Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

With the dawn of the internet, a new school of celebrity has risen, and many of the most popular personalities you’ve never heard of do most or all of their work on YouTube. One of these people is Felicia Day, an actress, writer, producer, and self-identified ‘situationally famous’ nerd. In her new memoir, Day writes about being home-schooled, her college career as a violin and math prodigy, her prolific commercial acting career, and the rise of her internet fame beginning with her webseries The Guild.

youreneverweird

Day’s goofy tone translates well from screen to page and it’s fun to see behind the curtain of her online empire. I am often skeptical of celebrities obsessed with reminding us that “they’re just like us” but with access to much more money, power, and influence. I understand why it’s become a marketing technique for young stars, especially women like Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Kendrick, or Taylor Swift who are often criticized by fellow women attempting to distance themselves from the stereotypically feminine.

But all the reminders that they eat pizza and stay up late watching Netflix can become disingenuous, and Day ventures into this territory in the opening of her book, which evolved from speeches she wrote about her YouTube channel Geek & Sundry. She establishes who she is and why she’s writing a memoir in the first place, convincing those perusing the opening pages in Barnes & Noble or on Amazon to buy the book, which is good business but can be disorienting for those self-identified geeks opening their pre-ordered, signed copy.

My skepticism faded, however, as Day pushed past self-deprecating humor and delved into her her experiences with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and physical illnesses. For fans who had no clue she was struggling, her honesty about these issues and how they affect her creative work is both surprising and empowering. Mental health issues are rarely addressed by public figures with such candor, even by younger celebrities who spend more time on social media with their fans.

The depth and vulnerability in the later chapters of the book is not consistent throughout, however, and there are certain events well-known by her fans that are conspicuously absent from the timeline she lays out, like her work on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other successes that pre-date/co-occur with the success of The Guild. Those holes are easy enough to fill with Wikipedia pages, but do add to the impression early-on that she’s maintaining a persona through her book.

Her gratitude towards her fans and fellow nerds, however, and her continued passion about her work shine through and make reading her memoir a pleasure. She also puts a face and set of personal experiences to an idea that I think many nerds hold dear to their heart: what happens online is just as ‘real’ as what happens away from our computers. While certain virtual experiences of hers (like her gaming addiction) negatively affected her life, her connection to gaming provided relationships and growth that shaped her as a person and allowed her to create projects that others relate to, like The Guild.

the guild

In turn, this connected her to more and more people, fans and industry folks alike, allowing her to continue carving space for nuanced female characters and more complex analysis of online life in pop culture. Day’s frustrations with the stereotypes faced by women working in entertainment or participating in nerd culture, while not the first of their kind, add meaning to the roles she’s written and helped in creating. She also touches on how fame and other people’s expectations can devastate the creative process, and how Gamergate affected her personal and professional lives.

Looking forward, it would be great to see Day talk more about race, sexual orientation, ability, and diversity in the geek world in her future writing and public speaking. The ‘democratic’ nature of the internet and of nerd culture is often explored in terms of representation of white women in media and gaming circles, rather than other areas of inequality. Since Day has taken stances against bullying and for embracing your ‘weird,’ using her voice to amplify the complexities of that issue and her channel to host content by nerds of all identities and backgrounds would be both refreshing and ground-breaking.

But this book, while about fairly unusual experiences, focuses on the delight we feel when we find something we’re passionate about as well as the contributions the highs and lows of our lives make to our identity and our work. That’s something everyone can identify with in some way, and makes it a worthwhile read for ‘nerds’ of all types…and the embarrassing childhood photos of Day scattered throughout don’t hurt either.

What did you think of You’re Never Weird on the Internet? How would you title your memoir? Let me know in the comments!

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On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 2: Where Do We Go From Here?

On Wednesday I talked about the first three videos in Innuendo Studios’ six-part series Why Are You So Angry?, which explores where online harassment and movements like Gamergate come from. The last three videos touch on how we can try to reframe our own thinking about morality and social justice.

It can feel overwhelming to imagine solutions to issues as big as these, but keeping some simple things in mind helps. As Danskin and Sarkeesian (and I and many others state): consuming problematic media doesn’t make us bad. Creating it doesn’t make us bad. Even becoming an AJ doesn’t make us irrevocably bad. We always have the power to change our beliefs and our behaviors, or to reconsider how they affect us and others.

By change I don’t mean stop playing your favorite video games or stop eating meat or stop existing as a privileged person. Simply acknowledging that the things we say, do, and enjoy are affected by society and have the capacity to reflect social problems/affect others is an important step that validates oppressed group’s experiences..

anita quote

Of course this can’t totally solve the problem. We can’t control another person’s choices, or force them to confront their own privilege. But we can control our own behaviors and hold others accountable for theirs.

So what can we ‘privileged few’ do to deal with our discomfort and make healthy choices for ourselves and others? What can we do to make it clear that harassment is not okay and that AJs are not welcome in our community?

Danskin still isn’t 100% sure on this, and I’d say most people are in the same boat. But through a conversation with the experts – women affected by GG like Zoe Quinn and Lindsay Ellis – and his own rumination, he came up with some tentative suggestions which I have expanded upon to create my own (incomplete) list:

First of all, we can try to stop thinking in absolutes. Binarism makes the world easier, especially for people with privilege.I think Danskin is right that puritanical and binary thinking are Western concepts, and not just that, but colonial concepts used to empower some while oppressing others. If everything is cut and dry, one or the other, we get out of grappling with nuance and the feelings it brings up in us.

source: Yael Megery - Pikiwiki Israel

source: Yael Megery – Pikiwiki Israel

Second, we can try to look at the big picture, which means beyond ourselves. This is hard, because being selfish allows humans to survive. Some would argue that it is the natural and primary instinct, and that humans do not do anything without some kind of personal benefit. With that argument, I wholeheartedly disagree, but that is another post for another blog. When I say look at the big picture, I mean examine how media and social norms shape our current beliefs and, when making a choice about our actions or attitudes, ask how it affects other people who don’t have our privileges?

Along these lines, we can practice compassion towards ourselves. Much of the anger and hatred and violence turned towards cultural critics or so-called SJWs – especially female, trans, disabled, queer, and black and brown folks from those categories – comes from a sense of entitlement we get from society, but another chunk of it is a deflection of the anger or disappointment we feel towards ourselves for not being what we define as ‘good,’ for not seeing our own privilege or having it at all.

If we allow ourselves to be flawed human beings who sometimes make bad choices or miss things, but are not inherently or permanently bad, then we stop feeling the need to attack others who make us uncomfortable. Instead, we learn to cope with those feelings and show ourselves the understanding we might show a friend.

jay smooth quote

Once we show that compassion to ourselves and others, we’re able to continue watching and reading and playing the things we loved before, but also to be critical of them and help make them better.

When faced with others who choose not to acknowledge privilege, and worse, to attack those who do we can react to them in a variety of ways depending on our connection with them. If we are their close friend or family member, we can call them out and ask them to stop, or we can ask a mentor they respect to call them out.

This, as Ellis and Quinn told Danskin in their recent Twitter conversation, is really the only way to plant any seeds of change in an individual. They have to be hear it from someone they respect and be ready and willing to stop toxic behaviors.

whyareyousoangry1

source: Innuendo Studios

We can also talk about privilege (and choice and social justice and popular culture in general) on our own platforms, to allow those who are open to listen and learn in a safe space, away from conspiracy theories, threats, or attacks. This helps minimize negative effects on bystanders doing similar work or affected by the issue when we speak out.

And last, we can demand good moderation in our communities, and expel people who choose to put our safety at risk. While education can be an important step towards change for AJ, it is not the responsibility of Sarkeesian or the other people he attacks to educate him. It’s best if he can take initiative himself, but if he won’t, people close to him who also have privilege have the best chance of pushing him along the path.

So those are my thoughts on Ian Danskin’s thoughts on AJ’s thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian. Whew, that’s a mouthful! How do you guys deal with nuanced issues in your day to day life? What are the best ways we can foster critical conversations? Let me know in the comments.

On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 1: Why We’re All So Angry

Recently, Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios released a lovely, easily digestible video series about cultural criticism, harassment, and privilege. It was super thought-provoking, so I want to showcase and engage with his argument here. In this first piece, we’ll look at his first three videos and talk about what I think he gets wrong.

On the ‘About’ page of this blog, I talk a little bit about my tongue-in-cheek url and my drive to analyze the pieces of pop culture I love. I started this project because media we consume both shapes us and is shaped by us. The people I promote on this blog and my YouTube channel share these beliefs, and one of those people is Anita Sarkeesian.

If you haven’t yet heard of her, I’m a little concerned that you haven’t been on the internet in five years, but don’t worry–Danskin gives a great summary of her work and the backlash to it in his new videos.

Danskin’s central question is why do cultural critics like Sarkeesian receive not just floods of counter-arguments but also personal attacks against them ranging from ridiculous to terrifying? And why do some of those attackers join together to form movements like Gamergate? In essence, why are people so angry?

As a shorthand, he calls the people attacking Sarkeesian ‘Angry Jack’ or as I’ll call him ‘AJ.’ AJ is typically one or more of the following: white, male, straight, cis, and middle/upper class. This allows him to see the world at its most ideal: a world where he is not judged based on his gender, the color of his skin, his sexuality, the abilities of his body, the state of his mental health, or his wealth or class status. A world where he is an individual and defined by his individual actions.

credit: Amanda Watkins

Angry Jack, credit: Amanda Watkins

When someone says something like “I’m vegan,” or “I don’t drink,” or “that game is sexist,” it forces AJ to look at the world in a different way, to wonder whether doing or liking the things this person doesn’t do/like makes HIM a bad person. As Danskin points out, this is a complex question, but I’ll do my best to outline what we have to consider.

First things first, the value of a human being is inherent and does not come from their accomplishments or even their individual choices in isolation. Second things second, of course, we are all responsible for our own behaviors and accountable for the consequences of those behaviors. Behaviors can affect others and society at large.

Growing up, most of us believed what we saw and what we were told without questioning it. It would be exhausting to debate every single decision we made or belief we adopted, and the beliefs our society extolled are already long-established, so we accepted them as fact upon hearing of them and moved on.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

That means that if/when we’re forced to question them, we’re questioning not just our beliefs at that moment, but an entire lifetime of attitudes and actions. And if we forget for a moment that what is up for debate is not our character as an individual, not our intentions, but the society we live in and how our attitudes and actions affect everyone, then that means we could believe we’ve been not just wrong but ‘bad’ for a long time. And that might make us feel judged for the groups we belong to or the things we enjoy rather than our character.

On all of this, Danskin and I agree, but I do think he gets one thing wrong in his argument; he posits that the AJs of the world feel this way but are hangers-on who go along with the real ‘bad guys.’ He contrasts them with ‘psychopaths’ who threaten and dox people they disagree with for no good reason. I don’t think that’s the case. First of all, as one of his viewers/followers pointed out, it is ableist to blame harmful behavior on mental illness or say that all psychopathic or sociopathic people will behave harmfully. But it’s also just plain not true.

The sad fact of the matter is, the abusers and rapists he uses as foils to online harassers in his videos are not the exceptions. They are parents and siblings and friends. They are humans. As are online harassers in communities like GG. That’s why things like rape culture and toxic gaming culture exist–those acts have the power of social norms and hierarchies behind them.

Credit: Chase Carter

Credit: Chase Carter

In the most benign of forms, AJ dismisses rather than engages with privilege. He resorts to derailment in the name of things like ‘journalism ethics.’ He posits that he and his fellow AJs are a ‘minority’ who deserves to speak, or that he is engaging in an ‘intellectual debate’ with two equally valid sides. He is Taylor Swift tweeting to Nicki Minaj about the VMAs.

At his most dangerous, the same AJ is violent and abusive. He uses hate speech to scare people who speak up about issues they care about. He makes an online game where people can punch Sarkeesian in the face. He is Redditors sending death threats to former CEO Ellen Pao.

Danskin points out that many people believe that harassers are gonna harass no matter what. But that isn’t exactly true. Harassment is a choice, a reaction to discomfort, to anger and disappointment and doubt that previously didn’t exist, that makes it harder to continue living the way we always had until someone like Sarkeesian spoke up. Those who bring social issues to AJ’s attention and spark this discomfort become symbols of the destruction of ease and innocence in AJ’s life, so to cope he chooses to lash out at them.

source: City of Renton website

source: City of Renton website

Many AJs have most grown up seeing gaming as a safe space for them, an area of culture where they can go to escape their personal disappointments. This helps explain, but not excuse, why someone like AJ might attack someone like Sarkeesian, who asks him to examine games and how they affect others. To him, this means he has to question himself, which is a scary, difficult, and – if we’re honest – life-long process.

It’s much easier to deflect. Danskin says that AJ is less a type of person and more the mindset we enter when we are faced with our privilege and enter defend-and-attack mode. I agree that every person with privilege, at one point in another in their lives, feels uncomfortable about taking advantage of privilege or having it at all says about their character. We privileged few each have the ability to become an AJ.

But that reaction is a choice. To avoid becoming one, we have to develop alternative reactions, new coping mechanisms. We have to recognize that a) it’s okay to feel discomfort but b) the social issues being exposed are bigger than our individual discomfort and therefore c) the debate at hand isn’t actually about our morality at all.

Thanks for reading! On Saturday we’ll talk about how we can create just online spaces and hold ourselves and others accountable. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts, like what do you think of Danskin’s videos? Where does harassment come from? Why do I get so defensive when someone says they don’t drink soda?