TIME, virtual reality and bad journalism

When I first read TIME magazine’s preview of their upcoming cover story I had the same reaction as many others – frustration. I initially drafted this post about a week ago but it was a mash of vowels, consonants and exclamation marks in all caps. I needed some time to cool off and look at the situation with a clear mind. Hopefully, these sentences are easy to understand, even though I am a nerd.

Here’s how TIME magazine’s piece on virtual reality technology starts:

“Palmer Luckey isn’t like other Silicon Valley nerds. He’s a nerd all right, but not the kind who went to a top-ranked university, wrote brilliant code or studied business plans. He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand.”

Or in short:

Throughout my public relations training and life I’ve learned the importance of subtext and hidden messages. So what’s the subtext to TIME’s piece? Nerds are different and not normal.

Of course the author is trying to attract the interest of TIME’s incredibly diverse readership to get them to read about virtual reality tech and the guy who is making it a consumer reality. The problem, however, is the author is  trying to attract interest by appealing to what mass media and public opinion considers to be mainstream. Despite using language that Palmer Luckey is not a “typical nerd,” the loudest message is that he is a nerd. Definitely. No question. Nerd.

One hidden message is that no reasonable human being would be interested in technology or the people who make it. In an attempt to help ‘reasonable humans’ accept this exotic sub-species of Homo sapiens called ‘nerd’ the author tries to make the Palmer Luckey likeable. However, people can be likeable without resorting to stereotyping groups. Another hidden message is that TIME’s diverse readership assumes that a nerd is someone who they can’t identify with, that they are other.

These messages and subtext are troubling. They are routed in prejudiced thought that often shows itself in uglier ways. I’m sure the author of this piece has a few friends who are nerds, but that doesn’t excuse his dumb and prejudiced characterization of nerds.

So how should the author start the piece? How can he engage the attention of his audience? Maybe he and his editor should have asked themselves what stereotypes have to do with their topic, How VR is going to change our lives. The answer is simple – nothing.

There’s a simple creed for writers who want to engage readers:
Be clear and concise.

If the author of TIME’s piece stuck to that creed he wouldn’t have used stereotypes that alienate a segment of TIME’s diverse readership. He also wouldn’t have enraged the very industry he was trying to cover.

Point of clarification: I self-identify as a nerd, love Lord of the Rings, video games, technology and can speak in normal sentences.