In the first round (volume? saga?) of So You Think You Can Internet, I offered my time-tested advice on how to conduct oneself amicably in an internet debate. Now I’d like to move on to another area with which I’ve got a bit of experience: rumors. At first glance my target audience here might seem limited to people who actually run websites of their own, but I’d say it’s just as important for a reader to understand these things as for a writer or publisher.
When I founded the Unofficial New Jedi Order Homepage almost exactly fifteen years ago (ugh), the tone of fandom regarding the series was not altogether unlike what we’re seeing with Episode VII now—the Expanded Universe was regarded as stagnating, and suddenly the novel license was in new hands, with rumors of a drastic new storytelling direction on the scale of the Original Trilogy. The first excerpt from Vector Prime released in the summer of 1999 featured Han’s reflections on an uncertain galaxy where no one was safe; it didn’t come right out and say it, but the message was clear: someone was about to die.
Of course, that someone was Chewbacca, and the heightened stakes his death tried so hard to establish were—maybe debatably—not quite all they were cracked up to be, but at the time this felt like a Big Deal, and the rumor mill churned away despite those relatively early days of internet sensationalism. I certainly did my part.
The actual “confirmation” of Chewie’s demise didn’t come until about a week before the book’s release that fall, which seems extremely last-second by modern standards, doesn’t it? Not that far removed from actually having to wait and read the thing. Of course, it’s easier to keep a lid on a novel than a movie with hundreds and hundreds of cast and crew, but over the next few years, my time on the NJO spoiler beat saw (and produced) all sorts of fan theories, wild speculation, and very occasionally, real inside info. After I moved on to TheForce.Net, I brought that experience to bear on the Clone Wars multimedia publishing program of ’02-’05, and by extension, the primary spoiler period for Revenge of the Sith, the last major Star Wars film we were ever going to see…until this one.
So that’s where I’m coming from. And here’s what I’ve learned.
Assume everything is wrong
First, be mindful of one fact above all else: for all its potential, the internet is an open sewer. Anybody can and will say anything for the most petty and pointless of reasons, and by and large, there’s no way of knowing for sure if you’re talking to a garbage man or a key grip or JJ Abrams himself. Anyone with an e-mail address or a message board account can claim to have insider information on Episode VII, most of which is likely to be totally unverifiable. If someone happens to be the rare combination of malicious and competent, they could even assume the identity of multiple sources (or even recruit friends with different IP addresses) in order to “confirm” their own information. They may even get lucky and correctly predict something they had a fair chance of guessing anyway (like, say, a continuity reboot), and thereby become a trusted source based on something they pulled out of their asses. And even if a source genuinely is in a position to know something about Episode VII, it’s very hard to guarantee they’re not mistaken, or lying just for shits and giggles.
Furthermore, it’s very easy for even wholly-innocent readers to misunderstand others’ postings, and report something they saw somewhere as if it were true. In the year I’ve been running this site, I’ve witnessed firsthand stray comments on message boards and Twitter morphing from idle speculation into “rumors”, purely because they were interesting enough to be repeated—and the more times something is repeated, the more likely it is that the game of telephone will eventually translate “wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” into “this might be happening”.
My local comic book guy knows I’m very plugged in to Star Wars news, so every week I have to vet all kinds of crazy bullshit he’s heard from his other customers—everything from the “Episode VII is based on Legacy of the Force” story last year to the reporting of Engelhast’s (admittedly very cool) Star Wars Rebels fan art as official confirmation of, say, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka appearing on the show.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that these are people I know personally, and there’s no malevolence involved; a lot of people just don’t pay attention online the way “we” do and if they see something that looks cool enough (or worse, confirms their existing biases and prejudgments), they’re happy to assume it’s real and repeat it as such. That being the case, those of us who do pay attention, and even repeat things in large venues of our own, have a special responsibility to assume everything is bullshit at all times, and discuss (or disregard) it accordingly. Being proven right is a great feeling, and there’s not really any penalty for putting something out there and saying “I’ve been told this is true” when there’s little danger of an official source contradicting you anytime soon—but journalism it is not. Real news reporting is knowing what not to say; a good tell that a news site knows what it’s doing is when the reporter says a given rumor conflicts with (or is backed up by) other things they’ve heard off the record—because that means they know more than they’re publishing, rather than throwing everything at the wall with zero discretion. Which brings me to…
Be conscious of what you know
“1,500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
– Agent Kay
Man, I love that line.
A good news reporter doesn’t just report on something; they study it. If you want to get up on a soapbox and speculate about the production of a film, it helps to know what film production is generally like. As an example, another Episode VII rumor I heard via my comic guy was that they’d released a teaser poster already—and this was about a week after the cast list was announced, presumably thanks to someone seeing this and, once again, just blindly assuming it was real. Of course, even sight unseen, anyone who knows the typical production timeline of a blockbuster science fiction film can tell you that teaser posters don’t usually come out when the cast just did their first table read a week ago.
Knowing how movie sets work can also inform your own speculation, as it did for some of us recently who came to suspect that that big batch of leaked set photos might have been deliberate on Lucasfilm’s part. Do we know that? Hell no; at least I don’t. If it were true it could be the case that even the majority of people working on the movie don’t know. But even a “public” film set is a very tightly-controlled area, and the combination of a middle-of-nowhere location shoot and a notoriously tight-fisted director (who’d reportedly butted heads with Lucasfilm already) certainly makes such lax security harder to imagine.
Lastly, because film production is an enormous, byzantine process, remember that even wholly accurate information can and will change frequently. If you believe everything you read, Han Solo went from a supporting character in Episode VII to one of the main characters, to being removed altogether due to Harrison Ford being smashed into a fine paste.
Eyeroll hits are still hits
This one definitely applies to both sites and readers: if a site has advertising, keep in mind that they make just as money off of you visiting them to see the stupid rumor you can’t believe they’re reporting on as a visit to a serious and extensively-researched article. In a way, the former is even more profitable because it takes up less of the writer’s time to produce, leaving them free to write that much more overall.
And that’s not to disparage the larger news sites; even the ones with less-sterling reputations. Just because ETE is a small site that doesn’t do news posting doesn’t mean I’m here to throw stones at those who do (or anyone, for that matter). For some of the bigger sites, raking in viewers from nonsense stories could be just the thing to give their writers the freedom to do that extensively-researched stuff—it’s not an either/or situation, and even Woodward and Bernstein can’t be Woodward and Bernstein every day. But it’s good for serious Star Wars fans to know how internet publishing works, just like with movie production—just because a major site has chosen to acknowledge a given rumor doesn’t mean they really believe it themselves, and it certainly doesn’t mean the small Star Wars blog you write in your free time needs to report that they reported on it. Also remember that some websites will specifically frame stuff like that less as news than as “fan culture” material—“look at how crazy the speculation is getting! Boy, Star Wars fans are sure getting antsy!”
Without supporting or condemning rumor posting as a phenomenon, I can at least say that it’s likely always going to be with us, and if you don’t care for it, remember that complaining about it (especially if you have a sizable soapbox yourself) just feeds the beast. If a news post really bothers you? Ignore it. Everybody jokes about how nasty internet comments can be, but as a blogger whose work sometimes receives no response whatsoever, I can promise you that nothing’s more dispiriting than the thought that no one’s looking.
Good speculation doesn’t need to be right
One area where the Episode VII news machine has occasionally crossed over into Eleven-ThirtyEight’s content is speculation. When it comes to inventing stuff from whole cloth, the principle I attempt to live by is that, like any good “what if” scenario, speculation should always serve to enlighten one’s chosen topic even if it proves to be totally incorrect.
Last winter, I got a pretty positive response to a piece I wrote that unpacked, among other things, the rumored casting of Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Plemons. There I posited that Plemons could be a sign of Episode VII featuring an adult Ben Skywalker, and combined with other rumors regarding the focus (or lack thereof) on the Big Three, it was possible that we were seeing the side effects of a major shift in the movie’s time period from around twenty years after Endor to closer to forty years—and crucially, that this shift was partly happening to avoid trampling the bulk of the EU.
Naturally, the past six months have rendered that premise pretty much completely wrong. You can say it; I won’t mind. But the actual point of that post was not to say “I think this will happen”. I thought there was a chance, but I know better than to go that far out on a limb without a net. The real message I wanted to convey, thereby allowing me to make so many wild guesses, was that even in that nigh-ideal scenario, I was still operating on the assumption that there’d be an EU reboot—so as not to set myself up for a disappoint-ment. And the reboot happened, and I wasn’t. Case closed.
Another example is my recent Escape Pod piece in which I went so far as to detail in broad strokes the first act of a hypothetical Boba Fett movie that actually starred his EU daughter Ailyn Vel. I absolutely don’t believe that will happen. To be honest, I don’t even put a lot of faith in the rumor that kicked the premise off—in which the real Boba dies at the beginning of the movie. But I thought it was an interesting way to explore a Boba Fett movie (which I do think is inevitable) that could potentially appeal to fans who don’t care for the existing character (women in particular), and mitigate the fears of those who do. If I did my job, hopefully at least a few people read that piece and grudgingly thought to themselves “yeah, I guess that could work”. Whether they believed it is irrelevant.
And as a final example, I would submit this very article. Remember that thing in the middle, about the set photos being leaked on purpose? It’s an interesting thought, and it could be true, but what the hell do I know about it? I’ll tell you—absolutely nothing. So what purpose did it serve? Why, reiterating my original point, of course:
Assume. Everyone. Is. Wrong.