Fans are the problem

Oh look, a blog post that starts by mentioning Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos and the torrent of hate and abuse she’s received from the Gamer community for having opinions. The issues of rampant misogyny in our entertainment culture are important but better people than me are dealing with that. In this post I’m more interested in these self-identifying “gamers” and why they’re a problem that their industry is reluctant to deal with.

I have a bit of past form in this as, in a previous life, I used to self-identify as a “comic book fan”. Not a fan of a particular comic book, but a fan of the entire medium. You can try and dress this up as a pseudo-academic interest in the workings of the medium (by quoting Scott McCloud a lot) but ultimately you become an advocate and a proselytiser, spreading the good news that comics aren’t for kids anymore. That they’re an important medium worthy of respect.

The problem I found with this was that, ultimately, I didn’t want comics to get that respect. Except I did. Only I didn’t. Sure, the comics themselves deserved a wider audience because they were awesome, but the culture that surrounded them couldn’t cope with that wider audience. Normal people would ruin it.

You know, like how Twitter used to be great before all the normal people started using it to talk about X-Factor and no you’re doing it wrong stop that please.

Most of us found ourselves in the comics community because we had rejected mainstream society, or it has rejected us. (I remember Cerebus creator Dave Sim writing about how he felt he could identify with Oscar Wilde because being a comics fan in a 1970s Canadian high school was not unlike being a gay man in Victorian London. And yes, quoting hardline misogynist Dave Sim in this article is rather ironic, I know.)

So, one discovers comics, in my case through being lent some by a friend at school like so much contraband, and one then discovers this whole subculture of people-like-me where one is not judged for being a misfit and a weirdo. It’s comforting. But like all comforting things it’s not always healthy.

In the last decade mainstream media companies, particularly in film and TV, have embraced fandom like never before. Events like Comic-con are barely about comics anymore as the studios pack their latest genre products in to get fan approval. As fans have become networked they’ve become a powerful force with a lot of spending money, so getting them on board can make or break a show. So you get this weird dissonance of beautiful Hollywood actors more accustomed to the glamour of red carpet parties in LA hanging around with the sort of nerds and dorks they spent high school trying to avoid.

Fans have power now, or at least the illusion of it. In reality I think they’re being exploited just like any market, and they enjoy the exploitation because the studios have worked out how to sell it as empowerment. Collectors, who in another era would have obsessively scoured junk shops and flea markets for genuinely rare cultural artefacts now order artificially scarce limited edition “collectables” direct from the manufacturer.

Joss Whedon and Peter Jackson, both obsessive fans in an earlier life, have pioneered the art of fan access while keeping a tight grip on their multi-million dollar enterprises. “Doing it for the fans” and “giving something back to the fans” makes those fans feel part of the team, part of the family, even when they’re just consumers with a bit of an obsession. Meanwhile fan-art is rife all over the Internet with creative talents being poured into rendering corporate-owned characters for no financial compensation.

It’s not hard to see why these people might think they have some sort of “ownership” of these properties. After all, they’ve invested a large chunk of their lives in them. They’ve leant their friends the DVDs. They’ve campaigned to stop the show getting cancelled. They’ve worn the t-shirt.

So when someone comes along and says, hey, maybe this piece of corporate entertainment produced purely to make money in a capitalist society, maybe this might have some social issues, the fans, who let’s remember started this whole venture as mildly persecuted nerds, tend to get a bit protective.

When you say superhero comics are childish escapist fantasy, what you’re saying is the people who avidly read them are childish escapists who can only deal with fantasy. And while that might not be accurate, there’s usually enough truth there to hurt. (And let’s be fair, everyone in the world can be a childish escapist fantasist.)

In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, when comics really were a back-alley pursuit, this knee-jerk response was relatively harmless. Fans weren’t hypernetworked (zines took time to print and distribute) and weren’t spending money in the right ways for the mainstream to take notice.

But nowadays geek culture is mainstream, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love that nerdy kids at school are in some way respected for that. It feels good. But it also makes that culture a target for the corporate industries, and on a cultural level that sort of attack can be harmful.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Joss Whedon lately. He’s the poster-child for fan engagement from the Buffy days through the Firefly cancellation and Serenity movie and now helming the Marvel Avengers movie franchise. He’s interesting because I honestly don’t believe he’s a heartless manipulator of his core audience yet his business revolves around exploiting them for corporate interests.

The studios know he’s a fan magnet. Anything he touches will probably recoup the a good chunk of the budget because of his rabid fanbase who will also save a chunk of publicity money by spreading the word themselves. And Whedon will play up to that, giving the fans a sense of power and involvement in the process, because they’re important, because they’re invested.

But that investment is hollow. If the money ain’t coming in from the mainstream normals then it’s gonna get canceled and no level of fan activism can stop that.

The fans have no real power. They just have an illusion of power bestowed upon them by those with the actual power until such time as it suits them to take it away.

This willing corporatisation of geek culture would be a tragedy if anyone in that culture seemed to care about it, but illusionary power is a seductive thing, especially when combined with the social bonds that come from being historically alienated and ignored.

Which brings me, finally, to these gamers.

Anita Sarkeesian is criticising an industry which has successfully fooled its audience into thinking they have power. These people do not just buy and play games as you or I might buy and play games. They feel that they are games. Without them there would be no games. They are the heart and soul of the gaming scene. The creators of the games listen to them and respond to them. They are important, vital cogs in the system of making these things that they enjoy playing.

So when someone from outside this culture, someone from that mainstream world that fans have always yearned for acceptance from, offers up a critique that doesn’t quite match the fan narrative, it will tend to be seen as an attack. Not an attack on the industry but an attack on the culture and the individuals who make up that culture.

If anything, Sarkeesian is attacking a corporate system which exploits the base desires of a core audience in order to make a profit. But that audience has been taught to believe that the exploitation is in fact empowerment, and attacking that means taking away their power.

While they need to grow the fuck up and get some perspective, I do sympathise with these gamers because they’re also the victims here. They’ve been sold a lie by the corporate system that the multi-billion dollar gaming industry is the same as the niche, underground, DIY gaming communities where people aren’t “fans”, they’re creative, autonomous people who make stuff as well as consume it.

The industries that support fan culture of corporate properties are as much to blame as the toxic fans attacking Sarkeesian and her ilk. You reap what you sow, people. Stop sowing The Man’s line.

Walks, talks, performances and workshops this Autumn

I’m doing a few public things soon so here’s a good a place as any to put the details. I hope to see some of you at some of them.

September 1st: Looking and Seeing talk and walk for Birmingham Loves Photographers at 6/8 Kafe. I’ll be giving a short presentation about my research into photo walks (effectively extracts from the Collective Photography book) before doing a pre-dusk group walk around Colmore Row.

September 14th: Spaghetti Junction Photo Walk.

October 9th: Oh Dear Diary at Cherry Reds (city centre). I’ll be reading some fanzine articles from circa 1988-92.

October 12th: Digbeth Photo Walk.

October 14th: City Centre at Night photo walk with tripods.

October 28th: Another City Centre at Night photo walk with tripods.

October 26th: Sonification of photographs performance at If Wet. (This is rather exciting – more to come soon!)

November 8-9th: Camera Obscura at the Imagineering Fair, Coventry

November 23rd: Another Digbeth Photo Walk.

November 25th: Light Painting photography workshop.

Notes on Unpaid Interns

Yesterday I had an unfortunate moment on Twitter where I laid into Ort Cafe’s gallery for advertising two unpaid intern posts. (jpg)


On calm reflection I was being a dick and an idiot. I should have asked before assuming, and I apologise to all involved, but I think the reasons why this triggered a rant are worth exploring.

The controversy over unpaid interns is nothing new and it boils down to one simple fact. By not providing a living wage for this valuable experience you are only helping those in society who are able to work without a wage. Most people, particularly young people who don’t live at home, are not in this situation. When I was in my 20s I worked full time to pay the rent and the week before payday was always a struggle. Taking time off paid work to get experience in another field, however valuable, was not an option.

It’s the same argument as for making education free to all. Putting a price on learning means only those who can afford it will get that education. Of course, by indulging private schools we weaken that, allowing the wealthy to purchase better education than the poor, and loans replacing grants didn’t help, even if those who never earn much don’t have to pay them back, but the argument is fairly well accepted. Basic education is a reasonably level playing field.

Internships are a form of eduction. They’re a chance for someone who wants to get into an industry to get valuable experience so they can successfully apply for a real job.

There’s nothing wrong with working for free. I often do work without getting paid. The Birmingham Obscura project is a good example. I’ve spent £300 on building it and have taken it out three times without a fee. And we see it as a means to an end, something that will eventually pay for itself and pay us, through invites to events with a budget and through workshops and other add-ons.

You could say that an internship is similar to this. You work for free for a while and then get a paid job. But I’d say there’s a big difference.

With Birmingham Obscura we have all the power. The camera obscura industry doesn’t exist in Birmingham so we’re able to control every aspect of our journey through it. And the end goal – the metric of success – is ours too. We can decide how much time and resources to put in to it and when the investment might not be working out.

An intern is a more established industry has less power. There are expectations and norms established by those with the power which those at the bottom have to abide by. If the industry demands work experience then you have to get that work experience. If the industry demands that you get this experience without compensation then you have to work for free.

Everything comes down to power. Who has it, who doesn’t have it, and how the former treat the latter.

The Ort Cafe, it must be said, doesn’t have much power, and what is has they tend to distribute fairly evenly. It’s a classic “community” venue in that it’s accessible, affordable and very very ethical. The gallery manager replied to me.

There’s a number of things to unpack here.

1) Arts Council England (ACE) funding demands that you put this logo on your materials.

Print

What it doesn’t demand is that you say how much funding you got and what it was for. I think this is a problem as it leads to all sorts of assumptions. People who don’t know how arts funding works might assume recipients are swimming in money, usually at the expense of terminally ill babies. And people who do know how arts funding work might assume the recipients got what they got the last time they applied for some.

My understanding of Arts Council funding is that you always put in your fee. In fact the guidelines make this pretty explicit, suggesting you use the Artists Network sample day rates as your guide which works out at £200/day minimum.

So my assumption, and it was an assumption based purely on seeing that logo, was that the funding Ort had received would naturally include the salaries of people working there. Which is why I think the logo is a great example of “a little information is a dangerous thing”.

2) Small grassroots organisations are different to large corporate organisations.

This is pretty indisputable. Where it gets tricky is when a small organisation uses the language and systems of the large ones. I see this a lot with groups of people who want to do something “properly” and christ knows I’ve fallen for it in my time. Usually it manifests itself in an obsession with branding and logos, which is harmless if a timesink. Sometimes it’s a little more serious, like registering the company and assigning directors before the actual needs of the organisation have emerged.

I feel like I’m about to unpack a decade’s worth of experiences, good and bad, which will drag me completely off topic, so let’s say the Ort Gallery job descriptions uses language that might not be commensurable with the actuality of the job in question.

Or to put in another way, why is a volunteer-run, salary-free grassroots gallery using the Human Resources language and legalese of a large organisation?

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I do wonder why we who find ourselves trying to do things “properly” always fall into this trap.

3) The whole volunteer thing is weird.

It’s a lovely idea, that a project is run by volunteers. But doing so sustainably is bloody hard because, unfortunately, we live in a world people have to pay the rent and the minimum wage is below the living wage. Going with volunteers limits your pool to those who can afford to give their time for nothing, and while you can and will find some wonderful people in that pool it’s still a small pool, and there’s no guarantee they’ll stay in it.

I’ve had experience managing people on a salary and people volunteering and I think, on balance, I prefer the employees. There’s an honesty to the exchange. I give you some money and you turn up on time and do the agreed job. Volunteers always have ulterior motives for being there. Usually they’re good motives, but they’re often hard to pin down and can change with the wind.

There’s a reason volunteer co-ordination is a profession and it’s also why I only managed a few months of being one. It’s bloody hard work. Give me employee management any time.

But more to the point, I really don’t see how a significantly sized venture, especially one that’s receiving funding, can be sustainable without someone getting paid to look after it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying I can’t see how. Whoever is in charge has to be paying the rent and that will always take priority.

In conclusion, then (thank god).

I am not saying the Ort Gallery is evil or wrong. I am not saying their plan is flawed and they’re doomed to fail. I am not making any judgements at all and I feel bad for using them exclusively as my subject. I could have used any of the small arts organisations, to be honest, especially some of those I’ve been involved with personally.

I was very wrong in my assumptions based on the evidence I saw and my personal experiences. Hopefully I’ve outlined how I came to those assumptions and maybe that might be useful for people, should they be trying to make themselves clear to the 40+ grumpy male demographic.

But I do think smaller, grass-roots organisations have a responsibility to their communities to be better at explaining themselves and showing their workings. People will always assume the worst until they see otherwise. Show them otherwise.

And these organisations, which are often trying to shift people’s ideas about how society can function, have a responsibility to take this to all aspects of their business, not just where they source the coffee from. Unpaid Internships are a massive problem in the culture industries. If Josie “needs a bit of help” then why adopt that model?

But again, I apologise to Josie and everyone at Ort for the outburst and wish them well.

(I’m starting to think I could write a bloody book on this. Watch for more on this subject over the months…)

How I self-taught myself to write

Today someone I know tweeted, and I’m paraphrasing, that she regretted not being able to go to University because she wants to write but doesn’t consider the zines and journals she does to be “proper” writing. This hit a nerve with me and I quickly realised that not only did I need more than bursts of 140 characters but that I’d never really written about it properly before.

When I was at school I was terrible at writing. Both physically, in that I couldn’t make my hands write letters properly, and mentally, in that I couldn’t communicate through written words. I suspect the two things were connected. I was a pretty good pupil before I had to write essays. At that point my grades started to suffer, particularly in English.

English was a real bugger for me. We were submitted for two English GCSEs in 1989 – Literature and Language, the coursework for which required 10 essays each. (I think. 1989 was a long time ago…) In order to write these essays I had private tuition where, effectively, the tutor told me what to write. Sure, they were my ideas, but she translated them into sentences for me.

Even with that help I wasn’t able to produce 20 essays of sufficient quality so my school combined by Literature and Language work into one generic English GCSE in which I achieved a C grade, good enough to get me into 6th form and A Levels.

At 6th form I kinda crashed. I started off doing Maths, Computer Science and Communications Studies. By the end I had dropped Maths, bombed out of Communications and scraped an E grade in Computing. I also found myself in the first of a few crippling periods of anxiety and depression that would continue through my adult life.

In fact, my mother recently gave me all the documentation of my childhood – certificates, school reports, etc – which she’d been holding on to until I finally settled down and those from 1991, when I left the education system in a rather bad way, dredged up some rather nasty emotions when I glanced at them. I still haven’t taken them back out of the envelope.

Was academia to blame? I wouldn’t like to say, but later experiences indicate it didn’t help.

So I left school and, after a bit of temping, wound up working in a bookshop. Being surrounded by books but with no requirement to read and understand them acted as a bit of a bridge and I got interested in studying again. Evening classes to get some more A levels didn’t work (I kept falling asleep in class) so after a few years I decided to try for University. I did an Access Course, designed for adults who have no schooling but plenty of life experience and need their basic skills brushed up, and went to Birmingham Uni in 1996.

But hang on. If I couldn’t write a coherent sentence at school, how could I successfully apply to one of the top redbrick universities to study, of all things, Philosophy?

Zines.

in 1989 I published my first fanzine. It was about comics and roleplaying games and it was fucking terrible. But it was something I mostly wrote and which I published and sold myself. It was a big deal.

In 1990 I published another zines, this time containing comics. And then another and another. And all the zines I was buying had letter columns in them to which I would write and be published in. By 1995 I was publishing a zine about comics which most people in that sector of the zine scene were reading, about 150 of them. It was like a proto-Internet where conversations would take place through the written word. To be precise, the typed written word.

Typing saved me from my handwriting and computers from my spelling. I was now free to develop my writing style, which, if I wanted to engage properly with my peers, was a necessity. Most of what I wrote in those early zines was borderline incoherent but incrementally I got better until I was able to write an essay that would get me into University.

Of course, once at University things didn’t quite go to plan. To cut a long, painful story short I stayed there for 3 years but didn’t come out with a degree. My depression kicked back in with a vengeance and for many years I couldn’t even step foot on the campus without getting a mild anxiety attack. Still, I’m glad I went because, while I didn’t get a piece of paper, I went in an idiot child and came out a bruised but wiser man, ready to use the tools of philosophy. I would not be the artist I am now without some of those classes.

Uni finished in 1999 and I fell back into bookselling. While working for Waterstones I met a lady who became my girlfriend and we moved to London in 2000 so she could look for work in publishing. During the move I had three weeks without work and had just come across weblogs. I set one up on Blogger and started writing a diary about my time in London.

The rest is, they say, history, but it’s important to note that for the first three years my blog was kinda poor. You won’t see it mentioned as one of the key early UK blogging blogs and for good reason. But I kept at it and around 2003, when I found myself on the Isle of Wight living in a caravan on a farm, my writing started to dramatically improve. When I then moved back to Birmingham and started documenting my industrial temping jobs during 2003-5 it got even better. And then blogging hit the mainstream, Created in Birmingham happened and I was, to all extents and purposes, a professional writer.

I would never write off formal education. For most people it’s a great thing and I’m glad I went to school and to university. While the experiences might not have been nice they taught me a lot about myself and helped me to come to terms with my strengths and flaws.

But they did not teach me how to write.

I did that.

And not in a small way. Writing is how I communicate. It’s how I make myself understood and how I position myself in the world.

Writing is incredibly powerful. Being able to turn ideas into words which others can understand is what makes us human. And to be able to do so on your own terms is what makes us free.

Learning to write takes time but it’s actually fairly easy, even for borderline dyslexic fuckbrains like me. You just have to write and not worry about whether it’s any good.

Write for yourself. Write for your friends. Write for no-one in particular. But write. Turn that confusion in your brain into coherent sentences so that when you read it back your understanding increases.

Eventually your writing will improve, and with it your ability to process and understand the world and your place in it.

It’s a wonderful thing and you don’t need permission to do it. Just grab a pen, or a keyboard, and start writing.

Things that are wrong with the official Twitter apps

I’ve been a long time user of Tweetbot to read my Twitter. A few years back Twitter warned 3rd party app producers not to bother making apps for reading Twitter as they wanted to control the whole Twitter experience, just as Facebook controls the entire Facebook experience. Most 3rd part apps faded away but Tweetbot continued which was a relief as the official Twitter experience was a bit of a dogs dinner.

Of course Twitter as a service has gradually changed over the years and Tweetbot haven’t always kept up with the changes, often because they can’t. So I’ve reluctantly started using the official Twitter apps for Mac and iOS. They’re okay, I guess, but there are a few omissions. Some make sense, some are just weird. Here’s a list of things I’ve noticed over the weeks, compiled for my own pointless purposes because it’s not like Twitter Inc are going to listen.

No inline Instagram images. This is because of politics (Facebook owns Instagram) but having come from Tweetbot where Instagram pics are in the stream it’s very noticeable.

Can’t see mentions for other users. Twitter has never supported this and it’s always been a hack in 3rd party apps using a search for the username, but it’s something I use quite a lot when I want to see what people are saying to someone.

Display names, not @usernames. (iOS) I know people by their @names, not whatever they’ve put in the “Name” field. Suddenly being confronted by names I’ve never seen before is a bit discombobulating. An option to chose would be nice.

#hashtags and @usernames aren’t highlighted which I guess makes sense when people use them inline as part of the sentence but I see them as links think they need to be in a different colour.

More to come, no doubt.

Change the Creative Industries conversation before I shoot myself

This was written last week while on holiday and wasn’t posted because the wifi died and hey, I was on holiday and had gotten it out of my system so went back to the beach.

Today there was one of those conferences for the “Creative Industries” in the West Midlands. I put it in quotes because no-one ever seems to know exactly what industries are creative and which aren’t and I suspect it’s because it suits them not to know. If, for example, you want to bang the drum for your theatre group, say, you might want to say it’s part of the “creative industries” bringing X million into the region without the pesky fact that most of that X million comes from computer games or television or something so internationally huge that it can’t be arsed to lobby within the region.

But anyway, here was another conference and, while I’m sure every industry has these, because what I do comes under that remit and because I have friends whose job it is to keep tabs on this stuff, this conference leaked into my Twitter stream.

(I should point out at this stage that it leaked in while I was sheltering from the heat in a pub on one of the Isles of Scilly where I’m on honeymoon, so let the fact that I’m writing this with my wife-of-10-days over on the other side of our B&B room be a measure of how much it’s been nagging me all afternoon.)

The leak in question was this missive from Mr Dave Harte:

To which I glibly replied, if we told him to fuck off would that help? I was only half joking as it did seem to be what these people want. For us to be as obnoxious and protective as the cliche of Manchester.

The chap in question was Lewis Blackwell who writes for The Drum, a blog about marketing and PR and stuff. In other words it’s in his interest to see Birmingham and the West Midlands in terms of a PR. If the message he’s seeing through the wider media-scape doesn’t match the required metrics of how this year’s definition of creative industry in a city should be perceived then the answer is obviously to spend more time and money on PR and marketing.

That’s what these people mean when they say Birmingham should “shout about itself more”. They mean Birmingham should pay for more marketing and PR.

Marketing and PR are, by the way, usually counted as part of the creative industries. Yay.

Don Draper, that famous fictional character from the television show about how advertising destroyed the soul of 20th century America, has a saying. If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation. So let’s change the fucking conversation once and for all.

Let’s stop talking about how Birmingham needs to shout about itself more.

Let’s stop trying to cover up the massive poverty and social inclusion problems this city has with bland feel-good sloganeering.

Let’s try something different.

Howabout developing a new generation of political leaders who aren’t egotistical morons or party-line goons?

Howabout looking to our heritage of socially beneficial works from Victorian sanitation to workers rights and developing a new 21st century socialist ideology that is relevant to our problems and can unify the population?

Howabout we shout louder about how central government is screwing Birmingham council with massive budget cuts which are going to cripple essential services in city over the next decade regardless of how far the shiny new Metro trains run?

Howabout we stop listening to PR wankers from London and start putting our house in order?

But I guess being arrogant and shouting loudly is easier.