What, another not-theologian-of-the-week post? Someone’s trying to bulk their numbers before the year closes out. Anyway: there’s some drama going down over on Bread-Tube at the moment, and I guess it’s an opportunity to talk about Twitter.
So if you’ve missed it, ah, ContraPoints had some guy in her video who apparently said some offensive stuff, and all the people who’ve been upset by him are attacking ContraPoints (and all of her friends, whether they appeared in the video or not) for including him in the video. People are concerned that ContraPoints secretly harbours all these hateful feelings towards a certain group of people, and – yeah, drama. Anyway, it got me thinking about Twitter and harassment and all the rest of it.
I guess the starting point here is Lindsay Ellis’s recent talk, from XOXO. In this video, Lindsay talks about bad faith criticism, which is when shitheads exploit a potentially compromising statement or action in order to wreck an individual’s career or life or whatever else. She draws on the example of James Gunn, the director who said some stupid stuff one time on Twitter and ended up getting fired from directing Guardians of the Galaxy because assholes dug the tweet up to embarrass him. Less than a week later, this thing about ContraPoints has blown up, and people are quoting that Lindsay Ellis video all over the place. It’s kind of a bad point of reference, because the particular offended group in this situation aren’t necessarily all bad-faith actors. There’s probably some shitheads in there, just statistically speaking, but there’s also a bunch of legitimate criticism. So it’s sort of muddied the waters even further – just because it’s circulating, and people are referencing it in their defenses of ContraPoints, and then other people are getting uppity because Are You Calling Me An Asshole When I Have Legitimate Criticism, and it’s all very dramatic.
Really, the problem here is that Lindsay is kinda touching on two different issues. On the one hand, yes, there are bad-faith assholes trying to ruin someone’s career because they’re kinda from the opposite end of the political spectrum and they’re just shitheads. On the other hand, Lindsay was actually kinda implicitly touching on some other issues in her talk. The assholes are one thing, but the other, possibly bigger question is to do with social media and Youtube celebrity. It’s not touched on explicitly, I think, but it’s definitely part of the conversation. There’s subsequently a pretty clear disconnect in the Twitter Discourse, where the defenders of ContraPoints are all picking up on this subtext in Lindsay’s talk, while the critics are all running the Are You Calling Me An Asshole line and refusing to consider some of the wider issues. Which, to be clear, is not to say that their criticisms are unfounded – it’s more just to note that one group seems to be picking up on the subtext in this talk a lot better than the other.
Let’s sidetrack for a little minute, and talk about my job. I make free online lesson plans for school teachers – stuff that they can use in their classroom with more of an social or environmental twist. It fits the curriculum, while also resourcing teachers to deal with these issues that they might otherwise not have room for. And we get our little haters, the people who email us and call us Nazis and all the rest of it, and we’ve got our social media and inbox triage team, and they absorb and delete the trash. And it’s basically fine. I never have to worry about it, and they don’t really care because they can wander home at the end of the day and forget about the whole thing. Because we’re a company, nobody really takes the criticism personally, because it’s kinda just knuckleheads. If there is a legitimate criticism (which does sometimes happen), we look at it, make some changes, and then email the teacher or whoever it was that got in touch to let them know. Sometimes they’re happy about the change, sometimes they hate it, but you know, whatever, we get on with our jobs much the same.
What’s interesting to me here is that these different online celebrities are experiencing much the same sort of behaviour as us, albeit from a different starting point. It’s that starting point I want to talk about – I think there’s something interesting in there about the nature of Being Online. If you take ContraPoints, for instance, it’s basically just one person doing everything. There’s some other people involved in the production, sure, but at the heart of it, it’s just one person doing social commentary. The brand of ContraPoints is centered a lot more around the person of Natalie Wynn than my job is around me. If someone tweets ContraPoints with some criticism, it’s in some ways a very personal critique – because there’s one person receiving the text, and that’s the same person who produces the content, and if thousands of people are tweeting criticism at this one person round the clock it can pretty easily cross the boundary into one’s personal life. By contrast, with a company like mine, we come in, do our jobs, and go home at the end of the day. We don’t have the company Twitter on our phones. We’re not getting that constant criticism in our pockets, on our personal devices, about the brand strongly associated with our individual persons, all through the middle of dinner.
And this is one of the things that Lindsay was picking up on. When you’re a Youtube celebrity, even a relatively minor one, you’re essentially just an amateur who got big. There aren’t any qualifications or checks and balances around who becomes a famous Youtuber – it’s an organic, audience-driven process. And that’s cool, in some ways, but in other ways it’s a world of trouble. If you’re a famous Youtuber, you aren’t necessarily going to have the professional detachment that you might if it was just some company you worked for. You aren’t necessarily going to have the same work/life boundaries. You’re probably going to have what is essentially your work Twitter on your phone, and you’re probably going to have trouble walking away from your job when it hits 5PM. All of the safeties that I have in my job just don’t exist for Youtubers. And so as much as criticism might be warranted or deserved, part of what Lindsay was saying was that it actually hits a lot harder for Youtubers, because those professional boundaries are just totally lacking. Regardless of whether or not you did something dumb, regardless of whether or not you deserve to be criticised, having hundreds of thousands of critical voices in your pocket will fuck you up. In many ways, her talk was more for Youtubers than it was for the general public – and I think that’s kinda what people are missing. It’s not a question of whether or not your criticism is legitimate, it’s a question of the health and safety standards set around this particular industry. Youtubers often spurn the standards that govern typical businesses – ‘buhh, we’re real, not like some Corporation’ – but the reality is, there’s a lot of useful shit in Corporatopia that these amateurs are missing out on.
I dunno. I mean, whatever the fallout from this particular circus, I tend to see it as a birthing pain, as part of a broader movement of online personalities starting to move towards professional standards. I hate to brag, but at my job, we wouldn’t have made the mistake that ContraPoints did. We vet everybody before we put their name on our platform, because we know what our platform is worth, and we know what it means if we accidentally front a shithead. There are lessons here that would be useful to people in the Youtube space. They’ve chosen to learn these lessons through hard experience, but there are other avenues available.