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What We Can All Take Away From Gawker’s Debacle (And No, It’s Not Schadenfreude)

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Schadenfreude: Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

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My parents only really ever gave me two pieces of advice about work. They didn’t just give it to me, however, they showed it to me in their work. The advice boils down to two short sentences: “Try to do good work. And keep your integrity.”

That’s it.

Now here’s the thing about my parents – by profession and education, they’re both educators – teachers at the university level. They have written, researched, published, and taught in academia and beyond. But they have also dabbled in business – real estate, publishing, etc. So really they have a wealth of career and life experience they could offer. And being people who like to lecture, it seems silly that their advice on what one does in work, should be so simplified; so simple. But in this latest media spectacle, their words, as they consistently have in my personal and professional life, ring in the ear.

The notion of doing “good work” is complex, and by itself, deserves an analysis of it’s own. But good work at the bare minimum, can be said to constitute work that is thoughtful, purposeful, helpful, and reflects knowledge or talent or both. Good work inspires or confronts or creates – and it needn’t be perfect. But it likely, if not always, exudes good taste.

Integrity of course, is another intricate term, and one I think too often gets rendered to being about individual standpoint. But the definition and philosophy of integrity I have found most useful, and most applicable is written by Stephen Cater in Integrity. Of it, he says, “…integrity is not in and of itself a sense of right and wrong, integrity is the faculty that enables us to discern right and wrong.” Carter argues that it involves three steps: 1.) Discerning right and wrong 2.) Acting upon your beliefs of right and wrong once they have been decided, and 3.) Publicly stating our beliefs – even when others disagree.

When I communicate about good work and integrity, it is these definitions and explanations and analysis, that are my guide.

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It would be easy to have all the schadenfreude in the world over what has happened/is happening to Gawker media. After all, Gawker seemingly made it one of their missions to attack many media publications and writers – including Thought Catalog – over the years. But I think it would also be hypocritical in some light for many of us. Given Thought Catalog’s “Gavin Gate” spectacle last summer, for example, (of which I actually have a dialogue coming up in the near future – look out for it), I think many of us in this digital culture ought not to get too sanctimonious.

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The truth? I’m not proud of Gavin Gate, even as someone who was not on staff full-time when it happened. I’m not proud that Thought Catalog is associated with it. Even when I do understand that it is consistent with Thought Catalog’s mission that all thinking is relevant. I speak not for the company here, but it is to me a mission that is hard to pigeon-hole, and one that is purposely dynamic, and ultimately allows for each staff member to define personally, in relation to their integrity. Moreover as I like to remind people, Thought Catalog is not the news, and it’s not pretending to be. Thought Catalog at it’s heart and it’s best, is about presenting and reflecting on different perspectives about any one issue. And certainly, perspectives can be brilliant and enhancing. They can also be boring or overdone or abhorrent.

Gawker, who lives by Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news, has an altogether different agenda. I suppose that’s why their errors involve lawsuits, and potential lawsuits, and journalism ethics considerations, etc. But I am not sitting here smiling that Gawker is  “finally” getting what was coming to them – as many have suggested. No. Because overall, this debacle makes me sad.

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I suppose it’s a good time to mention that I was never a fan or a reader of Gawker. I’m not trying to distance myself from it, or showcase any sort of righteous farsightedness. I generally don’t even like to (publicly) comment on, much less “bash,” other online media companies, especially ones that are considered in the realm of competition with Thought Catalog. I think it is unnecessary, unbecoming, and is of poor taste, (And of course you never know whose door you’ll be knocking at, asking for a job in the future.)

But I will say Gawker media, and some of the sites it parents, in my chosen brief interactions with them, always left me with this unjustified stink of superiority. Perhaps it was in manner, perhaps it was in perspective (or lack thereof), but because of this apparent air of superiority, the site(s) always came across as uninteresting to me as a whole. And the whole should always be greater than the sum of its parts. So unlike many in digital media – I tended to ignore Gawker’s existence more than I didn’t. Certainly, I would read an interesting article or two that came across my way, but I seldom, if ever, sought it out.

I can barely tell you what happened with the Hulk Hogan story, so in the wake of this recent Gawker’s scandal that involved a married (publicly? hetoerosexual?) man and a hired male sex worker, and Gawker “exposing” these details in an article, and then deleting said article, and the editorial staff being upset about the deletion – or whatever the accurate version of the debacle is – I thought it would be “just another Gawker thing.” I thought the Internet, like it often does, would move on to something else within a news cycle. I was wrong. This story is apparently big, and it might get even bigger. And many people in media are carrying around proverbial torches, ready to metaphorically burn the company to the ground. Or at least watch the mayhem gleefully from a distance.

Does Gawker “deserve” this? I can’t speak to that. I am not the arbitrator of justice in these matters. Maybe they will survive. Maybe they will implode. But even while I don’t remotely find their recent actions in good form or really defendable in the context of journalism ethics and reporting, I do not wish them ill either. Instead, it has made me reflect on digital media and what type of culture and industry we who work in it, have created, and perpetuate.

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In a digital media culture where clicks are of extremely high value, one’s personal ethics seem to be on the line every single day. What to write about, what to publish, what stories to choose and not choose, what agendas to set and not set – are all ethical decisions, whether you are thinking about them regularly or not. And they are not just organizational ethics, they reflect personal ethics as well. I can certainly say the latter is especially true if an organization has the liberties that Thought Catalog does, although I suspect that many organizations are stricter.

Still, digital media culture and the people who participate in its front lines every day don’t often realize how much what we do affects cultural conversations as whole. (I know this because I have written a Master’s thesis on a subject matter where the digital space was my site.) No, this is not to give those who work in the field illusions of grandeur. But people are clicking, people are reading, people are thinking about what we write and produce and present. It is simply not enough to conclude that we share perspectives – we create them too. We are creators. So what have we created, and what are we creating?

While we who work in this digital media space create objectively good work, give voice to many who don’t think they can find one, communicate truth to power, question power holders, do the work of resistance, participate and engage in difficult conversations, and put subjects at the forefront that are “controversial,” but necessary; while we tell stories of the little-known and unknown, and powerful stories at that, we also put a lot of bad into the world.

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We put bad into the world with a senseless focus on material that is written or produced for the sole-purpose of garnering as many clicks as possible, even when that material is objectively trite, or lacking in utility to the human experience, or it creates a consequence that is personally harmful to an individual or a group, and when the sole-reason and justification is none other than “click.” When the focus is not on the work itself and the betterment of the audience that reads it, but rather solely on the ends, without consideration of the means to obtain those ends – then scandal is not only unavoidable, it seems all the more likely in such a media culture. It seems that we are all susceptible to it. And if those of us whose personal integrity is built on solid foundations struggle to make good and “right” decisions – how much more those whose foundations are shaky at best, and entirely unconscionable at worst? Do we not throw the weak to the dogs in such an environment?

I understand, after four years of working in this space at some level –  working at a startup that failed, freelancing, doing the heavy-handed copywriting and technical writing, getting paid for just having an opinion about something, being a broke college graduate, and then a broke graduate student, all the while being a broke sort-of writer, and then being a “real” writer, and then being not so broke – that we all have bills to pay. Not only that, but we want to be successful, with millions of hits on articles we write, from the harmless in nature, to the important in subject matter. But we have decisions to make on a daily basis and on a long-term basis about how we are willing to get there. And those decisions show, sooner or later. They catch up with us individually, organizationally, and as an industry. And it is clear that the digital media industry as a whole has work to do.

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From this Gawker debacle, I’m not so much interested in the result of what happens to Gawker specifically, but how we who work in this space will respond to it – in our own work spaces. Not only because those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but because it does not seem like a Gawker problem solely. But rather, a digital culture problem where being the first and the best depends not on quality and thoughtfulness and nuance and idea generation and creativity. But on a thoughtless haste, and a grave obsession with “the numbers.”

And indeed the numbers do matter – it’s how and why we eat. So this is not some critique of a well-intentioned but ultimately delusional creative “purist.” If you work in this space, you know those “purists,” and they are often jobless. I, along with many others in this field, like having a job. Now while I do hold the creators more accountable for this culture, I think the readers have power too – they are the numbers. And if the numbers say they want the “bottom of the barrel,” then of course they will get more of it. It’s from this very observation I coined the phrase, “The more bullshit there is, the more bullshit there is.”

The digital culture problem of what we say we value, shown by what we pay attention to and experience in this space, is somewhat representative of a societal problem, of which many believe anti-intellectualism plays a huge role. But still I ask, people in this field: How can we do better? In the wake of Gawker’s debacle, how can we improve? What ethical lines do we need to draw? What decisions in the short-term and long-term need review? In our daily work, how can we improve this digital media culture?

It’s easy to go through the day, even in this fast-paced, creative, time-focused culture, and feel like it’s mundane. We all go through it. Being a creator, a producer, a writer, etc. at any time has never been easy. And now with business being at the speed of thought, it feels more difficult than ever. We adjust to the times or we get left behind. But in our adjustment, looking for ways to communicate about the things that matter, or that are useful because they are funny or sad or beautiful or make one think, ought to be done ethically. That is to say, with ethics considerations.

Certainly, ethics are not hard and fast rules; we make social contracts and agree to or disagree with social ethics every day. So I am asking for a conversation: What are our social and ethical rules and debates as an industry? And what are yours personally if you work in the field? These questions are of utmost importance. Especially now. Crises should not be wasted – and in this latest one, we all ought to opt for reflection over self-righteousness or malicious joy at the misfortune of others; schadenfreude.

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Every endeavor in life – including what we do when we log on our computers every day – has an opportunity cost. This is self-evident. What is the opportunity cost of producing scandalous material without just cause, or for its own sake, or for unscrupulous aims? What is the opportunity cost of writing material that is purposely harmful or lacks in utility to the reader (given a “reasonable person standard” of the ordinary reader)? What is the opportunity cost of work that is unnecessarily hasty, and poor, and of poor taste? It is the opportunity to do good work. And to keep one’s integrity. TC mark

Featured image – Flickr / John Vasko
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