Notes on a Fuck-Up, Part 2

This post is a bit unpolished–I’m still thinking about that xoJane piece and about how anger works as an economic force.

I used to read and comment on a board (which shall remain unnamed) which had both regular authors a heavy forum presence. The writer still had a privileged position, the object of commenters’ adoration and loathing. The forums generally stayed separate from the content. Some of the writers worked as forum moderators, which didn’t exactly encourage love between writer and poster, as the writers generally only interacted with the posters to scold them or kick them out of the forums. The writing itself existed in a vacuum of sorts–you, the poster, were not friends with the writer, no matter how much you wanted to be.

xoJane is run like a clubhouse. Staff members have public biographies, which may or may not include details about their writing work but must include details about their hobbies, clothing, and sex lives. Writers are encouraged to interact “below the line” on their own articles. In addition, editor Jane Pratt constantly runs articles about work process and friendly interaction between staff members. This fosters a sense of camaraderie—the commenters are encouraged to empathize with the writers and staff as if they are all friends and workmates. The attempts to create intimacy work–some of the commenters have memorized the writers’ life stories, remembering details from past stories.

This clubhouse atmosphere creates a set of rules. Certain values and worldviews are constantly promoted by the writers and commenters. In xoJane’s case, three of the big promoted rules are that 1) a person has the right and possibly the duty to tell her own story; 2) narratives by nonwhite writers are undervalued and should be brought to the fore; and 3) no one should be made to feel ashamed of their body.

Jen Polachek’s article breaks every single one of those rules. She appropriates her fellow yoga student’s story, narrating a woman’s thought process.* What’s more, she is a white woman telling a story in which she takes on a black woman’s perspective, and in the process she implies that a black woman’s body is an object of shame. She’s writing directly in contrast to these unspoken community values. It’s kind of the equivalent of writing an article for PETA about how killing a whale made you feel sad, or writing an article for Reason about how affirmative action is fucking awesome, yo.

Why would an editor rush in an article that goes against the ethics of her readers? Simple–a writer who’s willing to write an article that tramples all over these moral codes is ideal because she gets the most page clicks. Regular readers are more likely to emotionally invest in the article, restating their ethical boundaries and establishing their own moral superiority. This leads them to denounce the writer in the comment section, then they return to the page to read the reaction and further interact with other posters. The volume of interaction draws more readers, who may publicize the article through social media, which draws more clicks and possibly attention from other online outlets. The publication can then publish a series of responses and apologies, which make for even more pageviews.

It seems as if the community’s shared values exist not to be put into action, but solely to be outraged–articles about the trials of shopping while fat or dealing with kinky hair may make the community feel good about its collective self, but they’re really just strengthening community bonds for the next article about white women giving lotus birth into Prada purses.

* Why are Polachek’s own feelings and experiences invalid? She wrote a first person account of her own feelings, after all, and a person does have the right to tell her own story. How does a person invalidate her own story? When does somebody’s experience turn from enlightening to disgusting? I’m obsessed with that idea right now–how people fuck up in shaping the presentation of their own lives, and how aspiring writers are taught to be “likable” or, well, not so likable. It’s a weird, amorphous subject but I can’t shake it.

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