Foot In Mouth Disease
Sometimes I surprise myself with my own stupidity. And after the number of years (decades) that I’ve been dealing with it, one might think that by now I’d have learned to take a step back and pause before I proceed down the long, dark hallways leading to the abyss of sheer idiocy, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how often I keep putting my foot in it.
Take, for example, my last Life Serial.
A few words about what it was: The episode was titled “Role Playing,” but a more accurate title would have been “Fear & Loathing In Atlanta.” In it, I adopted a charicature of myself as some blow-hard know-it-all liquored-up drug addict Web developer working for a multinational conglomerate with West Coast headquarters in San Francisco. I lived in a palatial apartment, reading my piles of email using virtual reality hardware while my automatically adjusting entertainment center entertained me with streaming pornography. The plot concerned this rock star version of Lance being contracted to fill in for Jeff Veen at a Web development conference in Atlanta and this rock star’s observations about life in the big leagues.
How it came about was through a prolonged lack of sleep and one extremely bad travel day involving two airlines, three jets and 12 hours at Atlanta’s airport with nothing to do but get into trouble.
What’s happened since is a lesson in Web politics and the fine art of illusory reality.
To me, it was a sort of literary exercisea way to stretch my boundaries and provide something more entertaining here than another lengthy whine about why I hate the ants on my sink or whether or not it is my responsibility to buy a shower head for my bathroom when I’m only renting. See, after a while, if you’re writing about yourself, you run out of things to write about, about yourself. You start repeating things, or trying to make mundane observations seem really, really interesting.
Plus, I have been travelling along down the road of sweet obliviousness not thinking about whether anyone actually cares what I write about.
That is, until my last entry.
Now, although my sleepless stupor is a good enough excuse for the content of the piece, I had sufficiently recovered by the time I posted the thing for the world to find. And not once in the course of that posting (which only takes a second or two, when it comes right down to it) did I stop to consider, “hmm, I wonder if anything in here would be offensive to someone…”
Well, that’s not entirely true. I wondered if Jeff Veen, whose name I named, would be offended. But the point of the piece (not that there was one, you understand) was to create such an overblown sense of self, such an unbelievable set of circumstances about what goes in the the mostly boring, mostly overworked life of your average Web site developer that a sense of realityin my own untested estimation (in that I never showed it to anyone else before publishing it)would add just that touch of irony so that hilarity would ensue. Admittedly, a lot of that piece had so much inside humor threaded through it that it could, I can see in retrospect, be misunderstood to be actually true by anyone unfamiliar with the players and my own on-going habit of plumping up the pillow of my ego before laying my head to rest on it.
The stuff I forgot was that it was about a big Web development conference that actually took place, that I stood up before hundreds of its attendees and announced my URL, that it was entirely possible that a goodly portion of that audience doesn’t know Jack about me or the San Francisco Web scene and it’s odd sense of bloated self-worth, and that someone among them might not find it particularly funny that I was using that conference as a major plot point, including phrases that describe such conferences as “Quite the scam, but a profitable and, I’m glad to say, monthly one.”
Tick, Tick, Tick…
I would be no one’s first choice as a conference speaker. I look bored and disinterested on panels (because I’m usually tired or suffering from a little stage fright so, like an animal caught in headlights, I try to freeze and blend with my surroundings) and I don’t give good presentation. Jeff Veen, on the other hand, is like this electric dynamo up there. He’s all animated and articulate and knows his stuff backwards and forwards. People look forward to some Veen. Veen’s name in a conference’s catalog spells excitement, edutainment, fun!
My name, I imagine, draws head-scratching and the sort of looks one gives to other drivers when they’re caught picking their nose. A sort of brow-scrunch accompanied a shaking of the head.
So, picture if you will packing your belongings after having paid thousands of dollars for access to a Web development conference and a hotel room and other sundry travel expenses, your trip at least partially and perhaps entirely predicated on hearing Jeff Veen speak on a subject you are quite keen on hearing about. Then, picture your crest-fallen expression when it is announced on opening day that Mr. Veen was unable to attend at the last minute and the substitute teacher will be someone you’ve never heard of.
You are likely to be, in a word, pissed.
Now, picture yourself as the organizer of said conference. You are doing everything you can to make a good conference. You are trying to cram a lot of education into every minute of your attendee’s time, you are attempting to make sure everything comes offthat microphones are working, that PowerPoint slides are sliding, that everyone shows up where they need to be, when they need to beyou are attempting to have a conference that makes people want to come back, and tells other people they should come. Then you lose a key presenter and get a fill-in at the last moment.
Panic sets in. You have huge responsibilities. Sure, shit happens, but you’re the one who can’t shrug it off and expect someone else to clean it up. You have to clean it up, and while your original presenter is a known quantity, a published author and “draw” for an audience, the new guy has a site you heard of once and you’re not even sure if he’s employed by anyone.
But things come off okay. No one gets hurt, the audience (while not as happy as they might have been) gets the material as scheduled. The conference ends a success and everyone goes home happy.
And then you receive an email from one of those people who had hoped to see Jeff Veen and was instead saddled with me. You read that they visited the site of the substitute presenter and started to read his personal observations of the conference only to learn it was a “scam” and that this asshole apparently thinks himself better than the other people around him.
You then go read it with ever-widening dismay and wonder whether the drugs the author writes about taking have infiltrated themselves so far into his gray matter that he cannot think straight anymore.
Which is what, essentially, happened.
So, now that we’re all (hopefully) on the same page, let me make a few things perfectly clear without the least hint of sarcasm, irony or parody:
While I have, in the past, attended a Web conference which I would consider a complete waste of my time (and I will refrain from naming it but say it is not run by South By Southwest, Miller-Freeman or Thunderlizard) the one I was given an opportunity to attend and participate in last month in Atlanta was definitely not. In fact, Thunderlizard probably manages to cram more useful information into each session than any other conference I have attended. Everyone I spoke with at the conference mentioned how great they thought it was and that it was one of the few where they actually felt they learned something worthwhile. Thunderlizard gives great conference.
I do not envy conference organizers. They have one of the most hair-pulling job on the planet. They have to juggle so many responsibilities and handle so many emergencies in such a compressed amount of time that it’s a wonder they exist at all, and it’s a miracle that the ones I attend on a regular basis are as consistently good as they are. I wish to take this opportunity to apologize to Thunderlizard and to the organizers of the conference for any harm I may have caused. That was certainly never my intention.
I would also like to offer an apology to anyone who attended the conference and was offended by the piece. I will try, in future, to be more cognizant of what I am saying in a public forum before I say it.
I was not asked to pull the other Life Serial nor asked to make any apologies or amends for it here. I’m writing this to “explain the joke” and try to make myself out as less an asshole that I appeared to be, assuming that’s possible. So, yes, this is more about saving my face than anyone else’s.
I am still amazed at the impact of the Web on me. It’s weird for me that stuff I write has any impact at all, that people don’t consume it like Hostess Ding Dongs, just some silly diversion to fill an empty space before moving on. I tend to forget that not everyone who visits this site has the background in place from reading any previous material to know that I’m usually joking. It probably didn’t help that the usual Life Serials are “reality-based” and the past one was (while situationally valid) a complete fabrication.
Another thing about the Web is that damage control is almost completely useless. You can no longer simply delete something and make the problem go away, because then everyone asks “Why did you delete that? What was it about? What happened?” and someone somewhere archived it and they put it up, or it’s in Alexa’s database, or something. This is the new Permanent Record that follows you wherever you go.
As I sit here typing this, believe it or not I’m in a hotel room attending another conference. I’m in Austin, Texas at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival, which concludes today. I sat in on a roundtable discussion yesterday where people who keep personal sites discussed how their lives have changed as a result of publishing themselves, and whether or not they feel obliged to edit their lives as a result.
This particular set of circumstances doesn’t entirely relate to that question, since the entry is not based on my life. But the fact that it had such unforeseen ramifications precisely because it was a fantasy makes me cringe. I cannot blame the audience for believing something if I did not state it was not true, I suppose, but it makes me realize how easily people in fact “believe everything they read.” I suppose I knew that before, but it has never been brought home to me with such impact.
The question I’m asking myself is: “Now what?”
Because, see, I really liked that piece. I really enjoyed writing it. I was planning on writing a lot more like it, but I think I just lost that initiative. Sure, I could falsify everything, but the fun was taking the real and twisting it around, making it bigger and broader and so over the top that no one could possibly believe it was true.
March 14, 2000