Earlier this summer, Village Voice staff writer Elizabeth Dwoskin filed a story about Debrahlee Lorenzana, who had been fired from her job at Citibank because, according to her arbitration suit against the company, her body was too distracting for her male co-workers and managers. They had repeatedly attempted to control her wardrobe choices, which were not particularly revealing, it seems. The story went viral and was covered by major news outlets all over the world. Writing recently for the Columbia Journalism Review, Dwoskin remarks,
I watched this unfold in real-time—a punch-drunk, surreal, I-don’t-want-to jinx-myself-but-I-don’t-think-this-will-ever-happen-to-me-again sort of experience— extremely pleasurable, and also slightly disturbing. As a journalist, you spend so much time plugging away at stories that you hope will impact society. Then, suddenly, you hit on a sexy banker who lost her job, and, delighted as you are, you also can’t help but wonder: Is this what it takes to be talked about all over the world?
As Dwoskin points out, this is the weird reality of writing in an internet-mediated news culture. New stories can live and die by the page view. Notoriously, the blog Gawker once made editorial strategy of bonuses paid based on the number of views their stories received. That has changed a bit, as Gawker itself reported earlier this year. These days, bonuses are tied to the number of unique monthly visitors each site in the Gawker media empire garnishes over its monthly target. Exceed the expected number of visitors, and a particular site’s editor-in-chief has a bonus to divide among the site’s writers. I can’t declare this, prima facie, bad policy, but it certainly suggests the sort of viral-ness anxiety that Dwoskin is talking about.
In the end, even Dwoskin’s original story is in some way about the “viral” nature of certain kinds of superficial information and attitudes, as the alleged sexual appeal of Debrahlee Lorenzana increasingly became the central factor in her comfort at her job and for her professional prospects at Citibank. She tried to dress down, tried to appear less attractive (as her bosses apparently demanded), but her job became harder and harder to do. For all the questions about Lorenzana’s character that have cropped up in the aftermath, you can’t deny that her appearance came to dominate the story of her employment in a way we haven’t quite heard of before.