1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Five: Social Media

Was there actually even social media in 1998? Oh, my, yes. There was. And it acted in pretty much the same way as it does now, in all the good and bad ways.

The players were different, of course. In 1998, in place of Twitter and Facebook you had USENET and America Online (as two examples). Blogs were just starting off, and the word “blog” itself hadn’t really gained currency, so they were mostly known as “online diaries” or “online journals,” but .plan files and other such similar analogues were around, doing the same sort of thing. There was IRC rather than Slack. And so on. Everything that’s prominent today had its analogue and inspiration in something else.

And even in 1998, these weren’t new ideas — AOL was the upstart muscling in on CompuServe’s and GEnie’s territory, don’t you know, and the “Web” was still in the process of being bolted onto (and over) the existing Internet, with its gopher holes and veronica searches and what have you. And don’t forget BBS’s, which you had to dial into directly! With your 300 baud modem! Uphill and in the snow! 1998 was already iterative, my friends.

What’s certainly different now is scale. AOL at its height had something like 34 million subscribers; Facebook has more than a billion users, and people are worried about Twitter because it only has 300 million users. And with scale comes scale-related problems. There were always trolls, as an example, but there is a difference between having to deal with a single persistent troll on alt.society.generation-x, and dealing with literally hundreds of trolls on Twitter bound and determined to wreck you. Social media, or more accurately the people who run and administer it, have done a very poor job accounting for the scaling up of its influence and reach, which is one reason we have the beef-witted president we do and why the current iteration of social media feel like they’ve reached a bend in the curve, where the toxicity and bullshit have eroded their position.

For a lot of people it’s not a lot of fun being on social media right now, and that’s a problem for the social media companies, who rely on ads. Here in 2018, it really does feel like we’re ready and waiting on the next iteration of social media, the one that makes it enjoyable again for most of us to hang out with our friends online.

Was it fun in 1998? I think it was, but in regard to blogs in particular, it was more that it was exciting. There was a sense of being on a frontier of sorts — a place not yet colonized and so a place of invention, or reinvention, if you wanted that instead. We were doing things that were never done before! (In fact they had been done before, many times, in many other media, but they were never done on the Web, in html, so.) There was status conferred just for being out there in the wild, with your online journal the only signpost around for figurative miles. The blogosphere was still (barely) small enough in 1998 that you could read everyone and keep up with their doings. The full blossoming and influence of the blogosphere was still most of a decade away at least, but it seemed like something could happen there.

And it kind of did. I don’t need to recount the glory days of blogs right now, but I will say that it took until about 2008 or 2009 for me to be better known as a science fiction writer than as a blogger, and of course my first two Hugo awards were for writing originally posted here, so even as my primary notability began to drift over, the blog writing and online presence was (and still is) a significant component of it. Even now there are people who read my blog or follow me on Twitter who are vaguely surprised when I mention I have books out. Oh you do that, too? That’s a nice side gig. Yes. Yes it is.

In terms of casual foot traffic, Whatever peaked in 2012; front page traffic here has dropped by about half since then. I can drive 2012 levels of interest in a post by pointing to it on Twitter, and the blog has roughly 50,000 followers via WordPress, email and RSS (yes, still) who have what I write here show up for them somewhere else. But no matter how it’s sliced, the “blogosphere” has become something of a ghost town. Many blog writers have simply moved over to Facebook or Twitter as their main online presence because that’s where their friends and/or fans are, which is entirely fair. Some people like to blame Google for the decline, because it killed its popular RSS reader, which was one way people kept up with their favorite blogs. I think that’s a factor, but honestly not much that much of a factor. I think it’s more simply because maintaining blogs is a lot of work and other types of social media are easier, both in maintaining a presence and in getting/growing an audience.

Which of course is a bit ironic, here in 2018, where the famous and non-famous alike are noping out of social media because it’s such a drag now, and random chucklefucks can show up en masse to be a pain in your ass. If only you kept your blog up! People would know where to find you! Well, no, not exactly — there’s no guarantee that anyone will find your blog again if they’re stuck in the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram social media gravity well. We’re all waiting for the next things, not necessarily the old things to come back.

I should note that here in 2018 it’s not all doom and gloom on social media front, at least not for me. I am having fun. The reason for that, not entirely surprisingly, is because I filter the shit out of things. Here on Whatever, of course, you’re all familiar with how that works. On my private Facebook account, I limit “friends” to people I know in real life, make sure my posts only go out to them (and not to “friends of friends,” as “friends of friends” are inevitably the drunken racist uncles of the online Thanksgiving known as Facebook), and I don’t talk politics at all — it’s cats and kids and career, and I don’t comment on political posts that other people post, either. As a result my Facebook presence is almost placid. It’s nice to have some place like that online.

On Twitter, I filter out accounts with default icons, and accounts that don’t have verified emails and otherwise employ the Scamperbeasts rule to people who come bother me. The Scamperbeasts currently have 14k followers, so that cuts substantially the number of annoying people I feel obliged to engage with. And truth to tell I don’t feel obliged to engage with people I think who are trolls regardless of their follower count; I employ a “one strike” rule pretty much for everyone these days. Twitter also lets it users mute specific conversations now, which I find to be super-helpful when a particular tweet of mine gets picked up by piles of jerks. There’s also a thing which I consider to be something of a “nuclear” option that I haven’t used yet, but might if things become especially contentious and/or I get incredibly busy, which is the option to see tweets only from the people I actually follow. If I had massively more followers, or was a woman of some note in the world, I would have probably already engaged this option.

Fortunately me, it’s not come to that, and the strategies I use are more than enough to handle the occasional jerk eruptions that come my way. And again, these strategies aren’t that different than the ones that have always been a part of being online. On the USENET in 1998 and earlier, we had “killfiles” — lists of people whose posts would simply not show up in our newsreaders. When we consigned someone to a killfile, they went *plonk*.

Well, the plonk never, ever went away, nor should it have. Online, it’s only ever been the way to deal with others — the option not to hear them. Yes, I know there is a whole cadre of people who like to maintain that muting, blocking and otherwise filtering is somehow censoring them. Those kind of people are the same kind of people they were in 1998: Generally, self-absorbed, toxic assholes.

Social media can be a lovely place, but it’s work for it to be that. If you don’t have the tools (or alternately, the tools are not obvious or easy to use), it can be pretty awful, and that awfulness scales upward the more people there are online, and the more people who know who you are online. I knew people in 1998 who threw up their hands and walked away for the social media of the time because it was all too much, so here in 2018 I certainly can’t blame anyone who does the same. I was willing to deal with it back then, and here and now I don’t think I’m going away either. But it would be nice if the next iteration of social media finally had baked into its interface the idea that not everyone is nice to everyone else, and not everyone means well to everyone else. Just like in real life.

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

In today’s Big Idea, Michael J. Martinez reminisces back on his college days, and how an offhand comment back then informs MJ-12: Endgame, the finale of his supernatural spy series.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:

I went to a university with a heavy fraternity/sorority presence; the Greek houses were a major hub of campus social life. During my freshman year, a couple of upperclassmen asked me to consider joining their houses. Heady stuff for a newbie from the sticks, right?

Of course, once I delved into the whole process, the hazing thing reared its ugly head. Now, the frat brothers I knew swore up and down it wasn’t hazing per se, but rather simply testing a pledge’s resolve and fitness to join the fraternity.

Even at 18, I wasn’t that stupid. “Look, you’re telling me you want me to join the club,” I remember saying to one of them. “If you want me, why should I then have to go through hell to get in?”

His answer: “Because we’re better than you, until you prove otherwise. I want to give you that chance.”

We’re better than you.

What a terrible sentence, those four little words. Arguably, that single sentiment has caused humanity more pain than any other. It is, I would argue, a fundamental part of human nature and the most dangerous flaw humans have.

How many wars started with that sentiment at the very core? We deserve your territory more than you. Our gods are better than yours. Our color people are superior to your color people. Our economic or political systems are better than yours. We are more, you are less. Submit or we’ll destroy you.

How many interpersonal relationships burn out because of this? At work, at school, at home, you can hear it echo in every little office conflict, every academic rivalry, every little resentment in a relationship. It’s insidious.

And by what measure do you make the claim? Some of it is objectively measurable, sure – wealth, experience, success in careers or relationships. But the problem with that, of course, is that after you measure that, what do you measure it against? What’s wealth to someone who simply doesn’t want it? Is the Wall Street executive better than the artist because of the relative size of their bank accounts? Every religion of the world says it’s the one true way, but nobody’s come down from on high to provide arbitration.

(And wouldn’t it be a cosmic joke if that did happen, and the answer was, like, “It was Marduk all along. You guys have been off for three millennia.” Oops.)

“Better” is a highly subjective measure, and that’s why people fight over it, because everyone is convinced it’s actually objective.

But what if it were, if not exactly measurable, but at least obvious?

What if you had someone who really could say I’m better than you and had something that nobody else had – an ability beyond human measure, one that was demonstrably superior to everyone else?

Ultimately, that entire debate is at the crux of MJ-12: Endgame and, really, the entire MAJESTIC-12 series. On the surface, it’s a cool spies-with-superpowers thriller set during the early days of the Cold War, with teams of Enhanced agents from the Soviet Union and America’s MAJESTIC-12 program facing off against each other around the world.

And yet, the Cold War was also, at its core, all about we’re better than you. And what happens when your superpowered covert agents take a look around at the masses of humanity and start thinking the same thing?

The comic books I grew up with never did a great job with showing that sentiment in their heroes. Superman is actually a pretty great guy. He could rule the world with an iron fist inside of a week, but he doesn’t. He’s nice! He’s arguably the most noble character in pop culture simply because he quashes that innate drive for superiority and control, knowing full well he could act with impunity.

How would you react if you were granted a superpower, though? Would you be altruistic? Would you kick back and let that ability make bank for you so you could be super comfortable? Or would you try to “make things right” because, at the end of the day, you’re better?

That question is at the heart of MJ-12: Endgame, which closes out my MAJESTIC-12 super-powered Cold War series. Even if what you can do is superhuman, does it make you a better person? Are the other people fighting for their beliefs lesser people simple because they don’t share your beliefs? If you have the ability to impose your will on others, should you?

Today, we see so much of this in our daily civil discourse. Some of it is truly horrifying. We’re better than you is the worst impulse of human nature, and the most common, and it’s being fed every single day with more and more fuel.

We’re better than you leads to conflict, war, catastrophe. In MJ-12: Endgame, it brings the world to the very brink. The book is, of course, primarily a fun spy thriller with all sorts of twists and turns and cool powers and stuff. But I hope it also gets people thinking about that sentiment, those four little words full of poison. I hope it gets them to think twice, because no matter who we are and what we do, we are not better than anyone else. Different, sure. But not better.

And for the record, I never joined a frat.

—-

MJ-12: Endgame: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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The Whatever Digest, 9/5/18

Good morning! Let’s see what we’ve got today.

That Nike Ad: In which Colin Kaepernick’s face gazes out whilst the phrase “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” floats right around his nose. It’s been eliciting polarized responses, as it was almost certainly absolutely intended to do, and in the meantime is doing very well for both Nike and Kaepernick in terms of mindshare.

I was asked if I have any thoughts on the whole thing. My thoughts:

1. I’ve been generally for NFL players using the mandatory patriotic period before the game to protest, so it’s not like I was ever angry with Kaepernick et al for doing so, so the fuming, spitting rage a whole bunch of (white) folks feel at the man’s visage has completely missed me. Likewise it’s fairly obvious that his exile from the NFL has been about (from the owners point of view) warning uppity players to keep their heads down — great job there, guys — so the sentiment of the ad is likewise not all that controversial to me.

2. That Kaepernick is controversial at all — well. There’s a very high correlation between Kaepernick hatred and racism, whether that racism is overt or latent. So if you or someone you know is in a fuming outrage about the ad or Nike at the moment, some internal examination is probably in order.

3. As others have noted, it’s nearly impossible that an organization as media-savvy as Nike was not aware that angry, racist-in-some-manner-or-degree (white) folks would lose their shit over the ad; they factored it in, did the media research, and came to the conclusion that a) angry racist white people were not their general sales demographic, and/or b) that they could afford to lose the angry racist white person market for long-term gains to be made in a generally younger, multicultural, non(or at least less overall)-racist market down the road, and/or c) Nike’s market these days is global in any event. And you know what? They’re probably right about that.

4. Likewise, Nike was probably not so foolish as to not figure there would be a call for a “boycott,” and in fact I would go so far as to say that Nike probably counted on it — there is little better advertisement for Nike in its desired mostly young, mostly urban, mostly multicultural audience than a bunch of angry racist (white) people destroying Nike merchandise they already paid for and own. Also, Nike owns more of the sports apparel world than just Nike. I saw a comment from someone smugly saying they would never wear Nike again and have switched to Converse, and then someone pointing out who Converse is owned by.

5. Oh, and, the right-wing gloating about Nike’s market share taking a dip because of the ad? Well, here’s Nike’s 12-month stock chart:

That eentsey downturn at the right? From the ad. Meanwhile, 12 months ago Nike’s stock was 26 dollars less a share. If I were an investor in Nike, I wouldn’t be all that worried.

6. With all of that said, can Nike be reasonably accused of over-egging the pudding with the “sacrificing everything” bit? Kaepernick is still well-off, still a notable figure, still a free man with an endorsement contract with Nike and so on. He didn’t sacrifice everything like, say, Muhammad Ali sacrificed everything by protesting the draft, in which Ali was stripped of his titles, denied a license to box, had his passport withheld and was convicted of dodging the draft, a conviction that would take the Supreme Court to overturn.

“Or the troops! They gave everything! Don’t forget the troops! The troops!

Sure, okay, fine, the troops, although honestly the deployment of the troops as a silencing mechanism by conservatives is a rhetorical trope we need to examine thoroughly at some point, although that time is not now. But the question still stands: Did Kaepernick, in fact, “sacrifice everything” by standing for something?

Well, I don’t know. If you had a job, and you decided to risk it by standing for something your bosses found inconvenient, and indeed you were sacked and (very probably) blackballed from working in that particular field ever again, would you say you had sacrificed everything? Would others say it? Would it matter if you tailored your protest (as Kaepernick did) to be respectful, only to have it decided after the fact that it wasn’t respectful at all? Would it matter if you were vilified and hated by an entire segment of the population, up to and including the President of the United States?

I think it’s obvious that Nike went for a dramatic formulation in its ad copy because, surprise, it’s ad copy. And you can grouse about whether the ad copy should be taken literally if you want. But Kaepernick sticking to his guns to the point of being made an object lesson by NFL owners to other players is significant enough that I’m not going to sweat a smidge of ad copy hyperbole.

7. That said, I think the formulation of the ad at the top of the post is even more accurate. Remember Bing-Bong, y’all.

***

Krissy sent me an email this morning with the header “kingdom of the spiders” and warned me to be careful stepping onto the back deck today, so naturally I had to go out and see. And indeed, there are lots of spider webs out back today, including one especially ambitious one that spans the steps from the deck to the concrete path to the garage. The culprits are a bunch of orb weavers that have sprung up in the last couple of weeks. We’ve had a rainy summer, so we have lots of bugs, and that’s good news for the local spider population, which has boomed to match.

I’m not in the least squicked out by spiders, and I appreciate the job they go killing the crap out of the insects that do bother me, so by and large I’m perfectly content to let the orb weavers do their thing around the house, as long as they do it outside. With that said, I think the ambitious one, the one at face level to anyone trying to walk up to our deck using the steps, will probably have to go. Sorry, Ms. Orb Weaver. Location is everything.

And no, no pictures for this particular spider web. The dew has evaporated and it’s hard to photograph. Also I know some of you are spider-sensitive. But if spiders and spiderwebs are your thing, I have a lovely photo album of some from last year, here.

***

Oh hey, look, a new Steve Perry song!

As a very very long-time Journey and Steve Perry fan, the fact that Perry is coming back into the spotlight after almost a quarter-century away pleases me immensely, and what I’ve heard of the upcoming album Traces has been pretty good. Perry’s voice is a bit more crackly than it was in his heyday, but it would be, wouldn’t it; anyone who expecting a nearly 70-year-old man to have the same litheness of voice as he had in his youth is, shall we say, burdened with expectation. But what is there is Perry’s particular sense of musical phrasing and pacing, which is right where it’s always been. Lots of people have tried to sound like Steve Perry, but very few actually get it right, and Perry’s own sense of musicality is why. It’s singular.

This particular song, I will note, is co-written by my pal Dan Wilson, the former frontman for Semisonic and the fellow who co-wrote the Adele’s absolute monster hit “Someone Like You,” which helped her (and him!) pick up All The Grammys a few years back. When the song list for Traces came out and I saw his credit, I immediately DM’d him “YOU WORKED WITH STEVE PERRY AND YOU DIDN’T TELL ME,” which he found pretty funny. Yeah. Funny. But I’m delighted that they got to work together, and that the song they worked together on is a keeper. I’m looking forward to the rest of this album, and having Steve Perry back in the world of music.