At times, the blogosphere can feel like a miniaturized version of academia. With so many voices competing over authority and pulling readers this way and that, fights are bound to break out. Just like any serious punditry, bloggers have healthy disagreements over what they cover as well as how they cover it — the etiquette of the developing world of online media. It’s an exciting world to be a part of, but once in a while the group dialogue becomes less of a forum for debate and more a playground sandbox.
Thing is, in the blogosphere and the online real-time media, sand can get thrown in many (and very personal) ways. I would cite video game web comic Penny Arcade’s “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” on the social phenomenon in which the relative anonymity of the Internet can lead users to say publicly some stupid things that they wouldn’t IRL. Though we are now personally familiar with many bloggers, and many are held as personal friends, it’s still easier to send a nasty email or post a mean tweet than have a similar telephone conversation, and when those exchanges are public, it sends a message to all those reading.
Last week, a sandbox argument broke out between two prominent members of the Internet art world. Though they may look at times immature, these fights are necessary parts of a healthy blogosphere. It’s worth taking a detailed look at this conflict and noticing how and why it happened, as well as seeing what we can learn about building a consensus in the no-holds-barred world of online media.
Paddy Johnson (@artfagcity) of Art Fag City made the first sally in reaction to Wooster Collective co-founder and CEO of Electric Artists Digital Agency Marc Schiller (@MarcDSchiller). Schiller had been unleashing a cavalcade of Twitter and Wooster Collective support for English street artist-cum-art world enfant terrible Banksy’s directorial debut, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Then Johnson came out with this initial strike at approximately twenty-two hundred hours East Coast Twitter time on April 18th:
Is @MarcDSchiller being paid to promote the #Banksy movie? If so, he should DISCLOSE before abusing followers with endless tweets.
Schiller responded with this resounding riposte 40 minutes later:
The resulting conversation covered a lot of ground and ranged from Twitter to the Art Fag City blog and back again. Schiller defended his support of the film as a personal passion. After an Art Fag City blog post in which the critic made her claim and pointed to a tweet that Schiller himself had tweeted, that he was indeed a part of the marketing team behind the film, the pair reached something of an impasse.
A telephone conversation, requested by Schiller a few times through Twitter (and through private phone calls to a mutual friend/acquaintance) resolved much of the confusion but not all of the conflict. Marc was indeed involved in the marketing of Exit Through the Gift Shop, but not monetarily compensated. The advertising and street art impresario did, however, curate the film’s introductory sequence, an involvement that was also not superficially apparent.
A final Art Fag City retraction noted that Schiller wasn’t in the wrong, but did refer to him as an “uber annoying fan boy who’s over zealous promotion left a sour taste in the mouths of many.” Ouch. The name calling bug spread to the Wooster Collective co-founder, who posted a series of seven tweets, “Lessons From @Artfagcity,” that bordered on the vitriolic, including:
Lessons From @artfagcity #2: Your Twitter feed should appeal not to the people who support you, but rather to those who hate you
Lessons From @artfagcity #5: If you own a marketing agency but also like street art and Banksy, you should be vilified regardless of truth
As well as this spectacular RT:
RT @Kirsteninc: @artfagcity just burned a major bridge that will cost them. Bad choice to exploit @MarcDSchiller for cheap gossip
Oooooof. This from Marc:
@artfagcity = A person who doesn’t give a shit about me, my friends, street art, or Banksy, but wants to tell me what I can and can’t do.
Thankfully, the aggression cleared up. Let me clarify here that I don’t believe anyone was entirely in the right. Paddy’s initial claim had a bit of yellow journalism to it — an online call out published before the entire story was verified. If we celebrate the ability of the Internet to be instantaneous, we must also recognize that it also provides a stage to be impulsive and make mistakes.
Schiller did well to get in touch with Johnson and illuminate the real story, but he still initially failed to clarify his role in the Banksy film. He was also similarly impulsive in his reaction. Granted, I could’ve stopped following him, but the drama was riveting.
Schiller repeatedly argued that his Twitter account and his website reflected his personal passions, and anyone who didn’t like that could stop looking. That argument might have held water in the Geocities era, but the street art enthusiast and interactive marketer is not just a hobbyist with a blog. He’s a career denizen of the blogosphere and, in the Internet’s echo chamber, a towering public persona. His celebrity means that not all those who follow him are devoted fans, in fact, some are probably less followers than people who check up periodically because of his authoritative voice in the information melee.
The takeaway lesson from the exchange, I think, is that call outs and spats and conflicts like this are a part of what it’s like to live in the ever more authoritative and ever more mainstream blogosphere. What’s important is that the Internet, Twitter, and blogs give us the ability to have these conversations in public. While we all participate in this giant online dialogue, it is often difficult to know where the boundaries are. When someone steps over a boundary, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the misstep is now a public spectacle. We’re developing a group consensus for Internet media rules; what constitutes a conflict of interest is ever changing. Whether it’s a false accusation or not, it’s clear that what matters most is the exchange itself — the back and forth that ends up creating something new.
Disclaimer: Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City shares office space with Hyperallergic but the writer of this post works out of Boston and has never met Johnson.