A lot of things are said about social media and connectedness. Yesterday, after the Judith Griggs story broke all over the place, Noel Cody wrote, "It's surprising that, in our connected world, Griggs believed she could act the way she did and get away with it."
I'm not surprised, though. I've been blogging since mid-2002 and in the course of my, uh, blogging life, I've written about loads of things that have happened to me. So have many of my blogging friends. Yes, we get supportive, sympathetic and encouraging comments, but never has anything like this happened to any of us. No one took up our cause or got fired up enough on our behalf to offer more than the ordinary levels of help and support.
The fact is, when something like this happens we realise how very connected we all are, and how the Internet connects us; but it is a very rare thing, or at least, rarer than we realise. Whether or not an incident gets spread all over blogs, Facebook, Twitter and international news sites is often a matter of luck. In Griggs' case, I'm pretty sure she'd consider it bad luck.
One of the most important things here was Monica Gaudio's (the original blogger) friendship with Nick Mamatas on LiveJournal and Nick's posting, then tweeting about what had happened. He's an author, and writers tend to know each other -- it's a small community; the same goes with journalists, lawyers, and so on. So fellow writer John Scalzi read Nick's post and felt strongly enough to blog about it. He also tweeted a link to Monica's post. His tweet was then picked up and retweeted by Neil Gaiman, a very well-known author. This was the second important thing: like I said yesterday, Gaiman has 1,500,998 followers on Twitter, so his tweet was probably highly influential in setting off the Internet storm.
Looking at the chain of events, they might not have been entirely unpredictable but you couldn't say they were probable, either. In fact if Monica had not known Nick Mamatas, or Nick hadn't felt strongly enough to blog and tweet about it, none of the rest of this might have happened.
A few months ago, over here in Kuala Lumpur, a person posted a Facebook note about two petrol station attendants who had refused to lend him the station's fire extinguisher to help put out a fire in a nearby traffic accident. As a result, the accident victim, who had been trapped in her car, burnt to death. The story was blogged and retweeted by many, and picked up by at least two local online papers. When the story broke, the company responded by saying that the station attendants had refused to open the door or lend the extinguisher to the man "as he was not acting calmly when asking for assistance", which is a bit ridiculous -- the matter was urgent and it had been an emergency, how could they expect him to be calm?
There was some outpouring of anger and indignation against the petrol company in question. Some people called for a boycott of all the stations owned by that company. Yet all in all it was nothing like what Griggs experienced. The vilification only took place in small pockets among local Internet users. Life went on as usual for all the rest. And, ultimately, nothing changed. It became a sort of storm in a teacup, despite the loss of a life.
The point is, although there's always the possibility of someone voicing out their displeasure on the Internet, and this getting picked up by big name bloggers or international news sources, most people who act like asshats tend to think, "It'll never happen to me." That's a very human thing. It's also true that most of the time it doesn't, or won't happen. I do believe in "the power of the Internet" but I also believe in being realistic.
Somewhat related reading:
Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted (New Yorker)