We don’t stop to think about it, but the same people who console us, congratulate us and like our la-di-da posts wherever we’ve built our social networks can also rise up to defend us. At any moment, our friends can become our armies.
Seattle bartender Victoria Liss learned the hard way just how dangerous that can be.
The story’s so good, you’ve probably already heard it. Liss was filling in at Bimbos Cantina on Capitol Hill two weekends ago when a customer left a seriously bad tip: $0 in gratuity and the message, “P.S.: You cold (sic) stand to loose (sic) a few pounds.”
Later that night, Liss shared a photo of the bill on Facebook along with her opinion of the “yuppie scum” who left it, sparking an online hunt for the customer so frenzied it made headlines (and kept comment moderators busy) in The Stranger, the Seattle Weekly and the blockbuster blog Jezebel.
Then, when the widely reposted photo of an “Andrew Meyer” who Liss said was the stiffer turned out to be an innocent “Andrew Meyer” in Texas, the story went wild, hitting NPR, Gawker and even the U.K.’s Daily Mail as another cautionary tale about unchecked facts and unleashed rage. By Friday, 68 ugly messages had reached the wrong Andrew Meyer, who told Capitol Hill Seattle he was considering taking legal action. “It’s a whole lot easier to say something mean when you can just type it, I guess,” Meyer told the site.
Liss swung from victim to oppressor over a bad ID. But even if the wrong Andrew Meyer had been the right one, there’s a lesson in her story — not just about “checking and re-checking,” but about the unexpected and almost unfair responsibilities that can come with raising a personal army online.
When I was a staff blogger at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, my editor, Don Smith, rolled off a favorite quote every time comment trolls hurt my pride enough to make me want revenge: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” This time, I’d think, making my way to Don’s desk with a new grievance, this time he’ll agree this jerk is worth taking on. He never did. And it never was.
Calling out jerks gets you nowhere if your site hosts umpteen armies in umpteen public culture wars every day. But if your site is Facebook, let’s face it: shared anger can be wonderfully therapeutic.
Before Liss attached a name to her post about the tip, her friends’ responses were crude but harmless — the better to help Liss laugh it off. “I curse him to a diarrhea weekend,” read one of the more publishable comments (seen in screenshot posted here). Liss seemed pleased. “You guys are the best,” she wrote.
It could have ended there, but Liss’s story was picking up steam. Everybody was hating on this guy. That had to have been thrilling. Pretty soon, her readers wanted marching orders. “What a #$%@ing piece of shit, was his name on that receipt?” one of them asked Liss. “Andrew Meyer,” she answered.
And with that, Liss’s support group became Liss’s army.
At this point, the digital trail gets fuzzy (and is getting fuzzier. In addition to deleting several Facebook posts from her Wall, Liss has changed her public Facebook name to “Vadge McMasterson”). It may have been Liss or a lieutenant. But someone first posted the picture of the Andrew Meyer that she would mistakenly say was the man she saw at Bimbos.
Facebook is a closed network with a lot of little openings. With enough oomph, things do get through. That Monday, Dan Savage sounded off on the drama. Then Liss gave an interview to The Stranger, making her potentially contained accusation undeniably public and taking her battle out into the wild, drawing skirmishes in more and more battlefields as the photo of Meyer fueled more targeted insults.
Her mistake, once revealed, brought her vendetta to a screeching halt — at least, for her. She apologized again and again. “So sorry to the wrong guy, everyone please just drop it?” she wrote that Tuesday.
The question mark is telling. By then, she must have known the battle she’d started was too big for her alone to stop. The army she’d raised was too big for her alone to see. Skirmishes had cropped up everywhere, and troops she couldn’t reach had dug up more information on Meyer and his family and launched their own attacks.
Her fight was no longer in her control. But its consequences were, and still are, her problem.
The social media explosion gives us the power not just to share, but to rage. Raise an army, though, and you raise the stakes. Its reach can be as small as your largest network or as big as the whole world. The difference is in the bloodlust — which can be as cool as you expect, or more vicious than you dreamed, taking on a life of its own as it pushes beyond the walls you assumed would hold it.
If it’s a cause that can change minds and do good, you’ll be grateful. If it’s revenge against all the bad tippers in the world, that’s a lot of pigs to wrestle. You have to wonder — is it really going to make a difference?
There’s the army you see and the army you don’t. So think before you march, General. You’ll be responsible for the actions of both.
Mónica Guzmán is a digital life columnist for GeekWire and a community strategist in startups and media. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman or reach her via email. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.