Summary: This really annoyed me and I’ve been stewing over it all week.
Bobbie Johnson, who I don’t know personally but who is within a couple of degrees of some people I do know from the old-school UK blogging scene, and whose work I’ve been reading and often enjoying for over a decade, currently works for Medium, the “Twitter for Long From Writing” set up by Ev Williams the guy who ran Blogger and Twitter. Bobbie’s bit of Medium is called Matter and was an attempt to run a serious online journalism business funded by subscription until Medium bought them. Medium is currently running on investor cash while it scales up and figures out how to make money and as such is employing numerous writers to inject quality. At some point Medium will either figure out how to make money or the investors will demand a return on their investment and it’ll be sold, or it’ll close. But until then Medium is in the same la-la land as Twitter for the first few years of its existence, living on what Maciej Cegłowski calls Investor Storytime. The “Post-Web 2.0″ Internet we currently enjoy was built on this business model – a few years of utopia followed by a mad scrabble to make the money back by turning everything to shit. You can see Twitter navigating this scrabble since going public, slowly turning into Facebook-lite. Medium is still in utopia.
As you can probably tell I don’t think this model is a particularly good one. I don’t have a better answer, of course, but it seems clear to me that the way Silicon Valley runs is not sustainable nor in-keeping with the potential of the Internet. It might give people the freedom to experiment and push at boundaries but it also creates bubbles of unreality and privilege. This tension is tricky to navigate and almost impossible to judge. I benefit from a lot of the tools and services created in the unreality of investor storytime and on a personal level the mechanics of Arts Council funding has given me the same sort of space to think and develop in ways the freelance life doesn’t allow. I think the answer is somewhere in Dan Hon’s thinking about empathy in digital environments. When Twitter buys a service like Posterous purely to get the people who created Posterous out of their contract with their investors and then closes down Posterous, deleting thousands, if not millions, of individual people’s personal websites, did anyone think about how those people might feel? Did that come into the equation? Should it have?
Anyway, this preamble should serve to show that my feelings about Medium are, shall we say, mixed. I like that it has enabled a lot of good writing and raised the profile of long-form prose. But I really don’t like the idea of all blog-style / article writing being centralised on a platform which has no coherent business model and which could either vanish in a puff of investor-writeoff or turn into an advertising-ridden, behavour tracking nightmare like YouTube. Or something else entirely.
So, back to Bobbie Johnson and Matter. Bobbie wrote a short piece the other day titled On Journalism and it’s been bugging me every since. In it he explains the background to a feature he commissioned about Shanley Kane, a feminist writer on Silicon Valley issues. (Sidebar: Am I the only person who thought they were profiling UK underground cartoonist Shakey Kane? Thought so.) I don’t know Shanley and hadn’t heard of her until this week. For all I know she’s a canny media operator playing the PR game, but it seems to me she’s just a relatively normal person working in a slightly contentious area.
The report on Shanley is not going well. Bobbie writes:
Earlier this week Shanley took to Twitter to denounce us, accusing us of harassment and claiming that we coerced her and threatened to publish incorrect material about her if she didn’t cooperate.
None of these things are true.
Despite what you may have heard, we aren’t “investigating” Shanley, or threatening to dig up secrets from her personal life. We’re trying to produce an accurate profile of somebody doing interesting, vital, valuable work.
Bobbie’s defence is that Matter are doing journalism. The overriding assumption is that journalism, when governed by its ethics, is pure and for the good. There is this belief in the system, the process, that if it is followed correctly there will be no problems. If you don’t like what the system produces then that must be your problem, not that of the system.
Let’s assume that this system, established through the tradition of journalism over a few hundred years, is flawless. And let’s say you had done some stuff that had raised your profile to the point where a journalistic enterprise with sufficient budget wanted to write a story about you. How would you feel about the following (quoted from Bobbie’s piece)?
At many points, we’ve explained to Shanley how our reporting process works. It is, boringly, entirely typical: It involves talking to lots and lots of people. Not just the subject (even if they’re willing) but also friends, co-workers, contacts, and sometimes enemies too. It’s only with this kind of effort that you can ever hope to produce a realistic, three-dimensional portrait of somebody or their work.
Can you imagine someone you don’t know, someone who has great skill in using the written word to communicate ideas, talking to loads of people who think they know you and then defining you in a relatively high-profile publication that will be read by most of the people in your industry? And you have absolutely no say in how that definition is arrived at or communicated? And then, once it’s published, you have to dedicate unpaid time and effort to dealing with the fallout?
Would that not scare the shit out of you?
Bobbie says this is all okay because, effectively, that’s the way it’s always been.
This approach is entirely normal in the course of journalism. But, she told us, it was off-limits for her. While she agreed to sit down and talk to us, she objected to us talking to anybody at all about her. That, for us, is antithetical to the idea of fair reporting: it is merely PR.
Journalism or PR. Black or white. No nuance, no middle ground. Either you’re helping us find “the truth” or you’re using us to promote your own agenda.
The problem I see is this system evolved in a world where only “public figures” were profiled in newspapers and magazines. These people are, to paraphrase Liz Hurley, professionals at being interviewed. They know when to speak and when to shut up. They have people on the payroll to deal with the fall-out. They have tight control over their image.
So when, as an investigative journalist, you’re profiling one of these people you’re effectively in combat against a heavily armoured foe. Your weapons are your questions and access to people who know stuff. Your aim is to piece the armour and get to the fleshy truth.
But “the truth” about any celebrity or public figure is not very interesting. What people want to ready about is the loose fiction they have created around themselves. And, I believe, the way people who find themselves in the spotlight of fame deal with the insanity of the situation is to maintain a distinction between that exciting fiction and their personal, boring, inner lives. Nobody wants to ready about Nicolas Cage doing his laundry. They want to read about Nicolas Cage being insane. They want to know more about the fiction, and that tends to be what the journalist will concentrate on, the truth about the fiction.
The more I think about it, the more fucked up and confused it gets. And into this crazy world come the civilians, people like you and me who, thanks to the internet, are able to have a voice without going through the battleground of being a “public figure”.
I am probably on the lowest run of being a “public figure”, so low that it doesn’t really count, but every so often I find myself in contact with professional journalists. They are, to a wo/man, lovely people who are conscientious and proud of their work (though I’ve never had contact with a tabloid journalist) but I have almost always refused to be profiled in any way. This is not out of ego or an overblown sense of importance. It is because I know I cannot control what they will write about me, so I would rather they write nothing at all. I do not see the benefit of having information that purports to tell “a truth” about me out in the world when I cannot do anything about it.
If this was because the people doing journalism on me might make mistakes which could be rectified then it wouldn’t be a problem. But because they are insulated by a system designed to pick at carefully constructed narratives, they are unlikely to see them as mistakes. The process produced this so it must be right, at least in part.
But I don’t know what the truth about me is. I haven’t written the bible of who I am. I’m just some guy blundering through life like all the other idiots out there, making it up as I go along. And I don’t have time to deal with this sort of shit.
Why is it journalists like Bobbie cannot see that people who have stumbled into the public eye might not have want to be “personalities”? Why can’t they see that, when it comes to human beings, the truth is massively complex and weird and very easy to get wrong. Why can’t they see that their hallowed processes are just systems, algorithms that might not apply to all circumstances?
The more I think about art and communication the more I’m convinced everything is to some extent fiction. Every story we are told is embellished with untruths and it is impossible to tell the pure truth through representational art, be it painting, sculpture or prose. Now, that art can tell us great truths about the world and our place it in, but in and of itself it is a fiction. I think everyone instinctively knows this, so when someone with a significant resources and influence wants to tell a story about them they instinctively balk.
Anyway, I guess I’m blogging again. Comments are open for a few weeks.