(Photo by James Jordan, via Flickr)
Last Monday, over at Oldster Magazine, I took my own questionnaire. In response to a question about what's surprising about being my age (56), part of my answer was: "That Mean Girls dynamics and clique-ish social-pecking-order bullshit still crop up in places. Friends, I regret to inform you that high school never truly ends."
A few days later, "Who is the Bad Art Friend?"—Robert Kolker's much talked about New York Times Magazine feature about two women writers embroiled in an ugly legal battle stemming from accusations of plagiarism—led to an even uglier dogfight among the literati on Twitter, providing example #954,294,0102 of my observation.
I'm not going to go into the specifics of the writer-on-writer violence between Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. I'll bet most of my readers have already overdosed on the story and the many takes on it. But I want to comment on an aspect of the ensuing war that erupted on Twitter, because it's in keeping with what I've witnessed, experienced, and in rare instances shamefully participated in, since roughly 8th grade. I've been obsessed with this phenomenon for much of my life, and even have a chapter about it in my forthcoming book.
I'm talking about the kind of pile-on that occurs when one party, usually the more popular and socially connected one, builds an outsized case against another party, usually the less popular one, when deep down the first party knows they're wrong—at least in part—and can't neatly win the argument without fighting dirty and aggressively turning everyone else against the second party. When they unload their frustration on friends, the first party omits or fudges critical details, turning the second party into a complete cartoon villain who only vaguely resembles the real person. The friends—eager to come to the aid of their friend, and likely also enticed by a gossipy scandal and the chance to be aligned with the party who has more power—don't question the details. They just dutifully join the pile-on.
The gossip mill does its thing, and quickly the first party's patently evil distortion of the second party becomes accepted gospel, and gets further distorted from there. Inevitably, sometimes years or even decades later, the truth comes out. But very few are informed of it, leaving most to know only the version that perfectly maligns the second party.
In this case, though, information that was unfortunately not brought to light by Kolker's article came into clear view within a few days. The picture of Dorland as a desperate stalker no longer quite held water. My whole understanding of the story shifted dramatically from Wednesday to Sunday. Yet many others who took in these same details, who'd initially aligned themselves with Larson, still insisted on painting Dorland that way—even while they publicly acknowledged the new information.
Never mind that it turned out Dorland was tasked by kidney disease-related organizations with disseminating the message of her kidney donation—she wasn't just being self-aggrandizing. Never mind that it was a private Facebook group she shared her message to and invited Larson to take part in, and that Dorland posted a note in there saying that no one should feel obligated to stay in the group. Never mind that Dorland only approached Larson about her lack of interaction in the Facebook group because she thought it was weird—stalker-y, even—for analytics to show that Larson was spending significant time in the group without ever commenting or participating in any way. Alas, Dorland was justified in feeling suspicious of Larson's motives. Never mind that it was Larson, not Dorland, who filed the first lawsuit, making the texts in the group chat discoverable. Never mind that Dorland *is* published—many are still portraying her as only a wannabe writer, a sycophant sucking up to those with more experience.
I've come away not only with a different perception of this story, but also a different opinion—a lower one—of those who can't seem to acknowledge these updates to the story without taking additional shots at Dorland, doubling down on her being "extra," or needy. I wonder whether they're too proud to acknowledge being wrong, or too eager to remain aligned with the more socially powerful party, and those even more popular who've stood with her. Is their loyalty tribal? Or maybe it's that they don't want to give up the sick thrill that comes from punching down. I'll admit it can be irresistible. I am not 100% immune to it. I sometimes catch myself joining in the fray, and have to stop myself.
I joked on Twitter that the "discourse" in this instance boiled down to a conflict between tops and bottoms, not in terms of sexual dynamics, but rather personality types. I'm talking about freaks vs. geeks, popular kids vs. nerds. How dare Dorland try to befriend someone more successful (although, is Larson?), and more popular with the in crowd—or mistake that person for a friend, an easy miscalculation in an industry in which social media is the primary means for establishing "literary citizenship," and which adds its own warped impressions of "friendship."
Earlier on in the hubbub about Kidneygate, I posted a tweet that went viral about an "emotional vampire" I was acquainted with who once DMed me on Facebook to ask why I'd stopped "liking" their posts when they'd clearly observed me "liking" posts made by others. On the one hand, what that person wrote to me felt stalker-y, desperate, and creepy. Of course, I didn't say that. Like Larson, I was dishonest about the fact that I didn't really like that person—I blamed my inactivity on their posts on the algorithm, and then made it my business to do some "liking" to put my money where my mouth was.
On the other hand, what that person wrote to me felt identifiable. Honestly, who among us hasn't noticed and worried when a friend, or a "friend," started retreating, in real life, or in the digital landscape? Not completely ghosting, but back-pedaling? I know I have. I just don't ask about it; I try to instead swallow my pride, respect that person's choice and whatever is behind it, and take a step back myself. I Jonathan Livingston Seagull the person—set them free—something I trained myself to do back in high school, when I was still dealing with the fallout of a Mean Girls pile-on that had occurred in eighth grade. If a friend I've "set free" comes back to me, they were my friend; if they don't they never were, etc., etc. Or something like that.
Who among those we follow and who follow us are truly our friends? How many of those "friendships" are lopsided, wherein one of us values the other more? I ask myself these questions all the time. There are some colleagues I first met online, with whom I have what I'm fairly certain are actual IRL friendships. But even some of those sometimes feel disingenuous, or asymmetrical—in either direction. Does it matter, in any friendship, who's more popular, or if both parties don't share the same amount of social currency? Is the less popular/successful party necessarily an opportunistic user or a hanger-on? Are there humane ways for those who are more popular to address such imbalances, or to graciously let the less popular go? Is all of this just shallow nonsense? As grownups, why do we still care about where we stand in the social pecking order? How do we stop?
I don't have answers. I'm just asking the questions—over and over and over and over, all my freaking life. When I get too caught up in this kind of thing, I remind myself of a line in Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, in which high school student Lee Fiora's father says to her, "I want you to stop being so impressed by bullshit."