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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 4: "San Junipero" and the Visual Sorbet

SPOILER WARNING: This entry will be discussion "San Junipero," and the entirety of Season 3 of Black Mirror, in detail. If you haven't yet seen it and don't want spoilers, please wait to read this piece.

When I revealed to friends that I was behind on Black Mirror, they would invariably say they were looking forward to my reaction to "San Junipero." I knew very little of the season, but I did know that this one was about two girls in the Eighties and all my friends loved it. I've rarely heard people react so passionately to an episode of the series without it being accompanied by a look of fear or discomfort. So the lack thereof surprised me.

Had Black Mirror gone and done a truly positive episode?

Well. Yeah. And after the mind-bending and heart-rending of 2.5 seasons, this was exactly what the show needed.

Charlie Brooker has said in interviews that he deliberately wanted "San Junipero" to upend people's expectations for the series, and this was extremely wise. Because when you're doing a show as surreal and dark and pessimistic as Black Mirror, you begin to run out of ways to surprise your audience. When you kick off your entire IP with political bestiality, you're already really messing with some expectations.

As I've said in my entries before, many people tend to approach episodes of Black Mirror from above: they treat the stories like fables about "other people," about the tech-addled "everyone else" who can't appreciate Tinker Toys or a good book or human contact because they're too engrossed in their screens. Occasionally it hits home that the tech is passive and (like all good sci-fi) it's a truly human story. But even these viewers are put on the back foot when they discover that the simple nostalgia of "San Junipero" is actually benevolent use of future-tech in action.

It's a rare situation in Black Mirror where we see humanity using technology rather than abusing it. More than that, there's a tight hold on it, with fears that the "nostalgia therapy" offered to seniors will be abused if not heavily limited. (There's probably plenty to say about the withholding of useful services to seniors for fear of highly unlikely abuse of the system, but that's someone else's story to tell.)

What's funny about Brooker's statement is that, despite "San Junipero" being optimistic and differently toned, it is truly a Black Mirror storyline to the hilt: humans avail themselves of a technology intended to do a certain thing, and they get the thing -- beyond what they bargained for. It's just in this case, the thing is a good thing.

Kelly and Yorkie are, in the real world, grieving two very different losses. Kelly grieves a family gone before her, and one she may not ever see again because their existence beyond this world lies in the giant "if" of a potential afterlife. Yorkie grieves an entire life lost, robbed of experiences while in a decades-long coma.

The "therapy" aspect of the nostalgia therapy goes above and beyond any intent there may originally have been -- Kelly finally feeling love after the loss of her family and coming to terms with her beliefs vs. her needs, Yorkie finally experiencing anything and finding validity in what her parents shamed her for.

It can be tempting to say that the ending of the episode, and Kelly's decision to be uploaded with Yorkie rather than chancing a reunion with her family in the afterlife, is an anti-religious or anti-faith statement. Granted, it absolutely can be if that's where your gut takes you, but boiling it down to a statement of what is takes away what matters: Kelly and Yorkie's decisions. Nowhere does the episode dictate what is or isn't, because that doesn't matter to the story. In fact, it's the ambiguity that matters when it comes to Kelly's decision.

Yorkie has very little room for choice. She's already lived a non-life, with no world experiences to help her build a faith or belief system. It's natural for her to pick what she's experienced and what has made her feel alive. No question.

For Kelly, it's a harder line. She's had a life, she's had love, and she's had (to some degree) some tinge of beliefs. The question was never who she loved more. If that were her only question, she would have gone full What Dreams May Come and risked there maybe being nothing beyond in order to see her family again. Because she does love Yorkie -- but as she said, she had a family.

What Kelly craved all those years wasn't love; it was certainty. She lived the back half of her life wondering if she would transcend death with a loved one. And her road diverged into a Maybe and a Yes. Choosing the Yes shows that her final wish was to know where she was going, and to know she'd be loved and accepted when she got there. San Junipero and Yorkie could give her the solid "Yes" she'd been wishing for.

It's a heartache of a story along the way, but the optimistic ending is something Black Mirror has been needing for quite a while now. Not something it needs every season necessarily. But it's just as essential a reminder that we are who we are no matter what, and technology can only amplify or bring to the surface what we already possess. Sometimes, if we're very very lucky, those are good things.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 3: "Shut Up and Dance" and Small Offenses

SPOILER WARNING: This entry will be discussion "Shut Up and Dance," and the entirety of Season 3 of Black Mirror, in detail. If you haven't yet seen it and don't want spoilers, please wait to read this piece.

As chilling and mind-bending as Black Mirror is at its sci-fi peak, it's often most disturbing when it works with the technology of today. Premiere episode "The National Anthem" still sticks out to many as one of the most difficult to watch episodes ever made, even compared to chillers like "White Christmas" and "White Bear." It could be the subject matter -- or perhaps the fact that these present-day episodes bring us far more into line with the immediate nature of the warnings being issued us.

With episodes like "Shut Up and Dance," Black Mirror takes away any pretense of the subject matter not being us and the world we live in. It's not a tactic they can use in every episode, or its loses its edge. But to occasionally be plunged into a terrifying story, and then realize after the fact that there wasn't actually any non-existent tech in it and this could be tomorrow's news, is an effective occasional mind-blower.

And in the current climate, it's an even more effective watch than when it first aired.

The Flip-Side of Call-Out Culture

"Call-out culture" is becoming a tougher and tougher creature to piece apart as time goes on. The Internet enables stories to spread quickly and empowers people to share experiences and concerns they may not have been able to give voice to before.

However, this can also lead to a push to the extreme: receipt-pulling on people who have changed and atoned, or who grew up online without the luxury of having Dumb Shit They Did As A Kid only happen between themselves and the wall. Too, these instances tend to be over non-issues or small issues, such as a character being too skinny in a piece of fanart. Those cases are the Internet's speed and ruthlessness at its worst, often pulling down confused teenagers who deserve no worse than a slap on the wrist, if that.

And, regardless of whether the target is deserving, there's the issue of punishment. "White Bear" and this season's "Hated in the Nation" both address the issue of Internet vigilante justice as well -- possibly the hardest aspect of all to come to terms with.

The Internet (and groups like Anonymous) are willing to go hell-for-leather against people or groups that may not get their just deserts. But with that action comes a degree of "inventiveness" that begs questions. How much is too much? Do criminals deserve to become our amusement? Is is anything goes if they did some Really Bad Stuff?

What counts as Really Bad Stuff? Who decides what's bad? What if someone decides something's bad and it's really not?

These are questions we'll always have to ask ourselves for as long as we use the Internet to exchange information. For every "weekend Nazi" outed to their boss, there's a misguided teenage blogger who ends up with death threats pouring through their mail chute.

Black Mirror has yet to profess to have an answer to this; it only acknowledges the growing existence of it. But it does have some slightly less tech-based morals for us.

If You Don't Want Them to See It, Don't Do It

A rule of thumb I try to live by when dealing with people: anything I say to someone in private (that isn't a personal woe or surprise birthday party plan), I make sure I would be all right with having repeated back to me by a stranger next week. If the idea of hearing someone say "Kara Dennison said this" scares me, I don't bloody well say it. (I wish Young Kara had had this idea, really.)

Similarly, if I want to do something and thinking "what if my family found out I did this?" terrifies me, I don't bloody do it.

Do I have a moral code? Of course. I try to live ethically. I like to think most people I know do. But when you're dealing with people who consider people of different genders or ages or races to be less deserving of consideration, ethics won't stay their hand. What will stay their hand? Being found out.

Because unfortunately, fear of retribution is the only way ethics and solipsism can coexist.

Under the thumb of "malware remover" Shrive, people suffer or are inconvenienced to varying degrees for their crimes, strung along by blackmail. They're shriven (a nice name for the program) of their sins only because they see redemption in site.

Which they never actually receive.

Because the unseen puppet master of "Shut Up and Dance" understands a truth of life that we learn when we're two years old and then promptly forget: saying you're sorry doesn't mean you won't suffer the consequences.

Unethical Acts Can (and Should) Change Loyalties

I wrote not long ago about how an entire community removed a long-standing member of their ranks overnight after hearing of heinous crimes he had committed. There was confusion and sadness and betrayal. But ultimately, there was no question that he was no longer one of them.

Our ride-along with Kenny only works if we don't know until the end what his true crime is. If we believe he's just a teen who got caught in the act of being a teen, the horror of it is much realer. Nowhere is any of us under the impression (as far as I know) that he deserved it, up to and until confirmation of what he was really doing.

And, especially right now, this is a big deal and something we should take to heart. That immediate hardening of the heart, the sudden regret we had for ever giving him the benefit of the doubt? That should carry into the real world, too. When you discover that someone is a literal felon -- no matter how surprising it is or how much you liked them or how deeply you don't want it to be true -- your loyalty should flip exactly that hard.

"Shut Up and Dance" gives us the opportunity to feel that sea change -- the immediate swerve away from empathy -- in a safe and sterile environment. There was no Kenny, and he was never really our friend. We only knew him for an hour, and dropping our empathy toward him when we learn of his behavior will not affect our life in any way.

And now that we know how it feels, we need to remember that feeling... and be willing to feel and experience that when it involves someone we know.

What Is the Lesson?

Unseen actions are still actions, whether they are yours are someone else's. The low-key, somewhat Victorian concept of a "Schrödinger's morality" -- that actions aren't bad until they're found out -- has no place in a moral society.

Should people be scared of being found out for things they've done? It feels a bit ridiculous. It feels almost depressing, the idea that harming another human being is less scary to some than having the world find out that they did. But in the long run, if that's the only thing that stops them... perhaps the fear of having one's sins publicized is, unfortunately, useful.

I mean, it seems to be having an effect so far.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Friday, December 8, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 2: "Playtest" and Bespoke Fear

Spoiler warnings apply. Please do not read on unless you have watched "Playtest" or don't mind full spoilers.

The second episode of Black Mirror's third season is catnip for gamers -- and an unsurprising turn from series creator Charlie Brooker. The big-name geek has put a major stamp on video game culture, from chronicling its history to defending its demographic. At this point, the only thing that surprises me about Brooker's gamer status is that he himself has not created a video game.

(NOTE: If I am wrong, please tell me because if he's made any I'll go buy them now.)

Sadly, even in the Year of Our Lord 2017, there's still this extremely special mentality that video games create behaviors. Yes, there are cases of young people saying "I saw it in a video game so I did it," but (sorry, PTA moms) that's an issue with the family and not the game. There's a Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode that busts this pretty hard. But that's slightly off the path of this episode.

As ever, each episode of Black Mirror comes with its set of overstated reviewer issues that completely miss the point... while there's a lot to say about our own psychology sitting right there under the surface.

Missed Point 1: "This is a commentary on how emotionally numb we've become."

I can't speak for anyone else, but if I've become numb to horror and violence it's because this year has sucked a lot.

It's true that we see Cooper laughing at some terrifying things -- giant spiders, the high school bully, a giant bully-faced spider -- but laughing is not an uncommon fear response. People who game with me or go to haunts with me will probably hear me laugh more than scream.

Laughing, crying, and screaming are all valid fear responses. And leaving out the fact that scientists are actually digging into the idea that laughing at fear might be a survival instinct, these are all cathartic acts. Which makes sense -- comedy and horror are very close siblings and serve similar purposes.

The idea that Cooper and others need or want augmented reality horror isn't necessarily a sign of numbness, either. If horror is catharsis, big horror is big catharsis. More on that later.

Missed Point 2: "COULD THIS BE THE FUTURE OF GAMING!!!!????!!!"


The sight of Matrixed-out gamers in sci-fi isn't an uncommon sight: people who want the realest and the best to the point that they will mod their own body to get it. And while I'm sure you can find some gamers who'd be willing to do that, I doubt you'll find any designers willing to run with that.

The mushroom of "Playtest" is, let's face it, a Really Really Dumb Idea. I can name one person in my life who would absolutely go for it, but even the hardest-core adrenaline junkies I know would nope right out of any piece of machinery that could plumb your brain for fear -- assuming it could even exist. Which is irrelevant, of course, because Black Mirror has no interest in predicting future tech. And yes, I'll keep saying that until people understand.

"Playtest" does make some major statements about fear and the human psyche and escapism. But, funnily enough, it's much more about the powers of the human mind -- and how, in the end, technology can never replicate what we can do to ourselves.

So what are the true high points of "Playtest"?

Charlie Brooker Really Likes Resident Evil

Without sarcasm, this is probably our main takeaway from the episode.

Reclusive designer Shou Saito is a match in almost every way for real-world game designer Hideo Kojima (of Resident Evil, Metal Gear, and the upcoming Death Stranding). He's off working with an eclectic group at his own company -- SaitoGemu in "Playtest," Kojima Productions in the real world. He looks extremely similar. His EDGE cover advertising Harlech Shadow V: The Fear Within looks a lot like the PlayStation Magazine cover for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. (See both below.) Hell, isolate some of the kanji in Kojima's name and it can be read "Shou Saito." For gamers who know their stuff, this would be like seeing a movie about a dude named PDQ Warcraft writing books about giant squids.

Throw in that the Harlech Shadow interiors look awfully similar to more recent Resident Evil games, and the fact that our protagonist's surname is Redfield, and... yeah, Brooker really just wanted to make a Resident Evil episode for real.

Why is that a takeaway? Well, one, because Resident Evil is awesome. But two, because Brooker has form when it comes to video game nowse. His earliest writing gigs involved reviewing video games for PC Zone, and he's done some amazing documentary work on the history of gaming. So when someone with his decades of experience decides to dedicate his video game episode to a very specific creator and a very specific franchise, he's making a statement about that creator and franchise's importance in the art form.

And that's sort of a big deal. It's not a thing many gamers (if any) would argue with. It's really a "gimme," if anything. But there's something quite nice about seeing a gaming fan not only do the thing, but do it well -- I can't imagine many other creators nailing an off-brand quite like this.

Though listen around. There are some references to other games of note scattered throughout, too.

Humans Crave Bespoke Horror

An easy thing to forget when looking back on "Playtest" is the intent of SaitoGemu's experiment. And, in all fairness to us, we're sort of invited to forget it.

The true point of the experiment is not to make realer gaming. It's to make more personal gaming.

To latch into that, it's important to remember just how little of the episode actually happened. Starting from Cooper's mom calling him, we are operating within Cooper's mind. So the graphics quality tests, the failure of his "safe words," and the like are not part of the true experience -- or, at the very least, we will never know if they are. Obviously any game designer wants the highest possible quality graphics. But believable AR is already within reach without plugging things into our neck.

The mushroom might be able to affect what a person sees, but it also delves into memories to create something that looks and acts in a way that will create the desired result. It's not a less pixelated blood spatter Cooper -- or any gamer -- wants: it's a scare that truly hits home.

That's hard because, well, who knows? That's why jumpscares are so popular: they get the reaction most of the time because it's a cheap trick. Psychological horror depends on understanding psychology. And while some games are aces at that, it works better if the game "knows you" somehow.

Supermassive's Until Dawn is about as close as we'll currently get to Saito's dream project: a survival horror game that cross-checks, questions, and literally psychoanalyzes you to make sure it's delivering quality scares throughout the game. And it's pretty damn effective, altering scenes based on whether dogs or needles skeeve you out more.

But why, I've been trying to explain to people who don't dig horror, do we want it to be more personal? Why do we want that fake knife closer to our throats? It's hard to explain, because understanding the answer relies on being okay with horror. But for those of us who crave something that speaks directly to us, it really is the catharsis. The realer our fear, even if we know it can't hurt us (er, especially if we know it can't hurt us), the realer the satisfaction of facing it, the realer the burst of adrenaline when we face it down.


Our Realest Fears Are the Mundane

One of the most interesting things to me about this entire episode is that we have no proof that the mushroom had anything to do with the shape of Cooper's nightmare. The seizure that caused his death was absolutely caused by the interaction of the mushroom and his phone's signal... but it sure looks like the tech didn't even finish installing.

In other words, what we were seeing wasn't the mushroom acting on his brain. We were seeing the dying moments of a gamer. It's the only way to explain Cooper's experiences of visceral pain and psychological trauma beyond what would be ethical for a creator as self-respecting as Shou Saito.

Technology's only influence on Cooper's experience in this episode, arguably, is the death itself. Everything else was the result of his tortured mind putting things into terms he can understand as a thrill-seeker and gamer.

And the order of events makes sense, too. The "experiment" starts with an innocent game of Whack-a-Mole, with Cooper laughing downright childishly as he engages with the cartoon character -- a youthful, happy video game fan. We move on to the "real" house of Harlech Shadow, where he interacts with various monstrous versions of his feared high school bully. From there, he moves on to a mix of memories of his recent fling and struggles with trust issues -- which, as we go on, we start to see a reason for.

Then there's the "access point" in the upstairs bedroom -- bedrooms, according to Jung, being representative of our place of innermost thoughts and feelings (yep, you better believe I'm gonna whip out the Jung). What do we see there? A loss of sense of self. A fear of turning into his father. A shattering of his self image as we see the mirror shattered. A loss of control as the "perfectly safe" and "non-invasive" tech turns against him.

And then, our fake-out ending. A brief respite where he goes home, and then comes face to face with the one final thing he's been avoiding. We're never quite sure what pulled his family apart, what made him avoid his mother so assiduously and made him resent his father so much. But in those last moments, we see that actually losing the connection with his mother -- not being able to return to her on his terms -- is the most devastating thing in his life. And, of course, the separation makes up his final act.

Harlech Shadow as we witness it is Cooper's life flashing before his eyes. And while Shou Saito is modeled after one of the most talented game designers in history, there's probably no way he could make anything nearly so personally affecting.

What Is the Lesson?

Call your mom.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 1: "Nosedive" and Meaningful Encounters

SPOILER WARNING: For this and the next five entries, I will be talking at length and in depth about season 3 of Black Mirror. If you haven't seen it and don't want to be spoiled, please wait until you've watched to read on.

Sometimes I fall stupidly behind on the things I love. Video games, TV shows, sleep... Black Mirror. I was well aware that a third season was available on Netflix, but the awareness that I'd binge it all in two or three days and depress the hell out of myself kept me away for a bit, until such time as I could deal myself out an episode a day.

Well. I binged it all in two or there days and depressed the hell out of myself, but I'm better now. So it's time to begin my six-part journey into why people keep missing the point.

Missed Point 1: "Ha ha, it's like those Instagram-obsessed people."

Ha ha! Oh, boy! So glad I'm not like them! Thank God I'm not one of those flat-lay coffee-art beach-selfie woke-up-like-this Insta addicts. Oh gosh, it was nice watching an episode about how they're all going to crash and burn.

No, kids. No. Just. No.

Note the setting of "Nosedive": this is a world where, for reasons we aren't privy to, rated social interaction has become an inherent part of society. We do see people who are clearly putting all their hours into it, but that's understandable. Because your rating has become tied to absolutely everything. And that's a product of a lot more than people just wanting to look good to strangers.

This means even people who don't want to use it sort of have to, at least a little. And there's plenty of proof that societal pressure has led to a belief that only bad people have low ratings -- meaning that even if you don't buy into it, you probably still have to do the bare minimum. So, depending on the person, ratings could affect quality of life. It's just a matter of how you do it. More on that later.

Missed Point 2: "China's about to do this."

Yes, it's true. China has been looking at a "Social Credit System" since about 2014 that could affect life as deeply as it does the people in "Nosedive."

But it's important to remember that the possibility of the tech in Black Mirror existing is secondary (or lower) to the point being made. The tech is metaphorical, either for something we already have or what we've turned an existing advance into. 

Musing on the plausibility of Black Mirror tech and how far we are from having it misses a very big issue: we're already there. Anything you see happening in this show already happens to some degree. We aren't smugly counting down the years to when people are going to get that stupid: we're being shown where we already are.

It's in the title.

Where should we be looking, then?


As I've says always and forever and everywhere, the genre of giant robot anime is a giant metaphor for technology is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It simply is. What it does relies on the morals of the person wielding it. Similarly, technology cannot make you become something you never had a tendency toward; it can only amplify a tendency already in you.

The running theme of the entire series is technology exposing truths: about us to ourselves, about others to us, about us to others, about the world in general. It is not about tech implanting us with strange new tendencies. If anything, the "villains" of the pieces tend to be humans, with technology unwillingly complicit.

For a better read of "Nosedive," we have to address the behavior that the technology amplifies: pointless social climbing, dishonest networking, and elitism.

Pointless Social Climbing

Lacie and the people of "Nosedive" at least have a one-up on us when it comes to their social climbing ways: they can get actual tangible results. Being up in the lofty 4.8s genuinely alters your quality of life, with effects on your standard of living and your overall health and safety. Granted, our primary eyeful is at the loftier tiers for whom a fall from four stars to one would actually be genuinely alienating.

We see one, two, and three stars throughout the episode, though. And there's something very interesting about their presence: they aren't suffering. Black Mirror is unafraid to show poverty and illness and all the worst things that can happen to a person in dire straits. But our window on Lacie's world never gives us the impression that a drop in stars will actually kill her.

If this was a story they wanted to tell, they could have told that story. They could have shown us a world where a one-star Lacie genuinely had to fight for her life. But she was never truly in danger. The ending is even uplifting in its own way.

So in Lacie's world, social climbing isn't entirely pointless, but it isn't life-threatening not to. I mean, unless you put a down payment on a house you can't afford if your rating isn't perfect by tomorrow.

Her efforts, though, are eerily similar to those of people who are pursuing social climbing for... well... ends that will bring them nothing. For the sake of knowing and being seen with The Right People. It happens a lot. And frankly, the harder you work in your own field, the more you'll have people who Lacie you left and right on the daily.

Funnily, Lacie's situation almost seems to be what her real-world counterparts expect a well-climbed social ladder will give them: attractive and well-considered peers, social and financial advantages, and generally a Very Pretty Life. But it doesn't work that way. And the harder you fight for it, the more obvious you become.

Dishonest Networking

Speaking of being obvious. The world of "Nosedive" makes it very easy to flip through someone's feed and see what they've just done, what they prize, what they're hoping to do. Which allows Lacie to hold friendly -- but ultimately meaningless -- conversations with anyone she encounters.

This... already exists. Look at your one well-known friend on social media. You have one. Everyone has one somewhere. Look at the people who try to get close with them, who try to "know" them, and look how so many of them dig deep into their photos or work to imitate something that person's done recently to fake an interest. Even if you only see it from afar, there's a sort of vicarious embarrassment for the person trying too hard.

Dishonest networking does work on some people, it's true. But as Lacie's consultant said in the episode, the harder you try, the more readily someone can sniff out the bullshit. 

People who engage in this sort of behavior do get their name passed around a lot, it's true... as someone to avoid. It becomes apparent fairly quickly by just how hard they're working to slip casually into conversations. And a lot of that is the desire not just to win the person over, but to be seen with that person in conversation. So even if they fail to make the connection, others have seen them chatting with the person in a way that seems personal and thus could be construed as a friendship.

One of the most eye-opening moments of the episode was Lacie's receipt of a low rating from a lower-tier employee. His reasoning? "It wasn't a meaningful encounter." In the moment, she has to accept that a good act will never replace genuine humanity. And, too, that not every encounter has to be meaningful. Sometimes you will buy your soda and go.


If humans can find a reason to rank each other, they can find a reason to hate each other. And humans can always find a reason to rank each other.

The idea that we aren't already as elitist as the 4s of "Nosedive" is one of the more laughable misconceptions of the whole situation. We already judge based on clothes. Jobs. Money. Neighborhood. Taste in TV shows. All the app of Black Mirror does is put numbers to it to make it more official.

Too, it puts into numbers the use of deliberate "ballot box stuffing" as revenge -- a theme we see revisited later in the series with "Hated in the Nation," but dealt with far differently. Think on two points in the episode. The first is when Lacie discovers a coworker isn't all right to be talked to after an in-office breakup. The second is Lacie's own temporary ratings dock after dropping F-bombs at an airport.

Let it register for a moment that a concerted effort by a group of angry coworkers could have the same effect on a person's life in this scenario as a punitive action taken by a security guard. And then step back from "there but for the grace of God" because we've got nearly that level of power already.

On the one hand, Internet communication has allowed for the exposure of many criminals and unsavory types. On the other, people working hard enough as a group can endanger the well-being, social standing, or safety of someone simply because they don't like them.

With elitism and spite side by side... it's really not all that far off to see a person's life as they know it drastically altered simply because someone with a phone doesn't like them.

What's The Lesson?

The oddly positive ending might lead people to believe that happiness can only be found by throwing out our smartphones and insulting everyone around us. (Speaking of things people are already doing.) But that discounts a lot of the story's subtlety.

In the 21st century, many of us work in fields where a web presence and networking via social media are essential. The idea that it should be done away with completely falls into that old trap of assuming it is the technology that is at fault, rather than our use thereof.

Infusing the technology with a degree of integrity requires integrity from within. Humane interactions both online and offline, that are reliant upon honesty rather than trying to create The Perfect Impression. A greater understanding of equality in interactions, and moving away from the idea that people will like us or else. And, most of all, the courage to present our best selves to the world.

If your best and happiest self really is flat-lays and flat whites on Instagram, then it's what you should be doing. But it's far less effort, and far more productive, to present your happiness and your pride rather than what will get you the stars. Because honestly, the old high school bully who's now doing yoga in a beach house can't actually make your life any better with her friendship.

Coming Friday: "Playtest" and the allure of bespoke fear.


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Monday, December 4, 2017

INDUSTRY: 5 Things Big Businesses Need to Learn About Their Internet Presence

Dear Corporate World:

You suck at the Internet.

I don't mean the numbers, the CPM, the ROI, the SEO, the EIEIO. I know. You've got your whiz kids for that. You're navigating the ridiculous, ever-changing world of how to be seen online, how to keep your head above your ever-expanding number of competitors. No, you've got me beat there.

But you are really, really striking out when it comes to the "culture" of the Internet.

Because yeah. The Internet has a culture. Heck, anthropologically speaking it was already pretty much bound to develop one. And like everything else about the Internet, it's ever-changing, exponentially faster than anything in the real world.

A few companies nailed it. Denny's, in its own weird way, seems to have things figured out. But for the most part, it's a bit of a hot mess. And it's not an age thing so much as the aforementioned cultural aspect. Think of it less like using outdated slang in front of your kids, and more like not realizing that something is idiomatic in another language. At best, you look awkward; at worst, you may have just been very offensive and potentially misrepresented yourself.

It's okay, though. I'm here to help. Sit down. Here's what you need to know.

1. You are the harbingers of meme death.

Okay, big business. In your defense, memes come and go extremely quickly. Without exaggeration, I missed the rise, peak, and fall of the blue/black/white/gold dress debacle because I was taking a long bath. So no one's expecting you to be right on the nose with things.

It's more the fact that, once the "real world" has discovered and attempted to use the meme, the result is so weirdly on the nose that it loses its punch. It's a side effect of researching online trends for things relevant to your business: in many cases, the more relevant it is, the worse it will do in action.

Internet humor is in a sort of Dadaist phase now, with jokes either being generated out of nowhere for weirdness's sake or coming from somewhere unexpected and being so odd that people run with it. There's not a lot of rhyme and reason to memes -- so stapling rhyme and reason to it kind of spoils it. In a roundabout way, it's like the punch you lose when you explain your joke.

2. Unless the meme is about you, in which case you can make or break it.

So here's where things get interesting, and here's where places like Arby's are doing well and places like McDonald's are... not so much.

If the meme happens to involve your business specifically, then you have a golden opportunity -- because referencing it well and embracing it is like a benediction. Provided you do it in the same spirit as the rest of the web.

In other words, you're not trying to monetize the laugh. That was the big downfall for McDonald's when they tried to run with the Rick & Morty fandom's Szechuan Sauce fixation. Technically it was a gag about their product so they were free to reference it, but a nod and wink would have sufficed and served them well. Instead, they launched a stunt that was one step to the left of copyright infringement.

The point is to show you're in on it and you're cool with it -- legitimizing it, in a way. But that has to be done by interacting with the meme, rather than bending it to your advertising.

3. "Your Product and Chill" implies sex, so make sure that's what you mean.

Or, you know, at least make sure that you are also in on the joke if you're going to put it out there.

"Netflix and chill" is a euphemism for getting together for sex -- either with both parties understanding or with the asker meaning sex with the invitee assuming they mean literally watching Netflix and chilling. A few ad campaigns have used the euphemism to good effect, with others seeming to not quite know what they're getting themselves into.

This is one term out of many, but it's a good starting point, a good rule of thumb: if you're integrating Internet slang into your ad campaign, make sure you know the minutiae of it so you aren't inadvertently making a sex joke on a homeschooling page or something. I don't know. You get me.

As a matter of fact, please just always research anything before you use it because you can get yourself in some big trouble.

4. Find out what hashtags are for before you use them.

This is, frankly, one of the worst. And one of the most timely, considering people are now using hashtags more than ever to help document and curate difficult untold stories.

Hashtag games of the silly and creative kind are a fairly regular thing, and they're still out there. But when it comes to #metoo and others, it's not for playing. Unfortunately, a social media manager who's only been told "find the trending tags and get in on them" is going to occasionally take a hard knock like this. These tags are trending for a different reason: to show the scope of the issue.

A toe into these for advertising purposes tells readers one of two things: either you aren't paying attention to the world around you, or you make light of other people's suffering for your own profit. Between you and me it's probably almost always closer to the former -- you saw it going off the charts, it didn't look offensive or weird automatically, so you thought "holy shit, this is a fun game" instead of "holy shit, spousal abuse is a fucking epidemic."

Always research. Always always always. And even if it's something benign-looking that you've used before, always check on the day you use it. Because even if it's never caused you issues before, something like #notguilty might have a very different meaning today from its meaning yesterday.

5. Straight talk is better than trying too hard.

The best way to make sure you don't fall prey to awkward Internet-speak mistakes that require you to make it clear that your company doesn't support child abuse or Nazis or whatever you fell into? Hire a nerd to run your social media. Get someone who speaks the language and who has business training. Those people do exist. Don't just get your friend's nephew on it; look for people with a good online presence and the ability to keep up with both the marketing trends and the cultural trends.

Barring that? Just do business as usual, dude. If your options are "do Internet speak badly" or "just get the point across," the latter is far more advantageous. Unless that's specifically the demographic you're going for, it's safer not to try. Seriously, half my friends have no idea what the hell loss.jpg is at a glance. And I envy them.

And when it comes to actual marketing tools like hashtags, groups, and the like? Just remember that social media is no longer just a way to get likes and recognition. It's become a way to share experiences, gather info, and find news. You're wading in among very real life experiences, in an era in which most people are at least somewhat jacked into the world around them.

And hell, if all else fails, consult me. God knows I'd be happy to be some company's pet geek just to stop yet another clickbait listicle of 20 Ways Big Businesses Messed Up Hashtags.


Want to see more of my work, get exclusive content, and help me help others pursue their creativity? Become a patron! Gifts include behind-the-scenes looks at my work, monthly fiction you won't find anywhere else, and personal writing consultations. Thanks for your support!

Friday, December 1, 2017

NANOWRIMO 2017: Lessons Learned

Yep, somehow I managed it again. Right down to the wire this time, where last year I was a day early. But it happened.

Now titled The Widow Box, it's a book that maybe has some promise. Probably as a visual novel, for reasons I'll mention later. But it's a story I like and something I'd like to do something with in future.

As I say everywhere and always, I consider NaNo to be a learning experience. I've written and published books before, but I still have various and sundry to pull from it. Having won it one year prior, I figured I was coming in with a pretty good mentality, and I was less panicked over time and productivity this time.

So it was a very different sort of experience.

LESSON 1: Finding your catching-up method is as important as finding your writing method.

If you're in the US doing NaNoWriMo, there's a built-in speed bump to grapple with: the beginning of the holidays. My sister was visiting from Portland, which I consider a plus, but it meant coming home from great afternoons out and remembering that I'd forgotten to plug 1,700 words into my story.

I did eventually find a catch-up method that allowed me to get back up to par after missing a day or two without burning out. Having "par" to look at on the site also helped a lot -- even on days when I was doing multiple days' worth of writing, it gave me cut-off points between which I could do other work and clear my head.

Though I prefer to put in some writing every day, I feel much better about having a backup plan for catching up instead of sweating around arrangements.


It seems I'm still not able to separate serialized work from long-term creations, as I panic to edit while I write. It's a waste of time.

Well, editing isn't a waste of time. But when you're screaming for a 50,000 word goal, it is extra work.

I mean, okay. Once in a while if you have a really important big thing you need to run back and plant? That's one thing. But the hard edit can come later, after the book has sat in a dark corner and you've been away from it for a while. The point is to get the words down, for better or for worse, and cope later.

LESSON 3: Let symbolism happen.

Considering I've written an entire damn study on this, you'd think I'd let it apply to me.

As I was doing rough planning for The Widow Box, I lay down some very basic symbolism. Subtle stuff I could build on without it being too blatant and going overboard, and that I still had wiggle room within in case the story changed as I wrote.

Funnily enough, most of what I planned ended up falling between the cracks. But as I kept writing, I found that other things sprang up of their own accord when I wasn't looking. It occurred to me to latch into them and play them up... but honestly I figured if my subconscious was doing this well on its own, trying to take control would turn the whole thing insufferably Art School.

When I read back after it's been simmering for a while, I'm curious how it'll look.

LESSON 4: Finishing a big project always feels amazing.

I had a teacher in high school who would assign us long papers because "finishing a big project feels good." (This guy wasn't an asshole -- he was as close to Dead Poets Society as we peasants will ever hope to get.) He was not wrong, and frankly, that's part of the reason I do NaNo: to type those last words.

There's something really satisfying in putting a pin in NaNo, though, of all things. Which is not to say that not finishing has no value. Any work you put in, whether planning or attempting or getting part way, has an impact and helps you improve. But no matter how many projects I do, I can't beat the feeling of accomplishment of finishing that month.

I'm not sure where The Widow Box will go from here. I have some ideas and hopes. We'll see. In the meantime, I hope anyone who participated in this year's NaNo did well, and those who are considering it will be inspired to try next year.


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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Creativity for a Living: The Curse of the Jobbing Hobbyist

Note: Today's blog post is a bit on the salty side. Readers with high blood pressure, proceed at your own discretion.

I was talking just now with Ginger Hoesly -- Onezumi Events design queen and regular collaborator -- about the curse of being a freelancer or part of a small business when it comes to people with "ideas" about your work. She mentioned, quite rightly, that people romanticize small businesses and freelancers, but when it comes time to do business with either, many people get very squanchy with their money.

As someone who has been screwed over financially by pretty much every tier of business, I can understand that. When it comes to an "unproven" solo creator versus a business with a BBB rating, it can be easy to get nervous and fiddly with your cash. But there's a difference between caution and entitlement.

Too, there's a very different mindset when it comes to my circle of friends and myself -- what I call, largely sarcastically, "jobbing hobbyists." By my own definition that has no source or proof anywhere, a Jobbing Hobbyist is anyone who makes the majority of their living doing something that is widely classified as a pastime. Writing, art, music, really most things in the creative field and a few things outside it. Basically, if a relative or family friend has ever said they wish they could do what you do or that they also do what you do, you are likely a Jobbing Hobbyist.

In most cases, you'll see two sides to a Jobbing Hobbyist's work. There's the front-facing side that keeps the lights on. Artists design. Writers are journalists or work for content mills. Do well enough, get far enough, know the right people, and they become Proper Artists or Proper Writers or whatever. Basically, paid enough for their creativity that people who aren't in their field will acknowledge that what they do is a career.

Well, sometimes. I've seen plenty of renowned creative types still get the Family Snub at the holidays. So nothing's certain, no matter how many figures you're fortunate enough to bring in.

I have forgiven, but am having trouble forgetting, the time a friend of mine said she'd like to pursue something akin to one of my then-current contracts as a "break" from her regular job. I did not take this well.

As I've said before and will always say, I never tell people their jobs are harder or easier than anyone else's. I've worked retail, I've worked at a deli, I've been a tour guide, a cashier, a desk monkey, a teller... everything is difficult in its way. Difficult-slash-rewarding is the best goal you can hope to achieve unless you have a rich relative who will let you live in their mansion in exchange for feeding their slightly uncanny-looking cats. And in that case you're probably already cursed.

Usually I like to think of myself as (to rip off from Sherlock) a "geek interpreter": something of a midway point to very kindly explain to people how we (geek or creative or whatever) work, shed some light on things, and bring understanding. Then there are some days when my friends and I are pissed off and I just have Things To Say About Things, and I feel like this is one of those days.

So, dear people who stare at the work of Jobbing Hobbyists and either can't understand why you should have to pay/signal boost them or think it looks like a nice getaway from your day-to-day, a few words.

1. You benefit from us from the moment you wake up.

Much of the push-back against supporting creators is the idea that creativity is a non-essential. That books, movies, artwork, music, games, and the like are not necessary for life, and thus should either be cheaper (or free, for the extra-entitled) or shouldn't be such a big deal.

But remember what I said earlier about our day jobs? You're already getting our work cheap or free -- and without it, your day wouldn't be nearly the same.

Nearly every creative sort I work with who hasn't gotten over that Professional Speedbump has a Main Hustle that they do to keep the cash coming in. And more often than not, that Main Hustle is an offshoot of their creative life. Me? I am a journalist and editor. Ginger's a graphic designer. And the work we do tends to not be a part of people's leisure time.

I mean, sure, I write for a geek news site. But I also throw in on "mundane" news and content mills. My artist friends make their money designing for businesses of all sizes, websites, and companies other than the one they work for. So even if you are forever and staunchly of the opinion that the arts are not a life essential, you are still gaining something from creatives every day.

Take away good site design by trained artists, conscientious writing done by authors trying to make ends meet, and programming by gamers who can't afford to put out their first title... and you'll barely even be able to get your morning news read. Trust me. I've worked for a news site.

Every job in some way impacts the world. "Burger flippers" keep people fed. Sales clerks keep the stores running. Teachers make sure we are intelligent and trained enough to keep pursuing these careers. And artists do more than you think. Even if you consider the output we make from our own minds unessential, we aren't. And much like a horrifying industrial short from the 50s, removing our influence would make shit weird pretty quickly.

2. Creativity on a deadline is hard.

This is extremely hard to convey to people, in large part because it sounds like whining.


In large part because it is whining.

But the process of inspiration, planning, creation, and production is extremely taxing. People who aren't Jobbing Hobbyists don't necessarily get this because when creation is a hobby, you do it when it comes to you and at no other time. You paint when you want to. You practice piano when you want to. You write a short story when you're inspired to.

As someone currently sitting on about five writing contracts and the last two days of NaNoWriMo -- being creative on a schedule is extremely taxing. You wrote a short story because it came to you, but think of it this way. Imagine a stranger dumped you out of bed at 7 am, said you had two weeks to write a short story based on a one-sentence prompt and a pile of papers they've shoved at you containing what you can and can't do, and then left.

Are you ready? Can you do it? Did you have plans for the next two weeks? It isn't easy. And considering the majority of it comes from your brain -- what do you do if it isn't there?

I already hear the clapback: "If you hate it so much, don't do it." I don't hate it. I stress under it. Everyone has something, eventually, that is extremely difficult but that they still love. That they curse when they're under the wire but they'd kill to keep doing. Just because it's difficult doesn't mean I don't love it.

Just because I love it... doesn't mean I don't deserve recompense.

3. Payment is for time and effort, not to make up for not having fun.

There's an unspoken assumption in society concerning the workforce: fun is payment enough. If you love what you do, you don't need money. Therefore, if someone is doing a job considered to be "fun," they are already being paid in getting to spend all their time enjoying themselves.

This is, like, essentially not what salaries are about at all. You are paid for your time and your effort, not as a reward for putting up with a bad time. Salaries are the price put on your work, your time, and your ability. Not always fair prices, God knows, but that's for someone a lot more socially minded than yours truly to put into words and graphs.

We live in a world where it costs money to live. (There's another thing that maybe someone besides me should take up.) As I've said in previous blog posts, and every single day of my life, we cannot live on love and fulfillment.

Creativity takes time. This blog post takes me time. Writing anything takes time, which is why when I write for other people, I prefer to either get paid or do it for a charity about which I am knowledgeable. Do I love to write? Yes. Even when it's hard? Eh. Usually. Sometimes I lie on my office floor crying about how writing is hard, but I do still love it. Does that means the 12-18 hours a day I spend on it should be unpaid? No.

I am fortunate -- very fortunate -- to get to spend time doing something I love, instead of being stuck in something to make ends meet. I really am. But I'm not fool enough to think that that means I don't deserve recompense for the time I put in.

4. Packaging our creations with business info isn't tacky...

There's something pretty widespread a lot of creators have noticed online: creations posted with a link to a shop, tip jar, Patreon, etc. get fewer engagements and shares than creations posted on their own. Or, in the case of a few wiseacres, people will simply repost it without the information to make it look "nicer."

Don't do this.

We may love what we created and choose to put it out free, either for our own fun or to catch an eye. And there is nothing wrong with attaching info about us, financial or otherwise, to it. Some people -- many people -- want to know where it came from and how they can support the creator. It doesn't spoil the "aesthetic" to leave it there. And, even if you're not about helping creators, it helps people who want to know who to credit.

5. ... and we wouldn't have to do it if it was more fashionable to support creators.

You know what I'd love to do on a more regular basis? Just put a link that says "Hey, here's my Patreon" without having to construct an elaborate eyecatch around it. I'd love to just be able to say "Hi, guys, here's where you can go if you fancy supporting me." But just saying that with nothing else is often considered begging. (Well, you know, it kind of is begging after a point if just selling things isn't working because "non-essentials" should be free -- so good call.)

The "begging" links rarely get shared except by other creators. Other people who know how hard it is, who understand that people deserve recompense for their work while they're being underpaid or yelled at to not ask for money. Largely because they're going through the exact same thing.

Can't support someone financially? Don't fancy anything in their shop? Just share the link. Just hit retweet or reblog. Just boost it. Send it to a friend who likes the thing. The way you'd send an Amazon link. It takes two seconds.

6. "Buying small" goes for everything.

As bigger and bigger industries take over, it's getting trendier to tell people to buy small/local. And for most things, we feel compelled to. We go to mom and pop stores, look for local coffee and tea shops to buy from, seek out hole-in-the-wall family-run restaurants over chains. And that's good. It really is.

But when it comes to creators, many of us see the same thing. "I don't have the money," followed by the same person posting a haul of big-title creations totaling up to a few hundred buckos.

Let me quantify: I am not saying that if a company holds the copyright on something and you want to buy official merch, you should not buy official merch. Always do what you can to give money to the license-holder. There is a difference between buying from indie artists and buying from knockoff sellers. Also, if the license-holder has said up front that they do not approve of fan-made merch, then do not buy fan-made merch. But if they do? And you can't find what you want? Buy fan-made merch.

Here is a piece I did for Crunchyroll in which a major IP holder details what fans are allowed to make and sell.

Fan-created or original work aside, if you are a lover of entertainment, consider setting aside part of your "fun money" for an indie creator when you go out for books and comics and art. All your faves started small, after all. You could be supporting the next big name and helping them get out there.

Is this a rant? It's a rant. Of course it's a rant. Because my friends, myself, and creators I admire from a distance fall into this hole on a regular basis. And when we hit these points where we have difficulties presenting our job as a job and then we're told we shouldn't be doing that anyway, it gets a lot of things. It gets daunting. It gets painful. It gets gross.

Everyone deserves to make a living for what they do. No one deserves to be told it's not worthwhile. If you wouldn't say it to a sandwich maker or a tutor, don't say it to a writer or an artist. Show love, even if you don't have the money, by telling other people. And apply your "buy small" mentality to things beyond produce and IPAs.

You'll make the world a better place in a lot of ways.


Want to see more of my work, get exclusive content, and help me help others pursue their creativity? Become a patron! Gifts include behind-the-scenes looks at my work, monthly fiction you won't find anywhere else, and personal writing consultations. Thanks for your support!