“Eating batteries”. That was the title of the first post on 9-year-old Martha Payne’s food blog, NeverSeconds. Her plan to take a picture of her school lunch each day as a writing prompt had been thwarted by her misbehaving camera.
Just over a week later, however, on May 8, 2012, Payne posted two pictures of her lunches. They were skimpy affairs, even for a child’s lunch. Vegetables and fruit were barely to be seen. Payne’s father, David, tweeted “My primary school daughter is blogging her £2 school lunch experiences. I’m speechless. http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk Please comment.”
Not only did people comment, they passed the link around. David’s tweet was retweeted more than 500 times. Though Payne also tweeted the link separately to the attention of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and a regional news site, the blog seems to have gained its popularity through “old-fashioned” internet means. People simply passed it around. In hours, David Payne and the blog were trending topics on Twitter in the UK. The blog post received 25,000 views that day.
Though the NeverSeconds blog didn’t name the school, the media attention that followed that first viral post scrutinized the district, its policies on lunches, and its practices. Through it all, Martha and her blog were inconvenient fact checkers. When a BBC radio news program on which she appeared reported that students had access to mini tomatoes and watercress every day, she said, “I have never seen them.” She told of spreading the news around school that students were now allowed unlimited bread, fruit, and vegetables “because no one had gone around the classes and told them.”
The day after a reporter and some politicians attended lunch at the school, she reported, “The new things from yesterday, the radishes, the mini tomatoes and the shreddings weren’t to be seen today. Maybe it was just because my class was last in the queue and I was the last in the school to be served. I was looking forward to the radishes because I have not had one for a while.”
When the extra vegetables did show up in another day’s lunch picture, that picture appeared next to a beautifully arranged picture of a Taiwanese student’s lunch, saturated with color. Students had started sending Martha pictures of their own school lunches, inspired by the contrasts with her own. Even with improvements, Martha’s standard Scottish lunch fare couldn’t compete with these pictures.
It should be said that most of these comparisons weren’t particularly fair to Martha’s school or council. Not only did many schools spend more per lunch, but these schools were also often in relatively food-rich parts of the world. The northwest of Scotland isn’t known for being a fertile paradise. Scotland as a whole is a net importer of food, particularly fruits and vegetables. The region where the Paynes live is suited for sheep and timber and not much else. Getting good food to Argyll is expensive.
Add to this unfairness a headline in a Glasgow tabloid that blamed the problems with lunches on the staff who served them, and the Argyll and Bute Council had had enough. They rescinded Martha’s permission, originally granted by her school, to take pictures of her lunch.
It was the wrong decision.
In the month since NeverSeconds had launched, it had received two million page views. News media around the world were already paying attention to this nine-year-old activist with the adorable smile. Not only that, but Martha and her blog were in the middle of a charity drive to feed children in Malawi. With her ability to post pictures of her lunch gone, Martha blogged, she was afraid she wouldn’t meet her charity goal.
The uproar was instantaneous. If the launch of NeverSeconds had gone viral, news of shutting it down was pandemic. A child blogging about pitiful school lunches is news filler. A regional council so intimidated by a child blogger that they denied her access is news, even without the charity angle. The coverage was contemptuous. The council’s decision lasted less than a day.
Martha Payne went on to exceed her fundraising goal many times over and write a book with her father about her experience that continues to raise money. She received awards for her humanitarian work and for her food blogging. The Argyll and Bute Council received a few lines on their Wikipedia page for their mismanagement of the situation.
When you’re criticized online, chances are very good it won’t be by a child with a winning smile, but people will still be paying attention to how you respond. Be careful in how you treat power differentials between you and the person or people criticizing you. Note that while the council had more power than Martha Payne, using that power made them look weaker than her.
One of the hardest lessons to learn about online life is how it changes the power dynamics of meatspace and what that means for changed expectations of behavior. From nine to five, you may be a corporate drone making a barely living wage, if that, but in the evenings and on weekends, you may have a following of thousands. That means that what people expect of you in each place is very different. You and your coworkers organizing to improve your work situations will meet with much more tolerance than you and your organization or network of influential people ganging up on someone who told you were wrong.
Noblesse oblige lives on in social media. We haven’t abandoned old notions of class and power by moving online, merely made our categories more fluid and more confusing. In additional to classic notions of power, we now also have to consider administrator rights and a publisher’s ability to control access to others among our own potential powers. At the same time, we have the option to conceal our race, gender, socioeconomic status, and a whole host of other pieces of our identity that may mark us as less powerful in our offline lives. Some of those pieces, such as sexuality and disabilities, remain concealed unless we make a special effort to make them known. Pseudonymity and anonymity, which allow us to act with reduced repercussions, also shift power.
Though these may be difficult waters to navigate, don’t let yourself forget the lesson of NeverSeconds. Be exceptionally careful about using the power you have online against critics less powerful than you are. “Classy” is still the strongest compliment out there for handling online criticism.
Does that mean you should never use your administrator or publisher powers online? Quite the opposite. While you’re expected to exercise restraint, you have those powers for a reason, and you’ll see just as much trouble if you never use them. So what is a beleaguered online power to do?
Both administrator and publisher powers are the power to shape online spaces for other people’s use. Take some time early, before you’re being criticized if at all possible, to think about how you want those spaces to function. Whom do want to attract? Do you want a broadcast platform, in which you do all the talking, or a conversational platform? How much arguing do you want to put up with (or invite)?
More importantly than any of those, what can you cope with and handle your powers well? Are there subjects that make you unreasonably angry or even reasonably angry? Or fearful? Are there particular arguments? Argument styles? Political positions? Bigoted ideas? Myths about you or your organization? People who may be targeted with criticism, like family or friends?
Becoming emotional won’t necessarily impair your judgment in the moment, but it could. If there are things that will consistently get to you to the point where your desire to remove them from your spaces may overcome your desire to handle criticism well, think about them ahead of time. Consider creating policies for your space that both urge people away from those behaviors in spaces where you have power and provide an expectation that you will take action if those policies are violated.
If you prefer a more free-wheeling space, at least make sure you know what situations may challenge your decision-making abilities. Then plan for how you’ll separate your emotional reactions to those behaviors from your response to the criticism itself.
Of course, for a lot of online criticism, this is over-thinking the problem. Plenty of online criticism is simply beside the point of whatever it is you’re doing. At least as much of it is content-free, amounting to little more than the Futurama-derived meme “Your [ideas/writing/art/etc.] is bad and you should feel bad.” Whether you keep those kinds of criticism in your spaces also depends on your purposes.
If you’re under some kind of organized attack, your primary consideration may be getting your space back so you or your constituents can continue to use it. In that case, you may want to limit access to the space or take the time to delete the deluge. Alternately, evidence of that kind of organization may be useful. You may want to be able to show a volume of criticism that repeats the same misconceptions or that came from a single source.
You may also wish to consider removing low-content or content-free criticism for the same reason that many communities consistently remove graffiti. If you demonstrate that your space tolerates that kind of behavior, people are more likely to engage in that kind of behavior in your space. By leaving criticism that has value while removing criticism that doesn’t, you can hopefully model productive criticism to those who may become upset with you.
Finally, don’t forget who you’re representing. Even if you’re simply a social media intern who is going back to college at the end of the summer, even if your boss is terrible to you on a daily basis and you can’t afford to quit, the power you are perceived to wield online is the power of the organization in whose name you’re speaking. If you’re working for a multinational corporation that controls a substantial portion of the world’s wealth, you need to exercise the restraint that is expected to accompany that corporation’s power.
The rule of thumb when dealing with power differentials in which you have the greater power is that the more of it you exercise, the weaker your position appears to be.