You Can Be Critical Of Art On the Internet Without Being A Misogynist Jerk

Sunday, April 20, 2014 - 01:44 PM

(Eugenia Williamson's Twitter)

Edit: I embarrassingly misspelled Eugenia Williamson "Eugenia Williams" initially. I have now fixed. I regret the error.

Last week, PJ and I wrote an article in response to a failed interview between Boston Magazine writer Eugenia Williamson and former child star-turned Velvet Underground parodist Macaulay Culkin. I read the article as fairly mean spirited, viciously personal, and not particularly illuminating of its subject. But in writing the article about it, I strove to keep my critique measured and specific. The larger internet picked up on the story, and didn't make a similar effort.

There were people besides us who found the article distastesful, but a real internet hate frenzy began in earnest when comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted about it to his 1.6 million twitter followers:

And then, of course, came the tired, disappointing, and wholly expected gendered attacks on the author.

Look, the reason I do a show about the internet is because I fundamentally believe in it. It has flattened communication to the point that everyone gets a say. And that is a good thing! Voices that were previously marginalized or completely ignored are able to garner as much attention as old well-heeled schmucks like Tom Friedman. It gives us the opportunity to communicate with sound and video and writing and interaction all at once and when properly harnessed it is magical.

But if I could get a little Uncle Ben from Spider-Man here for a minute, we have a responsibility to one another to try to use our new ability to speak to everyone constructively and apportion our rage appropriately. To only get precisely as angry at things as they deserve. I thought that article was bad. But I don't think that means that the author is a bad person or even a bad writer. That's where it ends. 

Whenever I am reading the internet and find myself getting whipped up into netrage, I find it helpful to do a little exercise. And that exercise is to try and imagine the day of the person I'm angry with. If you think of them as an abstraction, you can just turn them into this monument to all terrible behavior in the world. But imagine them waking up, paying bills, hanging out with friends, going to the bank, walking their dogs, calling their grandparents.

This may sound ridiculous, but what I'm trying to say is you don't know them. You don't know Eugenia Williamson from reading this article. Neither do I. And while she is the person that wrote this article I didn't like, that is not the sum total of her existence. She's a real person. The venom directed at her is actually landing on a real person. So just think on that for a second.

One of my particular weaknesses on the internet is engaging with people against my better judgment. Even when I know intellectually that it never turns out well, sometimes I just can't help myself. So when I saw the garbage posted above, knowing full well it was none of my business and I was not asked to do so, I responded anyway:

What I read in this tweet is "I know I'm being a terrible misogynist, but she was asking for it." I am having trouble imagining any circumstance in which someone deserves being talked to like this for writing an article about pop culture.

Way back in TLDR episode #2, I said "the internet is incapable of a measured response." At the time, I took it as a given, one of the inevitable byproducts of the disinhibiting freedom of anonymity and lack of culpability that the internet provides. But there's no reason, really, that we need to take it as such. Criticism and debate are great. No one likes to argue more than me. But the speed and alacrity with which it teeters into bullying on the internet is not a fixed inevitable byproduct of the medium. We have the power to change it. 


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Comments [8]


You both know you're saying mean things about someone because he said mean things about someone else, right? Which is the very conduct you condemn as childish. You're certain more constrained than he was, and he'll probably never read what you said, but I think if you want the internet to be a better place, the first step is getting that fundamental attribution bias in check. It's fun to think other people are inferior, but most of the time they aren't really, they just haven't fully thought things through, or they're working with information you don't have.

Apr. 23 2014 12:28 PM

Cameron Tylek's retort to you is pretty darn indicative of who you're dealing with. "I know you are but what am I?" Read: well, sure I'm being nasty to her, but that's what she did to Culkin, so it's all fair. Clearly the thinking of an adolescent, or a man-child acting like one.

Um, no Cameron. It's not okay.

I'm baffled by the widespread (?) belief that because it's the Interweb, because it's only brief, ephemeral Tweets, because we all have Internet personae that aren't supposed to really truly represent us, it's okay to be vicious and abusive of others. That makes social media an experiment going terribly wrong....

Apr. 21 2014 05:53 PM
Ben from Boston

While you're at it, you might also want to fix the spelling of Macaulay Culkin's name.

Apr. 21 2014 01:30 PM

Oh, you also spelled "Macaulay" incorrectly.

Apr. 21 2014 01:28 PM

I think by titling your original blog post "LET’S STOP SENDING NASTY EMAILS TO MACAULAY CULKIN" you, i'm sure inadvertently, fanned the fire of this flame war.

Macaulay Culkin is a multi-millionaire who, presumably, has a staff of people who will read "his" email for him. The author did not send "nasty email" to Macaulay Culkin; she sent it to his publicist. There is a big difference.

I read Eugenia Williamson's article as a critique of a celebrity media culture where a rich actor can act as though he's a poor struggling art star, but yet hire a publicist to ensure that his one-joke band gets proper media coverage.

Her article exposed how so-called "interviews" are often actually just email exchanges and that journalists often follow the limiting rules that are dictated to them by the very celebrities that they are supposed to be covering.

These seem like issues more pertinent to ON THE MEDIA than exactly how mean people are allowed to be on the internet.

Apr. 21 2014 01:03 PM

Thanks for the note, Jenny. Fixed. Embarrassing.

Apr. 21 2014 12:34 PM
Jenny from Chicago

Before giving any journalism lessons, I might fact check the subject's (or in this case "target") name is spelled right.

Apr. 21 2014 12:30 PM
Dan Mitchell

"And that is a good thing!"

No, it isn't. It CAN be. But mostly, it isn't. How many things like this have to happen before we all realize this? Tom Friedman is a putz, but he, and people like him, don't run around the Internet acting like emotionally stunted manchildren.

Apr. 21 2014 11:34 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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