4 Thoughts I Had While Watching Transformers 4

Transformers 4 - Wahlberg, Peltz, Reynor

Look, let’s get a few basics out of the way. Plenty has been written over the years about Michael Bay’s storytelling problems, his directorial tics, his troubling portrayal of women, homosexuals, and non-white characters, and his fetish for big guns and magic hour. You can also debate whether Transformers 4 is his most blatant cash-grab ever or the prototype for a new international-era blockbuster. (Maybe it’s both.)

But here’s the catch: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Michael Bay film that I completely hated. In fact, even at their most flawed and least coherent, Michael Bay’s movies are still entertaining. They’re also surprisingly rewatchable, as you realize every time you catch yourself watching Armageddon on cable.

So how does Michael Bay manage to make films that fail on both a taste level and a logic level, yet still excel as cinema? Here are four things Michael Bay gets right in Transformers 4 that explain his cinematic upside.

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be American.

Yes, nearly half of Transformers 4 takes place in China, but it’s still an American movie — not just in its financial origins, but in its central theme. After the city-smashing alien battles of the previous Transformers films, this is a story about America trying to figure out its place in the changing world. Its three subplots involve a widowed American inventor who just wants to provide for his family, a wealthy American scientist in search of his conscience, and a grizzled American operative who’s determined to defend his country from alien incursion at all costs.

Is this all a metaphor for immigration, foreign policy, global finance, and the double-edged sword of the military-industrial complex? Of course it is.

It’s also a film that takes bizarre pride in the minutiae of laws. This is a film about giant alien robots that still finds time to include plot-driven arguments about intellectual property, search warrants, and statutory rape. Its villains have a binding contract, to which they honorably adhere. And while the entire third act is basically a nonstop chase-fight scene, it’s happening because one character’s crisis of conscience negates a different contract, which means the villains are essentially justified in exacting their violent revenge.

It all seems to imply that America is nothing without its laws, and without people who live within them, even when they disagree with them. You don’t like a law? Work to change it. Laws are meant to serve the people, and as the needs of the people change, so must the laws. Not exactly a concept I expected to see in a film about a robot pterodactyl, but there you go.

But the characters in this film also grapple with Americanism on an individual level, because…

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be a man.

Mark Wahlberg’s hero Cade Yeager (Seriously? Yeah, seriously.) is a macho ex-football star and widowed inventor with a hot teenage daughter whom he tries to protect from the leering advances of every other guy on the planet. He doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes he made as a teenager — a teenage pregnancy among them — and he hates the idea of men lusting after the daughter he still thinks of as pure and perfect. She’s the embodiment of the future he always thought he’d be able to sustain and provide for, but with every year he finds himself farther from his idyllic self-image. And with his daughter about to head off to college, who will he be with no one else to worry about but himself?

Kelsey Grammer’s black ops director is a shadowy figure working to keep America safe at any price. He doesn’t have room for emotion. He doesn’t even seem to take pleasure in his work. What he wants is success, and what success means to him is a complete and total elimination of external threats. It’s a fool’s dream, and if this was a movie with more depth, Grammer might get a scene where he admits what the audience already knows: that no matter how effective he is, he’s just delaying the inevitable need to adapt and assimilate with outsiders. And yet, the need to defend what we know from our worst expectations of what could be is as fundamentally American as wanting to provide for our families and excel in our chosen fields.

Which brings us to Stanley Tucci, who gives the film’s best performance as industrialist Joshua Joyce, a thinly-disguised caricature of Steve Jobs at his most tyrannical. Yet, like Jobs, Joyce just wants to make a difference in the world. Sure, he wants the world to remember that he’s the one who made that change, but it’s progress that fuels him. And it’s his fundamental similarity to Cade — the innocent spark of curiosity mixed with the hubris of wanting to be remembered for having done “the right thing” — that sets the events of the final act into motion.

And yes, all of this happens amid car chases, shootouts, fistfights, and sweaty closeups of muscles, breasts, and luscious legs filmed against hypersaturated sunsets. Because Michael Bay movies are also obsessed with the human body and its place in the world. And with masculinity vs. femininity, and with vitality vs. obsolescence, and with thought vs. action. If you’re not acting, if you’re not defending or attacking, if you’re not trying to get somewhere or obtain something, then you’re just waiting to be passed by. That’s life. That’s America. That’s humanity.

That’s cinema.

Michael Bay movies are always going somewhere.

Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

This short clip explains Michael Bay’s aesthetic better than I ever could, and it’s totally worth your time from a film studies perspective. But I can sum it all up by saying you know you’re watching a Michael Bay film when small people are caught between giant problems and have to keep moving to survive, both literally and figuratively. There are almost no static camera moves in a Michael Bay film, or flat medium shots. The close-ups are always dramatically lit. The wide shots are in motion on multiple planes of action. And the characters are almost always shot from below, framed against massive backdrops that constantly remind us how insignificant they are against the collective shrug of society, industry, or nature.

Transformers 4 is about age and decay, about desire vs. actuality, and about man’s (and robot’s) eternal quest to understand why things happen. The “what” is the MacGuffin that keeps the story moving forward — hunted robots, kidnapped daughters, stolen weapons — but the “why” is what every hero is truly after. For all his presumed favoring of style over substance, Michael Bay’s movies are gravely concerned with where we as a nation, as a species, as a gender, and as a planet, are headed — and whether any of it actually matters.

Michael Bay movies are a textbook example of emotional logic.

Look, Transformers 4 is a pretty dumb movie. It’s a “dark” take on a popular ’80s cartoon that was created to sell toys to preteen boys, so you’re not dealing with unimpeachable source material here. And yes, the characters make intellectually questionable decisions at every step, not just because this is an action movie that requires them to keep getting themselves in trouble in order to justify its own existence but because Michael Bay doesn’t really care about the same logic that you and I care about.

Instead of logical cause-and-effect — “He did X, so they did Y, and therefore he should now do Z because he wants to achieve A” — what Michael Bay movies deliver is emotional cause-and-effect: “His actions made me feel X, and now I the viewer want to feel Y.”

For example, Cade spends most of the movie trying to keep his daughter safe. At least, that’s his stated goal, but his actions perpetually debunk his statement. This is a dad who nearly gets his daughter killed numerous times, sends her out to shoplift, and belittles her boyfriend at every turn, all under the guise of protecting her physically and emotionally from external threats.

While Cade’s intellectual logic doesn’t hold up, his actions (and his daughter’s reactions) fuel our emotional logic. We know he can’t protect her forever, and we also realize she’s probably more capable than he gives her credit for. So what we, the audience, end up wanting from this story arc is to know that Tessa can take care of herself so Cade won’t have to worry about her. And her final act in the movie closes that loop and provides us with the emotional catharsis we needed, even if its intellectual logic is as questionable as anything else in the film.

Similarly, Tucci’s Joyce isn’t just the most entertaining character in the movie; he’s also the movie’s resuscitated heart. While Cade has been brave from the beginning because he’s fighting for his freedom, Joyce is the one who has to choose between what he could be and what he wants to be. And when a film gives us a villain who realizes the error of his ways, we spend the rest of the movie hoping he’ll live long enough to become a better man.

Whatever that means in Michael Bay’s world.

12 Thoughts I Had During Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


1. If they had titled this Generic Action Movie, would they have been wrong? What exactly happens here that was demonstrably different from any other “us vs. them” action film of the past 40 years?

2. My god, the distracting CGI… If you ever want to see the uncanny valley in action, this is the movie for you.

3. Did the human characters have anything to do in this film?

4. Did “The Black Guy Who Doesn’t Operate the Radio” (because I don’t recall him being called by name, and because there were only two in the movie) actually tell his cohort — AKA “The Swarthy, Scowly, Trigger-Happy Guy Who Trusts No One and Yet Whom They Bring Along Anyway Because There Would Be No Plot If They Didn’t” — to “stop playing me” at one point?

5. When the humans are escaping from the ape village, please notice that Kerri Russell — the only female human character in the entire movie — is also the only one who falls while running. Because of course she is.

6. Were you surprised by anything in this film? At all? Ever?

7. When you watched the continuous tank shot, was your first thought “omigod this is so COOL,” or “ohhhhh I can’t WAIT to ride this on the inevitable Planet of the Apes theme park ride!!!” or “I guess this is what they showed the producers when one of them asked why there wasn’t more character development, and then afterward they were like, ‘Oh, so, yeah, at least there’s that tank scene, which the target demo will fucking love'”?

8. Quick: name two human characters from this movie without using Google.

9. Quick: explain to me why the two lead Americans are played by a Brit and an Aussie. (Hint: it’s because Ed Harris was probably already booked for Snowpiercer.)

10. Do you think they told the actors to “dance like a song is playing on the gas station’s PA system and we’ll just figure out the song rights later,” and then — only after they’d locked the footage of The Black Guy Who Doesn’t Operate the Radio dancing like he was really getting into the music — did someone say, “Hey, we can get the rights to a song from The Band really cheap?”

11. In a movie where one of the human characters is willing to commit acts of atrocity in order to ensure the survival of the human race, do you think it’s profound for his last line — in response to the question “What are you doing?” — to be “I’m saving the human race”? Or do you think maybe the audience might have understood his motivation after the other 5 scenes in which he proved he was willing to commit acts of atrocity to… oh, fuck it.

12. How much more interesting do you think this film would have been if any of the four male leads (Human 1, Human 2, Caesar, Koba) were female?

77 Thoughts I Had While Watching the New Godzilla

Godzilla2014What happens when you take amazing actors, a stellar FX team, a competent director, an inept script, and $160 million, and try to make a profit? You get this following stream-of-consciousness play-by-play as I sat in a mostly-empty theater and tried to make sense of what went wrong with the making of the new Godzilla movie.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead (although the movie is called Godzilla and not How All The Characters Lived Through That Little Godzilla Incident, so you probably shouldn’t be all that surprised).

1. These opening credits with all the redacted info must have seemed clever on paper, but after trying to read the 20th one they’re just giving me a headache.

2. I bet they’re going to tell us where this helicopter is flying by using a “place and year” overlay, like — oh, there it is. Philippines, 1999. Great.

3. Sally Hawkins is going to be in this movie just to look concerned and stare at things, isn’t she?

4. Oh, there’s the English-speaking guy surrounded by local extras, so he’ll be the one who explains the whole backstory while we walk and talk through the first set piece.

5. Are they making Ken Watanabe speak like a Japanese caricature, or is that naturally how he speaks English? Either way, this feels uncomfortable.

6. How many times are people going to look up in awe in this movie?

7. Oh, good, Bryan Cranston gets to play The White Guy Who Knows Better Than Every Asian Scientist in Japan.

8. Juliette Binoche is in this? For all of five minutes? They could have literally cast anyone to play Cranston’s wife for as little screen time as she had, and yet they wasted one of our generation’s greatest actresses as an emotional prop for the male characters?

9. Of course the dad is too busy to appreciate his birthday. And of course that kid is getting on that bus and somehow the entire rest of this movie is going to be about Bryan Cranston trying to find his son while Godzilla destroys Japan.

10. Huh. I guess they’re making every Japanese actor in this film speak like they just learned Engrish. Jesus.

11. He’s sending his wife to her doom and he’s going to have to live with that as his motivation for the rest of the movie, isn’t he?

12. Oh, here we go. Radioactive doom cloud. Time for her to die inches away from him.

13. And now that Bryan Cranston is done emoting into a walkie talkie…

14. I guess the director decided we’d spent exactly as much time as we — and Bryan Cranston — needed to spend with his dying wife before literally sealing that room off so we — and Bryan Cranston — can forget about her and get back to the plot.

15. Yes, in a school of Japanese students, let’s all stop and make sure we care about what happens to the token white kid.

16. Nice cut to the white kid all grown up as an angsty adult soldier. I bet half the audience has no idea that this is the same character.

17. Is the soldier’s son derpy because his dad’s not around, or because Elizabeth Olsen is being forced to play Steretypical Wife and Mom Character with No Additional Motivation? Either way, that kid’s gonna be hard to root for if he ends up on a bus separated from his parents, too.

18. Elizabeth Olsen was phenomenal in Martha Marcy May Marlene, so they cast her in this so she could do… what, exactly? Just sit around and laugh and look worried? Did she see the script before she signed on? What was the audition process like? “Have you ever seen a movie before? You have? Oh, okay, good; so you know basically what every female role in an American film is like, right? Do you think you can do that, or would you need us to, like, write you a character and stuff? Because…”

19. They’re going to get interrupted before they have sex, aren’t they? Just like in the new Robocop, when Joel Kinnaman’s character comes home to his derpy son and worried wife, only to be interrupted before they can have sex by The Inciting Incident. Because this is America and we can’t show people having sex in our family-friendly violencefests.

20. Speaking of families, I wonder what the black family in front of me is thinking. If I were them, I’d be so bored watching white families in every blockbuster. What do they tell their son? How’s he going to expect to see himself represented onscreen as he grows up?

21. Then again, if this movie starred a black family, would white audiences come see it? That I even have to ask that question kind of summarizes all of Hollywood’s problems in a nutshell, doesn’t it?

22. Yup, there’s the phone call. So much for the sex. Wait… who the hell is Joe? Is that her ex-husband? Is this — oh, that’s the guy’s dad. Huh. They really did a shitty job ensuring the audience knows the characters’ names.

23. His son has to go to Japan to get him? Why? Other than plot excuses to get them in the same frame, obviously.

24. His son disables bombs for a living. I’m sure the entire plot will hinge on him having to deactivate a bomb with seconds to go.

25. Ford? He named his fucking son Ford?

26. This scene in Bryan Cranston’s apartment is boring the living shit out of the family in front of me. Seriously. Two of them just got up to go to the bathroom.

27. They shouldn’t have even bothered writing dialogue for that scene. Or filming it. They should have just put up a title card that said Bryan Cranston Convinces His Son to Go Back with Him to the Quarantined Area Because the Plot Requires It.

28. Bryan Cranston was just arrested in the Quarantine Zone yesterday, so he goes back the next day and DOESN’T expect to get arrested? Like they’re not expecting that?

29. Of course the Happy Birthday sign is still hanging there 14 years later. Juliette Binoche must have put it up with Superglue.

30. Where’s he going to find a ZIP drive to access those disks?

31. Of course you take the captured trespassers directly inside the very place they were trying to go. Of course you do.

32. Bryan Cranston is being held in the monologue chamber.

33. All these scientists are feeding this glowing talon a steady diet of radiation and they don’t foresee how this could possibly be a problem? Nor can any of their equipment detect the “mating call” that Bryan Cranston’s fucking fisherman buddy picked up with two seismographs and buoy?

34. Yes, Ken Watanabe: go listen to the raving lunatic instead of dealing with the emergency right in front of you. Because that’s what any man of science would do.

35. “Kill it.” Sure. With energy. Because it lives on energy, so yeah, giving it more of what it eats will surely kill it. Surely.

36. THAT’S what the evil bug in this movie looks like? Was that a first draft sketch that accidentally got greenlit, and by the time they realized they’d spent $100 million animating someone’s first pass at a concept they were too embarrassed to admit it?

37. FINALLY, a non-white character in a position of authority.

38. … who, in the very next scene, is revealed to be subordinate to a white guy. Did the filmmakers not realize that literally every single black, Hispanic, Asian, or other nonwhite character in this film exists solely to support, defend, or otherwise serve the white characters? Or is that somehow a theme?

39. Is that David Strathairn? Has he done anything since Good Night, and Good Luck? What the fuck is he doing in this movie? What are ANY of these actors doing in this movie? Were they all shown a different script, or do they all have overdue mortgages?

40. Oh. So Bryan Cranston is dead and now we have to care about his son? That’s how this works? The movie is just going to keep forcing us to follow less and less likable characters until none are left?

41. This movie loves transitioning from one plot point to another within the same scene. Bryan Cranston’s wife dies, the door she’s dying behind closes, and immediately he’s focused on something else. Bryan Cranston dies, his body bag is zipped up, a door opens, and immediately his son is whisked away to be given His Next Plot Assignment.

42. Are they just showing Ford the exact opening credit sequence from this movie as a way of explaining the entire backstory to him? Why would they do that? It’s just a jumble of archival footage, and they’re not even talking about it, they’re just zooming through it. Who in the Navy cut all this footage together like this? Why would this supercut even exist? What purpose would it serve, other than “setting a mood”? Are we paying the Navy to make mood reels during natural disasters?

43. Also, in what world would they bother telling Ford anything? Just because he’s physically present doesn’t mean he has a right to know anything, except that the screenwriters decided that now was the time to dump all this useless backstory on us as a way to explain what our new lead character will now have to do for the rest of the movie.

44. Obligatory Elizabeth Olsen Being Concerned on the Phone Scene. Movies like this are why the Bechdel Test exists.

45. Oh, great. Now Ford is stuck babysitting a lost Asian kid, which will be the whole reason he gets trapped in Hawaii as it gets destroyed by giant monsters. And now we, the audience, are supposed to care about whether or not Ford can help the kid find his parents? Because what we really need when there are giant monsters onscreen is a subplot about a lost child to really grab our attention…

46. And if one lost child isn’t enough, here’s a little blonde girl to worry about.

47. And a dog.

48. How are those ground floor glass windows withstanding a tsunami?

49. In what world would radiation cause Godzilla to mutate into a biped?

50. And right as the long-awaited battle between Godzilla and the giant bug FINALLY begins… we cut away to Ford’s derpy child watching the whole thing on TV. Because obviously we all came to a movie called Godzilla because what we really wanted to do was watch a supporting character watch the battle on TV while his mom repeatedly tells him to turn it off, like this is 1948 and none of us have ever seen a movie before.

51. This film seems to fundamentally misunderstand what its audience wants. Or maybe that’s the point — what humans want doesn’t matter to Godzilla, so why should it matter to Godzilla’s director?

52. Don’t worry, we won’t actually have to spend any more time worrying about the nameless Asian kid, since of course when Ford gets him to the triage center amid a throng of thousands the kid’s parents are literally standing yards away. And now that this useless bit of plot exposition designed to kill time is over, Ford can literally turn his head and see a military convoy that will magically allow him to join them, thus enabling his geographic plot trajectory to continue. This is like a road movie without any of the humor or sex or music. Ford is just Don Quixote, and now he has a Hispanic military sidekick named Morales to be his Sancho Panza.

53. It’s nice to know the military keeps track of its nuclear waste to the extent that it doesn’t notice a 300-foot tall mutant bug has eaten its way out of a nuclear landfill and is marching directly toward Las Vegas.

54. I can’t tell which city’s destruction I care less about in this movie. We’re three global tragedies in and the destruction porn is already reaching “I’m oblivious to it” level. The only place left to go from here is “I resent having to watch it.” Please don’t take me there, Godzilla creative team.

55. Is that Taylor Nichols??? I LOVED him in Metropolitan and Barcelona! Why doesn’t he get more work? And in what inexplicable casting universe did they find an actor from the Whit Stillman multiverse to deliver some exposition about a nuclear warhead? I swear, the entire cast from this movie should have defected to another script.

56. So the only way to kill the monsters is with a nuclear warhead, and since the monsters emit EMP blasts that fry electronic grids, the only way to get the warhead into place is… a train? You have 300-foot tall mutant bugs traipsing around the United States, walking through buildings, and you entrust the delivery of the only device that can kill them to a train track through the mountains? Great planning, US military.

57. Of course Ford ends up in the same city where the nuclear warhead is being trained through. And of course he argues his way onto that train with absolutely infallible logic. “I need to get home to my family.” Yes, what superior officer could resist that stirring request during a national emergency?

58. If you have a guy on the train who could disable the bomb in case of an emergency, why would you ever let him get off that train?

59. Whoops. Bye, Morales.

60. Good thing Ford washed up on the beach at the very spot where the next plot-related convoy was coming through.

61. I like how the bus driver in an emergency evacuation is willing to stop his vehicle and let Elizabeth Olsen monologue into the bus until she feels like she’s done.

62. Did the bus just accelerate for ten seconds as an attempt at a scene transition? Was that supposed to be an homage to manga, or did someone think that watching the world blur by outside the bus doors for an indeterminate amount of time would somehow be “a cool effect”?

63. Obligatory Shot of Unnamed Admiral Looking Up in Awe at Godzilla. Note to filmmakers: after about 4 of these shots, they cease to create awe in the audience, so having about 40 of them in this movie actually has the opposite effect; it makes spectacle seem commonplace, and occasionally laughable.

64. Hey, look, the bus driver is black! I’m sure he’ll do whatever it takes to keep that bus of mostly white kids safe, because that’s the kind of movie we’re watching.

65. And the lesson here is: when the military tells you to stop, you just drive on through their barricades anyway because if you don’t Godzilla will kill you. Luckily, the only buses that died on that bridge were all of the other buses, not the one with Helpful Negro Bus Driver and His Important White Children.

66. We’re at the point in the movie where the only characters I can empathize with at all are the mating pair of mutant bugs.

67. Of course Ford is going to be airdropped in to deactivate the bomb that the bugs are using to feed their larvae. Because I’m sure he’s literally the only explosives expert the US military has, or knows, or can find.

68. When did Ford get trained as a paratrooper, anyway? Is that just standard military training these days? No matter your speciality, you’re also competent at parachuting?

69. How are those Chinese lanterns surviving all this destruction? Did Juliette Binoche hang them up with Superglue too?

70. That bomb looks like it was made in 1930, yet a dozen soldiers can’t rip off a jammed door panel, or even try?

71. I seriously feel bad for the mutant bug parents. They just want to have a family. This movie essentially casts Godzilla as a homewrecker who assaults the wife and murders the husband, and then his human partner kills all the kids. When the wife hunts down the human responsible, Godzilla bails out his bro by basically raping the wife with his atomic breath and throwing her skull in the ocean. Why do I feel like I just watched a movie where all the bad guys won?

72. Did they only cast Taylor Nichols for one fucking scene???

73. Is this the worst movie I’ve seen all year, or is that still Noah? I can’t tell.

74. Of course Ford’s family is reunited in the end. Because in a movie called Godzilla, what I’m really concerned about is whether or not the guy who was conveniently intertwined with the plight of the monsters can go home to his happy family while countless millions are dead.

75. Did they tell Ken Watanabe that his only two actions in this entire film would be to climb things and stare in awe?

76. Leave it to humans to crown Godzilla “King of the Monsters — Savior of Our City?” As though he exists to save us, because of course he does. We’re the special ones, after all. Thanks, bro.

77. If the theme of Godzilla is that humans should treat nature with respect, I’m pretty sure that lesson was lost in translation. If anything, I think the implication of this movie is, “Do whatever you want; God will always find a way to sort it out so the humans live in the end.” And if that fails, just make sure you get on the bus with the guy who ignores the military’s orders, and you’ll live happily ever after… if you’re white.

How Social Media Destroyed Itself

To everyone who’s ever created something and shared it online, I’d like to say one thing:

I’m sorry.

See, those of us who’ve been doing this for awhile now — we’re the ones who invented blogging, and tweeting, and YouTubing, and social networking, and we’ve been preaching about “the digital revolution” for the past 10 or 20 years — we all got it wrong.

We thought the medium would change the media.

We thought the gatekeepers were dead.

We thought meaning mattered.

Nope. We all blew it.

And unfortunately there’s no going back.

How We Misread the Digital Tea Leaves

A funny thing happened around the turn of the millennium.

Those of us who were busy pioneering the digital formats we now all take for granted believed then that our newly “democratized” means of media production would change media as we know it. We presumed that audience tastes would change with the new formats, and that traditional media channels (TV, film, radio, publishing) would need to adapt to our way of life.

Why? Because we were ahead of the curve. We saw the potential of new forms, and we thought we’d be able to harness them faster than the “dinosaur” media conglomerates we derided.

We were right about our own speed, but that’s because most of us were young and childless then, so we had nothing but time to tinker with these new toys. We could afford to spend days and weeks and years perfecting our videoblogs and podcasts and other labors of love because we still felt like the underdogs who had something to prove to the dinosaurs we were outfoxing.

We claimed we wanted to plant our flag in their territory… but we were only being half honest.

Problem is, we also courted those same dinosaurs, because we wanted them to play in our sandbox. We wanted the validation of their attention and their money. We wanted them to acknowledge that we were right, and to reward us with seats at their table. We just thought we’d be the ones who’d be able to set the new rules, just because we were there first.

Boy, were we wrong.

What Happens When You Ask All the Wrong Questions?

I was at the first PodCamp, back in 2006, when “podcasting” was new enough that it was still called “podcasting,” and the people who did it were rare enough that we could pretty much all meet in a single auditorium. And the question we all asked ourselves then was, “When will brands realize this is the new way to communicate?”

Whoops. Be careful what you ask for.

I was at the first Video on the Net conference back in 2006, when such an idea was revolutionary enough to actually be termed “revolutionary.” We were the rebels in cargo shorts getting strange looks from the suits who thought we were a fad. And the question we all asked ourselves then was, “When is old media going to wake up and catch up?”

Whoops again.

Instead of trying to find our own ways to succeed, we were trying to make our new media fit the old paradigm. And when you do that, the old paradigm will gladly eat you alive.

In 2007 or 2008, I was invited to a focus group at Turner Broadcasting. A roomful of us who were social media creators spent a day giving Turner our thoughts on the future of media. We were thrilled; we thought we were being taken seriously.

None of us were self-aware enough to realize we were actually volunteering our own demise.

(I think they paid each of us $3000 for the privilege. I could be wrong; it may have been $1000.)

What we were too inexperienced and deluded to realize was this: as soon as we proved that these new formats could work, the dinosaurs who stood to make actual money with them would co-opt these channels and fill them with the same media (and the same business models) they’ve always followed. They didn’t need us, and we didn’t really need them… but we thought we did. So we started playing their game, hoping we’d win. But we lost.

And as these new systems got rolled into the old processes, what changed wasn’t the processes; it was us.

When In Rome…

Some of us sold our “social” skills to brands as a means to make ourselves seem newly relevant. Big business knew there was money to be made by advertising to hordes of eyeballs, and if we knew how to attract those eyeballs, weren’t we useful?

We figured out pretty early on that we could make money teaching old dogs new tricks. It took us longer to realize that these old dogs would eventually master our tricks and we’d need to find a new way to remain relevant (and employable) to them.

So we started becoming social media marketers… then social marketers… and eventually just marketers. What mattered wasn’t the media, it was the reach. What mattered wasn’t the community, it was the degree to which they could be monetized.

Those of us who used to dream of a new digital future never thought that future would just end up being us using the tools we once loved to convince strangers to buy someone else’s products, for which we’d be rewarded with book deals about the value of trust and influence.

It took us even longer to admit that nobody on YouTube was getting a TV series anytime soon.

Nothing to See Here, Move Along…

Now we live in a world where Facebook and Twitter have gone IPO, which means they exist to please shareholders and advertisers, not users.

Now we live in an age when Yahoo! makes headlines for announcing they’re getting into the TV business… by seeking series deals from established TV professionals, not Internet creators.

Now we live in a reality where some of us are apologizing to brands for misleading them into a social economy, because once we opened those gates, the brands and the social networkers both suffered from a pollution of white noise and an atrophying ability to care.

And now I feel it’s worth apologizing to everyone else who isn’t a corporation. I feel it’s worth acknowledging that our old dream of self-created digital media “rock stars” who would change the way the world works was, at best, naive and, at worst, dangerous.

Because while we early adopters were patting ourselves on the back for “getting it,” we were unwittingly painting a target on the back of the whole digital revolution.

And I, for one, would like to start making up for it.

Image by hryckowian via Flickr

8 Things You Can Stop Doing Right Now

This post might be hard for some of you to read, but I’m writing it for your own good. And mine.

Please stop telling the world how much you’re “crushing it.”

Yes, I’m talking to you. If you’re tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming power quotes and humblebrags about how relentless you are, or how grateful you are that your life is so incredible, or how much you hope everyone else will someday be as awesome as you are, you’re not fooling anyone. Well, maybe except yourself.

See, most self-help blogging — and, by extension, most social media — is just people yelling at themselves to get out of their own way. What others see as “inspiring,” I see as “terrified people convincing themselves it’s all going to be okay if they just keep pretending.”

Look, I’m glad you feel motivated to improve your life. And if you enjoy inspiring others, rock on. But every time you tell me how much you won’t back down, I suspect it’s because you’ve realized your life is empty and you’re stapling public meaning on top of it as a parlor game to distract you from your own night terrors.

I’d like to suggest a different tactic: admit you’re unhappy, or frustrated, or afraid of being exposed as a know-nothing or a slacker or a deviant or a failure. Admit it to yourself, at least. And then take action to fix it. Not the public action you can build a personal brand from, but the private action that leads to successful habits and self-confidence in small doses. The kind that erodes your worry until you can at least leave the house, literally and metaphorically speaking, and do the actual work that inspires people, rather than the documenting of a process that confuses activity for accomplishment.

And while we’re being honest about how we see ourselves, I’ll be honest about something else:

I’ve been thinking about taking some risks for awhile, but I keep talking myself out of them. Not changing is easy. Telling myself the odds will be better later is very tempting. And while I’m waiting, I’m comfortable in my familiar habits. Well, maybe “comfortable” isn’t the right word for it… maybe “safe,” or “not inconvenienced,” or “acquiescent.”

Truth is, I’m lying to myself.

If I’m not happy, or if I feel unfulfilled, no one else is going to fix it for me. It’s not their job; they’re trying to make themselves happy and fulfilled, not me.

I get why we all publicly proclaim that we’re on the path to something amazing. It’s the same reason I tell myself I’m “writing” when I’m usually just “surfing the Internet and thinking about writing”: because I’m afraid of admitting to myself (much less to others) just how hard I’m not working at succeeding.

So, in the spirit of yelling at myself to get out of my own way, I offer myself this advice. Feel free to yell at yourself with this same advice, if it helps you.


Stop waiting for “the right time” to do something.

Unless you’re a hostage negotiator or a paratrooper, timing isn’t everything. Sure, some times are easier or harder than others are for accomplishing whatever it is you want to do. But there’s no such thing as a “right” (or “wrong”) time to get married, start a business, have a baby, switch careers, break up, move, quit, or take a vacation. People have succeeded and failed at those adventures for centuries, regardless of when they started or what odds were against them or in their favor. What matters is how you go about it in terms of resolve and tenacity, not whether or not the stars are properly aligned to make your job easier.

Stop waiting until you have “enough money.”

You’ll never have enough money. If you get more, you’ll spend it. If you save some, an opportunity or an emergency will come along and then you’ll be back to zero. Money is a resource. Don’t expect to reach a point where you’ll have “enough” money to accomplish X. Find ways to multiply your revenue streams en route to accomplishing X regardless of how much money you started with. What matters is accomplishing X, not reaching a magic dollar amount that will let you believe it’s “okay” to get started.

Stop waiting for permission.

Nobody else is paying attention. And if they are, and they tell you “no,” do it anyway, because you’re not going to be satisfied unless you experience your accomplishment. And if it costs you someone else’s good graces, it’ll gain you something more important: the knowledge that comes with success or failure, rather than the caged feeling having been allowed to act. If your path to success includes a step where someone else can stop you in your tracks, reroute your path. (Unless you’re the kind of person for whom permission is more important than accomplishment — in which case, acquiring the permission IS your accomplishment. And if that’s who you are, then the rest of this won’t make any sense.)

Stop thinking you’re the one who has to get it right the first time.

Failure teaches us what not to do. Sometimes we need to fail more than once at something in order to understand why we’re not getting it done right. Over the past 20 years I created a comic book, a freelance business, and two different web series that achieved varying levels of success, but they all ultimately ended before I wanted them to. And yet, what do I lay awake at night dreaming of doing? Making TV shows and movies and web series and novels and stage plays and comic books and video games. “But I already failed at them more than once,” I tell myself. And then I remind myself, “no; you started them more than once. Maybe it’ll take ten starts, or twenty, to find one idea — and one process — that sustains itself.” What matters isn’t being a prodigy who never makes mistakes; it’s continually surviving your mistakes until you either succeed or you find something else to pursue.

Stop thinking other people are succeeding because they’re special, or because the world is out to get you.

Networking helps. Talent helps. Perseverance helps. Luck helps, but no one is perpetually lucky or unlucky. You’re not failing because “this person doesn’t like me,” or because “everybody just promotes their friends,” or because “I’m just not good enough,” or any of the other excuses you’ve invented for not working hard and habitually enough to earn your own toehold on success. And yes, some people may continually get breaks because of who they know. That’s how life works: people prefer to work with other people they’ll get along with, and knowing someone is the first step to peacefully coexisting with them. But even if a person is well-connected, s/he still has to be likable and competent. So maybe start there?

Stop making the same mistakes the exact same way.

If you try something once and it doesn’t work, try again, but change something in the process. You may have the right idea but the wrong execution, or the wrong framing, or the wrong support, or the wrong price. Don’t change everything all at once, but do change at least one variable. If your idea is sound and you keep hammering at it from different angles, it’ll push through eventually. And if it never does, then either the idea isn’t useful enough to people you’re not being honest with yourself about why it isn’t working.

Stop expecting tomorrows.

You’re going to wake up again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after, until one day you don’t. And you never know when that day is going to be. So if you’re waiting for the stars to align, or until you have enough money, or until the marketplace catches up with your obvious genius, how ironic will it be if the day that happens is the day you didn’t wake up? Not that you’ll appreciate that irony, because you’ll be dust. And while you may have a pleasant eulogy, it’ll be shorter and less dynamic than it would have been if you’d started that next thing today.

“Insomnia” image by Carlos Martz on Flickr.