Words


If you have any finger at all dipped in the vast ocean of blather that is social media, you can’t fail to have noticed yesterday’s flurry of hand-waving over some comments made by internet luminaries Will Wheaton and Matt (The Oatmeal) Inman. For those who aren’t mainlining Facebook and Twitter, and didn’t catch it, the whole thing revolved around the Huffington Post doing what it does – sucking content from anywhere it likes without paying for it, and then regurgitating it to the world – and Wheaton and Inman getting on the wrong end of that deal (the ‘without getting paid’ end).

In Wheaton’s case, the Huffington Post wanted to use a previous post from his blog, but declined to offer any compensation when he asked for them to actually fork out for it. Wheaton wrote about it, quite reasonably, in a piece entitled “You Can’t Pay Your Rent With “the unique platform and reach our site provides”” riffing on his earlier Twitter comments “Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period.” and “This advice applies to designers, photographers, programmers, ANYONE who makes something. You. Deserve. Compensation. For. Your. Work.”

As for Inman, the HuffPo hotlinked one of his Oatmeal strips, and he then quickly link-spoofed them with an image that said “Dear Huffington Post. Please don’t hotlink images without permission. It costs me money to host these. Here’s my monthly bill”, with said bill attached. This morning, he followed it up with an amusing cartoon commentary.

At least they asked Wheaton whether they could use his stuff. They just pinched Inman’s. Well, the internet version of pinching, anyway.

Now, I’ll say right off the blocks, that I like and respect both these guys. I’ve been a fan for years. If the internet is about anything at all, it’s about the kinds of things they do: Inman amuses, makes admirable social commentary and raises money for good causes. Wheaton entertains, makes admirable social commentary and, well, entertains. And yes, he also uses his geek celebrity to aid worthwhile causes too.

In a general philosophical sense, I also agree with what they’re saying here; it’s reasonable to expect that if a money-making venture such as the Huffington Post wants to use your artistic content to help their advertising revenue, then it’s worth more than just their fond appreciation for your efforts.

In my opinion, there is, however, something of a problem with the high moral ground that both Wheaton and Inman are occupying here. They are being just a teensy bit disingenuous. It comes about because of the stature that each of them has gained from the currency that they are dismissing with such disdain. That currency is exposure.

From where I stand, the equation looks very different to what I expect it does to Will Wheaton or Matt Inman. If I was given the same deal as Wheaton, and the HuffPo asked if they could carry this very article, what am I going to do? If they offer me the ‘exposure’ deal, my options are to take it and get exposure or don’t take it and reach my usual two dozen readers. No-one doubts that the best outcome would be to get paid and get the exposure, but likewise, it should be obvious to pretty much anyone that the worst deal is to end up with no money and no exposure. It’s all very well for Wheaton and Inman to tell other people that they should accept nothing less than proper recompense for their efforts, but they are not other people.

As I said some years ago in my post The King is Dead! Long Live the King!, we are now in an age where creative content is worth – in monetary terms – exactly (and only) what people are prepared to pay for it. You can put whatever pecuniary value you like upon it, but that’s completely arbitrary in the eyes of anyone else.

The problem is not an easy one to parse. I’m a creator, and my stuff is indisputably worth a few coins. Isn’t it? But what? Is it worth as much as Will Wheaton’s stuff or Matt Inman’s stuff? No? Then why not? You see what’s going on here, don’t you? There’s a level of artistic value – and corresponding monetary value – assigned to the work of those guys, but how do you calculate the worth of that? I’m going to put it out there that it’s not just value based on the work itself, but rather a combination of things including how much exposure they get. Sure, they do good stuff, but without the exposure, the good stuff is only worth something to the two dozen loyal followers of their blog/band/comic/games-club newsletter. LOTS of people do good stuff.

And that’s the crux of it: with so much stuff being done – and so much good stuff being done – with so many artists and musicians and writers doing their thing, it’s very very hard to rise above the noise. Money is nice to have, but in the great big ocean that is the internet, without exposure, you’ve got nothing. Proper compensation depends a lot on where exactly you are in the food chain. Matt and Will can afford to say no to the HuffPo because it really doesn’t matter to them – they need neither money, nor exposure.

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m defending the Huffington Post here – I’m really not. I think that they’re unprincipled opportunists (there goes my chance of HuffPo glory) and that they’re wrong to exploit the talents and hard work of others in order to line their own coffers. As long as people are willing to provide them free content, though, this exploitation is never going to go away. I think you can work out, without me putting it down in detail, that there are a lot of reasons that people will continue to provide their content – good content – for free. As I have said in the past, if you are an artist or a writer or a musician, the people doing that are your competition. It’s just entirely irrelevant insisting that your art is worth something if no-one wants to actually pay for it. Whether you like it or not, that’s the world in which we now exist, and it’s simply pointless raising a fist and shaking it at that fact.

It comes down to basic commonsense and survival strategies. Sure, your efforts have value, but the value might not necessarily be financial. If that value can be parlayed into money, great. If it can’t, then decide whether there is other opportunity to be had. If that opportunity is exposure, and you could use some exposure, then take it. If that opportunity is connection, and you need connections, then take it. If there is no advantage in making a deal, then don’t make the deal. The only bad exchange is one where you feel an inequality exists. But don’t let someone else tell you what that inequality is.

Matt Inman and Will Wheaton undoubtedly have your best interests at heart. They’ve just forgotten that as you’re attempting to get your head above the crowd, you sometimes don’t have the luxury of insisting on your principles.

In recent times in my adventures in the social media universe, I’ve started to see more and more prevalently, a certain riposte to arguments that champion science. It comes in the form of “…but science can’t be a hundred percent sure of it, right?” You’ll have seen the same thing I’m sure: you proffer that global warming is a serious problem, with over 95% of scientists working in climate science attesting to its seriousness, and someone chimes in with the argument that because there’s that 5% for whom the jury is out,(i) then there is some question of validity of the great weight of the argument in favour.

It’s difficult to get most non-scientific people to understand the philosophical cornerstones on which science is built, but the one that provides the most problem is, perhaps, the scientific idea of falsifiability. Simply put, it works like this: a question of science is posed in such a way that it is held up to scrutiny for its robustness against pulling it down again.

Let me give you a very basic example. Let’s suppose that one day I leave an apple out on the bench in my back yard. The next day, I notice that the apple has been knocked to the ground and there are bites out of it. I advance to you an hypothesis: fairies at the bottom of the garden have a love of apples and they are the culprits. If you chose to disagree with this interpretation of the situation, and were to approach this scientifically, you might question my hypothesis and devise ways to show me that my suggestion(ii) is not the best explanation for the facts. You might, for example, decide to leave out a new decoy apple, stay up all night and, from a hidden spot, observe what happens to it. You might rig up a camera to photograph the apple if it is moved. You might put out a plastic apple and see whether it gets eaten or moved. There are numerous things you might do to chip away at my hypothesis.

Together – pending the evidence you gathered – we would establish the likelihood of my hypothesis being correct, and in the event that it started to seem unlikely, gather additional evidence that might set us on our way to a new hypothesis involving another explanation. Possums, maybe.

You might think that this is a simplistic, and perhaps even patronising, illustration. But consider this: you can never, ever, prove to me definitively that fairies weren’t responsible for that first apple incident, or any subsequent incidents that we weren’t actively observing. This is because we have no explicit data for those times.

The philosophy of scientific process unequivocally requires it must be like this. It seems like a bizarre Catch 22, but the very idea is a sort of axiom built into the deepest foundations of science, and an extremely valuable one, because it allows everything to be re-examined by the scientific process should additional persuasive data appear. It’s a kind of a ‘don’t get cocky, kid’ reminder. It’s a way for the scientific process to be flexible enough to cope with the possibility of new information. If we didn’t have it, science would deteriorate rapidly into dogma.

The problem is that people who don’t understand science very well tend to think rather too literally about this ‘loophole’ of falsifiability. They take it to mean that, if we did a thousand nights of experimental process in my backyard, and 999 of those nights we got photos of the possums chewing on the apple, then the one night where the camera malfunctioned it’s possible that the apple actually could have been eaten by fairies. Worse than that, they mistakenly go on to extrapolate that the Fairies Hypothesis therefore has equal weight with the Possum Hypothesis.

Even worse still, this commitment of science not to make assessments on the data it does not have is frequently wheeled out by an increasing number of people as if it’s a profound failing – a demonstration that ‘science is not perfect’.

But here, I will argue to the contrary. At least, I will say that science may not be perfect, but it does its very best to strive to understand where the flaws in its process might arise, and take them into account.

This should not be taken to mean, however, that nothing in science has any certainty, and everything is up for grabs. Why? Because science is all about probabilities. If you are not comfortable with talking in the language of probabilities, then you should really butt right out of any scientific discussion.(iii)

Of course, in the fairies vs possums scenario, we’ve already factored the probabilities into account: our brains can’t help but favour the hypothesis that we think is the most likely, given the observations that have accumulated over our lives: we know that possums like fruit; we know that they are active at night; we have seen possums. On the other hand, we have little evidence for the predilection of fairies for apples, or even for the existence of such beings. Taking into account all the things we know, it’s much more likely to be possums eating the fruit than it is to be fairies. But I will reiterate – because it’s important – that the thing to remember is that there is no way that anyone can ever scientifically prove to you that the one time out of a thousand when you weren’t looking that it wasn’t the fairies who took a chomp on the apple.

But you still know it wasn’t, right?

This is the point where it gets frustrating for real scientists doing real science. Fairies vs possums is a reasonably trivial scientific case, and most(iv) people have the educational tools to make a proper and rational assessment of the situation. However, in the case of a non-scientific person arguing that because 5% of scientists don’t agree with the rest on global warming there’s a cause for doubt on the whole thing, this looks to scientists – the people in possession of the greater number of facts and understanding of those facts – like someone arguing that the fairies ate the apple.

It’s not just the Climate Change discussion that suffers from this problem. A large part of the reason we now get into these kinds of debates is that our scientific understanding of the world has, in this age, become so intricate and detailed that it’s very difficult for non-specialists to properly grasp the highly complex nature of certain subjects. Climate science is one of those areas. Evolution is another, and vaccination one more. Because most of us don’t have a lifetime’s worth of education in any of these highly complex fields, and our brains don’t have the tools we need to assess the required data in any meaningful way, we tend to fall back on thinking patterns that are more attuned to the solving of simple, easily defined problems. We then superimpose those simple-to-understand patterns on subjects we don’t understand. Everyone does this, whether it’s in an effort to understand economics, or politics, or even our phone’s data plan. We just can’t help it.

What’s truly sad and frustrating is that when scientists tell us things that are hard to understand, don’t fit with what we know, and are not things we want to hear, many people (including, it has to be said, far too many of the politicians who make the decisions that rule our lives) start to try to find reasons why the scientists MUST be wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard all the variations: scientists are in it for their own agendas (the Frankenstein scenario); they’re being paid to give false results by Big Pharma/Agriculture/Data/Tech/Whatever; or, as we’ve discussed, because they don’t know everything.

Science doesn’t know everything. The thing is, contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, it knows that it doesn’t know everything, and this understanding of its limits is built into its very structure. As such, it is not a weakness, but a very great strength.

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PS: This is the very first time on TCA that I’ve deployed a clickbait headline… and I’m not sorry.

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Footnotes:

  1. And that’s an important thing to remember here: the 95% figure that’s often quoted are the scientists who are certain, but that does not imply in any way that the other 5% are just as certain global warming is not happening or not of concern. Some of that 5% just don’t think the data is in. That’s a very different prospect to having an unequivocal position against. []
  2. For that’s really what an hypothesis is; a fancy kind of ‘suggestion’ []
  3. If you can’t think in probabilities, you almost certainly have a heck of a time living your life too, because – hear me – nothing is certain. []
  4. But not all, trust me… []

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I hope St Peter is not a stickler for spelling, or there are going to be a lot of unhappy campers come Judgement Day.

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With thanks to the eagle eye of the Omenator.

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With thanks to the Omenator.

This season, from the people who brought you ‘The Early Bird Get’s the Right Size‘ (catapostrophe intended) we are treated to an exciting new adventure in language mangling with their wholesale invention of the word ‘giftorium’. So confused and befuddled by this word was I, that I had to look it up just to make sure there was no obscure Latin usage with which I was not familiar. This is typical of about the first hundred Google hits:(i)

Oh my fucking absinthe-addled maiden aunt. This should be a crime against humanity. Think of the poor children.
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Footnotes:

  1. There’s nothing quite like seeing all these search results in one long stream to help you understand how marketing press releases get used in the wild… []

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