Thought experiment: imagine you are a sensible, sober kind of person. Or, perhaps, a scared little child who is forced to cosplay as such a person due to circumstance. Like a senior academic, for instance.

Additionally, imagine that you are offering a fairly detailed comment on a topic that is unimaginably serious, like the present COVID omnishambles.

Having proffered your sage and sensible wisdom in the public domain, you then retreat to your ivory tower*.

But before you do so, you check some comments.

It doesn’t matter where these comments are offered — perhaps on a news article itself reporting your comments, perhaps on Reddit accompanied by a video clip or text of what you said, Twitter, Facebook, the source is unimportant. Anywhere the anonymous public may gather in digital space and speak with persistence.

You notice: some comments disagree with you, and these usually offer arguments. In general they are from people who speak in whole sentences. But these are very few. They are salted sparsely throughout a sea of people agree with you, and those people are… uncivil.

As we have chosen COVID as a topic, although it is equally applicable elsewhere, you can easily imagine the kind of swivel-eyed bile you might see — comments calling for the execution of Anthony Fauci for war crimes, accusing politicians of all stripes of criminal incompetence, the persistent misunderstanding of any and all public policy, and so on. Immune to anything as petty as details, angry to a fault, with a reflexive bellowing pointed at any restrictions to anything anywhere ever, coupled with a toddler’s understanding of liberty. Pure avatars of selfishness, BELLOWING, and CRYING, and tearing their clothes.

And it is not one person, your own little online army of shit-ticks, but every rat Jack of them.

In other words, there is not so much a comments section as a great eructation of savage braying — violent, mean, intemperate, hideous shit is the modal response. Braying at great length, braying by a great many.

And, that is your tribe. Alongside your cardigan, and your curated television appearances, and your professorship, and your papers in The Good Journals, and your overworked graduate students, goes this horde of bilious fucks. These are the people agree with you, who are actively promoting your opinion, and exhort you to have more opinions in future.

Would you pause, at this point?

Would your new best friends change anything at all for you?

We would flatter ourselves that the answer would be ‘yes’. Perhaps, upon finding that the overwhelming rump of your supporters were wrathful cold sores who unaccountably developed the ability to type, you would consider an immediate sea change.

“This is the commentary I provoke? This is my audience, my ‘fans’? Weeping Jesus on the cross, you’d think they might be able to spell. Should I reconsider my tone? My message?”

Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ contains some quotes from the journalist Michael Moynihan which stayed with me. In the book, Moynihan tells the story of his outing of Jonah Lehrer as a confabulator, a story that in some respects he would prefer not to have had to tell. It is hard to push a button that, when depressed fully, will directly affect someone else’s career so disastrously. Even if you do not like or respect the person, even if this act is simply you doing your own job, even if you are quite certain they deserve to have their secrets exposed, you are still committing a very serious act. It is hard not to have empathy for the circumstances that will surround the tremendous trouble you are about to cause for another individual, someone who is very similar to yourself.

I feel the emotional weight of this, because I have done it myself several times. The whole situation is torturous, and it will give you empathy for the people whose work you are invalidating.

Moynihan did it, too, and when people showed up alongside him to stick the boot into Lehrer after his fabrications were revealed, found himself disgusted by the mob who had gathered:

Why are they acting like heathens? Why indeed. That is a topic for another day, but suffice to say, they are.

I feel there are four options for our commenter’s headspace here:

(1) they don’t know
(2) they do know, but they grimly accept the plaudits of hooting troglodytes in the service of what they think is a Greater Idea
(3) they do know, but the words of their ‘fans’ are so unimaginably unimportant to them that the utter toxicity of their support simply fails to register important.
(4) they do know, and they think it’s great

I think we can safely discount (4), and we must choose between ignorance, grudging acceptance, or… a kind of ‘othering’, where digital support — even if it is by the shittiest little digital gnolls — is simply a means to an end, and the promiscuous hostility is only a faint flicker you can see behind the enormous digital floodlights of upvotes and likes and hearts and lord knows what else.

I think it’s that one, of course. I’ll tell you why.

Academics are in many ways superbly primed for falling victim to a system of artificial validation — that is already their life. They have tiered jobs at tiered universities with global rankings. They have publication numbers, and h-indexes, and graded journal outlets with impact factor tiers. The good journals will become significantly more porous to your publications as your status increases, a kind of entrenched dynamic of the Matthew Effect. And the aggregation of all of these numbers largely determines hiring, promotion, and retention.

So, who better to play the game of equating quantifiable attention with success in other non-academic formats? Who better to slip gently into more radical statements and silliness, as they mutually align with their new audience of furious robots?

There is so much else to say here, but suffice to say for now: often I don’t read what people write as closely as I interrogate the motives of who they bring along with them. If a game is being played, the best context is often who you have chosen for — or tolerated to be affiliated with — your team.

If you want this developed into something you can buy, or you just want to talk, find me at http://linktr.ee/jamesheathers

* due to funding cuts, the ivory was replaced by reclaimed formica years ago.



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