A year and a half ago, I was amusing my friends with some observations on geek social life which I placed into an imaginary list of “geek social fallacies” (list format conferring, as it does, a superficial sense of authority). They told me I should write it up and post it. So I sat down, filled in the missing entry in the list (number 4, as I recall), and posted Five Geek Social Fallacies on December 2, 2003. Within the week, I’d had more visitors than in the entire lifespan of the site before that, and 5GSF was a minor net.flavor of the week.
I was unprepared for this.
Sometimes, however, things that blindside you teach you the most, and as I look back on the experience and its aftermath, I find a lot of lessons — about authorship and audience, the power of the net, and the treachery of careless diction.
Give Me Validation!
2004 was the year my attitude about writing changed. On the one hand, it was the year that I finally felt comfortable describing myself as a writer. On the other, it was also the year I learned that authorship is a double-edged sword.
I’ve earned some portion of my income from writing since 1999. For the first four years of that time, I was desperate for audience feedback. It’s possible that this was a holdover from my earlier life as an actor; my earliest understanding of an artist’s relationship with his audience is immediate and two-way. Broadcasting into the void drove me absolutely nuts. I wanted to know that people were hearing me; I wanted to engage with their reactions, good and bad. With most of my writing work, however, that was impossible.
Thus, when I realized that 5GSF was striking a chord, I started following the referrers from my server logs, to see what the conversation was. That was transformative.
I have trouble coming to terms with the way people respond to the written word; the critical element, I think, is a powerful sense of detachment. Readers, more often than not, seem not to be invested in their relationship to the text. This is a different standard from the
stage. Performance is, in some respects, harder than writing — if nothing else, you can’t revise away a misstep — but your audience is usually rooting for you. They came out to see the show; they have some personal investment in their own enjoyment. They want you to succeed, and as long as you don’t stink, you’ll probably be OK. Text, on the other hand, has distance built in. A reader needs to be wooed. If you fail to serve their needs, they have no mercy. (The exception here is if the reader is already a fan of yours, in which case they’ve made a personal investment which gives you some wiggle room.)
It’s difficult watching people respond to your work in that detached fashion, particularly when you have learned the first lesson of Internet criticism: never respond to a critique of your own work except to correct errors of fact, and sometimes not even then. Detached distaste is infuriating; detached approbation is unsatisfying. (Which is not to say there wasn’t the occasional visceral response that I appreciated. “Ouch. Like print out and take to my therapist ouch,” was rewarding.)
I found, after a while, that I didn’t really need to know about either. I want people to read my work; that’s what it’s for. I hope they’ll enjoy it. I’m amused that someone translated 5GSF into Portuguese. But I don’t want to read over their shoulder anymore. My thirst for audience feedback is slaked; it’s never come back.
The most maddening thing about audience response to the written word is that the written word is like an arrow in flight. Once you loose it, you have to live with it. In performance, your feedback arrives in time for you to do something about it. You can win back an audience on stage by adjusting your performance to suit. It’s harder to judge your audience in print, and almost impossible on the Internet. I had expected the audience of 5GSF to be the clot of friends and acquaintances who usually read Plausibly Deniable. It turned out to be much larger than that.
It is extremely hard to write for everyone. Words have different connotations in different realms, and evoke different responses. Reflecting on the feedback on 5GSF, I think there are two words in the title alone which caused some problems in certain circles.
First up is the issue of what “geek” means. It’s an ill-defined subculture at the best of times, but I generally see two loose and overlapping superfamilies. On the one hand, those geeks whose common denominator is a passion for technical pursuits of all sorts — OS geeks, coding geeks, sysadmin geeks, etc.; on the other, those whose common denominator is a passion for media — comic book geeks, film geeks, anime geeks, gaming geeks, etc. I’m a game designer with a degree in performance studies. You can probably guess where I fall. I
wasn’t thinking especially rigorously when I wrote 5GSF, so while I defined my terms, I used the media-geek definition throughout. This caused problems for some readers
coming from the other side of the tracks — like, say, Metafilter.
The other loaded word was “fallacy”, which I think was more provocative than I anticipated. Many self-identified geeks take deep pride in their logical minds, and being accused of a fallacy was a slap in the face. Arguably, “pathology” or “dysfunction” would have brought
the point across more effectively; medical and pseudo-medical explanations for social phenomena seem to lack the same sting — consider, for example, the common equation of geekish cluelessness and Asperger’s syndrome, or the frequency of self-diagnosed psychological conditions in certain subgroups.
On the other hand, friends have suggested that perhaps provocative wording was an important part of the essay’s legs — good or bad, it got a rise out of people. I’m not sure yet what I think about that.
The Awesome Power of the Internet
I had a different understanding of the nature of Plausibly Deniable before 5GSF. I assumed that people would come to the front page, presumably led there by my signature or business card, or possibly a recommendation. From there, they would explore.
This is not how things work. To this day, 5GSF is my most popular page request by a factor of ten; from there, the list is in the exact order of the articles on my opinion page. People read 5GSF, and about one in ten backs up to the main opinion page, working through some percentage of the articles there before getting bored. Maybe one in a hundred makes their way to the rest of the site.
The power of net hubs is also remarkable. It’s interesting how many of the most powerful forces on the net do not themselves create, but link to interesting material elsewhere. I’ve seen it noted (but forget where) that one reason for the power of the right-wing blogosphere is that there are several right-wing blogs who serve as link clearinghouses, while left-wing blogs tend to insist on extensive commentary. It makes for deeper analysis but less vibrant conversations. Clearly I need to link more.