Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The trouble with 'celebrity webmasters'...



(The following article was written as far back as January 2012, but held back due to certain concerns. While seeking the advice from a small circle of colleagues, some felt it could read as antagonistic, while other’s saw no issue. The following piece is not directed at any X-Files fan site, or fellow Philes, but a series of general observations.)

I’ve been mulling over this subject for a very long time, and it is based on my own personal observations over time, and a few direct experiences. For some fans of either this blog or the overall work of The X-Files Lexicon, some of the following points might seem like I am biting the very hand that feeds me, and I hope they won’t be misconstrued as a lack of appreciation on my part, I have always been very aware over how fortunate we have been. Yet, the longer you run a fan site that keeps growing and developing, the more pitfalls you risk encountering, and that’s really the way it is, the dilemma becomes – how to continue, and retain your integrity?

Personally, I have been at this game of being involved with a small circle of fan sites from as far back as 2000. I was a moderator and minor contributor to a site I won’t mention, from 2000 to late 2001. Then I became a moderator and minor contributor to The Harry Potter Lexicon from 2002 to 2005, and this is not withstanding the years of observing the rise and fall of countless other fan sites, as well as noting the price that is exacted for highly successful fan sites.

Yet over years of my observations, I learned and tried to apply what I learned with the establishment of The X-Files Lexicon in 2005, and tried to uphold my ‘statement of principles’ at the time of my launch. Yet it is a juggling act to try and avoid various pitfalls and maintain a level of objective honesty, and avoid conflicts of interest even while being offered the occasional perk, I am always reminded of the Rush lyric: “Glittering prizes, and endless compromises, shatter the illusion of integrity.”

Perhaps upholding pure integrity is an impossible ideal, but then again, one might be able to sleep better if they hold themselves to a higher standard, and treat people how they wish to be treated.

I remember seeing some of these dilemma’s early on as I visited some hugely successful movie news fan sites with whom won’t be mentioned by name, where the webmaster’s would be wildly inconsistent with their argument's, or would allow their opinions to be co-opted by studios that would curry their favor with press access, or elaborate press junkets, or free product, while the outside public would hold some illusion that such fan sites were different, more honest, or better than the mainstream press, either media or print, when in truth I didn’t see any distinctions.

The avarice of successful sites can be their un-doing, if one isn’t diligent. There’s a number of traps that I can list to help explain how sites can lose their credibility.

Too much praise.

On a universal level everyone likes to get recognition for their efforts, and it’s natural to enjoy, on some level, compliments, which I do, but I also compartmentalize, and contextualize such compliments. It never changes the fact that at the end of the day you have more work to do, and more to prove, I take it with some modesty, but what I have noticed in some cases, with certain webmasters, they cultivate a climate that encourages sycophants, a kind of unhealthy adulation that seems disproportionate in the scheme of things. In many respects, I don’t trust sycophantic praise, and thankfully I have never encountered that problem with the Lexicon. In truth, while agreement is nice, I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on various points, and that dialogue, that disagreement is healthy.

Some consider me an “expert” with all things X-Files, and while such labels are flattering, as I have stated before, I really consider myself more a facilitator who had a good idea back at the beginning of the site in 2005. I am well aware that some webmasters will be invited, or will petition to make public speaking appearances at conventions, and so on. While I wish them the best of luck, I have never seeked out making such visible appearances, it’s just not my thing, and while I can be assertive when needed, I just don’t have that inclination.

I should also point out, I have always been diligent and mindful with using the phrase “We” when speaking about any success within the Lexicon site, and not “I”, no one succeeds alone, and this distinction helps to keep myself in check.

Advertising and selling out.

The Lexicon does use a certain amount of website advertising, but in truth, we generate little revenue, I consider it mostly extra gravy, and it’s something I don’t depend upon, but I have observed with hugely successful sites where their web hits generate revenue, if the webmaster is dependent on that revenue generator, then they can become a slave to the success, and will go to great lengths to feed that machine. I’ve observed this a number of times where people will be driven to do things, for the sake of competition, they otherwise would never do.

Another byproduct I have become all too aware of is the trend with webmasters to write, sell and get published biographical works about their websites, their experiences with meeting fans, and to dish on their experiences with interviewing, and meeting celebrities. While my feeling is ‘to each his own’, I share no such interest on capitalizing on my experience with running a professional fan site. While this subject hasn’t been broached within the fan inquiries I receive, I should state the following:

I have no intention to publish a print edition of The X-Files Lexicon in any form, for profit. Where it could be done with relative ease, when you consider our growing percentage of interviews, original articles, or the articles within this blog, such a book could be done, but it won’t happen, the only way such a book would be published in any form as if the profits went towards some charity. The other reason why I feel no need to write any book is the fact that the Lexicon’s history is all there on-line, the site is an open book, and our interaction with people of note is well documented, there would be no need to write about any antidotal tales.

A part of my problem is that I feel that such books are driven by such hubris, and narcissism, especially when dishing gossip about the fandom experiences. The reason why I support such fan efforts by Erica Fraga and writers like Amy Donaldson, is the fact that their publications offer original content, and fresh insight into The X-Files phenomenon.

The problem of objectivity

I had previously mentioned in late 2008 about my prior involvement with The Harry Potter Lexicon, the lawsuit debacle between RDR and JKR’s legal team, and the debate over “Fair Use” copyright and the internet. At the time I diplomatically avoided citing my specific problems with the Harry Potter fan news site, The Leaky Cauldron, and their reporting of the RDR law suit, and specifically web mistress Melissa Anelli who exclusively handled the bulk of such reporting of that case, which favored a bias for JK Rowling, which I guess could be expected. But the site used their clout, which was significant at the time and abused it, to go beyond covering what was a mere dispute between publishers, and engage in a character assassination of the webmaster of The Harry Potter Lexicon, Steve Van Der Ark, where the Cauldron acted as the judge, jury, and executioner, when Steve was never listed as an official defendant in the case, but as a mere witness.

Melissa Anelli had close ties to JK Rowling, Warner Brothers, Scholastic; The Leaky Cauldron’s actions I’d argue were driven by fear, based on my speculation, over losing the relationship they enjoyed with Warner Bros, and the access of JK Rowling herself. In entertainment media, access equals power, in many cases access also generates on-line advertising revenue

At the time, Melissa had broken the code of ethics rule for on-line journalists as cited here, due to her evident conflict of interest.

This breach of ethics could have been avoided by Melissa Anelli early on, if she had recused herself from reporting on the case, and brought in a writer who was steeped in copyright law, and could have explained the murky details to Potter fans, Melissa never did that. I should add, the relationship between the Leaky Cauldron and the HP Lexicon was indeed complex, as both sites were involved with membership with The Floo Network, a small group of high profile HP fan sites. This crisis dissolved that partnership.

I remember all too well, visiting the comments section of The Cauldron, and seeing a propaganda strategy employed with Cauldron insiders, and sychcophants, early on when the mere question, or suggestion of unprofessional bias was raised by a fan, the attacks on fans who raised the question were voracious, and the tactic, of insisting the Cauldron was being objective and professional, this tactic reminded me of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels when he argued that if you repeat a lie, (or, in this case, a credibility exaggeration) persistently and strongly enough, it would be accepted as fact.

At the time of this issue, I created a Facebook group arguing for this unprofessional bias from The Leaky Cauldron, while it generated only a small percent of followers, it provided a platform for a circle of fans to trade information, get the word out, and hold some semblance of accountability.

The tactic’s against Steve Van Der Ark and The Harry Potter Lexicon worked. The price was steep. At the time I had departed HPL in 2005, it was a robust, active site with a large following, and still putting out new material on a regular basis. By 2008, the bulk of the entire staff had resigned, in many cases due to pressure from outside fans, voracious attacks from other fans in many cases towards contributors, and while the Lexicon site is still available, it hasn’t been active in any measure for years.

It is only in retrospect after a number of years, that certain things become clear. At the time of the RDR suit, one of the claims of JKR’s legal team was a print edition of the PHL site would be detrimental to the eventual publication of a Harry Potter Enclyopedia to be written by JKR, an argument that never washed for me as there was never any evidence to me that the writing of such an encyclopedia was impending. It baffled me that JKR’s team, at the time, would focus on such a tactic as to character assassinate Van Der Ark and the HP Lexicon, and it only became clear recently when JKR launched “Pottermore”, an official site was probably in the works at the time the RDR lawsuit developed. They probably saw a window of opportunity to use the “fair use” issue to eliminate a website competitor. JKR has been known for having a litigious inclination over other slights. In fairness to JKR, in her deposition she did comment that her decision to move forward with the suit had nothing to do with Warner Brothers, you can find a summary of the entire case here.

By 2005, while I had grown disillusioned within the fandom of Harry Potter, it was mostly a desire to move into other independent areas, by 2008, my disillusionment was complete. Personally, and sadly, I feel no connection whatsoever to that scene. I haven’t bothered to read any of JK Rowling’s books since then. Not The Tales of Beedle The Bard, not The Casual Vacancy, not The Cockoo’s Calling. I wish her luck, but I moved on.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of professional fan sites engaging in this kind of conduct is the fact that they become blunt tools of corporate interest, and I suspect that The Leaky Cauldron, Melissa Anelli, and her team were mere pawns in a greater scheme. I haven’t found this to be the case within X-Files fan circles, and to the great credit of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, they have always been approachable to the fans, and seemed to feel little threat over copyright issues, as long as such fan activity promotes the X-Files / Millennium phenomenon in a beneficial manner.

I cited this example to illustrate a byproduct of what happens when webmasters gain too much access – you see a level of abuse, of jockeying for power where the need becomes to stamp out competition, and ultimately there are no winners in such circumstances, based on what I’ve heard through other sources, website interest in the Leaky Cauldron has declined in numbers. I always suspected it would.

Conclusion – The problem itself.

I have addressed a number of points to breakdown my observations, and issues with the conduct of outside professional fan sites. To the great credit of the X-Files fandom community, I rarely if ever see these issues, most of the fandom are populated by such intelligent, and independently minded people, I see less of an inclination for sycophantic behavior, it may be there, but it seems to correct itself over time, and that’s why I love being involved with this fan base.

One remedy might be our support of the network platform known as The Syndicate, as the platform might help The X-Files / Millennium fan community to steer away from the click type situations that leave segments of fandom insulated, but I digress.

I think the reason why these behaviors come up for webmaster’s of some professional fan sites, might simply be that such webmasters allow their identity to be defined by the success of such sites, if they have nothing else to fall back on – for example, success with an independent career or occupation, or artistic success as a filmmaker, writer, musician, painter, illustrator, or a digital artist. But my observation remains that the success of running a professional fan site is a hollow success, especially being that you are focused on the creative success of someone else, yet we live in a culture where there’s a growing trend to celebrate trivial success.

In my case, I have varying degrees of success, and a career that involves my personal passions,.. filmmaking, music, writing, and media. Where I don’t feel the need to cling to the success of the Lexicon, I would be more than willing to walk away and hand ownership to someone else if the opportunity were to arise.

I have seen cases of webmasters whom have stayed too long in the game, and should have handed control to others and walked away, where they have allowed hubris to damage their credibility – pride goeth before the fall, so to speak.

While I can understand this fear, this desire to cling to what they have, life is also about change, and moving into new territories. Buddhism describes the very problem of attachments, and the need to let go.

Ultimately, the highest compliment you could pay to an artist who has influenced you is to go forth and create your own original material, and that itself, perpetuates a healthy cycle of creativity.

AddendumIn 2009, when I had access to the good people at 20th Century Fox Television, I took a risk and asked the legal team at Fox, if they saw any issues, or evidence I had breached the issue of “Fair Use” regarding The X-Files. At that time, they found no issues of concern.

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