Copyright Revisited

I wrote a blog about copyright. I am happy with its content (perhaps not the style) but given the latest streaming controversy I thought it would be good to revisit the topic and make some ideas more explicit. Because so much of this topic deals with the recognition of an author’s work, I would like to acknowledge the work of Suzanne Scotchmer and her book Innovation and Incentives, which contains a useful primer on intellectual property law for non-specialists. It is a good economics text on intellectual property, and is available here (which is attached to an affiliate link for a good friend of my cast JessyQuil).

The essence of the case is this: A very popular streamer uttered a racial slur in anger towards a player while playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In response, Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo (developers of Firewatch) announced he would be using the DMCA to take down the streamer’s Firewatch playthrough and bar him from streaming any future Campo Santo games. The issue of the slur seems clear cut to me, but the copyright issue seems to be far less clear and of more interest to streamers and the public alike. The problem is further complicated due to the fact that Campo Santo appears to have a very permissive streaming policy on their website.

As is common in most copyright disputes, the doctrine of fair use is invoked with regards to streamed content. Furthermore, we are interested in whether or not the broad statement on Campo Santo’s website can be ignored or retroactively revoked due to behaviour in the present. The previous article talked about copyright as a means for authors to protect their work from infringement, as well as abuse through associations they do not want to have made. Here I would like to discuss the issue from the perspective of fair use and see if the consequences of Vanaman’s actions align with our intuitions when we first hear the story.

What is fair use?

Fair use has been in US law since 1976, but has been recognized as far back as the 1840s. It is intended to retain some public benefit from copyright which is by definition a restriction on the public’s access to a creative work. The Stanford page dedicated to fair use offers two broad categories: Commentary and criticism, and parody. More granular examples would include news reporting, scholarship, search engines, library photocopying, as well as parody, commentary, and criticism. Essentially there are some exceptional cases where copyright should not apply because they are in the public interest.

Congress has not told judges the objective of fair use, only four factors to consider in deciding whether or not a work is infringing:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the materials copied
  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

To my knowledge, there has not been a court case to decide if streaming falls under fair use or not. While this individual case is unlikely to go before a judge and ultimately establish a precedent, we can examine for ourselves how closely our streams fall under these categories.

How does fair use apply to streaming?

I would like to reorder the list of criteria into what I think is the least complicated to the most complicated.

  • Amount and substantiality

While they are limited to a subset of all possible choices, let’s plays are as close as we can get to the entirety of a game being distributed online in a non-interactive form. This particular factor seems to be the most clear cut in the fact that ‘less is more.’ The less of the work you use, the more likely it is that you fall under fair use. The nature of streaming is that most, if not all, of a game is used in the creation of the content, and so I think that all of our work is ahead of us if we are attempting to base our fair use claim on this criteria.

  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

From the previous blog, we’ve talked about how not all coverage is good coverage. I am not a suitable candidate for an authority on this topic, but I can leave this magnificent twitter thread by @twittysuch as an example of what marketers think about streaming and its effects on the market. Her rather prescient thread anticipated the exact case that was the catalyst for this article. However, Vanaman did allow that the 5.7 million views potentially helped the game. It is possible that the specific video Vanaman issues the strike against may not run afoul of this criteria due to Campo Santo’s stance on streaming and his allowance that the video may have helped. Generally, streamers cannot rely on this being the case in their own circumstances.

The Stanford page cites Rogers v. Koons (960 F.2d 301 (2d Circ. 1992)) as an example of how works that are not directly in competition can still deprive a copyright owner of income. This case involved wood sculptures carved using a photograph as a basis without asking the photographer’s permission. The sculptures, which earned the artist several hundred thousand dollars, were claimed to be fair use due to the photographer not being a sculptor. The sculptures were found to be infringing as what mattered was the potential market for the sculptures regardless of whether or not the photographer had considered making them himself. This is an instructive case because so much energy is spent on talking about whether or not the experience of watching a streamed game is a substitute for the game itself or a complement. We often make distinctions between games like Firewatch (which tend to be very story driven and ‘movielike’ and so more prone to competing with the game itself) and something competitive like Counter-Strike (where the eSport component is a complement to the experience of playing the game itself and is usually enabled in client). It seems that we are having the wrong argument as this argument has failed to address the potential market that the law cares about. Developers seem well within their rights to claim that even though they develop and distribute games, streaming represents a potential market and so the work is infringing.

  • The nature of the copyrighted work

This is one of the most difficult to apply to streaming since the nature of the work refers to features such as whether or not the original work was fictional or non-fictional. Clearly video games that can be streamed are products that have been published (and ones that have not been released are not disputed when efforts are taken to remove the offending video). Fictional work is generally more difficult to copy from than non-fictional (from a fair use standpoint), but this seems to be a meaningless distinction in the case of games. What about a transfer between media: video game to live video? This is partially covered by our discussion of Rogers v. Koons above, but let’s consider another case that comes from Scotchmer.

During the run of Seinfeld the Carol Publishing Group published a trivia book called the Seinfeld Aptitude Test (SAT). The book contained references to the characters and quotes from the show without obtaining a license from the rights holders and the Carol Publishing Group was sued. Carol Publishing’s argument was that only minimal parts of the episodes were used and that more substantial use would be covered by fair use anyway. The court rejected both arguments, finding the trivia book to be substantially similar to the original work (the TV show). The fair use argument was rejected on the ground that it was not “transformative” which is the final category we will consider.

  • The purpose and character of the use

This criteria seems to lie at the heart and soul of most fair use cases and certainly is the most discussed when it comes to streaming. Does streaming have the tranformative aspect that we look for in the obvious cases of fair use? To demonstrate what I mean, consider the case of parody. Nobody can seriously claim that Spaceballs is infringing on Star Wars, or that Galaxy Quest is infringing on Star Trek. In fact, particularly good satire may go so far as to destroy the original work that it was based off of. This is a proud institution with a clear public benefit, and so I personally consider satire to be my favourite example (maybe even the gold standard) of fair use. It annoys the hell out of people and makes them want to stomp it out, and it’s very important that we not allow that to happen. Academic work is also a good example of a transformation, though for many of us it is a transformation from an entertaining product to a soulless, dry, scholarly artifact.

Our usual attempts to map these clear cut cases on to streaming is to point out the commentary of the streamer as enhancing or transforming the work. To use the phrasing from the Stanford page, a streamer’s commentary may provide “… new information, new aesthetics, new insights, [or] understandings.” As a streamer it is flattering to think so, and I do my absolute best to provide added value in my casts, both to differentiate my own stream but also to respect the game that I am streaming. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that commentary is simply enough.

There was a TV series that ran from the late 80s to the late 90s called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). The series consisted of hilarious commentary running over old B movies of highly dubious quality. While some accounts I have read attest to the films used being in the public domain, I recall some episodes were difficult — if not impossible — to get a hold of due to rights issues. Even though seemingly nobody would watch these films on their own merits, and the value of the work seemed to derive entirely from the cast’s commentary, a reasonable case was made that the rights holders of the original works should be paid. I find it hard to disagree with this line of reasoning, simply because I do not believe perceived quality should be a determining factor in the application of intellectual property law. Either I have produced a creative work and am entitled to its protection or not. I can entertain the possibility that the cast of MST3K was so hilarious as to transform these works to a point that would dictate fair use (as I think anyone who has seen the series would be inclined to believe), but it is also hard to argue that I am not letting my appreciation for the show affect my thoughts regarding its interaction with intellectual property law. I think it is commendable that MST3K sought the rights where it needed them, and by and large the format seemed to work. I am also encouraged by the fact that this kind of comedic alchemy was able to create value for otherwise worthless films simply because it creates an environment in which film financiers are more willing to take a risk on projects due to the ability to generate revenues from them (though there may be a perverse incentive to make especially bad ones that get showcased on commentary shows).

I give this example  mainly because few, if any, casters can ever aspire to the quality of MST3K, and so if they can’t claim fair use, I’m not entirely sure our commentary has any more hope. I can’t think of a single caster who can claim their commentary reaches the level of scholarship that applies for the academic transformation, and it would be absurd to argue that streaming provides a new aesthetic to a point that our work is described as transformative. Simply put, we’re not Joel and the bots, and we really aren’t adding that much to the game. We try our best, and we add value. In fact, a lot of developers seem to appreciate the work that we do. But even when I reflect on the best streamers I’ve watched, I really can’t say that they have transformed the game to a level where the streamer can claim to have created an original work that stands out as fair use. And more importantly, as the controversy shows, any claims that what we do is for the public good are highly suspect.

Should Campo Santo use the DMCA strike?

While my analysis above may be overly pessimistic for streamers, it is clear that there is a very difficult case to be made if streamers want to claim fair use. As such, we may want to move beyond whether or not Campo Santo can use a DMCA claim against the Firewatch video to whether or not they should.

I am genuinely torn by this. I think any developer should have the option to sever ties from public figures who can associate their work with views they find intolerable. Again, this is their property and they have every right to defend it. Of course, we are also worried that this can be used to silence criticism of a game. It seems to me that criticism is clearly covered under fair use, and that we have had means of informing consumers as to the quality of the game before streaming became a factor in purchasing decisions anyway. In truth, I’m doubtful that it would ever come to this, but even if it were, criticism is a place I’d be willing to plant my flag and say there is a strong case for fair use, which is why I have avoided discussing it here.

Despite how repulsed I am by the streamer who is at the center of the controversy (both past and present actions), I do find it hard to justify Campo Santo’s position here. In one sense, I find fault with their overly broad invitation for streaming. Compare the policy linked above, to Amplitude’s streaming policy. Amplitude’s policy goes down to the expected ESRB rating of the content on the stream. In this sense, it is hard to be especially sympathetic to Campo Santo’s displeasure at people’s streamed use of their product simply because this is a studio of veteran developers and it is not uncommon for studios to put restrictions or guidelines as to the conduct of the caster when streaming their games.

The biggest problem I personally have, and I suspect causes the most unease regarding this decision is the retroactive nature of the copyright action. The streamer’s content with regards to Firewatch was fine, and it was their behaviour a year later when streaming a different game that caused the problem. Again, the association is what’s important here, so even then it’s a grey area, and I suspect the battle lines are likely to be drawn largely around how much people like Campo Santo or the streamer. One might argue the onus is on Campo Santo to have done a better job of vetting who they gave their keys to, since this streamer’s current behaviour is not entirely out of character. Of course, a mistake in the past does not prevent its correction in the future, though if we want to hear their actual reasoning we need only look to Vanaman’s tweets.

Assuming we want to place some blame on lax vetting policies at Campo Santo’s feet, either in the form of the overly broad permission on their website or the willingness to ‘look the other way’ with regards to this particular streamer’s conduct, it’s important to remember this is a two way street. This streamer is a millionare from what they do. We have gone well beyond the realm of being a hobbyist, and with professionalism (even if only in name) comes paperwork. Their failure to get the proper permissions in writing is their own problem. Every other industry that relies on intellectual property has managed this, and virtually every public resource on this topic recommends that you get your permission simply and in writing.

The paperwork is what gives me hope. At the moment we exist in a wild west for intellectual property and most of our discussions have much more to do with our feelings and hopes rather than any sober evaluation of the facts. I am partially sympathetic to this simply because for most of us it’s a hobby and this is all it will ever be. But if we want to start taking this role seriously, and be taken seriously, then we need to start acting like it. This means checking for permissions before streaming things rather than relying on convention and goodwill. This means having to hear “no” when a developer does not agree with your vision for their project, or does not see the value in what you do. One day the free ride is going to end, and some will be better positioned than others to work in the new environment. There are certainly some content creators who are doing very well for themselves with some very liberal use of other people’s IP simply because the owners of that IP have not deigned to enforce their rights. So long as streamers continue to operate this way they will always do so at the pleasure of the developers.

Taking content seriously

Ultimately, while I can’t feel comfortable with Campo Santo’s position, this largely reflects how poorly streamers have positioned themselves. If your entire business model rests on one group not enforcing their intellectual property rights, then you are opening yourself up for a major risk that could come at any time. The next claim of this nature can come from anywhere. Consider that there was a fracas over a very popular trailer for The Last Night when one of the developers was revealed to have been involved (or at least supportive of) the gamergate movement. Suppose this developer, upon releasing their game, decided that any streamers perceived as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ would be subject to a DMCA strike due to disagreement with their views. The principles that enable us to approve or condemn Campo Santo should equally apply here, though I suspect there would be more (justifiable in my view) outrage in this imagined case.

So long as we continue to have these debates along ideological lines (that is “The streamer is right” vs. “Vanaman is right” based on our priors) I don’t see a resolution. As indicated in the previous blog that talked about this, I also don’t see Twitch using its resources to protect streamers’ interests when it comes to intellectual property either (their Terms of Service leave it entirely in the streamers hands to mange these permissions). If you are fine streaming at the pleasure of the developer, then you can simply continue as before and hope that they are not particularly ideological or, at least, are on your side. But for those who seriously want to consider making a living from streaming, we are long past the point where people can afford to ignore asking for permissions. Developers have put years and often substantial amounts of their own money to realize these projects. It is not just respectful of their efforts to seek out their formal permission to create content based off of their work, it is respectful of your own status as a professional content creator.

 

Advertisements

Advice

Given that this blog is still connected to my Twitch channel which seems to anchor all my other online encounters, I wanted to talk a little bit about advice. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the kind of advice you get on the internet, and how generally careless we seem to be about who we ask for this. It seems to me a lot of the time what we are asking for are opinions, but because a lot of the people we are interacting with are ‘known for doing some thing’ (make a game, write a book, have a YouTube channel) we lose sight of what their area of expertise might be and ask inappropriate questions. This is compounded by the fact that it seems that we are also just generally expected to have opinions about things, that nobody really likes to say “I’m sorry, I really don’t know” in public, and the fact that it’s easier to become ‘known for doing some thing’ as the barriers to entry become lower.

I don’t think I can be really comprehensive on this topic, and it might just boil down to some good old fashioned griping, but I thought I’d start with the most recent example I saw online.

A catalyst

I thought about how I would introduce this quote. It’s from a well known broadcaster, and I generally feel that there needs to be credit where credit is due. On the other hand, I also know there is a tendency online for things to get blown out of proportion and what  becomes an engagement with an idea suddenly becomes a referendum on one’s taste and character. I also think my preference is to treat everyone as if they were reasonable and then just deal with the people who behave disrespectfully , and so I was originally just going to post a direct link to it. I decided against this. One big reason is because the ‘who’ does not matter as much once some limited biographical details are revealed. Also, it is not especially difficult to find out who it is, so if you really want to find out I can’t really stop you. I only ask that you consider your motives in doing so, as so far as the content of this post is concerned, I will post what I think is relevant. That throat clearing out of the way, here’s the quote:

The worse advice given to aspiring streamers is ‘focus on your chat’ instead of ‘focus on being entertaining and learn how to present’

Obviously, this is not the worst advice an aspiring streamer can get, but my intention here isn’t really to nitpick. With regards to the claim, my biggest issue is that focusing on chat and focusing on being entertaining and learning how to present are not substitutes. It is not a natural opposition to say ‘focus on your chat’ or ‘focus on entertaining/presenting’ and I think many people who give the ‘focus on chat’ style advice do so because it is a useful heuristic to make people a better entertainer. That is, if I consider my audience (even if there is nobody there, so potential audience) I am likely to be conscious of how I’m coming across and take active steps towards improving my presentation style while openly saying ‘focus on being entertaining and presenting’ just leads us to “well how am I supposed to do that?” Notice that it’s kind of hard to distinguish between the two once you talk about them. This is the kind of statement that works well on the internet because there’s just enough fuzziness to give you a bit of wriggle room if it does turn into an argument, but diminishes its value as advice. The same could be said of ‘focus on your chat’ to be fair (How should I focus on chat? Should I not ban people to expand my audience? Should I not care when people start backseating me? Do I need to say hello to everyone who comes in?) but at least it has the benefit of being actionable in the heat of the moment on cast.

Moving on, I can see that there’s some room for disagreement here. Some people will likely say that a focus on chat is overrated (I may even agree. eSports professionals are great examples of people who tend not to have a lot of interaction and yet are successful), or that focus on chat is important but not to the exclusion of others (again I would not disagree with this, but not everyone is as inclined to give mega essays when asked a question). One of the biggest problems I have with this advice is a very large disconnect between the perceived authority of this individual (they’re a big broadcaster) and the areas on which they can provide good advice. Here are some biographical details that I consider pertinent:

  • They got their start and are primarily active on YouTube
  • They started making the content they are best known for in 2010, though had been producing gaming related broadcast content since 2005 (I can’t say for sure. I consider the 2010 start most relevant)

So let’s consider the advice again. Is this advice consistent with their experience? Almost certainly yes. Their primary format involves producing content not known for its interactivity, and so it is sensible that they would value chat interaction less. YouTube, however, is not streaming, and while there are similarities, the differences are substantial. More importantly, this broadcaster got their ‘start’ (caveats in the bullet points aside) seven years ago. While it is true this individual is a successful broadcaster, not only is their start further back in the past for a more static style of broadcast, but the entire landscape was different from what it is today. The fact of the matter is that for all this individual’s accomplishments, and whatever merits they may have in other spheres, they are inappropriately leveraging their success in one aspect of broadcast to issue proclamations with authority in another area where they should not hold as much weight. There is something of a personality factor here. For instance, this person generally is fairly forceful in their opinions and so is less likely to offer the ever-admirable “I don’t really know, it’s not my area of expertise.” And, of course, there is something to be said for a person judging their sources of advice carefully. However, so long as we are operating in a world where people feel the need to offer opinions on just about everything, and have a level of fame that in the past might have counted as quite something, let’s think a bit about the advice we seek and particularly the bad advice we get.

Inappropriate questions

I would like to make a game. This may not be the same as wanting to get into the games industry any more than someone at a craft fare wants to get into the garment manufacture industry, but suppose I caught the bug enough that I said “okay, I want to break into the games industry and make this my life’s work.” Where should I look for advice? How about some designers I really like: Alexis Kennedy? Soren Johnson? Julian Gollop? Paul Kilduff-Taylor? Sid Meier? All remarkably talented individuals who have delivered on multiple projects and I’d more or less give a blank cheque to so far as their next game goes. Assuming I could reach out (and at least one on that list does answer questions for sure), would they be the most appropriate choice for advice? And the answer is… it depends. What is the question I’m going to ask? If the question is “how do I break into the games industry” then I’m probably asking the wrong question because I think the youngest first project in that list is about 7 years old, possibly 10. I have no doubt that they would try their best, and would try to offer advice consistent with their experience in maybe bringing new people on to a team or just generally what they’d know from working in that field, but these are all people who simply will not be able to experience ‘breaking in’ to an industry that they have all shaped in their own way. Simply put, if the advice didn’t turn out I’d not really be in a position to complain.

I watched a lecture given by Robert Merton where he explained that once he got the Nobel Prize (Economics) people would be asking him questions about everything, including medical problems. This case is easy to tease, but is it really all that different from the case of game designers? Do we really expect designers with a decade or more of experience to be reading ‘101 Ways to Break in to Game Development’ or to be enrolling in a game design college to keep up to date on ‘breaking in’? Do we expect the world to remain static so that those designers will be in a position to give relevant advice?

It may be that all of the people listed above are really great at answering this question anyway, but my experience has been that when this happens it’s because the person giving advice possesses the rare talent of identifying the question that should have been asked. That is, like a good teacher, they are able to discern the motivation behind the question and tailor it to the student’s circumstances. “I don’t understand this” has a range of causes from misunderstanding the sentence just uttered to lacking the prerequisites for the topic and just as many remedies. A good teacher can tease this out, but we can help a lot by asking the right questions in the first place.

Aggrandizing advice

These seem to come up most frequently as unsolicited statements like there quote above (performative advice that marks one’s status a thought leader), and on panels at convention. The personification of this kind of advice is in response to the inevitable “How do I become a successful streamer?” with the equally inevitable “Well you just need to work hard and keep a positive attitude…” to which I have been dying to hear the more instructive followup “How did you get your head so far up your ass? Was it nudged incrementally over the years or did you just slam it in all in one go?” In the best case this is simply repeating platitudes and acts as a stand in for ‘I don’t know’. Even then, I’m still not inclined to let someone off the hook since this still is prioritizing the desire to seem knowledgable over the wellbeing of the person asking the question. In truth, I think the reasons for giving this kind of advice are less benign, but this may simply say something about me. Either way, are we to infer that the people who are not successful are lazy and have bad attitudes?

Sometimes this really just boils down to asking the wrong person for advice. Presumably you would like anyone who are asking for advice from to have some stake in your outcome, even if that stake is simply being a nice person and wanting to see more people in the world happy. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the people you look up to are particularly good at giving advice or at least won’t be indifferent to their advice going badly. Clearly unsolicited advice (usually in the form of proclamations) are easier to identify here. When encountering people individually it’s harder because you already have the investment of meeting someone you look up to. As before, excellence in one field does not mean someone will be nice, good at giving advice, or even very good at anything else. Nike even made a commercial about it.

Being asked

Up to this point I’ve been fairly confrontational with the person giving advice, but the truth is that more of us are finding ourselves in a position to give advice. New platforms open up for opportunities to give advice from ask.fm to stackexchange and your influence extends further than you think. I am a very small Twitch streamer, and yet once I passed 1,000 followers I found I would be getting more questions about ‘being successful on Twitch.’ I don’t feel particularly successful in so far as reaching a broad audience is concerned, and yet clearly I mattered enough to some people to merit the question. This is encouraging, but also somewhat daunting. If I were to have more substantial accomplishments I suspect I would still find it a bit disconcerting. A post from Neil Gaiman suggests that fame does not make this any easier.

The best I can say is to be honest. In one sense it’s very flattering to be asked and in a perfect world the compliment of being asked really should be enough. There is a very strong tendency to want to push the advantage and start running down a path of giving bad advice that you will ultimately not face the consequences for. Obviously paralysis about ‘what if I mislead someone’ isn’t particularly helpful either because presumably the person would like an answer. I worked in camera for movies for a while, and so it was not uncommon to have people ask ‘how to break into the industry’ (even total strangers on the street while I was coming out of the truck). Time permitting I would try to talk about my particular circumstances and then move to a more general point. I don’t think this is especially effective advice, but I suppose in the interest of disclosure I should say what I said and we can critique it after.

How I got into camera

From school up to the moment I worked on my first union project I looked for every opportunity I could to work on a film set. Student projects, indies, everything, and often without pay. I worked as a Production Assistant for a while and found myself tending the craft service table on a TV show. A nice thing about this placement is that craft service gets to meet just about everyone because they have all the snacks. I had always tried to be personable, but especially in this case I made sure she knew about my interest in camera and, since I was a nice young man and helped her when she needed, she mentioned to the camera crew about my interest and, as it happened, there was a shortage of trainees on another big show that they had some friends on. I got a call later inviting me to help out on a couple of big days.

But that wasn’t the end. The union eventually caught wind that someone out of the program was being used as a trainee and they put a stop to that, so I was back more or less where I started. I continued as I had before, with perhaps a few more camera gigs due to having some experience, until I worked on a short film for a 48 hour film competition which happened to have a secretary at the union as one of the actresses (I didn’t know this at the time). They showed the film at the office, the head of the trainee program commented on the lighting and the actress noted that I had applied for the trainee program. By their telling they got a call from a TV show looking for a new trainee and I got the invitation to got in.

I haven’t really gotten to the advice part, but obviously if someone is in a rush I’d just tell them the application process for the trainee program. I’d tell the story above to make the point that any ‘how did you break in’ story is usually very unique to the individual and, while maybe not as baroque as mine, doesn’t really have any repeatable path to entry. That is, most ‘rules’ likely would likely be short lived as there are more applicants than positions and the channels would get clogged (for instance, once upon a time in a book somewhere apparently an independent filmmaker said that dentists had a lot of money and had boring jobs which made them inclined to financing independent films. I am told this lead to a point where there were places where dentists had to screen calls from aspiring filmmakers, though I never looked to verify if this was actually the case). The point of telling my own story was one, to establish my lack of credentials (I don’t have one weird trick to get you into camera), and point out that everyone kind of has their own unique path to getting into that business.

What are the actionable behaviours I would draw from that story? I would usually suggest that being open to opportunities when they emerge helps, because hanging around professional productions as a PA let me see how the big guys did it and I learned a bit about how scenes were lit and generally people went about making movies (this helped me when it came time to that 48 hour film as I wound up taking on a lot more responsibilities than just camera). Also, any one of those productions I could have worked on might have been the ‘break’. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ‘found out’ on that first show I was a trainee on and in another world I just got into the program there rather than waiting another year. Each opportunity was a roll of the dice, so while each chance was slim, the aggregation would eventually tilt in my favour. Being able to talk to people doesn’t hurt, because in the end you are looking for a position that involves working with people, and in the case of film it’s long hours for extended periods of time. If you are difficult to get along with, the show is going to be miserable, while if you’re easy to get along with you will eventually have your choice of show because you are in demand. Being personable allows you to work with difficult people which opens you to experience that others might miss due to personality conflicts. Basically, stay open to as many opportunities as you can (get as many rolls of the dice as you can), and if it doesn’t come naturally for you, cultivate an ability to talk to talk to people (including difficult people), let them know you’re interested, and generally find mentors who will help you build your skills and cultivate your passion for the job.

Was that good advice?

The advice part was a little muddled simply because I usually wouldn’t go over that material unless it was over coffee with someone or in some other context where I could do some kind of Q&A, but generally the ‘open to opportunity’ and ‘be personable’ themes would come across. How does that rank against what I’ve written before?

The ‘man with a plan who uses his raw charisma to seduce craft service into getting him a job’ might be aggrandizing advice, but anyone who has met me knows that a) I’m not that charismatic, b) that wasn’t my opening into the industry, and c) craft service volunteered to let the camera department know. The better takeaway is that if you treat people as means to an end of ‘getting that job’ people will detect it and you’re likely not smart enough to see where the opportunity comes (most people would not see craft service as a means to get into camera. While the departments may be regimented, people share a workspace and they talk to each other. It’s easier to actually be nice to people and take an interest in them than to pretend all the time in hopes that they can advance your career).

One big problem with this story is that it potentially makes people waste a lot of time and do something that I don’t think is very good: work for free. At the time I was trying to get in, there was no shortage of productions who were perfectly happy to snap up free labour even though they had the budget to pay them. I stupidly worked for one production company on several commercials without pay until I had other opportunities at which point they offered to pay me (i.e. I wasn’t going to get what I didn’t ask for, and I obviously had value to them). Someone’s circumstances may not allow them to dedicate that time to work for free, or at low pay, and ultimately I did do a lot of work that wasn’t relevant to my job. While my temperament is such that I could pick up some details by simply being present, I can’t really argue this was a very efficient use of the time. In the end it was ultimately going out and working on an independent short in a senior position that was the  ‘break’ and this is what a lot of people suggest outright (i.e. Between spending money on film school or an independent film, most people think the film is the better use of the money).

I’m trying to give myself a hard time on the advice about being personable, but I still think this holds up. It carries with it the recognition that not everyone is so active in stating their interests or meeting people (particularly the people in a position to give them a job). That is, it’s different from ‘have a good attitude’ because it does not immediately imply that people who have not followed my advice are arrogant or standoffish, just potentially shy. Even then, I think there are problems here. I dealt with some pretty verbally abusive and demanding bosses. This is an unfortunate reality of at least my department (and I think in the film industry in general, and I have little reason to think it’s changed even though it’s now been a while since I worked in it), and I think it would be a firing offense in any other context. This advice could very well lead someone to a position where they are belittled and degraded and don’t stand up for themselves in the name of ‘following good advice’. It’s hard to find the right balance here, because on one hand advice should account for the realities of the industry (i.e. If someone is looking for advice regarding to working in sewage treatment, the smell should probably be taken as a condition of employment), and yet this is a negative that should be changed and advice that leaves people in a position to simply ‘accept’ it may entrench something that should be dislodged. In truth, I probably make more of a virtue of my ability to work with difficult people than I should, because it absolutely was something that allowed me to get more work when I was starting out. On the other hand, I also think that working with difficult people is a good, if not essential, skill to have. Perhaps the change I would make would be to leaven it with a bit more attention to the individual and their ability to be professional and personable without being a doormat.

Advice on advice

It’s hard to avoid a certain self-consciousness about writing about advice. During most of the writing I’ve had plenty of reflections on ‘motes and logs’ (Matthew 7:3) running through my head. Mostly I think we could stand to be a bit more discerning in the advice we consume because technology seems to move much faster than our ability to appreciate the shift it creates in the landscape. Various social and media platforms have created a level of specialization where it’s not that unique to be ‘famous for being famous’ and that even small time players (such as myself) can develop something of a dedicated audience. It’s great that people like my stuff, but being entertaining, or even knowledgeable in one area, does not grant me any special weight when discussing other topics. As it is, I know I certainly still react as if I’m in a media environment where I see people for basically accomplishing things and generally being sought out for their opinion on the topic being discussed. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Because this environment is becoming more and more specialized many more of us are finding ourselves in which we are sought for advice, and so we can also take some steps in terms of what we are saying and the potential effects it can have. We are obviously not responsible for the behavior of others, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time and consider basic things like “am I saying this because I think it’s good advice, or because it will make me good?” or “am I really setting someone down a worthwhile path with this?” (or, simpler “should I even be offering an opinion here?”). I may bruise my ego in admitting that I don’t know something, and maybe the person asking will think less of me for it, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll think any better of me if they turn around and blame me for whatever half baked advice I come up with to avoid social embarrassment.

The Secret Reason Your Favourite Streamer Hates You: Backseating

Introduction

This article is the first in an intended series on ‘viewers behaving badly.’ I say intended because I am familiar with the frustration that comes from an author proposing a series only to leave it unfinished and so take David Kreps’ approach in his Microeconomics Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets: advertise the proposed series (a trilogy), fail to produce another (so far), but leave an escape route disclaimer of saying the series may never be finished (it’s also a very good and inexpensive micro textbook, though the math would probably turn off most readers here. Perhaps try a campus library if you live near a university). The reason I propose it as a series is because I would prefer these posts to aspire to more than simply ranting about behaviours I specifically get annoyed by, and instead address common threads that can be found among streams and address the reasons why certain rules exist. My ambitions for the series aside, any claims to objectivity will be undermined by the ability of long time viewers will no doubt be able to identify the catalyst for a particular article. In short: I hope to do more than just complain about my audience, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to detach myself from things I personally find irritating on stream.

Origins of the Term

While I’m not familiar with any history of the term, backseating seems to have its origins in the phrase backseat driver, a pejorative for unsolicited advice while driving. Unsolicited advice seems like the most basic foundation for the phrase as one needs no more than an understanding of the words, while the phrase backseat driving seems to create a little narrative to be filled in by the audience. Imagine teaching english to someone and having to define backseat driving, let alone backseating. The negative connotation is directly present in the term unsolicited advice, but potentially is amplified through the drama of the phrase backseat driving. Both cases are annoying, but backseat driving adds to it the active contribution of a distraction from an activity that should command the recipient’s (i.e. the driver’s) full attention.

Taken literally the term backseating makes no sense. There are few, if any, back seats to a stream and while one may rely on prior experience when explaining backseat driving, the term backseating requires familiarity with the term backseat driving to make any sense. I also think this term has grown to encompass more than its origins, and so I would like to mention some sister concepts that I think have been rolled into what we refer to in backseating. The term armchair quarterback is probably the most familiar, referring to a football spectator who mistakes their fandom for expertise and pontificates on what teams ‘should’ have done. A related term, armchair general, I thought had emerged from wargaming, but apparently goes back further (and at least according to Wikipedia goes back to Clausewitz, though doesn’t have a citation). Armchair revolutionary (indeed the whole set of ‘armchair ‘) and keyboard warrior express similar sentiments for amateurs who are fast to criticize without any skin in the game, though personally I hope that we might reinvigorate the granddaddy of all of these phrases and go back to calling them dilettantes.

Despite its older origins, I see backseating as a new coinage with its own specific meaning for what is a decidedly modern phenomena. It combines the unsolicited advice and distraction of backseat driving, the presentation of knowledge without substance of a dilettante, and the criticism divorced from the context of actual involvement present in armchair general.

Backseating on Streams

Each streamer will have their own policies for dealing with backseating, though a casual glance at a random draw of streams is likely to show that the activity is pervasive enough to be mentioned in the rules and that it is viewed as negative enough to be forbidden. I know of one streamer who has gone from a strict no backseating policy to being a little more open ended, a handful who have gone from being somewhat placid about backseating to being annoyed to outright banning it, and the majority I know forbid it outright. I do not have an explicit set of rules for the stream, though, for my part, consider backseating to be self-evidently unwelcome, the same way I would consider racism or harassment of other chatters to not require explicit rules (in my experience both as a mod and a streamer, a list of rules only invites attempts to litigate everything down to the simplest purge).

Despite my exceptional distaste for backseating, I don’t actually consider its motivation to be entirely negative in all cases. Furthermore, there is something interesting in the fact that backseating requires special mention in a list of rules, rather than having its own unspoken but self-evident social penalties like public flatulence. In the next few sections we’ll consider not just the positive and negative motivations for backseating and their effects on a stream, but also why this kind of activity has become pervasive enough to require special rules to be set up in streams.

Negative Motives for Backseating

We will begin with the obvious motives stemming from the original phrase backseat driver. The backseater wishes to assert control over the stream due to their discomfort with what is presently being done on the cast, their lack of faith in the caster, or their wish to be in control. There is little mystery as to why backseating is largely perceived as a negative in these cases because they involve taking control from a streamer, and an unfavourable assessment of the streamer’s ability to conduct their cast. While likely not a conscious motive, the backseater wants the attention of the audience and creative control over the stream without actually taking the effort to build it themselves. This attention seeking behaviour might also be motivated by the impression that they have a secret that nobody else knows (since the rest of the chat is presumably not backseating), and an overwhelming desire to prove that they know what these ignoramuses can’t seem to fathom.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that while driving can at least be justified through a fear of safety when the driver behaves contrary to the backseater’s wishes, no such fear of safety exists in the context of a stream. Furthermore, streaming almost always takes place on a service with a plethora of options, and so not only has the backseater opted into the particular stream they are interrupting, but they have any number of options available if they are dissatisfied with the stream they are viewing. Here, not only is backseating not just disrespectful to the streamer, but disrespectful to the audience through insisting that the content they are enjoying should conform to the backseater’s wishes, rather than the backseater seeking out entertainment more in line with their expectations.

The primary (or at least the apparent) motives for backseating then appear to be the negative ones: A desire to be in control or the centre of attention, a disrespect for others’ abilities or priorities, and a sense of entitlement that demands their whims be catered to.

Positive Motives for Backseating

Backseating does not always come with a nagging whine from the back of the chat to “play better.” It may also come in the form of seemingly helpful advice. Streamers are more or less expected to communicate throughout the cast and so  will likely discuss their frustrations or confusion at certain parts. This can be misconstrued as a request for help, much the same way that a greeting of “How ya doin’?” can be taken as a request for information. Even if a streamer does not verbalize their thought process, the mere fact that the game is not in a state of constant progress (or the player is on a losing streak or what have you) may be perceived as an invitation for ‘advice’.

My own feelings on backseating are manifestly apparent by now, and so it will not come as a surprise to know that I doubt the sincerity of most of these cases, though even I cannot deny that there are some legitimate misunderstandings. However, I have also been present for casts where a viewer claiming to have never have played a given game was displaying a tremendous insight into many solutions to puzzles they ‘just noticed’ after a few minutes of the streamer going through the level. Even in the case of a genuine effort to advance the game, I can’t help but think that the dominant driver in these cases is to display knowledge about the game, rather than a benevolent wish that streamers get through their content as efficiently as possible.

Another potential positive motive for backseating is an viewer’s desire to participate in the stream. Streaming is an interactive medium, and a large part of its strength stems from its interactivity. That said, these are the very kind of good intentions a famous road is paved with, and the destination is the same. Rather than sharing in the stream, backseating wrestles control away from the broadcaster. Interactivity is a desirable feature because it is a shared experience, and backseating violates this principle through attempting to take control.

The Impact of Backseating on a Stream

Having considered some of the motives behind backseating, we will turn our attention to the much more important matter of how it affects the streamer and the stream. The first and main consequence of backseating is distraction. The streamer is no longer focused on the game or the entertainment but instead must now deal with this interruption to the natural flow of thought. While it probably does not require elaboration, an analogy may be in order. Everyone has a way of getting ‘in the zone’ whether it’s absorbing oneself into a good book, delivering a speech, getting absorbed in music, trying to solve a tough problem, or getting into an exercise routine. It’s a unique feeling, not really appreciated in the moment (the lack of distraction or absence of self-awareness is key to me), but certainly recognized after its passed. Backseating is an imposition of the outside world on a blissful mental state that is difficult to achieve. The streamer’s mind is no longer juggling the game, the channel, and their presentation in harmony, but has had one of these elements disrupted, breaking the focus. More experienced streamers may find it easier to regain this state, or find it more difficult to be shaken by outside disruptions, but it remains an unwelcome intervention from the outside world into a state I feel is conducive to the best and most enjoyable casting.

In a related way backseating is disruptive because of its disrespect. There is likely to be a degree of variance between streamers’ egos, and so the disruption is likely to be negatively correlated with the streamer’s sense of self. Again, personal experience is likely useful here. I’m those who have had the misfortune of meeting me in person will say I have no shortage of ego, though I am secure enough in this fact so as not to be too bent out of shape if a stranger on the internet doesn’t think I’m good at a video game (notice, after all, they’re watching me, while they have only succeeded in distinguishing themselves through disrupting my content). That said, it is hard to shake a twinge of annoyance at the assumption you not only did not know the solution, but were so hopeless you required intervention. This feeling of disrespect is amplified through the fact no consideration is made to the fact that the streamer’s concentration is divided between the chat and the game itself, as well as the fact that the most skilled choices are not the most entertaining. My Crusader Kings II casts are a good example of this: I have hundreds of hours in the game (a majority of it, in fact, on cast), and while I think there’s always something new to learn, I feel quite confident in my command of the game’s mechanics. This is also a game that derives a lot of its magic from the emergent stories, and so my understanding of the game’s mechanics is coupled with a willingness to make sub-optimal but dramatically appropriate decisions (legitimizing a bastard when you have an heir is only asking for trouble. However, the resulting story of how you sired a bastard son through your son’s wife, legitimized the bastard, only to have him grow up and assassinate the legitimate heir to inherit the kingdom is worth the potential fallout). Ultimately, the best casts are where the streamer is sharing something of themselves with the audience, and so any backseating, whether its instruction in the game, or demands for a certain style of casting, digs at this personal aspect and attempts to hijack the effort. A viewer can take or leave the content, but should not try to subvert it for their own ends. Nobody has the magic formula for streaming success, and not every stream needs to be the same. Sometimes casters need to find their voice, and they are not going to be assisted through malcontents spoiling the fun for everyone.

Fundamentally backseating also strikes at the heart of what makes gaming enjoyable. While this is something of an old example, consider the controversy surrounding the estimated playtime of The Order: 1886. While there was some dispute as to the duration of a representative playthrough of the campaign, a consensus seemed to form that the game was short in duration, and that this was a bad thing. Concerns about quality adjusted playtime notwithstanding, there is a fairly simple observation to make here: people seem to prefer more of a game than less of a game. Obviously this is with everything else being equal, and there is certainly a point where a game can be too long, but it’s a lot easier to feel cheated with too little of a game, than disappointed with too much of it. Part of the length of the game is a function of how difficult it is. Most classic adventure games are quite short (I’ve run through Day of the Tentacle twice and did not need to split it over casts), but don’t feel short because of the process of figuring out the puzzles. NES games are another great example of this as the limited space on the cartridge means that the duration of the game had to come from something other than increasing the number of levels (which is why some of these games seem arbitrarily difficult). With very few exceptions there are supposed to be points in games that present a challenge and require some thought to get through. Denying the streamer the opportunity to solve the puzzle means the experience on display is not what the developer intended, it diminishes the streamer’s enjoyment of the game, and it also diminishes the stream’s enjoyment of the game twice over given that there is less content to experience, and the stream is no longer able to experience the streamer’s thought process through a difficult part of the game.

This is possibly the most important and damaging consequence of backseating. Streamers have access to the exact same information as anyone else and if they wanted to be told how to advance in the game they would either consult a guide or directly ask chat. A viewer that attempts to backseat not only diminishes the caster’s enjoyment of the game, but ruins the fun for everyone else who is watching. Given that some population of a cast will have arrived because they are interested in the game, it is safe to assume there are multiple people in a given stream who will know the information being communicated by the backseater. The backseater’s solipsism is not an excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun.

The Spread of Backseating

Why is backseating a problem now? Or, if it’s always been a problem, why does it seem so much more prevalent? First, both the appearance and the fact of increase backseating can be attributed to technological progress: Where we originally had to be physically present to backseat drive, communications technology have expanded our capabilities to be irritating to virtually anywhere. Likewise, because streaming can be so personal (the audience is invisible, and the streamer appears to be speaking directly to you), the backseater’s disregard for others is reinforced by the environment. Finally, through various fan wikis and forums, it is possible to gain any information about a given game at a moment’s notice. While the fact that someone can do this is unremarkable, the illusion of possessing knowledge seems to be preserved through the fact that nobody can see how someone got this information.

Beyond these surface explanations, I think there’s something a bit deeper behind backseating. Overall there seems to be a diminished opinion of experts across more or less any discipline. If you don’t like the results from your doctor you can go to another one, or even consult a website to self-diagnose. Don’t know an answer to a problem? StackExchange has got you covered. Need some trivia on history? Just go to Wikipedia. None of these options are inherently bad and, in fact, are likely edited or curated by experts. What the accessibility of these sites has done though is allowed people to replace the knowledge of how to solve a problem with how to look for someone else’s solution. In many cases this is replacing actual knowledge with the mere appearance of it. An analogy may be fame. Before photography, you had to be someone very important for others to know what you looked like (your face was on a coin, or images of you were widely distributed in various buildings like churches). Now photography is cheap, and easy, and it is enough to simply be famous for being famous. Given the seemingly limitless capacity for celebrities to offer opinions on matters of importance, we don’t seem to have lost this deference we give to the people whose images we see all over the place, but the barriers for entry seem to have been significantly diminished. Likewise, it is not especially difficult to express an opinion online, and the fact that one can do so seems to have created the illusion that one voice on the internet is as good as any other’s. In addressing the phenomena of fake news Obama offered that “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

We implicitly acknowledge the value of experts through our consumption of the information they provide, but we want to receive the credit for disseminating the information. Just like it’s simple to download seemingly anything: a song, a game, a book, a movie, we are able to take just about any information and pass it off as our own discoveries. If I read a walkthrough for a game start to finish and play the game, I am going to feel like I am the one who beat the game, but I was simply the instrument through which the walkthrough operated. It is not the same accomplishment as playing from start to finish without assistance. Finally,  while good streamers make it look easy, streaming is actually fairly difficult to do (at least well). Of course, one needn’t go through the trouble of finding an audience and building a community, when any given streamer has already done this work for you. All you need to do now is demonstrate how much more you know about the game than the streamer through backseating and you can show how much better you’d be at the exercise if only you had enough time off from kicking ass at video games.

Of course, this type of expertise is an illusion, but it’s a powerful one. I can recall coworkers who genuinely felt that knowing they could find a solution to a problem was equivalent to solving a problem, and I think plenty of people online expect that their opinion should receive the same weight as a well reasoned argument simply because both parties are speaking the same language and are on the same forum. Our reward mechanisms are roughly consistent with these views: homework and reports are often graded on outcomes, not thought processes. Most online discourse is graded on how well an opinion aligns with the audience’s prior (sort Undertale’s negative reviews by most helpful for an example). The appearance of expertise is much simpler than obtaining that knowledge for oneself, and so much more effort is now expended in finding the biggest platform to display this false knowledge than obtaining the genuine article.

This problem is as old as Plato’s Ion (the bard who claims expertise on generalship due to his understanding of Homer), and yet now we seem to be taking Ion seriously. It’s never fun to admit we don’t know something, and yet it’s an important ability to have. It’s impossible to talk about this and not acknowledge the fact that not only is it possible to be elected President on the basis of being able to play a successful businessman on television, but the appeal towards a lack of experience is actually considered a positive feature to campaign for any number of populist candidates following in the wake of this outcome. Where politicians aren’t directly articulating policy that is ‘just like the average joe’s’ they are directly turning it over to the public in the form of referenda. These are representatives who, if they don’t possess expertise themselves, should at least be consulting with experts to make decisions turning that responsibility over to people who do not have access to this expertise. Even the news is reporting an opinion poll on everything, as if their job wasn’t to inform people about the facts.

In an environment where so many important issues have now been surrendered to seemingly anyone, is it any surprise that seemingly anyone feels entitled to instruct something as trivial as a stream as to how to do things ‘properly’? Backseating a stream allows the quick rush of displaying the possession of ‘secret knowledge’ in front of an audience who is clearly invested in the game you are talking about. But the ‘fame’ is as illusory as the knowledge. Nobody really thinks it’s impressive that someone in chat knew what everyone else knows is public knowledge. In truth, chat should, and likely does resent the backseater for taking away from their experience. The streamer resents the attempt to wrest control of something they’ve put considerable effort into.

Games aren’t fun as play by chat, streamers aren’t fleshy controllers to implement your instructions, and if the audience were interested in your gameplay, they’d be in your stream. This is why I feel the net result of backseating is so negative as to not even require articulation in the rules. But if I must articulate a position I’ve already primed my bot: “Support the devs, buy the game for yourself, and LEAVE THE STREAMER ALONE!”

What’s in a Name: The Case of ‘Metrics

While it is hard to think of an econometrics book being popular in any traditional sense of the term, the best candidate for a popular econometrics textbook is Josh Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics (MHE). The title is a deliberate reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and communicates the irreverent tone taken in the handbook. While it came out a bit before I was aware of such discussions, it seems like the Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free to read online) seems to be dedicated at least in part to the approach the book takes (though almost certainly these were in practice before the book) and responses to it. While MHE does not concern itself too much with theory, it is a good companion to an existing textbook, or may be of interest to someone who is interested in applied work, though it demands a certain level of sophistication from the readers (I’d say it’s probably targeted to an advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate level).

This year saw the release of the pair’s second book called Mastering ‘Metrics (MM) which is geared more towards an undergraduate level. On the first page of the introduction they say “Economists’ use of data to answer cause-and-effect questions constitutes the field of applied econometrics, known to students and masters alike as ‘metrics.” When the book was released I was taking my 3rd course in econometrics and found that it was the first I had ever heard of the abbreviation. Now in the graduate program and taking my 4th course in econometrics I find my classmates referring to it as ‘metrics, though, curiously, those who use the term most readily (and originally from my understanding) were my classmates at UBC who received the same econometrics education that I did and had not used the term before. Reading MHE or MM will tell you how I could design a project to test whether or not the release of the book led to the adoption by my classmates, but I will state without evidence that I believe the release of MM marks the coinage and widespread adoption of the term ‘metrics. (Edit: not entirely accurate. See below)

Is there anything we can make out of this? As always, I’m interested in reading too far into things, but I think the title of the book indicates positive things for the social sciences and Angrist and Pischke’s audience, though does not communicate anything favourable about my peers. MHE contains an endorsement from James Robinson (probably best known for his collaboration with Daron Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail) declaring it a “must-read… [for] political scientists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and anthropologists.” He himself seems to stand astride economics and political science, though his collaborations with Acemoglu unquestionably fall under economics. My interest in the abbreviation to ‘metrics in the undergraduate level text (MM) is that I think it communicates to open up these extremely helpful tools for causal inference to a wider range of disciplines. I am too early in my academic journey to be able to speak with much authority on this, but econometrics appears to offer one of the best sets of tools to answer these kinds of questions, and they may find ready applications outside of economics itself. For instance, my undergraduate thesis involved taking a data set from a political science paper and in a first pass I simply replicated the results then went in and adjusted where I felt the methods were inconsistent with my understanding of how to work with such data, which immediately resulted in stronger results (later, it also identified some areas in which the other paper was weak and possibly the results were heavily worked to promote a particular conclusion). My own result wasn’t necessarily impressive in any respect (for instance, there are likely endogeneity problems and, well, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about), but I think it at least some evidence that good questions can find good answers if researchers are willing to look at the economist’s toolbox which seems to hold some of the most advanced techniques.

The idea here is that the abbreviation is a good one because it removes the ‘econo’ element and communicates that the techniques (the ‘Furious Five’ as Angrist and Pischke call them) are not limited to questions in economics, but have more general applications in conducting any kind of causal inference. This isn’t to limit economic inquiry (the great appeal to me at least is the great flexibility economic analysis affords me), but rather to be more inclusive in the terminology. It doesn’t really change anything, but it does avoid the hang up of, say, a sociologist taking advantage of something like quantile regression, explaining it’s a helpful econometric technique and then having to answer “what does economics have to do with any of this?” (or worse, dealing with the assumption that economics is somehow tainted by unreasonable assumptions and thus the technique is invalid). Basically, if we have social scientists using the best tools available (at least so far as I’m aware), then we, as a whole, benefit. A common language between disciplines will allow for easier collaboration, and, rather than hoping that economists have all the good ideas, disciplines with other interests can take advantage of these tools to improve their research (this, of course, makes it more difficult for researchers if the overall quality of work improves, but this is a nice problem to have. I won’t cry if there are fewer papers with results that collapse with a minor change in assumptions). Of course, to gain the full benefit of the tools available, researchers should take up MHE, and maybe move on to something like the Handbook of Econometrics (behind a paywall but possibly available to you if you went to a university that gives alumni access to academic journals) which requires getting over the red herring of what we call things, but I don’t mind dropping ‘econo’ in the introductory material if it means we’ll benefit from better research.

My enthusiasm for the rechristening to the term ‘metrics is somewhat diminished when I hear my peers use it. There are a couple of PhD students who use this term, but I notice a fairly high rate of adoption amongst the MA students. I can get the impulse, the hope to communicate that one is hip to the latest trends in the profession. It’s a bit problematic when you consider that the term seems to have gained currency when an undergraduate level book has been released, but never mind that, only squares who use words like ‘hip’ (and square) call it econometrics, all the cool kids call it ‘metrics. My problem is that I actually think taking the econ out of the MA economics cohort is actually a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. Here’s an example: I spent a few minutes this afternoon writing in the discussion for wiki entry on the protestant work ethic because I noticed a claim made about Schumpeter’s account of the origins of capitalism that I’d not read before. Following the reference did not present any support for the claim in the entry, and so it raised a few interesting questions for me: Did Schumpeter ever write on the origins of capitalism? If so, where? If not, where might this impression have come from (it seems similar to Marx’s account, but not enough for me to want to make an edit)? What I would like to be able to do is to raise any one of these topics with a classmate and investigate it (it might be a short conversation because I’ve only read a little of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but I’d find it preferable to find myself understudied for conversations with my peers). The most common conversation will be either how to find problem set solutions or how to land a good job after grad school. In fact today a student more or less said they haven’t really understood what’s been said in the last two econometrics courses (not classes) and have just focused on how to solve the problems. It’s hard to see the class as particularly interested in economics so much as building the appropriate ‘signal’ to employers that they’re worthy of a high paying job.

Again, I sort of understand the impulse. Everyone has to make a living, and we prefer a high paying job to a low paying one. Likewise, econ is a decidedly employable degree, and a BA has been reduced to the point that it has become a requirement to rent cars to people at Budget. But that’s not the reason why I’m in the program, and in the end, I think advanced study in any subject should be more than just finding a good job. To me it’s a problem that I cannot have a conversation with an MA student about a topic in economics if it is not directly related to the grade they will be getting in the end. It gotten to a point that I argued with a classmate who was complaining that we weren’t permitted a formula sheet for the mathematics final as being ‘unfair’ because they were planning on writing the solutions to past finals. In addition to pointing out the dubious application of the term ‘unfair’ my position was that the purpose of the course is to teach us not just mathematical techniques, but reasoning (ie. how to do proofs), and that rewriting a past answer (which is actually more successful than you’d think) is simply imitation, not understanding. For this I was perceived as being the unreasonable one because the material was ‘hard.’ The problem is that I know it’s hard, because I struggled with it and had to write the same exam. Topology defines open and closed sets in a way that allows sets to be both open and closed at the same time, confirming my suspicion that they are deliberately trying to make the subject even more difficult than it already is. But it’s economics, and mathematics is the tool and language we use to bring clarity to the problems we work on. We don’t study topology to impress the ladies (though, ladies, you know where to find me), we study this because that branch of mathematics allows us to prove certain propositions fundamental to our analysis. A working understanding of mathematics not only allows us to understand the fundamentals of our discipline, but equips us to handle our ultimate goal: answering questions that nobody has gotten the answer to yet (or, ideally, haven’t even asked yet!). You can’t imitate your way to that, and it requires a lot of hard thinking both mathematically and creatively. A technically perfect solution to an uninteresting question is at least useless as a poorly formed but interesting question (although, in theory, the latter can be picked up by someone with the capacity to do the heavy lifting). Economics problems are worth taking the time to do right, and nobody ‘owes’ us our degrees. Either we have the tools or we don’t. It sucks for me, because I know I’d love to have free time to stream, and read for pleasure, but I also want to be able to formulate and answer these questions head on without hiding behind “well I haven’t learned <topic> yet…”

In the end, while I think the general abbreviation to ‘metrics is inclusive and encouraging, its specific application is a tragically accurate representation of the priorities of my peers (at least most. Obviously there are exceptions in any case): concerned with appearances, and not too interested in economics.

Edit: It dawned on me I could actually find out of Mastering ‘Metrics was the origin of the term by checking out economics resources. I’ve never really seen it used in any blogs, but I noticed that on EJMR there are references to ‘metrics going back 4 years (possibly more). While I still think its application in my cohort comes from the use in the book (I have the advantage of seeing them before and after), it’s definitely not Angrist and Pischke’s coinage.