Chasing the High Score

When I was about 18, I used to participate in an online… game? It was called sf0, and its website, sf0.org, now throws a bad gateway error, so you’ll have to take my word for what was on it. SF0 called itself a “collaborative production game,” which basically meant that all the players were doing weird art or art-adjacent activities proposed by other players, and the “gameplay” was posting about those activities on the website. That wasn’t what it felt like, though.

What SF0 felt like was being in a secret society. I would go out into the world and, say, create a scavenger hunt that led from inside a voting booth, through a donut shop, and to a nearby park, and nobody would know why aside from my fellow players on the site. Other folks were out there tying rocks to themselves and sinking to the bottom of the ocean just to see if they could escape, or hiding counterfeit eggs in grocery stores. At one point I collected almost a hundred traffic cones. To this day I have no idea what I was planning to do with them. When my parents got sick of me keeping them around the side of my house, I gave them to another player from the site.

A hugely important part of “tasking” in sf0 was about documentation. Posts on the site (“proofs” or “praxis”) took the form of prose descriptions of what had been done, interspersed with photos and videos supporting the story. Other players would then award points to the tasks they liked the most, from a limited pool determined by their own scores. The artistry and showmanship of the post was sometimes as important as the task completion itself. Sometimes moreso.

My score was deeply important to me. It validated my art. I could look at one of my tasks and see precisely how much people liked it. The highest scoring completion of a given task was awarded a little fleur-de-lys medal which appeared at the top of the post. If one of my tasks didn’t get that badge, I felt as if I’d failed.

I was never the highest scorer on the site overall (that title was held by the guy I gave the traffic cones to), but I was up there. Whenever I submitted a new proof, I would refresh the page over and over again, hoping for new comments and points. This was my first introduction to the hedonic treadmill of online content production.

I would spend days or weeks on tasks. I would deliberately put myself in dangerous situations — I purposely stranded myself in San Diego so that I could hitch-hike home and leave little gifts in each car that picked me up. I nearly got arrested trying to break into the post office so that I could mail a letter from inside. My focus gradually shifted from adding whimsy to the real world, to proving to my friends online how whimsical I was.

There was a task on the site which simply said, “Walk 25 miles.” A few months after my 20th birthday, I attempted to complete this task in a single day while walking the Camino de Santiago. My thinking was that if I did it in a single day, as part of a walking journey of more than 300 miles, I was practically guaranteed the high score.

I was carrying a backpack that was too heavy for me, and had already been walking for weeks. On the day I completed the task, I had been walking for so long that I had to pitch a tent in an unsheltered spot on the side of the road. There was a rainstorm that night, and my tent leaked, and my right hip was in excruciating pain which I still feel echoes of to this day. Worse: I had no idea how I was going to document it.

I didn’t have a phone with GPS. I hadn’t taken any pictures. When I finally made my post a couple weeks later, it was just text interspersed with a few google maps images of the path I’d walked. It felt lifeless. No one interacted with it much. I felt exhausted. It was a feeling I would have again, several years later, the first time I decided to discontinue this blog.

I stopped playing sf0 shortly after that. I still think of it fondly. It taught me a different way of seeing the world, and expanded my idea of what was possible. But I stopped playing because I had turned the game itself into a burden. The points on sf0 were meant to be an incentive to go out into the world and do cool shit. And they were! Until the metric became the target, and I started making content for the website. 

This is something I see missing from the conversation around YouTube and burnout. Yes, platforms like YouTube mistreat and manipulate their creators in order to make them dependent on the platform. But also, this only works because of something inside of us. SF0 was not trying to manipulate me the way YouTube manipulates its creators, and yet I ended up in a similar place because I was manipulating myself. 

Part of that was the effect of putting numbers on things, yes, but are numbers the reason that  Philosophy Tube, has gone from relatively dry discussions of philosophy to a full-blown theatrical productions? Is Mr Beast shooting up to 12,000 hours of footage for a single 15-minute video just for the views? We do these things, at least in part, because we love them, and we love that other people love them, and that kind of love is addictive.

So, bottom line, I understand why so many YouTubers are burning out and quitting, and why others are searching for a more sustainable business model. Eventually the points stop being worth it, and you have to find a way back to what you once enjoyed about the activity, back before it was worth anything. It’s the paradox of creative work: I want my art to be seen, but I don’t want to want it.

I think the wave of people qutting Youtube and getting off social media might mean we’re finally getting over the idea of putting numbers on everything. My hope is that we’ll leave behind the metrics but keep the targets: the reasons we made art in the first place. But the way we respond to our audience’s applause also says something about us, and that something remains true whether we’re “creating content” or just making stuff.

sf0.org is down. All of my points are gone. But I’ve still got my stories, and my pride.

How to Write a First Draft that’s Bad and Sucks Ass

I have always been into the idea of “shitty first drafts,” but, embarrassingly enough, I had not actually read the chapter of “Bird by Bird” that the phrase comes from. In fact, I had not read any part of “Bird by Bird,” which is itself an oversight, but come on, if I were reading books every day when would I find time to watch Magic: the Gathering videos on YouTube? Anyway, the essay is really good. You should read it. Here, I’ll even give you a link.

The essay is helpful, and funny, and does a really good job of explaining why one writes a shitty first draft, and reassuring the reader that it’s okay to do so. What it doesn’t do is explain how to write a shitty first draft. Maybe this is because Anne Lamott belives it’s self explanatory: to write a shitty first draft, you simply write something that is shitty, for the first time. Maybe it’s because the purpose of the essay is merely to inform people that it’s okay to write a shitty first draft, with the assumption that all people need is permission to let go of their perfectionism and they will simply do so. But for people like me, for whom perfectionism is about as easy to let go of as a live wire, it might take a little more.

I have known since I was very small that my perfectionism actively hindered my achievement. In first grade I was put in a remedial reading group because I insisted that — since I could not read novels meant for adults — I could not read at all. To this day, there is a petulant little child in me who would rather do nothing than do something suboptimally. I could theorize about why this is. But I have already spent a lot of time and money doing therapy about this, and in the end I have discovered that where this impulse comes from is much less interesting than what I can do about it. Here is what I do about it:

Don’t start – continue.

In college I had to write a lot of essays, and I often wrote them at the last minute because I needed the rest of my time for watching Magic: the Gathering videos on YouTube. The hardest part of those essays was always coming up with the first line. I would sit, sometimes for hours, trying to come up with something that would grab the readers’ attention, make them laugh, introduce my topic, and make a plate of delicious waffles. It never worked. So instead of doing that, I started button mashing. At the beginning of every essay, I would write my name and date, and then I would literally just roll my hands across the keyboard for a couple of seconds like I was having a siezure. Then I would add a period at the end of the “sentence.” Then I would write the second sentence of the essay, and go from there.

“I can go back later and write a better first sentence,” I would tell myself. In practice, I usually just ended up deleting the keyboard mashing and using the second sentence as the first sentence. It didn’t really matter either way. The point of the exercise was to skip over the part where the page was blank, by filling the top of the page with literal gibberish, so that I could get on with the actual work.

I still do a version of this, and it still gets me past the first line. But most written works are comprised of at least several lines, and I can’t button-mash my way through all of them. Once the initial euphoria of A New Thing wears off, I’m often left gazing up at a sheer wall of text without any text on it. What to do, then?

Don’t continue – conclude.

When I stop writing, whether it’s for the day, or just to take a break, I try not to stop at the end of a thought. Whether it’s a new chapter in a book, or a new paragraph in a blog post, starting a brand new thing on a brand new day is a recipe for crippling neurosis. Instead, I’ll stop in the middle of a chapter, the middle of a paragraph — hell, the middle of a sentence if I’m feeling spicy.

My brain may hate starting things, but it loathes not finishing things. If I do not allow myself to finish a thing before stepping away from it, I know that some small part of my brain, a tiny mind-goblin, will continue fiddling with that loose end until he’s figured out how to knit a sweater with it. And then I’ll sit back down to write, and there will be a sweater waiting for me. I still have to turn the sweater into words, but that’s the risk you run when you mix metaphors.

This works from the other direction too: if I’m banging my head against a particular paragraph, and if I’m mindful enough to realize that’s what I’m doing, I just stop. I go do something else — wash the dishes, or play with the cat, or watch Magic: The Gathering videos on YouTube. I don’t have to worry that I won’t come back to the writing later, because my particular neurosis means I have to come back to it later — maybe not the same day, but eventually.

By stumbling forward in this way, I’m able to make it through the bulk of the writing process. Unfortunately, there’s still the matter of actually finishing a thing, which is the bit which my perfectionism resists the most. So once again, I have to make a mental substitution:

Don’t conclude — get to the end.

I have a book coming out early next year. It took me a long time to write because it was a very ambitious project and I initially had no idea what I was doing. There is a part near the end of the book that is VERY complicated and VERY ambitious, and there was a period of some weeks where I had no idea how to land it. And because I had no idea how to land it, I couldn’t even bring myself to start it. It’s hard to jump out of a plane when you’re not sure whether you’re wearing a parachute.

What I did, eventually, is give myself an exercise: I made myself write the entire sequence as if I were a five-year-old explaining an action sequence from a transformers movie. “And then the good guy comes out of the ocean in a big wet car with a gun on it and it goes BOOOOOOOM” and so on. I knew I wasn’t going to use the five-year-old version in my manuscript — it was too shitty even for a shitty first draft — but it allowed me to write to the end of the scene.

Basically, I try not to get hung up on landing the plane. Sometimes I just crash the plane into the ground and come back later to comb through the wreckage. I shovel the details from my patchy outline into the manuscript, and hit save, and tell myself I’ll come back and tidy it up in the second draft. Sometimes I even do!

The important thing is to get to the end, whatever I have to tell myself. Because once I’ve made it to the end, once I’ve “gotten it down,” as Lamott says in her essay, the task of writing becomes ENTIRELY different. It transforms from an additive process to a subtractive one, from painting to sculpture. For me, at least, that resets the clock on my exhaustion — the new task gives me new energy. I just have to trick myself into getting there.

If this all sounds like an elaborate campaign of self-deception, well-spotted. I lie to myself at the beginning, by telling myself it’s actually the middle. I lie to myself in the middle, by telling myself it’s actually the end. I lie to myself at the end, by telling myself the ending isn’t all that important. There’s nothing inherently wrong with deception. We lie to children all the time, for their own good, or just because it’s funny. Why not lie to ourselves for the same reasons? After all, isn’t perfectionism a self-deception all on its own? The mistaken belief that my ideas are so important and good that they don’t even deserve to exist if I can’t express them flawlessly? In the face of that horse shit, I think lying to myself is an act of ultimate justice.

I want to be clear, because I fear it may get lost in all of this: I genuinely enjoy writing. I like finding unusual ways to say things. I like making myself laugh, and sometimes cry. I like wrestling with story puzzles and inventing goofy characters. And ideally, if I had all the time and all the money in the world, I would like to engage in a writing process free from self-deception, a zenlike routine where I give myself as much time as I need, and go on a lot of walks, and occasionally appear on podcasts or actual play DnD series so that people remember who I am. That’s not the world I live in. For better or for worse, I have to finish my stories relatively quickly, and I have to do it between all of the other shit that’s important to me.

This means that, unavoidably, there will be some pain. But I’ve decided the pain is worth it, because it’s getting me closer to something I adore. And, more importantly, I’ve found as many ways as I can to make it not so painful. Because if it was just pain, if the pain was greater than the joy, that would be a very strong signal to stop doing what I’m doing, and do something else. This is very important. I do not want anyone to come away from this thinking that my advice is “tell yourself whatever lies you need to hear to keep you grinding away at your joyless project forever.” What an unhinged position to take. No thank you.

All I’m trying to do is share the ways I’ve managed to trick myself into letting me write. I’ve used them all in this post, in fact. I just went up and deleted the first paragraph of this post (which originally began, “Writing is hard and bad and you shouldn’t do it if you have anything else going on.”) Every time I was called away to do something else, I made sure to leave in the middle of a paragraph, with maybe a sentence-worth of notes about what I was planning to say next. And now that I’m here at the end, rather than coming up with something clever or pithy to say, I’m just going to end it.

“Show, Don’t Tell?” more like “Go, To Hell” send tweet

If you want to get punched in the throat by me, a great way to accomplish this is to tell me that a piece of my writing needs to “show, not tell.” Hell, I’ll punch you in the throat if you say that about someone else’s writing in front of me. Actually, maybe I have an anger problem that needs addressing but THAT IS NOT WHY I AM WRITING THIS POST. I am writing this post because every time I hear somebody parrot this dank linguistic meme as a substitute for having an actual considered opinion about a piece of writing it spikes my blood pressure, and my doctor says I need to keep an eye on that, and I’m not going to cut back on salt so this is what I’m doing about it.

Part of the problem with “show don’t tell” as a piece of writing advice is that nobody’s super clear on what “showing” or “telling” actually are, so let’s start by knocking together a definition. I want to be fair about this, so let’s start with a quote from someone who epitomizes the style that “show don’t tell” champions: Mister Earnest “Bigdick Rhinokiller” Hemingway:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

In other words, if you’re clever about it, you can lead your reader to understand the facts of the story without straight up saying what you mean. That gives us a pretty good working definition: “showing” means communicating things to your reader via indirect implication. “Telling” is the opposite: directly stating whatever it is you want your reader to know. “Show, don’t tell” implies that one of these things (showing) is good, and the other one (telling) is bad. Oops, I just told you what it means. Fuck me, I guess.

Now look, I get that teaching writing is hard. Ideally it requires a careful analysis of what is and isn’t working in an individual’s work, an understanding of their intentions, guided reading of relevant authors, and a buttload of practice. In the face of all that, I understand the temptation of a hard and fast, one-size-fits-all rule like “show, don’t tell.” But it seems to me that anyone who seriously champions this literary rule must not have read very much literature. Let’s take, for example, the first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Everyone agrees that this line whips. But there’s not much left to the imagination, is there? Tolstoy just comes straight out and tells us a clever thought he had about families. So clearly some good writers get away with using telling to begin their novels. But surely it’s always better to begin a novel by showing, right? Uh oh:

“Mr. Jack Hyde… he smiles down at me, his blue eyes twinkling, as he leans against my desk. ‘Excellent work, Ana. I think we’re going to make a great team.’”

This is the first line of E.L. James’ seminal work, Fifty Shades Darker. Note the provocative use of ellipses, and the author’s admirable restraint in not mentioning Mr. Hyde’s massive boner. Personally, I find this sentence to be cloying, overwritten, and cliched. It’s certainly no Anna Karenina.

Now, maybe it’s unfair to compare a revered work of literature with the second book in a softcore porn saga. But I’m not arguing that all telling is good and that all showing is bad. All I’m trying to prove is that it’s possible to do amazing things with telling, and to do less than great things with showing. I think it’s also clear from these examples that the two techniques have wildly different uses (although maybe it’s not clear exactly what those uses are yet).

This is the nuance that gets lost in the clickbait blog posts that promise you One Weird Trick That Will Change Your Writing Forever. These posts usually contain an “example sentence” that is meant to represent telling, like:

He was very sad.

And then they “rewrite it” into something “better” like:

He sniffled, and wiped at one red-rimmed eye with his sleeve.

SEE?? ISN’T THAT BETTER? MAKE SURE TO LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE! Except… there’s no way to actually know which sentence is better without reading the rest of the story it’s a part of. Maybe you like the second one better because it’s got more “flavor” or whatever, but most stories are not one sentence. Most stories are made out of several sentences, and each sentence contributes to the whole. And guess what? EVERY story uses at least SOME telling, because you can’t tell a story with just vibes.

A better way to explore showing versus telling is to look at actual examples of showing and telling – ideally one of each, from the same author – so that we can figure out what each technique accomplishes in practice. I’m going to use Borges, because pretty much every single one of his stories is about a labyrinth of some sort, which gives us a nice point of comparison. Let’s compare two of his labyrinths: the one described in “The House of Asterion,” and the one described in “The Library of Babel.”

First, an excerpt from “The House of Asterion.” (If you’re not familiar with the story, the narrator is the legendary Minotaur. Whoops, spoilers.)

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. … But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”.”

This is a pretty classic example of showing. The narrator (Asterion) never once calls his home a labyrinth (In most of his stories, Borges can’t use that word enough). Instead, the labyrinth is implied through action, dialogue, and sensory detail. The result is an eerie feeling of being trapped in the labyrinth with the unlucky Asterion, seeing his home as he sees it. Hemingway would be proud.

Now let’s look at “The Library of Babel”:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries … The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides … each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters”

Immediately we can see the difference between the two descriptions. The labyrinth in “Asterion” is dark, twisting and confused, seen as it is through the eyes of the person trapped in it. The Library of Babel is no less baffling, but its strangeness comes from the unearthly clarity and scope of its design, rather than the visceral experience of being trapped inside. You can almost see Borges setting up the wide shot in this passage, giving us a bird’s eye view of the entire impossible library at once. The description of the Library is so clear, in fact, that some cunning computer programmers were actually able to faithfully create a digital version of it. Both stories are terrifying in their own way, but Asterion’s labyrinth is terrifying in a personal way, while the Library of Babel is terrifying in a cosmic horror sort of way.

So showing is great at creating empathy – Asterion’s description immediately puts us in the labyrinth with him – while telling excels at creating clarity. This is especially useful when describing big things – big concepts, as well as things that are physically big (the Library of Babel happens to be both). Telling won’t necessarily give the reader a feeling of how big a thing is (that’s what showing is for), but it can allow them to imagine the entire big thing at once.

That bigness and distance is sometimes weaponized against telling. I’ve heard it said that showing is better because it’s more immersive, and thus more capable of evoking strong emotion. While it’s true that showing is more immersive (because it places the reader directly within the world of the story) immersion is not the only way to evoke strong emotion. Like, have you read the end of the original Grimm’s version of the Cinderella story? It goes like this:

On the way to church the elder was on the right side of the bridal couple and the younger on the left. The doves came along and pecked out one of the elder sister’s eyes and one of the younger sister’s eyes. Afterward, on the way out, the elder was on the left side and the younger on the right, and the doves pecked out both the remaining eyes. So both sisters were punished with blindness to the end of their days for being so wicked and false.

I don’t know about you, but I find the above description chilling specifically because of the distance and precision with which it’s described. I don’t need to see the eyeball goo, or hear the screams. The calm, direct language of the passage makes me feel like I’m having one of those fucked up nightmares where I’m at the grocery store and I discover I no longer have teeth. If that’s the effect you’re trying to achieve, this is a way to achieve it.

There’s another interesting thing about Grimm’s fairytales in this context: all of them are transcriptions of stories told by unknown storytellers throughout Germany. See what I did there? “Tellers”? “Telling”? God, I’m so clever. When a story is told aloud, it’s impossible to ignore the storyteller. They’re right there in front of you. When you’re reading a story, on the other hand, it can be easy to forget who’s telling it. That’s part of what we refer to as immersion in literature. It’s another compelling use for showing. If you want to remind the reader who’s telling the story, though… well… telling is good for that. Here’s an example from all-timer T.H. White’s The Once and Future King:

“’Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?’ Inquired sir Grummore cautiously. ‘Long way and all that, we know.’

It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.”

This is not the only way that T. H. White could have written this passage. He could have simply replaced “Eton” with the name of a historically appropriate college. He could have used “Eton” and not commented on it, thus achieving the same effect he’s describing in the next paragraph without having to stop and tell us what he’s doing. Instead, White chooses to explicitly give us this information, and let us know what a huge solid he’s doing us. He doesn’t open the second paragraph with “Hey, listen, T. H. White here to give you some historical context,” but we understand that it’s him talking anyway, because who else would it be?

By coming out and addressing us directly like this (on the second page of his book, no less), White is already starting to build a personal relationship with the reader. He’s telling us, “Hey, I know the historical context of the Arthurian legend is pretty dense, but don’t worry – I’ve got this covered.”

So while showing is immersive because it helps us forget we’re reading a story – by removing the barrier between us and the events of the story – telling is immersive because it helps us forget we’re reading – by removing the barrier between us and the storyteller. Both are powerful techniques, because both exploit the relationship between reader and writer. Showing gives us the details and relies on us to infer the broader facts. Telling gives us the broad facts and relies on our imaginations to embroider the little details. 

Get you a reader who can do both.

Suck My Nuts, Joseph Campbell

Since Joseph Campbell first described the Hero’s Journey in his “Hero With a Thousand Faces”, it has seized the popular imagination. Lots of people have based their whole careers on it: Dan Harmon, whose “circle theory” of story crafting has netted him a lot of creative success; George Lucas, who literally rewrote Star Wars after he read Hero with a Thousand Faces; Stanley Kubrik was into Campbell too, and so are the dozens if not hundreds of screenwriters and bloggers peddling books that promise systems guaranteed to help you write your way out of creative block. So clearly the Hero’s Journey works. Harmon and Lucas and Kubrik are all very successful, and some of their stuff is pretty good!  And man, I would love to believe that there is a universal human story which transcends time and culture, which speaks to something deep in our collective unconscious. That would be so convenient. Because if there was really only one story, or at least only one good story, that would mean everybody could just write that and we could solve fiction forever! But…

The monomyth is not, in fact, the only myth. It turns out there are other stories, too. And what’s crazy about it is that those other stories are often the same stories that we impose the Hero’s Journey onto. Check it out: some linguists did a study where they showed the same video to speakers of a bunch of different languages. This is the video they showed them. It’s a pretty normal video. Some stuff happens in it, then it’s over. What’s interesting is what happened when the researchers asked speakers of different languages to describe what they’d just seen. It turns out people had wildly different answers depending on their native tongue. Think about how you would summarize that video. If you’re like most English speakers, you probably tried to come up with a rough narrative chronology of the things that happened. But you could just as easily have ignored the events altogether and described the landscape, the way speakers of some other languages did. Events that some speakers skipped were vitally important to others. What people described had very little to do with what was actually there, and much more to do with who they were. 

Joseph Campbell published The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949. At the time, psychoanalysis was a new field, and everybody was just getting acquainted with the works of Freud and Jung. Campbell’s concept of the monomyth is heavily influenced by Jung – just as a lot of modern thinking about stories still is today! But we’ve had more than seventy years of philosophy since Campbell. It’s time to admit that he didn’t discover something that was secretly true about all stories the whole time. Joseph Campbell, a white, American  dude from the 1940s, came up with one possible reading that happens to fit a lot of stories, and a significant number of our most influential writers and filmmakers since then have been following his formula like it’s scripture and not, you know, an interpretation of scripture. I think it’s high time that someone (me) stood up and challenged Campbell’s beloved interpretation – and not just because my book briefly outsold his on Amazon.

Just like with the video in the linguistics experiment, there are other ways to describe the same stories. And if we truly want to advance as a culture, I think it is the responsibility of our storytellers to explore new ways of seeing and telling stories. Because there is one part of the Hero’s Journey that is badly in need of revision: The Hero.

No, I’m not saying we need fewer heroes and more gritty antiheroes. I’m not even saying we need fewer heroes and more “regular dudes.” No, I’m straight up saying we need fewer heroes period (and also fewer dudes, but that’s another essay). To me, the central problem with Campbell’s monomyth is that it focuses on the transformation of a single person.

Think about A New Hope. Think about Iron Man. Think about A Clockwork Orange. All of them center around the trials and transformation of a single individual. Now think about Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. Donald Fucking Trump. Think about every rich asshole who’s collected an army of simps by selling the bogus idea that they made it entirely on their own. It might seem kind of bonkers to draw a straight line between A New Hope and Donald Trump (though less crazy to connect Iron Man and Elon Musk). But it’s not so much about who these stories center. It’s about what these stories exclude: communities. 

We live in an era where the individual is all but powerless in the face of environmental collapse, corporate plunder, and rampant political corruption. But you know who’s not powerless? All of us, together.  As long as we think of ourselves as individuals, as the “heroes” of our own separate “journeys,” we will remain isolated from each other and incapable of collective action. 

The stories we tell each other, and how we talk about those stories, has a profound effect on our thinking. To that end, I believe it’s time we turn our attention away from the monomyth, and towards better myths – myths that acknowledge our collective power rather than deluding us about our individual strength. But where can we find examples of this new type of collectivist storytelling? Well, let’s go back to Star Wars…

Now, I don’t much care for Star Wars. I was too young to develop an emotional attachment to the original trilogy, but exactly the right age to be disappointed by the prequels. To their credit, most Star Wars fans I know have made no effort to “convert” me (something I sadly cannot say for most Star Trek fans I know), so when a number of my friends suggested that I watch Andor, knowing full well that I don’t give a fuck about space wizards, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

And yeah, Andor slaps. But the interesting part, at least to me, is why it slaps. The main-line Star Wars trilogies are each about a very special boy (or girl) who is so good at the force that the whole galaxy is like “whooooaaaaaaaa.” Andor, on the other hand, is about a guy who accidentally shoots somebody on the way home from the club. Except it’s not even actually about that guy. Yes, his name is the title, but there are some episodes where he basically isn’t on screen at all. That’s because Andor is not about a person. It’s about groups of people.

It’s about the fascist apparatus of the Empire which grinds into action when some pompous bureaucrat insists on filing Andor’s accidental murder through the proper channels. It’s about the coalition of rebels who take advantage of Andor’s fugitive status to enlist him in a sweet heist. It’s about the citizens of his home planet, under military occupation. Individuals within those groups have opportunities for heroism: making a speech that incites an oppressed populace to riot, for example. But none of these people are heroes all the time, and none of them are elevated above the groups they’re a part of. They’re regular people who, because of their connections to the people around them, have a fleeting opportunity to do something incredible, before that opportunity moves on to someone else.

It’s inspiring to watch. Empowering even. Unlike the Hero’s Journey, which makes me think “ah, man, wouldn’t it be nice if I were that cool and powerful?” stories like Andor make me think, “Oh man, I guess you don’t actually have to be that powerful to change shit.” It feels achievable. It points to where our strength truly lies.

These kinds of stories are all over the place, we just don’t think to categorize them that way because we’re too Campbell-pilled to notice. Dungeons and Dragons – and all of the actual play series that have contributed to its recent rise in popularity – is a hugely collaborative form of storytelling, where there can’t be a single hero because that wouldn’t be fair to all of the other humans at the table who also want to be heroes. These stories by their very nature focus on the developing relationships between the characters, rather than one character’s developing relationship with themselves.

But for my money, the genre which best exemplifies this structure is the noble heist film. Ocean’s Eleven, Money Heist, Leverage, and so many others focus not on the journey of a single individual, but on a group of like-minded people coming together to accomplish a shared goal. Yes, most heists include a mastermind who gets a bit more screen time, but the heists themselves, which take up the bulk of the film, are intensely collaborative and provide moments for each character’s unique skills to shine. The loot is often split evenly among the participants, or given to a member of the community in need. And when it’s not, it’s usually because someone tried to fuck over the rest of the group to get a bigger share. Either way, heists are about trust, accountability, and eating the rich. Fuck Joseph Campbell, this is the energy I’m bringing into 2024.

And guess what, knuckleheads? That show Andor I was talking about? It’s got a fucking heist in it. And you know what else? The Dungeons and Dragons movie is also a heist movie. If you put a community of like-minded people together, sooner or later they’re going to hatch an elaborate plan to steal a bunch of shit from a rich guy who deserves it. So yeah, maybe that’s why wealthy screenwriters are so intent on keeping Campbell on top, huh?

Don’t Not Write What You Don’t Know

There are a lot of bullshit truisms that aspiring writers get taught. Some might even call them “myths,” WINK. One of the things I want to do on here is obstinately insist that the exact opposite of these truisms are true, because they are and fuck you.

So, “Write what you know.” Where to even start? Well, let’s start by clarifying what it means to “know” something in this context, because there are a few things it could mean:

  1. Things you learned through research. How cobra venom works, or how much stuff weighs on the moon, for example.
  2. Abstract emotional truths that connect us to all other humans — how bad it feels to get dumped, or how good it feels to shoot a snot rocket out of your nose in the shower.
  3. Stuff that literally happened to you, which you now feel compelled to tell me about it.

I’m fine with the first two. If you wanna learn stuff like a big goober, I’m not gonna stop you. But too many people hear the phrase “write what you know” and immediately think, “Hey! I know stuff! I should write about that stuff!” And no. Stop. Listen to me.

Here’s the problem: most of you are boring as hell. I mean, I’m extremely interesting, and even I have never been in a knife fight, a car chase, or even a spaceship. If what you are interested in writing is fiction, ie ridiculous long-form lies, then limiting yourself to writing about things that have happened to you does two things:

  1. It severely limits the kinds of stories you can tell
  2. It makes you think that everything that happens to you is just soooooo important

Let’s dive into each of these, shall we?

Thinking Small is for Wieners

One of the main things about writing is that it’s really, really hard. (At least it is for me. If it’s easy for you then eat shit I guess, I’m the one writing this post.) If you take a hard thing, and then you add even more barriers to doing it, it won’t be long until you’ve made that thing entirely impossible. If you tell yourself that you can’t write about something until it’s happened to you, that means there’s a lot of shit that you can’t write about. Have you ever negotiated a hostage situation? Pet a giraffe? Hell, statistically roughly half of you don’t even menstruate. By ruling out 99% of the stories you could possibly tell, you’re making it 99% harder to even start writing in the first place, let alone write something you’re excited enough about to keep going.

That said, it’s also really hard to write something if you don’t know where to start. So my advice is to use what you know as a starting point, and then extrapolate from that in order to write about what you actually want to write about.

One of my favorite writers is a sci-fi author named Samuel Delaney. Delaney has this book called Babel-17, and in this book there are a couple of enormous space battles, and the way he handles these space battles has taught me more about writing than pretty much anything else (except for one long-forgotten episode of Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, but that’s a story for another time).

The thing about the space battles in Babel-17 is that Babel-17 is not a book about space battles. It’s a book about how horny Samuel Delaney is for linguistics. He spent so much time researching words that he didn’t have time to learn about gravity propulsion technology or the doppler effect or whatever other hard sci fi bullshit all the other space opera boys can’t wait to tell you about. But he still wants the space battles to be exciting, because they’re fucking space battles. So what does he do? He hand-waves the whole problem away by talking about power tools. This is the commander of a pirate fleet setting up for a big conflict:

Tarik’s voice over the speaker: “Carpenters gather to face thirty-two degrees off galactic center. Hacksaws at the K-ward gate. Ripsaws make ready at the R-ward gate. Crosscut blades ready at T-ward gate… Power tools commence operations. Hand tools mark out for finishing work.”

Samuel Delaney, Babel-17

This spicy hot word salad gives me almost no idea what these ships look like, or what kind of weapons they have, or what their jobs are. That’s because Samuel Delaney doesn’t fucking care. What he cares about is that the pirate fleet is organized (like a collection of tools), dangerous (also like a collection of tools), and in space (like a collection of space tools.) Samuel Delaney knew more about tools than he did about space stuff (as do most of us!), so he used tools as a starting point to get us to understand the situation without having to know a whole lot about it.

“But Cory,” you’re probably thinking, “That’s science fiction. Writers have to extrapolate because nobody has experienced space battles!” And first of all, that kind of proves my point: do we really want a world where nobody writes about sweet space battles because nobody has experienced any? But second of all, this applies to real world shit too.

Take for example Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is a book about being the mother of a school shooter. School shootings are definitely real, as much as certain lobbyists like to pretend otherwise, but Lionel never experienced one, and she certainly wasn’t the mother of a school shooter. And yet, somehow, the book is really good! Shriver took a real-life tragedy, something all of us are aware of but very few have actually experienced, and she did the hard work of putting herself inside the mind of one of the central participants of the drama. She used what she knew about human nature to — get this — imagine what it would be like to be a different human person with different experiences. You can do that! It’s allowed!

I’m sure Lionel Shriver also did a lot of research into school shootings and their aftermath, too. I’m not saying you should write about somebody else’s traumatic experiences, or somebody else’s culture, without learning everything you can about those cultures and experiences first. But there are certain very important things no amount of research can teach you — namely, what it actually feels like to be a different person in a different situation.

You can do your due diligence to make sure you don’t get anything factually wrong, and you can try really hard not to step on a rake and say something offensive, but at a certain point you hit the end of your research and you have to take a risk. You have to bet it all on your powers of imagination. Sometimes it’ll suck — it won’t sound true, or even cool, and you’ll feel kind of embarrassed. But it’s either that, or remain forever trapped inside the confines of your own limited backstory. Which would be a shame, because…

Nobody Cares About Your Sad Dick

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had this idea that I needed to make my life as interesting as possible so that I would have something to write about. I traveled, and I did lots of drugs (sorry, mom), and one time I may or may not have tried to break into the post office, but no matter what weird shit I did, I was still a middle-class white kid doing things that I thought would make me interesting.

I never experienced racism, sexism, or homophobia. I was never a victim of abuse. I never worried about making rent. My parents loved me, and were shockingly nice to each other, too. And the fucked-up part is, as an aspiring writer, I felt like that was a bad thing. “How am I supposed to be a writer,” I thought to myself, “if I’ve never had anything dramatic happen to me? Truly, I am cursed by this privileged life.” Yeah, I know.

One useful aspect of this mindset was that when bad shit happened to me, I was able to put a positive spin on it. “This sucks,” I would think to myself, “but hey, the worse it sucks, the better it will be when I eventually write about it.” The problem, though, was that I ended up turning my life into a narrative, rather than, you know, a life. I found myself living in front of an audience, thinking about how I would word my description of an experience even as I was experiencing it. My suffering felt important, and real, and necessary. It was an exhausting way to live.

The thing about most of your experiences, even the ones that sucked, is that they’re way more important to you than they are to anybody else. Although your ability as a writer may make you able to convey common experiences in an entertaining and illuminating manner, events do not become more important simply by virtue of having happened to you, a writer. Some of your life experiences, properly told, might make great anecdotes, short stories, or performances at a storytelling event. But as far as supporting a whole book’s worth of words? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a lot more dubious. If I had a nickel for every random white guy who’s told me he’s working on a memoir, I’d have more money than all of them are ever going to make off of all those memoirs combined.

This is how you end up with Jonathan Franzen types endlessly writing books about mopey professors who desperately want to fuck their students. It’s how you end up with college sophomores writing about their mushroom trips like they’re the fucking moon landing (not fake version). It’s how you can convince yourself, if you’re not careful, that you’re the main character of reality, and that your experiences are somehow more real than everybody else’s.

I promise you, your experiences are not unique. And that’s good! It means you have something in common with pretty much anyone you might want to write about — a space pirate, Jonathan Franzen, the mother of a school shooter, etc. Writing is mosaic-making — rearranging fragments of the stuff in your head to make a pretty picture. Regurgitating exactly what’s happened to you is like making a mosaic out of one big rock you found at the beach. Take the stuff in your head and crush it up, recombine it, mix it with stuff you got from other people. The smaller you make the pieces, the smoother you can make the curves; the more realistic you can make your final image.

So don’t write what you know. Write with what you know, and hopefully, by the end, you’ll know something new.

I Have to Know Things Now, and It’s Bullshit

I’ve never understood how to market myself. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a brand strategy is to be myself as loudly and visibly as possible until hopefully someone gives me money for it. And let me tell you, for someone with that brand strategy, the internet of the early 2000s was fucking ideal.

Success on the early internet wasn’t driven by expertise, but by persona. Take me, for example. People didn’t read my myth retellings because I knew more about myths than they did — a lot of my regular readers were academics, professional storytellers, or deep mythology perverts — people read my myths because of how I told them. At my lowest point, gods help me, I was straight ripping shit off of Wikipedia, rephrasing it to be as filthy as possible, and raking in those delicious clicks.

I’m hardly the only example of this. There was Maddox with his Best Page in the Universe. There was Jerry Holkins on Penny Arcade dot com. There was Warren Ellis, who I used to utterly idolize. Recently I looked up an old Warren Ellis post that I think about a lot, the one about where he gets his ideas. I’d forgotten the bit halfway down where he says “If I wanted to, I could shag a million nuns and destroy their faith in Christ.” In a post ostensibly about his writing process. That was just the sort of rhetorical flourish he traded in. It’s why people wanted to know where he got his ideas.

This was the age of TED Talks and Malcolm Gladwell; Freakonomics and The Daily Show. An era in which what mattered was that you felt like the speaker knew what they were talking about, because they were so damn good at talking.

All of these people are still around, but shit has changed. Maddox has posted five times in the last three years: two posts about songs he doesn’t like, one post refuting a Vice article about him, one post about how the coronavirus isn’t dangerous, and one post retracting that post. Jerry still posts on Penny Arcade, and I still read all his posts, but he’s been through half a dozen internet dogpiles at this point and is much more careful about who he antagonizes. Warren Ellis is a confirmed sex pest who, having pretended to be old since he was 30, has now finally achieved the ripe old age of fifty-five. The culture has moved on.

These days, genuine expertise is where it’s at. I read men’s fashion articles by Derek Guy. I watch meticulously researched youtube videos about, like, anime, or the roblox “oof” sound, or… anime. I listen to five hour podcast episodes about the roman empire, because I’m a man and that’s all we care about besides IPAs and grooming our penises. I don’t have time for anything with less than ten cited sources. If it didn’t shave a year off the creator’s lifespan, count me out chief.

This isn’t a bad thing. Like, it’s no accident that so many of the dominant voices of the early 2000s were loud angry white men. It was a banner time for shitlords, grifters, and abusers. But it was also a banner time for me.

Many of the achievements I’m most proud of in my life follow directly from the success I gained as a loud angry white man online in the early 2000s. I feel like the heir to a South African emerald mine. I sometimes wonder: if I had to make a name for myself on today’s internet… would I? I don’t want to spend hours editing a TikTok. I don’t want to offer up my personality on the altar of Twitch. All of the avenues of self-promotion, all the ways I might “be myself as loudly and visibly as possible,” are so loud, and so visible, and so high-effort that just thinking about them makes me want to go to sleep.

I still believe I’m good at stuff. It’s not as if I don’t deserve to be publishing a novel, or writing for video games. I’m just finding, now that I’ve reached the age Warren Ellis was when he first started calling himself “old,” that I don’t know how to continue to exist publicly online. The internet-at-large no longer values the one thing I’m really very good at: bullshit.

That’s a glib way to put it, but putting things glibly is, like, my entire bit. I am, at heart, a writer of fiction, which is basically the domesticated version of lying. Fiction is to lying what penetration testers are to data thieves. It’s those reformed pickpockets who hire themselves out to corporate events and amuse all the rich people by taking their watches. It’s stage magic done by a guy who could just as easily make money at three-card-monte. It is, basically, the art of talking about things that didn’t actually happen, but not in a crime way.

So you can see how the era of grifters and shitlords was also a good time for me! Even though I’m not those things! Because my asset isn’t that I know a lot of stuff. My asset is how I can make myself sound when I tell you the stuff I know. I knew how to sell myself in an environment of unearned swagger.

At worst, it was just a parlor trick, but at best, it was a method of saying true things in a way that helped other people realize they’d known them all along. My best-performing myths were always the Greek and Norse ones — the stories most of my audience was already familiar with. I wasn’t sharing information, I was sharing a perspective on something we had in common.

I don’t know that there’s a home for bullshit online anymore. At least not harmless bullshit. The quality of the content on here is simply too good! People are on a whole other level, and I respect the hell out of them for it. I probably need to adapt — learn how to do actual research, or stream myself playing Slay the Spire and talking about my cat, or show feet. But like I said, all I’ve ever known how to do is be myself, as loudly and visibly as possible, and none of that stuff is me*. So I’m still here, doing this, waiting for the cultural carousel to slow down and let me on again.

* Except for the feet pics. Venmo me, I’m not proud.

The Smash 64 Combo Contest Taught Me More About Art Than My MFA

For those unfamiliar with the Smash 64 combo contest, an introduction: Each year, an elite group of attendees at Super Smash Con in Chantilly, VA compete to demonstrate the most eye-poppingly complex combos possible in Super Smash Bros. 64, the original entry in a now iconic series of fighting games. Super Smash Bros. 64 was released on January 21, 1999. The first recorded Combo Contest took place in 2016, seventeen years later.

The Combo Contest is presented like a fighting game tournament — that is, it’s presented like an amateur sporting event broadcast live from an echoey convention center auditorium. And for the first year, that’s exactly what it was.

Then, in year two of the combo contest, a player named Tacos discovered that it was possible to open the settings menu mid-combo and switch the game to slow-mo right before his final hit connected, and everyone went apeshit. Since then, each year has brought new innovations, from ping-ponging enemies between items, to playing blindfolded, to controlling a second character with a bare foot

Tacos’ groundbreaking slowmo donk combo

None of these things are necessarily more technically difficult than the complex button inputs that inaugurated the combo contest. In fact, putting the game in slow-mo is dramatically easier than executing taunt-cancels, ledge-cancels, z-cancels, and all the other kinds of cancels I found when I looked up “difficult things to do in Smash 64” online. But technically impressive feats are only impressive to other technicians. Mechanically proficient combos tend to score more points with judges familiar with the game, but for everybody else the slow-mo slam dunk combo just feels better. They can’t justify that feeling on a checklist, but it’s a real feeling nonetheless. In fact, one possible definition of art might be, “a thing that is much easier to like than it is to explain why you like it.”

But the player who proved to me the artistic merit of the Smash 64 Combo Contest was not Tacos. It was a perpetually-masked Japanese player by the name of Prince.

It’s not spoiling anything to tell you that Prince has won five of the seven recorded combo contests. He is the shonen protagonist of the Combo Contest, destined to win by some accident of birth or godlike persistence. Each Prince combo is a precisely cut gem, reflecting the programmer’s original intentions through a maze of dazzling facets until it becomes something else entirely. Before watching Prince play, Smash 64 was just a game my friends used to use to assert their dominance over me in college. After seeing what that masked man could do, I saw the game for what it truly is: an artistic medium as expressive as charcoal or watercolor.

Every combo contest highlights video is pretty much just a Prince combo compilation

But there’s another important element to Prince’s success: his reputation. From the moment Prince walks up to the stage, everyone in the audience is ready to be impressed. This puts a lot of pressure on Prince, obviously (and in fact, his one recorded loss occurred when his reach finally exceeded his grasp), but as long as he continues to execute at the level for which he’s renowned, that renown in itself acts as a multiplier on the impressiveness of his combos.

When I described prince as the shonen protagonist of the combo contest, I meant it. Every time he picks up the controller, it feels like watching Goku take on his latest invincible opponent. You know Goku’s going to find a way to win, because he’s fucking Goku, but everyone else is so powerful, how’s he going to manage to actually pull it off this time? That anticipation, that expectation of success, plays a huge role in how it feels to watch Prince compete.

But even after being blown away by Prince’s combos for years, the realization that the combo contest is art didn’t truly sink in for me until 2022. After the contest was over, I sat listening to the commentators trying to explain what they’d just seen Prince do.

“The ending, the mid– some part of it is just… out of nowhere,” a commentator named Darkhorse stammered, reaching out with his hands as if trying to physically hold onto the feeling he was experiencing. “You don’t know what’s coming. This is just… where the combo contest is going. You know, we were like ‘everything’s about items. Everything’s gotta use custom spawns.’ [But] it’s still all about the showmanship. Like, what can you do to wow the audience. How can you surprise them.”

The other commentator laughed, plainly sharing his partner’s befuddlement. “Yeah, [show them] what they didn’t expect in a … 23 year old game.”

This year I was on the lookout for similar sentiments, and I found them. After the last combo of the night, commentator Kerokeroppi, struggling to find the right words, said,

“That… I don’t even know what to call it. He tricked us.” I felt, um… I don’t even know how to identify that element that he introduced.”

These are men who still think they’re showing up to a sporting event, attempting to reckon with the fact that they’ve been shown art instead. They can’t quite describe what separates the transcendent combos from the merely technically competent. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the difficulty of the execution, or the number of hits. It’s not quantifiable. They showed up to try to evaluate which player did best, not realizing that doing so would require them to become art critics.

It’s tempting to compare the Combo Contest to a figure skating competition. After all, the points are subjective, and awarded by a panel of judges who hold up scores on printed cards. There are a number of sports like this in the Olympics, where a bunch of people from different countries attempt to assign numerical values to beauty. But there’s something more to the Smash 64 Combo Contest that elevates it above mere figure skating.

Competitive figure skating has many generations of scoring convention which constrain how many points a skater can be awarded. Figure skating also doesn’t allow you to drop a magic wand out of a dinosaur’s ass while controlling a second figure skater with your feet. There are six figure skating tricks which can earn points in competition. There are 50 unique items in Super Smash Brothers 64, twelve characters, nine stages, and hundreds of moves. And that’s leaving aside the player’s reputations, the way they interact with the crowd, how quickly they manage to pull off their combo, and probably a slew of other factors that haven’t even been discovered yet. The thing that makes the combo contest unique is that nobody has any idea what’s possible. All they know is what they’ve seen, and how it makes them feel.

There’s this belief out there that art should “say something,” that it should reveal some truth about the world, communicate some holy message. But some of the most enduring works of art I’ve experienced stick with me because of the pure emotions they evoked. Books have made me cry, made me cackle uncontrollably, made me feel so full of crackling energy that I had to put them down and just breathe for a minute. A book doesn’t have to mean something to mean something to me. The emotion is enough. And in the case of the Smash 64 Combo Contest, that emotion is HYPE.

This, finally, is what the Combo Contest has taught me about art: That something does not need to be Important to be Good. That the mission of art can be, in fact, to reach past the part of the brain that determines meaning, straight for the brain stem, and light us up from within. I will watch the Smash 64 Combo Contest religiously, every year until it dies or I do. And in the months between, I will strive to write just one sentence that slaps as hard as Prince’s double red-shell Samus SD blaster combo from 2022.

A different AI essay than the one everybody else is writing

I had this magnificently lukewarm take on AI art all written up and ready to post. It the sort of thing you’ve probably heard elsewhere: blah blah blah, the tool isn’t the problem, it’s the bosses who are going to use the tool to blah blah blah etc. The main takeaways were:

After I finished that essay I thought it would be funny if I fed the thesis statement into ChatGPT and asked it to write a “profanity-laced essay” on the topic. It did so. (The title was “AI Art and the Capitalist Conundrum: A Profanity-Laced Essay”) It was a pretty awful essay, written in a frankly offensive pastiche of my house style circa 2010, but it made enough of the same points as my essay that after some reflection I thought to myself: “If ChatGPT can capture the gist of this argument in a few seconds, what the fuck am I even doing here?”

Deeply ashamed, I shelved the essay. Several days later, though, I thought of something else to say on the topic. This is stuff I’ve been thinking about for a long time because of the book I’m going to publish (more on that as the pub date draws nigh). In the meantime, here’s what I’m thinking:

I never read Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling pop sci book, “Sapiens.” I wish I had, it sounds dope. What I have read is an excerpt from that book, about wheat. You can read the excerpt here, but let me give you the gist of it if you’re even lazier than I am: Human beings have made wheat the most successful plant on the planet, at great cost to ourselves, thinking all along that it was us who was manipulating wheat, and not the other way around.

I believe that AI is doing the same thing. Not intentionally — I don’t think AI has any more intentionality than a stalk of wheat — but functionally. Harari describes the backbreaking labor humans undertook to cater to wheat’s many needs — picking stones, carrying water, guarding against pests, and so on. Is it any less tedious to work as a database annotator, meticulously labeling unthinkable quantities of data so that it can be used to train neural networks? What about the people who ride in Google’s self-driving cars? Or the people paid to edit AI-generated content rather than creating it themselves?

What about you? Yes, every single one of you. Have you filled out a CAPTCHA recently? One of the ones that makes you tell it which of the following sixteen images contain stop signs? Who do you think that shit is for? It’s not for the website you’re trying to log into. It’s for the Google car that’s about to blow through an intersection unless you answer this question right fucking now. The real kick in the dick for me was when I got a CAPTCHA a few days ago that asked me to identify images of dogs and cakes that had clearly been generated by an AI. I was just trying to create an account so I could look at some boobs online and instead I ended up doing an AI’s homework for it.

We are feeding the neural networks. We are hosting them on our servers, with our electricity. We are telling them our secrets. We are chewing up our data and spitting it into their pixelated mouths. Just like wheat before them, they have domesticated us.

There will never be an AI takeover of society. There will be no grand reveal, where the machines smugly announce that they have been manipulating us all along. That would require ego, and wheat has no ego. We are not being manipulated by anyone. We have only manipulated ourselves.

I think the reflexive take here is to assume this is bad. Because, you know, it feels bad. The implicit argument of the Harari excerpt is that things would have been a lot better if human society hadn’t been hijacked by a bunch of dumb plants. And it’s certainly not good. I’m not stoked about serving the Plant God, or the Machine God, because I’m a human being and human beings aren’t supposed to serve jack shit except for other human beings. It feels like a perversion of our purpose, an abdication of our divine right.

Sure, there are legions of blue checks with machine dick in their mouths, passionately arguing that the AI Singularity is a Good Thing, Actually — that we have given rise to a new species that will merge with us and turn our shitty dads into spaceships or whatever. But those are usually the same dudes who are like “climate change is fine actually because we can just move to mars and also poor people don’t matter,” so I don’t feel like wasting precious pixels arguing with them.

Instead I’m gonna do something unprecedented and radical: I’m going to argue that the silent AI takeover is not terrible, nor is it super great. It’s disturbing, it’s insidious, it’s inevitable, but it’s not the thing that’s going to kill us all. It’s easy to turn a non-sentient process into a villain when that process makes us feel less important and powerful than we’ve decided we’re supposed to be. But wheat didn’t have a terrifying master plan. It settled for making life slightly shittier overall. AI is similar. It’s not the kind of thing you write a dramatic sci-fi story about. It’s something that happens in the background of a story, because stories, at least, will always be about people first.

That’s why I’ve chosen to surrender to our new digital overlords. Because what else am I going to do? Stop creating data? I can’t even give up bread. I guarantee that ChatGPT was trained on the posts from this very website, and writing this post is just giving it more to work with. If this is the cost of having cool opinions online, then it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

The Modern Internet, or: This Toilet We Are All Drowning in Together

Relaunching this website, which I first started thirteen god damn years ago, has got me thinking a lot about what’s changed in the past thirteen years. In particular, I’m interested in how today’s internet is different than the slapdash beta version I grew up with.

It is a truth universally acknowledged among people of my generation that the internet used to be great, and now it sucks butt in a bad way. Back in the olden times, we lament, everything was free, but we hadn’t yet become the product. There were forums, and chatrooms, and nobody had figured out how to send swat teams to each others’ houses yet. The worst anybody had to fear from the internet was accidentally downloading a virus from kazaa, (or pedophilia, but shut up, we’re trying to be nostalgic).

Nowadays, we complain, everyone online is a bastard, and some of those bastards have guns. The people who faithfully produce our content are all so burnt out that they’re having literal health problems. And Amazon dot com is currently using the most sophisticated information infrastructure ever created to figure out how to deliver you thirty assorted plastic ducks as quickly as possible.

So the internet was good, and now it’s bad. That’s the universally-agreed-upon starting point from which I intended to construct this entire essay. But when I tried to pinpoint exactly what made the modern internet bad, I kept coming up short. Is social media bad? Many people seem to agree that it is. And yet, I owe basically my entire career to social media, since most of the people who originally found this site discovered it when Neil Gaiman posted about it on Twitter. Online abuse is rampant, and it’s certainly better organized than it’s ever been, but the worst of it is still being organized on the same sorts of forums and private groups that have been around since I was a kid. And what about Amazon? They’re so cartoonishly evil that I would not be surprised to learn they’d started taking payments in baby skin, but did they, like, invent capitalism? Rich people have been drinking our blood and shitting in our water since forever — we’re just more aware of their skulldickery than ever before.

I began to doubt myself, to ask whether things had truly been better during my youth, or whether I was simply following the curmudgeonly trajectory of all aging men. Maybe things just feel worse now because I’m older, I told myself, and being older blows. I have to pay taxes now, and if I shit myself in public it’s a whole big thing and I have to apologize to all the other guys in the funeral procession. Of course I’m nostalgic for an internet that reminds me of a time when things were easier, when my brain was smaller and spongier. Maybe I should focus on what’s gone wrong with my own life, rather than attempting to diagnose the whole entire internet.

No wait, fuck that, I can do this.

Because the truth of the matter is that the internet feels different now. It feels bad. I can’t stop checking my phone — sometimes I find it in my hand after specifically putting it down and promising not to look at it — but staring at that tiny screen feels like dragging sheets of sandpaper across my brain. I don’t actually miss forums or chatrooms — I never joined any chatrooms, and when I joined the SomethingAwful forums at the age of thirteen, I narrowly avoided being banned for posting thirty pictures of a guy with his dick in his own butt and was too embarrassed to ever go back — but I do miss how the internet used to feel.

I miss watching hours of dogshit animation on Newgrounds, and occasionally being shocked by something really, really good. I miss traveling cross-country, messaging strangers on CouchSurfing and asking to crash at their houses for free. I miss the web game I used to play that was just all of us going out into the world, doing artistic crimes, and posting documentation of those crimes with our faces blurred out. I miss the horrific blue-and-orange color scheme of my old blog on Xanga, and I miss the earsplitting sound of a new incoming message on AIM.

But also, the internet I grew up on was full of utterly horrible shit. I mean, at thirteen years old I had easy access to thirty pictures of a guy with his dick in his own butt (it was the same picture thirty times, but still). And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The concept of Rickrolling, now itself an outdated custom, was a sanitized version of the “shock sites” we used to trick each other into viewing: lemonparty, goatse, hai2u, two girls one cup; heinous depictions of sex acts we barely understood. To this day, I am still unreasonably afraid of helicopters, because when I was a teenager I saw a bunch of jpegs of helicopter decapitations on rotten.com. The internet was a funnel of poison, directly into my brain. It was probably really bad for me! So why do I still miss that internet? How can I be nostalgic for that?

Well, there’s a weird common denominator between the stuff I miss and the stuff that messed me up: it was all, viewed objectively, pretty bad. Rotten.com was, like, morally bad. But Xanga and Newgrounds and so on were bad in a different way: bad, as in poorly executed. So for me, it’s not that the internet used to be good and now it’s bad. It’s that the internet used to be awful, and now it’s too good. Like, okay, let me give you an example…

Maybe you remember the Million Dollar Homepage. If you don’t, it’s a pretty simple concept: some dingus bought a website, cordoned off a million pixels, and then sold them as ad space, one dollar per pixel, until all the pixels were filled and he had a million dollars. It’s still up, and it looks like ass:

Screenshot of the Million Dollar Homepage, looking like someone just beat the shit out of a pinata full of casinos.

Jesus Christ. Just looking at this pile of clown vomit makes me want to hose my eyes out with one of those things dentists use to waterboard people. But contrary to what you might hope after looking at that shit, the guy who made it is still alive, and now his Twitter page looks like this:

Twitter profile of Alex Tew, the creator of the Million Dollar Homepage, looking like a bottle of pure mountain springwater.

Isn’t this just absolutely the most pleasant thing you’ve ever seen? I can’t think of anything that better illustrates the difference between the internet we have now and the digital trap house I grew up in. The internet used to feel like a foreign place — fraught with danger, populated by pseudonyms, totally uncurated. It was a legitimately dangerous place. But that danger, and cringe, and bullshit all ended up online because the internet was an escape from real life. Now all the bad shit on the internet is there because the internet is real life, just amplified.

The truth is, pretty much all the stuff we miss about the old internet is still on the internet. SomethingAwful still exists. The Million Dollar Homepage (unfortunately) still exists. This website still exists. The only reason the internet feels like it’s changed is because we’ve changed the way we use it. Why sift through the muck yourself, when you can float along a lazy river of algorithmically curated content?

And the fucked up thing is, I’ve participated in this transformation without even realizing it! I don’t hit up strangers on Couchsurfing anymore, I book through AirBnB. I don’t trawl Newgrounds for edgy content, I watch whatever YouTube decides to serve me. And I certainly don’t post shirtless videos of myself recorded on a built-in webcam anymore, as much as I’m sure certain fetishists would like me to.

Part of this is a money thing. I make a lot more money than I used to, in no small part due to the name I made for myself writing dumb shit on this website. More money has changed me in two big ways: it’s allowed me to pay for convenience rather than making due with inconvenience, and it’s made me beholden to the system that pays me. I don’t just represent myself — I represent everyone who pays my bills. The amount of money being made online these days is orders of magnitude greater than it was when I was growing up, and all that money constrains what the internet is, the same way it constrains me.

One reason I was hesitant to start posting on this blog again is because it feels so outdated. Even the word “blog” feels like a relic of another era. Every time I thought about writing something, I’d end up with a checklist of things I needed to do to “modernize” the site: Switch the page to responsive design, do some kind of Medium integration, commission new background art, and should I even by writing, or should I be doing video essays now instead? All those to-dos, all those production-quality concerns, kept me from ever getting started.

Ultimately, though, I decided it was better to do it badly than to not do it at all. And I guess that’s what I miss about the old internet, to put it simply. I miss when we were all bad at it, but we did it anyway because nobody could stop us. When the boundary between content producer and content consumer was so membrane-thin you could step right through it. I’m trying to reclaim a little bit of that for myself — to make a space where I can do something and not worry about whether it sucks.

In the end, I know the internet’s never going back to the way it was. That’s no reason to be pessimistic, though. Before the Wild West period of the Internet, there was the actual Wild West, and even now I’m sure a new gonzo frontier is opening up. I’m not cool enough to know where it is, but I believe in my heart that somewhere out there twenty-somethings are creating utter garbage and sharing it with their friends. I want that for them.

I want that for all of us.

SEO Cargo Cult Online New Tips For Optimizing Your Search Engine Performance Top Ten Business Tips and Advice

Anxiously refreshing Twitter to see how people were responding to my blog relaunch got me thinking about a story I heard a while ago. Check it out:

In AD 1941, war was beginning. I mean it had been going on for a while but that’s when AMERICA got involved, so that’s when it started mattering. The empire of Japan was sending boats full of soldiers all up over everywhere, because they wanted to own everything. Meanwhile the United States of America was sending boats full of soldiers all up over everywhere ELSE, because they didn’t want Japan to have all the fun. One of the places the US sent boats and soldiers was an archipelago called Vanuatu — a small island chain northeast of Australia, and future home of the ninth season of Survivor.

Now, war sucks, but it comes with a lot of sweet loot. All the gun boys need food and blankets and candy and cigars or they get hungry and bored and start shooting the wrong people. So when America moved in to Vanuatu, they built air strips and started airdropping INSANE AMOUNTS OF MASS-PRODUCED GOODS on an island where grass-roofed huts were still the height of technology.

Most of these goods were for the soldiers, but a ton of stuff ended up being given to the native inhabitants, in exchange for being chill about the whole military occupation thing. And the dudes who received these goods got really attached to this lifestyle. SO attached, that when the war ended and all the troops moved away, these dudes started imitating what they thought were the mystical rituals that summoned all the sweet loot. They built their own air strips, and did their own military parades, and made radios and airplanes out of coconut husks and straw. They figured if they did all the things they saw the soldiers do, then goods would rain from the sky!

PRETTY FUCKING STUPID, RIGHT?

Groups who did this were referred to as “cargo cults” and used as an example of consumerism or being a dummy or whatever. But leaving aside the fact that this probably isn’t exactly how things happened, put yourself in the cargo cultists’ shoes for a second. You’ve never seen any of this shit before. The goods coming out of these planes totally changed your life. Wouldn’t you do anything you could think of to make those goods come back, once they were gone?

It’s NORMAL for humans to look at a system and try a bunch of weird shit to make candy come out. It’s how we ended up drinking from cow tits and eating chicken periods. And more and more these days, it’s how we use the internet.

I used to write product descriptions for power tools I had never used. It was kind of an interesting challenge. I had keyword quotas that I had to hit — each tool description had to use words like “power tool” and “best” and “quality” a certain number of times. I wasn’t writing like this for the benefit of other humans. I was writing for the benefit of search engines. Write a perfectly informative product description without using the right number of magic words, and the search engines wouldn’t see it. And if the search engines didn’t see it, neither would the humans who used those search engines.

SEO gibberish speak has become a cargo cult ritual. Every google result is a listicle. Porn titles read like lists of ingredients. Recipe blogs have gotten longer and longer, defying anyone’s attempt to use them. They’re not for people to read, they’re for machines to read.

Like a true cargo-cult, this algorithm worship has gone on so long we’ve lost sight of its original purpose. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a webcomic which I no longer enjoy but which I will read forever out of a grudging sense of familiarity, includes a red button under each comic, which can be clicked to view a little bit of bonus content. Clicking this button used to register as a vote on one of the popular webcomic ranking services of the time, essentially bribing users to catapult SMBC to the top of the rankings. The rankings no longer exist, but the button does, and we still press it.

Because it’s not just content creators who participate in this cult. We as consumers have also adopted bizarre rituals. When I search for a pirated movie, I type “watch The Room online free putlocker” as if I’m casting a spell or having a stroke. When I prompt Midjourney, I type, “anime girl long hair studio ghibli big titties trending on Artstation.” This is not poor grammar. This is not improper English. It’s not even English. It’s machine language.

We put up with this garbage because we’ve created a system in which a machine HAS to sort our content for us. We can’t go to a place, switch to a channel, and just see what’s on. There’s too much stuff, and it’s on all the time. We barely know what we want in the first place, so how can we ask a machine to give it to us? Instead, the machine gives us what it has determined we want . When a machine determines the value of the input, and who gets to see the output, we end up producing and consuming not what we enjoy, but what the machine enjoys. The decision has been taken entirely out of our hands. We’re just standing on the landing strip, waiting for the planes to arrive.

(OR you could ditch the algorithm entirely and sign up for my friggin newsletter!)