Updated: Jun 8, 2021
"Once you become informed, you start seeing complexities and shades of grey. You realise that nothing is as clear and simple as it first appears. Ultimately, knowledge is paralysing." - Calvin
A month ago I decided to try and get out of the reading slump I have been in - slump is a kind description for what has been a half-decade period of me not picking up a book.
Within five minutes of this decision I became distracted by my phone and started scrolling through twitter. One of the trending topics was "Lauren Hough, Goodreads" and since I was determined to procrastinate on my literary endeavours for as long as possible (what's another five minutes on a five year record?), I decided to have a look.
After a cursory glance, and getting through the heated bluster that often clogs up any twitter debate, I had a general understanding of the situation. Lauren Hough had just published her debut novel "Leaving Isn't the hardest Thing". As the book gained traction, reviews started trickling in on Goodreads. Lauren then went on Goodreads and saw a 4 star review of her book (out of five possible stars; no half stars are available on Goodreads). The review itself was positive but it seems Lauren took umbrage with the number of stars given. She called out the reviewer on twitter, saying :
"Glad to see most of the Goodreads assholes still giving 4-star reviews to show they’re super tough reviewers who need to, like, fall in love, you know? Anyway, no one likes you,”.
Now, one could argue that this was a slightly out of pocket reaction, however the chain of events that followed were truly bizarre. People started flooding to Lauren's twitter page and admonishing her, accusing her of bullying and intimidating reviewers. A few of the reactions were somewhat more placid - people suggesting that authors in general need to accept the fact that once they release their work into the public domain, opinions on their work, whether it be praise or criticism, will inevitably come and if they cannot handle this, then perhaps reading the reviews is not the best idea. However the majority of her twitter mentions were far more aggressive. Lauren continued (and continues, almost a month later) to riot with followers who took issue with her tweets.
I won't bore you with the specifics, but what started as a simple Goodreads review spiralled to hellfire, with Lauren being accused of trans/biphobia (Lauren herself identifies as gay), among a litany of other transgressions, and people who hadn't even read the book started flocking to Goodreads to leave 1 star reviews (the specifics of the tweets/reviews can easily be found online).
Let's pause briefly.
I immediately purchased the book, and once I started reading, I finished it within 24 hours. It is a collection of deeply personal essays about Lauren's experience growing up in the notorious "Children of God" sex cult, and the consequences this had on her adult life, ranging from addiction to homelessness. Lauren also describes in depth the profound impact this upbringing had on her mental health, the repercussions of which she is still dealing with today.
The book is incredible. Lauren's writing is exquisite and while this book made me cry a lot, I'm also in awe of the natural wit that she was able to incorporate into many of these tragic recollections.
Now, back to twitter.
The initial review that sparked this shit-show was fairly innocuous. Do I think that Lauren overreacted? Yes. Do I think her decision, to oust a reviewer who had taken the time to read her book, make it accessible to others, and then leave a 4 star review, childish? Most definitely. But was the deluge of abuse that followed on twitter (which, in fairness, Lauren exacerbated) warranted? Did this book deserve to be dragged through the mud on a review platform, by people who had not even read it? Not at all.
And herein lies my biggest gripe with social media. There is no room for nuance, there is no room for grey. Every interaction is based on reaction alone - reflection is rendered moot, because there will always be another scandal that needs attending to.
Because if we were to think about this critically for more than 5 minutes, and especially after reading the book, it must be unimaginably hard to write about your years of sexual, emotional and physical abuse and then have it 'rated'. What does that quantitative rating mean? Should she have written in more graphic detail? Less graphic detail? Was the abuse not glamourised enough? Was it too glamourised? From Lauren's perspective, what on earth could she have possibly have done to garner a 5 star review? Been abused more? I can only empathise with how hard that must be. There will be people who say that this is par for the course when you share your art with the world and maybe this is true. Knowing this, I can also empathise with the reviewer. They did not deserve Lauren's harsh tongue. Why can we not accept that Lauren maybe overreacted, but also understand why?
These pluralities are unable to exist on social media.
There must always be objective truth, there must always be a side that wins, a side that loses, and there are extra points to whoever gets there first, never mind the consequences. This constant need for triumph is so dangerous and reductive. It removes the requirement for individual critical analysis - it is so easy to get swept up in the herd mentality and feel a rush of adrenaline when you agree with thousands of others online. A feeling of kinship and solidarity with people you've never met, all fighting for a common cause, whether or not you truly believe in the vitriolic exudate that inevitably manifests.
This song is not original. It plays daily. The true jeopardy arrives when it leaves frivolous circles of book reviews and enters arenas with far greater real world consequences. It's this behaviour which leads to misinformation and misalignment, a vulnerability which is often exploited not only during times of crisis, but also during ascensions of power. In recent years, platforms such as twitter and facebook have become the primary news source for many people. This would be fine if these platforms served as alerts and alerts only. While these sites may be free to use and interact with, the price we pay, although intangible, is higher than we could possibly imagine. In his book, On Tyranny, Timothy Synder writes -
"Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public's sense of truth. If we are serious about seeking the facts, we can each make a small revolution in the way the internet works".
When we rely on free (but more importantly unverified) platforms for our broadcasts, and refuse to then independently analyse or assess, we become complicit in a system which relies on our indifference. If institutions, or even individuals, notice that sensationalism is the only variable which affects the amount of attention an issue generates, then truth and facts and evidence all become obsolete. They rest easy, knowing that by the time someone has noticed, there will be another issue making waves somewhere else.
If we rely on retweets to influence our choices and actions - what stops us from electing leaders, who lie through their teeth, knowing they can do so because they can generate a mob that is large enough to shoulder the weight of their lies and spread it like wildfire over the internet? The reverse is also true; what stops us from ignoring humanitarian crises and genocides? If they harm political and capitalist interests and the information is kept from us, will we just turn a blind eye?
If we don't question the small things like book reviews - if we don't reflect and take time to formulate our own judgements, if we get swept up in the tidal wave of popular thought and retweets - then we leave ourselves unimaginably vulnerable to manipulation, on a scale that is almost impossible to conceptualise.