Rest assured: the topic of this article is decidedly not “ethics in gamer journalism.” The topic here may seem to center on video games when it is, quite frankly, all about the money.
The Backlash Was Only The Beginning
On September 1st, 2015, technologist Brianna Wu teamed with writer Ellen McGrody to write a factually inaccurate, morally wrong-headed article.
The article was factually incorrect for reasons elaborated in Part One of this two-part series.
It also twisted a gender rights issue — transgender representation in videogames.
The effect was to stir empty controversy, generating cheap click-bait for their host, themarysue.com.
Predictably, a strong backlash arose among many readers who voiced their disgust both on themarysue.com website and on Twitter.
That was only the beginning, however. Brianna Wu further impugned her own credibility, responding to criticism by tweeting personal attacks against her detractors rather than addressing the factual inaccuracies in her article:
“The extreme anger and aggressive denial of my piece about the evidence #Samus is transgender shows how much transphobia is in gamer culture.”
In some cases, it’s not denial. It’s that the article was incorrect and wrong. Cherrypicking convenient facts and ignoring disconfirming evidence has nothing to do with “gamer culture”, and everything do to with manipulation of data to serve an agenda. Note also how all who disagree are automatically labeled as “extreme”, “angry”, or “aggressive”, and as denying some kind of nonexistent “truth” that exists only in Brianna Wu’s mind.
“Why does this upset people so much? Well, that answer is simple. You hate transgender people, and can’t imagine a gaming icon as one.”
No, the answer is different, yet equally simple: some people dislike being manipulated for the sake of pseudo-civil rights clickbait. There are real issues to write about in the gender rights arena. Why waste time digging up twenty year-old quotes from video games and twisting them for the sake of a bogus feel-good essay?
“I need you to understand, your unconscious bias against transgender people is killing them. It killed my friend Evelyn, who was only 19.”
A shoddy article about a videogame character has nothing to do with the unfortunate death of anyone’s real-life friends. Aside from the ludicrous assertion that “unconscious biases” can kill people, claiming such deadly “bias” on the part of people you’ve never met is ridiculous mass armchair psychoanalysis-at-a-distance.
“I’m going to make all the difference I can, while I can. Sadly, enduring endless barrage of personal attacks is part of changing the world.”
The unmistakably hubris-riddled, self-obsessive grandiosity of this tweet says more than any other one could have done on its own.
Question: How did such a shoddy, manipulative article end up published in the first place?
Answer: Because no one was paying for anything better.
This two-part series of AltSciFi articles is not a “hit piece” or attempt at character assassination against Brianna Wu or Ellen McGrody.
In spite of their perhaps-virtuous motives, Wu and McGrody wrote and promoted an article whose premise was misleading and facts were badly cherrypicked. The ultimate responsibility for such “clickbait journalism”, however, rests entirely on the shoulders of publications that give space to such poorly chosen prose.
Regardless of the stated subject or domain, any website powered by advertising is also driven by baiting users to click on advertisements. This inevitably leads down the bottomless sewer drain of searching for “high-concept” articles that will grab random readers by the eyeballs and keep them looking for long enough to follow an ad.
Mechanics of the “Free” Clickbait Internet Economy
The economics of clickbaiting are calculated by the thousands: thousands of people need to view a click-driven website before an appreciable number will “convert” into buyers.
What does this mean?
It means that if a site is driven by clicks, it’s also essentially and inevitably the Web version of a trashy tabloid magazine. The fundamental business model is exactly the same. A tabloid strives to shock with lurid headlines and scandalous stories; advertising-driven websites are financially sustained by the same set of economic pressures. At no point in time is quality the top priority.
At worst, advertisers and websites (and even ISPs) collect your personal browsing data, build behavioral profiles of users, and sell it to the highest bidder.
Hence, we end up with fake flag-waving by writers like Wu and McGrody — in this case, spinning a twenty-year-old transphobic comment into a false “victory” for transgender gamers. Even if the article isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed on, a high viewer count makes it a “winner”.
Wu and McGrody may not have set out to manipulate the emotions and hopes of their audience. Their intentions may have been pure. The publication for which they wrote, however, did nothing to prevent their tabloid-worthy article from being printed on its pages. Everyone involved simply had too much to gain and too little to lose.
How can clickbait journalism and blatantly exploitative gender-baiting be prevented?
If a publication’s readers aren’t financially invested in the works produced, there is no way to measure the value of those works aside from “more, more and more”. More pageviews, more clicks, more ads.
This leads to the slippery slope of baiting readers with tabloid-style “journalism”. If your work is based on enticing a multitude of random eyeballs, touchscreen taps and mouse clicks, the content of the work becomes essentially irrelevant.
By contrast, if the work is measured by readers’ sacrifice of their own funds for it, the measurement is both immediate and clear at all times. Uphold your standards of quality, or quickly see revenues drop.
AltSciFi aims to solve this problem in one (or more) of the following three ways:
1. Use a subscription model.
The example of Netflix shows the power of harnessing paying subscribers to create new, high-quality material. From television to movies, Netflix is changing how media is made.
AltSciFi has aspirations along similar lines, especially for perennial fan favorites like Ghost in the Shell that no Hollywood studio could treat in a faithful way.
2. Sell merchandise that people actually want.
This is self-explanatory. From punk rock shows to the Star Wars saga, giving people tangible goods is a necessary aspect of having a viable brand. In a world of ever-expanding bandwidth, information itself is becoming free whether we like it or not. Physical merchandise needn’t be fancy — it can be anything that serves as a symbol of what it means to be a part of AltSciFi.
3. Take a “public radio” approach.
The American radio network, National Public Radio (NPR), has mastered the art of fundraising. See also Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia. Taking donations at regular intervals can create a collaborative sense of “racing to the top” and supporting a good cause.
A Commitment to Authentic Indie Science Fiction Across Media
One of our larger purposes is to do what science fiction is truly and perfectly designed for: to explore human social, economic, technological and political issues through speculative fiction in a variety of media.
The only way to do that is to first uphold and maintain a standard of basic ethics and quality at all times. That, in turn, depends on all of us, both collectively and as individuals, most crucially including you.
Real science fiction pushes boundaries; hence, it is not designed as a mainstream “popcorn” genre. Most Hollywood “sci-fi” movies are simply action films with nifty gadgets attached.
To maintain a commitment to authentic science fiction, then, AltSciFi is not using a typical”clickbait” model to sustain our existence. The three alternatives above will serve as our basic revenue model; they are ethical, transparent, and safeguard everyone’s right to personal identity and data privacy.
Will AltSciFi survive, succeed and thrive in a world of pervasive privacy violation, tawdry gender-baiting, abuse of social issues for monetary gain, and casual disregard for even the most easily-found facts? The only way to find out is to try. If you agree with our purpose, join us in our ongoing adventure to support real science fiction — to imagine and enjoy visions of futures heretofore untold.