“What I’m doing right now is so much more interesting than what happened back then,” Ryan Boudinot told me shortly after we first met. We were sitting in a coffee shop on 15th Avenue in Seattle—the kind of place with $5 cold brew and kombucha on tap—and, frankly, I didn’t believe him. I wasn’t particularly interested in the secret project he wanted to tell me about, either. But then Boudinot, a bearded, full-cheeked man in his mid-40s who often has a yoga mat in tow, asked for my earbuds. I handed them over, and he plugged them into his iPhone.
“Very few people have heard what you’re about to experience,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
Boudinot pressed play, and all of a sudden, I had the uncanny sense of being in a puddle. It sounded like water dripping on leaves, but unlike traditional audio, the sound seemed to move around in space. First, the drops were in my left ear, then behind my head, and then they moved around my head and back again. It was like surround sound inside my brain, and the experience was almost 3-dimensional… but with sound. It was the most remarkable listening experience I’ve ever encountered.
He had another track for me to sample. This one was a booming EDM song with throbbing bass, and even though I was sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle, when I closed my eyes, it felt like I was at a live show. I recorded my reaction, and when I listen back now, I can hear myself say, “Jesus Christ. What the fuck. What is happening? Dude. What the fuuuck.” Boudinot started laughing. When the song was over, I looked down at my arms. They were covered in goosebumps.
This technology Boudinot showed me won’t be on the market for a few more years, but it is coming, and Boudinot will have a vital part in someday bringing it to our ears. This is not where he would have envisioned his career landing just a few years ago, but then something happened that derailed his life as he knew it. He lost his friends, his colleagues, his career, and he became a pariah in the community he’d spent decades as a part of. At the time, it felt like the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Four years later, he says it may actually have been the best.
Before everything fell apart, Boudinot was a writer and teacher. He’s written two novels, two collections of short stories, and a collection of essays, and for a time, he was an instructor at Goddard College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Then, in 2015, he wrote a viral, and virally hated, essay for The Stranger. It was called “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.”
The piece was based on a simple and not particularly controversial premise: Boudinot, who had just quit his teaching job, argued that writing cannot be taught. You’re either born with talent, or you’re not—and most of his students, he wrote, were not.
He did not mince words. “No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer,” he wrote in the essay’s most pointed section. “Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”
It was cutting, yes, and unkind, and probably not the sort of thing you’d see published today, but the fact that this blew up the internet was surprising to both Boudinot and a number of other writers, many of whom agreed with his basic premise: Most aspiring writers are bad. You can make an okay writer a better one, but you cannot make a bad writer great. Even the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious MFA in the country, operates by the philosophy, according to the website, that writing cannot be taught but talent can be developed.
Still, for whatever reason—maybe it was a slow news week—Boudinot’s piece caused a colossal shit storm. He was dragged all over social media, people posted open letters denouncing him and calling for The Stranger to apologize for publishing his piece in the first place (an offer the paper declined). It was covered by national and international press. The Guardian interviewed one of his former students. Someone, he doesn’t know who, bought the URL of his name and used the site to post criticism of him. The site is long gone, but today, if you visit RyanBoudinot.com, it redirects you to a post on a now-defunct local gossip blog that compared Boudinot’s refusal to apologize for his essay to sexual assault.
The repercussions went well beyond online chatter. Soon after the essay was published, Boudinot stepped down from Seattle City of Literature, the nonprofit he’d founded. Colleagues disappeared. Old friends stopped calling. He’d recently edited an anthology and Sasquatch, the publisher, told bookstores that Boudinot wouldn’t be at the readings if they’d rather not host him.
All of this—the personal and professional consequences of one essay—was what I wanted to talk to Boudinot about. I’ve written about the contemporary phenomenon of “cancelation” before and I reached out to Boudinot last winter to see if he was interested in telling his story. At the time, he wasn’t, but this spring, he emailed me and said he was working on something new. He’d tell me the old story, but only if I listened to the new one. I agreed, and over the course of our conversations, I realized he was right: His new story was far bigger and more interesting than the old one.
There’s no real guide for how to handle a public shaming, although Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed comes pretty damn close. It follows the stories of people like Justine Sacco, whose poorly worded joke on Twitter led to a massive pile-on and cost her her job in 2013, and Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling author and former New Yorker contributor who, among other crimes, was busted making up Bob Dylan quotes. Sacco and Lehrer both apologized for their sins, but in neither case did it particularly help.
In one particularly memorable scene in his book, Ronson writes about Lehrer’s attempt to publicly atone while giving the keynote speech at a journalism conference. As he spoke onstage, tweets reacting to his talk were projected on a giant screen. Initially, the audience was with him, but then, something shifted, and the commentators quickly turned vicious.
“By mid-apology,” Ronson writes, “it seemed irrelevant whether the criticisms had legitimacy. They were cascading into his sightline in a torrent. Jonah was being told in the most visceral, instantaneous way that there was no forgiveness for him, no possibility of re-entry.”
As Ronson details, public shaming was once a common form of punishment in the American judicial system. People were, quite literally, put in stocks in the town square. Eventually, this went out of favor—not because it wasn’t effective, but because it came to be seen as simply too cruel. Punishment is one thing, but punishment in front of a crowd is a whole different animal.
Ironically, writing a book about public shaming led to Jon Ronson’s shaming as well. After it was published, his defense of Justine Sacco and others was cast by some as an assault on social justice itself, as though by taking a stand against call-out culture, he—a cis, white man—was, in effect, silencing marginalized voices himself.
He wrote about getting dog-piled after an excerpt of his book was published in the New York Times Magazine: “I remembered a time I was on a beach in Scotland and a flock of terns singled me out. They circled above me for a while, and then began to dive bomb, pecking at my head. This early, tentative disapproval felt like the terns circling. And then the dive-bombing began.” He recounts on the tweets directed to him: ‘After reading that excerpt from his book. I think it’s safe to say @jonronson is a fucking racist,’” someone said.
Some critics took issue with the book, too—or, at least, with its author. At the Times, reviewer Choire Sicha wrote that Ronson’s book “would probably have been handled better by a woman.”
As Sicha also noted in his review, public shaming can’t kill you. But there have been at least a few incidents in which online pile-ons have led to suicide, including that of August Ames, a porn star with a history of depression who killed herself following a Twitter pile-on in 2017 (which, no coincidence, is also the subject of Ronson’s podcast The Last Days of August). Public shaming might not leave bruises, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt.
Take Austen Heinz. As Will Storr detailed in his 2017 book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Heinz was a brilliant young tech entrepreneur working in synthetic biology. He founded a company that used laser printing to cheaply synthesize DNA, and in 2014, he spoke about his work at tech conference in San Jose. His presentation was called “Create Your Own Creatures by Printing DNA,” and he explained how his technology could be used to detect illness through smell. “When your farts change from wintergreen to banana maybe that means you have an infection in your gut,” he said. He then introduced a company he had partnered with called Sweet Peach, which was woman-owned and focused on vaginal health. “The idea is to get rid of UTIs and yeast infections and change the smell of the vagina through probiotics,” Heinz said onstage.
This example would be his undoing. A tech reporter from Inc.com was in the audience and he decided that Heinz’s project was, in his words, “astonishingly sexist.” He wrote as much in a piece entitled “These Startup Dudes Want to Make Women’s Private Parts Smell Like Ripe Fruit.” It wasn’t true, but it was picked up by HuffPo, Gawker, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, Business Insider, and others, which led, naturally, to an immense public backlash. A few of these reports were later amended or corrected, but by that time, it was too late. Investors backed out. The company lost funding. Heinz’s health began to suffer, and six months after that presentation, he hanged himself in his lab. Heinz, like Ames, had a history of depression, and their suicides show what can happen when already vulnerable people get dragged into the public eye.
In the four years since Heinz’s death, incidents of public shaming have certainly gone up, and brands, businesses, institutions, and universities will do anything possible to avoid them. This has had a particularly insidious effect in the media, as publications across the political spectrum have abruptly unpublished articles after outcries on Twitter, even if the opinion being expressed is thoroughly in the mainstream. Business Insider, for instance, retracted a column by a staff writer named Daniella Greenbaum after she argued that cis actors should be able to play trans characters and vice versa. Greenbaum, who'd only had the job for a few months, ended up resigning in protest, but others will just duck their heads and stop expressing even slightly controversial opinions. It’s just not worth the risk.
There are real consequences to mobbing, and not just for the individual being mobbed. After a cartoon portraying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu as a dog was published in the international edition of the New York Times, the outcry was so loud that the paper first apologized, then stopped publishing syndicated cartoons, and then decided to stop running political cartoons all together. As longtime New York Times cartoonist Patrick Chappatte wrote on his blog, “I’m afraid this is not just about cartoons, but about journalism and opinion in general. We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow.”
It’s not just people or publications in the public eye who need to worry. Like Justine Sacco, the not-famous and not-powerful get caught up in these tempests, too. Last week, Craig Brooks, an employee at a Holiday Inn in Austin, Texas, posted a video of himself refusing to serve a customer who’d called him the n-word. He was briefly hailed as hero, and then Twitter users uncovered his history of transphobic tweets. In near record time, the hero transformed to a villain and he was inundated with hate mail and angry tweets.
In this case, Brooks's past sins were right there, collected on Twitter for everyone to see. But in other cases, the alleged crimes just didn’t take place. In Ohio, for instance, a family-owned business called Gibson’s Bakery recently won a lawsuit against Oberlin College after students from the school, with the college’s support, protested against the business for allegedly profiling three black Oberlin students. The owners of the bakery, which has been in the Gibson family for four generations, argued that the protests damaged the business’s good reputation, as well as their bottom line, and the jury awarded the bakery an astounding $11 million in damages.
In the case of Gibson’s Bakery, the claims of racism were not supported by the evidence. The students, who were apparently trying to steal a bottle of wine, pled guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass. They said during their own sentencing that they didn’t think the owners were motivated by race. Still, what if the bakery had actually been profiling these students? People do act badly, all of the time, and if we reject public calls-out entirely, do we risk allowing those who really have done wrong to get away with their crimes? Maybe so. But the problem with online pile-ons is that in the initial rush to judge, facts get muddled, lost, and distorted. There’s no time for nuance or explanation when gleefully enraged mobs start gathering pitchforks and foaming at the mouth.
After Ryan Boudinot’s life as a writer in Seattle abruptly ended, he realized he needed to start over.
“I had three choices,” Boudinot told me the day that we met in the coffee shop on 15th. “I could repent, which I wasn’t going to do. I have a right to voice my opinions and I’m not going to apologize for them. Or I could resent. I could just stew and be bitter and wish for acceptance in this community. Or the third thing I could do is reinvent. And that’s what I decided to do.”
He’d long had an interest in technology, and he started going to virtual reality meetups around town. This was an entirely new crowd, and not only did his new acquaintances not know about his brush with infamy, they probably weren’t all that concerned with MFA blog wars in the first place. What they cared about was VR, and Boudinot got more and more deeply involved in that world. He wasn’t a programmer or a developer, but he had something most programmers and developers don’t: the ability to write and to speak. This skill, which wasn’t all that remarkable in his previous world, was novel in the world of tech, and it meant that he had something to offer.
Boudinot started keeping a blog about virtual reality, which became widely read in the tech world. Through this, he met an audio mastering engineer named Steve Turnidge. One day, Turnidge emailed Boudinot and said he wanted to show him something. He picked Boudinot up and drove him across Lake Washington to a nondescript office park in Redmond. There, Boudinot was introduced to Paul Hubert, a serial inventor and audio engineer.
Hubert, Boudinot would find out later, taught himself to code as a teenager, got a job with Apple before he was old enough to drive, and helped developed the technology that made satellite radio possible. He is, quite literally, a tech genius, and as Hubert gave him a tour of the building, Boudinot realized this wasn’t a just a casual conversation; it felt like job interview.
The company Hubert was building is called Immersion Networks, and Boudinot officially joined as a consultant soon after that tour. He spent the next two and a half years working with the company on developing the language to describe immersive audio. And it’s not easy to describe. “It’s an audio system that makes you feel like you’re inhabiting sound,” Boudinot puts it. Still, words don’t really do the experience justice.
My own reaction to hearing immersive audio for the first time—gobsmacking disbelief—was apparently not unusual. “We frequently see artists having a profound emotional reaction to hearing their work played on our platform,” Hubert told me in an email. “It's not uncommon to see musicians cry when they hear their own music played back in immersion.” The company doesn’t exactly have an explanation for this phenomenon, but Hubert’s working theory is that “people often associate music with a particular event, place or time. At its core,” he continued, “our technology places the listener within an environment either captured at the time of recording, or subsequently designed by a storyteller to portray a specific motif. Perhaps feeling rooted in a specific place is powerful enough to allow a listener to make a deeper emotional connection with the work.”
Boudinot predicts that this is how we will all be listening to audio in just a few years, and it’s not hard to believe him. The compression algorithm developed by Immersion means that their audio files are actually smaller than traditional MP3s—which is good for both streaming platforms, content creators, and the consumer—and you won’t need any special technology to listen to immersive audio. There’s no headset or custom speakers. A phone and some earbuds will do it.
This technology has the potential to not just change the podcast or music listening experience; it could change television, too. And Boudinot, still, at heart, a writer, now has a three-year headstart on anyone else when it comes to making content specifically for immersive audio. That is really what he wanted to talk to me about the day we met for coffee, because Ryan Boudinot is making what could be the first television series using immersive audio in the world. His show, which is currently in development, is called Steam Wandz, and it’s about the second-ranked all-male bikini barista stand in North Snohomish County.
“In this world, all-male bikini barista stands are an established industry and they all battle for dominance in this market,” Boudinot said. “They are all trying to outdo each other. Steam Wandz gets ranked number 2 and they want to be number 1 but first they have to beat their rivals, Chapacinnos.” He says everyone he tells the premise to laughs, but eventually, there will be dramas and soap operas and all sorts of serious and heartbreaking work using this tech as well.
Boudinot initially envisioned Steam Wandz as a sort of immersive audio play, but then he talked to Ron Jones, a TV composer who has written music for shows like Family Guy and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was Jones who convinced Boudinot that his series needed to be animated. He’s now brought together a team that includes artist and animator Clyde Peterson and Amanda Knox, who has agreed to voice one of the characters (and who knows a thing or two about public shaming herself).
“We're going to create the show using this new technology while Immersion Networks establishes it in the various streaming companies,” he said. “My intention is that as soon as it’s been adopted, I will come in the door and say, 'Hey, here is this project we designed specifically for this technology. You're going to feel like you're there.'"
This show, and this tech, is still a few years out, but it’s not hard to imagine that one day, we could be watching Steam Wandz and really feel like we’re there, inside the bikini barista stand with North Snohomish County’s second-ranked all male bikini barista crew. Or we will be watching symphonies or concerts and feel like we’re really there. Movies will evoke more emotion. Video games will feel more real. It’s going to happen, and Boudinot might very well be the first content creator to take us there.
In many ways, Boudinot was lucky. His reinvention worked. He lost his old life, but he found a new one soon enough. “I'm really happy about my life,” he says. “I’m not bitter. I'm proud of what my life has become, and I'm working on fascinating stuff.” But can everyone do this kind of pivot?
“I absolutely think everyone can do this,” he told me. “You just need to find another world to exist in.”
He recommends using Meetup.org, and finding new communities you might be interested in. “Start making friends and connections,” he said. “Then you realize that the skills that you had in your previous world are actually rare in your new world. When they are rare, they become much more valuable. So find a new community. If you are willing to reinvent, you'll see there are whole new opportunities elsewhere.”
Despite Boudinot’s optimism, I’m not entirely convinced this kind of pivot is possible for everyone, particularly people who are poor or uneducated or have fewer marketable skills. But still, Boudinot is a prime example of the old truism about clouds and silver linings. He was kicked out of his tribe, but his new tribe—his new life—has brought him more joy and excitement than the old one ever did. So does he regret writing that essay? Not at all. He would not have predicted this when the shame was fresh, but in some ways, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
“I’m astonished to find myself exactly where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “I’m grateful for the modest success I found writing books, and wish nothing but creative fulfillment for anyone who chooses that vocation, but I’m proud I didn’t ever issue a public apology for something I wrote. I’ve come to believe that this decision was the reason I discovered this new path.”
A story destroyed Ryan Boudinot's life, so he wrote a new one to rebuild it.