“This is not a pity party”

Okay. So it’s done, and I apologise for the hot take with bad formatting (it’s an iPhone effort, halfway through a bottle of red) but to follow up my previous essay…

Why did the Sydney Gays fail?

In the final episode, Jay and Wil reference the negative feedback to the first episode repeatedly, so I think there’s something of a clue in that. The first episode was a shallow disaster, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a new podcast if it doesn’t have profile. Many years ago, my friends and I experimented with podcasting (which is one of the reasons why I’m not critical of Fisher and Sabin for actually giving it a go). We thought we were hilarious, but it was a kind of directionless parade of in-jokes: our audience was each other, and it makes sense that nobody would listen to it. But we can get away with a bad podcast because we have no public profile, and no pretense that we were speaking for anybody or any purpose other than our own amusement. Not so, The Sydney Gays.

Fisher and Sabin are (apparently) high profile members of the gay community in Sydney, and they staked a claim of representation by naming their podcast ‘The Sydney Gays’. It’s a provocative name, and I’m sure more than enough people are jealous they didn’t get that title first (just as I know some people on Twitter were jealous I nabbed ‘The Sydney Gaze’ as a pun). With that kind of profile, the first episode automatically gets a huge audience, and an audience that is predisposed to being critical.

Criticism is part of the stock in trade of the gay community and has been for decades: we are culture critics, fashion icons, gatekeepers to the arts, and we are catty. Drag queens are archetypes in cattiness. Episode One of The Sydney Gays literally had a segment called ‘Chic or Shit’ in which Fisher and Sabin pronounced judgement on a sequence of randomly selected things. Given this cultural baggage, it shouldn’t have surprised them that the podcast was criticised: that’s the nature of the community they are a part of.

Putting this down to ‘bullying’, which they basically spent the final episode doing, ignores the fact that they attempted to pivot from a high profile social media presence on Instagram into a high profile podcast. That was always going to attract criticism – that’s the nature of substantive communications media like blogging and podcasting. Equating their experience to that of people who suffer ‘bullying’ is an indicator of just how privilege can function to dull a person’s sense of proportion. Podcasting is just so middle class (that’s why I can write about it), and to complain about the response to a high profile podcast is probably one of the most insanely privileged reasons to be bullied on the list. Some victims of abuse could only dream of their tormentors coming for them for their vapid podcast. It’s a mark of privilege because I am envious of the enmity they’ve had directed against them! Oh to be so controversial, what a dream!

When I wrote about this previously, I described The Sydney Gays as “Instagram in podcast form”, and I think in many ways that goes to the heart of why it failed for these two in particular. Podcasting is a very different genre to Instagram, and putting something out in public that invites people to think and engage in conversation naturally exposes creators to criticism. Unlike Instagram, where the feedback mechanism is captured in Likes, podcasts demand intellectual engagement. People invest time in podcasts, whereas Instagram requires the briefest attention. People look at a photo on Instagram for a moment and then continue scrolling; a podcast requires conscious attention and plays with the intellect. Podcasting is a medium unlike so many other ephemera in the age of social media because the attention to detail in production is very apparent in the consumption.

And yet, and yet: there is the ferocity of the criticism. This goes deeper than this particular podcast, and if Fisher and Sabin made a valid point during the pity party (and to be very, very clear: this was a pity party), this was it. The internet unleashes toxic behaviour. The way people criticise isn’t carefully considered and measured, it is a savage pile-on. I didn’t really read many of the reviews on iTunes (the early reviews were negative, but the tone was mostly respectful, if playfully harsh), but I did read the tenor of responses on Twitter. In the main, people kept their criticisms in the domain of legitimate critique about representation, tone, depth, and so on. That’s fine – and even if that criticism becomes edgy for a laugh, that is also fair game (you only have to look at film and television criticism to see how acerbic you can get). But legitimate, considered criticism shouldn’t cross the line into outright personal abuse – that dulls the legitimacy of critique.

Last year I read Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In it, Ronson interviews a number of victims of public Twitter shamings – people whose lives have been destroyed by the aggressive pile-on. While I don’t think this has necessarily been the case with Fisher and Sabin, it is interesting to reflect on how this herding on social media seems to multiply and legitimise more and more aggression. Reading the feedback to The Sydney Gays, what started as light-hearted criticism became angrier, more personal, and more vindictive. People who had an axe to grind took it online, The Sydney Gays became the objective correlative – the physical manifestation of a mental state or an idea. In this case, it was a particular construction of ‘the gay life’, perhaps the way the two of them behaved on the podcast – vacuous, incurious, superficial – that flared people’s loathing. So for a lot of people I imagine it just felt good to attack them.

None of this absolves the show from criticism. Everything is up for critique. To quote Foucault (a truly outstanding gay intellectual): “my point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous…If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.” For Fisher and Sabin, the dangerous element was a claim to speak for others – and to do so from a position of unimaginable privilege, which they outline in episode one, without a trace of self-awareness. The Sydney Gays never seemed to escape the sense that they were playing it safe – which is ironic because they had wandered into a medium – podcasting – that requires a sophisticated sense of audience, purpose and narrative. They took a professional risk (is professional the right word? I couldn’t think of anything better). That’s fairly dangerous, but the podcast never grappled with truly dangerous territory. Perhaps another quote from Foucault is even more appropriate:

The Sydney Gays rightly deserved critique – and many of the considered critiques looked at the lack of diverse voices (which, to give them their due, Fisher and Sabin attempted to rectify), or the inanity, and the assumptions that underpinned the hosts’ thinking. Fair enough, these are utterly reasonable reasons to attack the podcast. When the criticism operated in this way, it was sensible, considered, and would have helped improve the podcast hugely – had the hosts taken it on board in a meaningful way. The lazy, personal, aggressive character attacks were not helpful: they’re the sort of thing that degrades our public discourse. As fun as people find a Twitter pile on, if there’s one thing we can learn from Ronson’s book it’s that we all tend to lose (and nobody learns anything).

Sabin calls out for listeners – presumably gay content creators – who are thinking of ‘putting themselves out there’ not to be deterred by the experience of The Sydney Gays. They then proceed to announce that they will not be making any more episodes and will be deleting the podcast. How could this be anything but a deterrent? The message here isn’t a wise one – there doesn’t seem to have been any interrogation of why the podcast copped this feedback. It’s just “online bullying”, pure and simple – there was no effort to investigate and respond to why this particular podcast was being abused. There are a number of other gay podcasts (Queers, The Gays Are Revolting) which haven’t raised the same ire, but rather than theorise about why this is the case, Fisher and Sabin reduce it to ‘bullying’, exclaiming “it doesn’t make sense to me” and suggesting people “could have pushed pause and put on some Beyonce”. At least Sabin is consistent.

Ultimately, The Sydney Gays was mired by its start – it didn’t manage to elevate itself past that opening. It started shallow and it claimed to represent a community that it did a poor job representing. Maybe it could have grown into it, but it was hobbled by a huge audience and a lack of chemistry and charm. Humility and approachability are really crucial qualities in a podcast host – we are drawn to that kind of charisma.

The Sydney Gays was a fun experiment, and it gave me plenty to think about – even if it wasn’t intentional. If I was asked to rate it ‘chic or shit’ as a cultural phenomenon, I rate it chic. But then, that’s a shit game to play in the first place.

I want a burger.

I jam at Sydney Uni about education, rationality & power, digital frontiers, society and pop culture. And start a thousand creative endeavours and finish none.