Thursday, February 21, 2013

Journalism, Storification, and Harassment

This is just a quick post to bring up a recent trend in games journalism that is bothering me. So this is one of those 'writing about writing about games' kind of posts. If that's not your kind of thing, well, this is your warning.

I also want to stress that this post is not meant as an attack on either Kotaku or on Patricia Hernandez. Over the last few years, Kotaku has grown and matured to incorporate a whole heap of exciting writers and content, and I am sincerely glad that the site exists and that (for the most part) it does what it does. Some of my favourite games writers of anywhere write at Kotaku, including Patricia herself, who is a phenomenal writer and an editor of a phenomenal site.

This post is more an attack on a practice that I've seen on a range of outlets, and I imagine it is only going to become more popular and widespread in the future. It just so happens that the two particular cases that highlight the issue with this trend that worries me are written by Patricia on Kotaku. But I really want to stress that I mean this as an attack on neither of them but rather just exposing issues that have arisen in a form they have in part forwarded.

My issue, simply, is the practice of creating a story that consists of nothing (or very little) other than embedded tweets—worse, tweets on sensitive topics that are embedded in a story without the tweet writer's consent.

The games industry/culture is increasingly being sucked into Twitter, and important conversations are increasingly taking place there that deserve reporting on. My concern is that instead of reportage, we are getting storifying[1], the online equivalent of vox pops without any actual commentary to frame these opinions.

But my concern isn't the sacredness of journalistic integrity. Rather, it's the safety of those people whose tweets are being used to create the story. To continue the vox pop analogy, storifying tweets onto a website is like a vox pop segment of the news posting each interviewee's address at the bottom of the screen. From the story, responding to the people who wrote the tweet is just one click away, with a reply button embedded on the page right alongside the tweet.

Why is this a problem? Because, simply, a lot of really terrible people like videogames. I think it is great that Kotaku reports on issues of discrimination as often as they do. I think it is great that they have the courage to have a diverse writing crew and the courage to let that diverse writing crew actually write about sexism and racism and homophobia issues. However, mainstream outlets also need to acknowledge the fact that a lot of terrible people read their sites, and a whole heap more terrible people are lurking on forums waiting to pounce on anything on those sites once they hear about them. So by posting somebody's tweets on a mainstream games website, you're not just exposing somebody to a huge audience of terrible people who would love nothing better than to go harass that person, you are giving that audience of terrible people easy access to that person.

I have seen two particularly worrying instances of this recently. Most problematic was the whole tirade about 'Is Tiny Tina racist?'[2] Brief context: a guy on Twitter, Mike Sacco, had a really insightful conversation with Gearbox's Anthony Burch about the Borderlands 2 character Tiny Tina, a 'whacky' white girl whose wackiness is defined by the way she uses a lot of slang primarily associated with black cultures. It was a really great conversation! I had never before considered Tiny Tina like that, and it was insightful to see how other people might have an issue with her. Better still, Burch, despite being stand-off-ish to start with, was keen to listen to criticism, even going so far to say he would like to change Tiny Tina if people had issues with her.

It was this last, perhaps not well considered statement by Burch that got the Twitter conversation onto Kotaku. Here was a dev saying he might change a character because some people found her racist. (Obviously, this was just poor wording because of Twitter's character constraints. There is an update at the bottom of the story where Burch clarifies that he means he would take these concerns into consideration for future content. The fact this needed clarifiying further shows the problems with just storifying tweets as a story). Certainly, if Kotaku didn't post this story, someone else would've. So the story went up as a series of tweets. Unsurprisingly, a whole mass of, uh, what's the race equivalent of MRAs? WRAs? Let's just go with dickheads. Anyway, unsurprisingly, a whole mass of dickheads descended onto Twitter to 'educate' Mike and Burch about racism, many even creating new Twitter accounts just to do so! By 'educate', I obviously mean 'harass'.

This really bothered me. Here, a dev and a dude had a really great chat about something problematic. It wasn't even an argument! There was no controversy until it went up on Kotaku and the hordes of dickheads descended onto Twitter. My initial fear was Burch was going to get in trouble for talking about the game publicly. Instead, it was Mike who ended up losing his job. Mike has understandably been cagey about going into details, but essentially it seems that some really passionate dickheads went so far as to email the company he was working at (some WoW card game place) and told them they would no longer be buying their product as long as Mike still worked there. Company, in turn, told Mike to stop talking about it. Mike, understandably annoyed that his employer would try to silence his free speech because of some dickheads on the internet, refused and, hence, resigned.

He tweeted this. And Kotaku made another storified story. The dickheads all over the internet found out via this post, and harassed him even more on Twitter, so happy they were that they had protected the status quo of videogames and cost this 'whiner' his job. A while later, Mike got a 'cease and desist' letter from his company since he kept talking to the media—which he hadn't!

Obviously, it is not Kotaku's fault that Mike lost his job. The conversation was public when it was happening before they came along. But being 'public' doesn't necessarily mean 'everyone' is going to see it. 125,000 people have read the Kotaku article, and it has been reposted all over the internet on other outlets and forums.

I think Kotaku (and all videogame outlets) have a responsibility to acknowledge that by amplifying messages like this, they are putting the original tweeters at great risk of harassment simply because of who, regrettably, reads their site.

Another example from yesterday (which fortunately hasn't cost anyone their job), was when Leena van Deventer tweeted a very succinct tweet in disgust at the lack of any women on stage during Sony's Playstation 4 event. Leena' tweet topped a storified story about the lack of women at the event—a story that consisted of nothing other than other equally frustrated tweets.

I saw this story as soon as it went up, and I knew what was going to happen. I searched Leena's twitter handle on Twitter and, sure enough, the mansplaining dickheads were starting to roll in to give her shit for 'making this a sex issue'. I only imagine that many of the other people linked in the story had the same thing happen.

Again, it is great that Kotaku is willing to follow up a massive, generation-defining event with an article about the fact not a single woman was present at it. That is excellent. The problem is, this style of reporting is, I think, borderline unethical. Just as with Mike, putting this tweets on a mainstream games outlet, with only a single click required to reply to the tweeter, achieves nothing other than telling the angry mob of terrible dickheads where to take their anger. Here is this person on Twitter claiming something is sexist. Sick 'em!

Obviously this was not Patricia's intentions in either case. And it is worth noting that Patricia gets just as harassed for posting these stories as the tweeters themselves. It takes a huge amount of bravery to expose yourself to that bile and hate and to talk about these issues on a mainstream site like Kotaku, and I greatly respect Patricia for doing it as often as she does. The issue is that neither Leena or Mike put themselves out there—they were put out there. Their tweets were lifted and placed on Kotaku and that was that.

So I think this practice of just storifying tweets and calling it an article is unethical. I think it is irresponsible. For all their good intentions, mainstream outlets that are trying (commendably) to be progressive, need to accept that a huge contingent of terrible people read their sites (which, it is worth stressing, is not to say that everyone who reads their site is a terrible person), and they need to first and foremost protect their sources.

So two solutions I can think of. First, simply, ask the person whose tweet you want to storify if they mind being included in the post. I think that is the bare minimum that needs to be done. Just because someone's tweet is public doesn't mean they want it amplified to the kind of people your story is going to amplify it to. Second solution: don't embed tweets. Write your own opinion about this issue and, if necessary, post screenshots of the twitter conversation (with the tweeters' consent) that prompted it. At least this way that reply button won't be right there, begging to be abused.

So that is my concern. I don't want Kotaku to stop talking about race and gender issues in games, and I commend them for talking about them as much as they do. Patricia, among other writers, is fighting the good fight against the toxic parts of our culture, and that is something I greatly admire and appreciate. I just have my concerns about this particular way of going about it.

I stress again, this post isn't trying to point fingers at Patricia or Kotaku, they just supply me with the most succinct examples of a wider trend that I have concerns about. Simply: can we please just stop storifying people onto articles without their permission? That is all. Thanks.

UPDATE: I want to stress one last time, that I do not think Patricia is in any way a lazy or unethical games journalist. The ability to embed tweets into a post is a relatively recent thing that people have been able to do, and it is a mode of reporting on conversations that happen on Twitter that was worth exploring and experimenting with. But now it has been experimented with, we can see these issues arising, and that is worth acknowledging. So, one last time, I don't mean to imply that either Patricia or Kotaku are unethical in themselves, but that the ethics surrounding this new tool need to be considered, and I apologise to both if that was unclear.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Several people on twitter have raised the question of retweets. Don't retweets serve a similar function in exposing something someone said to a wider audience. Indeed they do! And I think they also deserve a more nuanced consideration. Specifically, I think people should consider their clout (urgh) when they go for that RT button. I've certainly before RT'ed friends with only about a dozen or so followers to my 2000+ followers, and then immediately regretted the barrage of angry naysayers I sent their way. So that is certainly something worth considering!

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: I have changed the second last paragraph as the way it was previously worded may have implied that Patricia and Kotaku only post about gender and race issues for hits, which is not something I believe and certainly not something I want to imply. What I meant to demonstrate was simply the ignorant/privileged position from which I am writing this post, as someone who has never faced the pressures of an actual games journalism job. Anyone who writes about gender or race in relation to videogames is putting themselves way out there and that is something I only have the deepest respect for.


1) I don't know if it is actually the program Storify itself that Kotaku uses on these specific stories to embed these tweets, but just like 'google' has become a verb for 'using a search engine', I am using 'storify' as a verb here for 'make tweets into a story'. Update: Storify the actual company replied to me on Twitter since this post went up and noted that, indeed, it is not Storify being used in the specific stories I speak about in this post. They also pointed out their Privacy page that does indeed suggest asking people if they mind their tweets being archived.

2) As a(n angry) side note here, I really fucking hate it when outlets post stories like this as "Is X Racist/Homophobic/Sexist?" (note: Kotaku didn't do this, but I saw many other outlets re-post it on their Facebook pages with this question) as though what their readership of primarily white/straight/male readers think in any way matters. When someone finds something discriminatory in any way, we don't sit down and have a fucking vote with the question "Is this discriminatory?". We stop, shut up, and listen to that person to understand why this thing offends them, and we fucking learn something about the world. So outlets: stop asking your readers this inane question for the illusion of participation and, instead, just tell them that someone did find it discriminatory. And, people, if you ever find yourself trying to convince someone who had a problem with something that they are wrong to have that problem: shut the fuck up and try listening for once.


Smoolander said...

+ 1000

Cha said...

Well said.

It also just seems like a weird way to write an article to me. It feels lazy, or like it's trying too hard to seem up with the latest trends. But different tastes and all that.

NintendoLegend said...

Bravo on an excellent article that I enjoyed reading.

I think individual tweets can still be newsworthy, but you do a great job explaining why it can have consequences, and the responsibility of outlets to handle it better.

Because, yeah, that embedding thing? That needs to go away.

Also: This piece further affirms my conviction that people are bad, and the longer people think that people are good, the more problems will occur. Being humanistic and wanting to champion human beings and thinking they are all saints and being optimistic about their behavior... is foolish, to say the very least.

Leigh said...

The problem is two-fold.

We are being too nice about it, and should hold our games media to account at all times.

Twitter itself.

In both cases of Borderlands 2 'girlfriend mode' and 'Tiny Tina' controversies it was a journalist's snark or derisive re-tweet that framed the discussion. I know this because that's how I caught wind of both.

David Wildgoose tweeted about sexism and linked the original Eurogamer article, which did not (if I remember correctly) mention anything about sexism.

Ian Miles Cheong tweeted about 'grabbing popcorn' to watch 'game devs' argue about racism in Borderlands 2.

(I think that's what they said)

I don't follow either of these guys and I'm not blaming them for simply tweeting, but we all know how Twitter can be mis-used and there will always be terrible people reading the internet.

We should see more stories about sexism and racism and homophobia, because that is how people are educated. If they are done poorly, than that is an issue for the author, not the audience.

The film industry talks these issues out through their medium and commentary; the games industry has shown it is nowhere near mature enough to do so yet. But I'm an optimist.

Dan Hindes said...

There is no consent required when you're willingly posting into a specifically public medium. Twitter does not require a signed release form as a vox pop does, nor should it.

Brendan Keogh said...


I'm uneasy about the idea that because someone said something in public, that that thing they said is then free game to the entire internet. I think down that path inevitably leads to self-censorship, and people refusing to say anything on the off chance a website wants to amplify it to a bunch of forums that otherwise would never see it.

I would think any journalist (not just in games) would have a responsibility to the safety of their sources. Such stories put the safety of their sources at risk. Hence, the least a journalist can do is ask permission. I don't think 'public' can absolve us from all responsibility. Besides, it would just be a nice thing to do.

Zoe said...

It was less of a controversial subject, but I posted a JOKE on twitter about PAX and the legalization of weed in the state it was held in, kotaku embedded it out of context, and I had people harassing me immediately after.

I don't want to have to consider everything I say on twitter to be possibly taken as a press release and reposted without consent.

Dan Hindes said...

Zoe, you should have to consider everything you say in a public medium.

JP said...

I don't accept that "people on the internet will just be terrible", within the context of a given community that decent people care about.

To put a fine point on it, I really don't understand why Kotaku doesn't just declare open season on racist / misogynist / homophobic / generally hateful commenters. Kotaku is responsible for the quality of its community. Yes, at this late date it would be a large undertaking... so was their initiative to improve their image by getting people like Patricia to contribute. It was the Right Thing to do.

Rock Paper Shotgun doesn't really have this problem, they make no bones about moderation: "We do not have a freedom of speech policy here. If we find your post offensive, or just don't like it, it may get deleted."

If all major sites with any sense of values did this, hatemongers would be herded into the margins of internet discourse and rendered harmless as far as most of us are concerned.

There would still be plenty of grumpy people and animated arguments to go around, but that's pretty different from harassment, hate, and threats.

Jason said...

@JP, actually commenters aren't the issue here. It's readers who go directly to the source of the tweet and harass them there. Kotaku's moderation policy wouldn't make a difference in that case.

Maverynthia said...

Actually isn't it unethical? I'm sure Kotaku gets money from page hits and ads so this person is basically taking other people's words and making a profit on them instead of asking them if they'd like to write about their tweets and expand on them.

At the end of the day Kotaku profits and the people who's tweets are used pay the price.

Eric Brasure said...

I think there's a couple different things going on here. One, people's perceptions of the size and scope and reach of Twitter is lagging behind its actual size and scope and reach. This is normal, of course. It takes a while for people to get used to the new normal. Let's not forget that Twitter didn't even exist 10 years ago.

Two, many people use Twitter as a way to chat with friends, and that is of course a fine use for it. But I think that mindset is causing a lot of conversations that should really be taken to a more private communication medium, like email, to be conducted on Twitter because "that's where you talk to people."

Unfortunately, expecting journalists and writers not to use tweets and Twitter conversations in their reporting and writing, adopting some sort of decorum around Twitter, isn't going to happen. The only thing that will stop this is for people to start using Twitter in different ways.

Brendan Keogh said...


I'm uncomfortable making such an accusation for several reasons. Firstly and primarily, I do not believe at all that Patricia would post these kinds of stories simply for hits. I think she posts these stories because she is truly invested in bettering the culture around videogames and truly wants to expose the systemic sexism and racism and other forms of discrimination rampant around videogames. So I do not believe at all there was any malicious intent in posting these kinds of stories. I think, simply, it just seemed like a very useful tool for showing that these kinds of conversations are happening. But now that it has been done a few times, we see the problems we need to discuss. Essentially, I'm not interested in pointing fingers and calling people our outlets unethical. I simply mean to point out that I think this practice has problematic ethics that, going forward, we need to discuss.

Secondly, there is the issue with just blaming 'Kotaku'. Kotaku struggles to make this clear to its readership, but they are less a single identity and more a collective of bloggers sharing a platform. On one hand, that is certainly something they can easily use to hide behind ("Oh that isn't 'Kotaku', that is just Brian Ashcraft being silly") but, on the other hand, it allows a platform for a vast range of meaningful voices (like Patricia's) to experiment with a range of writing styles. So I appreciate Kotaku's collectiveness, for the most part, so I an reluctant to simply blame 'Kotaku'. Well, in this case, I don't want to 'blame' anyone for experimenting with a new form.

Greg Brown said...


I think you're underrating the extent to which readers self-select the publications that share their values. If Kotaku made it clear that they didn't traffic in those kinds of attitudes—both through cleaning out the comments, and in expressing those values through their posts—then the risk of such a problem would be greatly reduced.

That said, it goes to reinforce one of Brendan's other points: that writers should seek to contextualize the tweets and set the tone for readers' reactions.

Leena said...

@Dan Hindes, I think the "Well it was public what do you expect" line only works (and even then it's thin) when the author of the tweet wouldn't have tweeted it if they knew it was going to get press coverage. I definitely think there is room for some more options between "don't tweet at all" and "it's going to get 900+ RTs, 200 faves, be on games press blogs, MRA forums, GAF, and get 18000 reposts on Tumblr" that some tweets can reside.

I would have tweeted it anyway even if I knew the reach it was going to get (which far FAR exceeded any expectations, I thought everyone would ignore my femmo ranting just like every other day :P) but that doesn't change the fact that a heads up would have been appreciated, or that we shouldn't sit and consider the ethical ramifications of putting a reply button RIGHT THERE under someone's nose when you know your audience and you know 75% (I'm feeling kind today) of them are going to react harshly to it.

I don't think it's as simple as "well everything's public".

Jamie said...

As an aside, I find it fascinating how quickly the Kotaku readership on the Australian site (I don't read the US one so can't comment on that) has turned on the site since they brought on someone posting regularly on race and gender issues. A site I considered generally positive is now a cesspool of comments that are, frankly, disgusting. Every time she posts, even on unrelated topics, there is a swarm of hurt men posting how she needs to be fired and Kotaku needs to stop talking about this stuff because it doesn't exist, and even if it does, we shouldn't have to care about it. It is ironic that an action I support so much (bringing someone like Patricia on who DOES tackle these issues routinely) is close to making me give up a site I generally like a lot. I posted once or twice in defence of her, and it was about as welcome as you might expect. I don't comment there anymore. But I do love most of her articles, which contrary to the comments are generally quite balanced and accurate.