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Watch for the changes and try to keep up

Photo: Robert Downey, Jr.

Put your pants back on and take that seat over there. Good, thanks. Let’s hash some things out.

Let me start by reminding you that I’m a girl. Not only that, I’m an angry girl.

Joel Johnson, Kotaku’s fairly-recently-appointed Editorial Director, posted a little article titled “The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku.” (Evidently, Johnson has been taking a lot of flack for Kotaku’s new editorial direction[s], which is increasingly fluid and interesting.)

And I enjoyed the post on its own terms because, let’s face it, it is filed under a blog category titled “Fan Service.” So the post was very conspicuously directed at Kotaku’s “old guard”: here, of course, I mean the Internet’s loathsomely entitled commenters, who are mostly white and heterosexual, and male, who might fulfill almost every possible permutation of “ordinary” and “normal,” and who tend to shriek for the smelling salts anytime a lady or queer struggles into their line-of-sight. (This is a terrible stereotype to perpetuate, yes, yes, and Gawker’s own comments sections do a bang-up job of perpetuating it, not for any fault of its editors.) But let’s be coolheaded. When you deal with that type of readership, you have to be very caring and compassionate and patient, even when you don’t want to be, and so you assert things in a debilitatingly accessible way.

“What’s happening to my precious Kotaku?” the old guard must have screamed through the tips of its nervous little fingers, illuminated as one in the glow of the laptop’s screen.

So Johnson defended all of Kotaku’s editorial decisions, and his argument was compelling, and if you aren’t going to just look at the post I’d better do my best to recount it:

Johnson did anticipate that some readers would have difficulty reconciling Kotaku’s overt legacy of, say, cosplay galleries, with Kotaku’s now-implicit stance on genderjamming. So naturally, he combined both arguments into a single blog entry. Maybe he shouldn’t have tried. Listen boys, he might as well have said, you can screech about “what’s with the scary minorities on my video game blog all of a sudden” as much as you like, but it’s about as ‘normal’ to love tits wrapped in cosplay as it is to be ‘into’ anything else. That was his argument to these folks in a nutshell.

And Johnson posited this assertion in a way that heteronormative fellows who have never had their realities rocked might understand, and he pursued his argument to its logical conclusion, which is that we all fetishize something—like it or not, I’ve seen Dan Savage make this exact same argument in his columns about sex and love—and maybe you fetishize cars, computers, video games, politics, girls dressed up as Soul Calibur characters, chubby people, Japanese things, French things, your own sex, whips and chains, quoting Jesus when you do it, whatever. And if you’re fetishizing—as opposed to exoticizing, right—what’s ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ is kind of beside the point. You’re into what you’re into, and that is in some way neurologically hardwired.

Besides! Johnson sagely added, the site is actually called Kotaku, which riffs on the word otaku, which lends the notion that it’s, uh, cool to be into whatever you’re into. So let’s all be good people; let’s not fracture in dissent. Thanks!

Johnson posted all of this, not as an editor, but as a moderator. He explained all the sides of everything that has ever been, ever, just as well as he could. Maybe it got a little mangled in translation. Sure.

He probably posted all this and then ducked for cover, and with plenty of reason: every pocket of enthusiast readership he could have humanly offended was sure to let him know.

My first issue with “An Open Letter to Kotaku’s Joel Johnson”—which was published by the Border House, a blog you should absolutely add to your Feedburner, and please don’t think I am assembling a firing squad aimed at either them or at the letter’s goodhearted author, Mattie Brice—is the title. The title! Because: where does our issue lie? With Joel Johnson? Or Kotaku? I mean, “Kotaku’s Joel Johnson”?

If the issue is only with Kotaku, oh, boy, you’re coming a few years late to the party.

Kotaku is a Gawker-style website—what am I saying, it literally is a Gawker site!—and when you aggregate interesting factoids, you’re going to be slumming in the lowest common denominator’s neighborhood, always. No, please, stick with me. I hate to cop to my own subjectivity, but true story: since June, I have been writing for a celebrity gossip website for money, and it’s honestly the best gig I’ve had in maybe my whole life. I applied for the job a month before my (adoptive) dad’s death: I can write what I want usually; it super-coordinates with my life’s schedule and time commitments; I’ve actually been reading this gossip website since 2005ish; I love my coworkers; I am sometimes proud of my work because I am sneaking some pretty progressive stuff onto the site, probably to everyone’s horror; I actually replaced Molls McAleer, which is kind of cool; and all the rest. But I really do have to post nudie pics if I am the first to a “story.” It can be gut-wrenching.

I remember the first time I told my mother I was about to put a photo of a penis onto the Internet, and I think she could see I was basically begging her—her! This 80-year-old, immobile, mostly-blind, mostly-deaf, just-widowed and bereaved Christian woman on dialysis—to excuse me. Absolve me, please! And yet it’s just how that machine works, because I really do write for a celebrity gossip aggregator. Yes, duty calls! There are moral and ethical questions every day, and some days, there are even invasions of privacy and hacked cell phones and Scarlett Johansson’s ass, and it’s my first time ever being on the uglier side of certain ethical web dilemmas, all because I was the first of my coworkers to stumble across Scarlett Johansson’s ass that morning.

And so I do have to talk to my mother, every single time. Time and money, by necessity, have become important to me. Maybe I really am a bad person. But good God, it’s my job to post asses just as politely and ethically as I can, and I do my damnedest to personally mitigate that job requirement with feminist leanings and progressive politics, and I try to be satisfied with myself. Yes, open-letter author Mattie Brice, we do seek to be absolved, all of us. I only added these paragraphs because I wanted to. Let’s move on from this aspect, I hope.

So perhaps, at an aggregator site, you’re going to get a lot of facts wrong; you’re working fast; you’re going to post headlines as they siphon into your RSS reader, journalistic integrity be damned. That is how a certain style of paid writing works. No, I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t. (In acknowledging this, I am actively agreeing with Mattie Brice’s fine open letter, OK.)

Now, in my old life, where I worked at a big-budge video game website—one of the biggest, for a time!—we might have collectively rolled our eyes at Kotaku a little. We did! Us! We did! All of us at some gigantic corporate-owned website, where cosplay galleries were all the rage! Because when Kotaku was breaking a story, we knew we had to go back and fact-check every freaking headline, and we were left picking the wheat from the chaff. But the truth is, that big-budge video game website I worked for was waaaay-aaaaay less progressive than Kotaku from the very get-go, in part because we scarcely covered fringe culture—even though the real weirdos at work, who were into Game Center CX, independently developed games, anime, and video games that only released to Famicom, were trying so, so hard to cover those things.

But then, at Kotaku, something much more interesting started to happen? I mean, Kotaku has always been interesting, but when Stephen Totilo joined the ranks—and to be sure, there were already some pretty fine writers at Kotaku, but when Stephen Totilo signed on, as Deputy Editor, right under Crecente in the hierarchy of importance—I sincerely doubt I was alone when I arched an eyebrow. He’s a really fine critic, and thoughtful; his reputation well precedes him. The hell? I remember thinking. What is Stephen Totilo doing, defecting to Kotaku? I doubt the “old guard,” Kotaku’s longstanding readership, even understood what they were getting when they got Stephen Totilo.

The capable and artful Leigh Alexander had already been around awhile, a goodly time before Totilo, as a columnist. She has long contributed editorials to Kotaku even as she constantly relays these very developed news stories for Gamasutra. If you somehow aren’t familiar with her byline, she’s all business, but then, too, she’s the Average Jane guys love and girls adore, and even that assessment shortchanges the woman. But suddenly, suddenly! Here comes Kirk Hamilton as a Features Editor. The man worked at Paste, OK, but something fascinating and quirky and helpful and truthful has been happening to his writing for a long while, and here he is now, devastating Kotaku with his truth bullets. (No, how could I be subjective? I love these writers.)

I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but by the time Joel Johnson signed on, he was so totally screwed: something has been happening to Kotaku for a little while now.

Their white male readership has noticed, and they have taken aim.

Kotaku’s Joel Johnson? Kotaku’s Joel Johnson?

When I met him, he was Gizmodo’s Joel Johnson, telling the world about hip, hip cell phones. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t. Instead, he was Joel Johnson creating a communications network for victims of Hurricane Katrina. A little while later, he was Wired’s Joel Johnson; then he was BoingBoing’s Joel Johnson. Who is this Kotaku’s Joel Johnson?

What I’m saying is, you have very goodheartedly and inadvertently made it personal. I think your issue is not with Joel Johnson. It is with Kotaku, a job that the man was grandfathered into, and Johnson only just now has a say in its coverage. And here is the heart: you are confusing the person with the job’s role.

Moreover, Joel Johnson is strong enough to change the site’s editorial direction over time. So wait. Just freaking wait. I have done my very, very best to explain machines to you; this is how machines work. It’s ugly, and I hate it, and I’m sorry. But wait.

You can say that changes in Kotaku’s coverage aren’t coming fast enough. That’s fine, but it also defies the point of his Kotaku article, wherein Johnson is actually addressing a cultural whiplash, admonishing longstanding readers for their claims that changes are instead coming too quickly.

And here we have arrived at the crux of my ire: Joel Johnson is on your side. What side? Your side. Aformentioned writer Mattie Brice (I love you!) accuses Johnson of “handwaving,” of a lack of willingness to discuss “the issue,” and I just cannot begin to grok that. I might offend you with this, but Kotaku has never been for minority groups. No, I know, and I hate that, too, and I always have. But it’s changing. Let it change. Kotaku cannot, will not, be a “safe space” tomorrow. And that’s maybe the real point: Kotaku has always tried to maintain its finger on the pulse, and the fact that Kotaku is changing tells you things are changing.

P.S. May I remind you how entirely different this whole thing is from that dumb dickwolves thing, not that aaaaaaanyone has confused the two. But if they did? Remember: in posting, Johnson was opening up a forum for conversation and understanding, which means his intentions were different from the beginning.

19 responses to “Watch for the changes and try to keep up” »

  1. Concerned says:

    “the Internet’s loathsomely entitled commenters, who are mostly white and heterosexual, and male”

    While you’re probably right about Kotaku’s audience being mostly straight and male, I’m not sure why you’re calling out whites here specifically.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Whooooaaa, I, uh, literally just posted this, and then I checked my email, and hi, you’re fast.

      I’m calling out “white” because A) being white is a huge part of not-being-a-minority, and B) for many years, many years ago, “feminism” was a white movement, while Black and Asian-American females had their own very separate things, fact. But C) the arguments lodged against editors at Kotaku are those of white privilege. So I’m also bringing it up because, if you aren’t familiar with the vocabulary, appearing to be white is a pretty fast way to get race-checked out of any civil rights-type argument, no matter how valid your criticisms are. And I think I’m surreptitiously pointing out that Mr. Johnson has also been race-checked and priority-snarked by certain factions of the Internet—although admittedly, when I am in a mood, my writing is not always clear. Sorry. (Where Johnson’s post was for Kotaku’s readership, mine is kind of for a minority crowd, and so I’m going to use parts of its culture’s language. There’s another problem, I guess—just language.)

      And I’m seriously trying to not be an asshole, and I love that you already hopped in to comment, but I just posted this, and so I encourage you to try to read the rest. Love!

      • Concerned says:

        Oh, I did, I read quickly! That just caught my eye because the discussion thus far has primarily been on gender and sexuality privilege rather than race… at least, the discussion I’ve seen. I’m not sure its appropriate to elevate this discussion even to the level of “civil rights-type”... it’s not even close to a right to have the editorial policy of a Gawker site changed to suit our tastes!

        While I don’t participate myself I do have some empathy for the mass of Kotaku commenters, just because they seem to be the go-to group to disparage when someone wants to talk about how horrible the game community is. I do wish these was a better place to discuss these issues, though. The Border House sometimes has interesting content but the discussions there are very slow moving and heavily over-moderated for my tastes.

      • Jenn Frank says:

        Right, and it was right to catch your eye. It might be wrong to try to appropriate the vocabulary of the criticisms I’ve read, and you’re correct that outspoken portions of Kotaku’s readership are the go-to group for disparagement (little do they know, perhaps!). But Joel Johnson’s matching his seeming audience in this very heteronormative, superficial way (white, male) can be a really tired way to attack him.

        Ah, but I’ll fight you on the “civil rights” aspect, because everything is all bound up into something about cultural acceptance. It’s just that I think this particular thing is “cultural acceptance.” To use a really sneaky 60s term, it’s all about minorities and “desegregation.” Maybe I ought to have said that in the blargh.

      • Concerned says:

        I don’t know, I’m certainly all for cultural acceptance and desegregation, but I think there’s a massive difference between systemic institutional oppression (slavery, separate but equal, unidirectional divorce law) and Kotaku commenters being assholes, or Kotaku posting only straight sexy cosplay pics.

        Not to say that changing the latter isn’t desirable! It just isn’t a right.

  2. Square says:

    Forgive me here, I’m just trying to understand, and in doing so, I’m bound to get everything terribly wrong. There are just a ton of different directions to approach this blog from, and so I’m untangling ideas.

    So some basic things I’m taking away from this:

    -Don’t mistake the problem for the people engaged in it. Not all people engaged are actually part of the problem; they may be trying to change things slowly.

    -Problems like this are cultural; changing them means changing huge swaths of people, and it’s unreasonable to expect one person or site to do that.

    -Sometimes fixing the problem means looking like the problem.

    -Maybe covering more fringe culture will open things up to more progressive ideas?

    Overall, I feel like you would have been happier if this had stayed more at the level of “hey, white-male-hetero privilege is a huge issue in gaming,” and not brought it down to the “why does Kotaku keep screwing this up” level? Am i correct?

    Again, if I’ve screwed all this up, please PLEASE don’t read any sort of ulterior motive into it. I’m just stumbling towards understanding.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      First of all, you are being way too careful with me! I AM NOT A DELICATE FLOWER, MISTER OR MA’AM. (Also, I did not articulate all of my thoughts too coherently, and I apologize.)

      To go straight to your second-to-last paragraph (the others are probably fine), not quite! When, over the course of a year, a website really goes in a direction I enjoy, I want my likeminded siblings to be very careful in lampooning it for latent sexism, because this website has organically transitioned into a really admirable site.

      And that’s something else I didn’t really mention—Kotaku’s gradual shift into a really likable games site kinda moved it into the feminist crosshairs, when it had never had set out to impress girls like me all along. I get it. But I’m also super interested in seeing what it has next in its hand, and so I worry that, when people are being authentic and vulnerable on Kotaku, even when we disagree, we are really undermining the sea changes by being total Internet dicks.

      And that’s my whole post: “Whoever you are, how can you not love this? It’s for you! Try not to undermine all these wonderful sea changes by being a jerk.”

  3. (oh, please don’t put that first one through, as I’m stuck working on a very unhappy iPad & accidentally hit submit)
    ... As I was saying, you don’t have to be sloppy. Some of the best (meaning worst/most egregious) fuckups I’ve seen have come from people who weren’t aggregating, nor were they pressed for time in that particularw manner. It was quite frequently a matter of not thinking things through before you write up your story and hit post (which, like proof reading, really shouldn’t take that long, but somehow often gets lost in the shuffle). Yes, the schedule is quite punishing when blogging, and mistakes to some degree are unavoidable; but it is not inherent to the style.

    These changes will stick if it makes financial sense, which will become apparent in the next few months. We’ll just have to wait and see

  4. Square says:

    Okay, that makes sense to me! Thanks for the explanation. Sorry if I seemed over-delicate; particularly on the Internet, people like to assume subtext that I didn’t intend, that I maybe intended the OPPOSITE of. So I try to nip that in the bud when I really want to communicate.

    On fringe culture: One of the things that I’ve always thought was kind of odd about geeks is their drive to cannibalize themselves. Maybe that’s everywhere in every subculture, I don’t know, but I always thought it was kind of bizarre that someone thinks one type of geek is okay, and another type is not. Because, you know, society at large? Prrrrobably doesn’t make that fine a distinction.

  5. Alex says:

    Here’s the thing: if you’re just reading the two blog posts by Johnson and Brice, you’re not getting the whole story. A large chunk of this conversation is happening on Twitter. The reason the letter is addressed to Joel Johnson is because he is the one who engaged (sort of) with Mattie on Twitter about the issue before either of them wrote these blog posts. The last paragraph of Johnson’s post is a direct response to their conversation on Twitter, which ended with Johnson making a flippant comment that made it seem like he’d been trolling the entire time.

    This post is so frustrating to me because I had a similar argument with someone else on Twitter. Kotaku, or Johnson, are not going to pick up their ball and go home because the Internet Feminists gave them some suggestions on how to be better. That is so ridiculous as to be laughable. I WISH we had that kind of power. But Johnson is going to do what he wants, regardless of what we say.

  6. Jank says:

    This article could have been summarized in 4-5 paragraphs. Please don’t tout this around twitter as anything significant about gaming journalism. This isn’t journalism. Its a long diatribe about a site that is generally an afterthought to the vast majority of gamers out there.

  7. Having posted the original Open Letter to Joel Johnson (on an entirely different subject and back in his Gizmodo days), I’m equally amused and dismayed that the practice lives on. Joel is one of my favorite people on the internet. I admire him for (among other things) his lack of respect for sacred cows, his refusal to treat gadgetry or gaming as conceptual silos, and his willingness to be a lightning rod for that refusal. I think he deserves far more credit for the equal opportunity post than he does criticism for any quibbles about it. The world needs more like him.

  8. John Brindle says:

    I love your paragraph about asking your mother to absolve you and Scarlett Johannson’s ass. It’s like a monologue from The Wire if The Wire was about butts.

    Camera pointed at the man’s tough but expressive face. Fixed gaze off-camera. Hunched over indicating discomfort. “This poor woman, I was screamin out to her, absolve me – absolve me, please. And all because I just happened to be the one that caught the gig, the first one to stumble across Scarlett Johannson’s ass that morning. But…it’s all in the game, I guess.”

    But I don’t think it was unfair for Mattie to address ‘Kotaku’s Joel Johnson’. The fellow was writing as himself in his capacity as editor, and it was a response not to Kotaku’s editorial policy as a whole but to that piece of writing. You might call it a critique of the piece, addressing perceived contradictions and problems in its argument.

  9. obo says:

    So, uh… is Johnson getting shunted to Jalopnik right when Kotaku needs an EIC punishment, or extreme punishment?

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Oh, I didn’t see it that way at all. Did you? I saw it as, now that a lot of new staff is in place and ready to be set into an organic motion, Johnson can move. Like very, “Work’s done! Here I go.”

      Which I think is too bad—I liked him at Kotaku!—but he is really useful and good at what he does, and this is what he does. I mean, I have no read on why Kotaku is in flux right now, and of course I can’t imagine Kotaku without Crecente, but moving Totilo up the editorial ladder in the meantime, that’s just smart hiring. I very, very sincerely doubt anyone is being “punished” for anything.

      • obo says:

        I’ll reserve judgement on Totilo, but I seriously doubt Johnson’s going to be able to make positive changes at Jalopnik.

        When he got to Kotaku, it still had a non-Bashcraft-fan readership that still hadn’t fled at that point. Jalopnik is 4chan for cars.

        And Bashcraft is still leading stories with “sex doll? NSFW GALLERY WARNING”, so I sincerely hope the work there isn’t done.

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