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. Some peoples’ lives are very small, and the smallness constricts and consumes them. So they reach out to touch something larger but can only respond with their little minds and base thoughts.

    Public figures, sadly, are the targets of such people. The best anyone can do who in such a spotlight is not take these things to heart. If the things said are not constructive or helpful it’s not worth their time.

    Not that I don’t go crying into my blankie when people are mean to me, but at least I do it behind closed doors.

  2. Thanks, Chuck. I first went to the hashtag out of curiosity but only tracked for a time. The “pro” authors piling on was just too much to stomach.

    Whomever came to James with this idea shouldn’t be fired. A better idea is to sit them down in front of Radian6 or Mention and train them on listening to the Interwebz. Had their marketing team done that, this could have been avoided, methinks.

  3. It’s sometimes very tempting to just give in to your baser instincts; the more you despise the person/product the more that itch roars to be scratched. But really, it’s as lamentable as any other kind of bullying and it’s a shitty thing to do. If you’re only at the party to poop in the punch bowl then maybe it’s best if you just stay home. You’re not improving the already-awful punch (that, by the way, some people like) you’re just making a mess and ruining it for everyone.

    • Well, part of it is like — what’s your aim? If it’s to make an improvement or to make a genuine point, hey, fuck yeah. I saw some people on the hashtag tweeting at her about domestic abuse stats and so forth and yes, yeah, hell yeah, that’s meaningful engagement. But when you’re just trying to make a snarky point so you end up on some list aggregator or you’re outright attacking her or her readers, then your aim — again, to me — starts to feel like it’s being nasty for the sake of nasty, not for any larger point.

      It’s not about being nice, but it is maybe about being not being ONLY mean. Or something. I may not be making that point altogether clearly.

      • Exactly. If you were trying to add some sparkling fizz to the punch or if you were trying to get the recipe to avoid mistakes made then fine. But if it’s just to take a dump on it…nope. You’re being selfish and more than a bit of a dick. Stop it.

  4. It’s amazing how peoples words can hide behind anonymity the way they do. I know the old sticks and stones mantra, and the new one about how everyone is offended so easily, but there has to be a point in cruelty where this no longer applies. There needs to be some etiquette on the internet, especially the faux news threads.

    • Sometimes hiding behind anonymity is important, though — it protects people and lets them sometimes speak truth to power. Though sometimes it also means you’re going to get shittiness — and I don’t even mean the shittiness you find here but trolls and Goober-Gate and all that stuff. I don’t know what the answer is, though, in terms of how you mitigate all that.

      • Anonymity for constructive arguments is important, I agree. As for mitigating shittiness, I would say don’t respond and moderate websites accordingly as needed.

  5. Yes yes yes yes. Ta-Nehisi Coates said something awhile ago about how black Americans will never prove they care about black crime because the question isn’t being asked in good faith. That’s a vital and meaningful difference. Do you actually want to know what an author thinks about (fill in problematic representation here) or is the question rhetorical? Social media is, at its best, a noisy, disparate, often passionate conversation, and that can be great and maddening and eye-opening, but it requires that we ask good faith questions of each other and ourselves.

  6. I think that people feel free to be buttholes online because they wrongly believe they are shielded from view so they will suffer no consequences from their actions. And let’s face there’s nothing that makes a human being as feel more right than making another person feel wrong.

    Some people are just mean at heart, no matter what, they will be mean to your face and mean online, makes no difference. Although perhaps the ‘shield’ of anonymity may encourage them to be meaner than usual.

    The rest may be following the mob mentality, believing that since everybody else is doing it they can too. It does take restraint sometimes to not jump on the bandwagon and give a complete stranger a good wallop between the eyes – because when you’re frustrated and can’t really strike out at the source then a willing and available target is very tempting.

    However, bottom line – although everybody makes mistakes sometimes – people who do this sort of thing (authors included) show who they are and what little class they have. Like they say, when somebody shows you who they are, believe them.


  7. E.L. James has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since she began posting the “Masters of the Universe” fanfiction. What really shocks me is that she agreed to do this Twitter chat. She had to know this wouldn’t go well.

    I agree that there are legitimate questions about the books that only she could answer, but I’d bet that she knows any responses on her part would turn into a Sharknado of shitstorms. (Shitnado?) Any time she’d try to answer the points that have been brought up against her books, there’d be a whole ‘nother Twitter/Facebook/pick your social media platform uproar. And after a while, she’d also be accused of stirring it up to sell more books. In sum, she can’t win no matter what she does, but I guess it doesn’t matter because she’s won in the marketplace.

    I wrote Twilight fanfiction too. I have no problem with her publishing the story because I think it’s her creative right to do so. I don’t like her writing style so I never finished reading the fic and haven’t read the books. I can’t get into the vigorous hate for it, though. FWIW, she knew I didn’t like her story, and yet whenever we cross paths online, she’s always gracious and friendly to me. I do feel that she’s owed the civility that nearly any human being is entitled to, but this is the Internet, so that’s not going to happen.

  8. I think that, in the early days of the internet (yes, I was there) in bbs chat rooms, etc. it started out as a textual C.B. radio, then people realized that they could hide behind characters/avatars and it grew into something that seemed less ‘real’. I became heavily involved in roleplay MUSH/MUX games and it felt very much like we were sitting around a fire, telling stories – on a global level. Then visual online games and forums happened and it became even more ‘distanced’ from the real person in general conversation – not roleplay as characters, but people being able to hide behind avatar creations and hold ‘regular’ conversations. And be cruel.

    Facebook has started to shift it back to ‘this is real’ by trying to insist on ‘real names’ instead of monikers or fake id’s. However, the culture was created of the illusion of anonymity and it is going to take some time for people to realize that – if you wouldn’t say it to their face, or on the phone, then don’t freakin’ say it.

    • Plenty of places have tried the “real names” tactic before Facebook, with varying degrees of success. The biggest issue that comes up with it is that as the scale increases, the ability to detect pseudonyms decreases.

      I don’t think it’s necessarily the spread of avatars leading to depersonalization, per se, but a consequence of a rapid expansion of the number of people online and the number of places available for people to congregate. With BBS chats, MUD/MUSH/etc., and similar spaces, you had primarily smaller communities with a slower growth rate. People who were rude or acting against the social mores of the community could be dealt with by the community. With the explosive growth that happened around the same time as the move away from these smaller communities to larger ones, it became much more difficult to enforce social norms and more communities started to appear that actively discouraged the usual rules of civility. That, combined with a number of people who weren’t accustomed to using computers for interaction, allowed a fairly toxic broader culture to emerge.

      The current primary internet culture forgets that this isn’t an interactive story where the user is the protagonist. No one told these people to remember that when they’re typing, they are communicating words to other real humans. It’s a disturbingly easy thing to forget when you weren’t taught to think of it that way from the start. Most people learn to read by reading fiction. Children’s fiction is almost always focused on the protagonist. There’s a certain subconscious association that forms, especially for those who don’t read fiction for pleasure as teenagers or adults, that tells them that reading = a protagonist and background characters, and in human interactions everyone imagines themselves to be the protagonists. This group, though, has never considered the background characters or the supporting cast. No one worries about how the food in The Very Hungry Caterpillar felt about being devoured. (It’s the most ridiculous example I have off of the top of my head.) I’ve spent time as a GOD/moderator/guide/various-rule-enforcer in enough different places to know that there’s a major number of online behavior problems that are fixed by getting people to think about roles being reversed and reminding them that these are genuine sentient beings at a keyboard somewhere. We just need a template for written, communal, public communication that encodes that knowledge.

    • The problem with “real name” policies is they assume that a) everyone has one “real name,” and b) that real name is the same as their government alias. Most of the people who know me best rarely use the name that’s on my driver’s license. So which name is the “real” one?

  9. There are so many things that go into online shame, it’s hard to unpack them all. You’ve got people who have no filter, born and raised on the internet and now feel like the world needs their opinion on everything, which they oblige. You’ve got confomists who are at their most comfortable when they’re a face in the crowd….even if that’s a crowd built on hatred and vile. You’ve got egoists who want their 15 minutes, so they say the most outlandish things they can think of to get that check. Then…ironically the minority, I think…you’ve got people who are legitimately, no-shit full of hate for whatever reason and, confronted with an opportunity to interact with the object of their hate, do whatever they can to spew forth that hatred. And those are just the types I can think of off the top of my head.

    The punchline to it all? None of the classifications I listed above have ANYTHING to do directly with the target of the harrassment.

  10. I completely agree with your point. It’s herd mentality mixed with the bystander effect. For me, it goes further than that.

    The internet is IRL with an airtight memory. The words I write online will live far longer than I ever will, which produces (at least in me) an environment where I’m *not* completely honest. I hold back not out of fear of conflict but because I see every sentence I associate with my name to be a bullet that could be used to harm future me.

  11. Well said! I’ve been thinking this recently, especially in regards to the increasing power of online mobs. When people are upset on Twitter it translates to real consequences in life.

  12. Until recently, we had convinced ourselves that we have become a civilized society, not interested in watching a public stoning or burning. The anonymity of the internet has brought us back to our blood-thirsty roots. It’s perfect, because we’re so lazy, we don’t even have to get out of our chairs.

    The mouse is like a remote control pitch fork: *click* encourage someone to kill themselves *click* incite riot *click* add fuel to the inferno *click* share cute cat pic. The outrage is what people want, and there is no action the offender can do to make it better. Nobody wants an apology or a retraction or contrition. They want blood.

    What they NEED is to spend the day with David Bowie and some Muppets.

  13. “The people here — bots excluded — are real.”

    And while the bots are not real people, the bots are doing real things to real people Which means the bots are *also* real. Assuming the transitive property is real, of course.

  14. Yes, yes, yes. So glad you wrote this. This seems to be happening more and more these days. I haven’t read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed yet, but I think this is related to what he writes about, how the rage mob of old is alive and well on our social media today. I have books I’ve thrown across the room and authors I’ve chosen not to read, but for me personally, it’s not something I share publicly. And some of these comments are funny at first, and maybe that’s a lot of why people write them, but then it’s all just…ugh. This is why one of my only rules for the writer interview series I host on my blog is not to bash particular authors or specific books.

    • Just finished Ronson’s book – it’s a really great read – and it absolutely digs into this, using some specific case examples from Twitter.

  15. I’m sure many people posting in that thread wouldn’t say that to her face. There’s a remoteness about typing words into the ether that allows some people to somehow disconnect their natural empathy.

    The phrase “World of Twittercraft” is amazing, by the way. Kudos.

  16. It reminds me of school children. Child A decides that Child B is abhorrent (different, smarter, poorly dressed, prettier, obnoxious, funnier, what-have-you) and publicly mocks them. And this gets noticed. And then it’s as if mocking and insulting and–hello, bullying–Child B is some right of passage, a needed task to complete in order to get a Cool Kid badge, a stepping stone to the “glory” that is Popularity.

    “Don’t Be Different” is the first unwritten law of the playground, with “Insult Is the Way to Confidence and Security” coming in second.

    It’s a shame. I haven’t read 50 Shades, and as a romance reader have grumbled internally about the effect it has had on that close-yet-different genre (and I’m sure numerous erotica authors and readers of long standing haven’t been best pleased, either). But it is what it is. Entertainment markets are what they are: changeable and purchase-driven. I certainly don’t begrudge a woman making the most of opportunity–particularly when that opportunity has come in the form of millions of people putting their money into her (and her publisher’s) hands.

    Is what she writes dangerous because of the obsessive/abusive character she presents and the relationship she portrays? That’s something worthy of discussion. (And, in a different forum, how about “What effect has fan fiction had on the tastes & craft expectations of the reading public?”)

    It’s a shame that *that* opportunity went the way of playground bullying.

    When do we get to grow up?

  17. I argued the same thing years ago in a fandom where I was an admin on a number of sites.. people would be horrible to each other and say “oh… well IRL,” like they weren’t hacking away at REAL people… the thought that because it was a message board.. or an online chat meant that they could just sling sh*t at others and not have it splatter right back… it was CRAZY…

    still is… and I guess it always will be… but each person needs to make a choice about their own actions… here’s hoping fewer people make the decision not to be d*cks.

  18. Read this and then dusted off my twitter account to have a quick scan through what was happening. Interesting. Youy are correct that a lot of what has appeared has been abuse disguised as ‘snark’, but that isn’t the *really* interesting part for me.

    There seem to be more than a few responses on the lines of ‘how do YOU feel about the fact that women will seek abusive relationships and/or put themselves in danger thanks to youre book and its portrayal of relationship dynamics?’

    Woah there, back the fuck up a little, Sparky. When did we reach the point where women were unable to decide for themselves what sort of relationship they wanted to be in, and so just took their cues from a book? To be clear, these appear to be women writing these comments. There was one that I spotted which gave a number for some domestic abuse centre because ‘that’s an interesting fact’. I mean, sure, it is, but I don’t necessarily see the connection.

    I recall the same ‘criticism’ being levelled at Stephanie Myer with regards to the Twilight series, though I suppose you could at least *slightly* sympathise with it there, given those books/movies target teenage audience, but even then, we seem to be screaming that young women must be shepherded and protected from the big nasty books/movies which might warp their fragile little minds and make them engage in relationships which are bad for them, which seems entirely at odds with the feminist message that in the 21st century, young women are empowered and free to make their own decisions in an informed and educated way.

    To say nothing of the fact that if you are worrying that a NOVEL is going to form the basis of how your young women shape their approach to relationships, I suggest politely that you have a word with the people who are supposedly involved in bringing up and educating those young women. It’s Video Nasties/Violent Video games/Heavy Metal/R&B videos all over again – another excuse to be used as a distraction from the simple truth that the world is constantly changing and evolving and that if you wish to stand a chance of engaging with the younger generation and reaching a mutual understanding of how the world works and what they wish to aim for in it, that requires work and implies that if they turn out ‘wrong’ in some way (as judged, presumably, by your peers and society in general) it will be YOUR FAULT, whereas if you simply claim ignorance of the music they listen to, the media they consume, the trends that develop amongst their own peer group, then you have a convenient list of proxies to blame any ‘undesirable behaviours’ on. It’s bullshit.

    As an aside, it also fascinates me because, if FSOG had been written by a man, I can see that it would be problematic because (what i gather of) its themes are geared towards dominance of the woman by the man in some very extreme and frankly (to me) odd ways. But because EL James is a woman, the men all join in as well, throwing constant bile on the author of books which a) they have likely never read, b) are probably no worse in their plotting or portrayal of female characters and relationship dynamics than any of the porn that most of those men likely happily watch and c) have no real bearing on them. It’s like the feminists attacking a woman (and a successful one at that – love or hate her work, she’s made a big chunk of cash and sold a hell of a lot of books) somehow excites the men into a feeding frenzy, and they all queue up for their turn, thinking perhaps that once it is all done the feminists will see that they and their silly old-fashioned mysoginist ways really aren’t that bad after all. It’s crazy.

    It’s a fucking novel. Love it or loathe it. Offer your own opinion on it and its merits or lack thereof as you see fit. But stop acting like it’s the harbinger of the end times, because in so doing, you expose only your own fuckwittery. Is the tweet I would like to send them all but probably won’t. Life being fleeting and all that jazz.

  19. Agreed, Tiffany Reisz is amazing!

    I use @Kastil’s rule too. If you’re going to get up in somebody’s face, do it to their actual face, with sweaty skin and damp eyeballs and smelly (or nice-smelling) hair all staring right at you from two feet away. I’m rather more fond of swords than firearms for the same reason.

  20. I think the main difference is that there’s much more shielding of immediate and personal consequences in online discourse. Some of this is the availability of anonymity, but time-shifted text affords a level of shielding not found in other, more immediate methods of communication.

    For instance, I could drop a bomb in this comment thread, and then turn off my laptop, leave the cafe I’m in, go home and sit in my garden for the rest of the afternoon without ever experiencing someone getting on my tits about it. I don’t have to hear anyone yelling at me. I don’t have to worry about someone physically attacking me. If I stick around here or return to see responses, I have to deal with some psychological consequences, and people could also track me down via username info and try to issue consequences that way, but the risk of immediate consequences is next to nothing. It’s the ultimate opportunity to do drive-by damage. Stop in. Drop the bomb. Leave. By the time anyone’s caught up with me, their immediate anger about my words will have had a chance to dissipate, meaning the response is likely to be less intense.

    On the flip side, there’s a fair amount of shielding for victims, too. Obviously there’s genuine stalking, threats, etc. going on, as well as campaigns to discredit or otherwise make someone’s life/job miserable, but what I feel when someone on Twitter lobs verbal punches at me is pretty mild compared to what I feel when someone’s screaming at me on the phone or, worse, in my face in meatspace. Flamewars can and do issue some pretty big damage, but they’re not the same thing as other kinds of abuse.

    I tend to think of all of this like having a fistfight while both sides are encased in foam suits. The punches one throws AND gets back are both muffled, and therefore it all feels more like play than actual combat. It’s when one party tries to find a way through the foam that things start getting scary, and I think too many people underestimate exactly how easy it is to do that.

  21. I understand that her response to criticism hasn’t been the best. Her unwillingness to speak to or acknowledge abuse survivors, for instance. These things can embitter people. Cause a lot of festering anger. But these dogpiles are simple bullying, no matter what she’s done.

  22. My two cents:

    I think that James has been willfully ignorant of the damage that she does to people by normalizing this type of abuse. She seems to insulate herself in a number of ways. Some of the comments I’ve seen under this hashtag have been absolutely heartbreaking, some of which are even depicting damage that took place as a direct result of her work, which is even WORSE. Is it too much to hope that this is something of a wake-up call for her, since she can’t just delete all these comments like she can when they come across her Twitter feed or ignore them like she can in Reddit?

    Seeing the thread has done a bit of good for my soul too, though, because I’ve been running across piles (mountains) of these terrible books at bookstores for the past few years (and now a RESURGENCE with this horrid version from his point of view that makes him seem even WORSE than he did before, if that’s possible). And it scares me. It makes me think, “Does the world think this is OKAY!?” Seeing the backlash in real numbers–seeing all the people telling her it is most certainly NOT okay–makes me feel a little better. And, as I suggested earlier, it makes me hope that she gets the message from something like this and reflects. Because any girl who internalizes and believes what this book presents as an “ideal romance” and then ends up in a relationship like this will only find out too late that this book is not a romance–it’s a horror. I’ve been in this type of relationship. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Maybe even the folks reading the hashtag will get a dose of reality as well.

    That being said, the threats against her personally are NOT OKAY. Criticize her work, criticize the normalization it endorses of abuse, perhaps even feel grateful that it’s bringing a vital conversation to the forefront. But don’t threaten her. Come on.

    • Yes, this. I, too, am encouraged by the number of people speaking up to say, no, this is not okay, this is not romantic, this is unacceptable behavior.

      Some argue that hey, it’s only one book – or one series. But all of us who read have had moments where “only one book” has changed our lives, usually for the better. And the cumulative effect of the rape-y romances of the 1970’s influenced a number of women into rationalizing that “he couldn’t stop, he was overcome by love in lust’s clothing.” Only to realize later, sometimes YEARS later, no, he was a douchey RAPIST.

  23. I was talking with some friends a few days back about the concept of “antifan” – someone that follows you closely hoping to see you fail, and to cheer should that happen.
    I think one of the most horrid facets of such an attitude is the “gaming” aspect – some of these people actually want to “play” a certain author or artist, seeing who’s better at causing grief and damaging the target.
    It’s damn scary, because it signals (IMHO and all that) a total loss of empathy – once you are a public personage, you become their toy… and they can break you if they feel like, and actually feel good about that.
    As I said, scary scary scary.

  24. It’s easy to fall into the mob mentality (and I’m as guilty as anybody) because our individual contribution seems so small – a tweet, a post, a comment, an off-hand jibe. We see the verbal bullet leaving the muzzle and say hey, sure, maybe I’m being petty or mean or whatevs, but it’s such a small thing. And it seems doubly so when the target is something large. It’s easy to forget that on the other side the target sees not a single shot but a hail of bullets coming for them. Maybe some of them have it coming, but it’s hard to make that call when you’re infected with the rage virus.

  25. Okay, so to a point I agree that jumping on someone for the sake of doing so is a Bad Thing.


    But James has brought a lot of this on herself. She’s ignored complaints. She’s accused people of not understanding, when those people were abuse survivors and understood better than she did. She blocks anyone disagreeing with her, even those wanting a cordial discussion.

    It’s not “just a book”. It’s a story which portrays an abusive relationship as romantic. Anyone who says it’s not going to effect readers has no understanding on how abuse works. I suggest they go and read the many, many blog posts on the subject.

    • THANK YOU. Yes. This is exactly how I feel.

      Maybe there’s another way to do this, but she has shut down every other avenue for conversation. I would hope this makes SOME sort of a point about the damage she’s doing by normalizing this sort of abuse that is ALREADY so difficult to handle because so few people are inclined to believe it even happens.

    • I didn’t realise she had that attitude, shutting down all debate about her books like that. That’s a real shame – I was hoping she was at least smarter than THAT.

      But having said that, the #AskELJames tactic was a dumber than dumb idea. If people want to make these points to her in a meaningful way, doing it via a hashtag on Twitter isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference – or indeed, any kind of online environment where she can just block people, log off or walk away from her computer-y device. That approach just ensures the trolls and snipers float to the top like turds in a toilet, while those who are trying to make sincere, rational arguments sink beneath the crap.

      I genuinely hope she never experiences an abusive relationship herself, because I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. There is ZERO ROMANCE in the reality of something like that – the only thing that’s real is the pain, both mental and physical.

      • They didn’t start the hastag though. She scheduled this interview and opened herself up to it. I don’t think anyone wanted to make a difference so much as marvel (and mock a bit) at the idea that someone who notoriously refuses to acknowledge or publicly shames people who ask legitimate questions about her book would be doing something like this. But of course, as always, it got taken a step to far.

    • “She blocks anyone disagreeing with her, even those wanting a cordial discussion.”

      this is Gamergate’s complaint about female game designers and journalists. I don’t think anyone needs to “engage in a cordial discussion” online, especially with people who just want to tear her down. Even people whose viewpoint I find highly offensive and damaging.

      • If she didn’t want to be open to cordial discussion, she shouldn’t have thrown herself under the metaphorical bus by agreeing to do this in the first place.

        • Yeah, this was definitely a bad idea. I don’t mean to say those who are asking her about her problematic romanticization of an abusive relationship are just like goober gaters asking Anita Sarkeesian about ethics in journalism, but that tactic of “just wanting to ask a question” is a classic GGEr/troll/MRA tool, and I get why someone might not be responsive to people who she knows are looking to take her down a peg. Which, if she had that level of self awareness, she probably wouldn’t have written the book in the first place.

    • Very well said, Misa. James has brought a lot of this upon herself. Bad writing is still alright ( her analogies, especially, are cringeworthy) but passing off stalking and abuse as romance and love is NOT okay. This Twitter attack on #AskELJames, even if gratuitous and in some cases, abusive, still serves the purpose of bursting her bubble and showing her a mirror to what her books actually stand for: a perverted sado-masochist in a Gucci suit and loads of wealth.

  26. I have no interest in reading 50 Shades, but I’ll say the same thing about E.L.James that I said about the Twilight books a few years ago. MOST of the criticism directed toward these books comes from disgruntled, jealous, writers who would rather spend time attacking “less talented” successful writers than trying to improve their own craft.

    • I don’t think that’s accurate or fair to say — I think they are huge books with huge, important things to discuss, and I don’t think criticism of those things amounts automatically to jealousy.

      • You know what? You’re right. I hear a few petty comments from a few aspiring authors and totally over-generalize. Also, I see the attacks, if you will, in the hashtag aren’t so much aimed at the writing but at the topic, which could lead to a legitimate debate, I suppose.

  27. Yes! All of this. I’ve never read any of the Grey books (although I’ve read plenty of quotes and accompanying snark about them) and probably never will, but… jeez. For all the fame and money she’s acquired from them, it must suck to be her sometimes. Poor woman. And those authors piling onto her should be ashamed of themselves. YOU DON’T ATTACK A COMRADE, YOU NUMPTIES.

    I have a theory that this kind of thing has exacerbated with the rise of reality TV shows. Thanks to them, society has sucked up the idea that you don’t even need to have a particular talent to be famous now – all you have to be is ‘quirky’ and a ‘rebel.’ People post up YouTube videos in their millions, a person chucks up an asshattery comment and when they get angry responses to it they respond with “LOL ha ha u ben troled.” As if they’ve done something stunningly clever and original. In their minds, that’s their five minutes of fame – “yaaay, a bunch of people I’ve never met and have no clue who I am just called me a douchebag. If I can piss off millions of people I could become the most famous douchebag in the WORLD!” And in a world where job prospects aren’t great, the future’s uncertain and many feel like nothing they do makes the slightest difference to anything in their lives anymore… well, I can see how a certain type of person would crave the kind of attention being a dickhead can garner, even if that attention IS negative.

    But that doesn’t make it right, of course. I have a very simple rule for internet interaction: I ask myself “If this person were standing right in front of me now, in real life, would I say what I’m about to say to their face?” If the answer is ‘no,’ I don’t say it. That doesn’t mean my conversation is all platitudes and fluffy bunnies; I’ve called people out online for being assholes more than once. But it does help me think about the language I use to do that.

  28. SO SO SO glad that someone of some note is saying this!!! and i think the plug for labyrinth and princess bride are awesome! don’t forget about Dark Crystal!!! 😀

  29. I’m an author and a psychotherapist, and while some think this gives me super-powers (to perceive the world vulnerably but be self-aware enough not to be a jerk) such is not always the case. I agree that people should be reminded that “online is real”. But there is something unique about social media that makes it a hall of mirrors, full of distortions of reality, where our narcissistic desires (which we all have) intersect with our emotional responses to things out of our control (outside events which we can relate to on an emotional level even if we don’t have the literacy to speak intelligently about them)–add to this the lack of direct, face-to-face interaction, and blammo.

    I respect the very basic fact that we, as online/social media participants, want to get involved. We all want to reach out and touch the world that we see. But there’s something about the online world which–not unlike recreational team sports–brings out every sort of interpersonal demon to the surface.

    So much of what we do socially, in-person, is shaped (for better or worse) by our caretakers, our school teachers, and our peer groups. Online, there is often no mentorship, there is no direction instilled in us. If we act like pricks and someone takes us to task, it’s too easy to ignore them because of the lack of an empathetic interface. This makes being online exciting and chaotic. And shitty, for those of us who know a thing or two about the caustic legacy of shame.

  30. I have a friend greatly in favor of online shaming. My short form response was that back when we did this with a pillory and stocks in the public square, there was at least someone in charge (whether they did it particularly well or not) of saying “that’s enough.” There is no limit on online scourging. For some things, such as child abuse, it’s hard to imagine sufficient shame. But for “lesser crimes” the internet has no limitation on punishment.

  31. We’re going to spend more and more of our time online, and we’re going to eventually live our lives online and get augmentation so that we’re always connected. And that’s not all a bad thing, as Andrew McAfee says on TED ( I love how he equates the steam engine (which multiplied our muscle power and contributed the largest change to our lives) with the internet (which will do the same for our minds). But I’ve been thinking about how the internet right now is the Wild West – few rules, might makes right. People out from under the rule of law because there is no rule of law. Interesting to see where it will go.

  32. I was really good at snark. Then one day I realized that snarky was really just a fancy word for being mean and I decided I didn’t want to put mean out there, even if the other people thought it was funny. It suddenly felt like picking on a kid at school and having everyone else laughing. I gave up snark as best I could. Oddly I have fewer friends, but the ones I have I actually like, so there is that.

  33. Love it or hate it (or love to hate it) E. L. James wrote something that sold more copies of her book than most will ever sell. I think much of this is similar in what happened with Stephanie Myers with the whole at twilight thing. Many people piled on her too, but she still sells books like crazy. Jumping on a person for being successful with a work you don’t like or approve of solves nothing. It only makes you look like an ass.

    Thank you for this post, Chuck. You rock. #justsaying.

  34. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the internet makes it so easy to be a terrible person. I’ve gotten into many and sundry internet screaming matches, often over things I don’t actually care THAT much about. It’s just fun to be angry sometimes, and to give into that power. I am trying not to do it anymore.

    I think a large part of the reason why there has been a proliferation of more radical political positions, be it gamer gate, the sad puppies, and men’s rights activism, or even some of the more strident identity politics on the left is that the internet allows you to have a strong opinion, and act on those strong opinions, all without having to actually DO anything or talk to anybody face to face, and with zero repercussions. Plus, it all takes place in an echo chamber, so there is no one to challenge your opinion, and you can easily other your so-called opponents or invent an invisible opposition to fight against. Everyone gets to feel the wonderful self-righteous feeling of fighting against oppression without having to actually experience real oppression or actually do anything. You get to yell at avatars, a thumbnail picture with a user ID, and you can be as mean and horrible to them as you want because it’s just an avatar and a user ID. Hell, you can even threaten to kill them and their family, and nothing will happen, because it doesn’t matter. All without leaving your computer.

    We on the left like to think we are above all this, but we fall into it as well. What better way to prove you are a good person than to viciously call out anyone who you suspect of being racist/sexist/homophobic/trasnphobic?

    As another commenter said, I’m trying really hard to never say anything online I wouldn’t say to someone’s face, but it is so easy to be a jerk online and not suffer any ill repercussions.

  35. I’ve spent some time on the hash tag today, and I do see a lot of genuine questions about genuine issues. There is yuckiness and abuse doubling on abuse, and it’s true that a real person is on the other side of those flaming arrows. I understand the concern, especially as this adds to the overall problem of a hostile internet space. On the other hand, I’m seeing a lot of people quoting passages or raising points that reinforce an important message that abusive behavior is not acceptable or romantic and I think some of the people (younger especially) who might tune in would do well to hear those voices about a book that really does present a miserable example of consent and respect between romantic partners.

  36. I don’t like the 50-shades-phenomenon because (based on what I know of the contents) it misrepresents a subculture and type of relationship grievously for the sole purpose of getting people to read about it and feel ‘naughty’ but without true understanding of what she is writing about. But I don’t really begrudge ELJames her success, she was lucky and whatever she did wrong, she did some essential things right. I’m mostly miffed about the fact that the aforementioned misrepresentation has gained a mainstream platform through her works that will be very difficult to dispell and has already resulted in real damage to real people.
    But I feel like you’re absolutely right and the vitriol and shaming that people are doing on that thread is pure hypocrisy because they fall into their own trap of misrepresenting serious and discussion worthy topics with a packaging that is inappropriate, attention-grabbing and abusive. The real thinky thoughts I got came from your headline though, ‘Online is IRL’. I’ve been struggling with the fact that a lot of my social interaction happens online (but mostly not through the most popular channels and modes of social media) and questioning whether it counts as a social life when I’m not meeting my friends ‘for real’ or even know their faces in some cases. Is it really possible to strike up a deep, lasting and meaningful connection that way? I’ve come to believe that it is and even if that means that I spent a lot of my time sitting at home in my room alone, I’m never on my own and I value the time I get to spend with my good friends online.

    I think that, coupled with the fact that we need to realize that we hurt people the same way with our actions and words face to face as we do anonymously, virtually, needs to be the basis for a paradigm shift in the way we behave online. I make it my personal goal to think about what I would actually be willing to say to people face to face and frame my interactions that way, but I still find myself sometimes hitting the wrong note or getting the wrong impression from somebody else. We shouldn’t make it so easy on ourselves to put there words out there online and I hope – as regrettable as this instance with James is for her personally – that occassions like that will continue to not only feed the trolls, but nourish discoursive and thinky-thoughty voices like yours to make us more aware of what we do online and how we conduct oufselves. Thank you for that!

  37. So… a good number of us on here are writers, correct? And we write what we damn well want to write, too! Sometimes, (when the stars align) our writing gets published and others read it. Thank the gods for that!! E.L. James can write whatever she wants. She really doesn’t even owe any of us an explanation for her choices. The whole Twitter-asking-bullshit is just that… bullshit! Chuck is correct about James’ people needing to be fired. What the hell were they thinking?? The fact is, the book was insanely successful. It could have failed miserably and died in a landfill, but it didn’t. The greater question to be asked is: why did so many readers devour this book regardless of its “less-than-polished” writing? What is it about the controversial content that lured women to not only read it, but like it? To me, that is the more meaningful discussion.

    • Yes, exactly! I finally realized that what the people who demand explanation or justification really want is capitulation – they want the author to grovel and do as they say. The only place in this where I, personally, think there’s any blame for James is for her going along with the Twitter-asking idea when it was proposed – assuming her handlers gave her a choice, which they may not have.

      Maybe we should all just start putting disclaimers on our fiction like the ones car commercials use: “Fictional characters in author-controlled situations. Do not attempt.”

  38. I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot recently. It’s not something that seems to be taught in schools (I mean, aside from the “How do *you* think you’d feel if Cassie took *your* toy?” that preschoolers and kindergartners get) and I believe it should be.

    I understand that the ability to emphasize is actually part of the process of cognitive development, so there are ages at which tiny humans just can’t be empathetic (though I’d argue it should still be modeled and mentioned. You don’t avoid talking to babies just because they can’t talk back yet). It seems to me that by the time the brain is ready to be empathetic, the intent (if there is one) is that empathy is picked up through courses like history, English, and the “soft science” sociology. I don’t think that happens unless the teacher is good and asks the sorts of probing questions that lead students to truly consider what someone else’s life is like.

    I mean, yes, parents and guardians can also work to develop their kids’ empathy, and hopefully they are–but online shaming and abuse are so rampant that there’s a clear breakdown somewhere. And maybe the breakdown truly is people mistakenly believing that the world online isn’t real–but plenty of bullying and abuse also go on in the physical version of life. So I’m back to my earlier point of thinking that empathy needs to be taught, systematically, not “absorbed.”

  39. I’m thoroughly in love with this post. It was needed. Not a fan of 50 Shades…but people seriously went for the jugular and it’s just a book. You’d have thought she’d abused someone in real life. Oh yes, Labyrinth!

  40. I think the point about All of this being IRL is absolutely correct. Online anonymity makes it easy to be abusive and for ‘gee I don’t like that’ to suddenly become something vitriolic.

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