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Thanks and See You Later

Freddie deBoer —  Aug 24 2014 @ 7:16pm
by Freddie deBoer

me

 

I would like to thank Andrew, Patrick, Chris, and the entire Dish crew for the opportunity. (And the money.) It’s been a lot of fun. I want to thank the team here for making things so streamlined for me, particularly given that I sent like a dozen emails asking questions, and I want to thank Andrew for the chance to put my feet up on his desk. It’s been fun.

I also want to thank all of you, for the opportunity to invade your space for awhile, and for all the emails. Even the many, many cranky ones. I am not an easy person to know. I have pretty much been a take-it-or-leave-it, love-me-or-hate-me deal for my whole life, even as a little kid. So I appreciate your patience and your candor, and I’m glad to have had the chance to occupy your space for a little while. Writing, for me, is pathological in the simple sense. I don’t stop for long mostly because I don’t know how. This is about the only way I’ve ever found to distract my mind for long enough that it stops beating itself up, and so I have to thank Andrew and his team and all of you for the opportunity to seek that solace here. It’s my privilege. It’s my privilege.

As for the future, you can check me over at my website, although I reckon I’ll be pretty busy this fall. In the long term, I hope I still get the opportunity to speak to fine people such as yourselves, and that when I do, I tell the truth. Cheers.

Read Diana Wynne Jones

Freddie deBoer —  Aug 24 2014 @ 10:37am
by Freddie deBoer
Diana Wynne Jones

I did not have a lonely childhood, although sometimes I remember myself as having one, in that way that you make your own childhood more like a story than it was. I had three siblings and lots of friends. But I also had books, and books were a kind of chosen loneliness– an exciting loneliness, sometimes almost an illicit loneliness. Because when I was reading, I was probably reading about magic. Magic was, for me, all the things I wanted and did not believe. It was the vehicle through which I would gain the control that all young people long for, the adventure I yearned for and knew I would never achieve, and in time, religion, the traditional family, and America. I poured all of these superstitions into my belief in magic, and I would clutch books about magic to my chest on the bus to school, counting syllables and thinking about the places I would go if I only had the power. And I believed it all willfully until I found that expenditure of will too much to give, and then one day I didn’t believe anymore.

But before that were my books, and the ones I loved more than any others were by Diana Wynne Jones. Jones should be more well known than she is. She was a favorite and personal friend of fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman; one of her best known books was made into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki; and her stories, filled with wizards and spells and schools, would seem a perfect fit in the post-Harry Potter world. And yet I find she’s still somewhat unknown, even among fans of fantasy and Young Adult.  Google lovingly celebrated her 80th birthday just a couple weeks ago, and yet I think many people responded with confusion. That’s a shame. All these years later, she’s my favorite.

Certainly, the things that are great about Jones’s work are things you might look for in any fantasy author. Her imagination is expansive and individual. With fantasy, it’s not just about the degree of someone’s imagination, but the style, and Jones imagined unlike anyone else. It’s a well-worn notion that the trick in fantasy lies in how to describe the mundane, and at that task, Jones had few peers. Her worlds are lived-in and worn, never terrifying but never quite comfortable, filled with details as familiar as your grandmother’s house but as disconcerting and alien as a dream. Her settings are frequently cold and foreboding, but her characters are warm and familiar, her books filled with knowing, kind, distracted, difficult, smart, flawed, headstrong, clumsy, misunderstanding people. People in Jones’s books are forever hurting each other through their distraction, or through their misunderstanding, or very often, through their genuine desire to help. There is warmth and friendliness in her world, but there is also the real-life condition of the endless harms we pile up on the people we love and do not understand.

I truly believe Jones is one of the greatest chroniclers of childhood we’ve ever had, and it’s because of nothing so much as her utter rejection of romanticizing being a child. The world she describes, for kids, is strange, rule-bound, fickle, and unknowable. Children are hurt, mostly by other children, and they all grow up too fast. I don’t mean to make her work sound impossibly depressing or grim; in fact her books are frequently joyous affairs. But there is an absolute and unwavering commitment to reckoning with the disappointment and confusion of being young, in her work, an honesty that is wonderfully supportive simply in its willingness to confront the way things are when you are young and your life is not yet yours. It’s a rare and valuable message to get as a kid, the recognition of loss by an adult who understands. Throughout all of it, there’s possibility, teeming and inventive, a world of magic and adventure that most children want beyond wanting. Some children, in her books, get that magic and that adventure. But never without a price.

So here’s a few books by her that you could read, or read to your children, although I wish I could tell you about a half dozen others– the bravura sci-fi of A Tale of Time City; the grown-up pleasures of Dogsbody, about a star that takes animal form; the Gothic creepiness of teenagers in Eight Days of Luke; the subtle unease and brilliant consideration of gender in Aunt Maria…. But for now, these will do.

Howl’s Moving CastleThis is often the first book of Jones’s that people read, and it isn’t hard to imagine why. It’s not just that they get pulled in by the Miyazaki movie. (It’s worth saying that Miyazaki has an unusual adaptation style: the first half of the movie is slavishly faithful to the book, the second half, not faithful at all.) The story of how a young woman named Sophie earned the enmity of the Witch of the Wastes and the attention of the wizard Howl, the book is among Jones’s most accessible. It’s filled with familiar fantasy tropes: witches and wizards, curses, magical sidekicks, transformations. But like most of Jones’s work, the story is told slant, every trope and idea delivered just a little differently than you would expect. It’s filled with fun, fully-realized characters, none more satisfying than Sophie. Jones is a master at portraying female characters that are sharp and brave without ever falling into the “strong female character” trap; Sophie is smart but unobservant, kind but judgmental, and forever getting in her own way. There is never a moment when Jones’s characters seem to exist to satisfy or defy a stereotype, which means that there is space for them to exist in wonderful, human imperfection. The book suffers a bit from anti-climax, but it’s a funny, satisfying love story. And while you can read the cracking, joyful, impossibly clever sequel Castle in the Air without having read this one, if you do read Howl’s first, you’ll find that book lands even better.

Archer’s Goon. It seems that this book might be out of print, which has got to be some kind of cosmic crime. If I had to pin one book down as Jones’s masterpiece, this would be the one. It’s funny; like with most of Jones’s books, I got this one from the public library, but I resisted for years, even though it was stacked up next to a bunch of my favorites. That cover was awful. Yes, I judged a book by its cover, and paid for it. Because Archer’s Goon is astonishing, a brilliant, meticulous work of young adult literature that I would feel comfortable recommending to any adult. It’s fantasy, I guess, but it’s hard to name a single traditional trope or convention in it. Howard Sykes’s classic (but not idyllic– Jones’s children endure the real world of childhood indignity and fear) suburban life in England is interrupted by a goon, sent by the wizard Archer, to collect several thousand words of nonsense that Howard’s father owes. This inconvenience leads Howard to learn that Archer is in fact one of seven siblings, who have divided up municipal life– and taxes– in Howard’s town. They are bound, in a strange way, by the words that Howard’s father produces. Jones’s magical worlds are full of strange and arbitrary rules, the sense of which constantly escapes the understanding of her protagonists, perfectly dramatizing the confusion and misunderstanding of childhood. Gradually, Howard learns more about the magical world around him, coming to discover the way in which Archer and his siblings are and are not what they seem. The book is perceptive, funny, moving, and more than anything, genuinely surprising in a way that’s rare in fiction. A gem.

Charmed LifeThis book is part of a larger cycle, and yet as is common with Jones, you can read it separately and lose little. It’s here, with one of her earliest books, that Jones’s unflinching portrayal of childhood loss is presented most completely, and most achingly. It’s a story, ultimately, about unrequited love, about the profound fissure that occurs in every young life when we realize that we can love something completely and receive nothing in return. Cat Chant and his sister, Gwendolen, are orphans, like most young people in fantasy stories. Cat clings to Gwendolen after the death of their parents, adoring her, even while his life is changed again and again by her growing magical powers. There is an exquisite sadness in this novel, a sense of loss that is profound, even when the resolution brings Cat some peace. Jones is not a moralist; her antagonists rarely receive satisfying comeuppance and if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere. But things do have a way of coming together, in the end. Still, as happy as things may end up, there’s no mistaking it: this book is a line in the sand, a message from an author who insisted on telling beautiful fantasy tales about children who learn how sad the world can really be.

Witch WeekI’m not a Harry Potter grump. Hey, Harry Potter’s great, it’s fine. But when I read Witch Week, a little of my disappointment with that series becomes plainer,  because there’s nothing in Rowling’s seven novels about school that are as real, recognizable, and utterly funny as Witch Week. Everyone who has ever known the specific, excruciating indignities of going to school will find much to recognize in this book. What Jones understood, intuitively, was the way in which the major catastrophes and minor losses of dignity mix together in the day-to-day flow of life, how hard it is to separate the true emergencies from the simple problems that nag at you every day. Witch Week, like a lot her work, is about the thin walls between worlds, and the way in which they can get ripped and crossed. Charles, a lonely and angry boy– a genuinely unpleasant protagonist, a risk that Jones was often willing to take– occupies a world where magic is common but forbidden, enforced against with the zeal and terror of an inquisition. Jones works that constant fear of oppression against the shock and glee at discovering real magic among a cast of misfits, trying to survive in the unique social horror of British boarding school. The twists and turns are surprising and darkly comic, and the stakes very real and frequently frightening. Her images are gorgeous, and for the rest of my life I will remember the image of the image on the old hardcover at my library, a young girl soaring above the English countryside on a broom, wrapped in a pink blanket. There’s metaphors to be had here, metaphors for sex and adulthood and freedom, but Jones’s touch is light, and at the center there’s a perceptive, well-crafted, and remarkably funny magic story. Witch Week is, in some ways, a very dark book, and yet I can’t think of many that are more likely to make me smile.

I read all of her work that my library had, as a kid. When I was older, I read them all again, though I had never really stopped picking through them. They were as good as I’d remembered, or better. Many things had changed. I saw them then through the eyes of someone who had learned what we all eventually learn, that fairy godmothers aren’t real, but wicked stepmothers are. But I also connected again with her flawed, human, compassionate characters, and I thought of those I had loved who I would never see again, and about our capacity to make each other a little more comfortable, even if it were just with the power of quiet understanding. And though I felt I had become cynical in a cynical world, I remembered too that once, I believed in magic.

(Photo by Eunice.)

by Freddie deBoer

There’s been lots of talk, going around, about the demise of the comments section. This has been spurred in long part by some truly noxious trolling and the seemingly intractable problem of online harassment. Given those realities, I’m amenable to major changes, although I doubt you can really solve this kind of problem. These aren’t platform problems or technology problems. They’re human problems. Humanity exists online, and this is the way humanity is. But if we can avoid even a little of the terrible abuse that people receive online, women especially, it might be time to consider letting comments go, at least in many places. And I say that as someone with an obvious affection for how good comments can occasionally be.

I do think, though, that this is a good opportunity to finally let some of our old myths about the internet die. It’s still common to hear people talk about the internet as this open space where only talent matters and where everyone has a chance to impact the discussion. And it’s time we put those myths to bed.

It’s not like people are totally unaware of all this. Certainly, the way in which major bloggers were largely absorbed into legacy media companies and think tanks is part of the story. One of the things I’ve always liked about Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein is that they’ve both always been upfront about the fact that their success depends in part on having been in the right place at the right time, and that building a career now is a lot harder than it used to be. Hierarchies harden, alliances form, and given the brutal economic realities of the online writing profession, the game of musical chairs gets more and more brutally competitive. The end result is, inevitably, that people feel more and more pressure to find a niche and to be liked. It’s a word of mouth business. And while the world of commenters may seem far from that of the pros, I think that many of us envisioned a future where commenters could, at their best, provide a kind of counterweight when professional and social pressures influence what the pros think and say. Well, I’m not sure it ever worked that way, but it was nice to dream.

The only people who can really watch the watchers is each other, and like all human beings, they have human concerns which make that job impossible. Is Politico’s clumsy hack job on Vox a clumsy hack job? Yes. Are people defending Vox out of purely principled motives? Um, I doubt it! I’m not impressed by it. But I guess I understand. I mean, you can’t ask people to act as impartial arbiters of their own institutions. In the original telling, naive though it may have been, commenters helped to play that role.

I dunno. Maybe I’ve grown soft in my old age. Or maybe I’m just sensitive to broken labor markets, given that I’m in one myself. (Lord knows, the professional-social dynamics of academia can be as unhealthy and pernicious as you can possibly imagine.) But as I tried to say in the first piece I wrote this week: I don’t know that there’s such a thing as political and intellectual independence when there’s so little economic and labor security. The unemployment rate is down, but I don’t know many people who really feel secure. The terrible condition of the American worker spreads out into everything and hurts people in all industries– even those who would prefer to say, for political reasons, that everything is alright.

I don’t know if there was ever a time when the internet in general, and the world of blogging and online journalism specifically, were these open cultures where anyone truly had a chance to get ahead. And there’s a simple rejoinder to all of this: commenters never were some sort of principled check on bloggers and writers. They brought the rape gifs and the misogyny and the racism and none of the checks and balances. I get that, too. I just think that it’s time for us all to reckon with the fact that the mythology is well and truly dead. The internet is a social system, which means it’s defined by inequalities in power, and those inequalities determine what gets heard and by whom. I will never stop criticizing those writers who decide that they are a very big deal, or stop pointing out the social and professional hierarchies that they care about deeply while pretending they don’t. And as much as criticisms of comment sections are accurate, they are also self-serving, a way for the various Big Deals online to lord it over the proles. But I do hope that I always keep in mind the fact that structural, economic factors are ultimately to blame for our hierarchical, unequal media, not individuals. And that my own pretensions and self-aggrandizement are no kind of alternative.

The whole thing is so… human.

Two Cheers for Bustle

Freddie deBoer —  Aug 22 2014 @ 2:57pm
by Freddie deBoer

While I’m on the subject of making professional online writing sustainable– yesterday, Amanda Hess at Slate took a look back at the first year of Bustle, the controversial women’s site that launched to much derision. That criticism largely stemmed from Bustle’s founder, Bryan Goldberg, and a disastrous announcement he made that made his site sound simultaneously self-important and condescending to its own audience. Internet infamy followed. And yet Hess has found that Goldberg has wooed many of his old critics, and that Bustle has been a massive success in terms of building an audience and securing ad revenue additional capital. To which I say: good, I guess?

Goldberg is a dink. His initial rollout of the site was plainly dopey, although from a troll bait, “any publicity is good publicity” standpoint, kind of genius. I can understand why people would be upset that this guy has become a powerful force in women’s media, and that he’s raking in more money. But I think there was a simple reason to cheer Goldberg’s site even back before he did his apology tour: Bustle pays, and it pays women, and that in and of itself is a kind of victory online.

Hess quotes The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, who said “On the other hand, women write and work for Bustle, and they get paid, and I’m always in support of that.” As Hess points out in her piece, whatever you think about Goldberg, he’s making it easier for bright young women to break into an industry that can be brutal for workers. Perhaps we’d prefer the head of the site to be more enlightened, or just less doofy, but he’s spending on talent and that matters.

Diversity in media, like diversity in other fields, is one of the problems that can be easiest solved with brute force: when there aren’t enough women writers, you hire more. When their aren’t enough black actors, you hire more. You can throw money at this problem. Chris Hayes found that cable news systematically under-represents people of color, so he went out of the way to correct that by explicitly and unapologetically looking for non-white voices for his own show. I am always confused by those who argue that this somehow diminishes the accomplishment of the people involved; those voices wouldn’t be heard if that effort wasn’t made, we know that there are systemic inequalities that ordinarily exclude those voices, so we fix it with brute force. That’s just a good thing. Same here: Bustle means there’s more work for women writers online, which makes the internet a more diverse, honest place, and that’s worth celebrating in and of itself.

by Freddie deBoer

So it won’t surprise anybody to learn that I really, really don’t like Buzzfeed.

Sometimes, when I consider the Buzzfeed phenomenon, I think I’m living in some sort of fictional satirical world where Buzzfeed is a symbol of how far media can fall. It’s like living in a Douglas Copeland novel. Buzzfeed’s particular brand of lowest common denominator clickbait, their “14 Giraffes Who Totally Look  Like Steve Buscemi,” their “25 Things Only People from [Insert Geographical Area Here] Understand,” their “Which of Fat Cat’s Minions from Chip’n’Dale’s Rescue Rangers Are You?” quizzes, their corpsefucking glurge, sitting side-by-side with their “branded content” like “12 Most Crunchtastic TV Moments Brought to You by Frito Lay,” subsidizing imperial stenographer Rosie Gray’s smears of Max Blumenthal (an actual journalist),  powered by an aggregation model that comes pretty close to plagiarism even when it doesn’t devolve into the serial copy-and-pasting of Benny Johnson (thanks BlippoBoppo and CrushingBort), in an environment where they can memory hole 4,000 posts and think they don’t have to say anything in particular about it publicly, all lorded over by dumb-faced Ben Smith’s dumb face…. It’s bleak, man. I mean, I can see somebody getting a job offer from Buzzfeed and trying to rationalize it, telling themselves, “well, they’re not so bad….” Yes, they are. They are exactly that bad.

The thing is, I don’t know if there’s some more ethical path writers these days can walk and still end up being able to support themselves. It’s looking pretty grim out there for our professional online writers.

I’m someone who writes a lot of what I guess you would call media criticism. And that means that I’m frequently in the position of saying some not-very-nice things about people who write professionally online. But I criticize because I think that job is important; I happen to have some old-fashioned, corny ideas about the role that journalism and political commentary have to play in a democracy such as ours. We need professional writers– not just dedicated amateurs– to observe and comment on our society and our government, in order to ensure that both are functioning the way that they should, and to give our people information they need to make rational political choices. The problem is that the basic economics of that work have become so threatened that I don’t know what independent writers are supposed to do. I hate when talented people join up with outfits like Buzzfeed, which I think are genuinely making our country a stupider place. But I don’t see any clear path that people can take to preserve both their integrity and their ability to eat.

I could, if I was feeling masochistic, run down some of the publications that have recently shuttered or dramatically restructured in a way that has trimmed a lot of talented writers from their payrolls. Sports On Earth, for example, was a bright spot in the shouty, gimmicky world of online sports coverage, a place that provided steady work to talented writers like Tomas Rios and Jeb Lund, and which was willing to take a chance on genuinely unique work in a media world growing ever-more homogenous. Or look at the uncertain fate of The American Prospect, for decades an incubator of young liberal writing talent. TAP has prestige and it has a legacy, but you can’t pay the bills with either of those. NSFWCorp was always controversial, but everyone has to recognize that it was a bold attempt at producing real journalism with a new and unique funding model. But that model fell through. For awhile, there was a lot of hype about how hyper-local reporting would be the next wave in web publishing, but AOL’s massive Patch effort crashed and burned. Well, Patch is now a “new, nimble company,” and profitable– thanks in large measure to laying off 85% of its news staff. Even that mild success stems from putting a lot of people out of work.

There are way too many great writers– people like Lund and the brilliant and provocative Yasmin Nair and others– who don’t have a steady, secure gig that can keep them doing what they do best.

The basic economics of all of this are truly discouraging. Many people who are able to scratch out a living as professional writers have to do so with content mill writing, churning out four or five or six or more posts a day, sometimes for as little as $15 a post. Many have their pay tied to performance incentives, based on clicks, essentially mandating that people play the clickbait game if they want to pay the rent. The importance of Search Engine Optimization may be fading but the days of Please Facebook Favor My Post in Your Algorithm are in full bloom, and if anything that master is even less knowable than Google ever was. Freelancers might get $500 or $1000 for a strong, researched, reported story. That might sound like a lot, but when you’ve spot months conceiving, researching, reporting, and writing that piece, the math is dismal. Clearly, getting a job as an editor or staff writer at a deep-pocketed publication is best, and there’s no substitute for that kind of security. But I think people would be amazed at how little those positions sometimes pay, and they often require living in New York, DC, or Los Angeles, three ludicrously expensive places to live. I know people who work for well-known, national magazines, the kind of jobs thousands of young journos and writers want to work for, who still have to work on the side doing copy writing to make ends meet. And they’re the lucky ones.

There are some people who enjoy the blessing of working under a patronage model, where someone or some institution with deep pockets can afford to subsidize work that isn’t meant to pay for itself. But most writers simply have to chase clicks if they want to survive. What that means is that even the most independent writers tend to chase the same stories, writing post after post about Robin Williams or the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, knowing that those stories can succeed because they have succeeded already. That makes online writing a brutally homogeneous affair. Choire Sicha– who I think has as much integrity as anybody, although I’m sure he’d roll his eyes at that– made the case recently, saying:

I do not read a lot of things anymore. A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that. I opened up my Digg reader the other day, because I was on blogging duty at work, and everything was so duplicative of each other. I was like, yeah, okay, there’s that piece of news filtering through all these different websites, all the same things… no wonder I don’t go to them. I need to make a new folder in my Digg reader, I guess, that’s “Things That Are Surprising and Interesting and Maybe Weird.” It’s sort of… it’s not… I don’t know, something’s wrong.

That is hardly an experience unique to him. I posted a photo of a cluster of Slate stories about Robin Williams to my Facebook, a half-dozen different angles from the same website about the same dead celebrity. But I could have done the same thing with any number of other websites.

You probably know the causes by now. Even if you don’t believe in the Peak Ad thesis, you’ve got the essential problem that with so many websites and the ever-growing number of ads on social media like Facebook and Twitter, all competing with the Google behemoth, you’ve got a nearly limitless supply of online advertising, inevitably pushing down the value of ads. Sites have responded by coming up with new and innovative ways to fool readers into thinking ads are legitimate stories. We laughed at the Atlantic Scientology fiasco, but they were just a little ahead of the curve. We’re starting to see more and more attempts at direct monetization, with paywalls and subscription services, which is great. I hope they succeed. But the idea that online content has to be free is so deeply baked into the culture that it’s going to take great effort to get people used to the idea of paying. I think that the widespread mockery of the New York Times Times Select experiment was a major failure by the industry to think long-term. Sure, it was a failed experiment, and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. But the deep mockery of the very idea of a paywall helped contribute to a precedent that is still alive today. I clicked on a Haaretz link yesterday and was deeply annoyed to find that it was paywalled. It took me a little bit to realize that, when I get angered by the idea of a newspaper asking me to pay for its content, I’m part of the problem.

The sad fact is that there may just be too many mouths to feed, right now, and not enough money to go around. But even so, I don’t know how you solve this problem on the supply side. People are either going to be willing to pay for what they read or they aren’t.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. There’s lots of great stuff getting written out there. And I’m hoping that a combination of various models and formats can sustain the industry moving forward. Paid, niche-audience newsletters like Michael Brendan Dougherty’s The Slurve, the patronage model of Pierre Omidyar and First Look Media, porous paywalls and gated content like at The New York Times, and hybrid models like this very website– these can all work alongside sites paid for by advertising. There are some great new independent publications out there, like Jacobin Magazine or Rachel Rosenfelt’s The New Inquiry, although I have no idea if they are self-sustaining or close to it. I’ve come to a point where I recognize that universal condemnations of clickbait content simply aren’t fair, if I want to continue to enjoy lots of free stuff to read online. The question becomes what the clickbait is subsidizing, and who, and what the percentages are. Under the steady leadership of Max Read, I think Gawker has done a good job with achieving that kind of balance, for one example, but it’s always going to be a negotiation, and a struggle. And while I admire what Andrew has built here, this is a model that simply can’t be replicated by most people. It’s a functioning, self-sustaining website, but it isn’t a model or a plan.

We’ll have to see where this all goes next. For myself, I am merely trying to be more understanding and less quick to judge, while remaining adamantly opposed to PR and advertising masked as journalism. I used to mock people who spent their lives writing the same “Top Ten Dumbest Things Said on Faux News This Week” piece over and over again, but I don’t anymore. I don’t bring my online life into my day-to-day life; I think a majority of my classmates and professors have no idea I write online. But I still get undergrads who seek me out on campus, who come to me looking for advice on how to break into online writing as a profession. I never  know what to tell them. I have always written from the position of privilege of not needing to write to live. Sometimes I give them advice,  sometimes I put them in touch with editors I’m friendly with. But for their basic questions about how to make it, I don’t really know how to respond. It’s a tough business, and an essential one, and I genuinely don’t know if it’s going to survive.

(And for Christ’s sakes, if you like a site, whitelist it on your AdBlock, OK?)

by Freddie deBoer

Apps

For awhile now, I’ve been arguing against the notion of a STEM shortage, the idea that our labor problems stem in part from a failure to produce enough graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields to meet demand. This idea is, well, just wrong, plainly wrong. I aggregated a lot of the data here, and here’s a great piece from The Atlantic by Michael Teitelbaum making the case. I have been committed to debunking this idea for two major reasons. First, because facts matter, and one of the most dangerous things to us as a society are those ideas that sound good from a narrative point of view but lack factual backing. The idea of the STEM shortage plays into a bunch of our petty prejudices, most powerfully our idea of the future. But the data simply doesn’t back up that notion.

The second reason is because the notion of a STEM shortage plays into a misguided and destructive vision of our economy– a moralizing notion of our labor market where your outcomes are all a matter of choices that you have made. This is the chumps narrative, where people who have suffered in our labor market have done so because they have pursued foolish, “impractical” careers or education. Virginia Postrel has written cogently about this phenomenon in the past, pointing out, among other things, that it isn’t the case that people with supposedly impractical majors systematically underperform the average, and also that they are such a small slice of the labor force that they can’t possibly account for our problems. I’ve pointed out many times before that going to law school went overnight from being the mercenary path for those bent on riches to a pie-in-the-sky, impractical move for dreamers, as soon as the law job market collapsed. The narrative changes to preserve the idea that individuals are responsible for their own joblessness, and in so doing keeps us from pondering systemic change.

Look at the app economy, which was meant to be the hot new ticket into the land of abundance. (See this 2012 piece from The Atlantic for an indicative example of app economy woowoo.) What could better play into our notions of how to get ahead in America in this new age than the app economy? It’s dynamic! It’s innovative! It’s disruptive! Gone are the days of putting on a suit to go work in some stodgy firm. These days, it’s all about being your own boss, building an app with some buddies in your dorm room, and reaping the whirlwind. It’s a Tom Friedman wet dream, an Aspen Ideas Festival panel sprung to life, the validation of every buzzwordy Wired article and Business Insider post you’ve ever read.

Whoops!

As the indispensable Valleywag tells us this morning, people within the app economy are catching on to the fact that it’s not, actually, an industry in which they can achieve long-term economic security, let alone riches. The bottom 47% of developers make less than $100 a month. Studies have shown that the vast majority of revenues goes to a tiny fraction of developers. The numbers are even more stark when it comes to in-app revenue. Less than .01% of all apps will be considered a financial success, according to some estimates. It turns out that, as in so many other things in the American economy, the app industry is a winner-take-all field, a lottery ticket economy where a tiny number make out like bandits and most people can’t get ahead. And as usual, it’s only the biggest firms– Apple, Google, Microsoft– which are getting ahead.

So all the kids who heard the clarion call and rushed out to get CS degrees, or to drop out under the advice of Peter Thiel, and start coding in their basements– are they all chumps? Do they deserve scorn? Do they deserve to be unable to scratch out a living? Of course not. Like so many others, most of them did what their society told them to do to pursue the good life: work hard, go to school, and try to provide value for people so that you can earn a living. They were sold on a social contract that is failing them. No one can be reasonably expected to predict what skills the economy will value five, ten, twenty years in advance. The urge to call out others for what you perceive as their bad choices is destructive in a labor economy where, despite gains in overall unemployment rate, workers still have remarkably little bargaining power, thanks to underemployment, lack of benefits, low pay, and poor hours. Rather than succumbing to our petty insecurities by blaming others for their economic conditions, we need to look at the macroeconomic factors that are hurting our labor markets. We need to recognize that automation and artificial intelligence are pushing us towards a new era of work– one with tremendous potential productivity gains, but also tremendous uncertainty for labor, even educated labor. It’s time to stop calling people chumps and start building the kind of social system that can guarantee basic material security for all of our people, so that we can all share in the staggering gains of efficiency and productivity that technology is bringing about.

(Photo by Jason Howie)

by Freddie deBoer

I’ve developed something of a reputation as a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism. I got an email from a Dish reader who asked me to flesh out where I’m coming from.

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be yourself. So of course that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks. The hundreds of young people I teach, tutor, and engage with in my academic and professional lives teach me about the way these movements are perceived. I have strict rules about how I engage with students in class, and I never intentionally bring my own beliefs into my pedagogy, but I also don’t steer students away from political issues if they turn the conversation that way. I cannot tell you how common it is for me to talk to 19, 20, 21 year old students, who seem like good people, who discuss liberal and left-wing beliefs as positive ideas, but who shrink from identifying with liberalism and feminism instinctively. Privately, I lament that fact, but it doesn’t surprise me. Of course much of these feelings stem from conservative misrepresentations and slanders of what social liberalism is and means. But it also comes from the perception that, in the online forums where so much political discussion happens these days, the slightest misstep will result in character assassination and vicious condemnation.

Suppose you’re a young college student inclined towards liberal or left-wing ideas. And suppose, like a lot of such college students, you enjoy Stephen Colbert and find him a political inspiration. Now imagine that, during the #CancelColbert fiasco, you defended Colbert on Twitter. If your defense was noticed by the people who police that forum, the consequences were likely to be brutal. People would not have said “here, let me talk you through this.” It wouldn’t have been a matter of friendly and inviting disagreement. Instead, as we all saw, it would have been immediate and unequivocal attack. That’s how the loudest voices on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook act. The culture is one of attack, rather than of education. And the claims, typically, are existential: not “this thing you said is problematic from the standpoint of race,” but rather “you’re a racist.” Not “I think there’s some gender issues going here that you should think about,” but “you’re a misogynist.” Always. I know that there are kinder voices out there in socially liberal circles on social media, but unfortunately, when these cyclical storms get going, those voices are constantly drowned out.

If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics.  All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.

On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education. People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.

(Thumbnail image via Alfred Hermida)