“A Weird Insider Culture”

Gamergate and the Airtight Bubble of Journalism in the Social Media Age

“Social media makes it easy for us to be in contact with other reporters at all times. To constantly compare…in some ways, that’s a good thing. But it also creates a weird insider-culture. But I try to remember that my work isn’t — or shouldn’t be — done to earn praise of other reporters.” This was advice that Washington Post political reporter Wesley Lowery tweeted to a journalism student this week, but it – or some version of it — should be hung up on the wall of every member of the media working today.

That’s because there isn’t just an echo chamber of a couple of extremely narrow views in today’s media landscape, there’s an echo mansion. An echo Buckingham Palace.

The huge spate of “Death of Gamers” declarations that were published nearly simultaneously a few weeks ago is prime evidence of that fact. Gamers were considered dead, dying, or being left behind in preachy pieces in mainstream gaming sites, political blogs and general interest web publications: Kotaku, Jacobin, the Daily Beast, Destructoid, Ars Technica, Vice, Gamasutra, Rock Paper Shotgun, and BuzzFeed.

From all the overheated rhetoric, you’d have thought that a million Xboxs had just been hurtled into the sun. Instead, it was prompted after a misguided, but relatively small group of gamers – using the amplifying power of the fringe internet – spoke out and/or harassed developer Zoe Quinn and media commentator Anita Sarkeesian. Another vocal minority took to message boards and social media to complain about the bias of the media. From this, and scant anecdotal evidence, journalists were furiously typing thinkpieces and editorials calling the entire culture of gamers over or “sloughing off like the carapace of a bug” as Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander did.

A few short days later, hardcore online first-person shooter “Destiny” earned $325 million in it’s first five days on the shelves – making it one of the biggest entertainment products of the year. It made all the “death of gamers” talk look like smoke trailing from the barrel of one of Destiny’s many guns.

So, how is this even possible? How could so many publications jump upon a specious trend at the same time – so many, that some readers began to believe there was actually an editorial conspiracy between a whole hosts of competing publications? How could commentators be so dismissive of a vast portion of their audiences calling them, stereotyping with phrases such as: “obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers.”

An Online Bubble of Protection

It all starts with a soft consensus between journalists born partially of the reality of new media. Today’s low-pay, high-stress staffs of newspapers and websites are told that the internet is the where the Future of News Is – and so most of their professional and personal lives (which bleeds together these days) is spent online in self-selected communities of like-minded people that tends to be made up of other journalists and sources and gatekeepers of information – politicians, PR people, creative entrepreneurs, etc. Read many of the conversations journalists are having on Twitter – and it’s like Wesley Lowery says – a weird insular culture of inside jokes and insider-type conversations hermetically sealed from most of the outside world.

All this online time also means less and less time spent in their own communities meeting people with different opinions and interests than their own. It’s these face-to-face interactions where positive friction can occur when debating someone who might disagree with you. When you’re in disagreement with someone in person, it naturally takes on a less extreme tenor.

On the other hand, many arguments on the internet – fueled by facelessness and anonymity – are overwhelmingly toxic in nature. The bubble of insularity of journalists grows stronger because of this nature of internet dialogue. Many of the horrible comments, threats and harassment they receive cause them to turn ever inward into their own gang.

One result of this is reality is that journalists begin to conflate the noise of angry commenters and Redditors and Tweeters and with their larger audience. Thus in many of these “Death of Gamers” articles, the actions of a few are somehow translated into criticism and contempt for a massive group of their own readers.

The Groupthink of Social Media and the Lack of Debate

Social media is not the utopia we were promised in terms of creating an open and honest dialogue. It breeds groupthink and consensus through its very nature. We’re given tools of Like and Favorite Buttons to spread incessant positivity with no real incentive to disagree or debate unless it’s in a way to rally or whip up favor with your like-minded followers.

That’s especially true with journalists, who are supposed to have a prominent presence in social media not only to help attain clicks and traffic, but to help their own “personal brand.” Jobs in journalism are constantly in flux and publications are struggling with revenue. In this difficult environment, journalists are huddling up together.

Despite the challenges, we as journalists should not be afraid to engage in healthy debate and even strong disagreement with our own positions. It’s our jobs as arbiters of information to engage with different viewpoints. Unless there’s non-productive hate speech or unwarranted personal attacks involved – it’s ridiculous to reflexively associate disagreement with trolling and bullying.

But in my experience, that’s exactly what has happened when I disagree with journalists online. On Twitter, one journalist said she’s “not here to debate strangers on the internet” when I simply questioned a comment about Chicago’s local authorities’ response to ISIS threats. Another entertainment journalist was surprised and taken aback when I questioned a sentence in an article she wrote about how the Chicago neighborhood I lived in was considered “off the beaten path.” Another dismissed me when I questioned her thesis of a thinkpiece.

It’s even worse with video game journalists – who exist in an incredibly airtight bubble born of factors I talked about in my article “Lack of Critical Distance.” That bubble is rarely pierced by professional criticism. There are no ombudsmen or real media critics with any clout in games journalism (minus a couple of essays from Tevis Thompson) that you see in sports and politics and even other entertainment journalism fields. You’re not going to see FAIR studying Kotaku or Polygon’s coverage of Assassin’s Creed IV.

This lack of outside critique means that when I criticize the work or the ideas of game journalists – which is what I did with regularity in the GameJournosPros discussion group made up of 150 or so professional games journalists, editors, freelancers – it was often taken as an off putting personal assault, especially since the group often toed the line between professional group and chummy “hey, we’re just hanging out!” friend group.

The Price of Dissent

In my year and a half in the group, I was often the only dissenting opinion in specific topics and most of the time I got totally ignored. Sometimes I was criticized or told I was off-topic. Sometimes I was warned I was “creating a hostile environment” to specific people for disagreeing with them in an unapologetic way, and a couple times I was told I’d be kicked out of the group. The informal pressure to “fall in line” with the groupthink was very strong.

It only got worse after Breitbart recently published a leaked thread from the GameJournosPros group that discussed coverage of the Zoe Quinn affair. In the group, I questioned where these journalists drew the line in terms of covering salacious stories involving sources and asked if they’d actually examined evidence. My inquiries were treated incredulously or ignored. When a small amount of pro-Gamer Gate people online began following me on Twitter and praising me and I began engaging with them, here’s the response I got from journalists in the group: One said I was fueling harassment and threats, called me an “asshole,” some blocked me on Twitter, or tried contacting my colleagues or editors in attempt to shame me into silence or have my bosses silence me.

It’s what happens when a group of people are stuck in a bubble of social media-fueled “Like” culture. They become hyper-sensitive to contrary points of view, even though it’s their job to wrestle with different ideas.

This unreasonable response and the influx of “Death of Gamers” article is what happens when networking and the comfort of soft consensus trumps honest conversation and healthy debate. It’s a weird insider culture best explained in this recent Slate article on social media “scoring” site Klout by Jon Nathanson.

“They are goaded into behaving artificially on social networks: sharing safe Like-bait, and holding back anything they deem quirky, eccentric, or controversial. Anyone who doesn’t want to be an “influencer” comes under intense pressure to be, especially as “influence” becomes a measure of self-worth. The result: a lot more people trying to pass around the same articles, memes, and themes. A lot more homogeneity. A lot more noise, masquerading as signal. A self-defeating search for quality in an ocean of quantity.”