How not to respond to someone being wrong on the interwebs

Go get yourselves a cup of tea or something first, kids. I’ve got my ranting pants on today.

So, there’s this little review blog out there on the interwebs called BigAl’s Books and Pals which focuses on “indie” books, specifically those available on the Kindle eReader. The label is problematic in itself, with the site owner (“BigAl”) defining an “indie author” as being “any author whose book isn’t published by one of the ‘Big Six’ publishing companies” — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster — either directly or via an imprint. This leaves a wide range of books within his scope, from out of print backlist titles (even if these were original published by a Big Sixer), through to boutique and small press publications, and all the way into the wilds of self-published authorship.

However, it’s the self-published books that seem to be primary focus of the site. Acknowledging that self-published authors are largely without the resources available to major publishers, and that this can result in lower standards of quality control, BigAl’s Books and Pals declares: “We can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.  Point you towards books you might like and steer you away from others.” A worthy enough goal, if a sometimes thankless task.

The Greek Seaman

A couple of weeks ago, on 16 March, BigAl posted a review of a self-published eBook called The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett. It’s not a great review — garnering only two stars out of a possible five — with the major concern being the “numerous proofing, typo, and grammar issues” with which the novel seems to abound. A potentially good story, essentially, lost somewhere in amongst the overwrought and overly wrong prose. “Reading shouldn’t be that hard,” says BigAl. Ouch.

Now, until two days ago, the site doesn’t appear to be all that heavily trafficked, with most reviews only attracting a handful of comments, if any. Often the author being reviewed will pop along to say thanks, and maybe another couple of readers will offer words of agreement or otherwise. A fledgling blog, a developing community, some publicity for the self-published author without a lot of marketing resources of their own. Nice.

When the review of The Greek Seaman was published, the first comment came two days later (18 March) from Jacqueline Howett herself — and it wasn’t pretty:

You obviously didn’t read the second clean copy I requested you download that was also reformatted, so this is a very unfair review. My Amazon readers/reviewers give it 5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed The Greek Seaman and thought it was well written. Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don’t get. Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks.

The next day she re-posted the two reviews her book had thus received so far on Amazon: five-stars from a person with the same last name as the author, and an earlier one which gave the novel four-stars. On 23 March she returned to re-post a new five-star review which had subsequently appeared on Amazon. On 25 March, two  “anonymous” commentators posted brief replies (essentially: facepalm) before BigAl came back to post a lengthy and very restrained follow-up, pointing out that he had in fact read the “reformatted” copy for the review and quoting a few lines to demonstrate the awkward and error-riddled prose that bothered him.

Then, on 28 March, things got really nasty. “My writing is just fine!” Jacqueline replied to BigAl, before going on to demand that the review be removed from the site. “Who are you any way?” she demanded of him. “Really who are you? What do we know about you?”

It’s probably around about this time that someone posted a link to Twitter. The site was quickly flooded with commentators who both critiqued the author’s online behaviour and writing style, and encouraged BigAl to “stick to his guns” and leave the review in place — not that there had been any indication that the review was in any danger of being withdrawn. Jacqueline Howett certainly made no friends that day. She continued to defend work which, in terms of grammar and spelling and outright readability, seems largely indefensible, insulted the reviewer and accused him of hiding behind “anonymous” screen names, and repeatedly demanded that people contact her via email rather than post their criticisms in public. Finally, she left the site, but not until she posted a succinct parting shot: “Fuck off!” — twice in quick succession.

Comments continued, despite the lack of any further input from either Jacqueline Howett or BigAl, with posters offering (increasingly snarky and patronising) advice to the author, as well as arguing among themselves the merits or otherwise of self-publishing and “indie” authors. The thread was finally locked off at 307 comments.

I was intending to post about this on 28 March when it all blew up. Not at great length, merely to point it out as an object lesson in how not to respond to a bad review. It’s not the first time an author has reacted in an outlandish fashion to criticism, and not even the first time it’s been done on a relatively insignificant blog (sorry Alan), but it was a fairly amusing example of Authors Behaving Badly. I’d also had this presentation from Scott Edelman on “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing” sitting open in a browser tab for a few days and thought it would make a nice contrast. (It still does — you should go and watch that clip. Especially if you’re likely to be in a critique group or workshop situation any time soon.)

But I was busy and I’m not allowed to blog when I’m busy and I figured enough people were linking to the site already, having a chuckle and shaking their heads. Then last night I read this blogpost by Ben Payne in which he remarked:

The pervasive sense of enjoyment that permeates the comments, the sense of self-righteous judgement and animosity, just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure not all the commenters had that intent, and as I said above, I laughed too at first. But piled together, on top of one another, it’s hard not to feel that the response verges on being a kind of bullying.

Ben makes a good point in regards to the tone of self-righteous judgement, but I wasn’t entirely in agreement about the bullying part. Let’s be clear about this: the author of a reviewed book came onto the reviewer’s own blog and began to repeatedly harass and insult him — “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom” — accusing him of dishonesty and demanding that he remove the review on the grounds that it was “abuse”. To me, it is this sort of behaviour which smells of bullying. If other people defended BigAl and the basis for his review, so the much better. It worked; the bully picked up her bat and ball and left the field. Sure, perhaps the comments could have been closed earlier, but it’s BigAl’s blog and he gets to do with it what he likes.

Now, if the discussion had begun on Jacqueline Howett’s blog — if, for example, BigAl had posted his review as a comment to her own announcement about her book — then I would regard what happened as clearly bullying behaviour. Location, in this case, is context. You don’t get to come into someone else’s backyard, yell and scream at them, and then feel like you’re the one being bullied when their friends — and passersby attracted by the noise you are making — start to yell and scream back until you leave or apologise. Yes, I know it’s an imperfect metaphor: BigAl’s blog, as a stated review site, is not entirely “private grounds”; Jacqueline Howett didn’t accuse anyone of bullying her. But you know what I’m saying — and if the whole thing had ended there, on BigAl’s Books and Pals, I’d be standing by it.

But then Ben Payne made mention of a number of negative reviews that suddenly seemed to be popping up on the Amazon page for Jacqueline Howett’s novel, and I wandered over to have a look.

Prior to 27 March, The Greek Seaman had precisely the three reviews, each with either four or five star ratings. Sure, at least one of them seems to be from family and maybe the other two are from family/friends as well — certainly they read more as copies of the author’s own book description than actual reviews — but then it’s a brand-new, self-published book on Amazon, isn’t it? Prospective readers are probably more than capable of reading between the lines. Of course, the fact that Jacqueline Howett reposted these three reviews to BigAl’s blog in defense of her novel was highly inappropriate — not mention highly idiotic.

On 27/28 March, BigAl simultaneously posted his own review to both Amazon US and UK sites (the date discrepancy is accounted for by international timezones) as he does with all his reviews. I would hazard a guess that it was these postings that inspired Jacqueline Howett to return to BigAl’s Books and Pals on 28 March, and we all know what happened then.

From 28 March and as of this writing, there are now a total of 92 “customer” reviews of The Greek Seaman posted to the US Amazon site. Of these, a staggering 72 are one-star reviews. And don’t get too excited about the ten five-star reviews either, as most of these are snarky and sarcastic negative comment in disguise — “the greek seaman was a rivolting romp threw history and made me know how it feel to be a young woman taken advantage of by men and who trys to escape through exceedingly poor english,” begins one. (The Amazon UK page, though less trafficked, fares little better in terms of content: seventeen reviews with thirteen being one-stars.)

amazon reviews

It’s depressing, although perhaps unsurprising, to note that the majority of the one-star reviewers proudly declare that they have either not read the book or have only read the first few pages. More quote material originally cited on BigAl’s Books and Pals as the reasoning behind their review, which again suggests that they themselves have not actually read The Greek Seaman, let alone formed their own opinion. “My review of this book is unfair in that I have not had the desire to read the whole book after the few paragraphs I have already trudged through,” admits one reviewer, with at least a modicum of honesty.

And this is the point where I find myself in 100% agreement with Ben Payne — what’s happening on Amazon is absolutely and deplorably a case of bullying.

Okay, The Greek Seaman doesn’t sound like a great book. It doesn’t even sound like a particularly good book, although it might have been with some help from an editor and proof-reader. But, you know, there’s a free sample available right on the Amazon page, so a prospective reader can judge this for themselves. And yes, Jacqueline Howett broke the first rule of successful social marketing: Don’t Be a Dick on the Internet.

I’m in no way defending anything she said or did on BigAl’s site, but when a whole bunch of self-righteous, pitchfork-wielding tossers rampage themselves off to Amazon to spam her review page with recycled vitriol and oh-so-clever quips, you’d be forgiven for thinking the woman had been torturing meerkats and uploading her antics to YouTube. You know the old adage, two wrongs don’t make a right? Well, I’m pretty damn sure that 72 wrongs don’t come any closer to balancing that scale.

I mean, really, is this a thing we do now? Isn’t it enough to laugh and shake our heads, and send links around to our friends, and maybe even blog a little about how this soooo not the way to respond to criticism? Do we actually need to sally forth and stomp the object of our derision into the cyberdirt? Just in case they, what, dare to write another mediocre novel that none of us will ever actually be forced to read anyway?

Why yes, that was me ineffectually waggling my finger at the interwebs, so glad you noticed. Ben Payne puts it a little better:

If the internet is incapable of forgetting, we need at least to teach it to be forgiving.

Amen to that, Ben. I don’t know if Jacqueline Howett is doing anything about it, but I hope Amazon will decide to pull most of the dodgy reviews if she requests them to look into the situation. (It seems they have already pulled some of the more offensive.) It drives me to both despair and anger when I see this sort of thing happening. Because human beings really are capable of being so much better than this, and of encouraging each other to be so much better as well. When we’re not encouraging each other to be so much worse.

And this is why I’m not allowed to blog why I’m busy.

29 Comments

  1. “a relatively insignificant blog”?!

    Who are you anyway? What do we know about you!
    🙂

    I actually couldn’t agree more. I think the response on BigAl’s blog is perfectly reasonable and I’m glad he eventually closed the comments (if a little too late). But bombarding Amazon with 1-star reviews is ridiculous. To be honest, it’s no different to her family posting 5-star reviews. Neither do anything for the integrity of reviews in general.

    But it could all have been avoided if people would learn that the only appropriate response to any review, regardless of its content, is “Thanks for taking the time to review my book!” That’s if you respond at all, of course. Which you really shouldn’t.

  2. Absolutely.

    By and large, my view of author responses tends to be informed by the knowledge that writers tend to have a good deal more power than critics. Critics, especially in the specfic field, frequently write for free as a service for the community and when authors sick their fans on critics it is never anything more than ugly bullying.

    However, I think that in this case, the visibility of the author meant that she didn’t have the power that comes with social prestige and a large fan-base while the critic found himself ‘backed’ by a twitter mob that was drunk on its own sense of self-righteousness.

    As someone who 1) has had an author sick her LJ friends list on one of my reviews, 2) has been on the receiving end of a kicking by an entire forum and 3) has been stalked as a result of publishing negative reviews of someone’s favourite books I can empathise with both sides as I’ve been on the receiving end of both forms of bullying and my advice is to remember that there is always a person behind the words you read on your screen. A person who might be unhappy and venting or a person who might be struggling to find the right words and ‘saying’ something they don’t intend and so the best thing to do is to remember that we’re all human and be a little bit understanding.

  3. Brilliant piece, well-reasoned.
    The problem with the internet is people respond to things so quickly without thinking.
    It doesn’t allow people to digest everything and think of a good way to handle things. It’s the same for news too – this is almost considered old news but if anything, it’s shone new light on the situation.

    I didn’t know about the ‘mob’ for want of a better word, descending on her amazon page and posting 1 star reviews. Mob behaviour.

    Sadly, no matter how many times these kinds of stories do the rounds (unknown authors posting their own glowing reviews, famous authors responding badly to prominent reviews etc ) there will still be some authors who just can’t step away from the keyboard.

    At the risk of sounding smug, I am more than happy to learn from others’ mistakes and I will not get involved with a reviewer who decides my book just isn’t for them. No matter how perfect my books are (ahem) it is impossible to please everyone.

  4. Thanks for posting this. Like Ben Payne, I was struggling with the response this whole thing caused. I absolutely think the writer was a turd, don’t get me wrong. And I think she possibly destroyed any possible future career she may or may not have had, anyway.

    BUT, I don’t know. I remember sitting in my first grad school workshop having my writing picked to pieces, and I remember it feeling pretty horrible. And I have developed a much thicker skin, and much better writing, as a result. But I can imagine how I might feel reading a bad review if I was still in those early stages. And you know, I don’t think a lot of us enter the writing biz because or our glowing and perfect mental health slates. Anyone read The Forest for the Trees?

    Writing is hard. Our books are our babies. Surely we can all have a little compassion for each other since any of us who have tried writing know this.

    • Mind you, Howett apparently has had a long career as a visual artist (going by the info on her blog). I would think that she’d have come across some criticism towards her work before now, albeit she might be more sensitive to a new type of creative work. It’s hard to say.

      I had a little compassion for her at the start, but that evaporated as she went on to personally insult the reviewer and tell people to “fuck off”. For me, that stepped over the line from cringe-worthy tantrum to outright abuse.

  5. Used to be, you had to go knock on doors to gather a mob – and maybe buy a few drinks at the pub while passing out the pitchforks. Now, you can just “press any key to continue”.

    People want to feel included, and it’s much easier to jump on the bullying bandwagon than to exercise a little restraint and maybe, you know, think before acting.

    I don’t think there’s an easy fix for that.

    • Used to be, you had to go knock on doors to gather a mob – and maybe buy a few drinks at the pub while passing out the pitchforks. Now, you can just “press any key to continue”.

      You might want to bear in mind the difference between an actual, physical mob, & a bunch of jerks on the Internet.

      “Sticks & stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Especially if they are names spewed on the Internet by anonymous entities. Stop being so damn sensitive, all of you.

      • Thanks, Mum.🙂

        We’ll be sure to remember that only *physical* injuries count as being potentially harmful to a person. Wow. Guess we better rewrite all those slander and libel laws, huh?

        Seriously, though, this wasn’t just an incidence of name-calling on the internet. Customer reviews — and the ratings they leave — on Amazon can have an effect on a writer’s career. So when a bunch of people escalate from name-calling to leaving dozens of false ratings for a book just because the author made an ass of herself on an unrelated blog, I think that’s a problem. Sure, no one was physically hurt, but that doesn’t make the psychology at work here any less ugly.

  6. I’m not so sure that I agree.

    You talk about backyards. It could be argued that the Amazon pages for the book are an extension of Howett’s own backyard – the part out by the woodshed and the privy.

    She had to make the book available to Amazon; she posted promo copy. And, as we all strongly suspect, she wrote or encouraged folks close to her to post the original, positive reviews.

    For perspective, suppose we change things just a tad: if (as I’ve seen plenty of times before), Howett had up-spammed her novel on Amazon with not three but say, a dozen 4 and 5 stars, and BigAl had not reviewed it but instead, an irate customer, having purchased the book, wrote a 1 star and then sent the book around to his/her friends who were also outraged at the obvious lack of quality and surfeit of shill reviews who then posted their own several dozen 1 star “replies” – would this be bullying or rather, the proper response, within the proper context and one that was entirely “internet democratic”?

    When that little boy said “but the emperor is naked” – was he being a bully or simply naive enough to tell the truth in an awkward context? Weren’t the king’s advisers and the silent majority really the ones who were bullying the amorphous public?

    Should there be no consequences for the type of behavior Howett engaged in? The cause and effect is pretty clear: Howett remained in control and responsible at all times: she did not have to respond at all; she could have said ‘thanks’ and left it alone, she could have even pled for help with copyediting and promised a new edition (which probably would have been well received considering the positives already given the story).

    Instead, she did what she did. Repeatedly.

    There does come a point at which it is no longer possible to ignore bad and unacceptable behavior. The person in question must be escorted from the room. If it takes a half dozen scary looking bouncers to escort them off, it may look like bullying, but it is not.

    • I don’t think that what happened on BigAl’s blog was bullying behaviour, although a case can certainly be made that Howett herself was attempting to bully the reviewer into retracting his review. Of course, it was a pathetic attempt, as Howett doesn’t have the power of a bestselling author. Either way, her actions and comments there were highly inappropriate — and really, really silly.

      If you want to extend the backyard metaphor to her Amazon review page, though, then what happened there is the equivalent of the people who had been (quite rightly) telling her where to go while she was in BigAl’s backyard, not being satisfied with driving her off but actually then proceeding to follow her home into her own backyard and trashing the place. But as I said in my blog, it’s an imperfect metaphor. Her own backyard really would be her own blog; Amazon is more like a public square.

      And Howett has suffered consequences. She was resoundly and repeatedly told to pull her head in and had her work ridiculed on BigAl’s site. Her behaviour certainly wasn’t ignored or condoned and she was, as you put it, “escorted from the room”. I just don’t think that those people who followed her from the room to post a bunch of obviously false reviews — false, I allege, because in the time it took for the bulk of them to appear on Amazon in no way allowed time for an actual considered reading of the book — were at that point acting any better.

      • Good points, but my position comes from and is informed by behavior that I believe (no proof) I’m seeing from Howett. It follows these typical lines:

        1. write something (however badly)
        2. create a publishing company (in name only, website & etc)
        3. self-pub the book
        4. issue it from the “fake” publishing company
        5. tout it in public venues (like amazon)
        6. create fake positives (like 5 star reviews on amazon)
        7. ruthlessly attack anyone who sounds negative

        in other words, try and fake the whole successful author/successful book thing with smoke and mirrors.

        I’ve seen it any number of times from those who are both bad wannabe authors (who long ago should have gotten some clue from the rejection slips) and have a near messianic belief in their own deserved celebrity.

        If this is the case (and like I said, I’m seeing pattern matching here, but only pattern matching), then I also believe that the return response is entirely appropriate wherever it finds itself.

        I believe that there are times when someone (helps if it is many someones) has to say “you know, you are an idiot”. And to the extent that it is still worth doing so, continually repeating that in response to whatever may be forthcoming from the other side.

        I think this is more akin to the blockbuster movie that turns out being really awful: advance reviews pan it; the publicists cherry pick the reviews for their tv/newspaper ads (“It was an awesome display” [“of how to unsuccessfully break every rule of filmmaking”]}

        and then there it is up on rotten tomatoes, amazon, netflix with tons of bad reviews, in the forums, on the blogs, comments and twelve years later it finds itself at the top of a ‘ten worst films of the decade” list and the bashing starts all over again.

        Balance? I don’t believe that the good reviews on Amazon were from folks who spent any time at all reading the book either. (Maybe time spent writing it, though obviously not enough).

        Look at the flip side: had this been an indie that was really good, the pro-indie crowd would have been flooding Amazon with ‘support indie publishing’ – based reviews and most of those would not be based on a read of the material, but would better be classified as political discourse. Like hitting the ‘like’ button on an author’s Facebook announcement of a new release. No one has read that yet (with the exception of ARCs), yet the author’s fans will unhesitatingly click ‘like’ in support of the person and the concept.

        I know from experience that allowing the public to openly ‘vote’ is a very bad way to judge these kinds of things. Over in another field, it is fairly easy to flood a review site with positives or negatives and skew the impression.

        The problem with this stuff is not the potential bullying, rather, it is on the receiving end. Our desire to hear what other people think AND then basing our own judgment on that crowd-think.

        Me, I’ve NEVER bought or not bought something new from Amazon because of the review rating because I know how inherently flawed that system is. For that matter I don’t purchase based on reviews either. I read reviews for the entertainment value only (and try to write them to the same purpose).

        If we remember that the commentary, reviews, likes, up-ticks & etc., have more to do with the individual than they do with the product, I think it puts it a little more in perspective and me personally, I have no problem with folks pointing out that someone is being an idiot when they are demonstrably being an idiot.

  7. To be Devil’s Advocate, a lot of those people leaving 1 star reviews freely admitted that they’d seen the blog debacle, then came to Amazon and read the excerpt available there and based their review on it – basically saying, I read Big Al’s opinion and from reading the excerpt I can see that he was correct – 1 Star. Which is fair enough really.

    I downloaded the excerpt myself and I have to say, it is pretty awful. Now I don’t really condone this kind of bullying any more than you do and the author got everything she deserved on the blog in question. But she wanted attention, she wanted reviews, and she got them. Loads of people, based on the BigAl review, went and checked out her book. If it had been any good some people at least would have defended it.

    • I don’t think many people are defending either the novel or Howett herself. But is this really what she “deserved”? To be lambasted and hounded off BigAl’s blog, okay. To have the internet laugh uproariously over her ridiculous conduct, sure. To have people decide they don’t want to read her work at all based on at based on her behaviour, and have others download a sample out of curiosity and decide that, based on this, they too will not be buying or reading her work — definitely. All that is par for the course when you are a Dick on the Internet.

      But I just think that what happened — and what is *still* happening — over at Amazon is going too far. The cruelty and relish that is only too evident in many of the “reviews” doesn’t do their authors any favours and, as seems to be evidenced not only at Amazon but elsewhere in blogs and online commentary, is actually driving sympathy back towards Howett in some cases. When it comes down to it, she is a very, very small fish with no power or influence over anyone — and she withdrew from the public arena very quickly. Does she really “deserve” the unmitigated, and seemingly unending, Wrath of the Interwebs to descend upon her just because she made a nob of herself? Talk about a soft target.

      I also have to say, Alan, there’s a lot of icky gender subtext to a lot of what people are saying around this issue (some of which is even reflected in your comment here). “She got what she deserved” … “she wanted attention and she got it” … “she needs to learn to play with the big boys” … these are all the sorts of things people are saying. Even sympathetic commentary like Ben Payne’s would not, I hazard to argue, have been applied to a male writer conducting himself in much the same manner. I speculate that he would be labelled as “arrogant” and “obnoxious” rather than “emotionally unbalanced”. Gender is a complicated issue, and it’s hard to tease it out from other factors in any situation, but some of what I’ve been reading does give me cause for concern.

      • I don’t condone any continued attacks – I think the point has been well made and then some by now.

        Also, I have no time for any gender issue in this. I call her she because I know she’s female, simple as that. People have proved time and again that an idiot can be male or female.

        • Indeed. I don’t think anyone is criticising her *because* she is female, and I think a male author would also suffer a similar fate. I just find a lot of the language used around the issue to be problematic, with implicit gender associations.

  8. I hate to say it, but I don’t feel particularly bad for Howett. I didn’t dog-pile on or add a review, so I’m not defending anything. I just thought that as the instigator she got what she asked for. I thought it was interesting to see people who were simply commenting on the debacle getting the finger pointed at them as if they did something wrong. It seemed comment worthy to me.

    Howett’s behavior was probably the worst I’ve seen in such a situation. It’s damaging because it further discourages reviewers from taking on self-published work. I have no problem with her having to deal with the consequences of her behavior–maybe it will make others think twice before going ballistic over a bad review. Gossip spreads like wildfire along the web and if someone is serious about getting their work published, they need to behave with some restraint. From what I’ve read, Howett was never a serious contender anyway. So maybe all she really wanted was the attention in the first place.

    • One thing the internet seems unable to tolerate very well is nuance. I don’t feel particularly bad for Howett either, and I neither condone nor excuse her conduct. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to embrace the conduct of everyone on the other side of the fence. If I critique the behaviour of a subset of people who I believe over-reacted to the situation, that doesn’t mean I am in any way endorsing Howett’s original behaviour. I have no problem with people who were “simply commenting”. It’s the pack behaviour of the “reviewers” over at Amazon that I think deserves to be critiqued. (Especially as they were quick to attack not just Howett, but anyone who actually dared to give the book a positive review, whether or not it was in the form of a perhaps too-subtle joke: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2HMX0IH2EWXMV/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B003ZSILSW&nodeID=&tag=&linkCode=#wasThisHelpful)

      Howett’s behaviour was bad, but nowhere near the worst, by the way. Alice Hoffman tweeted the private phone number and email of a person who gave her a lukewarm review and asked her fans to give the reviewer a piece of their mind. That’s got to rank near the top on the scale of Inexcusable Reactions to Reviews.

  9. Awesome summary, Kirstyn!

    I read the original comment thread – or rather, I skimmed it beyond a certain point, because it became very repetetive – after John Scalzi linked to it on his blog; I didn’t see Ben Payne’s piece or know about the Amazon bad review dogpiling. Which definitely seems like overkill: slamming a book because one person didn’t like it, no matter how offensive the behaviour of the author, is very Not Cool. But then, with aso manyr ecent book blowups online – not just authors behaving badly, but things like the Bitch Magazine dabacle and the general asshatery of James Fray – I’m wondering if a better way to categorise the reaction is less bullying than it is a species of crowdsourcing. If 70 people write viscious letters of complaint to their bank after the bank does something appalling (for instance), this isn’t bullying in the traditional ganging-up sense, because the people don’t know about each other. Instead, they’ve all decided individually to react the same way. The Amazon thing is a little different – the climbing number of bad reviews, and at a cursory glance the reason for them, was evident to all – but at the same time, it’s not like any one person has rounded up a virtual posse for the express purpose of spamming the page. Would it be bullying if just one or two people had acted on that impulse? At what point does it cross the line from one thing to another if none of the participants are acting in deliberate collusion? This isn’t to exonerate their actions at either a group or individual level, but I think calling it ‘bullying’ (though I don’t yet have a better term) is misleading: the hatred of a hivemind (hatesourcing?) seems to fall into a different category of behaviour than straight-up collusive meanness.

    But, all the same: great piece!🙂

    • Well, 70 — or 700 or 7000 — individuals petitioning a bank wouldn’t be bullying, even if there was collusion, because the bank is the position of power. (Unless those 7000 are all millionaires with financial stakes in the bank, in which case the power balance shifts.) The concept of bullying is implicitly tied up with the concept of power — physical power, financial power, political power, power of influence, power of numbers, etc — and in this situation the power does lie with the “hivemind” as you put it. After all, it’s not as though this heretofore unknown, self-published author has much influence or power, as the comments on BigAl’s blog resoundingly proved. I’d argue that the reaction of the hivemind was way out of balance with the requirements of the situation, ie. telling an obnoxious author where to step off.

      Also, bullying doesn’t have to be organised or collusive from the outset; it can very much be a product of people seeing what a couple of other people are doing and jumping on the bandwagon. Which seems to be exactly what happened on Amazon.

      (And of course, needless to say, although apparently it does need to be reiterated, none of this exonerates, excuses or condones the conduct of Howett in any way.)

    • P.S. Hope not-so-sunny Scotland is treating you both well!🙂

      • Scotland is treating me well indeed! I even start a new day job next week, which should be interesting🙂

        Good points all about the definition of bullying – I suppose there’s been a lot of bullying talk in the media lately, and I’m trying to puzzle out a definition of it that makes sense to me. The jumping on the bandwagon thing is really important, as is the idea that retaliation to a particular affront – whether real or imagined – can become bullying after a certain point. But, yeah. Very weird incident.

  10. […] This is the technological age where we see reviews being used, not just by readers wanting to pass judgement, but by those looking for political clout. We’ve seen this in an ugly form, where readers sacrifice the reputation and skill of writers to protest against the price of e-books — something over which the author has, unless self-publishing, got very little if any control. (cf the Jacqueline Howett debacle, covered neatly by Kirstyn McDermott here.) […]

  11. […] McDermott said it beautifully in her blog post about a girl who (possibly naively, possibly as a marketing stunt) had a go at someone for giving […]

  12. […] intelligent, considered and substantiated post on any particular subject. (Because I haven’t done that before.) It’s fear, plain and embarrassingly simple. And it’s really difficult for […]

  13. There are plenty out there who love to stomp others into “cyberdirt” – There was a guy named Hayakain who produced “furry porn” and got into a fight with a forum over their posting negative and critical comments about another internet figure, and he insisted on bothering them when it seemed like he was getting no attention from other people. Hayakain was literally hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick, because those forum users “doxed” him (posted his real information, name, address, phone number, etc. to open him to embarrassment and harassment) and then posted his furry porn on his employer’s Facebook, with his real name attached, in retaliation for bothering the forum.

    Jacqueline Howett, for all the troubles she faced, was never “doxed” as the crowd that responded to her didn’t have the type of internet user that went after Hayakain, so she was lucky.

  14. By the way, don’t Google “Hayakain” at work. Go HOME and do it there, and make sure no children are around.

    But you can share the Encyclopedia Dramatica article “Docs” with your fellow adults (everyone from soccer moms to corporate titans of industry to Mr. Smith at the Candy Shop) so you know what some on the internet are capable of. Just make sure they read it at HOME.


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