All posts tagged Online

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Troll Taunter: Emily Temple-Wood’, February 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Troll Taunter

    A young Wikipedia editor withstood a decade of online abuse. Now she’s fighting back — on Wikipedia itself.

    Backchannel story: 'The Troll Taunter: Emily Temple-Wood' by Andrew McMillen, February 2017. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    The “fuck you” project crystallized one Friday night last year. As Emily Temple-Wood video-chatted with friends, an email pinged in her inbox:

    “There are alternate realities where I raped you and got away with it,” it read. “In those realities it’s legal for me to rape you as long as I want and as hard as I want. I am dead serious.”

    The note came from someone with a history of harassing the 22-year-old medical student. This man hates women, Temple-Wood thought to herself. Then she had another thought. What do misogynists hate more than successful women?

    Nothing.

    She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally—after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.

    Across the internet, trolls disproportionately target women and members of other underrepresented groups. On Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other open platforms, victims of harassment are forced to make a difficult choice—go silent and preserve their mental health, or try to ignore the abuse and continue expressing themselves openly online. As the wounds deepen, that latter choice becomes harder and harder to justify.

    When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.

    But on that Friday night, Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!’, August 2016

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

    How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.

    'Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!' by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel, August 2016. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.

    Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard,where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.

    But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.

    Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.

    Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.

    After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

    More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you.You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission—one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • The Kernel story: ‘The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer, Brett Christensen’, May 2016

    A story for The Kernel, published in May 2016. Excerpt below.

    The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer

    Thirteen years ago, Brett Christensen was the victim of an email hoax. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to preventing the same fate for others.

    The Kernel story: 'The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer' by Andrew McMillen, May 2016. Illustration by J. Longo

    For 13 years, Brett Christensen has been a committed professional debunker. This balding, bearded, soft-spoken, and serious man of 53 years has devoted himself to fighting the tide of online misinformation—the kind of scams, frauds, and hoaxes that used to spread from one inbox to the next but today move with alarming speed across social media. He assures readers that no, Mr. T is not dead (actually a like-farming scam); combining Mentos and Pepsi won’t lead to cyanide poisoning; and the sun won’t be going dark for eight days in June, no matter what that Facebook post quotes NASA as saying.

    In short, Christensen tries to bring his readers the facts, even as lies and mistruth swirl all around him. Way back in 2003, when he began his quest, he gave his website the suitably ambitious name, Hoax-Slayer. Its white, red, and black design favors practicality over aesthetics; while not particularly pretty to look at, the site is one of the Web’s largest archives of falsehoods. Christensen claims around 1 million visits per month, three-quarters of which arrive from search engines.

    The Hoax Slayer himself lives in a house hidden by trees on a busy street in Bundaberg, Australia, a city of about 55,000 people situated in Queensland, the country’s third most populous state. His home office is a minimally appointed room with an adjustable desk, a copy machine, a single computer monitor, and plenty of unused space. One of the walls is painted blue, and on either side of the monitor hangs a calendar and a framed assortment of Christensen family photos.

    As we talk, Christensen clicks onto Google Analytics, showing 50 people from around the world are currently browsing the site. Its social media presence is significant, too, with more than 202,000 Facebook fans and 5,300 Twitter followers.

    For a time, the site operated as a family business: At the peak of online advertising revenue a few years ago, he could afford to hire two sons from his previous marriage to help him with Web development and maintenance. “If you’d told me back in 2004 that I’d been making a living out of it, I would’ve laughed at you,” he says.

    Christensen’s wife, Deborah, also joined her husband in working on the site full-time for a few years but recently decided to return to her job as a probation and parole officer, managing the cases of criminal offenders. Today, about 80 percent of Christensen’s workweek is spent on managing Hoax Slayer, a site whose mission statement is “to help make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment.”

    It’s a quest that started with a hoax. Nothing too terrible; in fact, just a bit of mild embarrassment. Back in the early 2000s, when Christensen was still new to the World Wide Web, he received an email informing him not to download a Budweiser Frogs screensaver, as it contained a dangerous computer virus. He hurriedly forwarded it to his contacts. He thought he’d done the right thing by warning his friends and family away from harm—until he received a reply that it was a hoax. Stunned and chastened, he was also intrigued by how he’d become a victim. Rather than simply chalking it up to experience and moving on, he burrowed in.

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • CNET story: ‘The Man Who Virtually Has It All’, March 2013

    A feature story for CNET Australia; excerpt below.

    The man who virtually has it all

    A 30 year-old Sydneysider has amassed a small fortune by trading virtual items for real cash in the online game Entropia Universe. What next, though?

    Zachurn "Deathifier" Emegen in Entropia Universe, pictured as part of 'The Man Who Virtually Has It All' story for CNET Australia, March 2013

    In game, the nearest moon to Planet Calypso sits huge in the sky, framed against a blanket of twinkling stars and space clouds. Surrounding mountains tower above and oddly bendy palm trees sway in a gentle breeze. It is beside the teleporter located at Camp Icarus, Planet Calypso’s seaside outpost for new players, that I met with Zachurn “Deathifier” Emegen, leader of the Dark Knights society and one of the wealthiest men ever to play Entropia Universe.

    With a few quick mouse gestures, Deathifier — a tall, handsome avatar clad in shiny red armour — had spawned a Quad-Wing Interceptor, an impressive and expensive-looking aircraft. He then added me to the vehicle’s guest list and invited me to take a seat inside. Our destination? Treasure Island.

    Deathifier is the owner of the 25-square-kilometre plot of in-game land called Treasure Island. He purchased it for US$26,500 in December 2004 and set a Guinness World Record for the largest amount spent on a virtual item. We had to take the long air route, though, because Entropia Universe game developer MindArk had, without notice, disabled the teleporter that allows new players to travel between Camp Icarus and Treasure Island with ease.

    My pilot wasn’t pleased about this unexpected change: he’s reliant on hunting tourism for much of his income, and if players can’t easily get there via teleporter, he’s missing out on potential Project Entropia Dollars (PED), the in-game currency that’s tied to the United States dollar at a fixed exchange rate of 10-to-one. (Treasure Island cost 265,000 PED in 2004.)

    In real life, outside of this vast virtual planet and its two continents, Deathifier is David Storey, a 30-year-old Sydneysider who has been playing Entropia Universe for almost 10 years. Throughout that decade, behind the screen, in-game investments and earnings have comprised the bulk of Storey’s income. With help from a handful of silent partners, whose identities he has never revealed, Storey has invested over US$1 million into the game. The $26,500 Treasure Island purchase broke even in its first year, thanks to Storey’s tireless development, salesmanship and marketing, both online and off.

    At first, this is a strange concept to get one’s head around. This man makes a good living by spending his work week inside a computer game, a space more readily associated with fun and entertainment than commerce and profit. While Storey piloted the Quad-Wing Interceptor south-west across vast oceans and jagged mountain ranges toward Treasure Island, my avatar sat in the gunner’s seat — the aircraft is armed and able to shoot down opposing vehicles if necessary — while we spoke over Skype.

    I asked him whether it’s been difficult to separate the fun from the business side of the game. “They’ve always been intertwined,” Storey replied. “At some points, it’s been more for fun; at others, more for business. More recently, I’ve transitioned more toward business, because the fun elements have declined, so to speak. The core gameplay hasn’t changed in 10 years.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Digital Vertigo’ by Andrew Keen and ‘The Blind Giant’ by Nick Harkaway, July 2012

    Two digital-themed non-fiction books rolled into one review, for The Weekend Australian. The full review follows.

    New portals of perception in a digital age

    As cyberspace encroaches ever deeper into our everyday lives, it’s worth pressing the pause button to question how we choose to spend our time in an era of digital distractions. The two books under review present opposing viewpoints on this conundrum.

    In Digital Vertigo [pictured right], Anglo-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen takes a critical stance against the technologists behind social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, for reasons exemplified in the book’s subtitle. Keen knows his topic from the inside: on the cover the title is presented as a Twitter hashtag and the author’s name as @ajkeen. He has more than 19,000 followers on that medium, and this book seems to have been written between his frequent pond-hopping to speak at social media conferences.

    The tale begins with Keen staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the long-dead British philosopher and prison architect best known for his Panopticon design, in which inmates can be watched by outside observers at any time: “a prison premised upon the principle of perpetual peeking”, as Keen writes. Per his wishes, Bentham’s body is permanently exhibited inside a glass-fronted coffin — an “auto-icon” — within University College, London. Keen’s segue is that social media represents the “permanent self-exhibition zone of our digital age”.

    A curious introduction, no doubt. Time and again, Keen revisits the concept of the auto-icon while examining how our culture has become “a transparent love-in, an orgy of over-sharing” and comparing today to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous”. Many readers will recognise a kernel of truth in this comparison: to log on to the internet in 2012 is to be inundated with requests (demands?) to share, to socialise with other humans.

    Keen’s title is also a reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, where the protagonist eventually learns that everything he believed to be true was the product of malicious deception by his peers. Keen ties this to social media by describing it as “so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society” that we’re all “victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control”.

    The scenic route that Keen takes to arrive at this tenuous point is not particularly interesting. He fills entire chapters by paraphrasing academics and journalists, and attempts to list seemingly every start-up social business making waves in Silicon Valley. As a self-described “super node” of the social network, Keen seems quite proud to tell us that he closed his personal Facebook account in September last year.

    What could have been an original tech-dissident’s tale from the belly of the never sleeping beast is instead convoluted and messy. Keen draws heavily on historical references and too often these miss the mark, though a thorough examination of the creation and fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in London is a highlight. It’s worth considering whether the meandering and messy nature of Digital Vertigo — including many typographical errors — is a symptom of the author’s inability to avoid the attention-shattering properties of the web.

    At the time of writing, @ajkeen was still tweeting, by the way.

    Conversely, British novelist Nick Harkaway tries his hand at long-form nonfiction for the first time in The Blind Giant [pictured right], and strikes on a narrative that immediately grips the reader. Using tight language and evocative descriptions, Harkaway’s introduction is a nightmare vision of a dystopian, tech-led society where “consciousness itself, abstracted thought and a sense of the individual as separate from the environment” are all withering away. A contrasting vision of a “happy valley” follows, and is just as realistic and compelling.

    Harkaway admits in the afterword that the book had its origins in “unpicking the idea that digital technology was responsible for all our ills”. This late-declared bias aside, The Blind Giant is a measured and thoughtful take on a problem that will concern us all soon, if it doesn’t already.

    Though the author is clearly tech-inclined – he notes on page one that he was born in 1972, the same year as the release of the first video game, Pong – he is not fanatical. He compares attempts to switch off from the internet with refusing to open your mail: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves you ignorant of what’s happening, and gradually the letters pile up on the mat.”

    His narrative arc is well considered and draws on disparate topics such as neuroplasticity (how the brain alters its make-up to take on new skills and abilities), whether social media helped or hindered the anti-Mubarak revolutions last year (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and London) and the intriguing idea that we are living in an era of “peak digital”: “the brief and impetuous flowering of digital technology during which we inhabit a fantasy of infinite resources at low market prices”.

    Harkaway is a consistently engaging narrator: his fascinating analogies, elegant word play and occasional use of humour all point to his storytelling skills. True to the subtitle, his book cuts to the core of what it means to be human and how we might go about managing new and emerging technologies.

    It’s no self-help guide to unplugging yourself from the wired world, nor does he encourage us to spend more time with our heads in “the cloud”. Instead, Harkaway urges us to acknowledge our humanness on a regular basis, regardless of whether that human happens to be engaging online or off.

    Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us
    By Andrew Keen
    St Martin’s Press, 246pp, $32.95

    The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World
    By Nick Harkaway
    John Murray, 288pp, $21.99

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

  • The Global Mail story: ‘Sources Of Tension: SourceBottle and online sourcing’, April 2012

    A story for The Global Mail, published in April 2012.

    Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story on The Global Mail website.

    Sources Of Tension
    by Andrew McMillen

    Times have changed for journalists, and some have changed the way they get their information. It’s time to let readers in on one of the shortcuts.

    Pre-internet, journalists had it tough. If they needed quotes, they had to use initiative, combing their existing contacts, working their telephones, or wearing out their shoe leather meeting people face-to-face. Often, all three tactics were employed simultaneously.

    In 2012, not only are supremely useful online tools such as Google, Facebook and Twitter making the hunt for sources a much more efficient process, there are now entire digital businesses built around connecting journalists with sources – namely, the “real people” you find dotted throughout broadcast, print and online news stories. While Facebook and Twitter are useful for this purpose, they can be limited by a journalist’s existing network of “friends” and followers. So, aiming to streamline the process by offering volume and efficiency, new digital services will push a journalist’s message out to a large audience as quickly as possible.

    At face value, such businesses may appear no more than a slick machine pushing the antiquated skill of personal sourcing into the interconnected present. But the media-consuming public usually are unaware of how the voices in news stories have been gathered, knowledge that might colour the way readers interpret the quotes. To examine the ethical complexity of the issue, The Global Mail looks in detail at one such direct-connect business: an Australian website named SourceBottle .

    A cursory scroll through the website’s Twitter account, @SourceBottle , offers a depressing insight into the way some Australian journalists are using the service. On SourceBottle’s Twitter feed, wedged among requests for the generic (“Magazine seeks Gen Y girls who ditched the city life for the country”), the hopeful (“Magazine seeks people to lose 5kg in 2 weeks”) and the plain lazy (“Magazine seeks details on the Titanic for article”) is this jaw-dropper, tweeted on December 10, 2011: “Mag seeks women who have rejected a 6-figure salary, gone blonde, adopted a rescue dog or converted to Islam #beasource.”

    It’s a shame that the link leads to a dead-end on the SourceBottle website — the journalist’s deadline has long since expired, and so the “call-out” is shielded from public view — as that story sounds amazing. (Imagine if they found one women who’d done all four disparate tasks?) Mirth aside, it also sounds like an Australian women’s magazine has planned an article and then attempted to find sources to fit their idea of reality, rather than using reporting to inform the outcome. It’s the journalistic equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

    SourceBottle, founded by former PR rep Rebecca Derrington in July 2009, advertises two functions. Firstly, it helps journalists and bloggers find sources for stories. These voices are essential across all forms of journalism: without sources, we’d only ever see, hear and read fiction or opinion. In order to find people to interview for their stories, journalists are allowed to post a “call-out” on the site. If all goes to plan, the journalist can “sit back and sources will find you”, according to the site’s bolded marketing spiel.The concept is instantly appealing to any time-strapped journalist (as most are, after all).

    To read the full story, visit The Global Mail.

  • A conversation with Ryan Holiday: blogger, former marketing director of American Apparel, soon-to-be author; October 2011

    Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life.

    His blog, RyanHoliday.net, is one of the most valuable online resources I know of. This is a statement that I know will make him blush, because Ryan is a modest guy. I know this because when I first approached him for an interview in January 2010, he deflected my questions – which were extremely detailed, potentially to the point of exhibiting stalker-like behaviour. He wrote that when he felt he deserved an interview, he’d give it to me; he also said that mine was “the most in depth, investigative email I’ve ever gotten”.

    At 24, Ryan [pictured right] is a year older than me. I’ve viewed his blog as a kind of counsel since I first became aware of his work. His thinking and writing has, in turn, shaped my thinking and writing. It is fair to say that I wouldn’t be on the path I am now if I hadn’t been closely studying another young male on the other side of the world, fearlessly kicking down doors in search and pursuit of his goals. For a couple of years, Ryan’s ambition, persistence and confidence all directly influenced my day-to-day thoughts and actions. Which is another statement that will make Ryan blush, because it’s a pretty fucking weird thing to type, let alone think.

    Ryan first attracted my attention by attracting the attention of someone who I was closely studying at the time: Tucker Max, the American blogger-turned-author who is best known for his 2006 book I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell and the 2009 film adaptation of the same name.

    Ryan wrote a review of Tucker’s website – which, at the time, was a collection of stories about Max’s drinking and sexual exploits – for his college newspaper, and sent the link to the author. Soon after, Max posted the review on his message board, which was a fairly popular corner of the web; it was deleted a couple of years ago. I immediately became interested in figuring out who Holiday was.

    That review led Tucker to hire Ryan as an intern at his company, Rudius Media (now defunct). It led Ryan to work with the acclaimed author Robert Greene as a research assistant on the strategy book The 50th Law, co-written with rapper 50 Cent and released in 2009. And it led Ryan to be hired by the clothing manufacturer American Apparel, where he worked as Director of Marketing for a couple of years. He still works as an advisor to American Apparel, but moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans in mid 2011 to work on a book project of his own.

    Since January 2007, Ryan has consistently used his blog as a platform for discussions about writing, running, online PR, media, philosophy, and stoicism, among other topics. I’ve consumed every word that he has written since his first post, ‘The Business Of Running‘. I often re-read his posts multiple times, which is something I rarely do online. That first post remains a valid starting point for understanding Ryan’s way of thinking and writing. I’ll quote the opening paragraph below.

    “I run 5 miles every night. It’s where I go to digest my day, hash out the multitude of information that’s been poured into me in the last wild six months or so, and to try and condense it down to some sort of cohesive strategy to live my life by.” – Ryan Holiday, January 31 2007

    When I visited the United States for the first time with my girlfriend Rachael in September 2010, I asked to meet up with Ryan in Los Angeles. We met at a burger joint on Melrose Avenue and talked for an hour or so. It was a huge thrill for me to meet a guy who’s been something of an internet hero to me for nearly five years. Rachael didn’t really understand why it was so important to me at the time.

    Neither did I, really, now that I think about it. All I knew then, and know now, is that Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life. It’s an honour for me to publish the below email interview.

    Andrew: When you wrote that review of Tucker’s website, what was the intended outcome?

    Ryan: I’m not sure if I ever told anyone this, but I’d noticed that Tucker tended to link to or write about any press he got (at least back then) and so I thought, “I’m a writer for a college newspaper, why don’t I try it”? It didn’t really go much further than thinking about it at that time. Then a couple weeks later I had the opening line of that piece floating around in my head: “If Hunter S Thompson had read this site, he probably wouldn’t have killed himself.” I figured I had something and eventually sat down and wrote it.

    So the intended outcome was that I’d send it to him and he’d link to it (I reposted the article on my blog) and that would be it. But the reaction totally blew my mind. Within about 20 minutes he’d responded and… I went back to my Gmail and found it:

    From: Tucker Max

    [November 28th, 2005]

    “Jesus Christ. Dude, that is fantastic. Seriously, I am awed by your grasp of me and my material. I am going to post this as THE example of a great review of me and my work.”

    It’s funny to me now because that reaction has become a pretty routine occurrence for me since then. I obviously thought I wrote a pretty good article but I was still reluctant to send it off. Is he going to like it? Did I go overboard? What are the chances of it getting a response? Turns out I had nailed the target and didn’t quite understand the extent. That seems to happen a lot to me. You’d think I’d anticipate it by now, but still other peoples’ reaction (positively, anyway) tends to catch me by surprise.

    What did that response change for you? Was that one of those ‘Fight Club moments‘ I remember you writing about years ago?

    I think it was the opposite of one of those moments. I think of a Fight Club Moment as something that breaks you down and demolishes the pretense and bullshit entitlement you have in your life. This wasn’t that. It instilled a lot of confidence in me. It was like, “ok, I am better than I knew. That’s awesome, maybe I can build on this.”

    What happened next between you and Tucker?

    I think after he had the publisher send me a copy of his book to review, which I did, and after it was published I asked for his thoughts on the writing. He went over it on the phone with me about ways I could improve my voice and tone.

    I stayed in touch—I think in my post about advice a couple weeks ago I called this ‘staying on the radar’, and that’s basically what I did. I would pop in and ask questions, for advice, send links etc. Any excuse I could think of to keep that connection alive. Only an idiot would waste that chance.

    A year or so later I was in New York, where he was living and I told him I wasn’t looking for a job, or a salary or a handout but I had some thoughts on ways I could contribute to his company, Rudius Media. After the meeting, he offered me an internship, which 6-8 months later become a job. But it was all a very fluid thing, like I was saying.

    [Andrew’s note: that post he mentionedAdvice to a Young Man Hoping to Go Somewhere (Or Get Something From Someone Successful)is an absolute must-read.]

    To me, the act of writing the review and showing Tucker is a pretty solid example of figuring out what you want, and pursuing it accordingly. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t that lead to him offering you a job, you quitting college and moving to LA, and then working for American Apparel?

    Haha, I mean you pretty much figured out exactly what I was doing or trying to do with the last question, probably with a better sense of clarity than I really had at the time. But yeah, it was the door that ultimately led to the opening of all the other doors. I have him to thank for all of it. When I see a path to an opportunity–like a lane in basketball–I sort of put my head down and the next thing I know I’m through it and it took me somewhere I didn’t totally anticipate.

    With the Tucker thing, I knew I wanted to one day be a writer like the kind of writers he was working with at the time – I’d known this since I first saw his sites in high school – so I did that article, and then I was working for him, and then I was working for the people he was working with, and then the people they were working with, and so on. I don’t think any of them every solicited me for a job either so much; it was just that I was around all the time, doing stuff and offering to do stuff, and then it eventually became official.

    How did you come across Robert Greene’s work? Was it Tucker who first showed you?

    Yeah, I’d heard of the books obviously but I think Tucker recommended The 48 Laws of Power so I read it. I marked up my copy so much and had a million questions to ask Tucker.* Then the first time I met him, Tucker walked me to a bookstore and bought me The 33 Strategies of War and said, “if you’re going to work for me, you’ll need to have read this.” I think that’s how I found out I got the job. All I took from that exchange was: “I better read this book on the plane ride home and know it backwards and forwards.”

    * Ryan’s sidenote: that copy of The 48 Laws is priceless to me. Someone stole it out of my office at American Apparel. I was fucking distraught. It makes no sense because Dov [Charney, AA chairman and CEO] has a million copies laying around. Why would they want my marked-up personal copy?

    How did the opportunity to work for Greene arise?

    The three of us – Tucker, Robert, and I – had lunch in L.A. a few years ago and it kind of arose from that meeting. Although it almost didn’t, because I was so nervous I accidentally messed up when I gave Robert my phone number.

    I have a suspicion that working on The 50th Law might have inspired a sense of validation, given your regular documentation on your life via the blog, and your personal reading and research via your Delicious account. Am I right, or way off?

    I mean, it was very cool to have the privilege to be allowed to peek inside of project like that. But I don’t think validating is the right work. What it was was educational, from top to bottom. Researching for someone–particularly someone like Robert–is crazy because you get pointed in all these directions that you’d never have gone by yourself, given a very firm objective to gather from that direction, and a tight deadline with which to do so. When you read or research for yourself, it is kind of this wandering, directionless thing. For the book, it was like getting a crash course in a million different subjects. I was interested in all of them so I would mark down the stuff I would want to go back and look at later.

    So it’s funny, when I see the book, it reminds me of loose ends I still need to tie up for myself and am interested in looking into.

    Your stoicism guest blog for Tim Ferriss in April 2009 attracted a lot of attention. What did you get out of it? What did you learn from the experience?

    More than anything, it helped me clarify my thoughts. Tim is awesome and he’s got a very impressive commitment to expanding the scope of blog all the time. He starting writing about productivity and got all these people hooked and the next thing you know he’s totally revolutionized how they think about health and science. I was lucky that he gave me the microphone for one of those digressions.

    I got quite a few new readers out of it and he also was gracious enough to give me two more chances to write about similar topics. [The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne‘, October 2010; ‘Looking to the Dietary Gods: Eating Well According to the Ancients‘, July 2011]

    What you learn in a setting like that is how to tailor your message to different mediums. When I write for my site, I can be as self-indulgent as I want. When you write for someone else or on a bigger platform, you have to be much clearer and you have to catch them right from the beginning. They’re not YOUR readers, so you have to meet them where they are if you’d like to bother listening to your message. At the same time, it taught me that I don’t want to have to perform like that all the time which kind of freed me up to not have to chase acquiring that audience for myself. If didn’t learn that, I’d be spend all my time working to build something that at the end of the day, would make me miserable to have.

    Could you tell me about your working space?

    When I was in LA, I had a big office with 5-10 employees at any given time at the American Apparel factory. I had an office at my house at well.

    Now, in New Orleans, I sort of went in the completely opposite direction. I’m in a studio apartment so I don’t work much there. I like working and reading and writing out of the library at Tulane or, I belong to an old school athletic club in the French Quarter that has like a library/parlor work space that I use.

    On Mondays, I try to do all my administrative stuff—conference calls with employees, meetings, paperwork and then during the rest of the week I respond to AA emails in the morning and again at night. The middle of the day is mine. I try to write, go to the gym (run, box or swim), and read—in that order.

    I still have the same quote, the one from Marcus [Aurelius], above my desk:

    “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”

    The other quote above my desk is from Seneca:

    “Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.”

    In November 2007 , you wrote that “you have to be happy with you”. I understand it’s a work in progress, but are you happy with you in October 2011, nearly four years later?

    Happier for sure. It’s not so much that it’s a work in progress as it is a process. I forget who said it, but someone smarter than me said that “happiness ensues, it cannot be pursued”. And I think it was Aristotle who said that happiness was the result of excellence.

    Either way, I take that to mean that you’re happy when you are doing whatever it is that you’re doing, well. So: are you doing well at your career? Is your relationship the best it can be? Are you handling adversity or a difficult experience with excellence? Are you behaving honorably? Etc etc.

    These are all opportunities to excel in the moment and cumulatively these moments create a sense of happiness. I’m fucking 24, there’s no way I’m doing well all the time at everything but I do feel I am getting better and more consistent.

    I want to close on a cliched question, which I hope you’ll humour me on. What advice would you give to yourself five years ago, when all you really knew about yourself was that you ‘wanted to one day be a writer like the kind of writers Tucker was working with at the time’?

    Fucking breathe. It’s not as precarious as you think it is. There’s no need to be anxious. See, it’s really easy when you’re that young and you don’t have a safety net to think you have to cling to everything for dear life, everything is a crisis, everything is mission critical, nothing else can be the priority.

    When you’re in that space, it’s really hard to have the patience and compassion or even empathy for the other people in your life because you’re fucking fight or flight all the time. In reality, it’s not as dramatic as all that. Taking a more relaxed and accepting approach might mean losing a couple opportunities here and there but down the road, you end up turning down plenty of those anyway, so what does it matter if a couple never arrive?

    If I told myself this and really listened, I feel like I’d have been happier along the way and be able to be prouder of how I behaved and the decisions I made.

    ++

    For more on Ryan Holiday, visit his blog. Hopefully he’ll soon post some news about the publication and release of his first book.

    [Edited on November 18: the first news of Ryan Holiday’s book has been announced.]

  • Junior ‘issues’ story: ‘Music Photography: First Three Songs, No Flash – And No Copyright’, July 2011

    A feature story for the ‘issues’ section of monthly street press Junior, July 2011. It’s an updated version of a feature that originally appeared on TheVine.com.au.

    Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

    Music photography: First three songs, no flash – and no copyright

    Earlier this year, Iron Maiden – the most recent headliners of the national Soundwave Festival – brought more than just a custom-built stage, hundreds of guitar solos and an enormous British flag. As Junior photographer Cameron Edney discovered on the day, they were also the only Soundwave performing artist to present a customised photography contract.

    “It was pretty tight,” Edney says. “Their contract stated that they wanted shooters [photographers] to send the best shots via mail to London for approval. Once the band’s management had looked over the shots put forward, they would contact us to let us know what shots we could use. They also wanted a minimum of 30 days to do this.”

    Such rights-grabbing statements are nothing new in the live entertainment business, where artists’ images and ‘trade secrets’ have always been fiercely protected. Eddie Van Halen was known to turn his back to the audience when performing innovative electric guitar solos before Van Halen were signed, so as to prevent both his newly-discovered techniques from being viewed by rival guitarists – as well as being captured by keen-eyed music photographers.

    Recent Australian tours by popular rock acts like The Smashing Pumpkins and Muse have demanded that photographers shoot only from the sound desk. Muse, too, issued a contract which states that photographers “hereby assign full title guarantee the entire worldwide right, title and interest in and to the Photographs, including the copyright therein”.

    Which means that if Muse – or, more likely, their management and/or lawyers – happen to be browsing your live photo portfolio and they’re particularly taken by a picture of bassist Christopher Wolstenholme in his fetching red suit, they can request the high resolution image file (or negative), and you have no power to negotiate because you’re bound by a contract.

    Why, then, in an age where the vast majority of gig-goers carry web-ready media devices in their pockets, are bands still so insistent on attempting to shield themselves from the close scrutiny of cameras? Recent news reports even suggest that Apple is developing software capable of disabling the iPhone camera whenever a punter tries to film a gig, via clever infrared sensors installed at venues. Though live footage and still images may fall under different arms of copyright law, one wonders: are such heavy-handed measures really necessary?

    British-born, Australia-based Tony Mott has been photographing musicians across the world for over 30 years. He’s been the Big Day Out’s official photographer since the festival’s 1992 inception; his work has appeared on the cover of just about every music and news-related publication imaginable. When it comes to photo contracts, though, his approach is blunt: “I don’t read them, and I never do.”

    Mott says he’s never had any legal trouble as a result of signing contracts in this effectively sight-unseen manner. “Not one single person has come back to me and told me that I’ve been doing the wrong thing. I sell [photos] to music magazines. That’s it. That’s all anyone’s doing with them. I mean, if you started making posters and merchandise [with your photos of the artist], I think you would get into trouble.”

    According to Matt Palmer, a Brisbane-based photographer, “You get treated like a bit of a bastard with these contracts. The reality is, you’re there as a fan, and as a photographer, you’re trying to take the best photos you can of a band. So it’s a bit weak to be presented with these contracts when you’re actually trying to help them out.”

    Sydney-based photographer Daniel Boud notes that two bands that don’t treat photographers like bastards, however, are also two of the biggest in the world: AC/DC and U2. Both acts toured Australia last year.

    “It says a lot that, for two of the bands whose fans are so rabid that you might actually be able to sell the photos for commercial gain, neither act even bothers with having photos contracts,” says Boud. “They’re also two artists that, when you shoot them, their tour managers and publicists are incredibly nice and welcoming to photographers. They thanked us for coming. Whereas a lot of the time, concert promoters make you feel like you’re a pain in the arse to them.”

    It’s a tough line to tread, between respecting the rights of the artist and satisfying both professional photographers and the average punter holding their iPhone aloft. Though their hardware varies, they both want to capture the moment for posterity.

    Junior’s Cameron Edney admits that such contracts “can be a joke; the demands can be laughable, but for the most part, it’s expected. It’s part of the job, and if you get into this side of the business and want to shoot live music, you have to be prepared to sign release forms. If you don’t, you may lose out on shooting bands you really want to cover. Just like any job, music photography has its own disadvantages.”

    Andrew McMillen (andrewmcmillen.com/) is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and Junior writer. This piece originally appeared on TheVine.com.au; we asked him to update it for Junior. This is his second story for our ‘issues’ series; his first was on ticket scalping. Read the whole series at junioronline.com.au

  • The Weekend Australian story: ‘Independent bookshops: Holding the line’, March 2011

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review. The full story is included below.

    Independent bookshops: Holding the line

    Some of the big boys may be in trouble, but independent bookshop owners are stubbornly hanging on, writes Andrew McMillen

    “We’re all a little bit crazy. We’re all a little bit obsessive. We all work far too hard. We’re really passionate about what we do. We all do a huge amount of unpaid work in the community. We’re all literary award judges. We talk to schools. We’re passionate about literacy.”

    Fiona Stager, co-founder of Avid Reader in Brisbane’s inner south, is describing the sort of people who own and operate independent bookstores across the country.

    Suzy Wilson, owner of Riverbend Books in Bulimba, an inner-east suburb of the Queensland capital, wouldn’t argue with that assessment. There’s “a certain addiction to doing this”, she says. “I love it and believe in it. I believe in how important bookshops are in communities, to the extent that I’m not prepared to disappear.” With a laugh, she adds an afterthought, “Which my accountant thinks would be a really good idea.”

    Entrance to Riverbend Books is gained by passing through the bustling Teahouse, Riverbend’s cafe. Monday morning business is brisk and walk-ins are hard-pressed to find empty seats. Inside, dozens browse the shelves; among them, young professionals and mothers with babes in arms. The sound of children laughing and playing echoes throughout the space. Handwritten staff recommendations hang from every other shelf. Overhead, a jazz soundtrack is played at just the right volume.

    A former schoolteacher, Wilson knows “a lot about literacy and the ways of leading children towards books”, but had “less than zero” business knowledge when she decided to open the store in 1998. Based on what she gleaned from books on the subject — and what other medium would a prospective bookshop owner use to increase her knowledge? — it became clear that since her business would not be based in a shopping centre or an area with a high passing trade, Wilson needed “some other thing to make it a destination”.

    Hence the Teahouse. Initially, a relaxation of Bulimba’s town planning laws allowed her to sell coffee, sushi and sandwiches, but not hot food. Since then, the overall store space has doubled and the Teahouse is now a restaurant in its own right, serving breakfast and lunch daily. Its earnings account for about 30 per cent of Riverbend’s overall business, but Wilson hopes the books and food split will return to 50-50, as it was in recent years. The two operations “complement each other really nicely”, she says.

    Visiting authors have commented on the bookstore’s atmosphere. Children’s author James Maloney regards it as the “community church”, and another writer compared it with an English pub, referring to the store’s power as a social space. “I really like that role,” says Wilson, eloquent and generous in conversation, and with her praise of others.

    Last year Wilson travelled to New York with Stager and two other bookshop owners, Mark Rubbo and Derek Dryden. Dryden is owner of Better Read Than Dead, in Sydney’s Newtown and Rubbo is general manager of independent chain Readings, which operates six shops across Melbourne. “He’s one of the few who’s significantly increased his online sales,” Wilson says, with unbridled admiration.

    Rubbo makes the point that “people will always want to have some face-to-face contact and the pleasure of going into a bookshop, discovering things and talking to people. I think it will always be important. But that aspect of the business is losing market share to internet retailers.”

    In New York Rubbo, Wilson, Stager and Dryden were the Australian contingent at Book Expo America, the largest annual US book trade fair. Calling it a place where “many interesting minds come together to talk and think about the book industry, and where it’s going”, Wilson found conversations there were the impetus for “facing the music”; for adding up the risks involved in continuing and the chances for survival.

    Wilson nevertheless gives the impression she would rather not have to deal with questions about her business and its future, whether asked by her accountant, her customers or a journalist. The mere existence of pleasant, inviting bookshops such as her own should be punctuated with an exclamation point, not a question mark. After all, what else but passion could fuel the pursuit of an endeavour such as hers?

    The business concerns of bookshops have been widely discussed of late, due largely to the mid-February announcement that REDgroup Retail — the company that oversees book chains Borders and Angus & Robertson — was entering voluntary administration. REDgroup chairman Steven Cain pointed his finger squarely at the federal government for its refusal to lift import restrictions or enforce GST on online shopping.

    When this topic is raised, Wilson is unequivocal. “I regard it as grossly, grossly unfair that Amazon doesn’t have to collect GST. Canada make them do it, so why can’t we?” she asks. “I’ve written a few letters to politicians over the years. I’ve been bamboozled as to why no one wants to do anything about it.”

    To Wilson, Amazon — the world’s biggest bookshop, whose storefront exists solely online — is “that horrible word we don’t like to use too often”. No wonder. Businesses such as Amazon and the Book Depository, an emerging online bookshop based in England that offers heavily discounted titles and free shipping to Australia, have altered the way customers buy books.

    Wilson tells a story about book-club members who had been buying titles at the store for 10 years. Discovering the Book Depository had the same books for half the price, members “took me to task”, Wilson says. “I asked if they’d let me put up a spirited defence of my situation because they actually thought I was ripping them off.” She sighs. “That hurts. So I put up my defence, but they’d already ordered the books, so they went away a bit sheepish. I said, ‘If you buy from them, you’re saying that this place has no value in our community.’ I completely understand that you have to watch your dollars, but it’s a choice about where you watch them and what you value in your community. I think you have to look at the bigger picture and say: ‘Do I want a community without a local bookstore?’ ”

    But this is all business talk. Wilson would much prefer to discuss Riverbend’s role as a community hub; how, for instance, seven local school principals use the Teahouse for their monthly breakfast meetings. Wilson regularly sits in with them. “They’re a really interesting group,” she says. In their most recent meeting, the topic of social media came up. It turned out that none of them — all “oldies”, according to Wilson, who lumps herself into that demographic — uses Facebook or Twitter. She realised last year all of her staff were “competent and involved” with such networks; at the time, she was blissfully ignorant yet aware of the necessity to keep her finger on the digital pulse. So, with the school principals as the first guinea pigs, Riverbend will soon begin hosting social media classes.

    These are the kinds of gaps Wilson loves filling: an in-demand service, provided for a greater good. An example is the Indigenous Literacy Project, which Wilson founded in 2004: since the start of the project more than 60,000 books have been delivered to 200 remote communities across the country.

    Wilson believes social projects at independent bookshops across the country are about “all of us putting our minds to building this community to be as strong as possible, so that we’ve got the best chance of surviving”, although she acknowledges they require a huge amount of work, which is “not really reflected in the returns”.

    However, the pursuit of what Wilson dubs “the tipping point of profitability” will determine the years ahead. By hosting school principals for breakfast and helping indigenous children, perhaps these community-focused measures, in a roundabout way, will help Riverbend’s doors stay open.

    Riverbend is not the first bookshop to realise the importance of leveraging its floor space beyond the basic act of stocking and selling books, and certainly won’t be the last. Stager sees the Avid Reader’s bulging events calendar as one of its key strengths. “We’ve put a greater emphasis on our events, which is what we’d started a couple of years ago. I’ve always been very event-driven; that was one of the core principles I started with, using Gleebooks in Sydney as a model.” Seeing as an example the growth of live music within an industry affected by declining physical sales, Stager decided to concentrate on what she deems “the live experience”; usually, visiting authors giving readings and conducting question-and-answer sessions with readers. Successes in the past 12 months include 400 payers attending a Shaun Micallef book launch at the Hi-Fi, a couple of blocks down from the bookshop on Boundary Street in West End, as well as more than 600 attending a Paul Kelly launch at the same venue.

    David Gaunt has managed Gleebooks since 1978. “We’ve been around for a long time and I don’t think we’ve ever been unaware that the best chance for independent bookstores to survive is to place a strong emphasis on social engagement in the community,” he says. “In our case, this includes heavy representation at festivals and conferences, events outside the shop, as well as the country’s biggest in-store author event program.” Such events sustain customer interest year-round, he says, but especially when the going’s “really tough, which it certainly is at the moment”. For Gaunt, the act of bookselling, online or off, has barely changed during his time in the industry. This year, the only real difference is that Gleebooks promotes its events program through social media channels.

    Enticing though such events are to so many, reading is still, by and large, a solitary pursuit. As to whether Stager views online bookstores as competition to the service in her shop, she responds cautiously. “Yes, they are. And that’s because everybody in the media has told the readers that Amazon and the Book Depository are our competition. I think they get millions of dollars of free advertising, which they don’t warrant.”

    It’s perhaps an irony that so many Australians have gained knowledge of these alternative, online retailers through the act of reading the news, and the growing profitability of online sites is proof people do still read; more than ever, perhaps.

    According to Stager she has “one big advantage over Amazon. If it’s on my shelf, you can buy it, there and then. I’ll gift wrap it for you, beautifully. I offer events and interaction with other readers through great customer service. There is more to retail than just getting something. Retail is an experience, and I have to make sure that when you come into my shop, you’re having an experience.”

    Stager is adamant book consumers shouldn’t support independent retailers just because they’re smaller and thus perceived to be vulnerable. Instead, she says, “They have to support us because of what we offer: customer service, our range and a whole lot more. We have to be good citizens as well, so we have to be doing the right things by our staff, by our community.

    “That all comes into play. Don’t support me just because I’m small and an indie; support me because of the things I do.”

    For the full story, visit The Australian’s website. Thanks to all of the helpful independent bookshop owners I spoke with for this story, many of whom I had to omit. Please note that the above photo was taken by Lyndon Mechielsen.

     

  • The Vine story: ‘First Three Songs, No Flash – And No Copyright’, March 2011

    A feature article for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    First Three Songs, No Flash – And No Copyright

    Andrew McMillen inspects the contracts and copyright law related to recent Australian tours by Big Day Out artists Tool and Rammstein.

    (Main pic: Slash vs Photographers at Soundwave, Adelade 2011 by Andrew Stace)

    As the 2011 Big Day Out tour wound itself across the country this year – it ended in Perth on Sunday, Feb 6 – hundreds of professional photographers snapped portraits of an artist line-up that included Californian hard rock act Tool and German industrial metal troupe Rammstein.

    These two bands were the heaviest-hitting acts on the tour. Yet their photo release forms also revealed that they were the bands most protective of their image. “All copyrights and other intellectual property rights shall be entirely Artist’s property,” read a line from Tool’s contract, which photographers wishing to capture the band from the front-of-stage photo pit were required to sign. “[The photographer] is prohibited from placing the photos in the so-called online media, and/or distributing them using these media,” stated Rammstein’s decidedly archaic contract, which concludes with an apparently self-defeating line about being subject to the laws of Germany.

    Such rights-grabbing statements are nothing new in the live entertainment business, where artists’ images and ‘trade secrets’ have always been fiercely protected. Eddie Van Halen was known to turn his back to the audience when performing innovative electric guitar solos before Van Halen were signed, so as to prevent both his newly-discovered techniques from being viewed by rival guitarists – or being captured by keen-eyed music photographers.

    Recent Australian tours by popular rock acts like The Smashing Pumpkins and Muse have demanded that photographers shoot only from the sound desk; Muse, too, issued a contract which states that photographers “hereby assign full title guarantee the entire worldwide right, title and interest in and to the Photographs, including the copyright therein”. Which means that if Muse (or, more likely, their management or lawyers) happen to be browsing your live photo portfolio and they’re particularly taken by a picture of bassist Christopher Wolstenholme’s fetching red suit, they can request the high resolution image file – or negative – free of charge. You have no power to negotiate because you’re bound by a contract.

    Why, then, in an age where the vast majority of gig-goers carry web-ready media devices in their pockets, are bands still so insistent on attempting to shield themselves from the close scrutiny of professional cameras? And are these contracts even legally binding, or simply attempts to scare newbie photographers into surrendering their hard work – with zero additional compensation on top of their publication’s one-time print fees?

    For the full article, visit The Vine.