Tag Archives: Twitter

10,000 Characters on Why 10,000 Characters for Twitter is a Bad Idea

whatkind

From the latest episode of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Searching for a new angle to boost declining user growth, Twitter is allegedly looking into ballooning its signature 140-character limit to a whopping 10,000 characters permitted per tweet. Cynically, one might liken this to the corporate version of soliciting extra revenue by placing a gun against one’s head. Twitter’s founders explain that 140 character tweets were born of a limitation of the old SMS service, and that jacking our favorite little bird morsels up to 10,000 seeds will allow for more content, more conversations and more general user pleasure. Apparently no one at Twitter remembers Polonius’ famous line from Hamlet, that “brevity is the soul of wit.” For almost 10 years, brevity has been the soul of Twitter. Taking that away is removing what makes Twitter special. As many have pointed out, we already have a social network for Ulysses-length diatribes from drunken uncles: it’s called Facebook.

Twitter is, paradoxically, a platform to be used quickly, yet one that requires a great investment of time to use properly. It’s nothing to fire off a witty observation on the state of the world or scroll through the exploits of your favorite celebrity as you wait for your coffee to brew in the morning. But obtaining the most value from Twitter involves a painstaking, methodical curating of the perfect tribe: finding and following the people who draw your interest, and attracting the best and most engaged followers for whatever content you’ve chosen to produce as part of your personal brand. Unless you’re an established media personality, or that mind-blowingly awesome, it can take years. But setting the biz-speak aside, Twitter is also a place where friendships that would otherwise be impossible geographically are made and nurtured. It eliminates the pedestal separating public figures from the masses and allows us to interact with them as casually as if we had run into them in a coffee shop. And it allows real-time access to breaking news and unfiltered updates from people who find themselves in the middle of history as it unfolds, not to mention cat pictures. Lots of cat pictures. Certainly there is a lot of chaff (including a great deal of gush about One Direction – seriously folks, Zayn isn’t coming back), but separating out the wheat is part of the joy of using Twitter in the first place. From the beginning, restricting everyone to 140 characters, and refusing to succumb to creating a velvet-roped, more permissive stratosphere for “platinum level subscribers” or some such twaddle, has kept us all on the same playing field, no matter how famous or unknown we are. My tweets have just as much potential to reach every Twitter user on earth as follower champion Katy Perry’s do. (They won’t, but the mathematical probability is not zero.)

Innovation thrives on restriction, just as Twitter sprang and thrived from within its traditional 140-character constraint.  As much as we like to give play to the phrase “thinking outside the box,” figuring out how to express ourselves within that box can also be a stimulating exercise as it forces us to speak with economy to get our message – or our humor – across. The content that people remember most is that which they can repeat to their friends and family in short bursts. Much as a veteran blogger might be loath to admit it, length has certainly never been a guarantee of greater quality. There’s a quote from an old West Wing episode that I’ve always chuckled at: “anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn’t trying.” In social media, the reverse is true. The world is spinning faster, our time clawed at by infinite demands on it, and Twitter’s brevity has been a helpful traveling companion for the age: a readily accessible combination of news aggregator, social updater, inspiration provider and joke generator, yours for the perusal at the touch of a little blue bird on your smartphone screen.

Of additional importance is Twitter’s role as a gateway. The ability to share links to longer material, inviting a user to browse further rather than shoving the entire enterprise beneath your nose, has allowed content generators (like myself) to introduce our work to our audience without feeling like we’re shouting it at them, and preserves freedom of choice: you may have absolutely no interest in whatever I’m writing about today, but at least I can make you aware that I have something new, and you can always ignore it and move on to the next item in your feed. Surfing Twitter is a bit like browsing the spines on a bookstore shelf, plucking out a title that grabs you and scanning the blurb before committing. If you had to plod through each entire novel before deciding whether or not to buy, you’d still be there, and your blood pressure would be spiking at the imposition on your precious time. There are already plenty of platforms that allow long-form content, and Twitter integrates best with them by serving as an easily navigated, self-maintained index of those sites, rather than attempting to compete with them.

One argument in favor is the suggestion that just because you can use 10,000 characters doesn’t mean that you will. I agree. 10,000 characters is an enormous number; you’ll see by the end of this post an example of what that looks like, and who has the patience to crank that out every time we want to send a quick update on how the baristas misspelled our name today? But give humanity a wide open space in which to dump its trash and you’ll be shocked at how quickly it fills up. You know who will use all those characters? Spammers, for one. Every Nigerian prince promising that you too can buy new a million new followers or make $5236 an hour working on your computer from home is salivating at this opportunity to flood Twitter with their auto-blasted nonsense. Racists, for another. It’s bad enough when some asshat’s hateful garbage gets retweeted into your timeline when there’s only 140 characters’ worth to cringe through. Are we prepared for the onslaught of copy-pasted manifestos on white purity that are forthcoming every time President Obama does something they don’t like? Among its faults is Twitter’s ongoing inability to crack down on abuse, and one shudders at the thought of the bigots, misogynists, homophobes and celebrity stalkers of the world being handed broadened canvases they can smear with impunity.

Regardless of how zealously you unfollow, block and mute, you’ll only be able to avoid so much of the incoming debris: insidious marketers, who have been steadily encroaching on Twitter’s turf to the point that almost every third tweet is a promoted one from a company you’ve either never heard of or simply can’t stand (I am wearing out my thumb lately clicking “Tweet is not relevant”), will be able to turn your feed into a stream of constant, bloated advertising, since they can afford to pay their infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters to dream up 10,000 characters of content for them. The effect will be to clutter up what is already a crowded landscape with enormous, garish and inescapable billboards, making the search for worthwhile content that much more frustrating. Upon finding themselves bombarded with ads, traditional users will flee, perhaps in mass migration to other sites where such things are verboten. As for attracting new users, well, when was the last time you watched a new TV show because you heard the commercials were awesome?

Upon deeper reflection, this move to 10,000 characters does feel sadly more and more like an accommodation to the demands of advertisers rather than an organic evolution of the platform based on its users’ needs and wishes (witness the many unheralded cries for an edit feature for tweets that have already been posted). And it’s only advertisers who will be able to exploit the 10,000 characters to their fullest potential, squeezing them for every precious cent they’re worth. Twitter knows that the majority of its users won’t fill all that space. Even 2,000 characters would be a stretch for most. No one wants to dedicate so much time to composing something that will potentially fall out of sight a few minutes after it gets posted. I would imagine too that as part of the Faustian bargain with the advertisers, such elephant-sized tweets will not be allowed to be condensed (i.e. no “click to open full window” button) but rather be foisted upon your feed in frustrating enormity, their inducements inescapable no matter how fast you try to scroll through them.

There are perhaps less radical improvements to be pursued, such as potentially removing links and hashtags from the character count, and adding the aforementioned edit button (although thousands of grammar sticklers will promptly lose their reason for existence) that will serve to open up avenues of expression while preserving the full stop at 140 that makes Twitter what it is. If we want to expend 10,000 characters on a particular topic, we can tweet a link to our own website, just as we’ve been doing all along. Ultimately Twitter is going to do whatever it’s going to do, but removing what seems to be one of its key planks and annoying its users in the name of progress (i.e. more advertising revenue) seems a counter-intuitive business strategy. A bit like Walt Disney World razing Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom so they can replace it with a selfie stick store. Perhaps Twitter is counting on the general apathy of the people who use social media: the ones who rant and rave about changes and upgrades only to promptly forget about them after a week. But this change may represent an irreversible tipping point, where Twitter sacrifices its uniqueness on the altar of profit, alienating forever those who have helped make it what it has become.

(And if you are keeping score, the post plus the headline makes 10,000 characters exactly.)

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Fire and Rain and all that jazz

I heard through social media a little while ago that a friend from high school days had passed away.  Her name was Kim.  While we had never been the textbook definition of close, we would chat from time to time through Facebook about family, parenting, and the course of our respective lives.  She wasn’t someone I went out of my way to keep in contact with, and yet, when we spoke online, I was amazed at how her innate brightness would gleam through the flying bubbles of text, and how genuinely interested she was in what was happening with me, despite her really having no obligation to be.  You meet way too many sorts who vibrate visibly with the itch to dispense with the perfunctory required questions about how the job’s going and how the kids are doing so they can start prattling on about the heaps of awesomeness that have fallen into their own precious laps; Kim was most definitely the opposite, remaining private about her own problems while always offering up receptive, sympathetic ears.  That we were friends at all spoke to the depth of her character, in many ways a complete contradiction of what you’d expect.  Someone like her could easily have been Regina from Mean Girls, blessed as she was with talent, popularity and beauty, but instead she saw people for who they were and not where in the social order it was their fate to be pecked.  She cared, with an honesty that could not be faked.  And she’s gone now, a too short 40 years of age, and I wish I’d made a point to talk with her more often, because a special light has gone out.

I met Kim when we were both involved in the production of our 1993 high school musical, a staging of Chicago.  I was the backup drummer in the orchestra pit, hidden at the back of the stage behind a black scrim, while Kim, a year older, was bold and brassy belting out “All That Jazz” as the lead, Velma Kelly.  (Ten years later, sitting in the theater watching Catherine Zeta-Jones have a go at the same part, I couldn’t help smiling and thinking that Kim had done a better job.)  Our school had a reputation for the quality of its productions; we dared to mount elaborate, challenging, Broadway-level material whose raciness gave our more conservative principal his fair share of headaches.  They were great social levelers too:  you could come in to work on them whether you were jock, nerd, princess or bespectacled wallflower, and find yourself among fast friends.  The denizens of the elevated echelons that you wouldn’t dare approach in the halls were throwing their arms around you at the frequent cast parties.  Somehow the social hierarchy that mattered so much in the day-to-day got tossed in pursuit of the grand goal of creating a singular night on the stage.  Kim was a big part of ensuring that happened, and some of my strongest memories of that experience are chatting and sharing jokes (and flirting a little, clumsy as I was at it back then) with her.  One might logically expect the show’s diva to be dismissive of the little people in the back, but Kim didn’t go in for that sort of nonsense.  Instead she made everyone want to up their collective game.  You wanted to work harder and play better because that was a friend up there on the stage counting on you to have her back.

When I first joined Facebook there were quite a few people from the old high school that I made a point of looking up.  I don’t recall Kim being one of them, but as degrees of separation would have it she popped into my news feed after commenting on someone else’s post, and at some point I must have sent her a friend request – or maybe she did for me.  I didn’t put much stock into it other than “I kind of remember you and you’re a decent sort, let’s be Facebook friends, ignore each other’s updates and send half-hearted birthday messages every year when it reminds us to.”  I was content to leave it at that until Kim started messaging me periodically to say hello and see how I was doing.  She was the only one of my 131 connections to do so.  I wondered why.  This may come across as false modesty, but I honestly did not believe I deserved the attention, given that I hadn’t exactly made keeping in touch with her a significant or even a minor priority.  It wasn’t as though we had a rich personal history to look back upon either, just a few shared experiences when we were teenagers, a few chance encounters on the street in the years that followed.  But I was moved by her warmth and the sincerity of her outreach.  After my wife and I adopted our son Kim would check in every few months to ask how things were going.  I’d tell her a little about his history and how he came to be with us, and in her words back to me I could see and feel the opening of a tremendous heart.  I would ask her how she was, and though she was guarded about the details, I could sense that that heart had been wounded many times and was battling on regardless, through illness that had landed her in hospital far more often than she deserved.

Then, after a while, the conversations stopped.  She didn’t reply to the last message I sent, though I did get a note that it had been seen, months later.  Kim tumbled from my consciousness.  Caught up in the ins and outs of my own day-to-day as weeks slouched into months it did not occur to me to check in with her.  It wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just happened, through indolence and preoccupation rather than intent.  When another friend broke the news to me by the cold means of Twitter direct message, I felt my entire body sink as though someone had just doubled the gravity in the room.  It was a twofold reaction:  shock, obviously, coupled with a tremendous gnaw of guilt.  I knew she had been sick, and as I scrolled back through our history of Facebook messages, trees of text bubbles preserved there as though set in digital amber, I could detect hints that things had been far more serious than she had let on, hints that I had let go out of respect for her privacy.  Kim would pivot when I would ask about her illness, assuring me that she was strong and that she was an adult.  She would rather talk about me, this blog, and how I was finding life as a father.  I didn’t push.  I suppose it would have made little difference if I had.

In his classic ballad “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor makes what for me is the quintessential statement about our relationships with our friends and how little time we truly have to celebrate the fortune of their presence in our lives.  In writing this post and thinking about Kim, I echo his sentiment.  I didn’t continue the conversations with Kim because there was always more time.  I always thought that I’d see her again.  That late one night, barred from sleep by lingering traces of the day’s caffeine intake I’d be scrolling through Facebook, smirking at cat videos and pictures of other people’s kids being silly and re-posted rants about the government, and the notification tab would pop and I’d see her name and “Hey Graham, how are you?”  I’d been conditioned to expect that and I never believed it would stop.  Now it has.  There will be no more messages from Kim.  “All That Jazz” will forevermore have a hint of melancholy when I reflect on one very irreplaceable Velma.

By no means do I claim a monopoly on grieving her loss.  I know that I wasn’t her best friend, or a member of her family, or someone with any deep, lasting connection with her but this:  Kim meant a great deal to me for the simple reason that in a world with more than its share of awful people, she was one of the good ones.  I’m glad I got the chance to tell her as much during one of our late night chats.  I’m sorry I couldn’t have said it more, and that I won’t get the chance to get to know her better.  That she won’t get the chance to meet my son whom she enjoyed hearing about.  And I’m sorry that she won’t have the long and happy life that should have been her due.  It has brought into sharp focus the notion of mortality and that we cannot count on any of us being around for as long as we once thought we would be.  The invulnerability with which we greeted the days back then is a fleeting wisp lost on the wind.  And while we may feel as though we are more connected with our friends because of social networks like Facebook, we can’t let those algorithms diminish the value and the reality of the people on the other side of that coldly curated news feed.  We need to talk more.  Really talk, about our hopes and our dreams and our fears and the world we want to leave in the glow of our tail lights.  We need to seek out the good ones that are already in our lives and latch onto them and laugh with them until our sides ache, and weep until we’re all utterly spent of tears.

We always think we’ll see each other again.  Sometimes we won’t.  So let’s see each other as much as we can, while we can, while every precious moment of this life remains available to us.  I’m going to close now by offering a suggestion.  Today, think of someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time and send them a message.  Doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.  Just say hello and let them know you’re thinking about them.  See what happens next.  I think you’ll find the very tiny expenditure of your time bearing positive emotional returns the extent of which you can’t even imagine yet.

Goodbye, Kim.  You were one of the good ones.  And all that jazz.

Why I Write

Tag!  I’m it!  So there is something called a “blog hop” going on amidst my little community of fellow Internet scribes in which each of us is tasked in turn to devote a few paragraphs to what drives us to arrange letters into words and sentences and fling them out for the world’s amusement.  I was nominated by the awesome Siofra Alexander, whose online collection of her poetry, dream journals and other assorted thoughts is one of the most imaginative and unpredictable places I’ve encountered, and boasts the most unique titles you’re likely to see.  Check it out for yourself, and see if you don’t agree that if Christopher Nolan had tapped her to design the dreamscapes in Inception, it would have been a much wilder ride.

On to the meat of the question, then.  Why do I write?  It seems tantamount to asking someone why he breathes.  But everyone’s answer is going to be different, as there is no perfect mold in which we can all be squeezed.  I have wondered, though, over the last couple of years as I’ve really entrenched myself in the blogging world and been exposed to the craft of so many others who seem so much better at it, and far more dedicated.  I don’t really seem to fit the model – can really call myself a writer in that vein.  I was ruing yesterday, as I hit publish on my Blade Runner entry, that I have only posted three entries in the last two months (and after Siofra lauded me for accomplishing the 30-day blog challenge back in April, too!)  Some writers can scarcely contain the bajillions of ideas for novels, short stories, poetry and so on percolating in their minds at any given time, and their sites are accordingly bursting with fresh content published daily, while they work on their eighth novel and read a dozen new books a week.  I can only wish that was me, though I’m at an utter loss as to how they fit it all in with (presumably) jobs, relationships and families to consider as well.

There is a purpose and clear path I see in others that feels muddied in myself.  When I started this blog back in 2011 I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, and I kind of flailed around for a few months (am I a political blogger?  Am I a movie reviewer?  Music critic?  Comedian?  Feminist?  Travel expert?  Dispenser of dubious advice on how to write?  What are these blasted widget things anyway, and why haven’t I been Freshly Pressed yet?)  Eventually I established something of a template, and a style, and contented myself with writing just whatever the hell I felt like writing about that day, without worrying overmuch about the generally accepted notion that you should confine yourself to one subject if you want to build your audience to Bloggess-esque levels.  It’s the same reason why I don’t aspire to become more like the folks I noted in the paragraph above – the journey has been about realizing that it’s okay to just be who I am without struggling to ape somebody else.  And that particular me cannot be pigeonholed as one distinct archetype; rather there are many facets and shades and contradictions to explore.  From an external point of view, this blog may read like an attempt to make sense of the world, but from this side of the keyboard, it’s about figuring meself out, and establishing something of a record of who I was and what I believed.

It’s perhaps the height of ego and arrogance to assume that anyone else gives a tinker’s cuss, but at the same time, it’s obvious that I want you to, otherwise these 299 essays would remain locked away, for my eyes only.  Self-effacement to the contrary, nobody writes to be ignored, and the endorphins that fire upon the receipt of the alert that someone has liked, commented or shared something we penned cannot be replicated by any chemical substance out there.  The validation we feel when someone tells us they enjoyed something we wrote is magical, as much as it may be bad form to admit that.  The reverse, when a post goes ignored, or a rejection email arrives with the dreaded “not quite right for me,” is gutting.  Though it is farcical to tie one’s self-esteem to the appreciation of, or indifference to, the creative work we produce, we do it anyway, against our better judgment.  We write to be loved.  We write to make ourselves worthy of love.  When my wife tells me something I wrote brought tears to her eyes, I feel lifted.  And I feel like I earned it, and no matter what else happens, that moment can’t be taken away.

I’m not sure when I started writing.  It’s amusing to note how many successful writers will relate stories of how they got terrible marks in English.  Mine were always pretty good (except first year university, which was something of an eye-opener), and on creative assignments, it wasn’t rare to score 100%.  I will never forget a Grade 12 assignment to do an updated version of Catcher in the Rye, essentially speculating on what Holden Caulfield would think of the modern (eg. early 90’s) world.  I asked whether profanity was permitted, and was told yes, no problem.  So at one point in the narrative I had Holden encounter a couple of roughs listening to the most vile, misogynist, pornographic song lyrics I could come up with (to provide some context, this was back when 2 Live Crew was in the business of offending Tipper Gore, so it was topical material.)  My friends were all convinced I was going to get suspended for submitting it, but, hands shaking and stomach churning, I did anyway, and got back a perfect grade with about a page’s worth of handwritten, single-spaced comments as my teacher went back and forth on whether or not I should have included those lyrics – calling them disgusting, dirty and inappropriate, but ultimately recognizing what I was trying to do (that it was fiction, not an endorsement or reflection of my actual attitude) and that ultimately I was writing at a level far beyond that of my peers.  I know that’s not how the story is supposed to end – it’s supposed to end with me failing the course, being told I’m an embarrassment to the written word and only much later blossoming into a revered, bestselling genius, right?  But that’s not my story.

My story isn’t Hollywood or even novel-esque, but it could not have gone any other way.  I’m not going to be the bespectacled book blogger who crashes Goodreads with tomes of reviews and lands a six-figure deal for a debut novel.  I won’t be the literary thought leader with thousands of Twitter disciples hanging on the next 140 characters of brilliance to come tumbling from my thumbs.  I won’t be the guy who was always annoying his friends by yammering on about the stories he wanted to write and one day wound up executive producing a hit television show.  I’m just going to be me, whoever and whatever that is and turns out to be.  So one has to set that aside and get back to the bare essence of what it’s all about – arranging letters into words and sentences in a manner that will hopefully find its way to someone else’s eyes, mind and heart.  Taking the victories where they come and shrugging off the slights.  Keep on keeping on, because I honestly don’t know what else I’d do with myself.

And that, ladies and germs, is why I write.

In the spirit of the blog hop, I hereby nominate Raishimi and Nillu Stelter, both stellar smiths of words whose passion and raw talent has managed to dislocate my jaw for the sheer number of times it’s dropped when reading their stuff.  Looking forward to your take on what drives you to pursue this crazy craft.

People, Not Property

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Something horrible happened a little while ago in a place with the deceptively idyllic-sounding name of Isla Vista.  In the aftermath and the weeks since we’ve tried to process it, to assign a specific and preventable cause to the motivations of the perpetrator in the hopes to avert a similar future occurrence, and solutions vary, predictably, according to the broad swath of the ideological spectrum.  If we are each to weigh in, as the current state of our discourse seems to demand, what can I say that’s different?  What can I contribute to actually make things better, instead of just bouncing around the echo chamber – scoring accolades from admirers and suffering barbs (or worse) from the other side – before the storm dies down and we return to talking about box office grosses?  It seems that at times we’ve become a civilization whose talents are geared largely towards commenting rather than fostering true progress, and I struggle with this in the composition of this entry.  Truly, my words won’t bring the victims back.  They are but shouting into the wind and the rain for the briefest of moments.  But I’m going to shout anyway.

Reading the tweets shared under the #YesAllWomen hashtag was heartbreaking, and sobering.  The shiny, bauble-bedecked veneer of First World existence blinds one to the deeply ugly undercurrents of our nature, the river of misogyny that touches each aspect of interaction between the genders.  This idea that men have been sold – yes, sold, because so much of what is wrong with how we behave can be traced back to the concept of one person convincing another to buy something they don’t need – that women are a commodity men have a divine right to possess, instead of independent human spirits meriting respect and the freedom to determine their own futures, is stomach-churning when laid bare, but laced so insidiously into our culture that we are happily swallowing the lie several times a day without even realizing it.  The woman is always positioned as a prize at the end of the quest, something to win.  Any time a man is tasked with self-improvement, be it in the form of career, health, spiritual fulfillment or putting on a superhero costume and going out to fight crime, the implicit reward is getting laid, and any other end is mere frivolity.  It’s all meaningless, the zeitgeist conspires to tell him, unless you’ve got that “perfect ten” hanging off your arm at the gala premiere.  Elliot Rodger certainly thought so, and his self-perceived inability to live up to this ridiculous standard led him to lash out and take six innocent lives with him.

It’s deplorable that as a result, women should be forced to be ever vigilant, but as the #YesAllWomen tweets prove, it’s an attitude born of a shared experience, and one to which men cannot really relate.  In this metaphor, men are the customers, not the goods, and we can’t understand what it’s like to be thought of as property to be acquired until we are ourselves put up for sale.  When I’m out for my morning run, and I see a woman further up the sidewalk on her morning run heading towards me, my first thought is not going to be, this is a potential assailant, maybe I should cross the street.  It’s never been suggested that I should tone down how I dress or do my hair differently lest I not be taken seriously by my work colleagues, or receive unwanted advances from strangers.  I’ve never had someone try to grope at my crotch on a crowded streetcar, I’ve never been screamed at because I refused to give a woman my phone number, and I’ve never had to worry about leaving my drink alone at the bar lest someone slip roofies into it and I wake up bleeding on a filthy bathroom floor.  And these are just a very small sampling of some of the stories that were shared online.  There are thousands more, and to our shame, an equal number of sarcastic, sneering responses fired back.  As was pointed out elsewhere, these types were seemingly angrier that the stream of stories was gumming up their precious home feeds than at the fact that these things were actually happening to women everywhere.  When you can’t refute the argument with logic or reason, just tell the woman to shut up, and go back to watching the game.

Words may sometimes be lost on the wind in the storm, but often they’re the only thing we have.  In and of itself, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world, but the camaraderie those shared stories can engender – pun intended – is a step toward creating the empathy we need to help make the storm stop.  To help fathers teach their sons that women are not property to be coveted and acquired like the mindless deluge of merchandise that flashes across our Internet browsers, assuring us that the void in our souls can be filled with the simplicity of a single click and a valid credit card number.  Respecting women unconditionally; judging them by their principles, their accomplishments and the many facets of their personalities, instead of how they look in a bikini and how willing they are to jump into bed with you; casting forever aside the juvenile notion that a woman owes you a single thing by mere virtue of your passing interest in her; recognizing that fundamentally, misogyny comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of oneself as a man, and that those shortcomings can only ever be remedied by one person – the man in question – that is how things begin to improve.

None of us are property.  None of us are each other’s property.  And the human soul is not something to be traded on the free market; its value is far greater than that.

Taming the Rage Monster

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The Troggs had it wrong:  love is not all around, rage is.  At least that’s what it seems when dialing into any form of media of late.  We’re a perpetual powder keg, frothing at our keyboards to spew a storm of digitized incendiary rhetoric into the nearest available outlet given the merest hint of provocation.  It’s about as ludicrous as that old Simpsons gag where a guy taps another on the shoulder and says “Hey you, let’s fight,” and the other replies “Them’s fightin’ words” and takes a swing at him.  We seem to be spoiling for it in our interactions, seeking out opinions (or venturing them) designed to raise blood pressures and elicit profanities and threats of bodily harm.  And yet it’s not as though you’re seeing fistfights break out in shopping malls on a regular basis, or a global “Red Hour” – if you remember the Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” – where the collective agrees on a time and place where they may just as collectively lose their shit.  Day-to-day society proceeds apace, unencumbered by the simmering monster apparently lurking under everyone’s skin ready to Hulk out at the slightest shift in the breeze.

Why are we so angry all the time?  One of the most intriguing arguments is that popular culture, the glamorization of “fame” and the gradual dumbing-down of the education system are to blame for creating a perpetual sense of false expectations amidst the great majority of the world’s population who are fated to live quiet and largely unrecognized lives (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Our concepts of “success” and “failure” have been altered to a state where they barely resemble the truth of what they once were.  We’ve seen failure removed almost entirely from schools lest the fragile feelings of the precious snowflakes inside be hurt.  (As a parent, I don’t mind when my kid flunks a test, because I’d rather he learn that he needs to try much harder to pass rather than know that no matter how little effort he puts in, he’ll always get by.)  Consequently you have a generation of children believing for the first eighteen years of their lives that they are perfect and infallible, and when adulthood arrives and they don’t ace that first job interview, or they come up against any task that is beyond them, they implode, as reliably as a calculator attempting to divide by zero.  Failure does not compute.

Success, on the other hand, is defined again and again, in a manner resembling brainwashing, in terms frankly unachievable by 99.9999999% percent of the population:  seven-figure salaries, a constant stream of supermodel companions, jetting to the Riviera for the weekend to win the Formula One while top-lining the latest blockbuster action movie.  You are invited constantly to compare the dregs of your life with the riches and wonders of the lucky few and find yourself forever wanting, while being indoctrinated with the lie that the only thing you need is belief in your dreams (that doesn’t hurt, but it is most definitely NOT the only ingredient).  How many people were in that record-retweeted Oscar selfie, versus how many millions more were only wishing that they could have been standing to Bradley Cooper’s right?  Is it realistic to think that we can all be movie stars and sports heroes and retire to Malibu mansions overlooking the sea?  Yet ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up and the number one answer is “famous.”  The purveyors of celebrity gossip have become rich themselves convincing the rest of us that we’re just a happenstance discovery away from the big time.  We don’t actually have to do anything to merit it; we’re owed it.

Yet that golden ticket is not going to arrive, and millions grow increasingly impatient for it.  And to paraphrase Yoda, impatience turns to anger, anger turns to hate.

Once again, the boys seem to be the greater offenders here.  Given that we are prone to insecurity as it is and the media’s far-fetched depiction of what constitutes “manhood,” it is unsurprising to see that fireball into unrestrained fury.  I was made aware of a hashtag that circulated Twitter a few days ago, that blissfully I missed out on, #LiesToldByFemales.  Basically, a venue for a cabal of misogynists (who would not dare say any of these things to a real-life woman, naturally) to whine about the endless ways women had done them wrong, either in actual fact or perception (I chance to assume the latter).  It hearkens back to the redefinition of a successful relationship for a man by countless movies, music videos and men’s magazine articles as:  scoring a smokin’ hot chick who will do whatever he wants and subsume her will and personality to his desires, only as long as he deigns to keep her around.  A prurient fantasy, which of course does not exist in the real world, but doesn’t stop men from wanting it anyway.  They’re entitled to it, the magazines have told them, and the movies have shown, in any number of stories where the beautiful goddess eventually succumbs to the persistent charms of the unwashed, inadequate nerd.  Fade to credits before the inevitable consequences of such an ill-gotten romance take hold.  But no matter, the lie has been pre-packaged and sold, and the men who fail to replicate it in their own lives have a perfect justification to assist in brewing their lifelong resentment of reality.  The perceived “safety” of anonymous online posting of same then entitles them to let it out, so the like-minded can holler “Right on!” and retweet and feel vindicated for harboring the same sentiments.  Regardless of how much damage it may do – and how little in fact their lives will change for the better.

That’s the saddest part of this.  Where is all the rage getting us?  You have a tremendous irony in that profound dissatisfaction with the status quo has fired some of the most expansive changes in our history, and yet, 21st Century rage is an end unto itself.  We are furious, yet benumbed.  We’re not starting riots in malls.  It is enough now to be angry for the sake of being angry, to make a few heated comments on a message board, and go back to the drudgery of the day.  We’re addicted to indignation, seeking it out like junkies who can’t abide the space between the highs.  The result?  A climate where everyone is on edge at every moment of the day, a perpetual chill where many are afraid to speak up because it’s like lighting a match to see how much gas is left in the tank.  Reading highlights from the CPAC conference (for the enviably uninitiated, it’s an annual gripe-fest for conservative politicians and celebrities to blame the world’s woes on liberals and their Kenyan Islamofascisocialist president) I can’t help but be reminded of Woody Allen’s character in the 1967 Casino Royale, whose master plan was to detonate a bomb that would render all women beautiful while simultaneously killing all men over four-foot-eleven.  I don’t know what pipe dream of a regulation-free, rootin’-gun-totin’ right-wing utopia where anyone with less than a billion bucks in the bank is deported to Mexico drives these folks, but they seem awfully pissed off that they don’t have it, and that they’re getting no closer to it no matter how many veins they burst in their forehead while they rail about Benghazi at the podium.  Sponsors are raking in advertising revenue from the anger that Fox News foments, but those in whom it is fomented are no further ahead.  In fact, the stress they’re accumulating is shortening the remaining days they have to get angry in.

So much misdirected energy out there.  Just imagine what we could do with it if we could find a way to direct it somewhere else.

As always, dear reader, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.  So we need to take a page from the Serenity Prayer – accept the things we cannot change.  We need to let go of this idea that we have a divine right to sit at Brangelina’s table, and that Gisele Bündchen only stays married to Tom Brady because she hasn’t met us yet.  We need to cement in our minds the idea that a relationship with a real person is infinitely more rewarding than empty fantasies about surgically-sculpted, spray-tanned hot bods.  We need to stop thinking that we deserve jobs, fortunes or even people that we haven’t gone out and earned.  We need to remember Captain Picard’s one-time advice to Data:  “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose.  That is not a failing; that is life.”  So yes, we need to accept that by virtue of birth, talent or plain old dumb luck there will always be those individuals who have things better than we do, and that choosing to resent them for having it is truly like that old saw about drinking poison (or ingesting gamma radiation) and expecting the other person to die.  They won’t, no matter how many times we swear on Twitter about it.

What if we tried living life to our own standards instead of what is foisted on us by marketing reps who are trying to sell us things?  If we were able to take the energy misspent on rage and resentment, pull it out of those bottomless pits and refocus it like a laser in furtherance of working on ourselves and our lives, we’d find the reasons for those feelings diminished.  We wouldn’t envy Tom Brady because we’d know what an incredible partner we have standing right next to us and holding our hand at each step.  We would not need to be on movie screens entertaining anonymous masses because the people we know, closest to us, would never question how much we value them.  We would find ourselves replenished with accomplishment and joy – the kind of deep inner assurance that cannot be bestowed by thousands of screaming fans.  Let’s not forget the cautionary tales of those who seemingly “have it all” yet drown and lose themselves in drink and drugs because standing ovations can’t fix pain.  No matter where you go, there are you are.  Instead, change how you feel about yourself and realize you could have a pretty amazing life if you just started living the one you have and not the imagined one that everything you read and see is telling you that you deserve.

Endless rage will never get us what we really want in life – namely, to stop feeling so angry.  It is the very definition of self-defeat.  So no, Hulk no need to smash.  Hulk need to calm down, be nicer to wife and kid, plant tree and take up productive hobby.  Hulk might find he happier and other stuff not bother him so much.  And everyone get along better.

What Kind of Tweeter Are You?

whatkind

Oh, dear, dear Twitter, how I love thee.  Since I never have time for television anymore, movies are too expensive and regular social gatherings terrify me, Twitter has become a combination news/ entertainment/coffee shop packaged conveniently in the smartphone belted to my hip.  After having been on it for almost three years and with an eye to noticing patterns that I’ve been told by experts that I possess, I’ve managed to categorize the users of Twitter into twelve distinct types, eleven of which are itemized here for your reading pleasure.  Group Twelve is celebrities, i.e. those privileged to be blessed with the Blue Checkmark of Twod (Twitter God), and the rules are a bit different for them, even though you might find that some of them do indeed fit snugly into a few of these.  I should attempt to weasel my way out of potential controversy even further by saying that with some exceptions, none of these are absolutes.  On our best and worst days we tumble into each of them, yours truly included.  I offer the list instead as observation and a little bit of warning.  Shake it up.  Don’t ever be a type – be a human instead.

So have at it then – and let me know if there’s another category you’ve noticed that I’ve missed.

The Shill

Apparently you have a novel or product of some sort you’d like me to express some interest in?  Your following/follower count is about equal and in the high thousands, suggesting that you’re a pretty popular fellow.  But your interactions are minimal and your tweets are variations on a theme of asking the rest of us to click on/review/ purchase your wares, implying that you’ve accumulated your flock merely by following every single person who promises that they follow back.  You have sacrificed what little remains of your humanity on the Great Altar of Commerce and your tweets appear with the tedious inevitability of television commercials.  You have essentially turned yourself into Vince, the Slap Chop Guy.  How’s that working for you?  (I’m guessing it’s not leading to record sales figures.)

The Preacher

You have a keen, unique (self-applied description, of course) insight into what ails the world and you know exactly how to fix it, if only you could get more followers to listen and spread your gospel.  It irks the hell out of you that you’re not already president/emperor/ generalissimo of your chosen realm as the ones presently in charge are irredeemable dingbats who couldn’t gather the leadership necessary to wipe themselves without peer-reviewed studies by four different executive committees.  But rather than doing something about it in the real world, you’ll settle for being a sanctimonious cyber-complainer to a sparse flock of like-minded folks.  Note of caution, however:  decisions are made by those who “show up,” not “log in.”

The Stalker

Harry Styles is your homeboy, or at least, you’d like him to be, in the tweet you sent to him 58 times today.  Though your chances of marrying him are about as good as Dick Cheney’s for winning Man of the Year from Greenpeace, you press on with dogged determination, forever believing deep inside that the next tweet will be the one he favorites.  You should be proud in some respects, in that you’re the latest in a subspecies that emerged with those people who used to hang around outside Abbey Road waiting for the Beatles to show up.  But why not do something with your life instead of devoting the entirety of it to worshipping others who’ve done a hell of a lot more with theirs?

The Oversharer

Guess what I had for breakfast?  None of your followers ever have to wonder since you provided eighteen different pictures of it, along with a detailed rundown on the quality of the service, the décor of the restaurant and your dining companion’s complaints about her BFF.  You are convinced that you are the most fascinating person to walk the planet and damn, you’re gonna strut your stuff whether or not anybody asks.  Your tweet count is up into the hundred K range already and you’ve only been on Twitter for a month.  Because nary a single moment of your mind-bendingly amazing life can slip by without you having to comment on it, leading to a veritable plethora of banality flooding a platform which was already drowning in it.

The Smartarse

Groucho’s got squat on you as you say the secret woid and weave your incisive Saharan wit through the foibles of a mediacentric universe rife with comic potential.  To you, Twitter is a personal standup comedy club, and headlines, celebrity musings, even the matter-of-fact comments of your friends can’t get past you without some kind of wisecrack.  Those you’re following dare not misspell a single word lest you jump in with a cheesy pun.  And your insecurity about wanting to be as off-the-cuff funny as Patton Oswalt is beginning to show as you wear out the screen beneath your notifications tab from rushing to check out how many times your zany zinger “Duck you, Autocorrect!” has been favorited and retweeted.

The Curator

You aspire to become a living embodiment of The Huffington Post as your feed is naught but link after link to article after article in your chosen area of expertise (usually social media, which everyone claims to be an expert in but nobody fully understands), offered for consumption without comment or original take.  I guess some people may find it helpful to have a single go-to for that latest BuzzFeed piece about the ten ways Miley Cyrus is annoying the world this week, but if you are choosing to act as endless advertising for other people’s material, shouldn’t you be getting paid for it?

The Misanthrope

The world is a bleak, nihilistic pit of darkness and despair, and anyone who follows you is bound to learn this lesson quickly.  You have taken to Twitter solely to vent profanity-filled spleen against whatever politician or celebrity has irked your delicate sensibilities lately, resulting in your achieving a record number of blockings and abuses reported from your Proustian-length list of targets.  To be fair, you do warn people in your bio that you’re mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore, but as you have never learned the lesson about attracting flies with honey, I fail to understand how this is supposed to help you in your life’s work – which, if your employers discover your feed, will be quite short, or at the very best limited to asking about fries with that.

The Cheerleader

You are a supernova of sunshine in everything you tweet.  You provide inexhaustible encouragement, your #FF list is longer than the Great Wall, and you always retweet and have great things to say about your friends’ posts and comments.  Whenever a follower has a bad day you’re right there to perk things up with a tweetbit of timely wisdom.  Stay gold, Ponyboy, don’t ever change.

The Parrot

You, pickle, are the reason the “Turn off Retweets” button was added.  Barring anything of your own to say, you spam everyone else’s feed with a barrage of your friends’ trite banter about how they literally can’t even the latest episode of Sherlock because arghasdgawouhgs, or the latest in profound insight about the nature of creativity from that one D-list celebrity you love but nobody else can stand (see “The Stalker,” above.)  Or you decide that what your followers really need is a ten tweet-long stream of pics from all the weird sexual fetish accounts you enjoy.  Because what you really want in life is a bunch of strangers thinking I didn’t sign up for this s@#$.

The Guru

You’ve got lots of inspiration to share, either of your own creation (awesome, keep it up!) or cribbed hopelessly from the same dozen or so bastardized bromides incorrectly attributed to the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King we’ve already seen shared on Facebook twelve million times since 2004.  The irony is I don’t think you actually believe you should shoot for the moon because you can miss and still land among the stars.  The Apollo astronauts might have had an issue with that.

The Grammarian

most of ur tweetz read liek this becuz yur 2 kewl fer roolz or speling, so U end up soundeng liek a maroon.  But hoo cares, cuz YOLO!!!

By any other name

anonymous

I came across a blog post in my Twitter feed the other day that asked one’s opinion on pen names.  When I first got started online back in the early aughts, the mere thought of using my own name was verboten.  OMG, went the reasoned analysis, what if they don’t like what I’m saying about the newest Bond movie and find out where I live?  And it wasn’t even like I was trolling or otherwise comporting myself like an ass and inviting that kind of retribution.  My name was a part of my identity I didn’t want to give up to the nebulous strangers on the other side of the AOL dial-up connection (yep, I’m that much of a fossil).  Even when I started my first, short-lived blog in 2006, it was under the pretext of absolute anonymity.  I wasn’t in the greatest of places emotionally at the time and it seems, reflecting on it now, that I wanted somewhere I could vent without thought of consequence.  To tell the world what to go do with itself and flee, like deliberately passing gas in an elevator and hopping off at the very next floor.  In retrospect, a paper diary would have been preferable.  Unfortunately I have long lost the ability to log into that old site, and it still lurks online like a scrawl of graffiti on the last lingering pockmarked concrete wall of a long-demolished building (link not included for obvious reasons).  It’s a good reminder to me, though, of the misguided approach I once had.  If you are reaching out and hoping for connection, you have to provide something tangible for the other to connect back to.  An open hand won’t embrace a forbidding fist.

Interacting online, even under our own name and image, is still much like creating a character for an audience, and it is fascinating to see how quickly impressions become entrenched based only on a few facts.  Moreover, it is equally as compelling to see the level of trust that is offered through those impressions, which speaks fondly to those who keep faith in an innate human goodness.  Because we have no reason to believe, at all, that the character we’re seeing is genuine, that it isn’t a flight of someone’s fancy.  Who is Graham Milne, truly?  For many of you, he’s just the words and images that appear here and on Twitter and The Huffington Post.  He is only knowable to a certain degree, that degree being what he chooses to share or, perhaps more importantly, not share.  And yet, he is still me.  I didn’t make him up.  WYSIWYG, as the tech guys put it.  You can trust me on this one.  It’s simply easier to be truthful online because I’ve never been good at lying.  It’s easier to be empathetic to others because I don’t fancy putting those others down, nor being thought of as a bastard.  It’s easier to be me because that’s the role I was made for and I already know all the lines.

At the same time, there is a curiosity, morbid perhaps, as to what it would feel like to cut loose and lash out, to playact as one of those people who trashes everyone and everything that doesn’t align with his narrow worldview.  We all have those moments where we want to break the self-imposed identity bonds and run the @#$@ away, not that more than a few of us ever do.  One can see the appeal of authors who have been pigeonholed in one genre choosing to write under assumed names to jettison the preconceptions of their fans; of why J.K. Rowling had to become Robert Galbraith to write The Cuckoo’s Calling.  I certainly don’t enjoy the idea of being boxed in.  My first novel is a fantasy, but as much as I enjoy playing in that sandbox, I don’t necessarily want to write fantasy my entire life.  Assuming (hopefully – queries are ongoing) it gets published and garners some admirers, will they want to follow me when I venture into sci-fi, or political thrillers, or YA love stories, or musicals about beings made of cotton candy who just want to eat root vegetables?  What is the nature and what are the limits of the contract with my projected image of myself that I offer in exchange for a few moments of your time?  Am I expected to always be the same old Graham, and how far along the rickety, windblown tree limb can I expect you to follow me?  Will you hold onto me when it snaps and we both fall down?

It is not to suggest that there is an element of bravery to using your real name in your writing and your online interactions somehow lacking in those who prefer to remain anonymous when they publish.  Instead, it goes back to that question of what part we want in the play, if all the world is indeed a stage.  I suspect most of us are comfortable with what we’ve got because we don’t need to Method Act ourselves into someone else’s skin.  When we allow ourselves to show, when we expose our vulnerable spot, it’s a risk, absolutely – but the connections we’ll find as a result will be more lasting.  We won’t even question clinging to each other when that bough breaks.  We’ll find, to our delight, that we’re both wearing parachutes.

The scale of Schadenfreude

bieber

It’s a difficult thing to admit your mistakes.  Even more so when admitting them is an acknowledgement that you are not in all ways the evolved, progressive, compassionate thinker you fancy yourself to be.  Truthfully, it’s never a state you should consider final; it’s a level to which you should continue to aspire in each moment.  The instant you get complacent about it is the instant you begin to backslide.  But I find myself wrestling with this in light of having read Amanda Palmer’s post about Justin Bieber.  If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should, and you should also note my friend Ksenia Anske’s top-rated comment.  Without question there has been an Internet-wide pile-on given the Biebs’ spate of recent misdeeds – if there were such a thing as schadenfreude overload, we’d be teetering precipitously on the brink.  As Amanda says, we don’t have to sympathize with or condone how he’s behaving – far from it – but at the same time, we don’t have to erupt with mirth and glee at his failures as if they provide justification for our existing dislike of him.  If we want to pretend we’re better than he is, sharing photoshopped memes of Bieber subjected to prison rape is hardly the way to do it.

Social media has propelled water cooler conversations into the public sphere.  Where we once just chatted about the news with our family, friends and colleagues in casual encounters over coffees, now our opinions are projected via digital loudspeaker for the entire world’s indulgence, whether wanted or not.  With this ability has come a new compulsion to weigh in on everything (I’m not unaware of the irony here).  Politics, sports, literature, entertainment, global warming, theories of parenting and what we really think of the guy at the post office counter are all fodder for discussion, reflection and ultimately, massive amplification.  Spurred by the appetite we perceive out there for our opinion, we try to top ourselves with outrageousness, to grab our share of the increasingly limited human attention span.  Whose hilarious “Bieber Sucks” comment will be retweeted and favorited the most?  It’s a game for the insecure, a race to the bottom of a well of validation for the basest instincts we possess.  And it is a depressingly seductive game at that – quick to sweep one up in the fervor of the fleeting moment.

In The West Wing episode “Bartlet for America,” we find a troubling discussion of the limits to empathy.  John Spencer’s Leo McGarry is an alcoholic and drug addict who has been sober for about a decade and finds himself having to confront an occasion when he relapsed.  You can only be forgiven so many times for the same thing, McGarry suggests.  There comes a moment, it seems, when the Rubicon is crossed and we no longer see the human being, but only the sin, with the possibility of redemption lost.  Look at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – a man with ongoing substance abuse problems, who, enabled by his brother and a sense of entitlement, refuses to seek treatment or even acknowledge that there is anything wrong with him, instead turning his enmity outward at what comes off as the cast of a paranoid’s conspiracy:  chattering intellectuals who can’t abide the idea of him wearing Toronto’s chain of office.  The week the infamous “crack video” was confirmed, Ford became the subject of a biting takedown on Saturday Night Live and ongoing fodder for comedians and talk show hosts.  Where does he compare with Justin Bieber?  Is Ford a more or a less tragic case?  Is he held to a different standard because he is a politician?  Are they both considered, in a way, to be role models who have let their admirers down?  Is that the magic trigger, the idea that there was an implicit contract, that they owed us a certain standard and now they’ve reneged on it?  At what point is it deemed “okay” to ignore the soul and engage the satire?  Where is the line, and how do we know when we’ve passed it?

It’s not difficult, if you try, to empathize with Justin Bieber, with the soul behind the façade.  Ksenia points out in her comment that we do stupid things in our adolescence; it’s part of the deal.  The vast majority enjoy the privilege of not having a worldwide lens pointed at us while we do it.  Bieber was fed into the fame machine when he was still struggling to figure himself out, I’d argue not entirely of his own free will, but chiefly through the questionable machinations of parents too eager to live failed dreams through their offspring.  He’s suddenly gifted with millions of admirers and dollars, and surrounded day and night by sycophants eager to praise even his bowel movements as the Second Coming.  He cannot move, cannot make a simple comment without it being dissected by countless professional op-eds and layperson critics.  (On Twitter, Bieber’s most innocuous statements – “good morning” even – get shared over a hundred thousand times, and replied to with an equal number of requests for marriage.)  Faux pas in a moment of weakness that you or I could laugh off with our significant other instead foretell the end of civilization.  How does living in that scrutiny day to day not go to your head?  How do you not wake up one morning realizing that despite having everything you could ever imagine you’re still desperately unhappy, and wanting to tell the world to piss off, to prove to it through a series of immature and even illegal antics that you’re not as wonderful as these legions of obsessive fangirls think you are?  That someone as terrible as you think – nay, you know you are – doesn’t deserve admiration or even attention.  How do you like me now, bitches, you can imagine his thoughts screaming at him as he tore drunkenly down the streets of Miami in the middle of the night.  How did he feel then?  As much as the world might revel in hating Justin Bieber right now, we can assume it doesn’t come close to equaling the hatred he feels, deep down, for himself.

The argument back is always, he doesn’t have to stay in the public eye, he could walk away.  Maybe that’s true.  I don’t believe Justin Bieber thinks he has that option.  There are too many other vested interests, depending on his album and merchandise sales to fund the purchase of their own Ferraris and country club memberships, to ever let him go.  He is a mere cog now, mandated to grind out one drywall-deep pop song after another until his star fades away and he ends up on a “Whatever Happened To…” special, or dead of an overdose, whichever comes first.  He is the puppet dancing for the amusement of millions, and because he’s flubbed the steps we’ve turned on him with a vengeance.  One or two slipups might have been okay, but he’s obviously passed that point with society where continued empathy is possible.  He has transitioned from person to punchline.  And I guess that last point is what interests me the most in this conversation.  When do we get the societal OK to commence the attack?  What defines what makes one person an incorrigible miscreant worthy of our collective hatred and another a poor kid who just messed up?

It is as if there is a scale of schadenfreude, from the most unimpeachably virtuous saints ensconced at the top, forever undeserving of slight, to I don’t know, Hitler, one supposes, at the very bottom, where it’s always acceptable to dump endless reserves of scorn and mockery, and to find suffering and fault laughable.  Everyone else falls somewhere in between, and there’s a line below which you’re a legitimate target and above which you can still garner your fellow human beings’ empathy.  The location of that line remains a matter of personal opinion and choice, for forgiveness is for the most part, as “Bartlet for America” posits, not a renewable resource.

I made Justin Bieber jokes in private and in public, I bemoaned the notion that his celebrity status and wealth made it likely he would not receive much in the way of punishment for his illegal behavior, I belittled the judgment of those who set this irresponsible kid on a pedestal and yes, in the moment, I was glad to see him knocked off it.  What does that make me, though?  I’ve reflected on it since reading Amanda’s thoughts and Ksenia’s response, and I’ve realized that what it doesn’t make me is better.  My life and my standing are not ameliorated by crapping over the misfortunes of a famous stranger.

Schadenfreude means “shameful joy,” emphasis on the first word.  And even the religious notion of hell is predicated on the idea that it’s comforting to the living to know that evildoers are being punished without end in a horrible place – schadenfreude taken to a supernatural degree.  But believing that doesn’t change our lives, nor does it provide us any true comfort.  We can agree that what Justin Bieber did in Miami was illegal, dangerous and endangered lives.  We can agree that we don’t like his music or how he comports himself or having to see his face on every product under the sun.  We can agree that he is no role model or someone to be emulated in any way.  What we don’t have to do is cast stones at him with reckless abandon in the expectation that “that’ll learn him.”

When we become a person who is quick to mock and slow to try to comprehend, what we’re really doing is presenting ourselves to the world as fundamentally not a very pleasant sort, and pushing ourselves down that dreaded scale.  Before you know it, one day we’ll tumble below the critical line and find ourselves on the receiving end of the world’s outrage.  The problem with being so down on that scale is that it’s too far to pull yourself back up, and moreover, no one’s going to want to throw you a rope – unless it’s to hang yourself with.

For want of One Great Phrase

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We hear a lot about what writers need, about their obsessive, soul-shaking compulsion to empty their brains of neatly arranged consonants and vowels in as many media as possible, in pursuit of the phenomenon of connection.  Author Layla Messner has a nice, simple, resonant line about it in her Twitter bio:  “Words have been known to come out of my fingers” – they pour, unfiltered from the tap, emptying onto the page in sometimes messy, sometimes poetic splashes.  If we couldn’t type our stories, we’d talk them, if we couldn’t talk them, we’d resort to mime, gesticulating wildly until someone got the idea.  Every moment spent not writing only aggravates the junkie’s craving and fills one with the sense of precious, elusive time misspent.  Family night?  Stuff that, I’ve got eighteen pages to edit and the problems of a fictional unemployed karaoke-obsessed spot welder from Scranton, Pennsylvania to wrestle with.  Few outside “the profession” can comprehend it; those of us on the inside share our compounding frustrations with secret winks and nods and commiserations offered in the digital cafe.  And when we find ourselves without anything substantial to say, we write about what’s wrong with the plumbing, trying to dislodge the creative clog, to rediscover the reassurance of free flowing literary neurosis.

With so much energy expended on exploring writers’ need, what then of what the writer wants?  Not a subject that gets discussed with nearly as much fervor.  Perhaps no one can articulate it in a way that doesn’t sound like the selfish, capitalistic, materialistic desires for fame and fortune and universal acclaim – the seven-figure book deal, the gushing reviews and self-indulgent television interviews, the gala premiere of the movie adaptation, the legions of followers begging to be sated by the next volume in your ongoing saga.  And all that is outside the art itself; fleeting external validation that does little to advance the craft, sharpen your skills or contribute to a legacy that will outlive your just as fleeting mortal shell.  What then, is the want, stripped of the external trappings, boiled down to its essence?  What aspiration keeps the writer awake late at night when the world has gone to sleep, the caffeine has metabolized into ether and the glow of the laptop saturates his face with a cold blue veneer?

Greatness.  Not, I think, the notion of being a great person, but of creating something that takes figurative flight and soars far beyond your little fragment of the world.  Something that becomes.

There’s no such thing as the perfect novel, or even the perfect sentence, hyperbolic critics to the contrary.  There is, however, the ineffable quality of a phrase well-turned – the witty line, the fragment of repartee, the utterance of a slice of wisdom that lasts through generations.  We all harbor memory banks of quotations we can rely upon to spice our own work with a fragment of someone else’s literary manna – the ubiquitous sayings of Shakespeare, Wilde, Twain, Parker, Churchill, Hemingway, Fry, Hitchens, Sorkin (naturally), even Marx (Groucho) and Lennon (John), to name but the merest few.  One need not even be exceptionally well-read to draw on one’s betters – websites like BrainyQuote are an ample buffet, whatever’s on the verbal menu.  How too, do we long to be included in that pantheon.  To one day have high schoolers begin essays with, “As Milne once wrote…”  There’s a reason they call these immortal phrases.  The heart yearns to birth one of its own.

It’s amusing, as a contributor of the occasional column to The Huffington Post, to see which sentence is plucked from the piece by the blog editors to characterize its tone and message on the sidebar.  Which they feel is most likely to draw the maximum amount of click-interest.  I don’t get a say.  Sometimes it turns out to be one that was labored on intensely; others were tossed off in fractions of seconds and result in embarrassed cringes.  When Tony Bennett shared the review I wrote of his performance on his Facebook page, he included this extract as a teaser:

From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it…

Is that the greatest thing that I’ve ever written?  It’s probably not even the greatest sentence in the whole piece.  And did I spend a lot of time and thought and energy creating it or did it just kind of tumble out of me onto the ground to be bypassed like a rusty mile marker on the journey to a more scintillating conclusion?  Regardless, Tony Bennett liked it.  And because he shared it, a great number of people saw it.  But it still fell short of that maddening goal of crossing into the zeitgeist, of tearing itself away from my humble custody to bequeath itself into the care of the ages.  Truthfully, it was never worthy of that honor.  It was of a singular moment and nothing more.  We shall have to try again.

Speaking of attempts, Twitter has become a terrific venue for the creation of quirky, real time bon mots.  Inspiration strikes – we think up something amusing, either on our own or in reaction to somebody else’s comment, we send it out, we eye our Mentions tab for retweets and favorites (and pretend that we don’t, because who wants to admit that we crave the attention).  And it becomes a popularity contest, a battle of digits, with champions determined less by intrinsic and lasting value and more by whose thumbs typed it.  The most I’ve ever had anything retweeted – 19 times – was a snarky castigation of Mitt and Ann Romney during the 2012 presidential election campaign, and hardly something I’d want to be remembered for, nor will anyone else remember it.  Indeed, the tearing down of others has never been the path to the light of universal inspiration.

I’ve written things that I’ve thought were pretty good, I’ve written things that I’ve despised with unbridled bile that rivals the contempt in which I hold certain members of certain political parties in certain parts of the world.  I have yet to write what I consider to be my One Great Phrase, my lasting entry for the Big Book of Quotations.  As usual, what my audience thinks of my work never matches what I think of it.  And I could point to the work of acquaintances of superior skill for examples of what I might consider to be their One Great Phrase which they would scoff at and then ask me for a helping of whatever I might be smoking.  The object of the pursuit remains then an ever-rising mountaintop, the Holy Grail teetering on the edge of the precipice, the Ark you daren’t open lest your face melt off (and any other Indiana Jones metaphors you can think of.)  I suppose it’s just as well – the day you’re satisfied is the day you stop.

Say, that’s not a bad line.  Use it if you like.  But don’t call it great.  We’re not there yet.

“Twetiquette” Twenty: Tips for T(w)errific Twitter Time

This post grew out of something I was doing on Twitter this morning.  Someone was wondering if they should unfollow a person who was cluttering up their feed with nonsense and constant retweets – they felt rude about doing it.  I suggested that if it were a TV channel that was playing a bunch of programs you weren’t interested in watching, you’d stop tuning in.  You’d probably even change your cable package to get rid of it (if the cable companies would let you, of course).  So why put up with it on Twitter?  I’ve followed people that seemed interesting at first but turned out to be irritants, spamming up my feed with dozens of retweets and mentions of stuff I wasn’t remotely interested in.  Why was I putting up with it?  No reason to.  Just click unfollow and be done with it.  I’m pretty sure those folks don’t miss me, and I sure as heck don’t miss them.  It’s not like there was any evil intent on either side, just two people discovering their interests weren’t compatible and going their separate ways.  Happens every day.  Anyway, I ended up tweeting a bunch of hints around the subject which I thought I would collate here for easy reference, and lo and behold, a few more spilled out in the process.

Fair warning – this isn’t your typical “How to Gain Followers and Maximize Your Influence” list.  This is just what I find helps me ensure every day on Twitter is a positive one.   But here goes anyway.  Some modest suggestions for your consideration (and disregard, if that is your inclination).  Note:  Each of these is under 140 characters so they are tweetable in their own right, if you want to share them.

  1. Telling someone you’ve unfollowed them is like telling a complete stranger you think you should see other people.
  2. You’re not obligated to follow someone back if you don’t want to.  Don’t add noise to your feed just to bump up your numbers.
  3. 50 engaged followers are better than 50,000 who never talk to you, retweet you or pay attention to you in any way.
  4. Don’t tweet in anger. Nothing in your head is so important that you can’t wait a few minutes to be sure you want to say it.
  5. Mind your manners with celebrities. Why would you want someone with an audience of millions telling them you’re an idiot?
  6. Try to reply to people when they mention you.  They have reached out and deserve acknowledgement.
  7. You’re not important enough to get away with being a jerk so be positive always, and if you can’t, stay silent.
  8. Don’t wade into conversations that don’t involve you unless you’re certain you can contribute in a positive way.
  9. Don’t tweet the same thing over and over; if it wasn’t funny the first time, it won’t be on tweet #78.
  10. We’re all sick of commercials on TV – don’t be one on Twitter with constant links to your product/book/service.
  11. If you don’t like what someone’s saying, just unfollow quietly and forget.  Don’t make a scene about it.
  12. ALL CAPS IS STILL SCREAMING, EVEN ON TWITTER.  PLEASE CALM DOWN, TAKE A STRESS PILL AND THINK IT OVER.
  13. Everyone swears, but dropping those bombs in every single tweet makes you sound childish.  Unless you are Chuck Wendig.  He’s allowed.
  14. No one is that interested in your boasting about how many people followed/unfollowed you today.  Yep, you’re a rock star, whatever.
  15. The guy you just mouthed off at might know a guy who knows a guy who knows your employer.  Maintain your decorum at all times.
  16. Follow Stephen Fry.  Retweet Stephen Fry.  Say nice things to and about Stephen Fry.  Spread the gospel of Stephen Fry.
  17. Don’t throw a Twitter pity party about how no one retweets or responds to you.  Would you talk to such a whiner in real life?
  18. Ignore trolls, block spammers without mercy and accept that not everyone will agree with you on everything.
  19. My old standby:  if you wouldn’t proudly carve it cement on your front porch, don’t tweet it.
  20. Ultimately, no one really knows what they’re doing on Twitter so take any advice about it with a heaping teaspoon of salt.