Essay:
Buzz Kill
What are the media ethics of sending ordinary people viral?

Issue 45

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Arts & Culture

  • Words 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 ha...

( 1 ) The viral story of Anna Sorokin, who fooled the New York elite into thinking she was a German heiress, has spawned a memoir, a BBC podcast and a Netflix series. Unlike so many of the subjects of virality, however, Sorokin has profited from the attention: Netflix reportedly paid the imprisoned con artist $320,000 for the rights to adapt her story.

( 2 ) In Cold Blood is seen as a pioneering text in the true crime genre. Capote made the unusual decision to hear the killers' version of events and became emotionally embroiled in their fate.

( 3 ) The conflict at the heart of “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?" is convoluted, but centers on Larson's decision to write a short story criticizing a woman who donates a kidney—something that Dorlan had recently done—as suffering from a savior complex. Writing in The Guardian, Emma Brockes summed up this genre of story: “Here are some people you’ve never heard of—and, guess what, they’re awful!"

( 4 ) In his piece, Kolker appears bemused by the popularity of “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?" “I remember thinking that the case was so complex and the issues so insular that it would be hard to get anyone interested," he writes.

( 5 ) In his 2015 book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson writes about the growing number of companies that offer reputation management services for people who have found themselves unwittingly in the public eye. Ronson follows one woman's journey as the company Reputation.com attempts to wipe an embarrassing viral photo from the internet by flooding Google with other content about her.

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