This is a short post, because I don’t know what to do with my sadness at a well-known educational technology blogger with a huge following, who’s so enamoured of his own popularity that he writes an April Fools farewell note to blogging, that references the personal impact of blogging on him in terms of hate mail, threats, and clinical depression, and then spends the aftermath passing on the supportive tweets he got from people who responded with concern for his wellbeing.

This, edtech, is our own tiny little version of the #CancelColbert satire moment.  The pressure’s on to get to the joke, to joke back, to be the first to spot the cryptic clues in the post itself and to not be fooled. 

Because of course all those people who did stop to comment on his blog, or send him kind messages on Twitter, now realise that they are the straight guys to this hilarious set-up: they are the fooled. Without them, the joke is a tree falling silently in a forest, but now the fooled are part of the spectacle. They are its very ka-thump.

Maybe you need to know Steve, to be a mate of his, to view this stunt with affection. Maybe you need to be male, or British, or something or other.  I can’t imagine.

But here’s the thing: like Dave Cormier, when I read the post I just got stuck thinking of the people I know who are on the blunt end of this foolish play, the people (interestingly, mostly women) whose blogging really is controversial enough to bring them threats, or those who have recently shown the extraordinary courage to write out in public — in front of their colleagues, their friends, their families, their bosses, their children — that clinical depression is the name for what they walk with every day. Every single day.

To these people, as to those of us writing with illness, the internet has been a place where we have been trusted to be dealing with this stuff simply because we say we are. There’s no other proof. And those who take the risk of showing kindness towards us have made an incredible difference to how we experience whatever it is we experience. We’re all frankly a bit amazed when someone is unmasked as having invented serious illness or loss to get attention online (not to mention cash), because that fabrication does something to the fragility of trust in these networks of concerned strangers that’s quite hard to repair. If you’re fooled once, you’re much less likely to trust the next stranger who asks for help.

And the result is that we become bystanders: people who look away when someone says that they are being harmed or threatened, when they say they are struggling. We become the people who rationalise their looking away as a healthy scepticism. Because, you know, we’re not fools.

So now I think I want to say to Steve: please just take a step back from your joke, and go read those bloggers who really do deal with trolls, or those for whom alcoholism and depression aren’t quite so backslappingly funny. Because it’s obvious that you get that satire has its limits, otherwise surely you’d have announced your April Fool retirement from blogging due to, oh, cancer, or your upcoming rape trial, or the death of a child.

See? These things don’t work, do they?

And for me, neither do the things you joked about.


UPDATE: On April 2, Steve Wheeler published a follow up post explaining his joke:

Of course blogging carries with it the risk of misunderstanding and even rejection, and some bloggers are the targets of those who overstep the mark and who are aggressive or even abusive. No matter who you are, there will be people who oppose you. Some bloggers do indeed suffer from depression and may even resort to alcohol or other substance abuse to escape from the pressure of sustaining their writing. Others are profoundly affected by harsh comments on their blogs. It’s not always a bed of roses. Anyone who is a public author must try to come to terms with such issues if they are to make any progress with their writing. Most of the comments I receive on my blog are very constructive and even those that disagree fundamentally with what I have written are generally presented in a firm but polite manner. Discuss: Is a ‘joke’ like this a valid way to promote discussion?

There’s really nothing I could add to this. – KB

16 Responses

  • thank you. Steve’s post seemed caught up in cleverness (the first letters of the paragraphs do spell April Fool, as Sarah Honeychurch noted on FB)…but totally without filters. message often trumps delivery – and that’s GOOD – in these networks of concerned strangers…contributing to people’s skepticism with a setup where people’s choice is to extend kindness and be made a fool or walk away and harden a bit? that’s a choice with repercussions for everybody.

    i hope Steve hears this and owns it…i think how he handles this will actually determine the damage/fallout from the post more than the post itself.

  • sophylou

    And then there are people who are depressive but don’t write about it (or write about it much) because making it public could cause more problems– trolls, people who inadvertently say the wrong thing, making yourself unmarketable. That erosion you mention of the fabric of trust: imagine someone writing honestly about something difficult and having people respond as if you were kidding.

    And I’m angry at the utter devaluation of actual feeling, and at the sense I have of emotionally freighted language being emptied of its meaning for the sake of a snarky joke. I have days when I need to find ways to distance myself from marketing language, phrasings that sound like commercials, and general snark (especially when they overlap) and right now I just want to point at this blog post and say “this is why.” I’m angry at seeing people who were offering sympathy being made to be part of the joke, because tech culture (or “regular” culture too?) these days seems so focused on making sure we know that efforts at, or expressions of, human connection are foolish and must be ridiculed and blocked as signs of resistance to technological progress.

    I was moved to tears yesterday by this anonymous account of a Harvard student’s acquaintance rape and her giving up on any help from Harvard: I had a slightly different but similar experience as an undergrad, and her description of how radically her sense of her future had altered struck a powerful chord in me: yes, I remember that, and how disorienting that is/was, because in college *everything* is about your future. The Daily Crimson closed comments on that post. I did want to reach out to her, but I fully understand comments not being opened. I also can only imagine how angry and ashamed I would have felt if that account had turned to be a joke: angry, but also deeply ashamed at having had such an emotional response to something I “should” have been smart enough to detect. In addition to your excellent points about trust, it’s that shaming, all around, of those who commented with sympathy, and those who didn’t comment but who were affected by the story, that really angers and grieves me.

  • ChrisM

    I fully agree. An incisive, articulate and thought provoking post – as always. I love reading your writing, Kate 🙂

    • sophylou

      Me too, Kate — I have been thinking I need to make time to really dig into your blog.

  • Speaking as the British Male representative, it just isn’t that funny because it isn’t that funny. Mostly because it’s a real situation. Which is ok, people can make mistakes.

    The follow up post is just a paragraph of privilege gone wrong. Some depressed people turn to alcohol or substance abuse? WTF?

    One of the great things of english identity is that for every Wilberforce there is a Rhodes, and it’s easy to see similarity of people who are hugely different characters. I’m not a great one for taking prisoners (shall we say), but with that comes the fact that I am more than willing, almost effusively willing to say sorry.

    Which sums it up for me.

  • Katherine

    I would expect a ‘joke’ to provoke ‘discussion’ would be neither funny nor provide deep debate.
    I also think there’s a major difference between those of us who blog in public about public stuff (where the debate is professional and ad hominem attacks can be dealt with after only the tiniest hitch in composure) and those of you who blog about ‘private’ stuff as it impacts on your public world, things like illness and working conditions, where you put yourself out there ut hominem, and any disagreement is partially ad hominem, by default. (My Latin’s a bit rusty, so I hope that still works).
    Thank you for your honesty and openness, I’ve found your blog moving and important.

  • Deb

    Depression is no joke. It should go without saying, but there it is.

  • sophylou

    tl;dr version of that added paragraph: “Can’t y’all take a joke?” + “‘But if it made us all DISCUSS, it’s totally worth it,’ says the wise old man.”

    • Quite, I am so wise even my jokes lead to debate.
      Am sure Plato said that once

  • sophylou, you might be interested in the memoir College Girl, written by Laura Gray Rosendale, who is my dear friend and neighbor. It is an account of her brutal rape and attempted murder when she was an undergraduate at the University of Syracuse. The grandfather of the rapist was the chair of the board of trustees at Syracuse. The dome is named after the family. The school did nothing to help her, but the book is much more than this account. She also reflects on memory making and even goes back and interviews her roommates and friends when she was in college. She discovers how much the event had an impact on the shape of their lives too.

    • sophylou

      Janna, I’ll have to look for that, if I’m up for it. My experience took years to surface, so my college was not involved and no one around me had any idea (was my boyfriend). What hit home for me was the indifference of the institution to the deep depression I fell into, and the disruption of the sense of a future. It’s an important story, important to tell, and the idea of someone capitalizing on what depression does/is and making concern part of the joke… just makes me mad.

  • I’ve never liked pranks. It’s aggressive and pranksters seem to derive pleasure from confusing people.

  • Bravo.

  • Bad taste remains sadly in continual practice.

    The minimal redeeming value of this, on the open web, is a shining display of behavior not to emulate. I purposefully follow a few twitter accounts and blogs as a reminder of “if ever I approach sounding like this…, STOP”

    Thanks for the beam of light.

  • @timbuckteeth ‘s nonpology is a perfect example of why I have never followed him. I find his nonpology abrasive and an absolute example of why sometimes I want to quit the interwebs.

  1. Dear Kate | The Not Me  May 27, 2014

    […] posts; and she has even gone out of her way to stand up for me and others like me on her blog (see here and here). Kate has done all of this for me, even though I am a relative stranger/virtual friend […]

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