Writing Styles of The Petty & Obnoxious

I don't think I need to apologize for what I wrote about Russell Wilson earlier this week, but I don't feel good about it, either, and I'm going to figure out why that is.

Correction: The Twitter troll from Tacoma clarified he has Tweeted 46 times at me, not 45 as I indicated, and that I had in fact responded to him. The text has been updated and there is a footnote at the bottom.

I screwed up earlier this week.

I’m not sure the exact moment it happened, but I have narrowed down the time frame. It was sometime after Monday afternoon, which is when I first saw the picture of Russell Wilson’s new house on the NFL page of ESPN.com, and it was before I went to bed on Tuesday night agitated to the point I needed to get up and take 3 mg of melatonin before falling asleep.

This was not a catastrophe. This was not a crisis. But clearly, something had gone wrong whether it was the premise of the story, the way I wrote it or perhaps the promotion of Tuesday's newsletter on Wilson's very public persona. Oh, let’s throw in one more possibility, too. Perhaps I’m being an overly emotional sensy-poo flustered by online criticism. I was told what I had written was unnecessary, which is true. I was told that it was unfair, which isn’t entirely false. I was told at the very least there were racial undertones and one reader found it outright racist. There was even a comedian who called me out though he (thankfully) stopped short of becoming a full-throated heckler.

Now, there are two ways that writers typically react to these sort of things. The first is the full-fledged mea culpa. You cop to the mistake that you made, make it clear that you understand why you were criticized and grovel in hopes an apology will clear the deck going forward. If you do this, you’ll get praised by a number of people who compliment your accountability and say how great it is to see you taking responsibility and you’ll feel the clean conscience that a confession brings.

The other way is to push back at the criticism itself, defending not just the validity of your original piece of work, but attacking the people who are objecting to it. This is an increasingly lucrative approach for contemporary writers, many of whom are using this very platform of Substack to make a cottage industry against objecting to the objections of others.

Neither of those approaches reflect how I actually feel, though, and I don’t want to be performative. That’s a word I’ve noticed getting used a lot to to describe the online behavior of someone who’s more focused on the appearance of their actions than the actual effect of those actions. Baseball players have a term for this: eye wash.

I don’t feel particularly good about what I wrote, but I also don’t think I need to apologize for it. I think there were some flaws, which I’ll get to, but I also think that it was largely harmless with more than a few dashes of self-deprecation.

While I was bothered by the level of hostility in some of the reactions, I don’t want to act like I was the victim of an online dogpile. For one thing, the whole thing lasted less than 8 hours. For another, there was some valid criticism in there amid all of the objects from people whose devotion to Wilson and his lovely wife causes them to see even a relatively benign criticism as a character attack.

What complicates all of this is that the story performed well from a business standpoint. Really well. It was viewed 4,286 times in the first 48 hours, more than all but two newsletters I’ve published this year. There were 19 new signups, which also ranks third.

So what am I supposed to do with all of that information? Well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out right now, sharing my introspection here because part of my desire with this newsletter is to provide a look into how I build this next chapter of my media career.

So let’s go back to the beginning of the story, which I would characterize as a rather typical airing of grievances over an athlete who has moved onto another team.

Was it mean-spirited? Not entirely. I made it pretty clear that it might have been spurred by bitterness and resentment and conceded that the things I was griping about were relatively trivial especially when compared to his play on the field. I certainly wasn’t complimentary of Wilson’s marketing acumen, but I don’t think I was maliciously personal, either. My underlying point is that while Wilson has every right to lean into the public profile that comes with his success, I can also find that to be a little offputting. Not only that, now that there’s no carbon offset of superior on-field performance, I gave myself the room to complain at least a little.

Was it fair? Not entirely. What triggered my response was the posting of a picture of the house he had purchased in Denver. Wilson didn’t post the picture, ESPN.com did. I have no reason to believe he did anything to facilitate the publicity, and while I never claimed that he did, the entire premise of the story was my annoyance at this public persona he has cultivated over the years. I didn’t state an error in fact that must be corrected, but I wouldn’t describe the story as completely fair, either. The publicity accompanying this real-estate purchase may have felt like it was part of the very public way he leads his life, I had no reason to think he chose to highlight his new house in any way.

Was the story necessary? No. Not in the slightest. I wasn’t writing about something I felt strongly about in either a positive or negative sense. It was something that I found mildly annoying that I won’t miss. It’s also playing to the Seattle crowd, though, which is coming to grips with Wilson’s departure, and this is the sort of carb-loaded snack people tend to it up.

It came at a cost, though. Resentment can lead you to some unbecoming places, and I was talking about a subject that I generally avoid for two reasons I noted in the third paragraph of the story:

I don’t want to be a hater, jealous of what someone else has, but I especially don’t want to provide fodder for the chuckleheads out there who love nothing more than to complain about how young men, especially young men of color, spend their money.

But in writing about it the way I did, that’s exactly how it came off to some people.

Now, this certainly wasn’t my intention, and I don’t think it’s a fair summary of what I wrote. However, my intentions don’t change the impact of what I wrote and the effect my presentation had on a wider audience.

Of course, I didn’t say that. At least not at first. I blocked that account, reconsidering only after I saw a subsequent Tweet from another Seahawks fan.

I was way too deep into it by then, though. Those pair of responses came toward the end of more than two dozen Tweets in which I answered people who objected to the story. I was arguing with a comedian who pointed out Wilson’s real-estate deals weren’t necessarily publicized by him. I was deleting comments on the Substack page from someone who created three different accounts to post them. Turned out he was a Twitter troll from Tacoma who has repeatedly objected to some of my incredibly mild mentions of Wilson over the years, and by repeatedly I mean that he has Tweeted directly at me 45 46 times without me ever responding.1

But that’s how Twitter works. It’s a place to shout and scream and where everything is divided into extremes. When a video is retweeted it’s either “THIS!” or it’s the embodiment of everything that is wrong in contemporary America. You don’t debate on Twitter. Debating requires listening and consideration of opposing points of view. Twitter is about luring someone into a position so you can make them look stupid, which is referred to as dunking on someone. You take the most extreme interpretation of someone’s point and demand they defend it. The conflict attracts attention, which often enhances the conflict which generates more attention until the cycle runs its course.

That Tuesday newsletter was ideally suited to accentuate that dynamic. Did you want to gripe about the guy now that he’s gone or did you think we should be better than that? Was he an attention hound or was this another example of how he was never fully appreciated in Seattle? This debate functioned well from a professional perspective. It created attention which fueled further interactions and drew people to my writing, but it came at a cost in the kind of person I became online. In retrospect, the price was too high for my taste.

I have an opportunity here to redirect my career. A chance to do something that I lay out for myself, and while I don’t feel that bad about what I wrote in the newsletter, but I don’t feel all that good about it, either. I want to believe fully in what I’m doing.

I’m not going to apologize for my approach. I will, however, acknowledge its shortcomings, and it’s not an approach that I plan to replicate any time soon, and I’m going to reevaluate the way I’m using my Twitter account to drive attention to what I do write. My story was not awesome, but it wasn’t entirely awful, either. My mistake was debating its merits on a platform that demands you declare it to be one or the other.

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