Nonfiction

On Community Design & Stewardship

(this post was originally a Twitter thread, I’ve added a few things that came up in the ensuing conversation and refined/clarified a few points)

At this point, I’ve been in the audio drama community to some degree or another since September or October of 2017 – I think I joined an audio drama fan Slack in July or August of 2017, and October 13, 2017 was when Unplaced launched. In that time, I’ve made a lot of friends, including some people that I would call my closest friends, but I’ve also noticed a few things that I’ve talked about before and want to keep bringing up so we can have a conversation about them.

Namely, I want to talk about:

  • Gatekeeping in the community
  • Impact vs. intent when it comes to media critique
  • Community design & stewardship

(Quick side note: When I talk about the audio drama/audio fiction podcast community, I’m talking about people who are creating things, actively engaging with other creators, and people who are actively engaging with the medium (critically, writing about it, sharing about it, etc.) and/or creators, not necessarily every single person listening to podcasts.)

Gatekeeping in the audio drama community

This has been a frequent topic of discussion in the last few months; Sean Howard of Alba Salix & Other Bothers recently wrote a post about it as well.

The basic rundown of this conversation is:

  • There’s something of a split in the community as to whether “audio drama” is the best term to cover fictional podcasts, for various reasons (including marketability, what the average person thinks of when they hear “audio drama,” etc.)
  • That conversation is semi-related to, but not exactly the same, as the “what constitutes an audio drama?” conversation. There are people who feel very strongly that having any kind of framing device, or even a narrator for your fictional podcast, bars you from being a “true” audio drama and makes your podcast something else that should go in another category. (What category? How is this going to help the burgeoning indie audio fiction community at all? Not really a ton of good answers!)
  • A spin-off of that is that a lot of people feel that audio dramas (largely, scripted fictional podcasts that involve some degree of sound design & soundscaping) and actual play podcasts (mostly-improvised podcasts, created within the framework of a tabletop RPG game, with varying degrees of sound design & soundscaping depending on the podcast) should be strictly separated. I have a lot of opinions on this (some of which I talk about here), but the TLDR is that I think audio drama & actual plays have more in common than they do differences, and that it makes more sense for us to build community bridges than anything else.

I’ve talked before about framing devices in a thread here, and why I think a lot of the commentary on them falls short. My basic point is that framing devices are often used as a shortcut to reduce cast and sound effects/sound design, which is why they’re something you see first-time creators &/or creators on a budget doing.

Because of this and the related factors, I think that we, as a community, need to be very careful when we’re critiquing podcasts for using things like framing devices. It is, of course, possible for someone to resort to a framing device out of laziness. It’s also very possible they went that way for specific reasons that might not be immediately apparent to you, the listener.

In general, my two thoughts on the gatekeeping conversation (and the related conversations around framing devices/narrators/etc.) are:

  1. I’m very bored of people nitpicking and arguing over what constitutes audio drama & what doesn’t. It’s a waste of energy that we should all stop indulging in.
  2. When people are commenting on framing devices or audio quality (or even factors like editing or the tightness of editing when it comes improvised podcasts), without thinking about how resources play into those factors, they’re doing a disservice to the most marginalized in the community. Why? Because people who have less resources have to consider that when they’re creating things.

When I say resources, I don’t just mean money or good equipment. I also mean:

  • The people that are in your network
  • The background of those people and you (arts, audio training, writing, acting, etc.)
  • The amount and quality of free time and energy that all of you have

All of these factors and their impact often get left out of community conversations about privilege/access/resources and who has what.

I touched on this in the framing devices thread above. For example, having access to trained actors or improvisers? Not something the majority of people have, not by a long shot. (Shocking no one, I have yet another related rant for this point, too.)

It’s also very worth noting that a lot of times, when it comes to framing devices, tropes, etc., when a certain kind of person (cough cough), does it, it’s a fun homage to the classics. If anyone else does it? It’s cheap and hacky. (Where did I recently see a tweet about how the line between “cult classic” and “box office bomb” depends on how many white guys created the movie and/or loved it?) 

This can get tricky because some of this does come down to taste. I’m not here to be the thought police about what you do or don’t listen to. I’m not saying you should force yourself to listen to a podcast that you don’t like, or one with audio so bad it gives you a migraine. Instead, my point is that people often say things like:

“Every show should have this level of production!”

…where “this” = “a level of production achieved by multiple people with 5-10 years of experience working in the show in their 10-15 hours a week of free time.” And people say that without thinking about the message that sends to creators who don’t have those resources. That brings us to…

Media & creator critiques: impact vs. intent

Across all kinds of mediums, people tend to be really hard on marginalized creators. On some level, I understand why it happens. Often, it seems like fans are saying “I see you as like me, so I hold you to higher standards and take it more personally when you screw up or do something I don’t like.”

Sometimes, however, it’s definitely not that. Namely, (white) people coming down really hard on creators of color in the same places where they’ll give white creators a pass. 

This has been on my mind a lot because it recently came up in the TTRPG community around Zak S and how people reacted to different publishers/figures making statements about him. DC and Brandon Leon-Gambetta both pointed this out on Twitter, which is how I noticed this.

The specifics of that scenario are way too big & complicated to explain here. But the point is that, as someone with only surface-level knowledge of things, I didn’t understand what was happening until I saw the tweets from DC & Brandon. Once I had more context, I really saw the difference in how different people were being treated/”held accountable.”

We need to be really, really careful about this, especially in a community that prides itself & talks a big game about how accepting and diverse it is. (Although, obviously, while I do think that overall the community is Pretty Great, you can probably tell I have some reservations about that statement and how often it’s thrown around.) 

In particular, it seems like white LGBTQ+ people are really fucking bad about flinging cookies at cishet white people for any crumb of representation…and then holding QTPOC creators to impossible standards. They can’t ever fuck up, and if they do, they need to apologize exactly the right way, on exactly the right timetable, or they’re canceled. 

Again, we need to be very aware of this tendency and of these patterns replicating themselves in our community. This is especially true since fiction podcasts tend to be overwhelmingly white.

Critiquing queer content & creators

Outside of issues that tend to come up around race and creators of color, I still think we have a lot of work to do on the LGBTQ+ front, as well. People in or around the community often make a huge deal about how the medium is very queer & very queer friendly. I don’t think this comes with any kind of ill-intent behind it, but I have some mixed feelings about this commentary, at least at the level and frequency with which it’s applied.

Is indie audio drama/fiction more LGBTQ+ friendly than mainstream media? Sure, no doubt! But I think people (both queer & cishet alike) often confuse “friendlier than the mainstream” with “true equality has been achieved.”

It strikes me as similar to the phenomena where people will insist that a certain city is “so liberal,” so bigotry doesn’t exist there. Or when people assume that since marriage equality is a thing, housing and employment discrimination don’t exist. That’s…not how any of this works.

Someday, when I have the time, I want to do a comprehensive statistical analysis on queer representation and creators in audio drama/fiction, because I really don’t feel like we’re as over-represented as people act. (I would also love to apply this to characters and creators of color and gender of characters/creators…it would be quite the project, but I’m going to try and tackle it at some point in 2019.)

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think our primary issues around diversity & representation are largely race and class. I’m not trying to distract from those issues, either. But when it comes to queer representation in audio fiction, I’m not convinced this isn’t the recurring issue of people being so used to hearing from majority voices that minorities having slightly more space than usual feels like overrepresentation.

Here’s some more reading on that:

(Based on anecdata, my own experiences, and these studies, it seems highly likely that similar patterns can and do show up around other patterns of majority/minority groups. I wasn’t able to find more studies on them as relates to race/sexuality/etc. but if you have them I’d love to see & add them.)

It’s also worth noting that people will often put more effort into collaborating with and representing cisgender LGBQ folks than with trans peeps. I believe that was touched on some in the trans panel at Podcon, so that’s worth a listen if you have access (or a read through this Twitter thread if you don’t).

There’s yet another facet here: there isn’t a complete dearth of queer characters, but there aren’t a lot of shows in which queer content is at the forefront of the show. Both of these things are important, but there’s a difference. Shows in which queer content is at the forefront (especially if they’re more slice-of-life than sci-fi) are more likely to get criticized as pandering, unrealistic, etc. There are a lot of stories stories in which there are queer characters, but their queerness is never the focus of the narrative. We deserve rom-coms and slice-of-life escapism and low-stakes stories about being queer, too.

When shows do have queer content at the forefront, they tend to get more backlash on social media and elsewhere. Erin Kyan of Love & Luck has mentioned more than once that the show gets a lot of nasty messages on Twitter. I also can’t help but feel like the content itself often comes under much more scrutiny, both for quality of writing, but also for Problematic Content ™.

This can get really tricky to discuss because I don’t think we should be making excuses for awful behavior, either. Rape/abuse/etc. absolutely shouldn’t get a pass because it involves a queer couple. At the same time, we’re very steeped in a culture that tells us queer people are deviant and gross and perverts. That seems to transfer over into people being hypercritical of queer characters and dynamics/relationships, whether canon or subtextual, any time there’s a marginally problematic element. People will jump on those dynamics immediately, even if the media itself isn’t portraying the element in a positive light.

Again, I want to make sure we’re checking this impulse in podcasts, as I’ve seen it appear a few times and it runs rampant in other fandom communities. We’re allowed to create complex LGBTQ+ characters. Representation that only shows uncomplicated “good” characters isn’t the full breadth of representation. If you’re enthusiastically supportive of shows created by cishet people whose only queer characters are uncomplicated background gays, but often critique media from queer creators, it’s worth examining that.

(I want to take a moment here to acknowledge that I spent more time talking about treatment of LGBTQ+ characters & creators here than creators or characters of color. That is not because I think it’s any less important — it’s because I cannot speak to that experience and don’t want to speak over people. Please listen to creators of color talk about their experiences. And please, for the love of all things good and holy, before you cancel a creator of color, think about the last time you canceled a white creator & what it was for, and the things you’ve given white creators a pass for.) 

There’s an endless amount of things to say about the strict standards that people will hold marginalized creators to. This goes doubly so for indie creators, who are often doing a part-time job’s worth of work on top of a full-time job, and responding to criticism on the weekends/after hours. Please be gracious with people when they’re trying to do better. 

Community design & closed communities

When it comes to audio drama, the places I get the most support and value from are closed communities. They exist in private places on Discord and Slack, not on Twitter or Facebook. I’d really like to see more attention brought to this as the community continues to grow, because if I didn’t have those places, I would feel pretty left out in the cold.

When it comes to public spaces, Twitter is a mixed bag at best, since people are prone to saying and/or doing the things I’ve mentioned here. In general, Twitter isn’t the best place for nuanced, complicated conversations, and in the interest of getting under the character count, people will often over-simplify their take. Reddit is a place many people avoid for its awful reputation, and Facebook is a very mixed bag depending on which specific group you’re in. (I will say that the MBMBAMino Podcasters group is a bright spot in my Facebook experience.)

There’s also something to note about the blanket assumptions around who the community consists of, and the decisions that are made based on that assumption. For example, from what I’ve touched on so far in this section, there’s:

  • The assumption that everyone has to or will use Twitter the same way (I’ve seen people get very touchy about Twitter usage that doesn’t seem aggressive to me, a person who comes from a B2B marketing background. Spammy behavior is bad, but how people use Twitter depends a lot on when they joined Twitter and the context they joined in.)
  • The assumption that people are very familiar with Discord or Slack and know how to join a community, or even that there are communities available to join (most people that I know are only familiar with Discord through gaming contexts, and only familiar with Slack if they work at a company that uses it for internal organization)
  • The assumption that people have jobs that put them at a computer to interact with people on Discord/Slack communities during the most active community hours, or have a phone with a good enough data plan to be using it regularly when not at a computer

People act like the audio drama community is as simple as “You’re making an audio drama? Cool! You’re in!”

That’s a very nice thought and that should be our goal, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like that from the other side. A lot of the commentary I observed for the first 6-9 months I was in or interacting with the audio drama/fiction community made me feel like an outsider, and that feeling hasn’t entirely left. I still regularly get frustrated with the way actual play podcasts are talked about in audio drama communities, which is something I’ll write about soon.

If nothing else, there’s almost always the assumption that everyone in the room (so to speak) is coming from a college-educated background. This feels a little nitpicky to bring up repeatedly, but I only do so because it’s happened very regularly.

The (usually not stated outright, but often implied) assumption is that the majority of people in the room not only have a college degree, but also have some kind of experience with theater, the arts, writing, or audio work at a college level. Or even at a high school level. I grew up in a rural area, and my high school didn’t have a theater program, so I have no context for most of these conversations.

All of these factors are related

It’s frustrating to see people either completely ignore the issue (or more accurately, the multiple interlocking issues), or agree that things could use some work, but it’s mostly great, and so they don’t feel the pressure to take any action. I love the friends I’ve made through these communities, don’t get me wrong. But I know these issues turn people away or keep them on the fringes, because every single time I talk about it, someone reaches out to me to say they thought they were the only one that felt this way. (This happened after I did the Twitter thread that this post is based on, again.)

If I still regularly feel like an outsider (often due to the no formal arts experience/no college degree issue, though not only due to that), well over a year after I started being active in the community, other people definitely do. This is especially true because I have other obvious things about me that mark me as the group majority (namely, being white).

These problems aren’t always obvious

It’s worth adding that a lot of the time — in fact, probably most of the time — this stuff isn’t blatant. It’s not someone saying “You don’t belong here because you don’t have a degree,” or “Your show has a framing device, so it’s not really audio drama and you need to call it something else.” (Although that does happen; just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.)

Instead, it’s…

  • snarking about framing devices
  • complaining about the writing in a queer rom-com, when you’re fine with tropes or less-than-perfect writing in heterosexual rom-coms
  • expecting a perfect apology from a creator of color, while giving a pass to that white guy because you’ve interacted with him and you know he means well
  • …etc.

Is talking about your preferences and tropes you’re tired of seeing, making theater kid jokes, etc., innocent enough in a vacuum?

Sure.

Is it intended to cause harm?

Probably not.

But, more importantly: do all of these factors combined push people to the fringes?

YES. 

We, as a community, need to do better on all of these fronts, because it’s only going grow as a problem if we don’t address it now.

Shout-outs to the people putting in the work (and examples of what that looks like)

Some examples of people that I see consistently doing the work on these fronts include:

They aren’t the only examples by any means (I’m going to mention a few other people who are amazing community pillars). However, I constantly see them looking at our community with a loving-yet-critical to figure out where we’re being too insular and what we can do to boost marginalized voices, and then taking matters into their own hands to improve that.

Another concrete example of creators who are doing this very well are Erin & Lee of Love & Luck. I worked with them on an upcoming project as a writer and I was extremely nervous about it. I’ve never worked with other writers before, I’m self-taught (the last writing class I took was in high school), and I was very, very sure that I was going to do something wrong, whether it was missing a vital part of the process, or formatting scripts wrong, or something else.

Erin and Lee were clear from the get-go that script formatting didn’t have to be in any specific style, as long as it was clear who was talking, when, and any audio cues/notes were clear. They also gave extremely clear instructions at every part of the process, and explained everything we’d be doing. This meant that the people who didn’t come from a theater/arts/production background weren’t left wondering what a certain word or phrase meant. (This is a nightmare for me and it happens a lot actually! Turns out I’m not the only one, if these replies are anything to go by.)

All of this created an environment that had equal footing for the writers involved, regardless of their background. This is in addition to writers (and actors) being paid, actors (and writers) from different backgrounds being actively sought out, etc. Erin and Lee really walk their talk about how people working on podcasts together should be treated, and they are absolutely role models that we can look to for inspiration.

(All of these people have places you can pay them money for the community work they do, by the way: Ely, Lisette, Lucy, Erin & Lee)

Okay, that was a lot of information. So what do you do now?

Probably uncomfortable questions related to all of this that I’d really like you to think on: 

  • Do you have unrealistically high standards for audio quality & production? By which I mean, do you expect audio that independent creators are putting out to sound the same as NPR or major production companies? (If yes, what do you think that says about the resources available to the creators you’re listening to?)
  • Do you talk in public spaces, without nuance or context, about how tired you are of creators doing certain trope or framing/plot device? If yes, historically, what group of people is rewarded for using that device/trope/etc.? Do you have exceptions to that rule and if so, why? (A note on this: I’m not talking about, for example, complaining about “bury your gays”…unless you’ll give cishet creators a pass for that, but have a problem with a horror show created by queer people where characters die. I’m talking about having an issue with framing devices, except for when that one (white, cishet, and/or male) creator does it, because there’s just something about the way he tackles it that makes it special. Think very hard about what that special something is.)
  • Follow-up: When you’re talking about and critiquing creative decisions, especially in public places, are you acknowledging that creative decisions do not happen in a vacuum and are always impacted by the real-life resources available to people? Have you thought about the resource availability that might impact those decisions, and for whom those resources are most likely to be an issue?
  • Who are you shouting out? Who are you collaborating with or doing crossovers or ad swaps with? What voices are those shows boosting? (“Michelle, do you expect me to keep a spreadsheet?” Honestly? If you’re convinced that you’re already perfect on this front, yeah, seriously, make a list of the last 10 people you collaborated with/shows you shouted out and who created them. As discussed elsewhere here, our brains are tricky and easily influenced by social norms. You might be surprised which ways your list skews. If your list is all men, you have work to do. If your list is all white people, you have to work to do. If it’s all cis, het, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc…you know what I’m gonna say.) (Also, hopefully this goes without saying, but if your list is diverse on multiple axes, don’t use that as an excuse to pat yourself on the back about what a good ally you are. That’s gross.) 
  • What concrete actions have you taken in the last week/month/quarter/year to help out a newbie in the community? How available do you make yourself to people just starting out? Do you make it super clear in public that you’re willing to help new people & want to answer their questions?
  • What were the last five creators/shows you decided to swear off? What are their backgrounds? What was the inciting incident? If there was an apology for a negative incident, can you compare that apology to an apology that you accepted and were okay with, and see what the material differences in the apology/incident are?

Here’s what I want to leave you with: 

If we (meaning people with power, leverage, or connections, of any level) aren’t actively looking to lift people with less connections, less experience, and less resources, and bring their work to the forefront, we’re failing to be good stewards of the community. 

We owe it to ourselves and to the community, and to the future of our community and chosen medium to do better. To create new spaces and break into new spaces, and then immediately turn around and see who needs a hand up into those spaces. 

Post-scripts/additional notes:

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