Marina Joyce: from empathy to entitlement in one angry mob

2016 Revisited: The wider online community went running to the rescue of vlogger Marina Joyce. But when it didn’t get the answers it wanted, the search party became a witch hunt

In the last few days, the hashtag #SaveMarinaJoyce has trended globally on Twitter. Marina Joyce is a 19-year-old vlogger, who, like many others, demonstrates beauty tutorials and chats about her life with the camera on her laptop.

She likes cats and is vegan. Until this week she had a dedicated following of around 600,000 people. In the last few days this number has skyrocketed to more than 1.6 million subscribers. They’re mostly here for one reason.

In recent months, Joyce’s short and well-lit fashion and hair-curling tutorials became more sinister. Her usually chirpy presenting style deteriorated into pressured speech, alarmed glances away from the camera, and, while applying eyeliner, whispers that sounded like “I am so afraid”. The clean editing became choppy, almost surreal. This previously charismatic teenager’s sentences ran into one another, as she began repeating herself. A shotgun leans on her wardrobe in the background. In her most recent video, advertising frocks from a small clothing company, she models and poses while repeating herself and looking off camera, her expression flat, her eyes miles away. There are bruises all over her thin, pale arms.

Viewing these videos feels like a particular kind of voyeurism: the kind that reels in hundreds of thousands of internet users and lights online fires under conspiracy theorists. From the Twitter and the Youtube community to Reddit and 4chan, viewers are speculating about what exactly has happened to Marina Joyce. The theories range from notions that she is being held against her will; has been potentially kidnapped by Isis; has been kidnapped by an abusive boyfriend; is partaking in a viral marketing ploy; is using drugs; or is suffering from schizophrenia. Initially, most of the speculation seemed to come from a place of genuine empathy. Fellow Youtubers responded with videos containing both theories and sympathy.

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An image of the girl's eyes has been blown up, a figure allegedly reflected in the pupils. The first time I saw this done was in Twin Peaks, when agent Dale Cooper seeks the identity of a suspect in Laura Palmer's murder in the reflections of her eyes on video. Stay-at-home detectives are keen to not only solve this mystery, but to rescue Joyce.

The police were called and visited her parents’ home, publicly reporting that she was safe, but the internet was not satisfied. Joyce tweeted sporadically, strangely, and on Thursday gave an interview with prolific Youtube host Philip DeFranco. While she was buoyant and chirpy, she still seemed distant, and didn’t appear to understand what all the fuss was about. She assured DeFranco that she is fine, and that she is grateful for all the new followers and for everyone who cares about her. It is difficult viewing.

The tone of the discussion about her behaviour has changed, as the internet tides are prone to do. She made brief mention of the whole situation being a “publicity stunt by her followers” – and the internet railed. At time of writing, the twitter hashtag updates 60 new tweets a minute. A second hashtag hatches: #dontsavemarinajoyce. In a moment empathy turns to outrage in this online landscape; in a second, outrage turns to cruelty.

This drop in the digital ocean is a 19-year-old girl’s life. When the crowd realises that their projection of dramatic disaster on to a stranger is unfounded – when the answer is more clearly and more prosaically that she is unwell or has suffered some unnamed personal trauma – they turn to their digital pitchforks. We see it again and again with mainstream celebrity culture: delight in nurturing fresh gossip turns vicious.

This incident is a perfect example of how empathy operates online, alongside impulses of anger, outrage and, importantly, entitlement. Social media gives users a false sense of intimacy with the people they follow. Twitter and Youtube particularly foster a placebo relationship between the follower and the followed. This relationship is largely one-sided. Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post, in an article about Joyce, notes that, "Social scientists have a name for this type of relationship: It's called a 'parasocial interaction' – the one-sided illusion of intimacy on the part of a person who knows a lot about someone else – and it's in full-force online."

What people share online is a curated glimpse into their lives: sometimes we see more than they intend to offer. Marina Joyce’s particular saga is not some shallow case of celebrity dating, product placement or outlandish photoshopping: it is a case of the internet suspecting trouble and running to her rescue, only to decide that not only is she unworthy of rescue, but the search party has becomes a witch hunt.

There is a blurring line between traditional celebrity and online celebrity: the internet is an open media landscape where success, notoriety or the places those things meet can happen to just about anybody. A girl with a camera in her bedroom can become an icon, a millionaire or a tragedy, depending on how the internet feels on any given day. The internet is unpoliced, ungoverned: social media is so new to us that ethics can still feel grey.

The internet runs parallel to modern life. We write to it, we express ourselves there, we find information and friends and comfort and entertainment there. How we behave online is a reflection and a record of how we are as a people. Even though it moves at an incredible pace, news ages faster: we are both overstimulated and jaded by it at once.

This saturation demands critical analysis: what can we learn here, what can we learn about how we behave as people in a digital world, and what that means for our external lives. I scoured the internet for information about Marina Joyce, and tracked mushrooming opinions about her situation and her as a person. I feel for her, for her family: I come away thinking, I hope she’s okay. I am not sure this is the case for everyone keeping up with this story, and I wonder what that says about us, and what we can learn about expectations and entitlement online from this.

As the internet grows around us and we become more fluent year on year, we should learn how to be better; how to elect empathy over outrage; how to moderate our entitlement. We should learn how to be kinder, and we shouldn’t feel like we deserve access to people’s entire lives, just because social media and broadcast channels offer that potential.

A 19-year-old girl should be able to paint her eyes and curl her hair on camera without offering the truth of her entire life as though it were details of a sponsorship deal: and she shouldn’t be punished for the decision to not disclose details of her private life and her health. We probably shouldn’t assume people are still broadcasting from hostage situations after police intervene: we probably shouldn’t look for kidnappers in the reflections of a girl’s eyes on camera.

We do though. I’m not sure if we will stop, I’m not sure if we will learn or what comes next. I am, however, sure Marina Joyce is safe, if not necessarily exactly as she was before.

At the time of writing, she has just uploaded a new video called Facts About Me. Joyce reads questions from her phone, and answers them. She’s an Aquarius, like me. Her favourite colour is indigo. Her favourite word is love. If she had to choose between having trust or love, she’d rather have love.