I’m back from my little blog break to bring you a guest post from Nicola Doherty, author of the recently released Lola Offline, which tells the story of a teenager who moves to Paris to escape her past after being shamed online.
Anybody who spends any time online is all too aware that putting a foot wrong and saying or doing the wrong thing can lead to an online witch hunt and doxxing, which can have a terrifying real world impact. There are so many stories of people who have made a mistake that’s gone viral online and led to them losing their job, their reputation, even their family.
I definitely think discussions about witch hunts need to happen, and books like Lola Offline are an interesting way to examine this rise of online vigilante justice, combining a real world issue with a humorous twist.
Just before I hand you over, I want to say a huge thank you to Nicola for taking the time to put this post together. I always love hearing about the inspiration behind different books, so I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!
The Inspiration Behind Lola Offline (Nicola Doherty)
It’s not often that you can pinpoint, to the exact day, when you had an idea for a book. But I can remember exactly when Lola Offline was born. On 20 March 2015 I went to a talk by Jon Ronson at King’s Place in London. He was reading from his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about people who’d become notorious for doing or saying the wrong thing online. There was Justine Sacco, who tried to make a joke about white privilege on a flight to Africa (she tweeted ‘Hope I don’t get AIDS – don‘t worry, I’m white’). When she landed at her destination, there was a giant mob of people there to shout abuse at her, as well as millions more online. There was also Lindsay Stone, who was pictured making a rude gesture at a military cemetery. She received death threats and lost her job. And there was Jonah Lehrer, who made up or doctored quotes for a book about Bob Dylan. What came across overwhelmingly was how, in each case, the people were so much more complex than the headlines. Lindsay Stone, for example, was taking a group of adults with learning difficulties on a holiday when she made her mistake. Nobody is just one thing.
I left the talk that evening knowing that I had to write a novel someone who had that experience and what it was like for them. I decided the main character, Delilah, should be a teen, because teen years are when you make mistakes and try to figure out your identity. Sadly it made sense for her to be female – I was also struck by how many of the internet-shaming victims were women. And crucially, I wanted her to try and escape to a new environment and change her name (to Lola). I love stories about disguises and trying to change identities. And it would allow me to set the book in Paris – with all kinds of picturesque and romantic possibilities. Because of course, the challenge to her escape would be getting to know people in her new place including a boy she liked.
The hardest part was figuring out what her crime should be. Initially I thought she could cheat on an exam or be caught plagiarising something – but that wasn’t serious enough. Then I considered her making an off-colour joke about a plane crash or similar tragedy. But then I thought that it would be best to tie her mistake to a conflict with one of her new friends. What if she made a stupid remark about race – and then fell for a boy who wasn’t white?
I wanted to be really clear that her remark, like Justine Sacco’s, wasn’t coming from real bigotry but was intended to be a witty, anti-racist one – that she was trying to show how woke she was, but having the opposite affect. From there I built a picture of her as someone constantly putting her foot in it, trying to be witty and falling flat – like so many of us.
The other thing I wanted was for this not to be a book bashing teens for their internet use. Yes, teens can live a lot more of their lives online than other age groups. When I was a teen, I had no internet presence whatsoever to worry about, which was just as well as real life was confounding enough. But it’s worth remembering that all the people in Jon Ronson’s book are adults, and that didn’t stop them making stupid mistakes. We’re all living online to some extent and none of us can do it perfectly all the time. So when someone says something we don’t like – online or offline – it’s worth remembering that the full story is always more complex than a tweet or hashtag.