A couple of days ago, an article in the Guardian titled “Anne Rice signs petition to protest bullying of authors on Amazon” alerted me to a Change.org petition trying to convince Amazon to require real names for all of their reviews. My reaction was about as ambivalent as it gets—think half of me going “yay, accountability!” while the other half yells “boo, freedom of speech!”—and even though I’ve been mulling things over since then, I’m not any closer to having an unambiguous stance on it one way or the other.
To open things on the accountability front: cyber-bullying is real (as I’ll talk more about in this post!), but my reaction to a lot of what gets called bullying these days is an eyeroll. It seems like the definition of bullying is suffering from inflation—suddenly it’s not just personal insults or actual threats, but the act of disagreement that makes you a bully. This is where I out myself as a GOMI reader, I suppose—if you weren’t already aware, Get Off My Internets is a site with regular posts and a very active forum that is dedicated to lampooning various internet figures, mostly for-profit bloggers who take themselves very seriously. While the forum posts do occasionally swing vicious, for the most part they’re critical of a blog or an internet presence rather than the person. The most common criticism levied at the site, though, is that it’s a community that perpetuates bullying. It’s probably a side effect of reading through thread after thread where someone plays the “you’re just jealous!” defense, but unless it’s a news story about teenagers (who make no mistake about it, are the real dire wolves of the internet), I tend to come into any discussion of online bullying with a healthy dose of skepticism.
And what’s more, being a writer means accepting that you’re going to be throwing your work out to a cold, unfeeling, unprofitable world, and a huge part of being a successful writer is forcing yourself to be okay with that. Hell, people saying shitty things about your work is built into the process—between MFA programs, submitting to magazines, and submitting to agents/editors, writing is essentially an endless slog of bouncing yourself off slamming doors. People giving you their opinions of your writing is how this works, and someone’s opinion being negative doesn’t make that person a bully.
It also doesn’t help that Anne Rice is putting herself out there as the public face of this petition. Rice has a history of engaging with critics, to put it rather mildly—check out this New York Times article on a 1200-word defense she posted on Amazon ten years ago in response to bad reviews. Those, by the sounds of it, weren’t bullying; those were reviews from people who thought her writing stank. (Again, all cards on the table, I’m probably overly sympathetic to this faction because I agree with them.) So seeing yet another article about Rice versus the big bad internet reviewers isn’t something that’s going to get me to the barricades.
But as someone with a book with not very many reviews on Amazon myself, I understand just how desperately important those little gold stars are—not just to your previous wittle writing psyche, but your sales. Lower ratings are self-perpetuating: you slip down in the rankings, people see a middling average review and automatically pass you by, you slip down even farther. So the danger people are talking about in the petition itself is absolutely true—someone with a grudge and an internet connection can have a massive effect on your sales, your bottom line, and your career as a whole.
It’s also interesting, albeit unsurprising, that the three other authors mentioned in the Guardian article as getting threats from Amazon and other places—Joelle Charbonneau, Charlaine Harris, and Veronica Roth—are all women. That point feels like a bit of a side issue to the one in the petition—it sounds as if those authors were getting abuse either directed at them or in a non-Amazon-review setting—but the imbalance of who, exactly, is bearing the brunt of real internet abuse is still a salient point.
And so I’m left still not quite sure where I stand. I have online handles that I wouldn’t want associated with my real name—not because I’ve said anything bullying, but because I’m not particularly eager for every last stray online thought I’ve ever had online to appear if an employer googles me. I’d consider myself pretty patriotically devoted to the notion of free speech, even—especially—when the speech itself is offensive or pointless. At the same time, though, Amazon reviews in particular hold the power to do real and measurable harm to someone else, and I’m not sure current policies—and my own thinking, for that matter—have caught up to that.