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What we talk about when we talk about Parks Denton

6 Sep

I never interacted with Parks Denton, but I totally would have. I’d like to believe I’m easily able to suss out a catfish, but I know myself and my embarrassing weakness for pale redheads who look like they’d never swipe right. I don’t have a Parks Denton story — I’m just fascinated by him. Not because this catfish is shocking, but because of how stunningly unsurprising it is. For anyone attuned to the way internet culture has changed over the past several years, this all feels like it was inevitable.

I mean, it also feels like it could have been avoided. Do you know how many episodes of Catfish have aired at this point? (Ninety-four. I checked.) I’ve seen all of them, and I’ve struggled not to judge the catfish victims. How is it possible in 20-fucking-17 to not spot a catfish a mile away? How do you completely look past all the obvious warning signs and red flags? And, like, yes, I think most of us would put a pin in things at the point of an internet stranger asking for money or a longterm commitment, but I also think we’re largely more trusting and easily manipulated than we’d like to believe. If he seems too good to be true, he probably is — but if he’s sliding into your DMs and telling you you’re pretty, maybe you ignore those doubts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how our online behavior has changed. There’s this idea that we were once way more naïve about what we put out there — and I think that’s true in some ways. But when I was in high school, there was such a huge emphasis on stranger danger. Never use your full name. Never agree to meet. Assume everyone is lying. Trust no one. I definitely slipped up. I also had a (public) LiveJournal where I openly talked shit about my classmates and teachers because I didn’t really think about anyone but me reading it. But for the most part, I was cautious — in the back of my mind, there was always the deeply held belief that people are liars online, to be kept at an arm’s distance.

And then there’s my online life now. I talk to strangers all the fucking time. The vast majority of my real-life friends are people I met on the internet. And some of the people I’m closest to are people I’ve never even met in person, but whom I’ve confided in for years. And that’s just the tame side of it — like many gay men, I have also confessed some of my most private sexual feelings to nameless torsos, knowing nothing about them but how many feet away from me they were. At some point, my perception of strangers on the internet changed. Facebook played a huge part in that: Suddenly we were all sharing our real names and the details of our lives with a much wider audience. There’s this, frankly, bizarre expectation that most of what we know about each other online is true. We’ve gone from cautious restraint and paranoia to radical honesty and trust. We are operating on the honor system, and until a Parks Denton comes along to undermine that, none of us really thinks it’s all that odd.

It’s a little hard to reconcile all of it: Like, we absolutely know better than we did a decade ago. We understand the realities of internet deception; we even have a word for it that we didn’t before Nev Schulman fell for a fraud. But I’ve never been more open — and more willing to make a connection with a stranger — than I am now. And I know I’m not alone. Sure, some of it is thirst. Maybe more than some, especially when it comes to catfish like Parks Denton, who by all accounts was not particularly smart or interesting or funny and skated by on good looks that weren’t even his. But I think it also has a lot to do with the way we now conceive of Twitter and the internet at large as a sort of online community. We’ve redefined friendship, for better and worse, and we’ve learned to prize openness and oversharing. I mean, my god, just look at some of the things I’ve written about in this (again, public) blog.

And like. I love that. I really do. It may be unwise — it may be completely fucking batshit from an outside perspective — but it’s also kind of the best? The fact that for many of us, our online friends are people we can rely on, people we can trust, is a saving grace as we wade through the hellfire of the world as it is. And a lot of that requires blind faith, which is a risky proposition. But you sort of have to come into things with an open heart, often against your better judgment, to make these connections. Surely there’s a middle ground, a way to protect ourselves against the Parks Dentons of the world, but I’ll admit that I haven’t found it. And I’m not trying all that hard. I like the way things are now.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like that people get taken advantage of. It’s fucking gross and terrifying that, if people answered the poll I put on Twitter today honestly, at least 50 people sent this catfish nudes. I’m sure the real number is higher than that. And we should be more cautious! We should have doubts. We should, at the very least, not accept everyone at face value. Maybe some of us will harden, but I also think we’re largely past the point of no return. And I don’t have any answers, just a lot of useless feelings and opinions I feel compelled to deliver to an audience of strangers.

So I don’t know. Might delete later, but like and share if you agree. My DMs are open.

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How the internet made me a real boy

18 Dec

“I’ve always wondered about the assumption that our online personas are more fake than our physical ones. I often feel awkward and nervous in real-life situations; I almost always feel like I’m saying the wrong thing and am unable to articulate what I really think and feel. Online, I have plenty of time and unlimited space to consider what to say and how to express myself. It’s an advantage that makes me feel more like myself, not less so.”
– Summer Anne Burton, “Social Networking: A Love Story”

I don’t know where I would be without Twitter. I think about this often — sometimes I’m embarrassed by how often — but there’s no denying the tremendous impact it has had on my life, both professional and personal. Twitter is not the most important thing in my life, despite what some of my haters would have you believe, but it is the means through which I found some of the most important things in my life: my closest friends, my job, and an audience I never thought I would have, gracious enough to read everything from 140-character musings to 7,000-word articles I’ve spent months reporting.

Reading my colleague Summer’s lovely retrospective on her 20 years on the internet, I was delighted by how much I connected with it. Delighted but not surprised: One of the most important lessons the internet taught me is that there is always someone out there feeling the same things I’m feeling. There always has been, and there always will be. In my experience, the internet has never been about alienation or isolation, but rather an endless source of connectedness and comfort. My offline life is so much richer for it.

Inspired by Summer, I wanted to take my own trip down memory lane — a briefer jaunt than hers with just three stops, the three sites that have dominated my internet experience and most dramatically influenced my life. This is where I went and what I learned there.

LiveJournal

LiveJournal taught me to never stop writing. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. (One of my earliest memories is sitting at a restaurant with my parents and writing stories that were essentially titles with illustrations. I repeatedly asked my mom how to spell “the,” because the word “the” didn’t make any sense, and frankly still doesn’t. I digress.) But LiveJournal made writing a part of my daily life again. It taught me that writing was an escape when I desperately needed one. The more I shared, the better I felt. In those early days, I had very few readers and I knew who they were — though, of course, my LiveJournal was public because I was too naive to think twice about that — but I was writing as much for myself as I was for anyone else. And yet, I can’t deny the gratification that came from a positive response. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit LiveJournal also taught me the thrill of instant validation, one of the internet’s double-edged swords.

Soon enough I was meeting new people on LiveJournal. Roxy and I were introduced through a mutual friend, but the internet is where we forged a real connection. It wasn’t until we were older and she was driving (I was late to that) that we relied more on IRL hangouts. And even then, we continued to communicate through LiveJournal comments, because that was the world we knew and the language we spoke. Through LiveJournal, I met the first boy who ever broke my heart, the first boy who ever got me to admit to myself — and soon after to a few trusted friends — that my feelings for the same sex weren’t going away any time soon. That boy, whom I found through a shared interest in Buffy, left me comments on my posts that melted my teenage heart, until we took it to AIM and stayed up all night talking about kissing each other. (That’s how innocent it was.) And when that boy moved on, because he was a year older and an hour away and maybe it was all just a game to him anyway, I went to therapy for the first time. My therapist asked if I liked boys or girls, and I didn’t hesitate before answering.

LiveJournal taught me to step outside of my comfort zone in a way I never thought possible. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward around new people, and deeply afraid of most social interactions, but suddenly I was making new friends — and connecting in new ways with old friends — without breaking a sweat. I had a photo on LiveJournal, but it was carefully selected and cropped and flattering enough that I didn’t cringe to look at it. I rarely posted any other photos at all. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was being judged not for my looks, but for my words, and my words were where I thrived. I didn’t feel fat or ugly because my words weren’t fat or ugly, and even if I still felt out of place at high school, I knew that there was a haven to which I could always retreat. It was a place where I could speak freely and people would listen. I could talk about my crush — I used the gender-neutral acronym O.O.M.O. (“object of my obsession”) to refer to him — and my parents and my anxiety. And I was not alone.

Facebook

I got Facebook the summer before I started college at Berkeley, back when it was still only available to certain colleges. (And you better believe I had a superiority complex about that. I was 17. Give me a break.) I envisioned it as a way to keep in touch with my high school friends, so many of whom were going to Facebook-approved schools like UCLA and USC. And it was that, for a while. But Facebook quickly taught me how to distance myself from high school, and from a version of myself I was never all that comfortable with. It wasn’t my first social network — I’d been on Friendster and MySpace — but it was the one that somehow meant the most. (It’s also the only one I still use, which certainly means something.) It was through Facebook that I discovered the ability to fashion an online persona, not drastically different from who I really am, but slightly cooler and more confident. With Facebook, I could choose what I wanted to present to the world, and that was such a rare gift. I didn’t feel like I was stumbling, because I was crafting my own path.

“Online persona” has a negative connotation, and I get that, but I wasn’t trying to be someone else entirely. Even in the pre-Catfish days, when I probably could have gotten away with it, I never pretended to be anyone other than myself. If anything, Facebook allowed me to be a truer version of that person, someone who could honestly declare The Rules of Attraction to be one of his favorite movies, and Maurice by E.M. Forster to be one of his favorite books. My so-called online persona turned out to be composed of the aspects of myself I’d been repressing out of fear and discomfort. One of the most pivotal moments in my life — and again, this used to embarrass me, but now I don’t care — was adding a sexual preference to my Facebook profile. I am Louis Peitzman, and I am interested in men. It was paradoxically so simple to do and an incredible feat. Before Facebook, I didn’t have the means to announce myself with the click of a button. What a thrill to be brave and lazy at the same time.

After that things changed quickly. My new out status on Facebook brought in an influx of friend requests — it was a small enough community back then, relatively, that some people took notice — and I was suddenly confronted with the idea of meeting people from the internet. The “stranger danger” alarms went off in my head, but Facebook had stripped away a certain level of anonymity that I’d always associated with internet friends. There was a very sweet boy who added me and told me I was cute, and one night I let him come over and kiss me in my bed. I didn’t feel unsafe — my roommates were home at the time — but I must have felt something, because I shivered the whole time, even when he held me. It was exciting and terrifying to know how easy it was to make a connection, whether that meant someone to fuck or someone to fall in love with. As Facebook grew so did the possibilities, and at times I felt paralyzed thinking about all the people, the vast majority of whom I would never meet, but I also felt a little bit of cautious optimism because I knew some of those strangers might one day become my friends or lovers or more.

Twitter

I’ve written a lot about Twitter and what it’s done for me, but I can’t leave it out of this trifecta. Apologies if I’m repeating myself, though if you’re still reading this, that’s on you. I joined Twitter because I wanted to share my writing and find an audience. That happened. But what I found that truly changed everything for me was how much I enjoyed laughing and making people laugh. In very little time, Twitter went from a tool for self-promotion (hey, not that I’ve moved past that entirely) to a place where I could explore and refine my comedic voice. I am not a comedian or a humorist — I guess at the end of the day I’m just a writer with a sense of humor. But I found so much joy and laughter following some of the funniest people I’ve ever known. And the ability to keep up with them, or at least lag behind from a minimal distance, gave me a newfound confidence in my writing. As committed as I was and still am to journalism and entertainment writing, I pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do with my words. Twitter, which I had joined as a tool, turned out to be a new outlet entirely.

And with that confidence, I did something I never thought I would do: I got on stage. Not as a stand-up comic, which still terrifies me, but as a storyteller, which felt much more in my wheelhouse. Twitter unlocked something in me — many somethings really: among them, a desire to make people laugh and a need to perform, both of which had been suppressed by intense social anxiety. The more I perform, the more I realize how much it’s always been inside me. Twitter merely facilitated that by letting my find the comedic voice I needed to tell these stories, and to make the connections that gave me a stage to tell them on. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll probably write about it again, because I still marvel at the fact that typing words into a tiny box on a screen somehow allowed me to overcome a lifelong fear of standing up in front of an audience. I don’t have delusions of making my living as a performer or a TV personality, so maybe it’s all inconsequential. But what used to terrify me is now something to look forward to. To me, that’s a powerful thing.

What means more to me, than anything really, are the friends I’ve made through Twitter. I know how ridiculous I sound when someone asks how I met any number of people, and I answer with the same deadpan “Twitter” because I don’t know what else to say. But I also know I’m past the point of caring. LiveJournal taught me that the friends you make online are sometimes better than the friends you make in person. You can bond with people based on shared passions and senses of humor instead of being thrown together by circumstance. Facebook let me continue that exploration, opening my world up and letting in people I never would have met otherwise. By the time I started to connect with people on Twitter, I understood the power of the internet to create and foster relationships. As silly as it may sound to some (it sounds a little silly to me), I found my chosen family. But I’ve also found myself, an ongoing process that involves stripping away insecurities and speaking out without being ashamed. That’s what the internet has done for me. I’m a little embarrassed to be this gushy and grateful, but the internet has also taught me that sometimes sincerity works, too.

Louis 10 Years Ago

3 Feb

What is Louis 10 Years Ago?

Louis 10 Years Ago is my new Twitter project: you can find it here. It’s a real-time simulation of what I would have tweeted 10 years ago, if I’d been on Twitter instead of LiveJournal.

Twitter didn’t exist 10 years ago.

I know, smart-ass. That’s why it’s just a simulation.

How does it work?

I’ve been combing my LiveJournal for hilariously melancholy or dated excerpts that work well in the 140-character format. They will be queued so that they roughly match when I would have tweeted them 10 years ago. I began my LiveJournal on February 15, 2003 at 2:09 p.m., so Louis 10 Years Ago will begin tweeting on February 15, 2013 at 2:09 p.m.

That’s pretty anal.

Yeah, to a completely unnecessary extent.

What can I expect to see if I follow this account?

My transformation from awkward, depressed closeted gay teen to slightly less awkward, slightly less depressed openly gay twentysomething. To that end: tweets about high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and feeling fat. No joke-jokes, but plenty to laugh at, in a cringeworthy way.

Are you hesitant to expose yourself in that way?

Nah. When have I ever been hesitant to expose myself? No, that doesn’t sound right. I guess I don’t mind sharing the more embarrassing aspects of my past because, at best, they show how far I’ve come. At worst, they’re a good reminder that some things never change — I may always be insecure, a little out-of-place, and uncomfortable in my own skin.

I already know you’re neurotic from following your regular account. Why should I follow Louis 10 Years Ago?

Well, you shouldn’t if you’re going to come into it with that attitude. Seriously, it’s entirely up to you to let high school me into your life. I think it’s funny and a little sad, but your mileage may vary. I’m mostly doing this for myself anyway.

You are such a liar.

I know.

Can you give me some sample tweets?

Sure.

“apparently having my cell phone off for 30 minutes is scandalous. if they only knew exaclty how NOT rebellious i am.”
“watched ‘donnie darko,’ which was fantastic but paralyzing and mind-numbing.”
“i can’t think of a moment during the past month where i haven’t been confused. my only fear right now is this: what if things never get easier?”

Christ, you’re annoying.

I was 16, so yes.

What’s with all the lowercase?

I thought that was very edgy. Don’t worry, I discovered capital letters eventually.

How often will Louis 10 Years Ago be tweeting?

Sparingly at first. I wasn’t always a frequent LiveJournal user. And either way, I’m not tweeting every line of my LiveJournal — not even close — so it’ll never be too much. On rare occasions, there might be a burst of tweets, but nothing so extreme you can’t scroll past it if you’re not willing to commit.

How long will this project go on?

Good question! I have about a year’s worth of tweets now, but I can conceivably keep this up for the next few years. That’s way too far ahead for me to worry about now. It all depends on how receptive people are to the project, and if I can continue tweeting from Louis 10 Years Ago without losing my mind. No promises!

There’s one thing I still don’t get.

Ask me privately. Or just follow the account: I think it will be pretty self-explanatory once it gets going.

Would you like a hug?

More than anything.

James Holmes and other boogeymen

6 Aug

It’s comforting to think of mass murderers as boogeymen: they’re lurking underneath your bed and in your closet, but if you don’t believe in them, they’ll go away. Don’t use their names. Don’t print their pictures. Don’t talk about them and they cease to exist.

And in a fantasy world, maybe that would work. You’d take a page from Harry Potter and refer to James Holmes as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” denying him power. You’d promise to never say “Wade Michael Page” three times in a dark bathroom, lest he crawl out of the mirror Bloody Mary-style and open fire.

These are superstitions. We don’t create psychopaths by putting them on the front page.

To be fair, there is a rational basis for the correlation — mass murderers are, at times, motivated by a desire for media attention. A shooter could carry out a brutal act of violence with the hope of getting his name in print. He may not be alive to see it, but yes, perhaps his dying wish was to go out in a blaze of 24-hour-news-cycle “glory.”

But it’s naive to think theoretical media coverage is what pushes a person over the edge, as though not printing James Holmes’ name or photo would somehow stay the hand of a white supremacist gun nut like Wade Michael Page. It’s a pleasant thought in some ways, because it allows us to feel we have a modicum of control over unpredictable acts of violence. Don’t give these people attention, and poof, they’re gone.

“You’re making this monster famous,” the internet commenters decry. No, that’s not how it works. You gain infamy by shooting a U.S. congresswoman in the head, or by opening fire on a midnight showing at a movie theater. These acts aren’t soon forgotten, and the perpetrators receive the notoriety assigned to all mass murderers. It’s not a reward — it’s a fact of life. Do something horrible and be remembered for doing something horrible.

These are killers, not Kardashians: not talking about them does nothing to undo what they did, nor does it prevent future mentally unbalanced people from doing the same. It’s also important to note the distinction between infamy and celebrity — to print James Holmes’ picture is not to make him a star. He doesn’t become a style icon. He doesn’t get a reality show. Outside of a few disturbed individuals on Facebook, he’s universally reviled, not a cult hero.

The pearl-clutching “You mustn’t say his name” response comes from fear, but it’s also a self-righteous declaration of moral superiority. It’s a way of letting everyone know that you’re above the news coverage and the media frenzy — the same thing you could accomplish, on a more personal level, by turning off the TV. I won’t pin this all on Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom, but blaming the “broken media” feels more de rigueur than ever.

“What happened to the good old days of news coverage?” This criticism suggests that we haven’t always sensationalized crimes and expressed a fascination with mass murderers. It also strikes me as weirdly repetitive: blaming the media is only the latest iteration of blaming video games, blaming movies, and blaming TV. It comes from the misguided belief that the depiction of violence creates more violence.

Does a flashy CNN graphic give people like Page ideas? Maybe. So, too, a first-person shooter or a movie about a mass murderer. Psychopaths will find inspiration wherever they can, but the media they consume isn’t what turns them into monsters. We want this to be true, because it’s nice to believe that violence isn’t innate so much as something we’ve inflicted on our culture. But no, acts of terror existed long before the representation of terror.

You can criticize the media for “breeding the next generation of psychopaths,” as one Gawker commenter so absurdly suggested. It won’t change the way we report news, or the fact that terrible people do terrible things. But it’s tough to accept the reality of a mass shooting a mere 16 days after the last one.

Assign blame where you see fit and find comfort in false beliefs: the boogeymen aren’t going anywhere.

The age of entitlement

23 Apr

Gawker turned off comments recently. I miss them. I mean, on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to write a blog post without being subjected to countless iterations of how awful I am. On the other hand, sometimes people say nice things, too. And I enjoy a spirited debate for the five seconds before it turns nasty and name-calling.

That’s not the point. What’s astounded me about Gawker’s brief foray into commentlessness (it’s a word — look it up) and the announcement of a new commenting system is the outrage. I suppose “astounded” isn’t the right word: every development on the internet is greeted with some level of horror, vitriol, and disgust. Certainly I understand that change is scary — I am 25, and I live with my parents (temporarily). But there’s something so gross to me about the way it’s articulated. It’s not, “I’m upset because a website I like is making a change I don’t agree with.” It’s, “How dare you” or “You had no right” or “Do you not care about my needs at all?”

I can’t speak for Gawker, but I can speak for myself. I feel the same way about these comments as I do when people proudly announce that I’m no longer funny on Twitter and they have to unfollow — what makes you think I give a shit?

You know how I respond to your indignation? With indignation of my own. We are absurdly privileged to have access to an infinite amount of free content on the internet, much of which is actually quite good. We don’t pay (or we pay minimally) for movies, music, news, criticism, original fiction, porn — and then we complain about it. Because we’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s our right to do so. If I’m following a person on Twitter and he makes a joke I don’t like, surely I should let him know. Even though I’m just one of the people who follows him, and he didn’t write the joke for me, and I’m making the choice to include him in my feed.

Before you start prattling on about censorship, believe me that I’m all for everyone speaking their mind. Of course you have a right to complain about a free service. I’m just saying, I have the right to think that makes you an ungrateful tool. But that’s beside the point. What I’m annoyed by is the entitlement, the sense that you think you’ve earned a say, that you deserve one just by virtue of having internet access and a keyboard. Everyone has the right to speak, but your words may not have any effect. And that’s fine — that’s the way it always has been. Not all comments are created equal. Not all criticism is valid.

I’m not saying shut up. (Or I am, but if that’s the case, I’m telling myself to shut up, too. Not uncommon.) I’m saying take a step back and look at what you’re saying. Are you making a valid point, or are you just whining because a website isn’t catering to your specific demands? Again, I do it, too. I probably won’t stop doing it. It’s just something to be aware of, the next time you or I bitch about a Facebook redesign or a new login system on OKCupid or, yes, Gawker temporarily disabling comments. Complaining is fine, but acting like you are owed more than what you’re getting is obnoxious.

I’m going to take this in a different direction, and I hope you’ll pardon the shift. Just go with me on it, and if you think I’m an idiot, feel free to let me know! (You will.)

It’s the same sense of entitlement that has inspired much of the criticism behind HBO’s Girls, a sharp and hilarious new series that drives most creative twentysomethings a little crazy because, yes, this is what our lives are like, and damn it, Lena Dunham beat us to it. That’s not a criticism of the show: that’s a credit to the voice it has captured. Of course I relate to the English major writing a book of personal essays while trying to find a “real job” and navigate the sexual politics of 21st century dating. To quote the last generation: “duh.”

And while I’m reluctant to dismiss all criticism as jealousy — “You’re just jealous” is a useless response in most every scenario in which it’s used — I do think that many of the anti-Girls voices on the internet are simply people who wish they had written Girls. It doesn’t manifest in simple admissions of that, because this is the age of entitlement. Instead, it goes back to that same indignant question that’s asked when a website opts for a new design: “What gives you the right?”

It is fine to not like Girls. You probably like a lot of shows that I think are terrible. (Smash? Reallly?) But what bothers me is how much of that hatred seems derived from a sense of “unfairness.” The charges of nepotism are ludicrous: everyone in Hollywood has some sort of advantage. You know someone or you’re related to someone or you fucked someone or you’re just naturally more good looking than anyone else. There is no clear path, and more often than not, you don’t end up on TV just because you’re someone’s kid. If Girls were a bad show, then perhaps you could complain about nepotism. But it’s a good show that should be on the air, regardless of anyone’s parents.

Ask yourself this: are you mad at Lena Dunham’s success because you don’t think she deserves it? Or perhaps more to the point, do you think that you deserve it more than she does?

If I can tie this all together — and yes, that’s going to be a challenge — I’d say that the internet has placed all of us on what appears to be an even playing field. We all have a voice and a say and a direct line of communication to “the right people.” It looks that way, but that’s a false perception. Some of us are smarter and funnier and better than others — and I say that as a person who acknowledges that there are plenty of people smarter and funnier and better than I am. We succeed on the basis of our own merits, but also on luck and timing and, yes, who we know.

Regardless, we feel as though we deserve success. That same narcissism and privilege we see reflected in some of the characters on Girls is what drives rejection of the show. Read my blog. Watch my show. Let me be more famous than you.

And none of this is really a comment on Gawker (or its commenters) or Girls or even Gawker’s opinion on Girls. I’m just reflecting on the fact that now more than ever, everyone on the internet feels equally as important as everyone else, and that has caused a tremendous level of perpetual dissatisfaction. The world can’t revolve around all of us at once. And the ultimate irony, before someone else points it out, is that I’ve written a rambling, self-indulgent, 1,200-word post on this that I expect people to read.

Seriously, though, why should you care what I have to say? I’m just another blogger trying to shout above the crowd.

Keep calm and carry on

10 Aug

Well, I thought it was harmless enough.

But sometimes even the most innocuous jokes are taken poorly. As my tweet spread, I became inundated with @-replies that ranged from mild frustration (“poor taste”) to rage and even a couple of death threats. (My first!) Oh, sure, plenty of people seemed to like the joke, too—and I imagine those that retweeted it, for the most part, understood its tone. But for every positive comment I got, there were ten more iterations of “twat,” “wanker,” “cunt,” “kike,” and “knob jockey.” That last one is the most adorable euphemism for gay I’ve ever heard, so by all means, slur away!

I was overwhelmed by the response—and also really surprised. What about my tweet was actually offensive? Yeah, if you take it literally, it’s an indictment of the English people, but why would anyone take umbrage at another country’s prompt clean-up efforts? As I explained in subsequent tweets—which I’m certain few of the furious masses read—it’s more of a joke about American inactivity and ignorance (particularly about the UK). Of course I don’t think that being quaint and proper are universal English characteristics, or that community action is worthy of criticism. I’m frankly astounded anyone could take it otherwise.

I think there are valid reasons to criticize me for writing that. The riots are taking a serious toll on the country, and it is, for some, “too soon” to joke about them. Fine. But to the slew of people who responded, “We’re cleaning up because we care about our community,” I have to ask, are you fucking kidding me? Of course I understand. Of course I sympathize and admire your efforts. I’d argue that the very stereotype I was lampooning, the “quaint and proper” Englishman, comes from a positive quality many British people do possess—that is, the ability to “keep calm and carry on.” This is not a bad thing.

And then there were the responses that compared the riots to September 11th and Hurricane Katrina. I’m not going to touch that, insofar as I’m not a fan of ranking tragedies. I will say that it strikes me as ass-backwards to suggest a rather tame joke is on par with making light of the deaths of thousands. Which is not to say that comedians haven’t made jokes about 9/11 and Katrina—because plenty have, and often. But the type of humor I was employing is, in my mind, a different animal entirely.

At this point, I have to address what many of you may be wondering—is this entire post just a humblebrag? I won’t deny that I enjoyed the attention I got yesterday: no tweet I’ve written has ever spread so far and so fast. That having been said, I don’t relish being called names, or threatened with violence. And I get no satisfaction from offending people. Now, I didn’t lose (much) sleep over yesterday’s outrage, because I stand behind my joke, and even elaborated it to diminish its potential for being misunderstood. Still, I don’t want attention for being a wanker. (Maybe for being a knob jockey. Aw, knob jockey.)

I’ll also admit I got twitchy at the number of tweets calling me ugly. But then I reminded myself that my avatar isn’t exactly flattering, and I am too adorable to be this insecure.

As always, this experience has reminded me about the downside of exposure. The more people you reach, the more people you can piss off. Someone is always going to be offended, whether for reasons rational or not. Someone else is always going to try to tear you down, perhaps just for the hell of it. I have written before about my need to develop a thicker skin, and I think yesterday’s onslaught of negativity was good exposure therapy. It’s not that I’m past taking harsh words to heart—I’m just learning to appreciate them for what they are.

I understand my humor. I know my heart is in the right place. And I know the people who matter don’t think I’m a soulless monster who deserves to have his house burned down. So it’s here that I note my explanation and reflection on the events do not mean I regret anything. I’m doing something that doesn’t come naturally to me—not apologizing.

Stop, thief!

15 Jun

I learned not to plagiarize at a young age, with the admonition, “I’ll be able to tell.” This was in middle school before everyone understood how the internet worked, and it was a lot easier to get away with stealing huge chunks of other people’s work. I never did it—first, because it offended my writerly sensibilities, and second, because I really did believe my teacher would be able to tell. The internet has made things tougher for plagiarizers, but it’s also given them much more material to choose from. So while I no longer worry about my academic papers being copied—uh, you can have them, if you really want—I now concern myself with Twitter theft.

Why steal tweets? I guess the simple answer is you’re not funny enough on your own. I have seen several of my 140-character musings copied word-for-word or tweaked slightly and posted by someone else. I’ll admit my first reaction was a swelling of pride (what’s that expression about imitation?), because being plagiarized made me feel as though I’d arrived. That initial burst of excitement was followed closely by rage: a fraud was getting credit for my work. All of this was rendered more infuriating by some of the responses I got, which could be paraphrased as, “Who cares?”

I mean, I do. But this speaks to a larger issue, the misconception that by putting something online you’re basically giving anyone license to nab it. One of my favorite bloggers, FourFour’s Rich Juzwiak, has encountered this on more than one occasion, with his expertly edited supercuts used (without credit) on major TV shows. I doubt I put as much effort into single tweets as Rich does into his videos, but they’re still my work. It’s true that 140 characters (or fewer!) isn’t much, not when compared to the incalculable number of characters in a full-length novel. (It’s not actually incalculable, but who wants to do that math?) Still, you can do a lot in a tweet, and the best tweeters do: you make a point, or you tell a joke, and if you’re lucky, it makes an impression.

In other words, size isn’t everything, but I’d guess that’s how many Twitter thieves justify their plagiarism. Is it really stealing if you’re only grabbing two sentences? This is also a culture in which people quote their favorite movies incessantly (oh, God, so incessantly), which also might encourage the belief that jokes, once shared, are in the public domain.

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but it’s something a significant portion of the internet still hasn’t taken to heart: It’s wrong to pass off someone else’s work as your own. What is common sense for some means nothing to others, as evidenced by the number of people asking me what the big deal was when I lamented my plagiarized tweets. And yes, to an outside observer, I can see how it might seem a little silly. (“Hey, I made that dick joke first!”) But my tweets, however brief or vulgar, are my writing. I value them as much as I do my blog posts, my articles, and my essays—and I expect others to show the same respect.

Nothing irks me more than the “it’s just Twitter” response, especially when it comes to the defense of a plagiarizer. Twitter is a fast-paced, constantly-updating forum, yes, but that’s all the more reason it’s important that we’re given proper credit for our work. The things we post online may last, but they’re just as likely to disappear quickly. The digital world is transitive, and that makes it easy for a thief to sneak in and steal something old just to regift it as something new. Plagiarism matters even more because tweets are, in the long-run, insubstantial. It’s tough to establish staying power or to determine authorship, which is partly why I defend my tweets with such intensity.

But what “it’s just Twitter” also disregards is how much the site means to so many aspiring writers, myself included. No, we can’t all get a TV series or a book deal out of it, but Twitter has a massive impact on our styles, our senses of humor, and yes, sometimes our careers. I never even knew I wanted to write comedy until I started getting a positive response to my Twitter, which has opened up new avenues to me professionally. It may “just” be Twitter to you, but to many of us, it’s a unique outlet for our voices. And when another person takes credit for my voice? You’re damn right I take that seriously. I think I’d be a fool not to.

Crossposted to Huffington Post Media here.