The forces of truth and justice stood victorious.
A furious siege by authors and their followers had reduced the enemy citadel to rubble within hours of the battle-horn sounding. Naught was left of their internet presence but a screencapped surrender flag:
There are many terrible things about Twitter, but this is one of the great things: A predatory, exclusionary, larcenous or otherwise harmful project can get hate-wiped off the map before it even incorporates. Whether it’s a barely-begun passion project by a handful of Mormons or a professional app startup built and launched by professional app-startup-launchers, online creatives can always mobilize collective action to get bad actors out of our collective paint.
And, hoo boy, was Realms of Ruin bad. It checked every box of #content awfulness: NFTs, fanfic, crypto, work without payment, blockchain, founders making money but nobody else, zero copyright anything, and all of it, all of it, targeted at teens. Minors. Kids who can’t legally sign contracts or purchase cryptocurrency were both the pool of unpaid labor and the target audience.
But as the righteous warriors forsook torches and pitchforks for basketballs and trampolines, I read “the receipts” a little more closely.
And I began to wonder: Were we the baddies?
Don’t misunderstand me: Realms of Ruin, as envisioned, would interact with our current digital economy and intellectual-property laws in a toxic kaleidoscope of horrible ways.
But unlike YA Book Ratings, a ham-fisted attempt to get authors and publishers to self-apply conservative Christian content warnings, I don’t see any evidence the Realms of Ruin founders were being duplicitous. And unlike Recipeasly, or the Internet Archive’s there’s-no-such-thing-as-copyright-in-a-pandemic gambit, it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to strip existing creative works of their value.
Instead, judging by the since-deleted Medium post of cofounder Julie Zhuo and the preserved history of RoR’s Discord Q&A, it seems like a bunch of really smart people with an advanced case of Silicon Valley Brain genuinely tried to build something cool—and anyone who both enjoys consuming entertainment and knows about “Web3” could see why they were so excited.
If you’re not familiar—and I am only barely familiar—then check out this thread by Jack Butcher on how open-source brands, crypto and NFTs can combine into community-built products that actually make money. For normies like me, every Tweet in the thread is its own tiny universe of WTF:
Internet writers who were around during the Aughties have long lamented that Web 2.0 ruined everything: We went from general-purpose computers to walled-garden devices, from ad networks to the Adtech Duopoly, and from organic link-sharing to evil algorithms. In fact, the last 5-7 years of tech innovation have just been non-stop “disruption” of all the stuff that already worked. In every aspect of our online lives, we’re forced to neglect our buses and roads in order to subsidize some rich asshole’s one-lane tunnel.
And on the face of it, Web3 embodies everything wrong with tech: disruptive, speculative, environmentally destructive. But the values behind these “open-source brand” projects are very Web 1.0!
People like Reacher are collaborating on community-built, technologically unique, equally distributed and distributable creative projects that have resulted in real things being purchased by real people for significant amounts of (pretend things that can be really traded for) real money. There have even been some successful music-based projects, like The Song That Owns Itself.
Now apply that tech to a community storytelling project: A fiction-writing sandbox where the box, sand, and toys were all built by authors who know what they’re doing. Imagine a real collaborative anthology project like, say, Bookburners? And now anyone can write a story in the universe, and anyone could read any written story, and the original creators could elevate the best works to Canon status? And everyone involved profits from the creation and the consumption, either directly or indirectly? It’s a really attractive idea!
In translating that idea to practice, it became clear Zhuo and the other founders had no clue how telling stories for money actually currently works. Nor did they seem to be aware of The Huge Issue with tying NFTs to creative works: unless the “creative works” in question are algorithmically generated (like Butcher’s meme hats), you literally cannot tie NFTs to most creative works. If I spend hours and hours writing a new Realms of Ruin story, and pay to mint it, you can just copy-paste my labor and re-mint it yourself. And if the market decides your CTRL+C/CTRL+V has more value than all my writing labor, then I’m just out of luck.
But the many challenging questions in RoR’s ill-fated Q&A were met with what appeared to be genuine naïveté, not the kind of canny PR-ese deflections of the purposefully evil. Post-launch, the core RoR team intended to decentralize governance “to the point where we no longer have a majority vote.” And when directly asked whether RoR would donate all the money generated by NFT sales to UNICEF if that’s what The Community decided, the answer was yes.
For all of the obvious problems with the RoR project, the founders were clearly signaling that they had the expertise, resources, and willingness to work through those problems with the writing community, until it became clear “the writing community” wouldn’t be satisfied unless they permanently killed the project.
The project was killed, and we were satisfied.
But…are we satisfied?
Zhao has described their writing journey, including in this video, as having “meme’d their way” to the top. But like every quote-unquote overnight success, Zhao put in years of hard work, wrote multiple trunked novels, went through multiple agents and had to overcome plenty of personal struggles before their kickass mecha YA book IRON WIDOW–a “tough sell,” as YA science-fiction–debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List:
I was never really a Grand Theft Auto kind of guy. Though I loved a lot of the elements of my buddy’s copy of Vice City (80s aesthetics! A true open-world sandbox! Absolutely bananas driving!), the people who were really into GTA seemed most into the stuff that repulsed me (“You can have sex with a hooker, then kill her and get your money back!”). Until last year, I’d never bought any of the games.
But during lockdown, some of my Dad Friends started a late-night GTAV Online crew—and I decided the much-needed buddy time was worth whatever baggage came with it.
My wife and three teenagers all groaned and rolled their eyes every time I booted it up. The controls were counterintuitive, especially because I was playing two other, better, open-world games at the time. The glitches were as profuse as they were preposterous. But there were so many moments of magic.
From a bunch of grown men being incapacitating ourselves with laughter while we caused Blues Brothers-level vehicular mayhem, to hours spent rigorously perfecting our caper-movie roles in the Cayo Perico Heist, there was still plenty of the incessantly copied, never-quite-replicated magic of the original GTAIII formula, whose development Gordon chronicled here.
Rockstar is preparing to yet again re-release the entire “trilogy” (e.g., games III, IV, and V), and they may never get to VI. But there’s no question they pushed the boundaries of what video games can be, for better and for worse.
As Brennan herself begins the post, “my advice to you is not to read [it].” But if you are the kind of Relentlessly Online person who, well, reads my newsletter, you are going to be awed by the amount of (mostly judgement-free) work Brennan did laying out all the facts of the Kidney Lady saga.
Many people have taken this drama way, way, way too far and have incredibly strong feelings about one, two, or possibly all of the involved parties. My advice to all of you is to not care. And not read this piece or its immediate follow-up, “Bad Discourse Friend: The Unraveling of a Viral Story (Part 2)”.
“Even after becoming a No. 1 bestseller and having all these translation deals,” Xiran Jay Zhao said in their video above, “I have not seen any money from IRON WIDOW beyond the first three of five payments my initial small advance was split into. If I didn’t have my YouTube earnings, I would have been struggling with my finances all pandemic—despite knowing my book was going to be a hit towards the end.”
Zhao then talked about the six-figure deal they signed for their next book: The payments have been spread out across three years, with the first installment not deposited until six months after the deal was signed.
Interestingly, between Zhao posting their video and my writing this post, a furious discourse erupted over the nature of six-figure book deals. Some author somewhere offhandedly said that because of standard subtractions like taxes and agent fees, plus the industry splitting advances into smaller chunks and spreading them farther out, and many major deals coming with an obligation to turn around another book pretty quickly…a One Hundred Thousand Dollar Book Deal isn’t “life-changing” in the way most people think of that phrase.
Suddenly, my timeline was awash about how entitled and insensitive professional writers are. How can middle-aged, middle-class authors be so out of touch with the plight of poorer, younger authors?!? Don’t they know how miraculous a $100,000 check would be to a 24-year-old who’s waiting tables and/or drowning in student debt, possibly marginalized on multiple axes, overcoming generational trauma, burning the midnight oil to chase the dream?
Well, here’s a young, multiply-marginalized author who just explained that despite signing two traditional book deals and debuting at No. 1 on the NYT list, they’re not getting a $100,000 check. They’ve been living at home, with a brand-new college degree they’re not going to use, and have been living off YouTube earnings while waiting however long it’s going to take for their publisher to pay out the money they’re owed.
During the Internet Archive kerfuffle, nobody went harder in the Twitter paint than me defending authors’ rights to make money off their labor. Time and again, the “information wants to be free” neckbeards kept falling back on the idea that instead of writers being Idea Landlords, they should try living in a post-scarcity collectivist utopia where all their needs are met, and they make art for fun instead of money.
Which, sure! Let me know when the U.S.S. Enterprise is in low Earth orbit, and I’ll beam the hell up. In the meantime, I’ve got mortgage payments to make.
But…the current system is not really working for anyone?
Writers have to zealously defend their intellectual property because if they don’t, everyone will assume it’s free to take. Literary agents are accepting worse and worse publishing terms in exchange for writers’ labor, because that’s all the publishing companies sitting on billions in cash reserves are offering. And those companies are doing that to compete with Amazon, which has been relentlessly and aggressively dismantling the industry from the outside in AND the inside out for the last 20 years.
So when a few of the small number of authors who have Made It warn the people trying to Make It that the vast majority of book deals are not lottery tickets (and might only be a ticket to the middle class under limited sets of circumstances)…why are people attacking the messengers, and not the oppressors?
If Web 2.0 ruined everything for professional writers, why are we charging out to defend the structures built by the Amazons and Facebooks that ruined us?
And when a bunch of really smart people who have no clue how publishing works now, but are eager to provide writers with a collectivized way prosper from labor–without competing for tastemakers’ favor, or signing terrible contracts?
Well, maybe our first response shouldn’t be to flame them off the internet.
AND NOW I’ll update you on my ongoing attempts to win tastemakers’ favor, so I can sign a terrible contract, so I can get a (hopefully decent-sized) book deal, so my standard of living can increment upwards for a little while, but not significantly change!
Last week I let CPs look at a draft one-page synopsis for my new YA fantasy project, which I’ve codenamed “A&A.” I got a lot of really useful advice–but since I used a widely-recommended synopsis guide that frames everything around the Hero’s Journey story structure (which A&A doesn’t follow), I got a lot of confused questions about what’s important to the story and why.
I’m now revising it into a two-page synopsis, with the goal of completing a full outline by November 1st.
Why November 1st? Well…there is that other novel-writing hashtag…
[NOTE: I accidentally used an incorrect pronoun for Xiran Jay Xhao in the original, emailed version of this post. I deeply regret the error.]