You Don’t Own Your Message

Say you’re going to post something up on the internet — a tweet or FaceBook status, a video, a blog post, whatever. Here’s something key to keep in mind when dealing with people checking that out: you don’t actually own your message.

Simple statement, complex idea. To break it down some, hopefully, we’re dealing in an age of rampant asynchronous communication and content-on-demand. (To be fair, synchronous communication over long distances is by and large a relatively new concept to humankind, and we’re still struggling with institutions that have business models set up around content-on-scheduled-broadcast. So, these are partly societal growing pains. At least, I utterly hope it’s just that.)

Parenthetical disgression aside, the point is that because we’re talking about content that is consumed at the viewer’s choosing and lacking an immediate feedback cycle, we’re actually kinda fucked as content creators. Here’s why: we have no idea what mental state our reader/viewer/listener is in.

One, we have no control over the immediate past. Living in a constant fire hose of subscription-centric information, with Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, all that, whoever reads what you’ve written will do so with the last thing their read still imprinted on their mind. Here’s an example:

  • Jeff is reading this very blog post on his iPad’s RSS reader while waiting for food delivery. He’s a bit grouchy from being hungry. Right before that, he got an email from his boss who is pissed off because their client is pissed off and it’s trickling down to Jeff. So, Jeff’s in a crap mood and that’s coloring how he’s reading this post.
  • Will is reading this in the morning, after waking up all natural-like on his day off. He’s got his iPad RSS reader and reading in the bathroom, right after checking his email. He got a sweet love-letter from his girlfriend that he read a few minutes prior, so he’s going into everything super-charitibly.

Those are extreme examples, but even positive or negative tweets you read prior to a new, unrelated one will color your read of that tweet.

Two, we have no reasonable expectations for when our readers will end up reading this. This gets into talks about circadian rhythm and all that jazz, but the time of day we read something does have a great impact on how we read things. (That said, this feels like utter common sense that someone’s done an actual study on. So if anyone knows of one, please comment with a link? Thanks!)

Three, in an age of retweets and likes and other social media propogators, you may well be impacted by someone’s commentary before reading what they’re talking about, thus coloring any follower’s perception of that blog. Now, people will still form their own opinions, but coloring is pretty influencial.

  • Jeff sees a tweet to this post with the hashtag #smartpeopletalking, and clicks on the link. His viewing is likely now colored with a sense that he’ll get something out of it. Maybe I’ll fulfill that expectation, maybe disappoint, but regardless that’s what he’s coming in with.
  • Will sees a tweet to this post with the comment “Macklin’s got it wrong again, that fuck.” He’s probably viewing this now with hostility or at least negative interest. So, hey, I have a reader that has a very differently-colored agenda with my post.

(That said, the latter can also work to your advantage. If you hear that someone that routinely hates things you like rants against something, you’ll probably go in with a more open mind thanks to the magic of association. Couple years back, used to be that RPG Pundit fulfilled this role for fans of indie games, which is why people sent him review copies. Negative reviews sell games.[1])

Four, people have long-term baggage and innocuous elements of a post will set people off in random directions, positive and negative. For instance, when I see someone add a smilie to charged language, like:

You’re wrong :)

…I get extra-pissed off at the passive-aggressiveness of it. Now, person might be trying to inject levity, but man instead I have years of interactions where that’s been used in order to get away with being a cockbite. So, I can’t read that uncharged. Similarly, I had a friend recently tell me about how he sees the footnotes[2] that Paul Tevis, Rob Donoghue and I do as being “cliquish.” I wanted to say, rather dismissively, “eh, that’s just your baggage,” but then I realized he had a point — and one of the reasons I’m making this post. I don’t control his reaction to using footnotes, or anyone else’s. And I have to remember that.

Granted, that doesn’t mean I’m going to sterilize my blog. If I did, I wouldn’t have a giant cockbite in my tag cloud. But I have to understand the cost of using these techniques of information presentation, if I’m going to be effective.

Now, not all of these problems are new (nor is this list exhaustive), but the ways in which we consume media today worsen their effects. And they ways in which we can be very publicly reactionary[3], which then further worsens it. While I like to add “and here’s stuff to do” to these sorts of ideas, I don’t have one right now. “Be mindful” is crap advice, but it’s all I have at the moment. Be mindful as a content creator and as a content consumer.

Because, again, you don’t own the moment your post will be read. You don’t own the headspace of your reader. And as much as you wish you did, you don’t own your message…because you don’t have control over the messenger: the Internet.

– Ryan

[1] And since negative reviews sell games, I never negatively review. If I hate something that much, the worst thing I can do for it is to give it no traffic.

[2] Hi!

[3] Which, for personal reasons, has been a touch harder for me to put a lid on lately.


8 Responses to You Don’t Own Your Message

  1. Rob Donoghue says:

    Cliquish? I mean, not that I object to forming a clique with you and Paul, but that seems an oddly specific complaint.

    Beyond that, I’d add the 5th point that History is not on your side. In two years, this stuff’s still going to be there, and that’s going to be _someone’s_ first impression. And if it depends on context (like a current debate or even your own recent posts) it’s going to invite a WTF. (I’m guilty of this one more than I’d like to be).

    All the more reason for Random Skyping of Awesomeness.

    -Rob D.

  2. Will says:

    All writing departs from a very different place than where it lands. You may never know exactly what climate your work arrives in, and you have no control over that. I have a lot of experience with this. I try not to frame things too aggressively, most of the time, and I try not to send attention—positive or negative—toward things I don’t like.

    I could go off on a related tangent, here, about how I reacted to, for example, Apocalypse World‘s context—and how that context was perhaps illusory—but I won’t. The point is, writing comes to us all through an atmosphere and can accrue things on the surface along the way.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I agree. And I think most of us are good about keeping this in mind for large projects, like books — or, at least, that’s a common trait among those whom I respect.

      But we’re only starting to grasp that with social media, because it’s both a conversation and this other thing. And in a face-to-face or vocal conversation, and to a degree even an IM conversation (because of the synchronous nature), we own our message far more. Twitter, et al, is a conversation…where we don’t. New ground, I think.

      – Ryan

  3. Mike Olson says:

    Yep. Lesson learned.

  4. Andrew Smith says:

    Interesting to see textual criticism applied to social media. No matter the forethought, planning and empathy we try to imbue into the text, it becomes its own thing the moment it’s written, out of control of the author. And that’s also at the centre of good advice about writing a game text: the author isn’t present to explain it, it’s just the text.