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No Expectations 015: Dive In
Editors should have young writers’ backs. Plus, some good gigs I saw last week.
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Business Insider had a college student write about her bad time studying abroad and you won’t believe what happened next
One ironclad rule of scrolling social media is that if someone seems mad about something, you’re going to take a pause and see what they’re on about. A person who is publicly upset online is basically a bat signal for bored folks who want to gawk, see if they should also ruin their mood in solidarity, and maybe even join the pile-on against the target of their ire. This week, I saw a longtime mutual rag on a Business Insider piece with the headline “I'm an NYU student who studied abroad in Florence. I hated every aspect of my semester abroad.” That Twitter user I know wrote of the article, “That this girl has the gall to call Italians rude when she literally expects everyone around her to fulfill her White Lotus Season 2 fantasy is ridiculous.” Another wrote, “What a tool.” (I’m slightly paraphrasing here: the original tweets are meaner and I don’t want to call these people out). But instead of getting angry at this undergrad with a BI byline, I just got bummed.
Listen, there is no good universe where a college kid, no matter how talented and driven they are, should be given a platform at a mainstream publication to write op-eds that just document how they felt about their unremarkable semester abroad. Any reasonable person would say that a young woman having a bad time at school in Italy with somewhat hostile locals and party-minded roommates is unfortunate but not newsworthy and most editors at respected outlets would pass on a pitch suggesting that it is. But online journalism in 2023 is not a good universe and now, a person who has still not even graduated college is the subject of international ridicule. Social media thrives on hate clicks and derision, especially when a young person (who happens to be a woman and an American tourist) looks clueless and inconsiderate. Editors, especially ones who commission first-person essays, know this. It’s a shame this was published at all but it’s not the writer’s fault.
I don’t want to get too into the weeds with the particulars of the piece: the writer is engaging and clever but the essay often comes off as selfishly ill-considered, especially when it condescends to her roommates for choosing to party and to the locals for not welcoming an NYU student with open arms (something that could have been solved with a gut-check suggestion from an editor). There is nothing truly egregious here but there is also nothing truly insightful: a young person felt isolated, overworked, and under undue pressure to have a transformative time in a beautiful part of the world. These are all valid things for a person to feel but they become cringeworthy and even hurtful when presented in an op-ed for public consumption. Business Insider and its editors should have made a better effort to have their writer’s back. Instead, for probably a couple of hundred bucks (if that—many Insider contributors don’t get paid at all) the website got hundreds of thousands of clicks, and the young writer got an internet mob mocking her.
“But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focused Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars.”
The first-person industrial complex has been around for a while and has thankfully diminished over the past decade but there are still younger writers who get chewed up in the system. Take this anecdote from Slate, where writer Laura Bennett coined the phrase “first-person industrial complex.”
“Rebecca Carroll, formerly an editor at xoJane, recalls reading one submission by a white woman about how few black people were in her yoga class that was “pretty tone deaf, just totally un-self-aware.” It would have taken too much time to fully overhaul it. Still, Carroll published it, knowing that—brutally honest as it was—it was sure to be provocative. “There was an enormous backlash, and the writer was traumatized,” Carroll says. “I felt like I just shouldn’t have run the piece at all, because I fundamentally misestimated how prepared the writer was for this to go public.”
Getting mocked online isn’t the end of the world and I’m sure the Business Insider writer has a solid career ahead of her (she already has several prestigious bylines before graduating) but I do think the incentives for new writers and internet journalism have been fucked for a long time. The pathways for a career in journalism are becoming smaller and smaller which incentivizes younger writers to be up for anything to get in the door. A professional opportunity like a major byline can seem like a dream come true and you’ll want to impress your editors by being game for the assignment without thinking that maybe this assignment might also come with public personal embarrassment. I don’t know how deeply the writer thought about that but I do know if one of my articles that I’d written early in my career had been the subject of such mass derision, I would have been in grad school or whatever throughout my twenties instead.
A good editor helps young writers develop their voice, craft air-tight arguments, and protect them from their worst impulses or at least protect them from the most uncharitable readings from bored, pissed-off social media users. Younger writers should know that writing on the internet in public has a truly high reputation and life-altering stakes. A screw-up, an ill-considered essay, and a moment where you are publicly rude or insensitive can follow you for years. I don’t know how this writer is coping with the response to her essay—there is a universe where she might even be embracing the negative attention but if she’s anything like me, it would get under my skin—but I do know that so many aspiring and talented people have been chewed up and spit out from the demands and consequences of internet writing. The job is not for everyone but there still needs to be people in positions of power who can protect these writers or at least explain how writing online can demonstrably affect your professional reputation.
Every writer is different when it comes to their limit on how much they want to reveal about their lives online. In my case, you won’t see my name under a published first-person essay about my life at any outlet (except for the occasional thing on this Substack). I just write about bands, sports, and movies mostly—there is a distance there that allows me to keep most of the important things private. There have been countless moments in my career where an editor has saved my ass from public embarrassment either from a typo or an argument that could be misconstrued. There have also been times when I’ve had to say no to a pushy superior who wanted me to write a hot take that would set me up to fail or a first-person essay about having epilepsy as a kid or not liking a famous pop star or something that’s not really anyone’s business but my own. The best advice I can give young writers is to be protective of yourself and your writing: your experiences are your life, not content for public consumption. It’s worth more than a couple of hundred bucks and a byline.
I tried to listen to the entire Official SXSW 2023 Spotify Playlist and bailed
Programming note: late last week, I thought it’d be funny to write an essay about listening to every band playing SXSW this year. I’ve never been to SXSW and have no intentions of ever going barring some publication footing the bill but still, I like to at least be familiar with breakout artists that the people who are there are going to eventually rave about. That didn’t happen: the playlist is 64 hours and 1084 songs long. I made it about 125 tracks in alphabetical order and bailed in the Bs after I realized it’d been multiple hours and I didn’t really find anything that blew me away besides music from artists I already love like Bnny and Bonny Doon. I’m sure there is a lot of great stuff I would have discovered by really taking the time but sometimes you just gotta admit that you know enough bands already. Instead, this week’s playlist below is a mix of some of my favorite acts playing at the festival this year.
What I listened to:
Report: Le Ren and Red PK at Color Club (3/9)
Le Ren is the songwriting project of Montreal’s Lauren Spear, a dear friend who released a fantastic album in 2021 called Leftovers. She was in town before a trip to SXSW where she played her first headlining show in Chicago at Color Club in Irving Park (it’s a great new venue and Sullivan Davis is doing an excellent job booking it). The seated show was the perfect vibe for the sets, which included an impressive set from local opener Red PK.
Report: Mamalarky and Militarie Gun at Metro (3/10)
Mamalarky has been one of my favorite bands for the last few years and it’s great they’re finally playing Chicago. Their first show at Schubas with Oceanator a few months ago was excellent and this weekend I got to see them open up for White Reaper. Lead singer Livvy Bennett also happens to be one of my all-time favorite contemporary guitarists and seeing the whole band play a room as big and iconic as the Metro ruled. The second band, Militarie Gun, also ruled. I appreciate a band that clearly has fun with rock music and they even played their Dazy collab “Pressure Cooker.” I knew Friko was on at 11 pm down at the Empty Bottle so I, unfortunately, had to miss White Reaper, another excellent live band.
Report: Friko at Empty Bottle (3/10)
I’ve written about Friko being an exciting live band before here but it was great to catch them again before their tour with Free Range. They just put out an excellent new single with Fire Talk called “Crimson and Chrome” and it’s clear that the band is generating some genuine excitement. I’m happy for them and always have fun seeing them play.
Report: Weyes Blood at Riviera (3/11)
The Riviera was packed Saturday night to the point that I had trouble seeing the stage from GA even though I’m 6’5. Weyes Blood put on a good and true-to-the-record performance there Saturday night and an obvious highlight was her rendition of “God Turn Me Into A Flower,” which featured visuals from documentarian Adam Curtis. A woman next to me expressed excitement at the Curtis name drop and I look and saw that it was Lana Wachowski. That made the entire night for me.
What I watched:
The Last of Us
I thought HBO nailed the landing here: elevating the source material while sticking to it as closely as possible, especially in the final moments. The season lagged a little bit with such a huge reliance on flashbacks but overall, it was way better than it could have been. Loved this bit in the New Yorker about it (spoilers ahead):
When Craig Mazin sold “The Last of Us” to HBO, he described it as “a love story about how love makes people do terrible things.” In the course of the show’s first season, which concluded Sunday night, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) encounter a panoply of desperate, compromised characters on their trek across a post-apocalyptic America. Henry (Lamar Johnson) sells out a resistance leader to an authoritarian regime to secure treatment for his cancer-ridden younger sibling; Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), once an idealist and liberator of her community, is consumed by vengeful bloodlust in the wake of her own brother’s death. But it’s Joel himself who ultimately emerges as the most extreme embodiment of the rule.
Speaking of pop culture that elicits normal reactions and opinions from people, Ted Lasso is back for what’s likely its last season. In 2020, the show felt like a salve: a legitimately funny and legitimately feel-good series that was so needed that year it never really felt corny. I think season two suffered from a few meandering storylines and cheesy retreads of old bits, but it’s still a fun show that took some solid leaps with its main character’s aversion to therapy, the After Hours episode, the limits of positivity, and how it can alienate people (like the Nate Shelley character). The new season seems fine—though I think they put too much focus on the value of pre-season journalist team rankings. I’m interested to see where it goes.
What I read:
I want to go to the next World Baseball Classic. Great vibes all around in this piece (h/t to Friend of the Substack Martín Díaz).
Miami is often called the capital of Latin America, and it certainly felt that way when the national teams of the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela — which all have large representation in South Florida — opened play in the W.B.C., the quadrennial two-week tournament held during Major League Baseball’s spring training.
This tournament is the social gathering for many Latin American baseball fans. The first four games in Miami served as another example of how the sport is ingrained in those cultures and how differently it is experienced.