Small Minds

As the late, great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” Okay, she might have not said that. But someone said it, and it’s become a frequently quoted phrase for those looking for inspiration or decorative wall hangings. Ever since I heard this quote as a child, I’ve had it stuck in my head and tried to follow along with its message: talk about the higher things in life, not just what’s happening, and definitely not about idle gossip.

I’ve recently had an epiphany: this quote is crap.

First of all, “great minds discuss ideas” is a terrible message. Yes, conversations about ideas are exciting, important, and usually consist of a lot of depth. However, you can’t always be talking about philosophical questions or the next world-changing startup—not only is that unsustainable, you will be completely insufferable. And then “average minds discuss events”—what makes an event less worthy of conversation than an idea? They're what's actually happening in the world. Thinking of someone who discusses ideas but not events calls to mind the “intellectual” who is really into 18th-century German philosophy but turns up their nose at current news.

Finally, “small minds discuss people.” This is the one that really gets me, because the clear implication is that gossip and celebrity news is a lower form of conversation. And, well, maybe it is. Talking about people who you’ll never meet, or the personal business of people around you, isn’t going to change the world. However, it’s in our base instincts to be interested in what other people are doing and to enjoy discussing celebrities—otherwise how could it be such a huge industry? Celebrity conversations obviously can and do go too far, but shaming someone because they like People Magazine seems like a bigger waste of energy than reading People Magazine and letting other people enjoy things. “Discussing people” doesn’t have to be a world-changing endeavor. It’s just fun, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

Let's Talk

It’s not just on Twitter, it’s for Twitter,” sounds a little bit too much like “I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom” for me to take it entirely seriously, but it’s not a bad summary of the idea behind Buzzfeed’s new morning show, AM to DM. It’s streaming live on Twitter every weekday morning at 10am, and strives to be a new kind of morning show: one for the internet.

And yet, as Slate pointed out, most morning shows and late night talk shows are already effectively made for the internet. AM to DM doesn’t have anything particularly groundbreaking in format yet. Two hosts have on guests and discuss current events, a tried-and-true formula. They have segments in which they read “Fire Tweets” and decide on a “ManCrushMonday” (#coolmom), but these bits not yet engaging enough to stand out, nor do they distinguish themselves from from late-night talk shows that do segments in the same vein.

AM to DM does have a significant advantage in courting a young audience, however, in their choice of medium. In an age when many people are cutting their cable subscriptions, or opting never to get one in the first place, online sites become a much easier way to tune into news and entertainment. There’s no friction to watching AM to DM, as long as you have a Twitter account—and as that’s their target audience anyway, this strategy bodes well for potential viewership.

While there are initial flaws and possibilities, it’s too early to see if AM to DM can grow into a unique morning show. It’s also not the only entry into the field of new media talk shows. Director and producer Kelly Kitagawa is leading a new show called Think About It, a “late night styled think piece show for millennials.” The production team is all college-aged women, most of whom are women of color. The teaser was released on Sunday, but the team is currently raising money to produce a full 9-episode series. Similar to AM to DM, the focus of the show is on presenting a different perspective than is usually seen in mainstream media.

There’s definitely a stronger sense of scrappiness with Think About It than AM to DM: it’s produced by independent college students rather than a multimedia company, it’s lower to the ground in terms of audience engagement (especially with funding needs), and it’s focused on exploring specific questions relevant to young people instead of a general look at the news. However, it won’t start streaming until November, so it’s too early to judge what the final product will look like.

Like I’ve written about before, I have a particular love for projects made by and for young people. It’ll be interesting to see the way the talk show and news landscape will be changed by an influx in younger creators, especially since these shows have had a recent surge in popularity and relevance. Right now, it’s unclear if it’ll make much of a difference at all, but I doubt it: new voices have the power to make chance, and they always use it.

Document Me

As I’ve written about before, I saw the new musical “Burn All Night” recently. In one of the songs, the ensemble sings explicitly about documentation and how they require it in order to be immortal. That sort of desperate, extreme statement fits in well with the pulse of the show and the general fervent nature of today’s youth, but they didn’t stop there. The more bold claim was that they needed to be documented in order to exist.

At first glance, that seems like a complete exaggeration. I would never suggest that I needed documentation in order to understand my own existence. However, recent experiences have made me realize that maybe they’re right, after all.

I take a picture of my friends and they post it, but my face doesn’t appear and suddenly the question is: was I really there? My friend gets removed from the list of an extracurricular and doesn’t get notified about something, and it makes her wonder: am I still really in this group? For a long time, my podcast didn’t appear on the Wikipedia page for Relay FM, and in a strange way it made me feel like I wasn’t a real part of the network. I would notice that and have to go back to the Relay FM website to assure myself that I hadn’t conjured the whole thing up.

Why does it matter if an external force validates what we already know? I think that maybe, there’s a part of us that never believes we’re good enough for what we’re doing: our friends are cooler than us, our work is better than us, we don’t deserve the honors that we’ve achieved. It’s the same kind of imposter syndrome that makes every criticism of our work so painful—not that this person in particular doesn’t like us, but that they’ve “seen the truth” about how terrible we are.

I think maybe, we should hold on to what we know a little bit harder, and stop letting other people’s photos and opinions have so much weight.

Bi Visibility Week

Happy Bi Visibility Week! Every year in September, bisexual activists speak about the importance of bisexual representation. It's a popular time for bisexual people to come out, or just to remind their audiences and people in their lives that they are bisexual, even if they don't talk about it a lot. To celebrate this year, I made an episode of Solidly Mediocre all about bisexuality. You can listen here.

Okay, it was actually a total coincidence. Rachel and I meant to record this podcast ages ago, actually recorded it nearly three weeks ago, and it simply came up in the schedule this week. Still, it fits well and I'm pleased it worked out like this.

I have a history with coincidental visibility during this week. Last year, I came out to my parents (and subsequently decided I was "out" to all friends and the general public) during Bi Visibility Week. The very first thing I said about being bisexual publicly was a tweet during Bi Visibility Day (September 23rd). I made it casual, because I didn't want to "come out" on the internet, but that was my official first mention.

Almost exactly a year later, I came out to my grandmother. She was completely unsurprised and unperturbed, and just generally lovely (as she is about all things). I am blessed to have supportive family and friends, to be safe in my visibility.

If you're not sharing a part of yourself for any reason: I see you, and I accept you. If you just don't know yet and are trying to figure it out: I see you, and I accept you. Don't feel any pressure to "decide" or be seen before you're ready. We'll be here for you when you are.

Copyright Weaponization

The internet is still trying to figure out its relationship with copyright. On one hand, copyright protects people’s hard work. It prevents others from selling work as their own, consequently encouraging people to produce art because they know they will be able to protect it. On the other hand, stealing is absolutely rampant. “Meme accounts” pick up viral content of the day and repost it without attribution, sometimes even placing their own watermarks on it as if they originally created it. There’s a non-insignificant number of YouTube channels devoted to “reacting” to popular videos, which is often little more than making a few remarks while playing the entire video.

On the other other hand (I have three hands), there is nothing the internet does better than a good remix. Content is continuously repackaged and repurposed to entertain, amuse, and educate. Sometimes it’s an actual musical remix, sometimes it’s a visual essay featuring clips of a movie, sometimes it’s a clip or screencap used in a humorous way. Some of this clearly falls into the realm “fair use,” which roughly means that it is transformative and its consumption does not replace the consumption of the original content. There are more specific rules about monetization (generally a no-go) and details, but that’s the general overview.

There are some genres, however, that don’t qualify as “fair use” but are still usually allowed by the copyright holder. One example of this is a “Let’s Play” video, which features a YouTube personality playing a game, reacting to it, and talking about their experience throughout. By all legal standards, it’s definitely copyright infringement: it’s often just blatant footage of the game with minimum commentary or additional value. However, there is very rarely any harm to letting YouTubers upload Let’s Play videos—if it’s a popular channel, it often boosts sales of the game and essentially serves as free advertising.

That is, until the channel becomes something you don’t want to associate with. Campo Santo, the creators of the critically acclaimed game Firewatch, filed a DMCA takedown of PewDiePie’s Firewatch video after he used a racial slur in a livestream. The video was swiftly removed, which made sense: Campo Santo has the legal right to take down any Firewatch Let’s Play videos at any time.

In another case, the creator of the meme Pepe the Frog has starting sending takedown notices to alt-right blogs. Pepe, once an innocuous comic character, transformed into a meme last year. However, the original neutral meme was claimed as an alt-right symbol and used to promote the Trump 2016 campaign by many of his supporters. The creator of Pepe, Matt Furie, already took down an Islamophobic book that featured Pepe and donated the settlement to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Now he is widening his reach, insisting that his character should not be used for hateful ideology.

Both of these cases are interesting because they demonstrate a conflict in the online world. These creators have the legal right to take down infringement on their work, and feel the moral drive to target a particular usage of it. However, what does it mean for the future of copyright when ideology is used to dictate legal actions? If people want to take down one usage, should they have to address all infringement on their work? It’s not that I don't understand their reasoning, but what happens if (when) a conservative artist doesn’t like the way a liberal artist has repurposed their work and chooses to target them? We could be looking at a new era in copyright on the internet: weaponization. The lines are blurry, but we may see them come into focus soon.

Ten Years

Ten years ago today, prolific creator Tyler Oakley uploaded his first video to YouTube. Now he has an audience of nearly eight million people, who have supported a podcast, book, documentary, various charitable campaigns, and a national live tour. Today, Oakley reacted to a surprise video of his friends (mostly other prominent YouTubers) sharing their favorite memories and congratulating him on ten years.

When I watched this video, I was thinking about a simple truism: in order to reach the kind of longevity, you have to keep working. Furthermore, in order to reach success, you have to keep working for long enough to reach it. Those sentences don't mean anything, they're just repeating themselves—and yet somehow, they're a good reminder for all of us.

Regular articles for my September writing project come back tomorrow.

WARHOLCAPOTE

WARHOLCAPOTE is a new play that premiered this week at the American Repertory Theater. It is based on the real recorded conversations between Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, two visionary artists. I am convinced that it is secretly about college, and here’s why:

  1. Both characters are constantly going through crises.

  2. Capote is definitely that kid in your class who likes the sound of his own voice.

  3. Alcoholism.

  4. They’re constantly gossiping about people they know.

  5. Warhol immediately goes from “let’s write a play” to “let’s write EIGHT plays and have them ALL on Broadway at the SAME TIME.” Same, Warhol, same.

  6. Sex.

  7. Capote feels like he’s being slandered, who hasn’t gotten essay feedback that feel like a personal attack?

  8. “Some people let the same problem make them miserable for years. Oh, my mother didn’t love me, so what?”

  9. “My doctor suggested I take up a healthier hobby than wine tasting and fornication.”

  10. Trauma.

  11. “Art is so hard.”

  12. One friend yelling “you’re so smart” while the other one denies it.

  13. And in conclusion, both characters are constantly going through crises.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles was the original #fakenews and nothing will convince me otherwise.

I’m taking a sociology class on media and pop culture, and today we talked about the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio incident. On October 30, 1938, a radio drama—presented as a series of news bulletins—unfolded to tell the story of Martians landing in New Jersey. Popular lore says that so many people believed it that there was a mass panic, and even an exodus from the Tri-State area as people tried to escape the alien invasion.

It’s unclear how big this “panic” really was, but there definitely were some people who believed the broadcast was true and acted accordingly. Princeton researchers visited New Jersey soon after the incident to interview people who had heard it, compiling data about people’s perceptions and how they reacted. This shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is: 30% of people who said they believed it was real also said they weren’t scared. Some quotes suggested that they assumed the end of the world was coming anyway, that they frankly weren’t that regretful about it, and that they were just going to eat the chicken they were saving for the next day now. Can you even imagine these people on Twitter? It’d be like… well, modern Twitter.

Welles claimed that he never meant to scare anyone, but his careful planning suggests otherwise. He was savvy to the power of this new media, and devised a plan to present it as a fake news show instead of a straight reading in order to attract more listeners. He strategically placed moments of silence for dramatic effect, a powerful and rarely used tool at the time. He knew that many people would be flipping around the channels after a popular puppet show ended, so he placed some dramatic action at the moment they’d be tuning in so they’d be hooked (and frightened) immediately.

It’s now generally understood that the newspapers exaggerated the amount of panic in order to discredit radio, which was stealing their audiences. At the time, newspapers were successful at significantly knocking back the credibility of radio, and would definitely never experience losing their audiences to new technology ever again.

This is a fascinating story for media studies, sociology, and many other disciplines, but the whole time we were talking about it I couldn’t stop thinking: Welles would have been such a good podcaster.

A Response to the Comments Section

I am as frustrated by the perpetual negative portrayal of YouTubers and YouTube culture as the next person, but some things are too egregious to even try to defend. Felix Kjellberg, more popularly known as “PewDiePie,” is the most popular vlogger on YouTube. He’s ascended to incredible fame, power, and success through his “Let’s Play” videos, and has branded himself as an “edgy” comedian who isn’t afraid to swear and cause trouble. If you even have a passing interest in online video news, you’ve probably already heard that he is currently under fire for using the n-word in frustration to insult a Playerunknown’s Battleground player during a livestream. He then said “sorry,” repeated the sentence with “asshole” instead, and then said he didn’t mean it “in a bad way.”

Yes, he did indeed interchange it with “asshole” and then attempt to claim it wasn’t “in a bad way.”

Like many other people, I am already tired of this story and generally fatigued with talking about Felix. There’s so much good that comes from YouTube, and the focus on people like Felix is demoralizing. However, he is the most popular personality on the platform. That means that even if he represents a poor side of YouTube, anything he does holds huge sway over how the community is represented overall. Also, people never cease to amaze me with the way they will bend over backwards to defend and justify the terrible actions of fully grown men. So here we have a list of excuses I’ve seen, and my arguments against them:

1. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Come on, you aren’t even trying. Answer: no.

2. “He’s young, he made a mistake.”

It’s always funny to me when people use this excuse, because the person they’re talking about is almost always older than me. Also: no.

3. “He’s Swedish, and it doesn’t carry the same weight in Sweden.”

I’m not familiar with Swedish culture, so I don’t know if this is true or not. However, Felix has lived in the United Kingdom since 2013, and is definitely familiar with both English and American culture through his audience. The odds that he just didn’t understand the weight of the word are next to zero, especially since he immediately tried to correct himself on the livestream.

4. “(insert YouTuber here) says the n-word all the time, and no one cares”

This reminds me of the people who tell feminists that women in Saudi Arabia have it so much worse than them whenever they talk about an issue. If the only time you bring up another example is to try to shoot someone down, it’s not an effective argument. Now, if this was brought up as an argument that there should be a greater backlash for use of racist language by all people, not just Felix—I can agree with that. That brings me to:

5. “Calm down. People say that all the time when they get angry playing games.”

Who are you hanging out with??

A few points here. One, commonality does not equal morality. Horrific things have been common throughout history, and while we try to push our society towards more just social norms, there is never a point when “lots of people do it” is the only goal post that must be passed for something to be “okay.”

Also, I get angry when playing games, and I have never once in my life shouted a racial slur. I’m not trying to suggest that I’m somehow morally superior, I just think that should be the baseline for human decency. I’ve never yelled the n-word in frustration because I’ve never once said the n-word, and so it’s never the word that comes to mind. When people are angry, their reaction isn’t going to be a word they never say, it’s going to be something that’s in their vocabulary.

6. “This isn’t a big deal.”

I agree that there are more important things out there—climate change is worsening our natural disasters and causing irreversible damage, millions of children live in poverty, and the risk of nuclear war seems to be slowly ticking forward by the day. However, there’s also been a resurgence of racism and white nationalism in the mainstream culture of the United States, and that has very real and dangerous effects. It’s not “just words.” It’s contributing to a system of violence that enables people who truly believe that Black people are inferior, and causes real life harm in innumerable ways.

It matters because everything that contributes to a system of white supremacy matters, but it’s a big deal because Felix is the most popular vlogger on YouTube. I keep saying that because it is important, because he does have a huge audience, and because he commands a lot more power than most other people. A lot of people are complaining that Felix is receiving this attention when other YouTubers who say the n-word aren’t, but there’s a very good reason why he gets more attention: because, well, he gets more attention.

7. “He’s not really racist.”

I don’t know and I don’t care. “Racist” isn’t something you are, it’s something you do, and he’s doing it. I don’t care what’s in Felix’s heart of hearts, I care what’s coming out of his mouth, and it’s not pretty.

Youth, Art, and Aliebns

It’s easy to play “spot the difference” between “Burn All Night” and “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too.” “Burn All Night” is an electrifying, immersive theater experience. The audience is thrust into the narrative and encouraged to dance as the actors whirl through the crowd, sometimes brushing against you as they dance with dizzying joy and intensity. The characters yell at each other in anger and passion, and even the rare moments of silence are piercingly bright and loud. “everyone’s a aliebn” is a book, deliberately designed to be as minimalist as possible. The drawings are in black and white and there is rarely more than a sentence or two per page. The story itself is quiet and unassuming, wandering through a small community with only a shadow of the driving narrative structure.

And yet. I experienced both pieces of art within 24 hours of each other, and was struck not by their differences, but by their similarities. While they chose different forms of expression, both works were grappling with the same questions. What is our place in this world? How do we deal with the knowledge that we are all going to die someday? Who are we, really? What does it mean to be a young person trying to “find themselves” in the twenty-first century?

It’s this last question that drives at the heart of what I find most striking about both creations. It’s common for art to be created for and about people coming of age, but it often misses the mark in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. From my perspective, it’s a mounting problem as technology and culture evolve at dizzyingly fast rates—there’s a small cultural divide even between me and my sister, who’s only two years younger than me. While older artists can write beautifully about what it means to be a young person, they can’t capture what it feels like to be a young person right now. The explosion in documentation and publicity, the accessibility and diversification of fame, the globalization of culture and humor and fights for civil rights—being an emerging adult right now means entering a world that is constantly connected, chronicled, and in flux to a degree that it has never been before.

Some shows, like “Dear Evan Hansen,” attempt to capture how modern inventions like phones and social media intersect with age-old issues of relationships, insecurity, and coming-of-age. But even though the show fits together, there’s something clunky about it. It’s too on the nose, too “look how in touch we are.” “Burn All Night” takes a different route. The performers use phones in multiple songs as part of their choreography, but never explicitly discuss social media. They cry out about how they must be documented to stay alive, to be immortal. Instead of making social media a pointed part of the narrative, it’s written the way our phones exist in real life: baked into the fabric of our experiences, entirely casual but always in view.

“everyone’s a aliebn” stretches the subtlety of this narrative to a new level. There is no content about social media; in fact, the world exists outside of phones, modern technology, and humans altogether. However, the author is Twitter personality Jonny Sun, and the form of the story itself is a modern construction. The book could have been divided into distinct vignettes, but instead each storyline gets a few pages at a time and the characters often run into each other. Sun described the narrative style as deliberately modeled after a Twitter timeline: instead of getting disparate stories, you experience gently intersecting narratives that weave through each other. The tales are about loss, uncertainty, love, and many more fears—everything that’s relatable to today’s teens. That sounds like a joke, but honestly, I don’t know anyone who couldn’t relate to Sun’s heartbreakingly simple writing that somehow soothes all of our deepest insecurities.

I could continue writing about these two pieces of art for hours, but for now I will end with this: I am so excited for this trend of media written about, for, and by emerging adults in 2017. As young artists earn wider audiences and break into more traditional media spaces, we will only see more of ourselves represented, not only in how we appear to outside observers but in who we really are.

“Burn All Night” by Andy Mientus and Teen Commandments just concluded its world-premiere run at the American Repertory Theater.

“everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too” is the debut book from jomny sun.