed to the saturated video viewing market, which is dominated by massive tech companies investing billions in original content to win eyeballs.

I think this is a great business move that makes a lot of sense for Vimeo. That said, it does make me sad that YouTube no longer has even a single plausible competitor that’s investing in high-quality video. Competition generally makes all platforms better, and the Vimeo viewing experience is still a great one.