[Originally published at http://blog.nathanbransford.com.]
There was a pretty unfortunate scene at a book blog recently after a reviewer wrote an unfavorable review of a self-published author's book. The author responded with unseemly umbrage and profanity.
And then the Internet got involved.
Literally hundreds and hundreds of commenters piled on the author with snide remarks and scorn. Then the virtual mob took to Amazon, where they trashed her book, wrote faux five star reviews, and are continuing to have a great time at her expense (96 reviews and counting).
They may not have been wielding actual pitchforks and torches, but there are burnt embers all around the Internet.
Now, I want to clearly acknowledge that the author in question behaved extremely unprofessionally. No author, with the singular exception of Emily St. John Mandel, has ever responded to a bad review and come away looking good. Let alone with rudeness and profanity. It was an extremely unprofessional and unfortunate scene.
But did she really deserve this?
The Heart of the Mob
What are the motives of the people trashing this author? Does anyone really think that a virtual mob scene is going to prevent authors from behaving unprofessionally in the future? Authors have been lashing out over bad reviews for several millenia, methinks an Internet freakout will not bring peace in our time.
In truth, the actions of a mob say a lot more about the people participating in them than the person being scorned. And I think in the dark heart of a mob you'll find a quiet sense of relief. People are secretly and ardently glad that they're not the ones being targeted.
You can feel the relief and sense of superiority in numbers behind the mocking: Well, at least I'm not that bad off. And a hundred strangers agree with me.
But really that's a false sense of security. As the old quote goes, "A mob has many heads but no brains."
To Deserve is Divine
The other justification you'll hear is that the person in question deserved it. She brought it on herself by failing to edit her book or behaving unprofessionally or using profanity or etc. etc. And sure, there are consequences for bad behavior.
But what she deserved is compassion.
We've all made mistakes in our worst moments. We've all taken criticism too hard. We've all lashed out when we should have kept quiet. We've all said things we shouldn't have.
Now imagine that the mistake we made was met not with sympathy and fair consequences but with a mob trying to tear down everything we've ever tried to build.
This is a person who just wanted to have their book out there and has the same hopes and dreams as any other writer. Some rude Internet behavior negates all of that? People will ridicule her and scorch the Earth and trash what this author has built in the name of teaching a lesson?
Let's not kid ourselves that a lesson was taught, other than to remind us, yet again, that the Internet is a terrifying place to make a mistake.
Nathan Bransford is the author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe and have to find their way back home, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in May 2011. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry.