On Viral Content.

1 million years ago – before Facebook gave the average person an online presence – I wrote a blog post that got linked to from a very popular blog. At first I was super-excited about all of the new traffic to my blog. But then – something weird happened – people started going through my archives and basically just commenting on anything and everything. Now, this was not a HUGE deal, they were mostly nice comments. But it was weird. Someone linked to that one entry and now people were going through some stuff that was more personal, less edited, less thought out.

And then a few – THANK GOD ONLY A FEW – asshats come by. But they dug through my archives and just found random crappy stuff I’d written to comment on. For example, once I wrote about how sometimes my kids and I skipped bathing for a few days. It was partly truth and partly me trying to be humorous about parenting. But I got one comment that was basically, “You are a terrible Mother and are unfit for parenting. God is giving you miscarriages to keep you from having more kids.”

AND THEN! Then a hate-blog wrote about me. That was a thing then (It probably still is now, but I refuse to investigate) – hate blogs that existed solely to write terrible things about the popular bloggers like Dooce and Pioneer Woman. One of those sites wrote something about me and how gross I am for not bathing myself or my children.

I was devastated. I almost took the whole blog down. Jenny Lawson (of The Bloggess fame, but before she was EPIC-level famous) reached out to me and game me some encouraging words. I’m sure people like her were used to seeing their names on those blogs, but she knew it was a first-time for me. And it was TERRIBLE.

And this was LONG before Facebook, so the “going viral” thing only had a short reach. It basically only extended to people who read blogs. That was it. It faded fast and I went on with my life. It never happened again to that degree. A couple of years ago someone from a bigger/national platform asked if they could republish something I wrote about Thanksgiving and I said, “NO! NO! NO! NO!” Because I had NO desire to get anyone over here digging for dirt on me again and tearing up my personal space.

And again…A few weeks ago a political post I wrote and made public on Facebook so people could share started getting more shares than I expected and I got one asshat comment and CLOSED THE WHOLE THING DOWN. Nope. Not me. Please don’t let me go viral.

I got a TINY taste of it long before social networks existed and I do not want to see what that taste would be like in the days of Facebook and Twitter.

Because what happens is people start digging into your every word and online presence and while that one thing you might have done was nice, you might have said/done other things that were shitty and THAT shit will get dug up too. And the people who didn’t like that thing that went viral, will find something you did that is terrible and will try to give that the spotlight.

I tell you ALL of this because I want you to know the reality of it. Most of these “viral” things are not started by people who are web savvy and who have made sure to keep a perfect online presence. Most of them have said or done things they might do differently if they thought their lives would be put under a microscope. There was the Mom who wrote that weird letter on her blog that was something like, “Dear Girls Who Will Date My Sons” where she basically told all of these girls to quit dressing like whores. Everyone dug through her online life and found all sorts of evidence of shittiness and brought it out into the light of day for the world to see. There was that guy with the red sweater at the debate (Ken Bone? Something?) and people dug into his online life to find out he had posted some really shitty stuff on Reddit. There was that video of that Mom and her cute kid talking about Star Wars and they found the Mom’s Star Wars fanfiction/smut and she lost her job.

And then they fade. And we forget about them all. But…I’m still thinking about that ONE terrible comment, and that ONE terrible blog post 10 years ago. And I’m betting those people who were not prepared to feel the wrath of the internet feel their 100s and 1,000s of terrible comments every day. People who live their lives in the spotlight – celebrities and politicians – know not to read the comments. But the average person? Is so excited about going viral that they soak it ALL UP. They’ve not been media-trained to understand that there are millions of trolls on the internet who LIVE to upset sensitive people. I learned the hard way on a REALLY small scale.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as the backlash aimed towards the lady who just started a Facebook group for Hillary supporters…Pantsuit Nation. That’s all she set out to do. But she hadn’t been trained with media and it looks like she suffers from white elitism (based on her selectiveness on what comments/posts were deleted) and now she’s got a book deal and PSN has turned against her. I’ve seen 5 different articles alone this morning picking apart the way she moderated that page and turning her into the Face Of What Is Wrong With White Liberalism. And maybe she is. I know I see a lot of the same attitude in our more local PSN group. But she didn’t ask for that. She just started a Facebook group that got really popular really fast and she wasn’t trained and didn’t know that her online life would be torn apart. She was probably just basking in the excitement and the spotlight. And now? Now people are leaving the group in droves and refusing to let her use their stories in her book.

I haven’t read one article about it. Because while I do believe her story is important in recognizing the effects of the Fragile White Elite Liberal and the damage that can do, I can’t be part of the wave of negativity washing her way. Whenever I notice something like this happening to an unsuspecting person, I refuse to link to any of the websites tearing the person apart, or even link to the original source. Mainly because I just imagine if it was me…and what if I just wanted off the Viral Train already. Maybe I take it all too personally.

But I do think it’s important to remember the PEOPLE behind the viral content. My post didn’t even blink compared to stuff that goes viral now, and it was TERRIBLE just because of the tiny wave of negativity. And since then I try to be conscious of everything I do online in case it ever happens again. But not everyone has been online since 2003. Not everyone knows how deep people are willing to dig to find trash on you.

I’m not buying her book. I’m not joining her Facebook groups. But I am grateful for the few days of love that FB page gave me when I needed it most. And I will hope that she finds the good criticisms in all of the anger and really takes to heart some of it. She was allowing tone-policing to women of color and that is the most subtle – but SO DESTRUCTIVE – way white people can thwart the delivery of important messages. If you don’t like the tone? Ask yourself WHY. Don’t challenge the tone. Don’t tell someone how they’re supposed to talk about the things that hurt them. Don’t expect someone to consider YOUR feelings when expression their own. Instead, look at YOURSELF and find out why you are so hurt by the tone.

I worry she’s getting so much backlash she may not even soak in some of that discomfort to find the lessons underneath it. She’s defensive because some of the criticisms have nothing to do with anything of substance. I actually saw a, “Ugg. Did you see the picture of her? She’s super ugly.” comment the other day. So how do you filter through that asinine commentary to find important lessons? I don’t know if she will. And maybe there’s no hope for her. I don’t know her.

And that’s the point, I guess. Let’s not forget there are people behind these viral stories who we don’t actually know. And while I think it’s important to find lessons in some of this stuff, I also can’t separate the BIG PICTURE LESSONS from the single person who got caught by a wave she wasn’t prepared for.

But I also hear the voices in my head that say maybe we shouldn’t spare the creators of the viral content. Maybe we shouldn’t be too gentle to people who jump on the Viral Train so easily. I’m not sure I would have done the interviews she did about the group in the first place that took away it’s “specialness” – maybe she should have known better. I don’t know.

It’s just hard for me to watch every time. It’s difficult to watch the creator of something that goes EPICALLY viral, get trashed in every corner of the interwebs. Maybe I’m too sensitive, either way, I just don’t think it hurts to remember that the person behind the content was probably not prepared for the negative backlash that heads their way. And while we will all forget the waves of negativity that hit her shores as we move on to the next person…the original creator will carry that will them for much, MUCH longer.

One thought on “On Viral Content.”

  1. I read this excellent book on public shaming – loads of brilliant insights on why it happens.

    It’s got a British author but the content is universally applicable I think!

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