Criticism self-selects its audience, or: has spoiler culture changed the way writers write?

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2011

Here’s an interesting essay from Chuck Klosterman in which he discusses the effects of the internet closing a short feedback loop between the writers and consumers of story. He’s talking predominantly about screenplays, but I think there’s a lot here that’s applicable to written fictions, too.

Here, Damon Lindelof ‘fesses up that responding to fan feedback during the creation of Lost was a mistake, and something he’s trying hard to avoid doing again:

But what about Lindelof’s unconscious relationship with his fan base? Even if he locks himself in a hatch, he knows his personal brand will attract the type of person who hunts for clues and twists; he knows his audience is populated by people who want to express their opinions in public and define the collective perception of the show, and he knows that any crumb of information leaked about his projects will be proliferated instantly. Even if he chooses to ignore these truths, he will still know they’re true. And that’s going to have a consequence on what he ultimately writes. He’ll unconsciously attempt to negate those problems before they even happen.

“On a personal level, this has absolutely affected me,” Lindelof says. “I’m in the process of thinking about whatever my next TV show will be, and I’m constantly thinking about this very question. I know whatever I make will carry the scent of Lost — it’s like I’ve just left a strip club. There will always be this belief that what I make will not be what it seems. I’ve become such an unreliable narrator. So as I think about my next project, I want to create a feeling that immediately says to the audience, I Am Exactly What I Appear To Be. Sometimes I wish we were in the old Alfred Hitchcock days, when I could just sit in a recliner at the start of the program and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there are no shenanigans here.’ But of course, in this era, that would have the total opposite effect. In the olden days — and by olden, I mean like four years ago — I would be inclined to just try anything. I would just write whatever interested me. But now, if I thought of a major twist, I wouldn’t do it unless it was a home run. Because at this point, a base hit is not acceptable. And once you decide to do something like that, you’re faced with the question of, `What am I willing to do to hide this?’ Am I willing to lie to pretty much everyone I know? Is it worth lying to the crew and to everyone I work with? Because that’s the only way you can pull it off.”

Obviously the writer of novels is a little safer from this phenomenon; the predominantly isolated nature of the creation process means that leaking is easier to control. But the same problem will raise its head with series of books, and the slowness of the book production cycle will allow for plenty of feedback to mass up in between instalments; short of sealing oneself off from the internet and other media almost entirely, it’ll be hard to avoid that looming mass of expectation. In the long run, my guess would be that the expectations we have of story will, perforce, mutate to accommodate the effects of the feedback channel; not quite the pick-your-own-adventure interactive movies that have been mooted for years (and will probably never take off – the gaming market has that side of things sewn up already, because it’s not suited to a mass simultaneous audience experience like cinema), but a certain – and possibly wryly knowing – degree of fanservice to reward a loyal fanbase might become de rigeur. Balancing that fanservice with the risk of spoilers will be a new tightrope for writers to walk, but I don’t think it’ll be as difficult a transition as all that; fandoms will learn to be more forgiving and less demanding, or they’ll lose the things they love – much lie any other relationship, it should be about give and take if you want it to last. (This remission of privilege may well be accelerated by new business models that involve direct financial interaction between creators and fans, which will likely be the next feedback loop to slip into place.)

Before I sign off on this one, I just want to pull out some of Klosterman’s more general points about spoilers, because – as a critic – they’re an issue that interests me, and Klosterman actually fingers the critical apparatus for being a problematic part of the loop described above:

Every so often, a random contrarian will publish an essay titled, “In defense of spoilers” (or something along those lines). The writer inevitably explains why the concept of media outlets (or rogue bloggers, or quasi-celebrity Twitter accounts) preemptively ruining movies or books or TV shows is an infantile complaint and a minor nuisance. Not surprisingly, almost no non-critic takes this argument seriously. It comes from a purely egotistical point of view; the writer believes his or her thoughts about a piece of art are more valuable than the art itself (and therefore can’t be constrained by the collective experience of the audience).

Now, I’ve written defences of spoilers myself – here’s one, in fact – and while I’ll admit there’s an element of ego involved, I don’t believe my thoughts about a work to be more valuable than the work itself at all, though I do believe that the onus for avoiding spoilers lies upon those who are worried about encountering them. (Again, things are different in the world of books when compared to the world of film and TV; discussion of the latter is going to be harder to avoid than in-depth criticism of a novel, if only because the field of critics is larger and more widely-read.) Klosterman concedes the necessity of this pragmatic attitude – indeed, it’s his route into the discussion of feedback loops above:

But complaining about spoilers is like complaining about bed bugs — they’re always going to exist, they’re only going to become harder to avoid, and worry merely amplifies the displeasure. Everyone is aware that this is how the modern media works. Everyone, including the very people generating the art that’s being spoiled.

And one of his footnote/sidebars raises the core question: what’s the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway? How long would be a fair grace period before one is permitted to talk about a book or movie in detail?

If you’re writing an analysis of Old Yeller, it’s totally fine to discuss the hound’s demise. In fact, anytime a writer is doing a deep criticism of a commodity that has (assumedly) been experienced by the overwhelming bulk of those interested in reading about a given subject, there aren’t any boundaries or limitations. But things are different when (a) the art is still functioning in the present tense, and/or (b) an uninformed, uninvested reader has no way of gauging how central the element of surprise is to the enjoyment of the work. That second factor is especially important. For example, this article starts with several references to The Sixth Sense, which I mention is 12 years old. In cinema, 12 years is a long time. So if the title of this essay had been, “I See Famous People (and Maybe Donnie Wahlberg): A Inverted Deconstruction of The Sixth Sense” — I could write whatever I please. I could elucidate every single twist because nobody would consume my article unless they were already well-informed about its subject. Criticism self-selects its audience; you wouldn’t read the essay if you hadn’t seen the film.

That final sentence is the important one for me, because I think it places the onus back on the reader to be aware of what sort of venue a review or discussion is appearing in, and to be aware that a critical venue is more likely to feature reviews with spoilers, and to act accordingly. (It’s a rather libertarian attitude on my part, perhaps, but to my mind someone wandering into the comments thread at a venue like Strange Horizons and calling reviewers out for spoilers is a little like wandering around a nudist colony and demanding that people to cover themselves to spare your embarrassment.)

A popular counter-suggestion goes along the lines of “well, why not just put a warning at the top of reviews that might have spoilery content in them?” Again, I feel that’s an unwarranted shifting of responsibility from consumer to critic; perhaps it’s pure ego, as Klosterman suggests, but I don’t see why a group of people should be forbidden from discussing the detail of a work just because there are some folk who haven’t gotten round to seeing it yet. Klosterman admits that spoilers are impossible to police… so perhaps part of the mutation of fandom attitudes I postulated further up would include a sense that avoiding spoilers was their own responsibility.

Though, I’ll admit, I don’t find that very likely. 😉

Speculative direct democracy: the cybernetic tax-allocation feedback loop

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2010

Here’s a really interesting thought-experiment from Adam Rothstein, riffing off the no-fee-no-fire-brigade story and the receipt-for-your-taxes idea. I’ll let him explain rather than attempt to paraphrase:

What if after seeing this receipt, taxpayers were allowed to shift where their taxes went? Say, less Pell grants, and more to the war in Afghanistan, if that was their priority. Or less war, and more highways. Of course this would affect their service. The service only gets what the individual public thinks it deserves from their contribution to the tax coffers. It would be easier to go all Henry Thoreau on a war a hemisphere away then it would on, say, your local fire service, because there are fewer people contributing to your local fire bureau than paying national taxes, and you’d see the effect of the latter right away, the former only later. But hey, open it up. Let people pay their share of what they think it important. Let’s think about what would happen, if people could actually control where the money was going.

Other than finally letting individuals control their tax dollars, what this would eventually create is a massive, cybernetic feedback loop. Let’s say you opened up a website with UI controls, so you could adjust your proportional tax payment anytime you wanted, adjustable down to hourly segments of your fiscal year total. (I am assuming you must still pay your full total, you can just allocate the percentages. Otherwise, everyone would obviously opt to pay nothing at all.) And this site updates. So after it first launches, we see (and I am just guessing here) payment for education and arts decrease, and military spending increases. After a few hours of people allocating their own taxes, education and arts are almost at zero. But then what happens as people see these changes? Maybe someone who originally allocated 75% military/25% education, on seeing education spending slide nationally to nothing, decides to allocate 100% education to make up for the difference. How many people do this? Enough to counter the childless militants? What sort of equilibrium is reached? Is an equilibrium reached?

Now imagine, after they open up the API of this system (naturally), third-party algorithms are introduced. Want to help the budget reach 25% for education nationally? Install this add-on, and it will auto-adjust you and everyone else using the add-on in a unified front to make this goal a reality (while protecting your personal data, of course). Or maybe you set it to automatically devote up to 100% of your individual taxes to education, unless highways dip below 5%, and then it re-figures your totals according to your preference. Or, download the Democratic Party algorithm, which will automatically adjust your percentages to match the national tax distribution platform of the party. Download the Support our Troops algorithm, which helps the Veterans and Military budgets maintain a certain consistent ratio to the overall budget depending on how many troops are currently on active duty. Pledge to Support the Dollar, by downloading the FOMC algorithm that will adjust internal infrastructure spending and national debt spending in such a way as to drive the strength of the dollar world-wide. How about an algorithm that scans the news for stories of political scandal, reducing the money allocated to congressional salaries every time there is another ethics violation? Too many fires in your district last month? The Google Map Fire Layer-aware algorithm will automatically up your fire services percentage by an appropriate amount.

Now what would be REALLY REALLY interesting: what sort of equilibrium is achieved, and how far off is it the current balance as it now, without this sci-fi direct democracy scheme? After all the algorithms are factored in, and all the feedback to the results of the algorithms are calculated and re-factored… are we actually any different than where we are now? Is our national desired budget, summed from all the diverse opinion about where we ought to be spending money, really any different from reality? If we let one person tweak the budget, they’d do all sorts of different things. But if everyone’s opinion and rate of pay were weighted together, I’d say it’s a fair bet that we’d end up exactly where we are.


Is it possible that as bankrupt and backwards as our democracy is, that it actually functions perfectly at doing what it is supposed to do? This function: to obfuscate and abstract our own lack of knowledge and ability, to direct our attention away from our responsibility for our own egos. And is it possible that the government, by echoing the non-sensical desires and demands of a populace that is as fickle as a television programming schedule, is already the representative compass of a society that is ready and willing to sprint directly towards oblivion? This society that would rather wage war across the globe than put out the fires in our neighbors homes, and fix the gas lines underneath our own feet.

Provocative stuff, and no mistake; much like Rothstein, I’d love to see the results of an experimental run of a system like this, though I’m perhaps a trifle more optimistic about the results we might see, especially if there were a good degree of local granularity involved.

Tokyo billboards can guess your age, gender

Paul Raven @ 16-07-2010

The technological evolution of billboards continues apace. Three years ago we mentioned billboards that can track the attention paid to them; then there were the billboards that could beam directed soundwaves right into your ears (and your ears alone); then there was the suggestion of billboards that you could hit with a high-5 from your Body Area Network in order to receive more relevant ads. The next step? Hi-tech billboards are on trial in Tokyo, and they’re supposed to be able to assess your age demographic and gender.

This is another one of the arms races of evolutionary psychology, I suspect; the smarter advertising becomes, the more resistant to its more basic forms we’ll get. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking… after all, the only reason there’s money in spam emails is because people are stupid enough to click on the damned things.

Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage

Luc Reid @ 09-06-2010

Do writers who use critique groups do better than writers who don’t? Do writers need mentors? What differentiates a bad writer from a good writer, and a good writer from a great writer? Does it always take time to develop writing skills, or do some people just have them right off?

All good questions. Here are some answers. Continue reading “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage”

EmoBracelet to remind traders not to be dicks

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2009

The *other* sort of emo braceletsBoy, those stock market trader guys sure can get the rest of us into a mess with their crazy high-jinks. But it’s not entirely their fault, you know – they just get a bit carried away in the heat of the moment. C’mon, we’ve all been there – emotions run high, you have to make a snap decision, and sometimes you get it wrong. Granted, for most of us there’s little chance of shafting the entire planet in the process…

But wouldn’t it be good if we could keep those traders calm? If we could lay a metaphorical cool hand of reason on their shoulders every once in a while and say “hey, maybe you’re thinking with your heart (or your dick) rather than your head”? Electronics giant Philips and financial behemoth ABN Ambro seem to think it’s a great idea, and have hence teamed up to develop a conceptual device called the EmoBracelet, which should achieve the same effect:

The gadget […]measures electrical signals from users’ skin to assess their emotional state. The technology is similar to a lie detector recognising the nervousness behind a fib.

The announcement by the two companies said online traders had nearly double the number of deals as those who traded through a broker and that online traders earned lower returns because of poor decisions.

”Driven by fear, they may sell too hastily when share prices drop. Driven by greed, they may be overenthusiastic,” the announcement said.

The EmoBracelet and another device, an EmoBowl, use electrical displays to show a person’s emotional intensity. The two items were designed to warn traders to step back and take a breather by alerting them to their heightened emotional state.

As a wearer’s emotions grow more intense, lights flicker faster on the bracelet and the colours inside the bowl change from a soft yellow to orange to a deep cautionary red.

Nice idea, guys, but I have to say that I’m not sure the EmoBracelet is going to prevent traders doing dumb things. After all, most of the folk I’ve worked with who were prone to agitation or emotional overinvolvement with their work would react rather badly to having their “heightened mental state” pointed out… and some of them would probably carry on pushing the envelope just to prove how on top of things they really were (in their minds, at least).

A version of the EmoBracelet that injected the trader with a hugely powerful soporific at the pertinent moment might be a little more useful, however… [story via Technovelgy; image by McWilliams Graphics]