“I’ve identified my first mistake as trying
To justify a rep that you did nothing to avoid
Too many times I took the blame and now I’ve had enough”
– “Dead Weight” by With the Punches
(Author’s note: This article intentionally omits the names of any specific people or institutions, as it is intended as a criticism of culture, not individuals. Yes, individuals create culture in the aggregate, but the concern here is specific ideas held by many individuals, not the moral character of the individuals themselves.)
Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Justin M. Lesniewski. I’m an objectivist, and I love Zack Snyder movies. I hope neither of those self-ascribed labels alienates you. I also hope you realize that I combined them on purpose with the use of the word “and.” I did so because both are equally important to how I express myself—even if many, many people believe they contradict each other.
With the introduction of that conflict, I have to point out something else I hope you noticed. I wrote the “o” in “Objectivist” in lowercase and described myself as “lov[ing] Zack Snyder movies” rather than as a “fan of Zack Snyder movies.” I made these stylistic choices for more than grammatical and melodic reasons. Though these concepts mean a lot to how I express myself, they are not a part of how I define myself. More precisely, I’d describe them as a result of my identity, not a cause. Because I think of these interests in this way, I’m generally not concerned with the amount and kinds of people who share them. I am, however, alarmed at the frequency at which people disregard me and my attempts to grow the conversation, especially in our ever-growing digital age when all are supposedly welcome to contribute.
The internet has revolutionized communication by making content creation, publication, and distribution available to more people than ever before. All someone has to do to start creating and publishing content (and subsequently building an audience) is sign up for an account on any number of platforms. Be it tweets, snaps, stories, vlogs, TikToks, or more, the amount of content mediums available to anyone with an internet connection is almost beyond comprehension. People can essentially share their stream of consciousness if they want—and many do.
The problem is, the constant creation of content and near-immediate replacement of that content with even newer content has led to a novel experience in human history: There’s simply way too much information out there for any single human to sift through, let alone consume. Thus arose the aggregator. Rather than enter into the class of people who are creating original content, an entire class of people developed that creates content cataloguing and reviewing other people’s original content. These aggregators can be members of the old media, new media, social media, or completely independent flesh-and-blood individuals. If they’re flesh-and-blood individuals, they’re identified as the marketing-jargon label “influencer.” If they’re not, they’re companies, websites, or the algorithms on the very social media sites that provide the means of content creation and access for the influencers (think of a Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok feed). By and large, I’m willing to wager that the average person’s engagement with new content only occurs after an aggregator has directed him there.
Opening up communication technology to the masses was supposed to destroy the power of the gatekeeper because one person could no longer stand at a bottleneck and decide who to let through. Ironically, however, the e-flood of discourse has created a new kind of gatekeeper.
After realizing the power they exert when they direct people’s attention, aggregators also began telling people what content is quality, moral, and proper. This behavior has bled over into the average content consumer, creating the age of the Influencer-Gatekeeper—partially because it’s a lot easier to talk about someone else’s content than create your own.
These Influencer-Gatekeepers (especially in light of the affinity of almost every internet user to see himself as one—especially the longer he spends on the internet) are the people who disregard my attempts to contribute, and I don’t believe my experience is unique. Our communication is clogged up, and some recent experiences of mine show how terrifying the blockage is.
In the middle of the summer, I was solicited to write a retrospective on the significance of the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League for a publication I admire for its quality and seriousness. I was ecstatic. I never thought my type of content would be of interest to the staff at a more academic-leaning magazine. I love analyzing movies and television shows, and their reflection of and influence on the broader culture; and even though I think these conversations are extremely important, most people don’t take them as seriously as I do—even the people who actively participate in them.
My most in-depth and notable work has focused on director Zack Snyder. I first became a fan of his movies in 2007 when, after some convincing by a friend, I saw 300. Something in the film’s ideas resonated with me. I was blown away by his next two films, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, but it was his adaptation of Superman in 2013 with Man of Steel that particularly captivated me. Leading up to it, I was skeptical that anyone could properly portray a hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way” amid the rising tide of social justice thought in the mainstream. Snyder solved this conundrum pitch-perfectly. I almost immediately committed to a deep dive on his background and work.
Through the meticulous research and recording of dedicated podcast episodes for each of his movies, I discovered that Snyder and I not only share philosophical underpinnings but aesthetic preferences. These similarities were best captured in a statement of his that I found in an interview from 2009: “I have this sort of Ayn Rand aesthetic.” Those eight words speak volumes when examined in the context of his movies. From the Spartan’s sinewy resolve to Clark Kent’s struggle for self-acceptance, Snyder tells stories about the ability, strength, and triumph of humanity, both physically and spiritually. By truly seeking to understand his art, I had come to know myself better, and I was excited to share my knowledge and passion with other fans.
On the internet, though, no one can hear you stream. Or perhaps more correctly, they don’t want to. Snyder’s follow-up to Man of Steel grew the underlying controversy of his career to a fervor. Though Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made $900 million, critics reviled it, and they and others claimed that audiences had rejected it. Snyder’s future Superman sequels were put into jeopardy. Although there had been few online conversations about the director before Batman v Superman, any mention of him after the film turned into a heated argument. There were literally people waging wars of propaganda both for and against Snyder. There were even Twitter bots spamming messages ridiculing the movie. With all the new opportunities to find an audience, I began trying to push my content even harder.
My hard work seemed to pay off when the seeds of a fan campaign for the release of Snyder’s cut of Justice League were sewn. The author of the popular petition for the cut asked me to write a draft, and we began a working relationship in which I wrote updates for the petition (some of which received media coverage) and launched a social media campaign. I was excited, until suddenly I was ignored.
The petition’s author had, to put it politely, a breakdown. He began making hateful remarks about many types of people, locked me out of the petition and Twitter account, and found himself under fire from other fans. The petition lost all momentum, but the void was quickly filled. A site to rally the fans popped up. As I browsed it, I was flabbergasted. It contained curated comments and analytical articles from fans about Snyder’s movies. There was even an article about his love for Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Despite all my work, which is not difficult to find, no one had attempted to include me in this project. Clearly, there was now an in-group that I wasn’t a part of. I withdrew my efforts but not my desire to see the Snyder Cut.
In the spring of 2019, I was sucked back in when Snyder held a weekend-long event screening some of his movies in Pasadena, California. At the time, I lived about an hour away in Anaheim, so there was no way I was going to miss the mini-festival. The people I met there were a joy to talk to, so I re-engaged with the campaign on Twitter. And though I subsequently made friends and a difference, those successes were always met with negativity from well known members of the fandom, some of whom have gone on to amass extremely healthy followings. I was even blocked by the “official” #ReleaseTheSnyderCut Twitter account (which now has 47k followers) multiple times. Most notably, my sanity and sincerity were called into question.
Months later, I set about writing my novel The Cut. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut had picked up major steam to the point that a nerd-media member decided to write a book about the campaign. His project made me realize that no one was going to tell the story of what happened during the production of Justice League that caused the Snyder Cut to be buried in the first place. My goal was to show the philosophical and psychological causes through a Law-&-Order-style, based-on-a-true-story novel. I succeeded, and still no one else has discussed this topic. My efforts were rewarded with accusations of being nothing more than an opportunist for writing my book.
After the release of the Snyder Cut, my interest in the fan community waned, especially as their negativity toward me grew. Two comments in particular stand out to me as exemplary of how I’m disregarded. One person told me that my analysis of Snyder’s work was merely a fantasy I constructed in my head. Another I found while writing the very article you are reading. In a conversation I wasn’t even involved with, someone tweeted “Great now that guy from the midside is going to show up and throw a rant about how snyder is 100% objectivist like him.” Doing research and thinking deeply doesn’t seem to matter much these days. I’ve once again mostly withdrawn.
Promoting The Cut’s pre-release led to my writing my aforementioned article for the academic-leaning publication (which led to my writing this one). An editor had seen my appearance on a friend’s podcast. The friend is a prominent member of another community I am on the fringes of, the Objectivist movement. I had worked with this friend at a nonprofit, a job I left because of similar experiences to the ones I chronicled above. Though I earned a Master’s degree in Professional Communication and a Bachelor’s degree in Writing, my thoughts and ideas were routinely disregarded as valueless or lacking in quality. I was not the only person who resigned during that time period or for those reasons.
The editor at the publication was impressed with my knowledge of Snyder and screenwriting and wanted me to write an article about the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. I felt vindicated. Finally my work was being recognized. I announced the article on my podcast and launched into writing it. Today, after I’ve withdrawn it from publication, I’ve lost track of how many drafts the editing team had me complete and the numerous completely ridiculous notes I was given.
The first group of editors snidely mocked me as being unable to understand how to read Snyder’s interview quotes or how to analyze his films. Notably, they called Man of Steel a dark movie, a movie in which Superman finds his place in the world and stops a would-be totalitarian dictator from committing mass genocide. They also strongly implied that I don’t know how to write, saying I didn’t include context and I wrote three separate, disconnected articles in one. These issues persisted over several rounds of edits, and the condescending feedback never waned the entire time.
The final editor sent me his comments after I withdrew the article from publication. He began his email with “I know I’m a little late.” I had withdrawn the piece after I had heard he had major critiques and had thus pushed the publication of my work back to next quarter. What were his critiques? He thought that most of my introduction was unnecessary, I somehow thought people wanted to see the Snyder Cut for what was in it when they didn’t know what was in it, and that an entire section was a “gratuitous add-on.” To have my article published, I would’ve had to restructure my entire article to write it how he would have written it.
I recognize that the job of an editor is to change an article so it is simpatico with the standards of the publication he works for, but if the standards are to write it how the editor would have written it, then there is no point in hiring new writers. Just write the articles yourself. Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder if the issues were not really with my writing but with my content, as the other editors made comments about Snyder “being a douche director” and “being showy by releasing [a version] in black and white.” One editor remarked that he was “happy” to see Justice League “Marveled up” in the non-Snyder Cut. I view this behavior as no different from the rejection I received from the Snyder fandom and both groups as embodiments of Influencer-Gatekeeper culture.
Another comment from the final editor drives this observation home for me: “I think addressing [my critiques] could really strengthen the article, and I’d encourage you to take a look before publishing, wherever you decide to send this.” The emphasis on the final phrase is mine, as it’s an implicit acknowledgement that he is critiquing my work after I’ve said I no longer want the magazine staff’s feedback. What possible reason could he have for sending the email? Maybe he already had it written up and didn’t want his work to go to waste, but isn’t that part of the job? If a National Football League coach is fired after he writes a game plan, does he still send his game plan to the team owner? Furthermore, what could possibly make him think I would care what he has to say, especially after the low-quality, time-consuming comments from other members of his staff?
I honestly considered not even opening the email when I was shocked to see it in my inbox. I’m glad I did though. This entire experience has been extremely educational.
(Author’s Note: Don’t worry, the article entitled “Zack Snyder Laughed: The True Triumph of Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will be published here on TheMidside.com after it’s restored to its pre-Whedon version.)
I’m fully aware that one of the takeaways from the confluence of events in my life is that I may be absolutely insane. I take that possibility into consideration whenever I reflect and introspect. In fact, some of my best friends tell me I contemplate that possibility too much. You are going to have to decide for yourself if you think I’m nuts or not.
I’m also aware that a lot of the negativity and pushback I’ve received isn’t that unique in the internet age. Again, you’re going to have to decide for yourself if I’m just whining here, but the fact that these occurrences are common is a large reason I wrote this piece. I’m not the only person creating content to address it either.
Professional wrestler EC3 has experienced success since being let go from WWE by redefining his gimmick under the banner “Control Your Narrative.” His interviews and “promos” are partially focused on encouraging people to gate-keep themselves. Don’t let anyone else tell you who you are or what your purpose is. I admire EC3’s new work, but I’m going to push the idea a bit further. We all struggle to control our narratives because we all have lost the narrative.
Influencer-Gatekeepers’ primary concern is that they have dominion over something, not with what that something is. I’m not claiming they’re aware that this motivation is what primarily drives them. I’m claiming that what they’re after is the sense of superiority that can come from having other people listen to your words and be influenced by them. Thus, they become more concerned with protecting their position than the subject matter in which they are supposedly experts—and holding this perspective leads to a lack of (or loss of) expertise (if any was ever possessed). For the rest of us, this behavior stunts all conversation before it can begin.
In the Snyder fandom, I’ve seen this culture result in minimal or surface level conversation about the actual content in the director’s movies. For instance, even though I have in-depth DM conversations with a host of the only Snyder-fan podcast (besides my own) that analyzes themes and motifs, I still can’t get a response from him to my pitches for specific and limited guest appearances on his show. In the Objectivist movement, I’ve seen this culture result in an extremely homogenous group of people, a peculiar happenstance for a philosophy supposedly based on individualism. Terms like “closed system” are thrown around to rationalize the need for a person to not only accept the basic ideas of the philosophy but also any application of it made by Rand herself or the Objectivist the person is currently talking to.
The Influencer-Gatekeepers are ultimately manifestations of narcissism: Nothing exists independent of or outside of one’s own mind. Their dominance and control of our culture inhibits us from sharing ideas, learning from each other, advancing our understanding of reality, and increasing our quality of life.
You can proclaim yourself Leonidas and say you’re commanding 300 Spartans to hold the Hot Gates of Thermopylea from the Persians all you want, but you don’t actually compare to him.
There’s no point in gatekeeping when there’s nothing behind the gate.