Mob Rules?

Two recent articles in the New York Times  caught my attention – not just because they highlight the frenzy of vitriol that so often explodes on social media but also  because they point to a disturbing ‘faceless mob’ mentality permeating our digital lives. As a writer, an active presence online (to both market and publicize my work as well as create connections with my readers) is, however, a necessity but one which, especially after reading these articles, I increasingly view with trepidation.

The first article “Feed Frenzy‘ details the misery of online ‘shaming’ victims – people like Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco who, because of inappropriate and ill-advised jokes/tweets, were subject to relentless (and I mean relentless) Twitter attacks that all but ruined their lives. I have always been cautious about what I tweet but after reading this article I’m not sure I want to tweet anything ever again!

The second article entitled ‘The Epidemic of Facelessness‘ points to the dissonance between the world of faces (the real world of interpersonal communication) and the world without faces (our increasingly ‘anonymous’ digital lives). Apart from the disturbing number of ‘troll’ incidents reported with varying degrees of threats of person violence against actual people, there is also the basic lack of humanity and compassion that we now see spreading across the digital world. The article highlights a few key rules we need to adopt when ‘conversing’ through Twitter, Facebook and other social media. One is ‘Never say anything online you wouldn’t say to someone’s face’ (something you’d think would be pretty obvious) and the other is ‘Don’t listen to what people wouldn’t say to your face’ (a much harder proposition I think for most of us).

Now I’m pretty sure I’ve never said anything on social media that I wouldn’t say to someone in person. Likewise, however, there are many things I won’t say on social media that I would say to someone’s face – and that self-censorship is starting to make me feel disheartened. It’s hard to be a writer in this digital age and not engage online with readers across a range of social platforms and media – but  often I feel that I cannot really present myself authentically on social media because of the risk of trolls, flame-wars and all the other horrible reactions seemingly innocuous posts or tweets can inflame (as anyone who’s ever been on any social media has witnessed). I find myself refusing to comment not just on political or social issues that I would otherwise freely discuss, but also hesitating to post or comment on a range of issues that in my ‘real world’ I wouldn’t even think twice about talking about. It’s become an issue not just about professionalism versus personal disclosure but about censoring my online ‘appearances’ to the extent that I fear I must be very boring indeed!

So what do you TKZers think about the current state of our ‘faceless’ digital world? How do you navigate the treacherous digital waters?

Have you ever been the subject to the kinds of ‘faceless’ attacks these articles discuss? Do you, like me, censor how you appear online (not just out of professionalism, but also out of fear?). Does the current ‘faceless mob’ mentality affect how you market and publicize your work online? What about what you actually write? Are you even hesitant to deal with controversial political or social issues in the work itself?


18 thoughts on “Mob Rules?

  1. I agree. You’ve done a fine job, Clare, of putting into words what I’ve been feeling for some time. Disheartening, to say the least, but I think I’m adapting quite well. I seem to have little trouble ignoring over-the-top comments and, if the discussion degenerates to the absurd, I have no trouble powering down and calling a friend to rant. Mind you, my fan base is still building so there aren’t many giving a damn about my opinion on anything. 🙂

    Kind of long for the day when writers were allowed to be mysterious.

    • I doubt many people care about my opinions either:) It must have been so liberating being able to go about your day worrying only about your writing rather than the reactions of a faceless mob to some inane comment you posted on Twitter or Facebook…

  2. Clare, I share your concerns. published three excerpts from the memoir I was working on. I was personally savaged in the comments. The excerpts weren’t nearly as controversial as some material in my book, so though I have an interesting story, I’m not going to publish it. I have no interest in being the victim of an online lynch mob.

    Instead I write fiction. But even that is scary. I find myself second-guessing my characters, afraid they will offend some anonymous troll.

    I wish I had an answer.

    • It’s disturbing isn’t it when our fear of attack starts to seep into our writing life. So far I’ve second guessed blog postings and comments but not, as yet, anything in my actual writing itself – but I can well imagine that happening, especially based on your experience.

  3. Nice summation, Clare. I agree that the problem is enormous, and emotionally damaging for those targeted.
    Unfortunately, the prescription of “Never say anything . . . ” is excellent advice for rational people. The nasties that populate the internet to savage reputations and destroy personal lives aren’t rational. Based on studies, they are more narcissistic, sadistic, and Machiavellian by a large measure than the rest of us.

    They deserve to be vilified, but thrive on fear. They are very good at creating it, and segments of the population will applaud if the target is an out-group.

    I haven’t changed my online posting behavior – I still write what I wish, and where I choose to. I am, however, selective on where I frequent. When posting, I try to be as honest as possible, and my most boorish habit is likely a tendency to challenge presumptions, though I try to make sure that I don’t personalize it.

    Nor has it influenced my writing. I write the story as it comes, as I lack the skill and experience to do anything else.

    Sadly, I do not see the situation getting better any time soon.

  4. I’m less sympathetic to those who play with fire on social media for attention and then get burned when they go to far. This does not mean I condone threats of violence. That is a crime. But here is a comment I left on a FB discussion of the Sacco matter:


    Oh yeah, I remember all of these. But there is sarcastic and there is just beyond stupid. Stone and her flipping off the sign at Arlington. Zero sympathy when it blew up on her. The first thing she posted when it went south was “haters gonna hate lol.” That stunt of hers sparked a real policy debate about closing Arlington to the public. Her defense? “Well, I’m just a douchebag.” Until then her claim to fame was smoking under “no smoking” signs. Her desperate need for attention blew up in her face. Well, she got it.

    The tweet test is, “would I shout this in a crowded room?” Our online sarcasm (referring to friend who posted it) passes that test. Anything else is for phone calls and private messages.

    And the fact that some of the best ones claim to come from communications and PR professionals. How could Sacco not know what she was tweeting was absolute asshattery? She was a 30-year-old woman who claimed to be a communication specialist. She wasn’t a high school student. And then she goes to work for an app where you get to make fun of people’s appearance online. Again, my sympathy bucket has the “low level” indicator shining bright.

    No one deserves death threats. That is a crime. But, in this age, do you get to say, “lol, can’t you take a joke, lol” to wash away your racist, sexist, homophobic lunacy? Unfortunately, no. And there’s the women (and it has always been women) calling me an “ignorant witch” for a joke about a public figure and a public news outlet. I thanked her for the funniest thing that happened to me all day. A far cry from “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS, Lol, I’m white!” while on a business trip.

    I wrote a series of for-hire articles called “How to Fail at Twitter,” looking at some of the classics. Using the business Twitter account to make jokes about the president’s dead grandmother. Fail. Using a client’s Twitter account to bitch about the “(expletive deleted) traffic.” Fail. Drunk tweeting from your non-profit public service employer’s Twitter account. Fail (although the company rebounded beautifully.) Telling your customer that they are stupid idiots. Fail. A recent one is somebody tweeting about how their new job sucks. Her employer replied via Twitter that she was fired. Also, don’t list your employer on your profile if you are going to tweet about how cool it would be if someone lynched the president. Bad. Career. Move.

    As for the guy who fomented the Sacco feeding frenzy. He’s no different than the little bitch gossip columnists and paparazzi who live to catch a celebrity drunk or somebody where they’re not supposed to be. Is it right? No. Has it always been with us and always will be? Oh yeah. People try to pretend like Twitter invented this.

    We see it in writer-world. People going off on agents, publishers, review rants, and writer feuds. I’ve watched a couple of marriages unravel on-line, as well as some accusations of infidelity and affairs between writers. It’s like walking out to get the mail wearing my bathrobe and finding a brawl with full TV coverage going on. Good warning, but not a unique phenomenon.

    I don’t self-censor anymore than I do in a group of people I don’t know. I also try to confine it to the right spaces. If you follow me into the political pits, it is going to get mean and ugly, be warned. I give as good as I get. Amusing moments pop up (like when someone accused me of hate speech when I was calling a newspaper out for really stupid use of “impact” as a noun.

    XKCD did a great comic about constantly worrying about online persona and I generally don’t. However, sowing the wind will certainly reap the whirlwind. It has been rightly pointed out that if the reaction to Sacco had been positive, she would have put it on her resume. She thought she owned social media and got owned in return.


    • Good points Terri – and I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for those who post idiotic and often entirely inappropriate tweets – especially given they play with fire – but still the reaction and vilification often goes way beyond the original ‘crime’. I get that you should accept that if you post something like Sacco did then you have to expect a negative reaction but many people get set upon for nothing more than expressing an opinion (trolls live for anything I guess!). I don’t overly worry about my online persona but I most certainly think twice about anything I post (and where I post it). Though gossip mongers and trolls have been around forever the anonymity of the web seems to bring out the worst in many people who would not otherwise engage in that behavior.

      • Gamer-gate is the most recent example of this. Again, threats of death and violence? No can do. Social media is riding a tiger. You look great, everyone pays attention and you can also end up inside.

        I attracted an attacker after I had the misfortune to tangle with Troll-King Todd Kincannon. This pathetic woman was reduced to saying, “Haha! She has a chihuahua for a husband.”


        Other trolls insinuate that I’m gay because I have short hair and a big mouth. My response to that is if that’s the best they can come up with, to go back to the troll farm.

        They only innocent in that article was the guy making the dongle joke that wasn’t even sexual or directed at her. And if it had been the proper response should have been, “You call that a dongle? Well, I suppose it’ll work on a mini USB.” Political correctness has also gone way too far.

        The threats and DDoS attack were out of line and criminal acts. Calling her out on it, not so much. She’s not a victim.

        Great conversation. Terri

  5. I am exceedingly careful about what I say online for just these reasons. I try to stay as anonymous as possible, and am careful about what and where I post. It’s not that I expect that what I would say would necessarily irk people, but some people are offended by seemingly trivial things, comments can be taken completely out of context, and you never know who is listening, or how it can impact you in the future. For example, recently I was at a networking event, talking with a few people, and I made a comment how many of the top 1000 names for girls are really, IMHO, misspellings of other names. BFG, right? Uh, one woman in the group went so ballistic I had to very carefully tack my way out of that conversation. She considered these misspellings “unique” and “special”, never mind that if it’s made the top 1000 it isn’t all that unique. I’m sure she would have destroyed me online. I nearly sent out a tweet about my opinion of a major retailer’s software that tracks details about what you read and when. Plenty of of people would agree with me. But… that company has invited my to apply for a position, and they have a reputation for backing up the money truck before they work you nearly to death. If I’d sent that tweet I’m sure I could kiss the possibility of that job goodbye, and maybe a few others, too. And don’t even get me started about the harassment women can face online just for being female. Try reading through this for some idea of that:
    So, yeah, very careful about my online presence.

    I find it frightening that a single comment or tweet or photo, whether the sender means it, or it is taken out of context, can ruin a person’s life. I want to meet the person who has never said or done something that another person wouldn’t be offended by. We all have. We may not have put it out there on FB, or Twitter, or whatever, but imagine if you had. To be refused university admittance or employment over a drunken photo with friends posted on FB (it’s happened), to be fired and have your future career prospects ruined and your extended family estranged over a tweet, just a few words out millions you might utter, is ridiculous. And the glee people when it happens? That’s ugly.

    I’m not Pollyanna, but I play one online.

  6. I was struck by the very same articles you mentioned, Clare. I have been pondering the question of facelessness, and wondering if we can’t find a way to replace a sense of “face” in online communications. Using actual names is helpful. Some enterprising developer should team up with a graphics artist and a neuropsychologist and develop a way to portray a sense of relating face to face online. They’d make gazillions!

  7. In the sports columns I read, the comments can get really heated for no apparent reason. If you like the Packers, that’s fine. I happen to like the Seahawks. That doesn’t make either of us evil.
    I have found myself from time to time asking a commenter, “Would you say that with your mother listening?” or “Do you really not understand how racist that makes you sound?” I try to be non-judgmental, I don’t call the guy a racist, just point out that he certainly comes off that way. Bringing in the person’s mother is always good to, although sometimes I wonder if she’d care. And then there are people who suddenly go off on bizarre political rants, and I have to ask, “Exactly what does the Affordable Care Act have to do with whether the Seahawks should have run the ball instead of throwing a pass?”
    It must be the “dad” in me. I just want people to get along and play nice.

  8. I agree. The option of anonymity on the net is a double-edged sword. Although online presence really can be good, especially for many careers, it’s always good to step back and live our lives separate from tweets and likes once in a while.

  9. This has been an interesting, timely and disturbing discussion. The presence of trolls lurking under social media bridges has reduced the initial joy for me of sharing my thoughts. I have always tried to be careful what I say, but trolls seem to need very little provocation. Their anonymity emboldens the vitriol. I think if they had to publicly own their poisonous responses it might cut the attacks, but that seems unlikely given the present set-up of many media forums. I find myself shrinking my on-line presence these days and being very choosy about where I share. The TKZ is definitely a safe place with compassionate like-minded people. Thank you for creating this forum.

  10. I feel it’s prudent and professional to watch what you say in a public forum. That means everywhere online, even in emails you may regard as private but that may come back later to haunt you. Nothing is safe that you say online. As for controversial issues in books, I am careful to avoid inflammatory topics or offensive generalizations. My aim is to appeal to a broad audience, so why would I want to alienate anyone? As for dispassion, television does that to us.

  11. I think Nancy Cohen is right when she says “nothing is safe that you say online.” The biggest risk comes from the Internet’s built-in demand to deliver–blog entries, comments, etc–very quickly. This opens the door to later regretting hitting the “send” button too soon. But the idea of avoiding offending someone by censoring my every word just won’t do. I say what I think, and do my best to avoid offending. That will have to do.

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