The reality of online spaces
Plus: meeting Julia Fox, re-reading old Britney interviews, and struggling with Zadie Smith
Last month I went to a festival of ideas at Kenwood House, and one talk that stayed with me was about shame: how the threat of being publicly shamed, and the democratised power to publicly shame others, had become an unruly substitution for our broken legal system, in which, so often, justice is not served.
The timing could not have been more apt, Russell Brand had just been accused by four women of sexual assault and rape (which he denies) via an investigation conducted by Channel 4, The Times and the Sunday Times. This was a perfect example of what many people (myself included) might think of as ‘good’ shaming: so little faith did these women have in the legal system that it was more effective to bring Brand down by tarnishing his reputation – shaming him – through the power of the media and social media. But others have taken this as a worrying example of cancel culture and kangaroo court by social media.
One comment from the talk that I found particularly interesting was about the ‘architecture’ of online spaces, from speaker and author Joanna Kavenna. She said the way platforms like Twitter and Reddit were built required its users to decide between binaries: like or not, retweet or not, upvote or downvote. She suggested this way of thinking had bled into the way we think about people and issues in the real world, dividing everything into good or bad, agree or disagree, with nuance and anomaly erased.
As you know from my past newsletter posts, over the past few years I’ve become interested in the evolution of fandom and music criticism, and how both of these things have become so distorted, largely down to our anxieties around public shaming and having the ‘right’ opinion. On Twitter, myself and journalists I have commissioned have been hounded by fan ‘armies’ who hope to march you off the platform altogether. It has turned large parts of fandom toxic and tribal, and, with so many journalists afraid to poke the beast, made much of music criticism meaningless. With a great deal of music ‘journalism’ now reading like artist press releases (also, I think, because freelance writers who get a good portion of their work from labels want to keep them on side) it’s no wonder that so many music fans are under the impression that it is not acceptable to engage critically with an artist’s work in public.
And so I was surprised when, a week or so after the talk about shame, I was deep in a subReddit thread about a Pitchfork review of the new Doja Cat album, Scarlet, and found fans being unusually critical. The Pitchfork review had scored the album a poor 5.9, taking issue with petty, proud and repetitive lyrics defending herself against anyone who has criticised her (Doja Cat is one of the rare celebrities to have directly squared up to her own fans for their parasocial behaviour, telling one that it was ‘creepy’ that they had used her government name as her Twitter username, while rejecting other fans’ pleas for her to tell them she loved them: “i don't though cuz i don't even know yall”.) And, interestingly, those commenting were largely in agreement with the rating, which prompted one of them to write, ‘i swear, this is a total 180. her album thread doesn’t have a single negative comment.’ And then another: ‘did anyone actually like it to begin with?’
Someone replied: ‘We were just hiding so we don’t get ravaged from you psycho Doja stans’. Someone else: ‘I was just in hiding because every time i criticised her i got downvoted to oblivion.’ And then another: ‘The major thing I dislike about Reddit is how the whole upvote/downvote system discourages people from sharing unpopular opinions. Personally I don’t let it stop me, but I get how it leads to groupthink.’ Following these, it was like the floodgates had opened, people started to comment honest, and in this instance, quite negative, reviews of the album.
Like Joanna Kavenna had said, the architecture of the online space – Reddit’s feature to ‘downvote’ or ‘upvote’ comments you agree or disagree with – was contributing to the already tribal nature of fandom that can encourage its most toxic aspects, namely online bullying. On Reddit, the more you are downvoted, the more ‘negative karma’ you accumulate, which affects your freedom to post. Too much negative karma and you cannot post at all. In an ideal state of things, this would stop people who used Reddit for things like trolling and hatespeech and disruptive commenting, but in reality, it is a feature often manipulated by those who want to create perfect echo chambers, rewarding others whose opinions mirror their own.
It was strange to read the word ‘groupthink’, a word that has now become a buzzword for the alt-right on Twitter, on a music subReddit about Doja Cat. But then again, in the seven years that I have been a journalist, the radicalisation of music fandoms online has increased. To be part of a serious fandom has become, for some, similar to a political or even religious association. In some cases, with fans’ unquestioning adulation to the artist in question, the behavior even borders on cult. Like Joanna Kavenna says, the architecture of the online spaces they gather on – magnifying some voices while silencing others – is relevant.
Of course there are some positive examples of the way online spaces can promote ‘one voice’, as it were. In the case of the MeToo moment for instance, when Alyssa Milano encouraged other women who had experienced sexual assault to retweet her open letter to Hollywood with the simple words ‘MeToo’ (inspired by Tarana Burke), there were 49,000 shares in the first two weeks. The power of this movement came from the fact these women were using a collective voice to add weight to the same, terrible fact. Those who had not been able to find the words now had them; those who had felt ignored were now part of a global movement.
What I find striking about the evolution of fandoms online, however, is how much increasing power they are having in the real world. Recently Johnny Depp fans spent thousands to access unsealed records from his defamation trial (which already felt like a trial by social media); Taylor Swift fans mobilised to hire a lawyer and take TicketMaster to court. Swifties are spending so much on the Eras tour that Bloomberg and Forbes are calling it ‘Swiftonomics’ – the tour could generate close to $5 billion in consumer spending in the U.S. alone.
Thankfully, the Swifties, unlike some other music fandoms, seem like a pretty lovely bunch, swapping friendship bracelets at tours and, in the case of TicketMaster, fighting together against corruption. And yet, not long ago some of their most extreme pockets sent so many death threats to music mogul Scooter Braun and his family that he pleaded on Instagram for resolution. Online violence, it seems, is normalised by its ubiquity; you only have to retweet something, or use shared online colloquialisms to distance it from your own voice. When I have received death threats from extreme fans, they use the same words and emojis, and it is often spearheaded by one fan in particular, then copied by others. After a while you become densensitised to it because it is so very “online”, and yet, as it is becoming increasingly clear, the way we behave online is having offline consequences.
This week in links
I’ve been watching Killers of the Flower Moon, the new Oscar-tipped Scorsese about the Osage murders, when white men married native American women, before murdering them to take their ‘headrights’ and earn royalties from oil. I booked a Friday 7:45pm showing with dread, thinking I would likely have fallen asleep by 11pm (the film is three and a half hours long), but it speaks to how brilliant the film is that I stayed wide-eyed the entire way through. Robert de Niro and Lily Gladstone are the stand-outs (sorry Leo), and it’s worth reading up on the terrible history behind it. I always like reading the New York Times explainers because the comment sections are always so good when it comes to recommending further reading.
Also, the new BBC TV sequel to Stephen Graham’s film Boiling Point – about chef Carly’s battle to keep her Dalston restaurant afloat – is excellent. I love the way each episode lets you follow home one of the kitchen staff in turn, to see how their personal struggles colour their behaviour in the kitchen. I might even prefer it to The Bear.
I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s new Victorian novel The Fraud, and, judging by the five-star reviews, I seem to be the only person finding it deathly dull (and increasingly infuriated by the one-page chapters). Usually, I love everything she writes. Anyone else on the same page, or am I simply a fool?
More thrilling was the first memoir by actor, writer and internet provocateur Julia Fox, Down the Drain, whose life is so bonkers it reads like the darkest of thrillers. As I write in my review here, so much has happened to Fox (who starred in Uncut Gems) that by the time Kanye comes along right at the end of the book, he quickly becomes her life’s least interesting character. I actually met Fox last week for a Telegraph interview (going live later today), and she told me she wished she’d never met Kanye, because even though he “occupied just six out of 330 pages in my memoir, it’s all people want to talk about. It’s misogynistic and dark.” I was actually instructed by the publicist not to bring him up at all, but Fox did so herself when relaying how disappointing she was finding some of press.
I also loved this thoughtful piece by Megan Nolan about conflating ugliness and immortality. And if you haven’t yet, read her brilliant novel Ordinary Human Failings, about corrupt journalism.
I can’t stop thinking about the vile Britney Spears interviews from the late 90s and early Aughts I combed over this week while researching my latest podcast episode tied to her memoir, which is all about the media’s collective shaming. Have a listen here.