Over at my new favorite blog earlier this week, the authors held the first Flavor Text Roundtable, a critique of Ramona Pringle’s Avatar Secrets, a geeky girl-oriented version of a self-help/relationship advice website. In the interest of full disclosure, I am typically quite positive about self-help in comparison with many of my academic, fannish, and aca-fannish friends. I’m an Oprah viewer, as well as O magazine reader (let’s be really honest and admit I once spent 8 Euro, then the equivalent of about 15 US dollars, on O magazine before a transatlantic flight), and I have a long-standing love affair with memoirs from the “Addiction/Recovery” section of my local bookstore.
I quickly lose patience when I get the sense that a space of relative intellectual freedom and experimental identity exploration within digital culture is being converted into a profit machine (original Facebook, I’m looking at you). This is not because I’m so hopelessly naïve as to believe in a tech-utopian vision of the future, but rather because I refuse to accept that our conversion from users, fans, and readers, into market research subjects ought to be expedited. Norm at Flavor Text summarizes it best:
“But seeing search-engine optimized self-actualization drivel isn’t appealing to me, even when it’s dressed up in sometimes painful stories of learning how to play an MMO. While our internet dragons may not be easily understood by the mainstream media, the writing about games by gamers is almost devastatingly honest and straight-forward. My mister, when asked, described WoW bloggers’ motivation as ‘I love this so I am going to present what I think about it for free because I want other people to love it, too.’ I cannot help but feel that this business venture is an outsider trying to commodify one of my sub-cultures, and getting it hopelessly off-kilter.”
Again, to return to my original Facebook comment, the change that frustrated me most about Facebook wasn’t actually the obviously egregious privacy violations. Rather, I was most irritated by the conversion of almost every category from text box to drop down menu full of suggestions. Movies? My taste in movies? I’d love to talk about my taste in movies, yes, sure to people who are only kind of my friends. I’d love to talk about it in sentences, with references to the multiple origins of my interest in x or y. I would not love to fill out your survey about whether or not I indeed liked Inception, thus confirming your suspicion that…er…the film catered to tastes apparently common within my milieu.
Thankfully, I already have a place to do that, one which is at least more slowly transitioning from text box into a series of yes/yes questions about how much I’m enjoying my experience. WoW bloggers do, as well, and they can better help people seeking community through the game by continuing the excellent work so many of them are already doing, than can someone at the outskirts who wants to reduce the complexity of the experience to an algorithm of simple avatar identification, and the inaccurate assumption that the game works as a substitute for all-important RL interactions.
Although I do not currently play an MMO myself, I believe that media fans in general, and particularly feminist-identified media fans like myself, ought to forge and maintain alliances with gamers because of our shared stakes in a digital culture in which we can all intellectually, emotionally, and even “actually,” whatever that means, thrive. My personal mantra is about text boxes, but the more general principle is about people speaking for themselves. There’s nothing wrong at the core of the idea of self-help or dating services, but when these are presented in a way that reduces the complex and constantly evolving community they claim to want to address and serve, it is important to make clear that this is not what’s happening.
It’s great that Pringle and others with entrepreneurial interests are excited about the stories they hear about gamers and the cool community they’re building, but, as it is with any fandom or community, it’s better to start by lurking, listening, and asking questions, rather than making sure, a la movie!Divya Narendra, that getting there first is everything. It isn’t worth it.