Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Angry Mob Supplies

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Nathan Bransford is trying to use the fire hose of reason on the folks attacking Jacqueline Hewitt and the books she’s written, after Hewitt rubbed a reviewer the wrong way and concluded her tirade with a few choice expletives.

Bransford, an author and former literary agent, correctly frames the situation as the result of an Internet angry mob, overreacting to Hewitt’s overreaction. Here’s the crux of his argument:
In truth, the actions of a mob say a lot more about the people participating in them than the person being scorned. And I think in the dark heart of a mob you'll find a quiet sense of relief. People are secretly and ardently glad that they're not the ones being targeted.

You can feel the relief and sense of superiority in numbers behind the mocking: Well, at least I'm not that bad off. And a hundred strangers agree with me.

But really that's a false sense of security. As the old quote goes, "A mob has many heads but no brains."
As I pointed out in my earlier post, what’s most important to take away from these kinds of situations is the desire to look at one’s own behavior to see what error precursors one can eliminate so such a situation doesn’t happen in one’s own little sphere. My takeaway from the situation: Make sure you have a set of cold eyes – preferably two or three sets – read what you’ve written before you publish. That’s one of the primary examples I see of publishing in the traditional sense, but even those who self-publish ought to be able to find a disinterested third or fourth party to do a read and offer some advice.

Hewitt could have easily turned her experience at Big Al’s into a learning experience, fixed the errors Big Al pointed out and turned the review into a positive experience. That she chose to take the other path doesn’t automatically give the rest of us the right to light those torches. In fact, the last impulse one should give in to (note, not that we won’t have such impulses, but we shouldn’t give in to them) is the one that involves finding pitchforks and lighting torches.

As it is, Hewitt will likely go away from this experience with less of a desire to expose her writing to legitimate criticism before it’s published, meaning she’ll learn less from the experience than the mob might hope. If, as Bill James writes, we want to create writers, we need to provide spaces and opportunities where they can learn early and often from their mistakes. Turning a critique into an angry mob – even if the author brings her own torch and pitchfork to the fight – isn’t conducive to creating a learning environment.

What, then, about Cooks Source Magazine? Here, an alleged serial plagiarist is called on the carpet by the Internet mob and essentially goes out of business. How is that situation different from Hewitt’s?

First of all, it’s no actionable offense to be a mediocre writer prone to odd phrasings and typographical errors. Maybe Hewitt’s work isn’t the best in the world, but it is her own.

But what about the mob mentality in this situation? The mob might, in part, have been responsible for Cooks Source in issuing a half-hearted apology, but what right did the mob have to pursue Cooks Source’s advertisers, vandalize its Facebook page (disclosure: I was one of the angry Facebook mob in this case) and otherwise harass the offender?

Damn few. And they’re all dead.

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