When Twitter Q&As Backfire Disastrously 

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

This was not a good week on social media for writer E.L. James of Fifty Shades of Grey and would-be US Presidential candidate Gov. Bobby Jindal. Both took to Twitter to answer fans’ questions. But both are controversial figures, and the majority of Tweets were delightful take-downs that burned so good.

First up: E.L. James. The author is loathed by vocal segments of the internet; James haters are legion. You can hate her for her painfully bad writing, which wouldn’t fly in a GCSE English lit class. You can hate her for the fact that Fifty Shades began as fan-fiction of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight. Or you can hate James for inaccurately depicting BDSM and for framing the abusive relationship between the two protagonists as the height of romance. Take your pick! Twitter users on #AskELJames certainly did.

You should check out the hashtag, which has provided days of endless entertainment and is still going long after James’s PR team cherry-picked some soft questions to answer.

Some James fans were upset about the ridicule sent in the author’s direction. I think she’s more than a fair target: the majority of Tweets criticised James’s writing style and characterisations, which are valid subjects for a writer who has earned tens of millions of pounds from her work. Debates over the way Fifty Shades portrays the relationship between clueless, virginal Ana Steele and the brooding, stalker-y billionaire Christian Grey have swirled in online communities for ages, gaining strength again this year when the Fifty Shades film came out. Since James’s latest book Grey retells the story through Christian’s eyes, long-simmering concerns found a new outlet in the Q&A.

You can read more about “50 shades of abuse” here (I’ve also written about the disturbing themes in Twilight, upon which Fifty Shades was originally based). This is an instance where Twitter mobs are raising awareness through irony rather than getting out their pitchforks for no reason.

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A similar movement of derision to expose hypocrisy was in action for US presidential candidate and governor of the US state of Louisiana Bobby Jindal, and his unravelling Q&A disaster. It appears that Jindal’s PR people missed the James kerfluffle, because on Tuesday they asked Twitter to leave town hall questions for him under the hashtag #AskBobby.

Jindal is widely known for his anti-science views and mixing a hardline Christian rhetoric into politics; both have earned him a history of internet scorn. He is fiercely opposed to reproductive rights, marriage equality, and immigration reform, but he believes in demonic possession and exorcisms. Unsurprisingly, #AskBobby did not go as planned.

We hope the answer to that is never. This material is gold, and exactly what Twitter was made for. While it is unlikely that either James or Jindal had to sift through the negative Tweets themselves, many a headline has since been generated about the real questions people wish they would answer.

In these cases, the sub-narrative created by Twitter users became the dominant reported story, with attempts at self-promotion washed away in a wave of truth-telling and 140 character-shots fired.