So fandom's latest kerfluffle involves yet another example of someone angering the creative community with an ill-advised choice of words. The short version of the chain of events is thus:


Luke Jackson has removed the original rejection letter which started it all from his blog, but it's inevitably been posted elsewhere.

In summary? In my opinion, Sanders is an idiot and has managed to torpedo his own ship. And now he's standing at the bow of the sinking vessel, stamping his feet and screaming obscenities about the whole mess, blaming the world for his own mistakes, and all the while denying that he's about to get wet.

Googling "Sanders rejection letter" should give you lots more information about the whole disastrous affair if you care to read about it. I don't think I need to discuss the issues here in depth; Sanders' actions and words are sufficient for people to draw their own conclusions. Likely, those conclusions will be ones that Sanders doesn't want us to make.

And that is what this article is about. It's about public image, and the computer age, and working with a large community of people who are technologically literate, extremely intelligent, sharply critical thinkers, and who deal with everything by debating it to death.

Dude, fen will argue at great length about the bathroom habits of Disney's Gargoyles, the color of Superman's eyes, or the exact magical phrase needed to turn Harry Potter into a toad. If an editor of a 'zine, or anyone in a position of power, acts badly -- it will be noticed and then discussed with server-crashing volumes of traffic coupled, likely, with monitor-melting levels of heat. Stupidity by The Powers That Be is way more interesting and important than how a cartoon character goes potty. We fans just go ape over Powers That Be Stupidity.

This editorial is specifically about fandom, but could also apply to many other interest groups. I am constantly astonished by the people in charge of things who "should know better" who just can't seem to deal with the "public relations" part of the internet. The difference between fandom and other groups online is that our percentage of Really Smart People is a bit higher than the average, as a general rule. And we're also, as a general rule, very good communicators. However, the basic rules of "dealing with people online" apply everywhere. They're just amplified when it comes to fans.

Sanders is just one recent example of Not Dealing With Angry Fen Well. Fanlib's Chris Williams did something remarkably similar when he commented in fan blogs with an obscenity-laced diatribe, way back last year. Both the old management and the new management of Livejournal have likewise choked on their own feet. And let us not forget Big Media's behavior towards both the fans and the writers during the Writer's Strike, in which Big Media representatives repeatedly told half-truths and complete lies, and fandom noticed and rallied behind the writers and mocked Big Media in all sorts of enthusiastic ways.

I could go on with other examples, but those are the three that come immediately to mind. And in all three cases I've been boggled by the sheer level of incompetence at public relations.

Specifically, some things that should be obvious, but apparently aren't, include:

  • If you use ethnic slurs, general insults, or derogatory words, people will notice, be it calling Arabs "sheet heads" as Sanders did or a Livejournal bigwig calling users with Basic accounts "freeloaders." Likely, people will be offended by your rude words. Possibly, the people offended will be potential clients, customers, or contributors, or editors of other 'zines who will draw attention to your words.
  • Yes, e-mails should be kept private. However, what if the recipient of your e-mail decides to share it with the world even though it's rude to do so? Are you comfortable with what you said being distributed to everyone and their LOLcat? There are at least two common scenarios that lead to mass distribution: betrayal by the recipient of your e-mail, and an e-mail being accidentally seen by someone it wasn't intended for. Both are more common than you'd think. Perhaps it's best not to send that nasty comment via e-mail at all ...
  •  If you can't respond politely to criticism in the heat of the moment, it's probably best to walk away until you can say something more civilized. If necessary, have a trusted friend, coworker or your PR department check how your response might sound to others.
    Do not respond when you're angry, drunk, exhausted, sick, emotionally distraught over unrelated issues, or otherwise not in a happy state of mind. Claiming fans are meanies who are putting fecal matter all over your hard work is probably not the best way to handle things. (Yes, Fanlib, I'm looking at you. We have not forgotten.) And while the occasional swear word is damn appropriate in some instances, fucking swearing every fucking other fucking word fuck fuck ... isn't. It makes you look like a god-damned motherfucking fool who's gotten too angry to effectively use the English language. (Yes, Sanders, that was aimed at you. I strongly recommend that you lose the dirty words. You're an editor -- surely, you can figure out a way to dramatically punctuate your comments with something other than the foul sort of language a fourteen year old gangsta would use to impress his buddies.)
  • Respond promptly to criticism, but keep #3 in mind. Delaying a response (despite the wank that will ensue as fen clamor for you to say something) is better than giving an off-the-cuff answer that will be seen as rude, incomplete, or contain problematic information.
  • Apologies are awesome. Apologies are free. You do not necessarily admit to fault by apologizing. A well-crafted and honest apology will work a lot better at getting you back into fandom's good graces than being sputteringly, angrily defensive. See # 3. Sooner or later, the excreta will hit the rotating blades and you will need to respond. Again, apologies are great.
  • Use good grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Fandom will excuse the occasional typo (though someone will probably point it out to you) but if your response reads like it was written by an illiterate third grader, have a someone fix it for you. Additionally, if English is not your first language and (hey, Livejournal, your turn to be picked on) you're likely to think that freeloader is a perfectly acceptable and polite thing to call a potential customer, you probably need to get a native speaker to check your comments before you post them. 
  • Make sure your facts are accurate. Because we'll verify them. If they're wrong, you'll look stupid at best, or deliberately misleading at worst. We do not like to be misled.
  • Don't ever put anything online that you don't want your end users to see. Actually -- be careful with the content of any marketing material intended for clients, because you never know when someone might slap something on a scanner. Be respectful. I'm reminded of Fanlib with this rule; they had one web site for clients, and another for fans ... and the web site for their clients presented the company in a very different light than the face they were trying to show to fandom. Fandom found the client web site, and the response was an impressive volume of wank.
  • Don't assume that the people you're talking to are "just fans" and you can get away with being rude to us because we're "nobodies." The line between "fan" and "pro" is grey, nebulous, and ever-shifting. Many pros go incognito with anonymous handles. Many pros identify as fans. Many, if not most, pros started out as fans. Many fans are good friends with pros, or will become pros someday. If you offend the little bitty uninfluential fans, you're likely also offending pros -- and the pros may be people you really want to like you for business reasons, if you're a business person trying to market something to fandom. 
  • Don't try to make money from fandom without honestly giving something back. My personal theory on why Fanfiction.net generally gets a pass from fen for what is likely tens of thousands of dollars a month in ad revenue, and Fanlib doesn't, is that Xing started Fanfiction.net as a college project and ran it out of his own pocket for a very long time before ever putting ads on it. Fanfiction.net predates the commercialization of the 'net. He didn't mean for it to be an 1,100,000-page-a-day site. He's earned fandom's good will. Conversely, Fanlib's wanted to make money off of fandom from the get-go, is run by media moguls (one member of their board of directors is the brother to CBS's CEO) and they come across as highly and greedily commercial. Yet fandom doesn't really benefit from Fanlib; they're not providing anything new and they're not genuinely "giving back." And because of the way Fanlib presented themselves, between a bad TOS and a foul-mouthed leader who cussed out the very people who he intended to market the site to, fandom's reaction was massively negative. 
  • And most importantly, if you screw up, own up to it. And expect debate and vitriole and cat macros in response to your screw-up and don't get overly excited about it. A few people will take things to extreme, as always, but if you apologize and fix what can be fixed, and don't fan the flames, things will die down eventually. If you're clearly in the wrong and you get defensive or angry, and won't admit you screwed up, the fans who are yelling you at the beginning are going to summon their friends, who will call more friends, and possibly e-mail me and all the other bloggers out there who have big podiums to shout from. You really don't want to be at the center of a fandom dogpile because you couldn't summon up the stones to say I screwed up and I'll fix what I can and I promise to do better in the future.

Honestly -- this article was mostly a bit of venting. I don't expect the William Sanders or Chris Williams or Livejournal execs of the world to read this and take it to heart. But it sure felt good to stand up on my virtual podium here and say it. And maybe a few people will clue in that  if you behave like an ass fandom will notice that you are braying.

And for the people who don't have enough common sense to behave professionally when faced with a fandom mob ... well, stupidity from The Powers That Be does keep things interesting, I'll give it that. And inevitabley, it does give me something to write about ...