Online Is IRL

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.

SHAME *clong*

SHAME *clong*

SHAME *clong*

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.

It’s real.

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.]

126 responses to “Online Is IRL”

  1. Thank you for that, you nicely summed up my feelings and frustrations this week with all the people who want pain/misfortune done to others who are against their cause.

  2. It’s so bizarre to me when I read the parts of the mob who rail about the Shades’ fan fiction origins. I can’t say I respect those origins personally, but I can’t manage to work myself into a public tizzy over it on Stephanie Meyer’s behalf when Meyer herself seems, by all accounts, pretty chill about the whole thing.

  3. ****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****

    Excellent perspective.

    I once received a HORRID comment on my blog. I found the anonymous person (idiot) and wrote, “How does it feel to be sitting behind your computer all high and powerful and mean and ugly and ghastly? Why don’t you come over here and tell me this shit to my face, ASSHOLE.”

    Okay, I know I should have let it go, but I felt damn good after I pushed publish!!

    Great Post.

    • A lawyer friend of mine offered me the loan of his soapbox to discuss the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality. I had been holding forth on FB interpreting different passages and he said I could do a better job writing the blog post.

      Cool! It’s a good blog that usually sparks interesting discussions. I wrote, my friend posted, and linked on FB.

      First comment went something like this, “No thanks. I have sufficient reading comprehension to read the opinion on my own. But I totally understand that some people don’t.”

      My friend, a high end defense attorney, former law professor was polite, but obviously gobsmacked. I mean, what the actual fuck?

      So yeah, too many treat virtual space as an RPG where their character is 10-foot tall, bullet proof, and all-knowing.

      As for James . . . meh. Good on her for breaking the bank. A lot of people who work hard on books that one see 1/1000th of this got bonuses because she was in the right place at the right time. She now needs to go buy and island and enjoy it. When I was proofreading for a small erotica press, I worked on way better books that this, both from a craft standpoint and the genre.

      And haven’t publicists learned anything about these hashtag gimmicks yet? I am amused that the biggest blunders online the last few years have been from those claiming to be communication professionals. Unless they were manufacturing controversy for the sake of $$$$$


  4. When the Web first became a thing, it was culturally verboten to use your real identity online and a statement of brave stupidity to swim against that particular time. Facebook and Google+ and the Real Names policy changed that; it’s debatable that the tipping point had already been reached, but that clinched it. The problem is that neither online nor offline culture has really adjusted to the reality that The Way It Always Was is not The Way It Now Is.

  5. For once reply to me, or I am out for good. Time invested and not reciprocated, is time wasted. Give back and you will be surprised how much you get back.

  6. Thanks for posting this Chuck. I haven’t read her books and have no intention of doing so just because it’s not my kind of thing. However the total lack of civility that I have been witnessing online about this and many other things is ridiculous. It does seem like people forget that what they say online hurt REAL people. It got so bad that I will not post anything in one of my writers’ pages for fear of being either attacked or ridiculed as many have been before. My respect for you has tripled (maybe quadrupled) with this post 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I haven’t read the book (only excerpts), but I have read erotica and I don’t think what she wrote strays that far from what I’ve seen out there. The quality is low, so what? I don’t know why people want to burn her down. I think we should lift up writers that make it. The message it sends to new writers is that there are things we shouldn’t write about and that writing is some noble calling that is accessible to only a subset of sophisticated people. No, all writing had value. Also I don’t see that many successful women writers and to tear her down seems counter-productive for up-and-coming women writers. EL James was just trying to feed her family through writing and boy did she ever!

  8. So Tiffany Reisz writes BDSM erotica too? I thought it was a link to a critique of E.L. James. So if there are serious questions about BDSM erotica, why is it only E.L. James that needs to be asked these questions? How about Reisz. Why don’t we ask her these hard questions?

    Oh wait. I get it. E.L. James got lucky and wildly successful. Now, in the grand literary tradition of America, it is time to tear her down and shit all over her.

    I have no intention of reading 50 Shades of Gravy or whatever her lonely housewife fantasy books are called. But you have just exposed yet another example of why social media is destroying the fabric of this country and exposing the true nature of people.

    You mentioned Lord of the Flies. I use that example all the time when I talk about the mob mentality of social media. Every time some douchebag gets outraged, it’s time to KILL THE PIG.

    Nothing new here. But yes, every author with a serious social media presence (and those with a less than serious social media presence) should take this as another example of how shit works these days. Say the wrong thing, get the wrong people outraged — and you, too might be THE PIG.

    • Chuck mentioned Tiffany Reisz because *climbs into Chuck’s skull and interprets brain meats* if I’m reading his brain correctly, it’s because Tiffany Reisz writes BDSM erotica, but she’s actually writing from a place of knowledge.

      The issues in James’s books are issues because she doesn’t know anything about the scene, i.e. how BDSM works, and just sort of made things up? All of those scenes of the guy pushing the girl (sorry, don’t remember their names) into situations she didn’t want, without the ability to say “no” is what makes it problematic; in properly written erotica, as well as the BDSM scene in real life, you have many ways of saying no to anything you don’t want to do. Safe words and a clear establishment of the BDSM relationship being the primary ones. This is why people are upset about James’s work, both the people who practice that type of relationship in real life (because it’s in no way shape or form an accurate depiction of their lifestyle), and people who just read erotica (like me).

      Tiffany Reisz’s books show how the relationships are properly handled. There’s safe words, clear lines of when the “playing” stops and starts, what each person wants out of a relationship. We don’t need to direct our problematic questions to Reisz, because her books aren’t problematic. Chuck was using her an an example of, “If you want to read wonderfully written books with amazing character arcs, that also happen to be erotica, read these.”

      • I get that. I don’t read erotica so the names didn’t immediately click — although EL James sounded familiar for some reason, LOL. I know why Chuck said that — honestly, on my list of genres to read, erotica is at the bottom of the list. Actually BDSM erotica would be at the bottom of the list.

        I actually care immensely about this #AskELJames business because it is just one more example of how social media is destroying us from the inside. Depending on where you sit, you might think confederate flags, gay marriage, guns or the ACA is destroying the United States.

        Nope. Social media is.

        • I’d just like to note that social media is for the whole world, not just the states. There are other countries out there, and on the internet – a fact Americans seem to consistently forget.

          If you think about it beyond the immediate knee-jerk – which I assume stems from a fear of the new – social media is not the cause of anything. It’s a communications platform like any other. If it unmasks the ugliness in people, I’d argue the ugliness was always there.

  9. There is something to be said here; this is one of the first times in human history there has been so much almost-real-time discussion in human history unaccompanied by body language, intonation and inflection. It is largely anonymous and is not one to one or many to one. It is effectively many to many.

    You don’t have control of the volume knob – that’s everyone else’s decision – and you can’t make a retraction or an apology as loudly as you can make a mistake.

    It may be IRL, but it’s certainly nothing people are used to. Perhaps that’s why it can feel more like a game than a part of your life. I hope this changes over time.

  10. In all fairness, I think the out-and-out attack on E L James is not completely unjustified. Yeah, if it would have been someone else I would have agreed that viciously tearing into them like that is wrong and gratuitous. But she wrote a series that actually romanticizes sexual abuse and stalking and passes off her books as erotic romance. There have been real life instances of BDSM abuse by people who’ve read her books- it’s kind of the same thing when many rapists and pedophiles say they get their twisted ideas and encouragement from porn movies. But how can one justify passing off abuse and stalking as romance? Even if one ignores the poor quality of the writing and the lack of a proper plot, it is hard to condone her portrayal of the twisted pervert Christian Grey as a ‘loving, conflicted, abused’ guy. Please. In this case, the drubbing James received on Twitter is justified because it will open her up to the irony in her novels- and burst the bubble she lives in of ‘being a good erotica writer’.

    • I agree. Plus, she apparently was really rude to actual survivors of domestic abuse when they tried to, politely, call her on some of the problematic issues in her books. There have also been allegations of her cyberbullying a girl from Russia for translating her work and also some insinuations that she plagiarized another fan fiction author’s work to create the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.

      • Yes, I’m sure there have been rumors. This is the sort of thing that gets plastered all over social media, and then goes viral and becomes “truth.” Unless you can say for certain, you’re just contributing to the problem.

        • This is actually a reply to Babble. That is ‘proof’ that she’s insensitive, perhaps, but so what? Does it follow that she deserves abuse? Would you lower yourself to her (apparent) level? Is an eye for an eye the only way to appease the clamoring mob? What does that say about us as readers? Maybe we deserve insensitive mediocrity.

    • As decayingorbits over there mentions, it’s extremely harmful to try pass off opinion as fact online. If you are citing real instances, it takes but a moment to link to them. Otherwise, as D.O. says, you’re only contributing to the hearsay sewage.

      Blaming an author for another person’s behaviour, if your ‘facts’ are to be believed, is shallow. It smacks of blaming violence on video games or rap when studies show that nothing like it is true. If a person displays abusive or violent tendencies, they are more likely to be abusive people than have a book magically transform them into such.

      The real issue here is that people, even supposedly nice, apple pie folks like yourself, enjoy watching the successful fail. On some level we all do. It’s up to us, however, to recognise our pettiness and not fall prey to justifying beastly behaviour.

  11. EL James has continually refused to answer reasonable questions regarding the abuse dynamic in the trilogy — ‘it just doesn’t’ — is not a proper answer and response. Everyone from the leather-whips-n-chains crowd to women’s aid have unpacked the trilogy and explored the dynamic of intimate partner abuse romanticised in Jame’s work. Aside from the fact that no one can understand why a Twilight rip-off became a success like this. The worst thing — the very worst thing — is EL James pretending she can teach the rest of us how to write. So when she was ripped to pieces like this I did feel a tiny twinge of schadenfreude … a frission of satisfaction. Oh my! Perhaps the shame gongs should clang for me, because I agree 100% with this article. There are broader considerations. I’ve taken stands on bullying and abuse like this. The biggest test of those dearly held beliefs is when you have to stick to them even if a large part of you thinks the target deserved it. There are higher considerations. This sort of behaviour online is wrong. They will do it to her. And they can do it to you. AskEL was meant to be a forum for her fans, not her foes.

    • Not saying that I disagree in any way but do you think her foes figured there would ever be a better time to get their largely ignored or (by the rabid fans) vehemently denied with fingers in ears and lalala not listening behavior questions answered? I’m not for bullying and abuse-one of the reasons I hate the novels and would like the author to be held accountable, as well-but I doubt the #challengeELJames hashtag was ever on the horizon. 🙂

      • Held accountable for what, exactly? And in what way? A way that you personally dictate? Some sort of online taste-jury? Assembled by whom?

        Would you let the masses dictate your work? It would get awful bland trying to accommodate everyone. Writers, in an ideal world, should write responsibly, but I would assume it’s up to the author and not to the howling mass of hind-sighters. And you “hate” the books? “Hate”, really? Bit of a strong word to use for something you can just put down or throw away, no?

        I would hardly say “no one understands how she got famous”. Her sales speaks for itself. It follows that she must have a pretty strong fan base. Feel how you will about her writing (it’s not my thing, for example), but she must appeal to enough people to justify her fame. And critiquing people’s tastes is a slippery slope to prescribing entertainment, and then what sort of free world would we be living in?

  12. People can be horribly terrible, especially online. It’s so much easier to be hateful when you’re not looking them directly in the eye. So yes, I agree. I winced when I say that hashtag.

    And then the real cynic in me said this publicist will get a raise. If this had been all serious questions asked by serious commenters, we wouldn’t be talking about EL James or her 50 Shades series phenomena. And perhaps all the entertainment mags wouldn’t have said anything about her virtual meet, greet and questions. There is truth in any publicity is good publicity. I bet her books took a nice bump yesterday.

    At the end of the day, EL James is still laughing–or perhaps only giggling–her way all the way to the bank. If harsh criticism and mean-spirited comments truly offended her, there wouldn’t have been a movie and another series in the hero’s POV.

  13. I cannot believe this conversation even needs to be had YET AGAIN. What is wrong with people? Anyone using social media to attack someone needs to GROW THE FUCK UP. And if their motivation is to seen or heard, then they really need to get some therapy. Seriously. It’s the Golden Rule folks. Pretty sure that’s kindergarten stuff.

  14. I admit I chuckled when I read snippets of the comments from that particular Q&A. The articles I read all featured a handful of the wittiest comments. But those were the tip of a nasty, ugly iceberg. When I followed the hashtag to read the entire thing, I was horrified. Repeated attacks from “victims” who apparently did not see the irony that they themselves were victimizing another human being. The internet is an ugly place. Lord of the Flies, indeed.

  15. While I have issues with some of the content of Ms. James books, she has as much right to write and publish them as I have to not read them. I also won’t comment on them.

  16. Always remember what your momma told you, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”

  17. Lots of stuff on the net and in real life makes me cry. I’m Irish. But I do understand from the get go that some people troll the net only to bad mouth, not even to offer a legitimate standpoint. It is just what they do, who they are, what they are about.

  18. Unfortunately, it’s the media outlets that are feeding on the “Hateplicity” for their own benefit. I was shocked @ how many were not just reporting the story but backing the haters. I won’t name names but the net was a-buzz with it and before you know it the haters are going to get bullied by other haters who need a victim. It won’t end until we stop it.

  19. I honestly I don’t understand why people can’t be kinder to each other online. I find it incredibly frustrating. I dislike that some many people take the fact that an author/thing/political point/whatever is disliked to be mean about it.

    Not only is bad for the person you are raking over the coals, it is not really good for you. Spending all that energy on something, just to tear someone down? I’d rather spend my time trying to makes things better about things I care about it. Not things I don’t.

  20. One day, somebody is going to write a book about the way the collective subconscious of the human nature emerges on the internetz and it’s going to be hailed as one of the most important works ever assembled.

    I think there are two things to think about here. First, the way that people turn like a herd of rabid buffadildos and launch themselves at a target with increasing force and velocity as soon as the first buffadildo makes a funny.

    Second, the desperation to turn works of fiction into complex moral judgments. Here you have a dumb book written by somebody who was trying to tell a story that just popped into her head, maybe even via the same neurological mechanism that is compelling others to ensnare her in the e-noose. Trying to put her under the spotlight to try and deduce her reasoning for elements of the story that some are considering to be tasteless or toxic to society should probably ask themselves whether she had any real option but to write what she did due to the lack of any other mind-musings that may have worked for her within the story. Her path to success was strange and unorthodox, she didn’t plan for this to blow up as it did. Why has she avoided addressing the issue? She probably doesn’t have any answers. Maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t care. That’s not a heinous crime.

    Maybe in the world of Twitterstorms and Facebookings new writers should seriously consider pen names. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the public to separate the output from the person. Attack the work (if you absolutely must. Which you do not.), not the woman.

  21. […] Re: that mess of an #AskELJames hashtag: Bullying someone who’s done/written some horrible shit in the past is still bullying, OK? So much of that hashtag was less “I genuinely want to ask this person questions and engage with her” than “You suck in this way. Would you agree that you suck? Why do you keep doing these things that suck? You suck.” Less “genuine intent to engage,” more “genuine intent to yell at someone.” There was this glee in people dogpiling on her that I think is really shitty, no matter who it is. Anyway, it pisses me off, and Chuck Wendig wrote a really good piece on the whole thing. […]

  22. This is the best post I’ve read on this tweet fiasco. I think the comparison to The Lottery is very well-placed there, too. The authors who contributed to the abuse should be hiding in a corner right now in the fetal position for fear of the backlash that could have a boomerang effect. For an author-reader community that claims to be so tight and supportive, a huge message was sent with those tweets that can be deleted from their twitter page and possibly the twitterverse but will hang forever in cyberspace through screenshots and those robot pack-rats.

  23. The worst cop is the cop inside 🙂 We must fight for justice. Economic justice. “Economy” after all, only means “household management.” What kind of house do we want to live in together? One where we all live in fear of Daddy? More and more it seems to me to a question of whose side people are on. King George III? Donald Trump et al? Or the people.

    And if you’re on the side of the people, we have to realize just how fucked up we all are. And how much help we need to get our house in order, get the dishes done, and get that garden growing, and get Daddy to quit his shitty job.

    Then we need to start knocking on neighbors’ houses and telling them we’ve seen Paul Revere around.

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