The vitriol of Twitter: How social media torpedoed Jonathan Ross hosting the Hugos
March 4, 2014 | 1:12 pm
Here’s an interesting article from The Nation about problems the feminist movement is having in discussions on Twitter. The fundamental problem is “intersectionality”: people in the feminist movement are other things besides “just” female—they’re rich or poor, they’re white or minority, and so on—and people at one end of a spectrum find things to be angry at the people on the other end about, even though they ostensibly share a common cause. And this anger is compounded by the Twitter discussion medium, whose short bite-sized chunks can lead to a spectacularly toxic environment.
I don’t really have anything to say about the arguments specific to feminism within the article—not being female myself, I feel unqualified—but the whole thing felt very familiar to me from my years participating online in various fandoms or other groups. I don’t mean to trivialize feminism, but the dynamic from the article reminded me a whole lot of the type of dynamic you’d see in broad fandoms. Some Robotech fans were fans of the show, others liked the books, others liked the comics, and so on, and when those different media contradicted each other, you got into the most virulent, toxic arguments, sometimes over nothing at all. The same with Transformers fans, Star Trek fans, and so on. Any group of people large enough to have internal subdivisions is going to have internal strife.
And that, in turn, put me in mind of the kerfuffle over Jonathan Ross emceeing the Hugos, the last couple of days. Now that the dust has settled, I’m going to round up a few more points of view.
Mistakes Were Made
For starters, here are a couple of good, level-headed looks into where mistakes were made, by bloggers Foz Meadows (as far as I know, no close relation) and Chuck Wendig. Ross had agreed to do the show for nothing because he was a fan himself. He had done some work in SF writing and comics, and his wife is Hugo-winning writer Jane Goldman, known for her work on the movies Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. Even though he was a UK media personality, he was not the complete “outsider” some have made him out to be.
One problem was that the convention chairs made the decision to ask Ross without consulting the rest of the committee. (LiveJournalist a_d_medievalist suggests it was bedazzlement with the star power of Neil Gaiman, who suggested Ross as a good candidate, that caused them to do this.)
The biggest problem was that, despite knowing ahead of time Ross was going to be controversial (con organizer Farah Mendlesohn, whose public LJ post about her resignation touched off the later conflagration, spoke of arguing with them for a week over it before it went public), the LonCon3 chairs apparently neither briefed Ross about the trouble he could expect to stir up, nor gave much thought to trying to put a positive spin on the announcement with a blog post or press release or such. They just dumped it out on Twitter.
Consequently, most Americans, who had no idea who Ross was, went ahead and googled him (or followed links to UK tabloid articles provided by Mendlesohn in her LJ post) and found unpleasant things—because the Internet runs on unpleasant things, so they always get the most search propagation. You don’t even have to look very far if you want a summary; Jonathan Ross’s Wikipedia page has an entire section for “Controversies.” The biggest one, involving a series of lewd answering machine messages left on 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs’s answering machine concerning his granddaughter, has a Wikipedia entry all its own. As I’ll cover in more detail shortly, Ross’s supporters point out that this does not necessarily paint the whole picture—especially since many of the sources of information are UK tabloids, which are known for being particularly vicious to people they don’t like—but the picture it paints certainly looks bad enough.
The complaints kicked off. One notable voice was Hugo-winning writer Seanan McGuire, whose series of angry tweets was oft quoted by bloggers looking for a convenient source of outrage. But the worst part of the vitriol was not so much that people complained—it was that they (though not McGuire, it should be noted) complained directly at Jonathan Ross, whose Twitter handle @wossy offered a convenient target for their ire.
An Unwelcoming Environment
It’s worth bearing in mind that this wasn’t just some unwarranted pile-on. The people who made the most fuss did have legitimate concerns. In comments to articles about the affair, Charlie Stross and Julie Hofmann cogently explain that sexual harassment, racism, and other negative behaviors at conventions have been becoming more and more prominent over the last few years, and there’s a concerted effort to try to clamp down and make conventions more welcoming, “safe” places for women. As Wendig puts it:
The SFF community (or “community,” given that we aren’t all given membership cards and keys to the guesthouse) has weathered a series of controversies recently, which one might think makes them feel fatigued but what it does is create a kind of social PTSD as a result of everything. It puts everybody on kind of a hair trigger, looking for controversy not because we necessarily like those controversies but because they seem so goddamn common anymore.
And a lot of authors, editors, and fans felt that having a comedian known for raunchy sexual humor hosting the show sent the wrong message—even if he could have toned his usual act down for it. Of course, he didn’t exactly make any efforts to be conciliatory when people started berating him via Twitter. He referred to critics as “stupid,” “haters,” and “small minded,” which effectively only fanned the flames.
(In Ross’s defense here, it’s understandable he would react poorly when hundreds of people he never knew suddenly started haranguing him via his own personal Twitter account. Anyone would. The failure of the LonCon3 folks to warn Ross what he was getting into so he wouldn’t be caught off-guard was another contributing element to the whole fuss. Even then, the remarks may have been meant as tongue-in-cheek—barbed wit is what you would expect from a transgressive comedian—but text-based communication over the Internet removes the emotional context from the words, and they inevitably come off the worse for it.)
Finally, less than 8 hours after the announcement on Twitter, he withdrew his offer to host. (At least he’s consistent; this morning the Mirror reported him offering Claudia Schiffer some innuendo during an interview on Friday, the day before the whole thing kicked off.)
In Defense of Jonathan Ross
Most of the media and blog coverage comes from the side of the fence that contends Ross would have been a bad choice. However, not everyone feels that way. Writer Amanda S. Green complains:
Apparently US authors and a segment of fandom are so precious and delicate that the mere presence of an author — usually male — at a con can keep them from going because he “might” say something “inappropriate”. I’m sorry, but really? Are we that fragile that the mere possibility that someone might say something you don’t like can keep you from attending a con or other activity?
In another blog post, she expands:
I will admit that the con chairs and the concom mishandled the situation on a number of fronts. But to put the complete blame on them for not turning it into a pr plus is to live in a fantasy world. The vast majority of fandom had not even heard about Ross being picked to emcee the Hugos before the concom member issued her very public resignation. Then the usual suspects picked up the cry of “evil man!” and the whole thing blew up.
I bet if, without the fires being fanned by the PC darlings, you had gone to an average fan and asked if they knew who Jonathan Ross was, they’d say no — unless they were from England. Then if you said he’d been asked by Neil Gaiman to act as host, their reaction would be “Cool. He must really be a fan of SF/F.” In fact, if you look at a number of the tweets and Facebook postings, etc., from those who were protesting him being named as emcee, you will see that most of them had no idea who he was. They were just piling on because someone else said he was mean to women and made fat jokes.
And Hayley Campbell at the New Statesman has a look at the affair from a more conservative viewpoint, including speaking to Gaiman about the matter.
At Loncon’s request, Gaiman asked Ross to take the stage at this year’s Hugos. “I think Jonathan would have been an excellent host,” he told me. “One of the things Jonathan is great at is making a room full of people feel comfortable. To be a Hugo host you need to be genuine, funny, respectful – and he is respectful, while still being cheeky. Jonathan would do it better than I did. And he agreed to do it for free because he is SFF family.”
“What was peculiar about the attacks was they had constructed an ad hominem straw man to attack, who was sexist, sizeist, hates women and likes making everyone feel bad,” said Gaiman. “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to Jonathan. While he has occasionally said things that make you go ‘Oh god, your mouth opened and that thing came out’, he is a consummate professional.”
“They’re my people,” said Gaiman. “And it does make me feel slightly ashamed of my tribe.”
(Though it turns out Campbell is not exactly a disinterested party. Natalie Luhrs points out that she is Neil Gaiman’s goddaughter, a fact not disclosed anywhere within the article.) Gaiman writes at greater length on his part in the affair in his journal.
And, it should be noted, the Hugos would not have been the first award ceremony Ross had officiated. He had previously hosted and entertained at the comic book world’s equivalent, the Eisner Awards at the San Diego ComicCon—a significantly larger convention than the Hugos’ Worldcon.
Jo Fletcher also complained about the Twitter-borne tide of vitriol:
If those who disapproved had contacted the convention committee, made their disapprobation plain and asked for Ross to be replaced, well, fine and good. Yes, go ahead and express your dismay – but that’s not what happened here. What we got was a sudden outpouring of hateful and bullying messages, and not just to the convention committee, but to Jonathan Ross himself: the avowed and passionate SF fan who offered his time and services free of charge to host an awards ceremony for the field he loves.
Which, again, ties back to the article on feminism I started out with—they’re having a significant problem with Twitter vitriol, too. It’s probably in no small part because Twitter posts things in bite-sized chunks. You have a very short time to think about what you’re saying between starting to say it and hitting enter, which often leads to posting before you think very much about whether saying that is really a good idea. You can’t go back and revise the beginning of a longer thought to be less ranty before posting it; once you hit enter, the bell is rung. And that’s on top of the already dehumanizing effect of long-distance Internet communication.
On the other hand, thanks to events like the Arab Spring, Twitter has come to be seen as a great equalizer—a way for people to make their feelings known publicly and drum up support when they think their voices won’t matter individually to those in charge. If they thought that the convention planners wouldn’t listen to them (and why should they, if they apparently hadn’t even listened to one of their own), taking things public is what they do. Arguing that they shouldn’t is like taking up arms against Shakespeare’s proverbial sea of troubles, because it’s not as if there’s anyone who can order them all not to do it individually.
Meanwhile, the blowup had a more human cost. Ross’s 17-year-old daughter, Honey Kinny Ross, engaged Seanan McGuire on Twitter to complain that McGuire’s remarks concerning her father were unjust. “I was horrified by your outrageous and unfounded assumption, that my father would ever comment negatively on a woman’s body. I’m Jonathan’s overweight daughter and I assure you that there are few men more kind & sensitive towards women’s body issues.” McGuire apologized, and said, “I will consider my platform for speaking better the next time I have concerns.”
And Ross’s wife, Jane Goldman, has deleted her Twitter account.
The convention chairs have since apologized publicly for their part in the debacle.
In the end, I hope everyone learned something—or at least that the convention organizers might have learned something about clearing hosts or at least preparing for controversy better. But once they had made their mistake, the rest of it really wasn’t about them. It was about the power of Twitter to self-organize its users into mobs with pitchforks and flaming torches. Who knows, maybe this time the mob did prevent a disaster—or maybe they chased away a friendly but misunderstood celebrity who could have brought helpful publicity to the Hugos. Without being able to look into an alternate timeline where things turned out differently, we’ll never know. And it seems likely that whether he would have behaved himself or not, Ross’s reputation would simply have brought too much baggage to the event, and kept a number of fans away, regardless.
But the power of Twitter to allow the disenfranchised, or at least those who feel they have been disenfranchised, to speak out is becoming more obvious every day, and it presents another minefield for event organizers to have to keep in mind when they make an unpopular decision—especially an unpopular decision that involves a convenient person-sized target for Twitter vitriol.
Note: This piece has been updated a few times since I originally posted it, adding links and clarification to new stories as I find them but not changing the overall viewpoint of the article.