In January of 2018, the manager of a small hotel in Dublin decided to check his email. Paul Stenson recounts the moment vividly in his blog; he went through a “whirlwind of emotions” when a social media influencer emailed him to offer an exchange of “exposure” on her platform for free accommodations for herself and her partner for four days, over Valentines Day weekend. The influencer held fast to flattery, calling the hotel “stunning” when the manger himself classifies it as a “budget lodge.” Instead of emailing her back directly, he decided instead to post a scathing and very public response on Facebook. It was brutal. He claimed that she had no self-esteem or dignity, shedding a whole new light on being humbled by humiliation. He asked her directly who would pay the salaries of the employees that were taking care of her if she herself was staying for free. He posted screenshots of her email with her information partially blurred out and, subsequently, initiated a rallying cry for all of the internet.
This situation calls to mind that of Adria Richards. When attending a programming conference, she overheard two men making a joke about “dongles”—this pun worked both as a computer joke, but also as an amateurish penis joke. Like Paul Stenson, she chose to avoid a direct conversation with her offenders and went straight to the internet. She championed a crusade to publicly shame the two men behind her, claiming that they were offensive and insensitive to the female programmers in attendance. But when one of these men lost their job, the public shaming turned on her.
Paul Stenson faced similar backlash when Elle Darby explained in a Youtube video that she had been exposed, and that her information had not been completely blurred out. She discussed how the exposure left her feeling horrible. She pointed out that a hotel or restaurant would not be able to exchange goods for advertisement on a commercial or billboard and outlined a business transaction that is becoming increasingly common. This video fueled the controversy and bloggers flocked to Trip Advisor to leave horrible reviews of the hotel in solidarity with the influencer. Paul Stenson stoked the flames. He explains in his blog that he was receiving millions of dollars in free advertisement from the scandal, yet he was angry that she was receiving more. He responded with vitriol. He outlined a plan to divide support into two groups, and essentially, continuously stir the pot to receive more notoriety. This is problematic: he had a fundamental issue with the morality and dignity of people who make their money via social media. He raised crucial questions about the implications of people being paid to review products and services, yet opportunistically manipulates the situation flagrantly for his own gain.
Ultimately, the issue on both sides is an ignorance of context and audience. When Elle Darby sent her email to Paul Stenson, she clearly had not done her research. The hotel was never supposed to be “stunning” as she so described it, and her lack of awareness of the financial ramifications of her request were clear. She reached out of her social milieu without educating herself on the social norms and necessities of everyday life in Dublin. She approached a hole-in-the-wall establishment run by simple people in the same way she might approach a swanky up-and-coming spot in London.
Conversely, Paul Stenson seems to lack an understanding of the ways in which many social media influencers live. He misunderstood her context, lumping her in with “entitled vegans” and “people with make-believe illnesses like gluten intolerance.” He interpreted the email that she sent him (alongside many other hotels in the area) as a personal attack, rather than a fairly standard business proposal. Like Adria, he rushed to the internet to unleash his fury on the “petulant bloggers” before considering that this was standard operating procedure in many places around the world.
This mutual ignorance and misunderstanding of audience and context led to a breakdown in communication, wherein there seems to be little willingness to mend. Elle Darby first disabled comments on her teary and heavily edited response video, and then deleted it altogether. Paul Stenson eventually banned all bloggers from his café and published a tell-all in his blog. Its rich with condescending commentary and assertions. Again, Hank’s and Adria’s story echoes throughout this example when he admits that he is fearful of even speaking to women in his office, just as Stenson abhors the concept of feeding a blogger. Instead of an opportunity, we here find a closing, a schism that is not easily repaired. There seems to me to be a way to negotiate a conversation such as this, but only where there is willingness and accountability on both sides. But in it, we can come to see the representation of many opposing forces that play a prominent role in our lives: that of old and young, republican and democrat, man and woman. We can come to understand this as a horrible example of what is to come from ignorance of who we are talking to and where they are coming from. It also makes clear that in order to move forward we need to exemplify a willingness to ask for and listen genuinely to the answers to these questions.