Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments

Stephen T asks:

Have the sorts of topics you write about on Whatever changed over the years since you first started your blog? And related, have you seen a change over the years in the comments you receive and has your approach to commenters changed (especially trolls)?

Sure, the topics have changed a bit. One reason for that is a function of how the purpose of Whatever has changed from when it started. Originally I wrote Whatever as a quasi newspaper column, because I had been a newspaper columnist in the past, wanted to be again, and wanted to stay sharp in the format. These days I write Whatever for itself and don’t really worry about whether I’ll be a newspaper columnist ever again — and if I ever am it seems far more likely the columns would be more like Whatever than anything else. There is some irony here.

Another reason is that some topics run their course, either because of events — I don’t write about George W. Bush that much anymore because the man’s no longer president, and therefore I don’t have to think about him much on a day to day basis — or because I’ve just said all I needed or wanted to say on the topic and I can’t be bothered with it anymore. As an example of that, a decade ago I wrote several pieces on the subject of the Confederate States of America and the Confederate flag, and whether both were inherently racist (spoiler: yes), and for about a year that subject bounced around Whatever. But after a while I didn’t really have anything new to say on the topic, and it became less topical as a conversation, and I let it drop. Ironically, Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” song has briefly revived the topic, but my interest in commenting about it is not great; frankly, I got burned out on the subject.

Two other factors that make a difference in what goes up here: Time and Twitter. Time, because professionally I am busier than I used to be so I don’t do as many genuinely “random” posts here; Twitter because that’s where a lot of smaller, off-the-top-of-my-head bits go these days. I don’t think either of these things make the overall quality of Whatever better or worse; they’re just changes that have happened.

That said, I do occasionally remind myself the topic of the blog really is “whatever” — that it doesn’t just have to be about writing and pictures of cats and whatever cultural/political thing I’m obsessing on at the moment. The title of the blog reminds me to occasionally look up from my ruts, be they old or new.

In terms of the comments I receive: No, in general they’ve been pretty consistent. I installed commenting ability here five years after the site went up (in fact, ten years ago almost exactly) so it already had a core of regular readers who were invested in the site and felt inclined to add to its value, not detract, when they commented. Some of them comment here still. That base of good commenters behaving well together set the standard for the site, and it’s largely continued to this day.

There are occasional flare-ups of stupidity when someone gets a bug in their ass; I think we’re all aware of the recent spate of dumb and/or trollish comments inspired by the fellow with a mancrush, a bad case of professional envy, and the need to make himself look important to his coterie of excitable boys by punching upward at me. This spate will pass in time. Additionally, when a piece here gets wider circulation there’s often an influx of new commenters, which is generally good but also means a few trolls swinging by to see if this is the sort of place where they’ll thrive. It’s not. The policy on trolls has been consistent for years: Mallet.

But generally I don’t have to moderate nearly as much as people think I have to. That’s down to the commenters being mostly smart, civil and invested in the site. It’s been that way from the earliest days of commenting.

27 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments

  1. “Flare-Ups of Stupidity” is the name of my [insert a band representative of a genre of music you find particularly inane] cover band.

  2. “Flare-Ups of Stupidity” would also be a great title for a book full of tech support stories. I speak from personal experience on this.

    Back on topic, I always find it amusing when people use different threads on Whatever to make a comment about John’s “followers”, as if fans of his work or people who agree with his views on various topics are members of a cult. It’s an interesting idea though. I wonder if followers equates to minions? Does that mean we get uniforms and a generous stiped?

  3. I’ve heard at least one creative type say they no longer use Twitter because if they had a clever or funny idea they would just throw it out on twitter and then usually do nothing more with it. Without twitter, they’re more likely to develop it or incorporate it into other work.

    (I just gave up on Twitter because I didn’t have the discipline to resist looking at it when it showed there were new unread messages.)

    You, on the other hand, seem to have been able to take content from your Twitter and turn it into more fun on Whatever. Plus you have the Whatwitters for those of us who no longer indulge in the Twitterverse.

  4. Back on topic, I always find it amusing when people use different threads on Whatever to make a comment about John’s “followers”, as if fans of his work or people who agree with his views on various topics are members of a cult. It’s an interesting idea though. I wonder if followers equates to minions? Does that mean we get uniforms and a generous stipend?

    Not really. Minions are cannon fodder. A ration and a signifying armband is enough.

  5. There is a self-selecting groupthink component to the commenters here — as with the commenters on every blog. Once you’ve got a critical mass of regulars, new people either fit in or leave. Naturally the ones who share biases with the existing group will fit in more easily, so over time you get a group with fairly similar ideas and preconceptions.

    Note that in such groups, even small differences will seem large, so there’s still the illusion of diversity, even though an outsider would see disagreements as ludicrous hairsplitting.

    And then from time to time a genuine outsider will show up, and their very outsiderness will only confirm the community in their shared common identity.

  6. Cambias:

    Yes, but what are the relevant biases, is the question. The regular site comments, for example, learn more liberal (for values of the term corresponding to the US) than not, but there are also a fair number of libertarian and/or conservative voices as well. I think a stronger bias is for civility than political/social worldview.

  7. @cambias

    I’d guess that Scorpius and Greg (for example) are about as dissimilar as you are likely to encounter in this, or any, universe.

  8. It’s funny that you mention the posts your wrote about the Civil War and the Confederacy, since they were some of my favourite on the Whatever. I think it’s because I still see the arguments that you were refuting coming up time and again, and also for the magnificent smack down you laid upon the various CSA FanBoyz that wondered over. Heck, I was thinking of asking you to do one for RRW, just for old times sake, but that could descend into trolling your own blog.

  9. Likely too late, but for this week how about sharing with us your “bucket list” limited to, say ten items. I know you are too young to think of such things, but I, for one, would be most interested in knowing what today you would really like to see or do before the grim reaper calls. That could be a great “whatever” topic, I think.

  10. I wonder if followers equates to minions? Does that mean we get uniforms and a generous stipend?

    That brings The Last Action Hero to mind. “No, I only go so far as ‘lackey’.”

  11. This may be veering a little off topic, but I’d just like to say that I came to Whatever as a result of the “Being Poor” post. My worldview tends toward “right-leaning centrist”. I respect the fac that Scalzi’s willing to entertain opposite points of view, as long as it’s more “reasoned debate” and less “hyperactive troll”. I appreciate the fact that simply announcing my political views won’t automatically get me kicked off Whatever, simply because Scalzi’s views don’t always coincide with mine. Which is to say, it’s nice to know that Scalzi’s not so full of himself that he only wants fawning sycophants leaving comments.

    Long story short…thank you, sir.

  12. [Troll goes down the cue card of stock words and phrases from Racist Sexist Homophoblic Dipshit’s site, proving a) the quality of readership at said site, b) sycophantic lack of originality. Go home, wee troll, you are boring — JS]

  13. Hey John, I was reading reviews on Goodreads for “the Ghost Brigade” and came across the review this guy wrote and i find it interesting here it is:

    James Cameron and John Scalzi Share An Awkward Elevator Ride

    James Cameron: Could you hit the button for the top floor, please?

    John Scalzi: Sure. Say, aren’t you James Cameron?

    JC: That’s right. My friends call me King of the World! Ha Ha! Just kidding.

    JS: Right.

    JC: You look kind of familiar. Have we met?

    JS: Met? No. Maybe you recognize me from my author’s photo on my books. I’m John Scalzi.

    Long pause

    JC: Uh……No, sorry. I don’t think I’ve read your books.

    JS: Really? You haven’t read Old Man’s War or The Ghost Brigades?

    JC: Uh……Nope.

    JS: You should check them out. I think you’d like them. The story revolves around soldiers having their consciousnesses downloaded into genetically enhanced bodies so they can fight wars on distant planets. I use that to bring up questions about the ethics of colonization.

    JC: Uh…. Well, that does sound pretty good. I’ll check them out sometime.

    JS: Now that I think about it, that sounds kind of similar to your movie Avatar.

    JC: Huh.. Yeah, I guess there’s a few minor similarities there.

    JS: Of course, my genetically enhanced bodies are green and yours were blue so I guess that makes all the difference, right?

    JC: Uh……

    JS: You’re sure you never read them? They came out a few years before you filmed Avatar. Probably about the time you were brainstorming ideas for the movie. Maybe even writing the script?

    JC: OK, look. I guess it’s possible that I did read your books. Maybe….just maybe… I did and adapted a few of your ideas. You know how it is. Everything you’ve read or seen before gets mashed up in your head and you start combining that stuff with your own story ideas. Sometimes you may end up using a tiny aspect of someone else’s story. Hell, Tarantino has made a whole career out of that.

    JS: Oh, so now you think you did read my books?

    JC: It’s possible. But even if I.. uh…borrowed an idea or two from you. And I’m not saying I did! But if I accidentally incorporated some stuff of yours into Avatar, I’m sure you see all the differences in it. Like your book didn’t have flying mountains, right? And it wasn’t in hi-def 3D, was it?

    JS: No, my book was not in written in hi-def 3D.

    JC: There you go. Besides, other than whole idea of downloading people into genetically enhanced bodies, my overall story was about a man realizing that his own kind were corrupt and that he should join the other side to find peace and happiness. You didn’t have anything like that.

    JS: True. I think you got that from Dances With Wolves.

    JC: That’s right…Hey!

    JS: Forget it. I’m not going to sue you or punch you. I just couldn’t help but wonder if maybe you hadn’t read my books and influenced your movie.

    JC: Obviously, for legal purposes, I can’t admit anything.

    Long pause.

    JC: This is the longest elevator ride off my life.

    JS: Oh, I never hit the button for your floor. I’ve just been leaning against the Door Closed button.

    JC. Oh.

    Long pause.

    JC: Can I go now, please?

    JS: Can I have a job writing your next movie?

    JC: Yes.

    JS: Pleasure doing business with you, King of the World

  14. @Jennifer R. Ewing, it’s because you write in complete sentences instead of talking points. And you don’t throw unrelated political stuff into discussions. Or go ALL CAPS. Therefore, you are not a troll.

    @everyone: The power of mass media has made me unable to read the word “minions” without thinking of those little yellow guys from “Despicable Me”. So, while they’re adorable and I love them, I don’t want to become one.

  15. Aram: You’re sure you never read them? They came out a few years before you filmed Avatar.

    Hmmm, I didn’t realize the timelines synced so well.

    That said, I think “Avatar” is about as similar to “Old Man’s War” as “Battlestar Galactica” is like “Star Wars”, which is to say, not a lot.

    Stories about “jacking in to the net” and “uploading conscioiusness” got hot in the 80’s. “Neuromancer” (1984) comes to mind. So does “Max Headroom” (also 1984). There was a while there you couldn’t go into the SF section of a bookstore without getting your cyberdeck jacked or your neurotransmitters copied.

    That phase has thankfully passed. Some of it was good though. It’s impossible to watch Max Headroom episode about communicating two-way on your TV and blitverts and not think about computers and certain advertising models on computers today.

  16. When the elevator door opened, Harlan Ellison was waiting to punch Cameron in the face.

    Just cause.

  17. I’ve been reading Whatever pretty much since day one. It was more of a mixed-bag back then, but John’s *style* of writing was the really big draw. Informed and witty; feisty, but fair. And the commenters were (and still are) a very reasonable, intelligent and respectful bunch. Rare.

    In the last few years the focus (to me) seems to have shifted towards sci-if and writing and away from current events. No worries.

    Incidentally, I dropped by here to see if John had written anything on the death of Margaret Thatcher and the divisions that arose during her reign. He’s always excelled at political stuff like that: Cutting (when deserved) but always willing to look for balance and redemption. (You can take that as a compliment John. You run a tight ship here. Again, rare on the high seas of the Internet)

  18. Thanks for your perspective John.

    @rochrist – depends on your perspective, but “about as dissimilar as you can get…or any universe” probably only applies if your universe is the United States.
    From the perspective of someone who lives in New Zealand (say) like me, most United States political views come across as (at least) right of centre to extreme right wing. Conversely most of New Zealand’s centralist and left wing parties would I expect probably be considered “socialist” in the United States.
    But again, this is a generalisation, and doesn’t equally to all topics. For example (as far as I can tell) all political parties in New Zealand – left wing to right wing all seem to be happy with the concept of state funded universal health care for all.

  19. Stephen T wrote:
    *From the perspective of someone who lives in New Zealand (say) like me, most United States political views come across as (at least) right of centre to extreme right wing. Conversely most of New Zealand’s centralist and left wing parties would I expect probably be considered “socialist” in the United States.
    But again, this is a generalisation, and doesn’t equally to all topics. For example (as far as I can tell) all political parties in New Zealand – left wing to right wing all seem to be happy with the concept of state funded universal health care for all.*
    A thoughtful comment, well-expressed. I am a US citizen with family in Europe. My cousins are often amused at what many Americans consider to be the proper breadth of political expression. It’s good to be reminded that there are more viewpoints to consider.

  20. Good lord. I went and read your big Confederate States post, and the comments were just…no frigging wonder you have a mallet.

  21. John, et. all,
    I *have* noticed that nobody ever seems to change anyone’s mind through these comments.
    Those who don’t agree just rant back and forth until the regulars drown out the dissenting voice.
    Since the regulars are more persistent, it usually appears as a “win” for them.
    I stopped posting any comments that disagree with the regulars for that reason.

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