The Web Monkey Speaks: A Civil Conversation

Trolls, journalism, and plus-size

You’re not supposed to call your readers “douchebags.” This is one of those golden rules of writing and it’s hard to argue with it. As a reader you want to believe that the author of whatever you are reading is a decent, trustworthy fellow. Or, at the very least, not a complete asshole. Writers who spar with their readers tend to look like idiots. But I have to admit that I’ve been less than social in the social media realm this past week and that experience has got me thinking about this writing thing I do for a living and the reading thing you are doing right now.

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MY WHORISH WAYS

If you’re going to write stories and put you name atop the article, you better grow a thick skin. There’s no pleasing everyone. If that’s your aim, you might as well get a gig at Hallmark writing those crappy greeting cards with roses and kittens on the covers.

Fair enough. Still, I have to admit that I started to get annoyed last week, after the hundredth or so accusation that I was (1) a whore; (2) a sell out; and (3) part of a massive conspiracy to carve the soul out of mountain biking by creating new axle standards.

While I have more than my fair share of personal deficits (I always cheat at Scrabble and I actually liked that last Guns N’ Roses album), I’ll say this in my defense: if nothing else, I’m honest. I don’t pull punches.

The fact that I was getting accused of being a pawn of the bike industry was particularly galling when what was being criticized was our 29+ and 27.5+ Blueprint video, in which we asked each company we interviewed whether this whole “plus-size bike” thing wasn’t just a scam to sell people more shit. And, yes, we phrased it just that way.

Just in case there’s some confusion here; when you are “on the take”, that’s not the kind of question you ask. We also posed a range of pressing questions, including:

What are these “plus size” bikes supposed to be good at?
What are their limitations?
Are some companies just jumping on the bandwagon with the whole plus-size thing?
Will plus-size bikes replace the “normal” bikes we already ride?

In the end, we shot four hours of video, which we pared down to 12 minutes. Most people will tell you that a dozen minutes is foolishly long in this age of two-minute “shredit” videos and dancing-cat memes. While that’s probably true, we were aiming for something more.

But let’s get back to my whorish ways….

We received two basic reactions when the video debuted: (1) People were amazed that we asked such bold questions—because no one in the cycling industry had done so; or (2) People were amazed that we were so timid in our questioning.

The gulf between those two responses says a lot about how we—as people—talk to one another these days. You see, my goal with the video wasn’t to stand up and label this latest of trends as either “stupid” or “brilliant.” My goal was to ask substantive questions and get enough answers that you, the viewer, can sit back, digest the answers, and figure out where you stand on this thing.

You don’t have to agree with the companies or believe what they are saying. Nor are you obligated to like the way we made the video, but after watching it, you should be able to form your own opinion with more facts at your disposal than you had before you pushed “play.”

That approach—inform readers, give them both sides of an issue and let them judge for themselves—is the core of journalism. That’s what we, the press, are supposed to do.

But that’s also becoming a thing of the past.

All sorts of butt hurt.... Photo by Anthony Smith
All sorts of butt hurt…. Photo by Anthony Smith

LIES AND ACCUSATIONS

Much of what gets passed off these days as reporting is really just editorial—someone spouting off about what they already believe. What’s more, most of it is done at a shouting, feces-throwing level. Don’t agree with someone? Attack them. Call them a liar. Argue. It makes for great entertainment. It doesn’t, however, actually do much to inform. I might add that this Jerry Springer/Fox News style of communication assumes that you, the viewer, is an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed to form their own opinion. We can do better than that.

I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that the video in question amounts to Pulitzer Prize-caliber journalism. It’s a video about bikes with really fat tires. I’m pretty sure there are more significant things happening in the world today. Still, I think the cycling media should aim higher than merely posting press releases. I think we should ask the questions that our readers will likely pose. We did that.

Do I wish we’d asked even more questions? Sure. I wish, for instance, that I’d asked whether the costs of the new axle standard outweighed the benefits? Trek would, undoubtedly, answer “Yes”, but it’s still a great question and one I posed myself in the feature story that followed the video. Still, I wish I’d got it on camera… Hindsight is 20/20.

But asking that question wouldn’t have made the video’s angriest detractors any happier, because, really, what they wanted was for us to accuse the Trek engineers of being liars—of lying about why they were adopting Boost 148 and what the new plus-size Stache was capable of.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think the Trek guys were lying. We spent two hours questioning them and I walked away convinced that they sincerely felt that going to a wider bottom bracket and 157 axle spacing would be an inferior solution to adopting Boost 148. I don’t see the sense in accusing them of lying about their motivation, mainly because doing so would require me to assume that we (the interviewers) truly knew what was going on inside those engineers’ heads over the past couple of years as they designed the bike. Operating under assumptions like that might make you look like Captain Courageous on video, but it sure as hell isn’t journalism.

THIS AIN’T THE DAMN FORUM

Internet forums and social media channels are a very different beast. Chat rooms and comment threads have become the playhouse of public opinion. Anyone can speak up, which is great. What’s not so great is that no one is actually obligated to be objective or have done his or her research before speaking up. That new bike or product that’s coming out? You don’t even have to have ridden it to say that it’s complete crap or the greatest thing since sliced bread. He who yells loudest and most frequently, wins. I get that. More people watch Judge Judy than listen to public radio. Vitriol is a growth market. I understand that people really dig the biting and hair pulling and screaming. I also believe we should all aim higher—whether you are writing for a living or simply posting your thoughts on Facebook or an internet forum.

NOT THE ANSWER YOU WERE LOOKING FOR?

At the end of the day, I get why some people are enraged after watching the video. The news that your forks and wheels may soon be considered “obsolete”…yet again? That’s a bitter f*cking pill for all of us to swallow. Most of us want a new bike industry “standard” like we want a raging case of the clap.

But here’s the bottom line: while I’m cool with people being pissed when the video rolls to a stop, I’m not cool with people claiming that we didn’t ask any hard questions. We asked ‘em. You may not have liked the answers you heard. There’s a difference.

Our Blueprint video is not a defense for plus-size; it’s an exploration of what this plus-size thing actually is and what some companies are doing with it. You are absolutely free to disagree with what you hear. In fact, that space between those two positions—where the companies are coming from and where you, the audience, may be standing—is where the intelligent conversation could and should happen.

I am asking you to think for yourself. There is plenty of fodder in that video to allow you to come your own decisions. We made sure of that. Hopefully, it fosters some thought and debate. Disagreement is a beautiful thing. Go at it. Turn over the pros and cons. Debate.

We can disagree, however, without also being douchebags to one another.