Archives for the month of: February, 2015

For at least a week, I tried to dodge that headline, but it kept popping up when I was least prepared to defend against its pull.

It sat hidden in plain sight on my usual crawl through daily news. My eyes skimmed past and I didn’t click.

The headline haunted the “Read More” sections below articles I’d just finished reading. Through a feat of self-hypnosis, I became perceptually blind in the same way that you can look directly at banner ads and eventually see nothing. Uncomfortably numb, I still didn’t click.

Then I randomly perused a Twitter account that had no reason to post a link to the story. There it was, baiting me to have a look. Excruciated curiosity finally overcame me — I had to remove the splinter from my mind once and for all.

And yes, it was as bad as I thought.

Unsympathetic Creatures

The article was nominally written about the culture of shaming that infests the Internet. That in itself is a fine topic to write about, as you’ll see while you read more below.

For some perplexing reason, though, the author chose the most unsympathetic creatures possible (note: humor — they are human creatures, still) as the protagonists of the story:

Victim One: The Ironic Twitter Hipster

– One “victim” incited the Internet Vigilantes through an unwise tweet. She “ironically” bragged, while sitting on a plane to South Africa, about how white people don’t get AIDS. She, obviously, is white; the majority of South Africa (and the world beyond), is not.

It was a joke, see? It wasn’t actually racist. It was ironic. No, it was snark. It was a brilliant commentary about white privilege. Right? Do we feel better now?

Victim Two: The Innocent Cemetery Desecrator

– Another person posted a photo to her Facebook page of herself making obscene gestures at a war memorial. A cemetery, to be exact.

It was part of a series of pics of “disobeying signs”, though, see? It didn’t dishonor those who died to protect the country where she lives. It was just another sign.

Victim Three: The Runner

– A third brilliant prankster arrived at a Halloween party dressed as a victim of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings.

No “explanations” could possibly excuse that particular feat of sartorial genius.

The article’s author nonetheless chose to mine their stories for sympathetic portrayals. Perhaps the common thread was that the victims lost their jobs as a result of Internet furor. Maybe they all seemed to be begging for the comically overused “diagnosis” of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Regardless, it is difficult to cultivate compassion for racism, disrespect of those who died heroically (regardless of whether the cause was just or not), and those who lost their lives as a result of heinous crimes.

Only one of the “social media victims” stood out as having truly been victimized.

Dongle Joker Versus Thought Policewoman

A man sat with his friend at a tech conference. Speaking directly and only to his friend, he made a silly joke about a dongle. For nerds, the word “dongle” has a weirdly universal and hilarious connotation of “penis”, and that was the crux of the joke.

In front of them, though, sat a woman. That particular woman apparently forgot the aspect of free speech that protects silly dongle jokes between male friends. So what did she do? She whipped out a camera and posted the Offender’s picture (with “dongle” joke as caption) far and wide across the Internet.

The Dongle Joker, a married father with three children, lost his job because of the resulting social media backlash.

Somewhat poetically, however, the scorpion’s tail stung its owner as well: a mass of retaliating maniacs (“Men’s Rights Activists”?) hounded her equally as effectively as the Fake Feminist Thought Policewoman had brutalized the reputation of The Dongle Joker.

Solution For Creatives: Turn Off The Internet?

The incongruous aspect of the article was that there are so many people — celebrities and otherwise — who haven’t said or done anything egregiously imbecilic, yet are bullied online regardless.

The worst of it is often reserved for creative people, or those whose opinions deviate from the norm in a given social group. The “fringe” types risk rejection for the sake of making something new or doing things differently. Those are the people whose efforts matter, and whose stories are worth telling when the horde turns on them with fangs bared.

A publicist (in the wrong profession, clearly) who tweets desperately obtuse AIDS jokes while Twitter-panhandling for cheap laughs? A Feminism 101 flunkie whose ingrate mentality metastasized into a need to play “Thought Police” against a random guy who transgressed against her womanhood by using the word “dongle” within earshot of perhaps-female strangers?

No.

The article completely ignored (with one exception, noted above) the real victims of social media bullying. In doing so, the author also completely missed the point of how Internet Vigilante flash-gangs have blunted and diminished the potential of the Net as a way of connecting people and exploring ideas. Creative people who are scorned for speaking up, or worse, who transform into agents of faceless conformity in fear of being bullied — those are the ones to highlight in articles about the abuse of social media.

In upcoming entries, I hope to explore the dynamics of how gang mentalities arise online, some of their most common tactics, and how to deal with them while keeping your peace of mind. I know what it’s like, because I’ve been through it at least twice. You don’t need to claim “PTSD” to know that your words can be twisted, taken out of context, or even fabricated to amuse those whose lives are generally meaningless except for the desire to antagonize others. In the “Taxonomy of Trolls” series of posts, I’ll show you what I’ve learned about how to ignore, deflect, and even fight back against abusive behavior.

P.S. Second Thoughts.

On second thought… maybe this post was enough. I have a small library of techniques of my own, but maybe it’s better to focus on new creative projects instead. Trolls and bullies are essentially desperate for validation and attention. The simplest way to beat them is to ignore their stupidity and do more of what matters. At the same time, though, I can look back to a naive period of my own and see that others could be helped by knowing what I’ve learned…

…but blogs are just crowdsourced entertainment for most readers.

Should I even bother? I don’t know. I can’t afford to waste time. There’s too much to write elsewhere, and even other topics for this blog as well.

Maybe I’ll be cajoled into writing more when the next celeb quits Twitter — or the next teenage girl commits suicide due to Internet bullying.

Who knows how far an anonymous set of words can reach? I wish I could answer that question first.

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One of the Web’s unique aspects is the sheer number of voices contributing to the conversation. Even in news stories from well-known sources, everyone seems to have a different approach.

Actually, that’s not true at all.

Most people seem to see an approach that appears popular, and endeavor to copy it as closely as possible.

Hence, clickbait begets clickbait, given that well-written headlines are far more challenging to duplicate.

This entry will help you take a few steps to remedy the imitative tendency and find your own voice when writing headlines.

Learn Your Limitations So That You Can Overcome Them

As you know by now from reading this blog, I write. In fact, I’m taking a break from writing something else in order to get this set of ideas out of my head — so that I can get back to work on that other piece of writing. I don’t call myself “a writer” because “Hi, I’m a writer them”-types tend to talk, drink coffee and pose in trendy cafes rather than actually writing anything.

Still, despite a lifelong lust for words, it took about a year to learn how to “feel” a headline and flesh it out quickly and painlessly. Luckily, I do love to write, so wrestling with a prickly headline is more fun than playing peek-a-boo with a two-year-old. Compared to a novice, I’m an expert. Compared to a mastermind, I’m a tadpole.

These are notes, written as much for me as for you.

RTFM

Keep reading if you want to gain some tidbits of what I’ve learned thus far. Save yourself from the typical road of wasted time, duplicating my past mistakes in your own experience. The tips below can help shortcut your journey toward becoming a decent headline-writer. This is a skill whose value becomes ubiquitous in a world increasingly dominated by clickable links and attempts to monopolize an ever-diminishing slice of the reader’s attention.

Who knows, it might even help you write a better online dating profile in time for next Valentine’s Day.

Know Your Audience

Two points stand out in regard to audience selection: subculture and smarts.

1. Seek the Subculture
Did you notice that I mentioned Valentine’s Day in the previous section? That’s because you probably know of it, even if you don’t celebrate the holiday. Your headlines will likewise need to match the cultural and/or subcultural tastes and niche knowledge of the intended reader.

2. How Smart Are They?
If your audience is an “intellectual” group, you can write smarter headlines.

It’s also likely that your audience will be a group of chuckle-seeking dummies (see: any comment section beneath a cat picture). The Internet is brimming with Chuckleheads, like crabs in a barrel. They generally will accuse you of being “elitist” or “trying to sound smart” for using multisyllabic words, metaphors or anything less blunt than chalk etched into a brick wall.

If you’re dealing with dummies, you’ll have to dumb down your prose to their level.

Rule of thumb: when in doubt, dumb it down. Even “intellectual” people often have their smarts set to the “off” position much of the time.

You’ll see more about how to turn on the right type of reader a bit farther down.

Shape Your Headline

Should you give the reader: A) a tantalizing tease of what’s to come, or B) give a broad overview and hope that it whets their appetite for more?

If the headline describes a piece that takes a position (“the newest installment of Star Wars will be the best ever”), know that many Chucklehead-types will nod along, comment, Like, Favorite and upvote (or downvote) without bothering to read the piece itself.

Entire discussions can arise based on people’s assumptions and preconceived opinions.

General rule: give the reader enough information to entice him or her to find the rest by clicking on the link.

This leads to the 800-pound Chewbacca hiding in the corner like Sia singing at the 2015 Grammy Awards (I always wondered what Chewbacca’s knees looked like from behind… somewhat slender when well-shaven… but I digress): how to avoid clickbait purgatory?

Ways To Avoid Clickbait Purgatory

0. Avoid the impulse to include hammy stylistic flourishes.

Eschew eyeball-grabbers that smell like a Gawker affiliate (io9 and Jezebel are probably the best-known) or the Huffington Post.

This one is actually tricky because some of those techniques are great organizing devices for articles. For example, using bullet-points (“Five Reasons Why Minestrone Is The Best Comfort Food Ever”) can be useful. If bullets are all you’ve got, though, the article or blog entry may need more substance — or it may simply be unfinished.

The more practice you have at avoid hammy headlines, the more space you’ll give your mind to be creative.

1. Define your goal

If you want the typical reader (who will Like/upvote/etc. a headline without bothering to read the rest), state an unsubstantiated opinion as a fact.

Example A1: “Believe The Hype: Bill Cosby Is A Rapist Because Some People Say So And Some People Are Women.”
Example B1: “Five reasons Why Yoda Has More Fabulous Hair Than Luke Skywalker”

If your goal is to give the reader a reason to read beyond the headline, give information that opens a more interesting question in the reader’s mind. This question will only be solved by clicking through and reading more.

Example A2: “Bill Cosby and the folly of crowds: How many rape accusations are needed for the Internet to convict a celebrity on heresay alone?”
Example B2: “Yoda was the mentor that Luke lacked, reflected even in the character’s choice of hair versus Darth Vader’s impenetrable helmet. Explore the design of Star Wars’ most inscrutably beloved characters.”

In some formats, headlines like these may be split in two by a subhead. Note how they start a story that can only be finished by continuing to read.

2. Write a longer headline

This goes back to the question of “knowing your audience”. Generally speaking, I select intelligent readers by screening out the dummies through the use of longer headlines.

People suffering from Internet Attention Deficit Disorder (also known as ‘Chuckleheads’) will generally misread and misinterpret regardless of how well you craft your headline. From them, you’ll hear such excuses as “I skimmed it and got the gist”, “I took a quick look, and this is what I think…”, etc. You can safely ignore the majority of such “skimmers” and “thinkers”, as they merely repeat their talking points at anyone within range.

Solution: find better readers. One way to do that is to screen the good ones in, and automatically weed out the dummies.
How? Write a longer, more literate headline. There is no limit to the length of the headline, so this is a question of the writer’s skill, the chosen format and readers’ tolerance.

See the note below about being “awesome” for a caveat about how not to overdo this screening technique.

3. Take your time

Write several drafts. A headline is the same as any other type of writing. In some ways, the headline is more information-dense than any other kind of prose: you have to say the most in shortest period of time.

The first three drafts will focus your brain on the task at hand and develop the background of related words for you to play with in crafting the finished product. Really play with the words and concepts.

Once you’ve compiled a few test-lines, experiment with condensing the ideas from multiple words to a single one. Combine ideas and trim away extraneous cutesy bits, distracting parts, or words that slow down the eye.

Suggestions For Headline Experimentation

Your eyes and mind should slide across the headline from start to finish. Smooth the words until they flow.

A “melody” of words and “harmony” of the whole will allow the reader to remember the message. Listen for it and learn to feel the rhythms of the spaces as well as the words.

Find a small morsel in the piece itself and magnify it for the headline so that the reader can delight in noticing it for the second time.

Try understating a point rather than screeching it at concert volume.

Use alliteration liberally — then break it or hint at it rather than running on with similar words.

Before: “An Enticing Expedition Into Nanotechnology’s Potential To End The Energy Crisis”
After: “Energy Industry Flirts With Nanotechnology’s Little-Known Crisis-Ending Capabilities”

Rather than repeating the “en” sound, you can use variation by adding an “ee” (as in “party”) sound to keep the reader guessing until the last word. The first line isn’t too bad and I would refine the second example further; you get the main idea.

4. Be less “awesome”

If you’re new at the skill of headline-writing, see every headline as an opportunity to be concise and descriptive — not to tell jokes or be clever.

Don’t be slick or gimmicky. Accept that someone, somewhere, will whine that practically any interesting headline is “clickbait”. Learn to hear it when you’re slipping into a slick character in order to sound cool or affect unearned expertise.

5. Be less “funny”

Allow humour to shine through the subject matter. Don’t force a “joke” into your headline. On the Internet, no one can hear you laugh as you type. Readers will often miss even the most golden punchline. Better to leave out the funny bits unless they impart valuable information about what your audience is about to read or see.

If the piece itself is funny, your headline will describe the piece and thereby can also (yet not necessarily) be funny. Otherwise, it may be worthwhile to show readers what you thought was fascinating — if you feel that excitement, there’s a chance that the reader will, too.

6. Go away and come back

I just went away to watch Sia perform at the Grammys. When I came back, one of the headline examples begged me to nip and tuck a few words.

Never underestimate the power of distraction in refreshing your brain. Embrace the unexpected, especially if you find yourself obsessively grinding at an idea. Take a break, go away and come back later.

7. Get excited and love your subject.

Even if it’s only for the length of the headline, fall in love with the subject. Act as if it could be the one thing that you woke up to think about all day. Allow it to absorb your attention for as long as it takes to hear the melody and harmony come together in a headline that could possibly bring music to the mind of your reader. Rarely will everyone see the same things you see. The best you can do is give them a chance to find out for themselves. After all, the whole purpose of a headline is to invite the reader to enjoy something you’ve found or created from scratch.

Get excited, get inspired, and write. Your headlines (and mine) will only improve with time.

Maybe even your online dating profiles will improve, too, quickly enough to find a better Valentine in the next 365 days. Or, you might just re-ignite an enticing flirtation with someone you already know; if so, be sure to tell me the story — starting, of course, with a properly tantalizing headline.

By Morgaine Bergman, one of the “little people”:

It is not celebs we should be celebrating, but the work they create. Yes, we should be supporting the development of talent and anyone who is ‘great’ at their job should have job security and make a good living; but no one should earn obscene amounts of money or live in ridiculous luxury, because no one (and no job) on earth deserves that kind of compensation. Ridiculous wealth can only be had by exploiting others, it cannot be earned ‘honestly’.

In my mind, the ideal world would be one in which works are celebrated and admired and not the people who made them. People should only be admired for good character (i.e. good morals, ethics, and values, not popularity). One can be gifted and still be a horrible person. Why should that be rewarded? We should each be treated according to the character our words and actions reveal about us, and what good character should earn us is respect, not adulation.

In the perfect world, artists should be able to share and exchange ideas whether or not their work is known. The wider the dialogue, the better! Experienced artists should be helping new unknowns, not living as pampered sideshow exhibits while the next generations wilt and wither for lack of guidance. Society’s great artists, inventors, and scientists should be able to interact with others normally, without worrying about being ambushed by stalkers or being exploited by media. In this ideal world there would be no ‘celebs’ or ‘fans, and the media would have no cause to chase them. People would interact normally, with respect for each others’ privacy, boundaries, and basic humanity. I don’t think that world is unattainable. I don’t think we can’t reclaim it; I think the mega-corporations want us to believe we can’t, because their wealth relies upon preserving the status quo. This more normal society is much more common in other parts of the world, where everyday life hasn’t been ‘commodified’ as it has been in America.

However we do it, we have to change the way we’re interacting and reclaim our humanity, because at present we’re complicit in making our own hell out of what might have been paradise.

How can this tweet become future-present reality? How can we make real a “sleek, hauntingly resonant feature-length homage” to genre-defining Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell?

Don’t Hold Your Breath… Waiting For Hollywood

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

First: don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood. From Dragonball to Akira, the major movie studios are experts in mangling manga and anime.

A petition exists with over 27,000 signatures, but that won’t get a better movie made.

Instead, one goal may be to involve members of the Asian film community who are experienced with American independent film. Examples: Russell Wong, Kelly Hu, Dustin Nguyen and even popular younger actors like Sung Kang. See the 2006 indie film “Undoing” to enjoy Wong, Hu and Kang working together, under the direction of Chris Chan Lee. Ever since his role coolly upstaging Johnny Depp as a heartthrob undercover detective on the show 21 Jumpstreet, Dustin Nguyen has also learned hard, valuable lessons in navigating the landscape as an Asian-American actor.

Perhaps we could even attain the blessings of luminaries in the Asian film and social activism communities such as George Takei, the original Sulu from Star Trek. Keep reading below in the “Questions” section for more directly from Mr. Takei himself.

Finding The Funds: Chinafication of Ghost in the Shell?

In a conversation about how to quickly get moving on this project, someone mentioned appeasing a Chinese sensibility in order to secure funds.

Ever since Iron Man 3 and the innumerable recent Transformers films, Hollywood has built trend of “Chinafying” summer blockbusters for the sake of following the money. The Chinafication of Hollywood is an unfortunate acquiescence, not to Chinese culture, but to the dominance of greed in light of the mainland government’s inexcusable human rights abuses against artist-activists such as Ai Wei Wei.

A fascinating point to note, however, is to see the city in which Ghost in the Shell was visually set. The “city of the future” that plays such an integral role in embodying the spirit of the film is no other than Hong Kong. Considering Hong Kong’s historical and current fight against mainland government control, this setting for GITS may be even more spot-on than a “pure” Japanese location. As China grows in economic power and global influence, much of Asia (perhaps even including Japan) has a stake in the outcome of Hong Kong’s struggle to maintain autonomy while situated in the jaws of the voracious red giant.

This live-action Hong Kong walkthrough reveals its eery shot-for-shot relationship with the landmarks, objects, locations, and visual sensibilities of Ghost in the Shell:

In a sense, Ghost in the Shell was not a stylistic blend of China and Japan. It was an ingenious combination of Hong Kong and Japan. As long as Hong Kong retains its cultural identity, it will never be absorbed into China. Likewise, if Ghost in the Shell is to retain its identity, it must similarly defy Hollywood’s destructive magnetism (although the stakes are not quite so high for a live-action anime… or are they?).

Questions and Thoughts

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

Q: “Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg. She could take any form. She could be an old woman in a young mecha-body, or be played by a young woman inhabiting an aged cyborg. Why not make her a pretty young American like Ms. Johannsen?”

Why not, you ask? Because there are plenty of alternatives. It would be great to cast a GITS film with unexpected actors — after there exists at least one adaptation that’s faithful to the original.

Q: “But the characters in the anime look white to me. Why does it matter to cast Asian actors?”

Japanese actress Kikuchi Rinko.
Japanese actress Kikuchi Rinko.

For Hollywood to cast a white American woman when there is a multitude of capable Asian actors (American and otherwise) is yet another example of the pervasive phenomenon known as whitewashing in the U.S. film industry.

One major purpose of an independent Ghost in the Shell film is to enable Asian actors to play undeniably Asian roles. Although African-Americans have managed at least to play (largely stereotypical) roles involving black characters, Asian people are still largely ignored. One example, oddly enough, came from the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas, in which the city of Neo Seoul (South Korea) was populated almost entirely by everyone but Asian people. Worse, the non-Asians wore insultingly silly-looking prosthetics that gave the actors an appearance of being… non-Asian actors wearing insultingly silly-looking prosthetics.

It’s long past the moment for films to start casting real Asian people in Asian roles. If a film would go to the extent of making its characters look “sort of” Asian, they might as well use Asian actors — they’re not fooling anyone with Vaudevillian eye prosthetics and stilted “trying to be Asian-ish” performances, anyway.

Specifically for Ghost in Shell, the characters’ ethnicity matters because the story is Japanese, takes place in Japan (a fictional Hong Kong-like Japanese city), is designed within the context of Japanese culture and yes, the characters are Japanese people. The round-eyed anime style does nothing to change the fact that this is a modern Japanese story. A faithful live-action adaptation would be immersed in the cultural nuances that made the original film unique.

There’s already an American Ghost in the Shell. Its name is The Matrix, and it’s nothing like Ghost in the Shell.

The Wachowskis may have pitched the first Matrix film to producer Joel Silver as a “live-action Ghost in the Shell”:

Even though lead actor Keanu Reeves’ grandmother is Chinese Hawaiian, the film itself is American (some might even say, Chicagoan).

Enter Project 2501

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

At the same time, it’s a pleasure to note that the lead actor/model in Project 2501’s homage, Christine Adams, is in fact hapa — of both Japanese and American ancestry. Mixed-ethnicity actors are an indication of the future of our world.

More than the mythology of race (there is only one human race, and we all belong to it), culture does matter. A Japanese story cannot simply be re-scripted as an American one without becoming a different story. The universal themes will still be there; you don’t need to be Asian to appreciate the impact of Ghost in the Shell and enjoy the original anime. It might even be interesting to see a Japanese version of the Matrix. In any case, a live-action Ghost in the Shell would inevitably be a Japanese story first and foremost, as Japanese culture was the foundation for both the manga and the 1995 anime.

It is, of course, ironic that the closest we have (2015) to a live-action GITS is Project 2501, a global collaboration spearheaded by American visual designer Ash Thorp. This note would be incomplete without a quote from Kusanagi Motoko herself: “the Net is vast and infinite”. Such an Internet-connected, worldwide collab of gifted and dedicated artists may hold the key to unleashing the true spirit of Ghost in the Shell. And Ash Thorp has shown the vision, willingness and ability to lead that collaboration. Film is a different animal, but the ability to marshal a group of individually-minded creatives is a skill that not everyone can claim to possess.

Q: “Movies are all about the money. That’s why Hollywood chose Scarlett Johanssen. You can’t blame Hollywood for wanting to make a profit.”

I’ll invite George Takei to tackle this one.

[ Transcript ]

Q: “Japanese people wouldn’t want a live-action Ghost in the Shell. Look at the lack of action movies in Japanese cinema, for example.”

For counterexamples, see the manga-turned-film series Gantz and Gantz: Perfect Answer. These films not only showcase brilliant special effects, they are also identifiably Japanese through the actors’ choices in portraying their roles. Hollywood could not have done a better job unless they re-wrote the story to take place in the United States. If they were to do so (as Mr. Takei noted in the video above) they might as well make a completely different movie. The same is true of Ghost in the Shell.

If we want the world to see a faithful, high-quality live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, there is no point in waiting for Hollywood. We’ll have to assemble a team of skilled professionals (I nominate Ash Thorp’s Project 2501 as the nucleus of that team), and create a production that is true to the vision of the original anime.

The passion is real. The vision exists. The anime is our blueprint. We even have a reference for the visual design of the film (see Project 2501). And the time is now.

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.