I remember being terrified the first time a reader said I should be fired in the comments of an article I’d written for IGN. I was still the new hire in an office of internet quasi-celebrities and everything struck me as overwhelming. I used to feel a nauseous vertigo when I guided my mouse cursor over the publish button in the backend tool. I was worried that my clattering thoughts were going to send advertisers out the door and destroy the ten years of branding that everyone in the company had built up before I got there. When an angry reader gave voice to those worst fears I remember looking over my shoulder at my boss, secretly hoping that he didn’t read article comments.
I also remember having been a reader looking in through the window at IGN. So much of what appeared was a blank and impersonal wall. But there were small windows through which could be seen the artifacts of human activity. There were signs of life, though it was hard to reconcile with the monolithic frame through which all of those little scraps of personal creation were sent. And through that window, the most urgent impulse was always to throw a rock and shatter it.
When I started writing for Nerve I found myself indulging my narcissistic imagination a few hours of whimsical backward looking every night. Feedback was often similarly aggressive.
I prefer disagreement to agreement. I don’t expect a chorus of approval from the crowd when I share a thought or an experience. As I wrote last month in Gamasutra, I don’t think of what I do as a didactic espousal of objective truth. When I write I think of it as a framework for interaction. In the same way that a game designer chooses the inputs and actions to allow in their world, my personal filter chooses ideas, experiences, and feelings to send out into the world to see what weight they might have there.
I don’t approach anything I’ve ever written as a document of truth. I write confessional journalism. Everything I put forward is impeachable. I’m less interested in consensus than I am discovering the reasons someone has for disagreeing with me. In that exchange, that confrontation of ideas I learn something. I become better. I gain something I didn’t have before, in the same way I hope that someone reading something I’ve written can walk away with some new thought or momentum that wasn’t there before.
Christopher Hitchens once implored his readers to think of all experts as if they are mammals. It seems, on first glance, to suggest a kind of Glenn Beck-ish derision for the “idiots” that surround us on all sides. But it’s more a reminder that we are all idiots. There is nothing that cannot be legitimately argued against. Our truths are not objective, nor are they final. They’re the resting place of the last best effort of someone wrestling at the edges of their own ignorance.
I recently helped Clive Thompson research an article about Duke Nukem Forever for Wired. The day the article was published he posited an idea, borrowed from a friend, that the great problem with journalism was the posture of “knowing.” We have all become experts, impossible to educate and unwilling to allow for hypocrisy or legitimate contradiction.
What this says about the audience alarms me the most. Grappling with my limits, articulating my own shortcomings, is one of the true joys I’ve found in life. Feeling the weight of my own existence, flung over my shoulder, packed in a duffel bag, flown around the globe, collected into a few indemnable paragraphs and sent out before the anonymous audience with its teeth permanently gnashed in a sneer. Expecting incompetence at every turn, while yearning for absolute truth in every word.
Being called names blows, as does having one’s livelihood publically urinated on. But it’s not intolerable. A lot of things blow, and I’ve publically urinated on lots of things, both literally and metaphorically. Like for instance one night in Bangkok when I pissed on my friend P’s bed while he was out shopping because I was spectacularly drunk and thought it would be hilarious.
In the old days confessions were anonymous, and they were guaranteed to lead to absolution. Now confessions can be broadcast for a massive audience and prostration is inevitable. Not even the New York Times can escape the sneering derision, the knowing cluck of the tongue that suggests we know so much better. All the sins of our fellow humans we have surpassed, and we look down on them when they make their best guesses, begrudging their attempt at moving forward the boundaries of their own ignorance.
If our writers are mammals, can anything different be said of their audience? Let it stand, then, that in the now mature medium of interaction we must both push forward the limits of our mutual ignorance and hypocrisy. And the first step must necessarily be a confession. Not to declare victory or trumpet some great discovery, but to share in a common experience and follow the particular affects of its branching path back down the vine to the irretrievable seed from which it sprang.