I caught a decent little movie on Netflix last week called Heckler. It attempts to document the contentious relationship between comics and comic actors and those paying comedy club patrons who take it upon themselves to confront them during their sets, hoping to, I guess, get the upper hand in a battle they're sure never to win. At least that's the way it starts. What the movie evolves into, though, is an examination of every kind of criticism those who put themselves out there as performers have to endure in the internet age: from the traditional art of criticism that's degenerated into an "anyone can do it" mentality to the legion of snarky anonymous trolls who turn the comment section of every internet post into an ugly flamewar.
Keep in mind, given that Heckler was made all the way back in 2007, an eon ago in terms of social media development and proliferation, it barely scratched the surface of how vicious it is out there. These days, internet outrage is an everyday fact of life -- one that's been honed to a scalpel's edge. If anything you do is public, you need to understand that your good reputation, success, even personal respect in the community exists solely at the mercy of the largess -- or at least ignorance -- of the internet millions. And here's the catch: Everything you do is public -- thanks to the internet. Whether you know it or not, you're likely under surveillance, a permanent self-sentenced inmate in a digital version of Bentham's Panopticon. If you're not sitting alone in the panic room you built in your basement, making the mistake of thinking no one's watching you can be a near-fatal one.
While many times in the past I've defended the way the internet has created a shockingly transparent culture, one in which it's almost impossible to spew bullshit without people being able to see right through and call you out for it, I've also written a hell of a lot about the dangers of a society in which anyone can be brought down by a huge social media campaign spawned by one person's dissatisfaction. Thanks to our hyper-connectivity, we're all a bunch of piranhas now, able to turn on a dime and mindlessly converge on whatever hapless prey suddenly presents itself, stripping it bare in a matter of seconds -- in the case of social media, whether the target is deserving of the attack or not.
Over the past several days, two stories have garnered national media attention thanks to the fact that they prove the sometimes awesome power of internet hive-mind indignation. By now everyone's familiar with the cautionary tale of Chelsea Welch. She was a server at a St. Louis Applebee's until last week, when she posted a customer's receipt on the internet and it instantly went viral. The receipt was signed by a pastor named Alois Bell who had decided to scratch out the automatically included tip, adding the snotty comment, "I give God 10%, why should you get 18?" Needless to say, the internet went ballistic at the perceived injustice and its collective hackles were raised even further when everyone learned that Pastor Bell had contacted Applebee's and demanded Welch be fired. She was. And the web lost its freaking mind. When I initially popped up a quickie post about Receipt-gate, I predicted that it would take no time at all for the Cycle of Social Media Celebrity to enter its next phase and for Chelsea Welch to become the beneficiary of a massive grassroots campaign to get her rehired or to Kickstart her bank account into high gear, filling it with more money than she would've made in 40 years at Applebee's.
Well, guess what happened?
A few really entertaining columns have been written from the internet public relations perspective documenting not only the outpouring of righteous anger to rain down on Applebee's via its Twitter and Facebook accounts, including threats of an at least loosely organized boycott, but the company's breathtakingly inept response to that show of force. My company does a lot of social media PR and my disaster counseling to clients, no matter how big or small, is always the same: be honest. Shoot the hostage. Do whatever needs to be done to take the crisis into your hands and own it before someone else does -- and do it fast. Like everything else, social media has democratized outrage and turned an insult to one person into a potential insult to millions, whether those millions have any stake at all in the original offense or have simply taken it upon themselves to jump on the bandwagon.
Applebee's doesn't have to rehire Chelsea Welch if it doesn't want to, but it had better give the teeming masses gathering at its virtual gates a clear, concise picture of why it did what it did -- using, if necessary, the strongest possible language -- and avoid a lot of flowery BS that's not going to satisfy anyone anyway. It needs to take ownership of its decision and realize that, in our ADD, 140-character culture, very little horrible publicity will last too long but the memory of how it handled that publicity can. There's nothing wrong with pushing back a little; even a company in the hospitality industry should understand this.
Did Chelsea Welch deserve to be fired? Who the hell knows. But I'm not sure Applebee's, which I have to imagine serves hundreds of thousands of people a day without incident, should be drowning in 20,000 pissed-off Facebook comments threatening its business over something that negatively affected exactly one person (two if you count the now all-kinds-of-contrite pastor).
But while Applebee's is trying to gloss over a bad situation as best it can because its only core belief involves the making of as much money as possible, a small mom and pop bakery in Oregon reports to a higher authority apparently and is willing to risk a financial hit for it. Sweet Cakes in the Portland suburb of Gresham is being negatively Yelped to death at the moment, thanks to its decision to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple last month. Shop owners Melissa and Aaron Klein have inscribed on their website the John 3:16 Bible verse in plain view, so you should probably know going into it that you're likely dealing with conservative Christians and should probably go elsewhere if you're a same-sex couple. (Am I subscribing to an unfair stereotype? Maybe, but why take the chance of turning your big day into a nasty public fight, unless you're inexplicably predisposed to take on every single one of the world's injustices at every turn?) This particular same-sex couple claims that the owner called them an "abomination to the Lord," a charge that owner flatly denies. Aaron Klein did admit, however, that he refused to create a wedding cake for the couple, saying that while he wishes them no ill-will, "They’re making a choice to do what they’re doing; I’m making a choice to not be a part of it."
First of all, the Kleins may be breaking Oregon law by discriminating against a couple because of their sexual orientation, but more to the point: Who the hell thinks it's a good idea to discriminate against lesbians when you're living just outside Portland, Oregon? It's like refusing to serve white people in Orlando.
It'll surprise no one to learn that since the same-sex couple went public with the slight by filing a formal complaint, business at Sweet Cakes has reportedly exploded, Chick-fil-A style. (For those keeping track, yes, first it was chicken sandwiches now it's cupcakes that are being used as ammo in our insufferable culture war.) But a sudden jump in popularity certainly wasn't the goal of the hundreds of people who've lambasted the business on Yelp. Reading through the comments and ratings of those who have an obvious political and cultural bone to pick with Aaron and Melissa Klein, unfortunately, reads like comments and ratings written by people who have an obvious political and cultural bone to pick. For the most part, the Yelpers slam Sweet Cakes for its decision to discriminate -- but there are plenty of people who attack the shop's food as well. Here's the thing: It's one thing to genuinely say you don't like the food a place serves, but it's another thing entirely to make the claim that homophobia literally leaves a bad taste in your mouth as opposed to just figuratively. Either way, the Kleins are now finding out the hard way what happens when the internet piranhas, fairly or unfairly, zero in on you. While I disagree completely with their beliefs about gay people -- to say nothing of the religious nonsense that spawned them -- I will say that it's a good thing for them that they're unwavering in those beliefs because the whole thing is going to turn their shop from a small community bakery into a national flashpoint.
You can't control the internet, especially when it's angry, no matter how hard you try. All you can do is react to it properly. I more than occasionally feel like that's dangerous because while we all get a visceral thrill watching an entity we despise being taken down by Twitter, Facebook, etc. it opens up an obvious question: What happens when someone we don't think deserves it gets the same treatment? What happens when the piranhas turn toward and descend on you?
Yesterday a lot of people enjoyed a heaping helping of schadenfreude watching a publicist for the giant, galaxy-swallowing event horizon of ego that is Beyoncé politely ask Buzzfeed to remove a couple of shots from its Super Bowl halftime show pictorial that she found unflattering. In other words, she tried to censor the internet, which these days is tantamount to trying to physically bend reality to your will. Needless to say, Buzzfeed not only didn't comply, it put the pictures in a highlighted post called "The 'Unflattering' Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You To See." If the purpose of the request was to use reverse psychology to make her client look terrible because she secretly hates her or something, congratulations -- mission accomplished. If she genuinely thought the free-for-all that is social media would kowtow to her will and do her a solid -- instead of, say, turning the pictures into the next big Reddit meme -- she's nuts and should be fired immediately.
The denizens of the internet will not be denied. When they act as one, they can be the only heckler truly capable of taking the floor away from the act on stage, whatever that act and whatever that stage may be. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on your point of view.