The other morning I woke up to several emails saying “Sorry about Mrs. C.” or “Don’t worry about Mrs. C.” I was not worried about Mrs. C, since I had no idea what they were talking about. I did know that Mrs. C was the wife of a famous novelist.
By the time I finish my coffee I have a dozen messages—”Wow. Mrs. C.”—and soon people I haven’t talked to in a decade are messaging me on Facebook, “What’s up with Mrs. C.?” I get the sense that Mrs. C. is saying something about me on Twitter when a neighbor stops on the street to tell me that he saw Mrs. C. retweeted by someone else.
Indeed, it’s beginning to seem like everyone I have ever stood next to in an elevator suddenly harbours a great desire to talk to me about Mrs. C. They want to hear what I have to say about Mrs. C. How do I feel about Mrs. C? The only thing I know for sure, by this point, is that half of New York City is very closely following the twittered moods of Mrs. C.
I had written a long piece on sex and the American male writer which had briefly touched on Mr. C.’s work, a year ago, but other than that I did not know Mrs. C. Apparently another piece I wrote had reminded Mrs. C. of that piece I wrote a year ago. Someone somewhere across the world is fomenting a revolution against a repressive regime on Twitter, but Mrs. C. is a little cranky about her Sunday paper.
Later I come across an article in a New York newspaper: “Mrs. C. and Katie Roiphe in Twitter Battle.” A Twitter battle! Wouldn’t this be a better battle if I were, say, on Twitter? (I do technically have a Twitter account that I have never once used. That Twitter account was set up by my 7-year-old, who set up her own account, @icoolirock, and then set up mine so that she could have a follower, since I don’t let her have strangers following her, meaning, basically, that her love for certain floppy-haired boy singers will have to remain, for now, a secret from the world.)
Soon news of the battle between me and Mrs. C. seems to have spread to other websites: mediabistro, the Atlantic, National Public Radio, Bay Area Observer, the Awl. Even I am not interested enough in Mrs. C.’s tweets to actually read them, and yet here they are spreading across the Internet. A slow news day, maybe?
What I found most intriguing is the question of why remote acquaintances would be interested in calling Mrs. C. to my attention. Many things may have happened in the intervening decade since I had spoken to them, but none had awakened in them the sudden desire to talk to me the way Mrs. C.’s vicious tweeting did. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon with a scathing review: People who are not my friends suddenly emerging to sympathize, to hear what I think or how I feel about my scathing review. Here, of course, is schadenfreude at work. This is a nervous city, after all, and we like a little of someone else’s downfall with our morning latte and paper. Of course this illicit pleasure in other people’s setbacks is nothing new; in his gorgeous 1961 essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White boy,” James Baldwin writes about the “bottomless, eerie aimless hostility that characterizes almost every bar in New York”, with people putting other people down out of “spite, idleness, envy, exasperation.”
. . .
But clearly the “bottomless, eerie, aimless hostility” he is talking about is not only floating around bars and parties these days, but on the Internet. The nasty rumors, the lies, the blatant attacks, the vengeance circulating, the trivial and contentless nastiness breeding more, the jealousy, vanity, thwartedness finding expression. Would Mrs. C., if she ran into me at a bar, confront me, or maybe throw a drink at me? I would say probably not (though Mrs. C. may be a bit volatile, so I can’t be sure).
Of course Mrs. C. has every right to express her opinions, and distant, long-lost acquaintances have every right to call them to my attention, in the spirit of concern or general curiosity or whatever mysterious motives animate people in tiny little moments like these. But it does make me wonder whether schadenfreude has a healthy new life on the Internet, the shadow city at war with itself.
The future of schadenfreude? I don’t know. I’ll have to consult with @icoolirock.
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.