I’m watching the #AskELJames hashtag like a stock ticker reporting on the market of online human shame, and it’s fascinating in the way that watching hyenas eat a sick lion is fascinating.
I don’t really know E.L. James, and I’ve only read portions of her books. I am not impressed with the origins of the work, or her wordsmithy, or her particular take on the genre she’s writing. (If I can suggest that you drop whatever you’re doing right now and go read Tiffany Reisz. Really, seriously, perform this task ASAFP for how shit is done.) Certainly I am not impressed with E.L. James’ publicists, who apparently thought some good would come of that particular hashtag. If she doesn’t fire them — like, out of a cannon and into a brick wall — then I will be surprised.
Further, I think because her books are controversial (both in terms of their fan-fic origin and their stance or non-stance on consensual BDSM relationships), I feel like it’s totally understandable to want to grab that hashtag and ask her serious questions about those serious issues. An open forum like that is, despite her likely desires to the contrary, valuable if it addresses those things. And I don’t think the response, don’t like them, don’t read them is a meaningful one. I think when it comes to big cultural things like this, it’s meaningful to talk about even if you’re not a “fan.” You don’t have to buy into the conversation with the currency of purchase. If there’s toxic shit surrounding this work, then it’s worth stirring it around and seeing what bubbles up.
But that’s not entirely what’s happening, here, is it? Sometimes the criticism isn’t really criticism but instead, a snarky performance dressed up as criticism. And sometimes? It’s just abuse. (I’m hesitant to point out any of these directly, which I fear would only complete the SHAME CIRCUIT, but one tweet called James the lady-c-word while chastising the abuse found in the book — which sounds like abuse about abuse, a cruel ouroboros where the snake bites down hard on its own tail.)
When it stops being a criticism of the book and becomes an attack on the author, that gets scary to me. The whole thing just gives me a kind of queasy discomfort, like I’m reading Lord of the Flies or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” (Doubly weird to see some professional authors on there piling on. Trust me: it can happen to you, too, authors.) Like, what’s your goal by getting onto that hashtag and being shitty? Satire and snark can work if you’re good at them (hint: a lot of people are not actually good at them). But the sheer overwhelming tide of it just starts to feel septic. Like everybody’s just choosing to projectile vomit on a person, and not even for the effect of making the person feel it but more for the effect of making sure everyone else sees you doing it.
I am reminded of Cersei Lannister made human to the audience when she was forced to march, naked, covered in excrement, the Shame Nuns dogging her steps and ringing their Shame Bells.
Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of getting to a point that I think isn’t often well-made —
We use the acronym IRL to differentiate things that happen IN REAL LIFE versus things that happen ONLINE, but I’m here to tell you, the online space is real life.
It’s not an MMORPG.
We’re not all playing World of Twittercraft or the Facebook RPG.
The people here — bots excluded — are real.
Sometimes I wonder if all the shittiness online is because we’ve been sold that it’s all fake. That it’s a game of characters and personas, or a performance by people on a stage. We’re all participating in a grand narrative, we think. One of heroes and villains and right and wrong. But that’s not really true. It’s real life as much as it is if you met these people on the street, or at the mall, or in their own houses. We line up to say all kinds of things to people — and I’ve done it, too, I’ve been someone flinging shit and I’ve been someone who has had a little shit land on his brow from time to time (sometimes earned, sometimes ennh?) — but the question is, would we have done the same if it were in person? As @mittensmorgul said: “it’s amazing what people are willing to say on the internet they’d never say to someone’s face.”
I don’t think we have to be nice for the sake of being nice.
But I question too why we have to be mean for the sake of being mean. And I don’t connect a line between criticism and cruelty. It is not cruel to criticize. It is not cruel to engage critically and to ask real questions about real things. But you actually have to try to do that. You actually have to try to engage earnestly. Ill-made snark and meanness dull the effectiveness of your criticism; they do not often sharpen it. Is it bullying? Maybe not taken individually, but when it becomes a crashing tide like that — I don’t care who you are, that’s not healthy for your mental well-being.
Whatever the case, I think it does us well to remember:
Online is IRL.
It’s all real.
This is all really happening.
We’re all (mostly) really actually people. Not robots or bugs or swamp monsters.
It’s not a show, no matter how much we want it to be.
[Note, comments are open, but don’t be jerks. The spam oubliette awaits.]