Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Anatomy of a Teapot Tempest: The Emily Giffin Story

So, a few weeks ago there was another lovely case of "ABB", Authors Behaving Badly.  This time it was Emily Giffin, a fairly well established author.  I say that never having heard of her before this debacle, but she did manage to hit #2 on the NYT Best Seller List.

A small interesting side note is that she commented on only getting to #2 on her Twitter and Facebook feeds with that line between pouting and playing.  This alone is worth mentioning as a sign that the internet has no sub-text.  There is no way to know if when you say "we only got to #2" someone is going to grin with you for the irony of pouting about being #2 on the NYT Best Sellers, or if they're going to chastise you for not reveling in the fact that you're, ya know, #2 on the NYT Best Sellers.

Rather than rehash the time line I'm going to direct you to some required reading, specifically the lovely blog Book Googles.  I've read a few blogs about it now and very few come to BG's fair reporting of the events as they played out.  For those not interested in the long story, let me give you the RD version:

Person A did not care for Giffin's latest work and gave it a 1 star review on Amazon.  Person B commented on the review to call the reviewer a psycho, and questioned the validity of the review since it was the only review that person had on Amazon at the time.  Person C enters the fray to call the B a "horrible human being" and accuses B of being Giffin herself.  B admits to being Giffin's husband.  Lots of comments fly around, mostly with B and C beating up on each other.  Person D enters, and defends B.  D is also Giffin's personal assistant.  Things mostly start to die down.

But then they heat up again.  Person E changes her previous 4 star review (she did enjoy the book a great deal) to a 1 star review.  Wackiness resumes.

Perhaps I should have made a flow chart....

So why am I commenting?  What can I possibly add to this conversation?

Well, here's the thing.  Everyone is quite content to slam everyone else, up to the point where Giffin is forced to issue a public apology and tell her fans to stop commenting on the review.  She goes into full defense mode, deletes all mentions of the incident from her Facebook Fan Page and just wants the drama to die down.

But no one had to do anything in the first place.  Each and every participant in this Teapot tempest opted in to the process.  And to what end?  Was there really an earnest expectation that their efforts and actions would effect some broader outcome?

The only person, and I do mean the only person, who is guiltless in this mess is the first person who did what you're supposed to do on Amazon:  You leave a review of a book.  It doesn't have to be a professional critique.  It doesn't have to a literary analysis.  It's just your thoughts on the book and a 1-5 rating.

And from where on out we had people choosing to engage for what they thought were great and noble reasons instead of doing what they should have done which is just hit "No this comment was not useful", perhaps hit "Report this" and then walk away.

Giffin's husband absolutely should not have made any snarky comments about this review.  Period.  That was the actual spark that set off this powder keg.  He claims he did so because they had been dealing with harassment and he thought that this particular review had come from Giffin's new stalker/ harasser 

But if that's the case, you don't post snark.  You contact Amazon.  If the harassment is enough that you have law enforcement involved then you contact them and let them do their job.  You definitely to not engage them yourself.

Next up is "UES" the commentor who "called out" Giffin's husband and both called him a horrible person and falsely accused him of being Giffin herself.  What could be the goal here?  If you really believe someone is cheating the system by commenting under a false name, then you contact Amazon.  You don't call out for a public mob to form and throw rocks at them.

Then we've got Giffin's own missteps in saying anything about this discussion to her fans.  No, no and no.  I'm actually going to give her the benefit of the doubt that she did not mean to directly call out the dogs.  I think she acted without thinking.   I believe she thought, honestly, "Haha, look at my husband defending me, I'll tell everyone how sweet he is" and just didn't think about the consequences.

We're back to asking each player that opted to join the fray, "What are you trying to accomplish?"  If we look at the each one so far, I'm quite sure everyone thought they were doing something "good", and something that would have "impact".

It didn't end there.  One reviewer went in and downgraded her review of the book into a review of this incident.  Again I'm left scratching my head.  What was the expected out come?  Did she really think that changing the style of her review would cause Giffin to shift focus?  Or that by making her review about the author rather than the book that she would affect sales?

I believe she did.  I believe that in her heart she was sure that her review had impacted people to buy the book as a 4 star and that she had an obligation to change it to a 1 to better reflect what she thought were the important points in deciding to buy this book and support this author.

And the world reacted as we could expect.

She got slammed by fans of Giffin for changing to a 1 star review.  But she also got slammed for making her review about the author, and not the book, which while I understand her intentions, I'm going to be honest:  I don't think Amazon Reviews should be about the person unless it is highly relevant to the kind of story they're telling.  That's my opinion, it is what it is.  But that said, can any of us be surprised that when she announces she's changing her review that the world goes crazy?

I want to pause here make something clear:  This does not excuse the levels of escalation that followed.  There is a very very thick line between posting a thought on the Internet, even an insult on the Internet, and making threats against a person either through word or through a phone call.  Under no circumstances am I trying to say that anyone deserves to be threatened with physical bodily harm.

Meanwhile people flock in to read her blog and see what was going through her mind, just as the flood to Amazon to see what other people think.  People start to tally how many for and against comments there are, what comments are ranked as helpful or not.  And it continues.

Looking back if we run down the list of the players, their intentions, and the effects it all begins to fit a neat, predictable, format.  Each person believed, I think, that they were acting with noble intent.  I also think that each player felt they "had no choice".  The reviewer says as much, that she couldn't in good faith keep her 4 star review in place and risk it encouraging people to buy books from such a horrible person.  How could anyone ask her to go to bed feeling guilty if that's the case?

But the truth of it is that every player after the first reviewer could have stepped back and done nothing.  The world would have continued to spin, and people would still be wrong on the Internet.  Everyone had a chance to walk away, but there's something about our own lack of impact on the world that we feel drawn to "do what we can".

And I think, now a few thousand words later, that's the real take-away.  People just want to feel like they're "Doing Something", even when there's no reason to believe, for a second, that their actions will actually have a positive impact.  They can sit back and say "No, nothing got better, but at least I tried."

And that's where I really question things because when the situation is left worse for your efforts, was your desire to "do something" really enough?  Or did the action actually create more harm than it healed?

I stand by the bulk of my advice from my post on Bullies.   Engagement is a dangerous option and while we may think it does good, rarely does it.  Everyone after the first reviewer had a chance to stop, step back, and walk away.  The choice not to is what really fuels these Teapot tempests and blows them into full strength hurricanes.

Amazon, for good or bad, did start the clean up.  as of this writing several posts and reviews were gone, deleted.  The above review that was a 4 star for the book and changed to 1 star for the author has been taken down by Amazon.  My money is that it was deemed to violate their terms of use, and thus they did what they do when that happens.  I feel a little bad for everyone who railed one way or the other over that review because in a few days it is all as though it never happened.


  1. This is a pretty fair depiction of everything that happened!

  2. Thanks. The great problem with being fair and balanced (not Foxnews fair and balanced) is that you don't often generate much buzz. Everyone likes DRAMA!