Thanks to Twitter, if you screw up these days, you’re going to hear about it.
It happened to me a year and a half ago when, as editor at large of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, I helped initiate a “comic contest.” The idea was patterned on our longstanding and successful columnist contest, through which we add new contributing writers to our stable each year. Many of those writers have gone on to bigger and better things like book and television deals, and I figured the same would work for comics.
I was terribly, horribly wrong and managed to invite a storm of approbation down on me, and worse, my employer. What I didn’t know, but do now, is that there is a long tradition of artists and designers being ripped off by being asked for unpaid spec work, where multiple artists compete for one “account” and many many hours of creative work goes down the tubes if they aren’t judged the “winner.” Our contest looked a lot like these rip-offs, and the comic creators of the world let us know, quickly and angrily.
Initially, I was pissed. I knew my intentions were good and here were these people implying that I was some sort of monster. Our first move was to try to clarify our intentions in the contest announcement, falling back on what we thought was a general feeling of good will towards the site, but the hate continued to rain down. My fingers got sweaty seeing the angry reply tweets roll in by the second.
Thankfully, one artist took the time to write us an email, explaining why what seemed like the entire internet had decided to point their slings and arrows our way.
I realized that I’d been an idiot. It hurt to be maligned and misunderstood, but the misunderstanding was entirely my fault. I’d made some bad assumptions and not bothered to inform myself about perspectives beyond my own experience. I knew we had to apologize, sincerely, and abjectly. My good intentions meant nothing in the face of that ignorance.
You can read the apology here. Afterwards, I actually got some nice messages saying they appreciated how forthright we’d been. In reality, I just wanted the hate to stop before I did irreparable damage to the publication’s good name, but I managed to stumble on a lesson that I’ve held onto ever since.
You’ve probably heard about some recent episodes of social media-fueled disapproval over the last month and a half: Grantland, Bill and Emma Keller, and Chronicle blogger Prof. Claire Potter, also known as “Tenured Radical.”
Grantland’s screw-up was most damaging, running an article that was putatively about a “scientifically superior” golf club built by a solo inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt (Dr. V). It’s set up as a “not everything is as it seems” mystery that goes significantly awry when the “mystery” it reveals that Dr. V is a transsexual woman, a fact that is not actually relevant to the larger mystery of how someone without obvious credentials or affiliations could invent a superior golf club.
After some initial appreciation of the story, the response became, in the words of Grantland editor Bill Simmons, “How could you guys run that?”
When Bill Keller decided to use the public writing of Lisa Boncheck Adams – a woman currently living with metastatic breast cancer – as a vehicle for articulating his own views about the proper way to comport oneself when you have a terminal illness, he got lots of things wrong, not the least of which was doubling down on the previous writings of his wife, Emma Keller, who’d already weighed in on Adams’s story in her own column.
The anger on Twitter was swift and pointed. According to just about everybody, the Kellers had clearly gone out of bounds.
Claire Potter’s post on “Job Market Rage” following (I believe, justified) public ire over UC-Riverside’s bungled handling of a job search, seemed intended to caution people on the limits of anger in addressing situations such as this, but it also had more than a whiff of “Let them eat cake” wafting down from the ivory tower. For the blowback, look no further than the comments on her own post.
The formula of social-media fueled anger is similar in all three cases. People took offense and broadcast their offense to the world at large and amassed sufficient agreement to bring pressure on the original authors.
The other thing they all have in common is that the original authors certainly meant well. We’re not talking Donald Trump, who seems to enjoy being a professional boor. These are thoughtful cultural commentators doing their best to write something meaningful for their audiences.
The different responses to these “screw-ups” is interesting. Claire Potter dug in, duking it out in the comments and even doubling down with a follow-up post on professional etiquette for social media use that clearly tried to re-litigate the original argument. I take it that Potter felt genuinely misunderstood and maligned and wanted to be heard in the way she intended. The trouble is, the doubling down only upped the anger. Whatever was valuable about her argument is long lost.
Bill and Emma Keller went a slightly different route. Emma Keller’s piece in The Guardian was ultimately taken down as it was revealed that she’d used off-the-record private conversations with Lisa Boncheck Adams as part of the column. Bill Keller was mildly chided by the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, and offered a defense of his intentions, suggesting that some of the complainants were operating in bad faith, saying to Sullivan, “I think some readers have misread my point, and some – the most vociferous – seem to believe that anything short of an unqualified 'right on, Lisa!' is inhumane or sacrilegious. But I’ve heard from readers who understood the point and found it worth grappling with.”
In the end, Keller looks more clueless than before. That he refuses to grant the same good faith to his critics as he wants for himself indicates he hasn’t learned much from the exchange. It looks like hubris from here.
Grantland's editors took a different, and I would argue, much more productive route with their response. Rather than digging in, or claiming that any virtues of the original article outweighed its faults, they published a lengthy critique of the article by Christina Kahrl who covers baseball for ESPN.com and is on the GLAAD board of directors. Grantland editor in chief Bill Simmons added an editorial note detailing the article’s publication process, and with the benefit of hindsight, identified its shortcomings, namely a lack of diversity on the staff that would have allowed them to see what were obvious red flags to many.
Simmons does not ask for forgiveness, and those damaged by the story shouldn’t be required to give it, but I do walk away from his response thinking that the same kind of mistake is much less likely in the future, which is the goal, after all.
Writing our ideas for the world to see can be dangerous in this interconnected age. Carelessness will be punished, perhaps too severely sometimes.
Some may see this as having a chilling effect, but provided the disapproval doesn’t cross over to intimidation and attempts to outright silence, I tend to go the opposite way. If it forces us to rethink what we have to say, to push ourselves to be clear as possible, and apologize when we’ve made a mistake – even well-intentioned ones – that can’t be a bad thing.
Twitter is definitely where the action is these days. Be gentle with me.