The real reason why most indie artists are starving: overcoming (and preventing) community drama as AltSciFi evolves.

Seriously, Artist Twitter? Are we going to do this every few months?

*sigh*

Okay.

This blog post exists as a point of reference in case similar situations arise in the future. A comprehensive blog post can be useful due to the appearance of behaviour patterns that are worth learning from (and not repeating).

Note that all parties involved are not personally named, and no personally identifying details are included here. AltSciFi protects your privacy, regardless of who you are or any relationship between us.

This post contains two parts: this part, and guidelines for the future, further down. You can read straight through or skip between them as you like. “Artists” referred to here also includes writers, and all independent creators in the science fiction genre. “Artist Twitter” refers to artists who are also heavy Twitter users, as you probably guessed already.

Fact and fabrication, gossip and misinterpretation

This post is dedicated to all the random Bored Artists and Angry Stans of Twitter who have arrived (again) to hunt witches and exercise their right to act like an mindless zombie mob.

Isn’t that what Twitter is for, though? Apparently so.

> the real reason artists r starving?! Bcos ur stealing it!1!!! #arttheft

— 300+ idiots on Twitter, in the space of a few hours.

Months ago, AltSciFi posted an image created by an artist. The image was tagged. “Tagging” means the artist’s Twitter username (“handle”) was included. The tag didn’t show properly, so a second tweet was added with the artist’s handle.

The only reason the artist (Artist A) knew her work was posted is that her handle was added (i.e. she was given credit). Twitter automatically notified her, which is the intended effect. It’s like saying, “hi, we re-tweeted/re-posted your work”.

That didn’t fit her personal specification, however. She soon demanded her full name be used. Fine, no problem there. But…

…instead of sending a DM (a private message on Twitter) and saying, “can you cite my name and/or contact details”, she quote-tweeted the image. Quote-tweets are like using quotation marks to tell your friends what someone else has said to you. She added nonsense about “stealing art” to her quote-tweet, and this triggered a mob from Artist Twitter screeching about “stolen work”.

This is how Twitter works…?

Artist Twitter seems to love this condescending bit about bragging “this is how Twitter works” then arbitrarily saying, “it must be as I demand”. Tagging an image cites the artist; no “stealing” involved.

Rather than argue for days with a zombified mob of people who weren’t reading (or thinking) before barking and howling, a massive number of people were blocked, including Artist A.

Fast-forward to now, literally months later. All was forgotten from the previous incident, or so it seemed. A notification arrives, including Artist A and Artist B. Artist A’s tweets were invisible (blocked), but clearly she’d been waiting for an opportunity to howl again.

Now we have Artist B. Her work is brilliant and unique. This is why it was included as one of the first around which a concept design was built for AltSciFi’s online store site.

The Opposite of Amazon

The essence of a store, obviously, is having items you pay for. AltSciFi is about helping indie artists get paid without corporations that gouge us like Amazon. So while building the site’s backend (database/etc.), a payment structure naturally needed to be built as well.

The key to this is AltSciFi does not have inventory of its own. The idea is to work with artists who have existing online shops, or help them create theirs.

This approach is something no one has done before (at least, perhaps not). That’s the whole point of doing it. In order to explain how it works, it’s better to use a “show, then tell” approach. Artists in particular are obsessively (rightly) wary of having their works stolen, so it’s necessary to paint a full picture before asking anyone to sign on.

Over the past few years, AltSciFi has tested prototypes and requested feedback. Artists and fans tend to fail to see value unless they have tangible work to lay hands on. There’s no point in giving an audience the first draft of a screenplay if you can show them the completed film. Likewise for the AltSciFi project.

How to Unleash the Undead Hordes…. by Mistake

Now, back to today. Artist B says she found the concept site via search engine. That was not independently verifiable, but there’s no reason to assume she was lying.

So what happens? Minutes later, yet another horde of frothing Angry Artist Twitter appears as if by magic.

A few pages on the concept site, including Artist B’s page, have functioning PayPal links. In theory, it’s possible to buy items. This is a proof of concept. It works. Finally. :)

In practice, as mentioned previously, there are no items to buy. No inventory. Plus, at least while using search engine DuckDuckGo, the concept site is nowhere to be found. But apparently Artist B found it somehow.

So here’s where the problem begins. Instead of contacting AltSciFi, Artist B replicated Artist A’s behaviour and sent a Frothing Twitter Horde of Doom.

Unfortunately, over the past few years of development, this is just the sort of thing that happens periodically. People don’t know what they’re looking at and sometimes decide doomsday is nigh. Instead of just blocking all who arrived with pitchforks at the ready, this is a thread (now, blog post) for the next time someone decides to bark instead of think.

Ironically, with proper demonstration of a completed project, Artist B probably would have thought this project could work well for her, as an indie artist with a unique style. Indeed, she backhandedly admitted exactly that.

Instead of reserving judgment, Artist B and the unthinking horde burned the bridge to AltSciFi before it could be built.

Mistakes Were Made, But More Importantly, Who Wins?

Was it a mistake to leave a “functioning” store site online? Yes. It was an oversight. The site is not being marketed or promoted and no one has tried to buy anything, so it was assumed to be invisible for now.

On the other hand, it’s also somewhat strange to unleash a bully-mob when you’ve only heard one side of what’s happening. In this case, Artist A clearly spewed nonsense about “art theft” when she had no clue, as she was blocked for months already.

AltSciFi is for artists and techies, by artists and techies. Our followers are constantly reminded of it.

As it is, apologies were offered several times to Artist B for the oversight. Artist B was too busy winning a fight. If you want a fight, well, okay. But you’re fighting against your own ally here. This is years of work spent, zero dollars for marketing or promotion.

Picking the Wrong Fight

If you want a fight, fight against the social media companies that create social norms around endlessly churning out work for free. Fight against the idea that artists (and techies/programmers/hackers) should give away their work for “exposure”.

Realise that if you’re using social media as your primary marketing platform — and even worse, if you’re using your personality as your “brand” — you’re throwing away your work and your identity to corporations who are selling you out to anyone who pays.

Squabbling about who tagged whom, forgot to add perfect citations, or didn’t email about a site that isn’t even finished yet…? That is fucking frustratingly stupid. It’s an understandable mistake. But gathering hordes and making sport of harassing people is fucking stupid.

We’re artists. Probably half of AltSciFi’s followers are hackers, makers, tinkerers and engineers (and others who Know Things). We’re weird. Some are outcasts. The urge to bully when given the chance may be strong. It’s still wrong, though, especially in this instance.

You Are Not Special, and Life is Too Short

This isn’t “damage control” or “artist management”. This is artists versus artists; the most pointless kind of conflict. No one wins. The strife created does the dirty work of keeping mega-corporations like Amazon as the only option. You’ll see more about exactly what that means in the set of guidelines below.

Next time someone gets chafed that AltSciFi blocked them, it’s because life is too short for bullshit — hours were wasted, today alone. Stop wasting time quibbling about bullshit. Find out the situation. instead of reacting (and feeding the social media machine), think and respond.

If you want a fight, a fight you might get. More likely, anyone who comes with more noise will be blocked and ignored. Explanation is usually a waste of time, especially for those whose minds are set to “off”.

A hard lesson learned over years: your ego is not special. Your work is not special. The world doesn’t need you or your art; that’s why it’s hard to get paid.

It’s also why AltSciFi exists. We need to build better alternatives. Allow yourself to make mistakes along the way.

This was a messy moment, but a necessary one. Better deal with misunderstandings now than fight endless brush fires later. “Move fast and break things” is how you end up with Facebook, after all (not a good idea; doing it right — not “perfectly” — is more important than doing it fast).

AltSciFi isn’t a business yet. We’re close, but doors have yet to open; until then, useful thoughts are welcome. Approach with an open mind, and receive the same in return.

Guidelines for Professionalism in the Attention Economy

Beyond the childish pettiness described above, here are a few thoughts on professionalism. These informal notes are based on experience and study, not about how to be a “superstar”. Key points are rephrased or repeated, and merit re-reading.

Never make accusations until you understand the situation at hand.

Anyone with a few thousand social media followers is a superstar in their own mind. AltSciFi maintains a small following; the “followback” game (where you follow someone in exchange for them to follow you, thereby increasing both users’ “popularity”) is silly.

For independent devs, infosec people and artists, Twitter is a “professional networking conference” where everyone is saving face while desperately looking for work.

Never rely on gossip or the insider voices of your comfortable little clique.

Do not use your work as a business card.

Pour energy into no more than four unpaid projects per month that add to your portfolio. Young artists and hackers especially fall into the trap of churning out new art and working themselves to the bone on open-source projects.

Resist “positive thinking”: thousands of indie creators give away their work. This creates an expectation that no one need ever pay for it. Remember: your style may be unique, but your ego and your art are not “special”. If your art is absent, someone else will step in and do the job. Welcome to capitalism.

Value your time and work. Do not give it away. Asking people to pay after giving work to them for free is like billing relatives for Christmas gifts.

Ignore social media popularity.

Followers can be bought. Bots and spammers accumulate. Twitter gets rich, indies stay broke. In the so-called “attention economy” of social media, if you’re an indie (sole proprietor/independent contractor), protect your time. Do not spend time on people who will waste it. The business model of social media is to seduce you into doing the work (organising and sharing information) while the social media company gets paid by running ads and selling your personal data.

Remain aware that the most important opportunities you lose may be the ones you never hear about. More about that in a moment.

“If you need the money, don’t take the job.”

Always have an alternative if negotiations fall through; never resort to begging or bullying. If potential colleagues or clients display tendencies to bully or abuse you and your time, gladly fire the client and find new workmates.

The inverse: be glad to discover unprofessional people who engage in gossip, whisper campaigns and backstabbing. Cut them all out at once.

Those who can help, elevate your work and be mentors, are already well aware of you.

Drama always reflects badly, even if you “win”. You will lose far more than you gain by bickering and squabbling with your peers. Those above you will assume you don’t have what it takes to join them. And until you learn to avoid or prevent drama, you will never know why you remain stuck near the bottom. Those at a higher level will never waste their time on you.

Inverse: if your industry worships “superstars”, be ready to defend yourself. Bullies and hardline negotiators steamroll over anyone they perceive as weak.

Four caveats:

0. Do not act based on gossip or incomplete information. Never request secondhand facts if a firsthand source is accessible. If there are two sides to a story, listen to both.
1. Immediately apologise for mistakes and fix them as quickly as possible.
2. Walk away even if you can “win”.
3. Never make an enemy due to a bruised ego.

That’s all for now. These are exciting and interesting times for AltSciFi, but when has that ever not been the case? :)

P.S. One more guideline for time management and emotional wellbeing: never engage with those who deliberately misinterpret your words.

P.P.S. This isn’t “damage control” or “artist management”. This is a signpost, and a warning for every artist dealing with others online. You will probably encounter similar behaviour if you decide to do anything that challenges the status quo. People can rarely imagine beyond what they already know, and nearly always fear that which is foreign to them. Artists are not exempt from herd thinking or acting like childish bullies; open-mindedness often stops where social interactions begin.

Beyond that, hopefully you’ve learned something you can use in your professional, and perhaps even personal, life and evolution.

And if you’re new here, welcome to AltSciFi. This is as good an introduction as any. :)

Update: this post now has a second part (click here).

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Are You A First Class User or Second Class Loser? Hidden Dangers of Social Media De-anonymization.

Hey friends. I’m going to wax geeky and talk about personal online security for Twitter users for a moment, because it’s important.

The following text is derived from a talk given by Shaula Evans, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Twitter recently announced that everyone can get a blue verified checkmark if you “just” turn over some personal data. Turning over your personal details to Twitter is a Faustian bargain. (Correction: From what I’m reading today, sounds like the change is that everyone can apply for verification, but may not be accepted.)

Twitter wants your government ID in order to verify your account. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Verified IDs cause two sets of problems.

Verified ID Problem #1: People naively assume removing anonymity solves trolling. It doesn’t.

Trump/Brexit have emboldened people to to stop hiding their bigotry. “Real name” policies provide the illusion of a solution, but it doesn’t work.

Know what DOES address online harassment?

1. Clear guidelines
2. Commitment to enforce them
3. Timely enforcement (Not twelve hours. Or two years.)

I say that speaking from experience. I build and consult on building healthy, inclusive online communities. It is possible, but it takes will and work. Verified ID’s aren’t a solution. They are window dressing. They are shuffling deck chairs.

Verified ID Problem #2: Verified IDs are dangerous for vulnerable people.

Here is a great write up from geekfeminism‘s wiki on who is harmed by real name policies. Read it.…

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do because you’re not affected? Neither did Twitter. That’s why we need diverse teams.

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do and you ARE someone who can be harmed? Twitter just endangered you.

Twitter has gamified the verification process (turn over your data to access more features like the big kids!) without disclosing risks. People who aren’t tech- or security minded are going to jump in (we can’t all be experts in everything) and GET HURT. This is awful.

The previous two verification problems create a third: a two-tiered user community.

People with enough social privilege to use verification safely become “first class” users with extra benefits and prestige. Vulnerable people become “second class”.

That is disgusting, offensive, and grotesque. That is terrible product design. That is myopic design from non-diverse teams. If you say “a real name policy doesn’t hurt me, I’ll do it”, you are now part of the further marginalization of vulnerable people on Twitter, too. I don’t know if you have a problem with getting special privileges by supporting systems that hurt others, but I do.

Two more points about specific problems with Twitter’s verification process.

1. Twitter wants us all to use profile and/or header photos that reflect “the person, the corporation’s branding, or the company’s branding.”

Let’s talk about what it’s like to use the Internet while perceived as anyone other than a white male. If you have a “female” avatar, you get more abuse. If you are a woman of color, it’s even worse. These are not state secrets. The data is out there. Anyone who works in tech and knows their arse from their elbow knows this stuff.

Twitter has effectively said: “We want credit for fixing abuse. So we’re going to encourage you to take steps to increase your abuse.”

2. Twitter wants to know your birth date.

Twitter then gives you fancy graphics on your birthday in return (gamification!). Know who else wants your birth date? Identity thieves.

Oh yeah, and doxxers. Your birth date is incredibly helpful to people who want to dox you, too.

Who gets doxed? Oddly enough, the list looks an awful lot like the list of people who are harmed by real name policies. You might want to think about that before you plug your birthday into a site that publicizes it. Or before you send a birthday wish a friend on social media.

In summary: Twitter’s new “soft” real names policy will hurt people, create a two-tiered community, and make trolling worse. Hurray!

Recommendations:

1. Don’t get verified.
If you have verified your account rashly and realize it may put you at risk, contact Twitter right away and get it undone, fast.

2. Don’t let your friends get verified.
If you have friends on Twitter who would be made vulnerable by ID verification, make sure they know the risks. Take care of each other.

3. Tell twitter why you are taking this course of action.

I know: it’s really hard to resist the gamified urge to get the coveted blue check, hard to be skeptical, hard to be a rational adult, hard to be objective, hard to perform due diligence, hard to think of others. So much easier to chase the dopamine rush of gratification.

There are bigger things in life than a blue checkmark, I promise you. Resist the urge, take care of yourself and each other, and stay safe.

P.S. We need to call out the tech press on this. The usual suspects are printing fawning regurgitation of Twitter press release, zero critique. Cutting/pasting press releases (or tweets) does not constitute journalism. We need a robust Fourth Estate more than ever. Pull up your socks.

P.P.S. Read about NYMWARS. No one learned. Deficient knowledge transfer in tech is a huge problem. It astounds me that Google went through the whole Nymwars thing going back to 2011 and the industry seems to have learned nothing. We really shouldn’t be working out these issues from scratch on every single platform.

Science Fiction as the Intersection of Technology, Sex and Art

Where does AltSciFi come from? Who are we? What are we about?

These questions are continually refined as the composition of our membership changes over time.

AltSciFi presently operates on three axes:

Tech, art, and sex.

* The term “sexies” is a neologism. It means: people of a non-conforming sexual orientation, including gay, lesbian, and alternative lifestyle practitioners. Consensual sex is an interpersonally creative act between one, two or more people, not bound by arbitrary social codes, mores, imperatives or opprobrium. Asexual, transhuman and posthuman identities that appreciate human sexuality are also welcome here.

1. Techies who love art and sex;
2. Artsies who love tech and sex;
3. Sexies* who love tech and art.

Art-loving techies are our primary audience, although only because they are most intimately connected to technology. Who would love sci-fi more than people who are creating the future?

Cryptography and information/network security are the two aspects of tech that will have the greatest basic impact on our global civilization in decades to come. Hence, we focus there as a foundation for building plausible, science-based “hard sci-fi” ideas. The freedom of the individual and our collective survival depend on the balance of secrecy, privacy, and publicly accessible information.

The Race and Politics of AltSciFi

We are, however, apolitical and non-racial.

“But that’s impossible!”, you might say. “We all have a race, and any citizen lives in a political environment. We all have politics of some kind; if you pay taxes to a central government, you’re supporting its political system, too.”

Here’s what apolitical and non-racial means in this context:

Politics are essentially a form of theater for the average citizen. Real politics consists of evaluating issues, making up your own mind, and voting for candidates who align with your perspective. All the bluster and arguments that take place online are little more than gossip for those who are bored and enjoy wasting time with endless debates.

Race is a communally believed fiction; there is no scientific basis for dividing humans into “races”. Opinions about race tend to change glacially, in tandem with socially acceptable beliefs about art, technology and sex (i.e. culture). Simply pointing out the fictional nature of race is enough. For our purposes, the rest is little more than political chatter that often encodes and hides socioeconomic influences and biases.

Gender is a fiction as well; it is a set of acculturated behaviors, not biological facts. The existence of transgender and transsexual people further provides evidence for this truth. Gender is considered (by some) to be more fluid than race, hence it offers a glimpse into the malleable nature of human identity.

Race may one day be recognized as changeable (yet for some people, intrinsic) as gender. For now, science fiction can address both race and gender directly or through metaphors of the “alien” and the “Other” — creatures who are foreign, yet nonetheless essentially human.

Both Human and Alien: Beauty and Sex in Science Fiction

Technology and art are obvious, but why is sex so important in the AltSciFi formulation of sci-fi?

Sex matters because it is at once fundamental to our existence as animals, and at the same time the source of endless doubts and controversies. A naive and curious space alien might ask: What makes a man? What makes a woman? Is it not strange that in some cultures, women jealously guard their breasts as if nipples have magical powers? Isn’t it fascinating that in some parts of the world, there are more than two recognized genders? At a time when genetically perfect babies can be born in laboratories, how does sex, gender and sexuality change? What happens when a person born with one set of genitalia can decide to undergo hormonal treatments and gender reassignment surgery?

Deviancy, Fantasy and Consensuality

It’s also worthy of note that most people have engaged in, or at least fantasized about, sexual activities that they dare not share with others for fear of shame or ostracism. Fictional characters and scenarios — not only in romance novels or erotic stories — provide an ideal medium to explore such issues in creative ways.

All consensual sex is “normal” as far as all involved parties agree that their activities are based on shared desires. Perversion begins in minds that would censor the prerogative of others to safely enjoy themselves in a private space. Fiction that points up such a dissonance between (morally) right and (socially) “proper” uncovers a diverse menu of sci-fi story possibilities.

Beauty, Style, Biology and Technology

What is beauty in a world of fluid sexual and gender identity?

These are all questions that are ripe for a genre like science fiction to play with and expand upon. Sexuality obsesses, repulses, delights and drives us. Technology of various kinds is opening up avenues for personal beauty, fashion, style and expression in ways that were both socially and physiologically unheard of only a few decades ago. Imagining possible and plausible futures requires a comprehensive vision that includes gender, sex and sexuality.

You might say that AltSciFi exists at the heart of a Venn diagram of sorts: tech, art, and sex.

It’s a great place to be, and offers a uniquely open perspective to the varieties of human experience. If we can see even a few years into one of many futures, we may then able to shine a beam or two back onto who we are right now, and who we want to be. Insight into ourselves, after all, is what real science fiction is all about.