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Episodes: War Stars


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 20 2016

6 min read



Writing on the internet means never quite knowing when you'll get swept up into the middle of a whole bunch of people taking something you've written the wrong way. Sometimes, they're completely justified. Sometimes, it's a difference of opinion. And sometimes, they're completely unjustified, enjoying the feeling being part of a righteous mob on the internet imparts.

Regardless of which category your controversy falls into, it's never fun to wake up and find your Twitter mentions clogged with people telling you you're an idiot, even if they're really nice about it. I've written about this here before, but one of the things about social media (and especially Twitter) is that when you're under its gun, it's never a whole bunch of different thoughts being broadcast at you. It's the same thought, broadcast over and over again, as if the person tweeting it were the first to think of it.

Anyway, last week, this happened to me (and is still happening), and I really do think this is toward the ridiculous side of things -- i.e., I think I'm right -- so let's talk about it.

So I wrote a Rogue One review with the headline "Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge the whole franchise is about war." I thought I was pretty in the zone on this one, which is not a sense I often get, and for the most part, comments about the review itself have been very kind -- a few quibbles here or there, but nothing you wouldn't expect on a review of anything.

No, as you're probably aware, the "problems" lie almost entirely with the headline and the accompanying tweet. I didn't write the headline (though I did select it from our internal discussion of what to call the article, and my editor approved it), but I thought it was a good enough expression of what my story was that I pasted it into the tweet field when assembling the article. (These were my suggested headlines, and I still don't think any is as good as the one on the article right now.) Anyway, I have now, by my count, received over 200 tweets just to me saying some variation of, "Wars is right there in the title, idiot!" and that doesn't count the many, many, many, many more that have been tweeted at the Vox account proper.

The problems lie in the word "acknowledge," which those who take issue with the headline think means, more or less, "says," as in, "this is the first Star Wars movie to even talk about war." But to believe I actually think that, you need to believe that I'm not just an idiot, but functionally illiterate and somehow still got a job for a major media publication. You also need to think that I've somehow made it this far in life without ever having heard of Star Wars before this, when the review itself talks about connections to the other films. You essentially need to read the headline, not bother to read even the first 100 words of the article (which make clear what I'm talking about), then presume I'm unable to read or reason.

(Sidebar: The reason I haven't changed the headline is because "acknowledge" means something deeper than "say." It means to underline or highlight or point out, and I really do think Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to underline that this franchise is about war. You might disagree with that assessment, but I don't know that you can see this movie and not understand that it's taking a more serious tack when it comes to the damage and destruction of warfare. Which is why I've had quite a few people tweet apologies at me after actually seeing the film. But never mind that.)

Anyway, this has been going on, now, for almost a week. And it followed the path most of these things follow, which is:

The first 12 hours: some fun jokes and some hate, mixed in about equal measure

Thereafter: Pretty much just anger and bile

Somewhere in there: the alt-right gets involved and starts ranting about whatever

The reason I feel comfortable writing about this and haven't about other random Twitter controversies I've gotten drawn into is because, hey, I really do think I'm in the right here. The controversy that's spun up around this strikes me as really funny, for the most part, because it's driven by this vague, inchoate sense that the writer of the article is trying to pull a fast one on the readers, when I really don't know that the way to pull a fast one on anyone is with an 1800 word mixed review of a blockbuster that tries to engage with its director's long history of telling stories about people being crushed. But, then, what do I know? I didn't realize "war" was in the title of Star Wars.

The longer I do this -- and especially the longer I do this at Vox, which, for some reason, drives lots and lots of people to frothing rage for the mildest of things -- the more I realize how social media mobs don't really function as their best or worst selves. Even when the target is a righteous one to do battle with, the effect, ultimately, is just a bunch of random noise floating down on you from on high.

For the first 24 hours or so, many of the tweets sent to me had the word "clickbait" in them, as if that somehow invalidated anything I had said. And in the sense that, yes, I would have liked you to click on my article, I guess I wrote clickbait. But really? Even if you think the headline is dumb, what makes it clickbait? The fact that you think it's dumb? Again, it's an 1800 word mixed review. It's not, like, a listicle of Jurassic Park gifs or whatever "classic" clickbait would be. I'm still not sure what the pushback against this headline is trying to prove or accomplish. At first, it was to make funny jokes, which is fine! But now it's just... I don't know... trying to prove intellectual superiority to the media? Something?

I wish I had a stronger conclusion than this, but whatever, this was all really stupid. Please choose your online mobs more wisely in the future.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more or less (usually less) if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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