“Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” the viral New York Times Magazine piece that charts the increasingly messy interpersonal and legal battle between two writer “friends” (frenemies?), has sparked myriad conversations, debates and (hopefully) a little soul-searching.
The topic of one of those debates is the group text. And for me, one question lingers above the rest: What shame would we each carry if our own private, catty correspondences were made public?
Because of its many layers of low-grade bad behavior on the part of all parties, the essay set off Big Internet Discussions.
For those unfamiliar with the Bad Art Friend mania, here are the broad strokes of the winding, lengthy story: Dawn Dorland, a writer, donated a kidney to a stranger — an unquestionably generous act — and then proceeded to post in a Facebook group an emotional letter written to whomever her kidney would ultimately go to. One of the “friends” in this Facebook group was Sonya Larson, an arguably more successful author, who Dorland knew from a writers’ workshop. After Dorland, who considered Larson a friend (a friendship that does not seem to have ever been reciprocated) reached out to Larson to inquire why she had not acknowledged her posts about the kidney donation, Larson was inspired to write a short story about white saviorism and organ donation that, at least in an early version, excerpted from Dorland’s original Facebook post. Lawsuits were filed. Countersuits were filed. Group texts and emails, in which Larson and her writer friends gossiped about and criticized Dorland, were made public through discovery. (And as a new trove of legal documents shows, the chats explicitly acknowledge that Dorland was the target of Larson’s fiction.) Allegations of bullying and harassment abounded. No one comes off well.
Because of its many layers of low-grade bad behavior on the part of all parties, the essay set off Big Internet Discussions — about art, about plagiarism (and to be extremely clear — lifting text from another writer’s posts for your story is not OK), about the ethics of real-life inspiration for fiction, about friendship, about mean girls, and, yes, about group texts. Specifically the horror of them being poured over by a legal team and published in the paper of record.
Throughout the pandemic, group texts have become a social lifeline for many of us; a paltry but essential replacement for the real-life gatherings we used to have easy and frequent access to. My own group texts are a constantly active space for daily life updates, outfit consultations, horror at the state of the world (climate change induced floods, Texas’ abortion ban, etc.), work complaints — and, absolutely, some pettiness. If I’m being brutally honest, I can see myself mocking Dorland’s self-congratulatory Facebook posts, even though I also believe that her decision to donate an organ deserves to be lauded.
I’m not proud of these moments of social smallness, but I also can’t pretend they don’t exist. Or that they may never occur again.
Research about gossip has shown that it is a morally neutral and deeply human habit. It’s also, despite being coded culturally as a distinctly feminine habit and thus mocked accordingly, quite genderless. Gossip serves as a vehicle for spreading and enforcing social and cultural norms, as well as strengthening interpersonal bonds. And it can be deployed in equal parts for good and ill. As the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who has spent years studying gossip, told The Atlantic in 2014: “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.”
Who among us hasn’t let off some steam about a person’s insufferable behavior on social media in a text message? Or denigrated a friend’s ex or their new partner? Or spoken ill about a person we love and cherish during a weak or emotionally impulsive moment?
In one of the many vibrant listserv discussions about this piece that I am privy to, someone brought up the oft-repeated advice that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Her takeaway was essentially that Larson and her friends, who did not consider Dorland a friend, should not have been cruel about her privately. In a simplistic sense, I agree — unnecessary cruelty is objectively bad, and we should all aim to move about the world in a way that does our community members as little harm as possible.