The adage is old as the internet itself (which means it’s not really that old): “Don’t read the comments.”
But what do you do when comments are all there are? Welcome to Twitter.
Twitter seems like the perfect marketing vehicle if you’re a creative type: It’s free, you can reach over 328 million monthly active users, and with a little pick-and-choose, you can find those users (hopefully not bots) who are actually interested in your creative endeavor.
But ask anyone who’s used Twitter (that’s pretty much anyone) and they’ll tell you there’s a sunny side of the street, and a shady one. You can connect with fans, sure. You can cultivate new fans, with a little luck. But you can set yourself up to be pilloried for an observation that’s just 10 degrees off the socially correct conception, or a joke that didn’t land right. And it can destroy creativity. Make no mistake: It happens. Joe Quesada admits it.
Quesada is the chief creative officer at Marvel Comics, and in a December 21, 2017 Tweet, said he’s “seen cases where creators changed storylines midway because of perceived online fan revolt.”
Quesada went on to say the effect is indeed a poor one.
“The inevitable changes made things worse and the stories weaker,” he continued in the tweet.
Quesada declines to cite a specific example.
“I won’t give you a for-instance, because that’s calling out a creator, and that’s not fair,” Quesada tells Newsarama. “But I will tell you I’ve seen it more than once. And it never works out well. When a creator changes something because of what they perceive as a certain outcry, it’s artificial. It will fail.”
Quesada has recently become more involved in Marvel’s publishing again, and is trying to address the issue.
“The only thing I can do is have conversations like this, and have them publically,” he says. “My advice to creators is the same as it’s always been: Do not publish in fear. You cannot do that. Once you start to publish in fear, you’re stifled. Creators and publishers have to follow their hearts.”
Finding your heart can be difficult when you’re assaulted by a cacophony of Twitter voices. Mark Waid writes Champions for Marvel. He’s observed his own drift.
“I started writing a book about teenage activists,” Waid says. “By issue #9, I was no longer writing a book about teenage activists.”
Champions was conceived of, at least partially, as a hot-button book, addressing issues including race relations and human trafficking. Waid says that the book really went under the microscope, with different segments of the Twitter population turning the book’s plots into arguments, and trying to swing things to their side. Waid watched, and the voices became loud.
“The drift was pretty conscious after a while. Every time we went out there and tried to say something really important about how kids are doing in the world today, online brought the thunder,” Waid says. “I got gun-shy about social issues, because the hammer came down every time.”
Interestingly, Waid is aware the voices may be few, but they carry weight when they hit his ears. And he draws a massive distinction between the kinds of voices as well. He heard them when he was working on Strange Fruit with J.G. Jones, the tale of a black alien hero in the Jim Crow South.
“If I get criticism of ‘I didn’t like that issue of Flash,’ I can take that or leave that because it’s not personal,” he says. “But when you say to me, ‘You, as a writer, are doing me an injustice as a member of this race or this gender,’ then it is more personal. I’m sure it’s not meant to be personal, but you can’t help but take that to heart because we’re all trying to do our best to get it right and not piss anyone off and be socially aware. And there’s so much criticism on Twitter that you can feel as if you have to bob and weave to avoid it. You tend to tone down the things you were going to do, take the edge to some of your work. You ask, ‘Is this going to be offensive to this group or that group?’”
Waid says, ironically, the greatest thing about Twitter can make it the worst thing for creators trying to find not just their voice, but a character’s voice.
“The real important thing about Twitter as a mover and shaker in the world is that it gives a voice to the disenfranchised,” he says. “If you’re a black kid in Mississippi, your voice is every bit as loud as a white guy in Massachusetts on Twitter. It gives you a voice, and that’s incredibly important. And that’s a reason why, on the whole, Twitter is a force for good.”
But Waid can feel the sting.
“Again, there’s a difference between ‘I didn’t like the way this plot went’ and ‘I’m a Native American, and the way you portrayed my people insulted me,’” he says. “The one is just a matter of story opinion. The other is much more informed opinion. Telling me that I’ve done something that’s racist is more of an informed opinion. It has more weight. It’s harder to shake that off.”
Waid got shook. He took a Twitter sabbatical on April 4, 2017. He came back on November 16, 2017.
“Truth? It was the only way to retrieve some old DMs,” he says. “Then I lurked a bit. It was a mistake. I’m signing back off shortly.”
Sure enough, Waid was gone again on December 28. He’s happy to have lost the voices in his head.
“I know it’s easy just to wave your hand and say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t pay attention, big deal,’” he says. “But…we’re in a seismic era. We’re at a time when this particular platform, Twitter, gives the disenfranchised a stronger voice than they’ve had in a long, long time. It would be foolish not to at least listen. Whether you take heed or take action on what is said is up to you. But it would be foolish of you not to listen.”
Dread Gods writer Ron Marz knows that creators are listening, and taking action, or perhaps inaction. And he's been there before, writing Green Lantern during the days of H.E.A.T. and the backlash over Hal Jordan's turn to evil.
“I don’t know if it’s pervasive, but there certainly are people who have buckled under online pressure, changed stories, left assignments, or maybe didn’t take assignments because it was too hot to handle in their own perceptions,” he says. “That’s not my way of approaching things, but I understand not everyone shares that belief.”
Marz’ words ring true: Writer Cullen Bunn left Aquaman in 2016 at least partially due to hate mail he received over the book’s direction.
For his part, Marz tries not to let online opinions influence his work.
“For God’s sake, you better not let it have any effect,” Marz says. “I approach my work as ‘MY work,’ capital M, capital Y. I’m not crowdsourcing my work. I don’t really care what your opinion is. I write the story that I want to write, and that my client hires me to write. I don’t sit down and think, ‘Well, what would 58% of my Twitter followers like to read?’ You are hired and tasked to do the story to the best of your ability, not your audience’s ability.”
Marz is a very active Twitter user, and sees it as a mixed bag.
“I do think the positives outweigh the negatives but you have to curate your experience,” he says. “You don’t get the interaction you deserve, but you get the interaction you allow. If you’re muting or blocking people you don’t want to interact with, the experience becomes much better. I know that's not necessarily fair. It requires time and effort to constantly prune the rotten apples from the orchard. But it's really the only way I know to gain control over your experience.
"When I get people throwing rocks because of some misguided agenda, or just because they think it’s fun, it's not worth the time to even respond," Marz continues. "Mute them or block them. Once you banish them to the Phantom Zone, they’re just not there anymore. I assume those people still piss and moan at me, but I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
And in 2018, it’s hard not to Tweet if you’re in a creative field. Just ask Lee Goldberg, a longtime TV writer and novelist. His new book, True Fiction, hits on April 1, and yes, he’s tweeting about it. He says its compulsory.
“You have to now,” Goldberg says. “If you are working for a network now, they will demand you engage with fans in social media, that you Tweet from the set. If you’re a novelist, your publisher demands it. They want you to show pictures of yourself on research tours. They want that engagement. They want readers and viewers to invest.”
Goldberg has been around the block, and knows the dance.
“For any entertainment property to be successful, you need fans. So we value fans,” he says. “They keep the show going, the books selling. The balance is to stay friendly, but not become intimate.”
And Goldberg says it’s not just a Twitter phenomenon.
“It’s been going on forever,” he says. “I was a producer on a series called SeaQuest with Roy Scheider, and we had these lunatic, lunatic fans who were impossible. I wrote a novel called Beyond the Beyond that was published a number of years ago, about dealing with these fans. They were insane.”
Insane or not, Joe Quesada is doing more. He says that now that he’s more involved in publishing again, with daily announcements, weekly releases, and monthly solicitations, there’s more to Tweet about. And his colleagues are watching.
Quesada was getting text messages from friends and co-workers as he was tweeting with Marvel readers on December 22. He says the overall tone of the texts were, “Why are you arguing with these people? Stop it!” Quesada laughed off the notion.
“It’s not even close to arguing with people,” he says. “I feel like it’s my responsibility coming from a company like Marvel that’s always had a very high social profile to keep that going. Stan’s Soapbox back in the day set the tone, and now we can talk directly to our readership online. I don’t think I’m arguing with anyone. I’m trying to be frank. And usually when someone comes at me on Twitter with a headful of steam, 95% of the time if I just engage them frankly and honestly, we get along fine.”
Quesada says he does so without oversight from his bosses. Under the Disney umbrella, clearly ESPN has social media guidelines, which visited themselves upon studio host Jemele Hill. But Quesada says he roams free.
“I have never been given any guidelines,” he says. “I have my own personal rules of conduct: Be respectful of other people’s opinions, and understand that our fans come in all shapes and sizes and opinions.”
Warner Bros. (and thus DC) has a policy: You must ID yourself a Warner employee, and state “opinions my own.” The policy is loosely adhered to and loosely enforced, but exists in Warner’s rules. And to Goldberg’s point, the company wants you to do it. When Warner Bros. named Walter Hamada its new president of DC film production, DC’s Geoff Johns welcomed him and encouraged him to start a Twitter account (via Twitter, of course).
And maybe Twitter is a beast of your own creation.
Now that he’s on ulti-mute and has left Twitter again (we’ll see if he returns), Mark Waid admits, “I’m still bobbing and weaving. That may be more endemic to me than the process, but…I don’t know, I don’t think so. I talk to a lot of creative people, and when they hear things they don’t like…it sticks with you sometimes.”
And maybe fans need something to stick with them.
“Yes, it’s our job to entertain the audience, but we’re not your employees,” Lee Goldberg says. “We can’t take creative direction from the viewer or the reader. Now you may disagree with that, but people will always have different, often opposing views, of what they want. You can spend your entire life trying to placate these fans and never get there. It’s a sinkhole.”