At around 10:15am on Saturday 1st March 2014, LonCon3 announced that they had secured Jonathan Ross as toastmaster for this year’s Hugo Awards. Not only that but he’d do the gig for free, being a massive fan of the genre.
Six hours later he resigned the post following a barrage of criticism from numerous attendees threatening to hand in their tickets. Most of whom, it seemed, were deeply unhappy with his views on women. (The Sachsgate affair was pinballed from tweet to tweet along with a Daily Mirror piece listing his most controversial moments.)
Net result: the awards lost a name that could have helped boost exposure to genre fiction in the UK.
Personally, I’m fairly ambivalent about the man. What infuriates me, however, is the growing trend of a small yet immensely vocal minority screaming their views above those of the largely silent majority. It’s misrepresentative, destabilising and it’s getting flat-out ugly.
The internet has given the world the single-most important advance in the communication of ideas since the invention of the printing press. It has been instrumental in shining a light on areas that others would prefer to keep under wraps. Crucially, it has given a voice to anyone who can find an audience.
It riles me, therefore, when I see that voice used to harangue and bully other people and to stamp their thoughts, opinions and efforts into the dirt. Some are forgetting the power inherent in their words, or simply don’t care. Confirmation bias then further blinds them from alternative standpoints – if their peers and followers are also up in arms then they must be right, right?
What is often overlooked, however, is the view from the other side of the fence. That tidal shitwave of criticism quickly becomes overwhelming, like some Distributed Denial of Comeback attack.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. I saw this last year in the run-up to the World Fantasy Convention, the first to be held in the UK for 16 years. The flashpoint came when it transpired that the organisers hadn’t explicitly put in place an anti-harassment policy. Up until that point much of the grumbling online seemed to revolve around the event selling out well ahead of time and that some were eBaying their memberships for a profit.
Then all hell broke loose. Because anti-harassment policies had become the latest brickbat seized by the so-called “social justice warriors” (a pejorative term that only helped stoke the fires), the spotlight quickly fell on WFC 2013. The organisers (all volunteers) were soon lambasted left, right and centre across the Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles and blogs of everyone and anyone keen to throw in their 2p. Much of the criticism came from bloggers and authors who weren’t attending the event, where they could perhaps have backed-up their opinions face-to-face.
But matters did not end there. Soon a fire was lit under the lack of wheelchair access to the registration area. (Yes, this could have been handled better, but there were plenty of volunteers around to help and the registration area was a place you only needed to access once.) The panels themselves were next under the microscope, with a lot more scrutiny on panel parity and the names of said panels than the discussions themselves. Then the £5 charge for each Kaffeeklatsch was attacked as shameless profiteering. Each successive progress update was soon picked apart for passive-agressive soundbites, and so on and so on and so on.
The hysteria rose to such a degree that I began to wonder what the hell I’d let myself in for. This was going to be my first convention and the furore surrounding it was a country mile away from the relaxed atmosphere I was hoping to find. Furthermore, I dreaded to think how all of this heated comment (which often bordered on invective) would seem from the organisers’ point of view.
When I got to the event I found my hopes and fears confirmed. The convention was brilliant. It was everything I expected to find and so much more. Everywhere there were authors and industry professionals happily chatting away with anyone who wanted a word. But at the same time I learned how much of a toll the whole event and its run-up had placed upon the organisers. One likened the summer months to an echo chamber of non-stop criticism. The three years it had taken to organise the event meant nothing to those looking in from the outside.
As a result, WFC 2013 marked the last convention the organisers would put on. The strain of it all had exceeded the joy of hosting the event. Who knows when the next WFC (or WHC) will be hosted in the UK? Who in the UK would want to bid for an overwhelmingly US-based event if all they’re going to receive in return is criticism?
In short, thanks a bunch, internet. Shame on you.
Now we are seeing pitchforks and burning torches raised when a convention announces a toastmaster that doesn’t meet with universal appeal. The clamour from an indignant minority reaches fever pitch and forces someone out before the majority have a chance to weigh in and balance the discussion. There are nearly 6000 attendees for LonCon3. It is a convention that caters for science fiction across TV, film, video games and comics as well as fiction. It took a tiny percentage to affect a change that switched off a potentially huge spotlight on the Hugo’s in terms of potential UK readers. At this rate they’ll wind up with a cardboard-cutout of a beige, wholly inoffensive author few outside the genre could give a flying fuck about.
Sadly, I can offer no panacea for this social ill. Until the silent majority tells the immensely vocal minority to tone it down the doers of the world are either going to harden against the criticism (which won’t do anyone any good) or they are simply not going to bother (which is worse).
One final thought before I leave. I’m finding the growing trend of people cynically using their social media presence somewhat unedifying. 2013 was a cruel year for fiction, for example, in which we lost a significant number of popular names. Twitter feeds were filled with condolences from fellow authors on a regular basis, which was a nice gesture until several said “I never met him/her, but…” or, even worse, “I’ve not read any of their work, but…”
Towards the end of 2013, Channel 4 aired a TV programme in which Charlie Brooker listed his top 20 most important computer games of all time. Number one was Twitter. At the time I thought it was a smug cop-out, but ever since then I’m coming to the conclusion that he was spot-on. The me-too bandwagon-jumping and the collective outrage all seems like clickbait to help accrue followers and to gain exposure. (On a related topic, I’ll leave the deep suspicion with which I view some book blog retweets for another time.)
When you take a step back from the fire it all just seems a little bit suspicious, don’t you think?
P.S. I am wholly aware of the irony of slamming social media outrage with a rant on social media. Don’t even start.