How to handle criticism, or why the staff at TUAW are bullies

11 February 2012
11:40 am

I've been the dedicated user of Apple computing products since 2009 when I bought my first MacBook Pro (I'd used the clamshell iBooks in the past but getting the Pro marked the first time I switched to Apple and OS X on something beyond the iPod/iPhone). This is random trivia, but it's backstory. If anything on the internet is nauseating, it's the constant Apple vs Microsoft deathmatch of whining as if either company are not actually companies in the first place. It makes getting useful information difficult, because oftentimes that useful information is wrapped up in polemic drama and opinions disguised as fact.

This is particularly bad on the AOL-owned Weblogs, Inc. sites. Engadget has a penchant for this as usually slanted towards Apple's favour, but "The Unofficial Apple Weblog" is the worst offender. (It does go the other way of course, the Gawker properties have been heavily embittered against Apple ever since the story of the iPhone 4 lost prototype got out and Apple took legal action against one of the Gizmodo editors). While TUAW does often have very relevant, very helpful articles (I have discovered new software suggestions there regularly, and their writer Erica Sadun is utterly brilliant — her terminal suggestions are largely why I was able to migrate from Windows to OS X in the first place) the bulk of the site is inundated in opinion pieces which exemplify why "Apple fanboys" is the insult it is on the internet — smarmy, dismissive screeds of adoration that fail to realise that they are, again, a tech blog writing about a tech company and not teenagers pining after a celebrity crush.

Nevertheless it does have its value, and its value usually outweighs the cringeworthy opinion pieces; thusly, I follow it regularly and have had it in my RSS reader since the first time the site turned up in a google search when I was having trouble with my MacBook. Prior to their redesign sometime last year, I also fairly regularly left comments — given the site's typical audience, though, I avoided the more contentious discussions because nothing makes them froth at the mouth faster than criticising Apple. When TUAW migrated their comment system and required either an AIM, Facebook or twitter account to leave comments, I didn't bother re-registering.

This past week one of their writers, Chris Rawson, penned an article to the site discussing a global protest seeking to get Apple to be more directly involved in the working conditions at the very controversial Foxconn plant in China — Foxconn is at the heart of electronics manufacturing, and it's highly unlikely that anyone in the world does not have an appliance that hasn't passed through its factories on one level. Apple has lately been taking the brunt of the criticism for their factory conditions, but Microsoft manufactures their Xboxes at Foxconn and most computer manufacturers use the company for everything from laptop construction to putting desktops together.

Having been to China on multiple occasions now, I have discussed elsewhere that the backlash about working conditions at their plants are largely being framed in the context of Western labour as it is today rather than how it was in an equivalent point in time during our own Industrial Revolution — by our standards today eighteen hour workdays with no vacation seems harsh, but the vast majority of people working at China's Foxconn plants come from subsistence farmers who would be working the same hours doing hard physical labour for substantially less. Indeed, the interest in these jobs is so high that there are waiting lists at the factories that are themselves enclosed cities, and while a lot of attention has been paid to the high profile suicides the overall rate is substantially lower than out in rural China in the first place. (By the way, please don't mistake this as otherwise dismissing working conditions as I do certainly think they are awful, but that's coming from my perspective as an American who has never had to do anything worse than mop floors at McDonalds when I was 17 — the point is while these jobs seem bad to us, they're still better than what these people were doing before or there wouldn't be such interest in them).

Rawson wrote what was a very reasonable and insightful piece on this a couple weeks ago, which is why it was so bewildering that he would come along on the followup and dismiss himself so thoroughly.

The second article gives you a glimpse of the typical TUAW response to Apple criticism — an otherwise reasonable point is wrapped up in embittered "how dare they," or otherwise insulting attacks against the critics in question. The article itself is fine until you get to the last paragraph when it all blows up:

At press time, it was unclear if the protesters were wearing clothing manufactured in the USA, or if they plan similar protests at Best Buys, Walmarts, Gamestops, or the headquarters of Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, HP, Dell, or any of the other retail outlets and consumer electronics companies who also heavily employ Chinese labor to build their products.

That sort of disrespect for dissenting opinions is commonplace on the site and I have personally never bothered even speaking up about it because of the editors' propensity for swiftly removing criticism. So I read that and idly scrolled down expecting to see the sort of "go you" and "high fives" that accompany every snarky pro-Apple zinger on the blog. One comment from a reader which was at the top when I read the article complained about TUAW seemingly being nothing more than Apple PR, and it received a response from one "rawsunseejay" replying to the effect of it was only that commenter who felt that way.

It wasn't until I read further that I realised "rawsunseejay" was the handle of Rawson specifically (it raises the question as to why, unlike on every other blog I've ever seen in which authors leave comments, this handle had a slightly deceptive retelling of the author's name) — which I realised because it was used a second time in yet another even more hostile response to reader feedback:

This was a really interesting snippet of news, right until your meager attempt at trivializing the group's effort at affecting change. So, a group with limited resources should shut up and color until they amass enough manpower and money to protest every single aspect of overseas manufacturing? How very corporate of you.

I guess by your standard, that sorry dude in Tiananmen Square should have run around and stood in front of every tank in China to better make his point?

I realize every white guy on the planet thinks they should be writing for "The Onion". When I want that kind of writing…I go to, well, "The Onion".

Thanks for assuming that I'm white just because I think these protesters are irrelevant attention seekers. I mean, I AM white, but it's so far beyond the point that I'm mystified why you even brought it up.

Oh, little Chrissy. I'm just matching snark for snark. #109 on It's a funny blog. You should read it. I'm assuming you're white because you sound like an ultraconservative. And they're so irrelevant that you all have written two pieces about them in as many days.

So the protestors are a problematic part of the Foxconn situation? Specious logic at best.

I liked your article from about a week ago detailing why products are made in China. It was interesting, informative, and I'd never thought about the mass surge hiring as an integral facet of why companies like Foxconn are used. This article just makes it sound like you have a big chip on your shoulder with the protestors, and that they're picking on your bestest buddy (and new big toe!), Apple.

Yeah, hamster69huey, I'm a TOTAL ultraconservative. I'm so ultraconservative that when Bush got re-elected in 2004 I swore I'd leave the USA… four years later I finally moved to New Zealand, and I've been back to the States exactly once since then, with no intention of returning ever again.

Suit and tie, pro-business, praise Jesus, vote Republican. That's me all the way. Yep.

And then in response to that, yet another person commenting on how this sort of behaviour is inappropriate (so it's obviously not simply me and simply all in my head):

Mike Camden
"Suit and tie, pro-business, praise Jesus, vote Republican. That's me all the way. Yep."
Chris – why did you feel it necessary to respond to troll comments in such a way that could be seen as insulting to your other readers? I define myself primarily as a Christian. I am also someone who uses Apple products and tends to vote Republican. As such, I'm truly not sure why you didn't choose to just walk away from the follow-up comments by Hamster69huey after having already addressed his premise instead of making such a broad, sweeping statement that implies there is something negative or less than you about Christians or people who are pro-business or vote Republican. I expect those kinds of sweeping, derogatory comments from certain readers; I don't expect nor will I populate a site where they are offered by the writers and editors.

In any event watching this exchange just floored me. I took the time to register to leave a comment as well and discuss why this bothered me; at the time I believed it would likely be pulled so I took a screenshot for posterity — quelle surprise, it was deleted in minutes, and I was banned from the site.

I'm at a loss for why this remark was deleted so quickly while a handful of other complaints were allowed to remain (I was incorrectly under the impression that mine was the only one removed but after this exploded on twitter — I'll get to that in a second — a number of people got in touch with me with screenshots of their own displaying comments that were removed) and the hostile pro-TUAW replies to them were significantly worse. I also don't think my comment was any worse than utilising your employer's blog as a soapbox to dismiss and mock protests against working conditions in a country chances are high you've never even been to.

In any event, a comment was deleted. It's not the end of the world and TUAW can moderate their site how they wish; that was, however, the first time I've ever had a comment removed on a site as far as I can remember, and was also the first time I've ever been banned from a blog before. This is extraneous to what caught my eye and insulted me even more: TUAW has an embedded sidebar of writer twitter accounts and at the same time (again, just a few moments after I left it) that my comment was removed, I happened to glance at and notice this comment left by Rawson on his personal twitter profile (ignore the various timestamps below, I've taken these screenshots at different points in this escapade):

While presumably one can say what they wish on their personal account I would think you would demonstrate a certain level of respect and discretion if your twitter feed is embedded in the layout of your employer's website.

I took to twitter to address Rawson and after a few short messages from him I was childishly insulted and he announced that he had me blocked. In fact, Rawson seems to enjoy that announcement quite a lot, as he received criticism from other people in quick succession and also told them they were blocked, along with what could be construed as some sort of odd physical threat against those who've complained:

Again — not the end of the world — and I would have left it there as I have better things to do with my time if I had not noticed that Michael Rose, Rawson's apparent boss, was getting in on the twitter discussion as well and saw fit to mock anyone who had made critical remarks.

I replied to Michael and we discussed back and forth for a few minutes before he invited anyone with issues to send him an email. (As both Michael and myself have public twitter accounts the specifics can be seen over there so I will just paraphrase the exchange). I wrote him a quick email discussing what had upset me and underscored my background:

Before I go any further I just want to point out that I am not some random run of the mill internet troll who happened to poke you guys. I have been a writer on a variety of websites and magazines since I was sixteen years old, and in fact a number of articles I have written have been linked at and/or discussed on other AOL sites — your Mike Schramm for example wrote a piece on WoWInsider discussing something I had written about GLAAD's initiative to combat harassment in online games and communities, and while I was a staff writer at Joystiq writers (off the top of my head JC Fletcher, I believe, was the writer who covered GG's work against Modern Warfare's "F.A.G.S." PSA that I took the lead on) regularly cross-linked articles I had written there on their own site. I've had content on Massively and Kotaku and most of the large gaming sites. I've also worked extensively in LGBT activism — I don't know, perhaps if I had prefaced my comment on TUAW with a resume it might have spared Rawson's immediate knee-jerk reaction to criticism.

As I had made it clear to Michael that I did not find the 140-character twitter format at all productive in discussing this and would prefer to deal with him via email, I was quite surprised when an hour or so later Michael had not replied to me but had yet again taken to twitter to discuss the issue by posting an edited screenshot of my TUAW comment without any of the context behind what Rawson had done. Absolutely floored, I replied to him that if he's going to do that he should not be disingenuous in removing the context and offered the screenshot I'd used instead. I didn't get a reply (through twitter, or to my email) and went to bed.

What I woke up to was, frankly, the utter depths of juvenile bullying.

I'm not particularly active on twitter. I have a couple hundred people I follow, largely tech and gaming companies so I can see about relevant information from their businesses, and even less people following me. On any given month I will, maybe, receive messages in the single digits. When I woke up my twitter app was blinking furiously and informing me that I had several hundred messages waiting for me.

It did not take long to figure out what was going on:

Putting aside what was at this point a ridiculously overblown disagreement, an employee of Weblogs, Inc. had actively solicited people to, essentially, weigh in on what had by that point (and by my explicit request to Michael Rose) been a private issue between myself, him and Rawson. A Weblogs, Inc. employee had actively solicited people at random to harass me in retaliation for my comment — I think the gravity of that should be underscored, as he has tried to act that I did this myself by virtue of leaving a comment. Yes, I left a comment on the site and if people had attacked me in response to it it would have been contained there to people who happened to read my reply. In Rose's case, he actively directed people to my twitter identity and essentially instructed them to give me a piece of their mind.

I simply have no adequate expression for how unprofessional and inappropriate that behaviour is.

And piece of their minds I received:

are a few of the more choice comments, but I've also been told directly to fuck off, been told to shut the fuck up, had one Internet Detective do some great investigation and figure out I'm gay which elicited the expected "fuck you fag" — I mean, it's simply boggling.

Rose seemingly also has no problems with this sort of thing:

It's gone well and truly beyond one simple comment, but what made it even more insulting is the fact that during one of Rose's exchanges with another twitter user who felt that I was correct, Rose repeatedly aired details of my private email to him out in public — once more he did not feel it a valid use of his time to actually reply to me, but instead rushed to the wider world of twitter to get backed up by random strangers. Rose has said that he didn't mention my emails and hadn't even read it by the time he started bringing the issue up publicly but the fact of the matter is he quoted phrases to other people which — despite his statements to the contrary — I had only used in my email. Now perhaps he mistook similar phrasing between what I had said on TUAW and what I wrote to him but the essential issue is that rather than address me as an adult he thought it was more appropriate to incite harassment against me.

Rose also pulled out the rather tired "I have a full time job and your email isn't my priority," but the first twitter message related to me after I'd gone to sleep was published at 2:36 AM my time, and he continued egging it on at least through to 4:31 AM my time. I think two hours is a sufficient length to address a reader's complaints instead of engaging in name-calling and mocking, but that's me.

When I wrote for GayGamer, my articles often attracted a lot of criticism; I've never wrote anything for the purposes of pissing people off ("link bait" as it's often called) but as I've discussed LGBT activism and social issues you get an intersection of people who disagree with your opinions — not just straight gamers who bristle at the idea of gay representation at all, but other gay gamers who don't really care why it's a problem for a major video game publisher to release an advertisement calling other players "FAGS." GayGamer routinely received drive-by insults from people offended that it existed, but the trolling remarks are ancillary; if I had ever responded to another reader in such a hostile manner as Rawson originally had, I would have been expected to leave. If I had continued the argument for twelve hours in the most petty capacity afterward, I would have deserved the response I got. I certainly cannot imagine my editor getting in on it and exacerbating it further, much less inviting his readership to contact someone who wrote a comment and attack them.

By this point the original comment isn't even at issue anymore, nor do I care in the slightest about being banned from the site (as I said it happens to be the first and only time this has happened, so I wish I had popped my cherry on something that mattered a bit more in the wider scheme of things). At heart is the childish, knee-jerk way that Rawson reacted to and removed criticism, and the way that his boss is apparently fine with this — at this point, to be quite honest, Rose has been significantly worse in this than even Rawson was. There are ways to reply to criticism (if you simply can't ignore it) and there are ways to dramaticise and exacerbate conflict. Sadly, and quite immaturely, Rawson/Rose chose the latter.

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