The hits just keep on coming constant reader, another brave soul has stepped forward from the crowd of paste-eating mankinder to let his voice be heard. The Manifesto is proud to present an article by noted TFOL Aaron Van Cleave, a.k.a A Plastic Infinity, a.k.a Lego Lemniscate, and I certainly hope it isn’t his last because he’s a far better writer than I am and he classes up the joint with his mere presence. You may remember Aaron for his bold use of color and odd choice of subject matter, from such popular creations such as Turaga Retei-atomn, Symbiote City, and Unidentified SHIP. Take it away Aaron!
When I first discovered this blog, one of the articles that really stood out to me was the first issue of Michael Rutherford’s Fire for Effect column: Unique is not Special. I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t read it to do so; my article is a sort of spiritual successor and you won’t get as much out of it without the conceptual basis Michael sets down. In essence, his article examines how the term “unique” being too closely associated with the term “special” has resulted in “a culture where CRITICAL FEEDBACK IS DISCOURAGED.” That’s a general observation that could be applicable to many different subcultures, but a salient point was that it includes FOL culture. That’s us!
At the risk of overvaluing Michael’s article, I need to point out that he tenaciously covered most of the nooks and crannies of his topic. Couple that with the thorough discussion by the Manifesto’s regular readers, and there doesn’t seem to be much left to say on the subject that wouldn’t be parroting someone else’s statements. If there’s something more to say, I certainly don’t know what it is.
So what am I even doing here, then?
Good question! This article is an exposé of sorts about a social experiment I’ve been running for a couple of months now and some of the interesting observations it has yielded. I use the term “social experiment” lightly because it’s really more of a satirical art hoax (I didn’t want to muck around in the Marianas Trench of social experimentation ethics, but this hoax was technically a social experiment. That makes it dangerous, even at such a small scale, because the medium through which it worked was people unconscious of their involvement. If you’ve interacted with my photostream in any way in the last two months or are already feeling offended, know this: I’ve taken all precautions to protect the privacy of anyone who was involved prior to the posting of this article, except Deus, who consented to publication of his remarks). This project was not intended to glean social data but rather to direct public attention to the important issue at hand: Critique. What better way to do so than provide MOCs that would be easy to critique?
Without further ado, here was my plan:
- Build a terrible build and post it in all seriousness
- Observe reactions
- Figure out how to make a worse build
- Repeat twice for a total of three bad builds
- Expose plan, explain issue
The initial objectives I set included:
- Crafting builds so poorly that onlookers would have trouble honestly responding positively
- Providing plenty of mistakes for prospective critiquers to point out
- Keeping things flexible; basing building decisions on how the previous MAC (My Awful Creation) had been received
Unlike an experiment, the general outcomes of my actions were quite predictable, barring a few surprises. I went into this expecting drastically reduced stats on all posted MACs. People are a lot less predictable on an individual level, but I had three hypothetical groups I expected any commentator to fall into:
- The Bold: Not buying it and quite vocal about letting me know.
- The Brash: Confidently or confusedly buying it; convinced it’s actually good.
- The Beautiful: Probably not buying it, but not letting on. Not necessarily uncritical (whether a comment was Brash or Beautiful could only be guessed at, but comments’ tonal quality provided a reasonable basis for making the determination).
Enough speculation. Here is what actually happened, what I learned, and why it’s of concern to YOU as an FOL.
For my first MAC, I settled on a working title of “this is a test” fitted to a diorama of a scientist in a laboratory. The test was, “How bad do I have to build before people start bashing me?” I love double entendres!
The building process was surreal and brief, though not as brief as the finished product might suggest. I’m tempted to say it took less than an hour and a half, but it might have been closer to two hours.
Fun fact: It actually takes longer to think about what would look good, then determine the polar opposite, than it does to intuitively determine what looks good during the building process. DOING the good building, of course, almost always takes more time (case in point: the angled panels that form the backdrop of this build would look much better if they were level and tiled, but it takes longer to make a stable framework for that and put down all the tiles). Fundamentally, bad building will almost always take less physical effort, but it often takes a great deal more mental effort.
So what was the product of all that effort? How was the MAC received?
Raw numbers first! Since being posted over two months ago, it has accumulated 95 favorites, 14 comments, and over 5,900 views. For reference, my builds generally average 150, 25, and 12,000, respectively, placing This is a test on the low end of the spectrum. However, that’s a large disparity, and an easy one to judge from. Later on we’ll be dealing with much closer numbers, so it will prove useful to determine which of the three values-favorites, comments, or views-gives the best indication of the subject quality. Is it comments? Nah, they can express disapproval, or any number of other things. Views? Nope, the number of people who viewed something gives no indication of their feelings toward the object viewed. By elimination, favorites are the heaviest factor. This makes sense, as they are synonymous with “Likes” and are bestowed solely as a token of approval. Judging solely by them, a reduction from an average of 150 to 95 favorites is no 50% dive but pretty steep nonetheless!
To someone who averages lower, that’s still pretty darn good and probably seems pretty darn unfair, too. Ninety-five is pushing 100, and almost 6,000 people had their eyes assaulted by my skinny triangle scientist! As you can guess, that’s just a result of me being a five-year builder with a decent amount of seniority. If someone far older and more established like Tyler Clites or Nannan Zhang had done this instead of me, their results would be better than I could have gotten if I’d built at my best. The de facto power of following and reputation; something that always needs to be calibrated for.
Moving on to the subjective, let’s take a look at those 14 comments. The non-qualitative words “interesting” and “creepy” were used most often, along with “innovative,” “weird,” “crazy,” and “unsettling.” Skirting around the quality of the build with Beautiful comments was definitely the most socially appropriate thing to do, but there were two or three others who expressed varying levels of criticism, from tentative implication to polite directness. Then there’s Bold Deus Otiosus, who totally passed the test with uncommon brutality: “I thought you said you have higher standard. [sic]” For the record, he didn’t know what I was doing, but he does know me personally to a certain extent. You can always count on a friend to point out your flaws!
Having considered all that feedback at the time, I decided it was time to take things to…
The building process for this horrifying Mario was incredibly swift; only about 45 minutes all told. It’s hard to say for sure because I was so giddy the entire time due to how awesome that pun is.
I should have kept my mind clear, because it was at this point that things started going wrong… Being only a day younger than the first MAC, Mario’s also had about two months. Two months to receive 106 favorites, 10 comments, and just over 6.4 thousand views. Remembering to judge by favorites, you’ll notice that going from 95 to 106 is a marked improvement, which for awfulness’ sake translates into regression.
I had thought the speed of construction was evidence that this MAC would be even worse than its predecessor. Less time = less quality, right?
But as you can guess…
…that logic runs counter to what I asserted earlier on about bad builds requiring conscious mental effort. Sure, this build was abhorrent in terms of technique, but I wasn’t really focusing on how to maximize the perversion of shape and color. Furthermore, I still had one more bad build to go, but was now cornered in by a formulaic “worsening” procedure.
Trying to further degrade the quality on a purely technical level after Mario resulted in this LDD screenshot of a blocky camel with mismatched minifigs. It was supposed to be “The Final Straw,” but it’s clearly too satirical for anyone to take seriously. These builds wouldn’t work if they were received as jokes; they needed to be taken as seriously good or seriously bad to generate serious praise or serious critique.
I was genuinely snagged on how to effect this and even considered it impossible for a brief time, but didn’t want to just throw in the towel without giving it a final shot. Looking back, the problem was that I hadn’t inwardly cemented all the theoretical particulars of my experiment. I intuitively realized that the builds needed to be taken seriously, but was too confused to be able to express that clearly to myself. Fortunately, by this point I was engaged in some private discussion about the ongoing project. Input from various sharp-minded individuals was very helpful in assessing what had gone wrong and what needed to be done.
That feedback and my own ruminations on what constitutes a bad build led in all different directions, but ultimately left the conviction that a successfully bad build needed to look unintentionally bad, as that obvious intentionality was what caused The next level, and to a lesser extent This is a test, to “fail” as bad builds. I also came to the critically helpful revelation that those builds had been widely known subjects (a stereotypical scientist and Mario) and no matter how badly they were built, as long as I could be said to have built something resembling them, they’d still be recognizable, eliminating a whole category of awfulness I could have been exploiting: an ambiguous and ill-conceived concept!
Here’s an expansion on that train of thought: Building an easily recognizable subject, like a pop culture figure or common object, strengthens the basis on which a viewer attempting to interpret the build can make a reasonable assumption of artistic intentionality. Essentially, it would be incredibly difficult to build Mario or something equally recognizable in any “bad” way-no matter how bland, uncreative, repulsive, or bizarre-without those bad qualities being attributed to… *** STYLE ***.