#AskELJames and the Twitter Mob

Everyone will probably have heard by now of this weekend's most disastrous failed publicity attempt, the Ask EL James hashtag. Pretty much everyone knows that asking the internet community for input is daring at the best of times. If you're the author of a much-hated cultural phenomenon, such a request becomes dangerous to the point of lunacy.

And the internet responded as you might expect. Among a few genuine questions, there was an avalanche of criticism and attacks, ranging from witty comments, to "witty" comment, to downright vitriol.

These events aren't uncommon. And most commentators on events seemed to find them justified -- the books are awful and glorify abuse, after all, and she wrote them, so she should get "burned" by the internet mob. The idea of her reaction was as hilarious to people as crafting the tweets themselves. And since it was the "liberal" mob that threw down Twitter justice from on high this time, people seem to think this behavior is perfectly fine, while condemning it when it strikes against people they like more.

But here's the thing. Thanks to the distancing powers of the internet, people often seem to forget that the victims of these attacks are not abstract concepts. The language of these dogpiles usually suggests that people are attacking an idea -- the romantization of abuse, in this case, or the popularity of poor writing, but equally seen in that oft-mocked phrased, "ethics in video game journalism." The idea might be liberal and progressive, or it might be rooted in sexism and homophobia, but in the end, its an idea that people think they are forwarding, and an idea that's under attack.

But, as Chuck Wendig pointed out, the internet is real life, and the people involved are real people. The internet mob acts without mercy, because ideas don't have feelings, and bad ideas should be challenged, but when people come to represent those ideas, as they always do, and they get bombarded, then there's no progress, only cruelty.

I'm not going to try and argue that EL James' books are well written books (because they're not) or that they don't perpetuate a lot of terribly sexist, racist, homophobic and otherwise harmful ideas (because they do). And I think those books should be challenged and discussed extensively. But I doubt that EL James sat down in her study on a dark and stormy night, cackling evilly, and plotted to write an atrocious bestseller that was offensive in almost every possible way. The story came from her brain, but, unless I'm being incredibly naive, the harm was almost certainly subconscious and unintentional, a product of ignorance and of a society that reinforces all these ideas for us since birth. That doesn't mean she gets a free pass to escape criticism. But it does mean that people should not feel free to try and destroy her online. She hasn't "earned" abuse because of a novel that she wrote. No one deserves to be attacked and mocked and insulted by a massive horde of strangers, baying for your blood -- and while there might be some extreme exceptions to that rule, an author of an unexpectedly successful but deeply troubling novel isn't one of them.

Criticism can be incredibly effective -- and incredibly humorous -- without needing to turn into a mob against an individual. And when tens of thousands of tweets are sent with the hashtag #AskELJames, invoking a specific individual's name not for dialogue but for a barrage of internet disdain, it is an internet mob, no matter how valid those initial criticisms may be.