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No More Questions

Written By mista sense on Thursday, April 14, 2011 | 8:17 AM

After answering exactly 2871 questions, I've disabled my Formspring account. Having one has been a fascinating, puzzling and often unsettling experience -- I don't regret wading unarmed into the pool of madness, but it's gotten a little overwhelming.

It's such a strange commentary on the nature of social media that so many people wanted to write in questions to me. I'm not a celebrity, a pop star or a politician; I'm a writer, and not even on anything of particular global gravity -- at the end of the day, it really is just video games, which hopefully are a relatively small thing in the grand scheme of your place in the world. If I am considered exceptional in my field it's because the bar's not high, which isn't much to write home about.

That's part of why Formspring was such an interesting experiment for me, as someone who also likes to write about web culture trends and social media. If you have the opportunity to ask someone who writes about video games any question you like, it seems to make sense you'd decide to ask them something about either video games or writing, assuming those things interest you.

However, I'd say more than half, possibly more than two-thirds of the questions I received were not about video games, by the end: the proportion had ramped up exponentially the more widely-visited my Formspring (and the service in general, as I was a relatively-early adopter) became.

In other words, the more people who came to ask me questions, the fewer of them were actually germane to my work. People wanted relationship advice, to know about my preferences in food, music, liquor, clothing, haircare, art and literature, about my experiences in childhood, about what I am looking for in a partner, and any number of things.

I like answering questions; I've said before that I look at my writing online as a way to be engaged in a large-scale conversation on a topic that I love with other people who share that interest. And I've observed with some curiosity the trend toward all interactivity, whether that's gaming or writing and talking online, away from the long-form toward the quick-hit.

I wrote last year about that trend, and how being able to take the pulse of the gaming audience through Twitter contributed to me blogging less, and Formspring was another way to make me feel connected to my audience with more immediacy and more brevity. I guess in my fascination, it stopped mattering whether we were even talking about games too much.

At first, I tasked myself with not refusing any question that was submitted, even if it was nonsensical or something like "y u mad girl" (an actual question which I answered with "iono"). It was its own kind of game; even if someone was saying something offensive, I'd initially respond instead of delete simply because I thought it was so funny and so strange that people would behave that way when we don't even know one another.

During an interesting period when I'd weighed in about the Dickwolves Thing, Formspring became a place for people to stage arguments with me. That was a contentious topic and many people wanted to challenge me one-on-one. I sort of liked that; if something's heated and makes me feel passionate, it felt like a brave experiment to take on trolls and debaters alike directly.

I began to get more and more questions; in the past months, occasionally up to 20 a day. I spend about eight hours a day online working, sometimes more if I'm socializing too, and I'd get email alerts and immediately answer the Formspring question. I could probably do an entire extra article or blog post in a day with the amount of time I spent typing answers to Formspring questions about what people should do about something their significant other said, or what my views on religion are, or even something related to my work, like in what contexts I don't mind long cutscenes and why.

Interestingly, I observed that answering a particular type of question would solicit more of that type. Engaging trolls or talking about sexism would bring more trolls and more confrontational gender questions. I had to start drawing a line -- and I learned saying "I don't want to talk any more about that" would cause people to submit things equivalent to "so you won't take a stand or express your views, huh?" As if the fact I'd been doing so extensively was disposable to them because I didn't answer their question, or because my paragraphs-long response was no longer at the top of the page.

But I continued answering questions. Partly because I'd become hooked, the same way you get hooked on your Twitter and Facebook feed. It got to where I'd soldier grimly into that Formspring inbox, dreading what I might find, and yet feel like I'd committed: It says ask me whatevsies, and so I've gotta answer.

I felt I was doing some kind of "research", as if analyzing the volume and tone of Formspring questions could answer my questions -- who reads my articles? How are they being received? How am I being received? And yet there was no pattern, no meaning. For example, what factors contribute to Kieron getting questions mostly about his X-Men work versus the weird Wild West of mine? Probably lots, but I don't learn anything by pegging 'em. And none of it helps me get my head around what makes people want to stray from the path of their natural life activities to say something chillingly hateful to me.

But even that was empowering and fascinating -- I will never know those people, but they all know me. If there are truly such sad assholes in the world, I'm glad I have the ability to make them angry simply by existing. And confronting it on Formspring made me feel even thicker-skinned -- I can be as vitriolic as anyone should I want to, but I can't think of any person I hate enough to motivate me to submit that hatred for their evaluation (and rejection). I must be a pretty big deal to these people.

It goes to one's head. And it's distracting, and for what? There was no useful information, no dot-cloud to be gleaned. My friend Mitu Khandaker wrote yesterday at GameSetWatch about how the human brain is incapable of accepting the very real concept of randomness, but that's what it is.

People ask me questions for the same reason someone Tweets about their breakfast -- because someone's listening and because they can. Because it's the kind of interaction people do not get to do in their real lives, where you cannot tell everyone in your office unsolicited information about your meal or ask a stranger on the subway whether he believes in God.

It's been fun, but there are probably better things I should be doing with myself, including prizing my privacy more. There's definitely a tipping point for social media exposure, and as I said earlier this week, I think I've passed it.

[Today's Good Song: Moon Duo, 'Mazes']

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