It’s the ILF Dublin this week (International Literature Festival Dublin – formerly known as the Dublin Writers’ Festival – related attempt at satire here) and the city is swimming in a lovely pool of gorgeous writerly types putting themselves out there for our ogling and listening pleasure.
On Tuesday I went to hear Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Interviewed by the Presentatron 2000™ himself, Anton Savage, Ronson spoke about some of the more high-profile public shamings on social media in recent years, most notably Justine Sacco, who you can read about here.
I spent most of the gig laughing at Ronson’s witty delivery of serious sentiment. For about 20% of it, however, my face was contorted into shock and disgust at what utterly daft human beings are doing to each other these days.
One point that Ronson made stuck in my head: that the people who are doing this sort of extremist public shaming are not trolls. They are fine upstanding members of the community such as you (think you are) or I (think I am). And you can’t legislate against people going apeshit on the internet over one perceived offence, or taking something literally which was meant to be either ironic, sarcastic, satirical, or a plain old bad joke.
Without going too heavily into relevant cases (although I also suggest you do read Sam Biddle’s reflections on his contribution to the Justine Sacco dissection) Ronson says that it’s all really about privilege. Public shaming is only for people who are perceived to be misusing privilege, whether it’s about being white, in Sacco’s case, or rich, or middle-class, or able-bodied, or educated, or beautiful, or western, or able to taste cucumber.
Hearing Ronson speak, it occurred to me that if I ever publish a book, I will be throwing myself out in the public domain for judgement in a way which doesn’t occur today.
Right now, I am an obscure Irish blogger who gets stumbled upon every now and then by the odd person wholly unconnected and unknown to me. I’m generally careful about what I say, despite appearances to the contrary. I only have one rule, and that is that I try not to say anything online that I wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. I don’t feel the need to make pronouncements about specific individuals or their behaviour on Twitter, which is probably just as well, as it would appear that nobody is allowed to be satirical, let alone sarcastic, in 140 characters.
Admittedly, I do have a few fail-safe punching bags: such as big, powerful people like James Patterson, who I often lampoon for lapsing into ghost-written laziness and thereby publishing 382 books a year. I think I’m safe there, you see, because he’s so famous and rich and successful that he’ll never take notice of a twerp like me.
Regular readers of this blog know that I generally write with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. Irregular readers, or people on Twitter – where being taken literally is a full-time occupation – haven’t a clue who I am, and neither do they care. And why should they? But I would care, if somebody somewhere decided I was Public Enemy #1 for however many hours it takes to get through the Online Anger Cycle.
I had a small taste of this once, when I used a deliberately provocative and click-baity headline on a post about book reviews. I wanted hits, you see. I’d only been blogging for a few months. But also I meant what I said in the body of the post. I make book-buying decisions based on online reviews. I wanted them to be more helpful.
A couple of months after I published the post, somebody somewhere across the water decided I was a terribly offensive person altogether. I got site referrals from links that looked like they were unpleasant, so I ignored them. But I also got some comments directly which dealt variously with the audacity of someone like me telling book reviewers what to do, and my general cluelessness about anything to do with anything. My suggestion that anonymity was in itself an abuse of privilege, with the result that reviewers say unecessarily nasty and damaging things, was like a red rag to a bull. How dare I! they cried. Anonymity is the only protection for book reviewers who live in fear of their lives from dangerous authors! Was I trying to get them killed??
Regardless of the validity of either side of argument, I had unwittingly stumbled upon an all-out turf war which had been waging online for quite some time. Nasty tactics had already been employed on both sides. It was like I’d walked around a corner and found myself in the middle of a food fight, holding three bananas and a sponge cake, and with no idea what I was supposed to have thrown in the first place. I replied and tried to explain things for a while, and then I thought: well, that was interesting, but I’ve had enough. I wondered what angry internetters were like: now I know, and now I’m off.
But I have a big question. If I am ever to publish a book myself – do I delete that post (or indeed my entire blog, seeing as I spend most of my time giving out)? In this bonkers environment where one tweet can ruin a person’s life, how much damage could I be courting from angry internet people who are dying to take me literally?
I don’t know the answer. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Jon Ronson had the answer, either. But it is fighting food for thought.