Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Is the internet making people too nice? Um...

The internet gets the blame for a lot of things, but one thing that you rarely hear is that it’s making people too nice. But such is the argument of Jacob Silverman, in his essay ‘Against Enthusiasm: an epidemic ofniceness in online book culture’, in which he argues that the culture of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and their ilk have created communities where to be liked, favourited, followed and retweeted is the aim and everyone is after online approbation. According to Silverman, this gives rise to a culture where genuine criticism is no longer valued and, indeed, is seen as ‘hating’ (in the online vernacular - he doesn’t use that phrase, I'm just more down with the kids than he is).

While Silverman may have a point, I’d argue that to some extent he misunderstands social media and how people use it. In one of his examples, he cites a writer who had 9000 Twitter followers before her book was even out, and asks how many of those would be willing to give that book a negative review, having previously connected with her on line. But honestly, how many of those people have actually connected with her online? How many would be able to tell you they follow her, or who she is? I follow 2000 people on Twitter, and have around 1000 followers – of those, I estimate I have some sort of regular interaction with a dozen, maybe a couple of dozen at a push. I barely remember who the others are, as I skim through my feeds at speed – and I spend a LOT of time on Twitter, way more than most users. Like most people, I often follow people for fairly insignificant reasons – they followed me and look interesting, one of their tweets showed up in my timeline, or I’ve interacted with them in some other medium. Does this make me rush out and buy their books, or albums, see their plays or buy their products? Sometimes, yes, (though really not that often) and it probably makes me more likely, if I’ve enjoyed those things, to say nice things about them. But would it stop me criticising them?

It’s an interesting question, and a tough one. If I know someone relatively well, I try to avoid having to review anything by them, and if I have read a book by someone I know and don’t like it, I would tend to just not say anything at all (I find the fall back position of ‘I plan to read it but I’ve just been SO busy’ is a face saver).  But if I don’t know them, I’d probably be willing to say I wasn’t enjoying their book, or whatever, in a public forum. I wouldn’t tweet them direct (ie, use their Twitter name in the tweet) as that’s just rude, and I try not to post massively negative things on Twitter anyway, but I might post that, say, a particular book has disappointed me. Following an author on Twitter certainly wouldn’t stop me posting a negative review on platforms where honest reviews are expected, such Goodreads or Amazon, or on even my personal blog, and I’m sure most readers feel the same. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had numerous, friendly email exchanges with bloggers, only for them to turn around and give my book a poor review. I must admit my first reaction is always ‘but I thought you liked me!’ but then I take a deep breath and remember that, if someone takes themselves seriously as a blogger or reviewer, they have to be honest, no matter how personable they may have thought I was, or how much we seemed to be getting along online. That’s the game we’re all in: if you don’t want to play it, don’t put your stuff out there.
The internet: promoting niceness
Social media democratises writing and with it, criticism: Silverman himself acknowledges that the established literary scene can be cliquey – and much of this isn’t based on talent or achievements, but on social connections and, let’s be honest, money: you’re much more likely to build useful contacts if you can intern at a publishing house or magazine, and who can afford to do that except those with money? Who can get those jobs these days – even the unpaid ones – without contacts? Social media allows people to circumvent that, so you can build a useful mass of connections from your table top in Wales or Wisconsin: you don’t need to know the right people, you don’t need to be cool. And it may well be that some of the books that are getting rapturous receptions online would make a New York Times reviewer tear his own hair out, but you know what, a lot of people like books that aren’t necessarily that well written – if that wasn’t the case, 50 Shades wouldn’t be racing out the doors at WH Smith. We need to start accepting that there isn’t some universal standard of good that is passed down from on high. I spend a lot of time on writing forums, and the passion and enthusiasm posters have for the books is clearly real – it makes you realise that a lot of readers value something other than simply literary merit. Why should that be a bad thing?

I’d argue that a far greater threat to honest reviewing is the very opposite of niceness: it’s the culture of online bullying created by authors who can’t cope with bad reviews and the fans who see any criticism of the titles they love as sacrilege and attack bloggers and reviewers for having an opinion that dares to disagree with theirs. The online book reviewing community has been rife with such tales lately, and I can think of at least one blog that has shut down because the people who run it simply don’t think it’s worth the online abuse that it can attract.

I think that anything that engages people in talking about books, thinking about books and above all, reading books, is a good thing. So in some ways, I agree with Silverman that some online communities have created an expectation of positive reinforcement where any deviation from that is punished, and it’s making people wary of sticking their head above the parapet.  I agree that for both writers and readers, an unwillingness to ever be critical is a bad thing. But honestly, that’s simply not my online experience – and I’d be surprised if it was that of many other people. Because, seriously, people becoming too nice on line? Not on any internet near me.


Caroline Green said...

I agree with you. I don't think it is making people too nice at all, and if anything, the distance element means some people can be far harsher than they would be if they were face to face with someone. Can you say what the blog was, which closed down? Seems such a shame...

Thrifty Gal said...

I can't recall the exact name, but it was as a result of the whole Goodreads fiasco. And I know that being an indie author now it is far more difficult to get blogs to deal with me as they are wary of similar flack....

Derek said...

Thanks for this post. That was a thought-provoking read, and arguably one of my more productive lunch breaks!

Social media, in large measure, seems to be about validation. One of the benefits of the traditional publishing route is that a number of filters (and validations) are in place, so that by the time your book is out there at least two people were prepared to back it.

With the explosion of self-publishing - and I'm about to do that next month, so I'm very interested in what's being said here - there are a number of reasons why work is out there beyond it being a business decision.

It is a big thing for a writer to commit time and focus on producing a body of work. And naturally want to feel it's both understood and appreciated.

However, I hope that any reviews I get, in the fullness of time are honest. Whether I like them or not. And I take your point about not asking for friends to play 'sook', as they say in Glasgow.