Words by Rachel Connolly.
Sometimes a certain personal story will strike a deeply relatable chord with the collective, perhaps because it speaks to a fundamental element of the human condition—like feeling out of place, lonely or misunderstood—or because it seems to exemplify a familiar group dynamic. Maybe it relates to a wider social or political issue in which many feel invested. Or it may be a situation in which someone has been treated unfairly; the premise of fairness is often very stirring.
Narrative nonfiction—a style of journalism in which true stories involving real people are told in the entertaining fashion of a novel, rather than via straight reporting—has boomed over the past few decades. This American Life, which pioneered using this form in a radio context, has over two million weekly listeners. Salacious articles about striking protagonists written for magazines like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker or New York Magazine are regularly optioned for film or documentary purposes.1
The form has long been popular; Truman Capote’s 1966 nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, which told the story of the gruesome murder of a Kansas family, was a bestseller and is still a required text on many school syllabi.2 But narrative nonfiction is ethically controversial, particularly when you add social media to the equation. The potential for virality has created a strange ecosystem in which thousands or millions of strangers can discuss the individuals at the center of a story in real time. The analogous quality of these stories can make those involved seem less like people and more like characters; the online mob can choose a villain and lobby for their punishment.
One recent example of a story that turned normal people into microcelebrities was the S-Town podcast. This series saw producer Brian Reed turn up in Woodstock, Alabama, on the premise of investigating an alleged murder, after being repeatedly emailed by a resident of the town, John B. McLemore. Reed deduced that the murder had not taken place and recorded hours of conversations with McLemore in the process. When McLemore died by suicide while the podcast was in production, the series changed direction. Reed used earlier conversations recorded with McLemore (some off the record) and other residents of the town, to tell the story of his suicide and lifestyle.
S-Town was hugely popular; the themes of isolation, feeling like an outsider, and depression resonated widely. It has been downloaded more than 90 million times since it was released in 2017. This brought a huge degree of public interest in McLemore’s life and the town of Woodstock. Cheryl Dodson, a friend of McLemore’s who works in the local library and is featured in S-Town, says, “I didn’t know what a podcast was when I was originally interviewed. I had no idea. When it went viral and they were playing it at work on a loudspeaker, it was completely surreal.”
“I didn’t know what a podcast was.
When it went viral and they were
playing it at work on a loudspeaker,
it was completely surreal.”
Dodson says that when S-Town originally aired, she received harassment online from fans who believed, through the bond they felt with McLemore via the podcast, that there may have been signs he was suicidal that his friends had missed. As she points out, when people associate strongly with an impactful story they can forget that they don’t truly know those involved. “The seven hours [of the podcast] gave people a relationship with John but it was not in comparison to our 20-year friendship,” she explains.
The privacy invasion was particularly hard while grieving the loss of her friend. “People would argue with me and I would question myself about my friendship,” she says. But Dodson has used the momentum around S-Town to help raise awareness of suicide risks. She is now the president of the Alabama Suicide Prevention and Resources Coalition and runs Zoom classes for suicide prevention training known as Question, Persuade, Refer. She says the story of her relationship with John is familiar to many due to the podcast and that it has helped her connect with people from all over the world in the online training sessions.
“The cost is often people feeling
betrayed or unduly exposed. That isn’t
always a fair price for our entertainment.”
Dodson’s drive to make something positive out of this strange form of celebrity is admirable. But some of these stories, which turn normal people into totems, don’t seem to have a silver lining. Last year, the New York Times Magazine ran “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” a story detailing the legal wrangling of a pair of women who knew each other from a writing workshop and were embroiled in a plagiarism dispute.3 A dossier of private text messages depicted one of the women, Sonya Larson, and her friends talking about the other, Dawn Dorland. Dorland unearthed the texts during the legal proceedings and they were included in the article. This led to many of those involved being removed from their roles at GrubStreet, the nonprofit writing organization where they all met. Discussions about which of the women was in the wrong rumbled on social media for weeks, with many articles, blog posts, Twitter threads and podcasts devoted to arguing one way or the other. Opinion was split, and neither party emerged unscathed.
The audience response to such a piece is unpredictable. Robert Kolker, the journalist who wrote “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” addressed this after it went viral. “Neither I nor any of the editors involved in the piece expected it to turn into Twitter’s favorite parlor game,” he wrote. “I feel a lot of the debate that continues to swirl across Twitter risks flattening the piece into a tale of good guys and bad guys.”4
Even in circumstances where someone becomes a temporary public figure ostensibly for their own benefit, the loss of privacy can be devastating. Francisco Garcia, a journalist who wrote If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind, a book investigating the missing people’s crisis, has interviewed people who have found themselves in the middle of a social media campaign when presumed missing. These people aren’t allegories exactly, but there is a parallel in the attention they receive.
“The people I spoke with who’d experienced this kind of online scrutiny invariably referred to a loss of agency,” writes Garcia over email. “There are no real guidelines or rules of engagement with these things, and certainly no ‘aftercare’ for the person at the heart of it.”5
Garcia says it is hard to think of easy solutions to the problems wrought by viral attention, in terms of reporting guidelines: “I think a clear problem, though, is when these pieces are written in a deliberate viral register, clearly meant to scandalize. It makes for entertaining narrative nonfiction, but the cost is often people feeling betrayed or unduly exposed. And that isn’t always a fair price for our entertainment, depending on the subject and the story.”
Janet Malcolm famously addressed the ethical conflict at the heart of nonfiction in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer. She says that the practice is “morally indefensible. . . . Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson.”
Malcolm argues that, since a journalist chooses how to frame the events they describe, there is a power imbalance between the journalist and their subject which is inherently exploitative. In the three decades since the book came out, social media has allowed the audience to publish their own sense of a narrative too, without any expectation of professional obligations or consequences. “It’s funny,” Dodson says, when we speak about her experience of online harassment by S-Town fans, “I actually met one of them in person, and I did not know them but they recognized me and they were apologizing for what they did to me a few years ago. I have learned that when they are face to face with you, it’s not the same as what they do to you online.”