Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fight From Inside the Fandom

Back in December, I wrote that a leftist trolling would involve "litter[ing] the user-generated-content hell with strategic propaganda." It's a phrase that's stuck with me.

In the months since I wrote it, I've been digging through the My Brother, My Brother and Me archives. It's a comedy advice podcast. It's been rapidly growing in the last couple years, in large part because of how "good" the three brothers are; how willing they are to admit to mistakes of ignorance, to talk openly about their own growth, and to do their best to build their comedy with a foundation of inclusivity and understanding. Take this response from a TV Insider interview with the brothers, in response to the question "How do you build a brand that revolves around positivity and compassion in comedy?":

Griffin: You f--k up a whole lot when you start doing a podcast, and you hear from people who really, really, really like you, who let you know very politely that you hurt their feelings and ostracized them, and then you stop doing it. And then after enough of those, you kind of stop doing it to everybody, or you try your f--king best to. Literally, that’s it. I think it’s easy to get defensive, but I just always felt so miserable when I heard, “I’m a big fan of yours and you hurt my feelings."
Travis: When someone tells you, “Hey, what you just did hurt me,” you have two options. One is to say like, “You’re wrong, and I didn’t do anything wrong.” Or your other option is to say, “Okay, well if you feel that way, let me take a step back and really look at what I did.” Do that second one every time.
Griffin: I think doing anything that has a big enough audience these days becomes a lesson in empathy. The show and me, Griffin, a person, have gotten so much better since those lessons have come pouring in. I like having that relationship with our audience, and I genuinely think it’s funnier to not say no to s--t, or not slam people instead of getting on board with them. I think that’s the funnier thing 100% of the time.
Justin: It’s harder, but it’s always funnier.

It's a good sentiment, especially in the retrograde world of comedy. Honestly, I think that a lot of what is appealing about their work is shaped by the fact that they aren't Comedians. But that's a subject for another day.

Part of what compelled me to keep listening to back episodes of their show was the promise of the origin story of this development in their work. Because there's definitely an origin story that they reference for, like, a hundred episodes after it happened. I think it's explained fairly well in this piece for Brooklyn Magazine:

Justin told me, “I think we’ve always tried to be [inclusive], it’s just early on we didn’t necessarily have the tools or the understanding of how to be that way. I think mainly that’s because we grew up around people like us. So that was our default. But that expanded. ‘People like us’ has gotten a lot broader since we’ve had a much broader audience.”
The turning point was furries. It was around episode 30, not even in response to a listener’s letter, but to a Yahoo Answers question from a thirteen-year-old furry wondering about coming out to his family. The brothers’ comedy comes from escalation, each taking the previous joke farther and to sillier lengths. In this case, the joke—the “joke”—was about how freaked out and disturbed they were by furries.
The next episode, in the middle of answering another question—from a listener afraid of being made fun of for being in their school play—Justin segued into an apology. “Like, if you look at us. Last week we talked a lot of yay about furries, but to cover up the fact that we are all right now, as we record the show, wearing furry costumes.” Griffin said, “I’m a lynx.” Travis: “I’m a sexy cow.” And Justin? “I’m an apologetic tiger, because I feel bad to our furry friends.” Griffin chimed in, “I feel wicked bad!” He continued, “Let’s put this question on pause, cause we need to address this. I think that hatred comes from fear, and fear comes from misunderstanding.” And the brothers owned up to misunderstanding furries, and thanked the listeners who’d written in to set them straight.
As Justin told me, “Afterwards, we got these tweets from people who were like, ‘Hey, I’m a furry, and I like your show, and that sucked.’ I don’t know who we thought was listening, but we certainly didn’t think furries were, ‘cause we didn’t know any growing up. Once we realized that we hurt these people, we felt like garbage about it. So we were like, let’s make the decision to learn, and talk to these people, and celebrate them and become wildly pro-furry. What we realized is, isn’t it also a lot funnier to be wildly pro-furry. I think it’s funnier to be really into everything, permissive of everything.”
It’s not that they’re pretending to be pro-furry because being pro-furry is silly. The McElroys decided—and the success of MBMBaM proves—that actually being enthusiastic about everything opens the door to better comedy.
To recap: something like half a year after they started the podcast, the brothers went in on furries in a typical "this is funny because we are having an outsized reaction to a thing we don't understand (or want to)" style bit. The difference between them and 99% of other comedy is that, when pressed on the shittiness of that bit, they apologized sincerely and did their best to stop doing that.

Or, at least, that's how it's turned out in the long run. Part of the reason I was so compelled to get back to that incident is because, frankly, there are at least another couple dozen episodes of the show where they clearly haven't actually learned from that error, despite constantly professing to. They're repeatedly shitty to people during that time, except now in a way where they preface it by saying how much they learned from being shitty about furries.

As an origin, it's a pretty fascinating one. Partially because telling the story lead to its enactment; but also, for me, because it seems very much like an example of that kind of strategic propaganda I advocated for.

Even more, it suggests a possible addendum to my essay, another tactical opportunity. I more or less completely ignored fandom in it, despite my hovering on the periphery of a million of them forever. What that origin suggests, to me at least, is the possibility of a sort of dedicated left entryism; a program for people who are fans of things to guide them into pressing advantages on new or developing creators.

This could take a number of possible forms. One option would be something like a generally-accessible resource sheet, pointing out certain methods of approaching sympathetic creators. It could be completely straightforward, like "if you want to see responsive, growing creators do better, try this," or even in the style of those viral Tumblr/Twitter posts that treat everyone who doesn't act exactly how you just learned to as an incomprehensible asshole.

Another would be a centralized group who actively searched out burgeoning successes and deployed members to their fandom. An IRC would work for this, but something like a facebook meme page might actually be even more ideal and difficult to detect/subvert. Admins could point to creators who seemed sympathetic through an understood language within the memes themselves, allowing followers to integrate within the fandom and deploy targeted criticism/propaganda.

The goal, to be clear, would be to create a sustainable method by which we could repeat something like what happened with the McElroys. One thing that gets left out in their origin is any question of what happened to those furries; this is the sort of thing that requires some investment (to understand the norms of the space) but not an indefinite amount. Listening to a pre-Pitchfork-level band's album and patiently explaining its exclusivity in normal channels might take a couple hours over a week, and they're certainly going to remember it.

The possibilities here are, admittedly, a little harder to imagine with an economic leftist argument (rather than a cultural one), so I'm not breaching them now. Maybe if I have some ideas later, or if you do. I'd certainly be interested.