As a writer who would prefer to survive, you learn early on not to read the comments. It’s like specifically seeking mean gossip re: you in middle school. Learning what people (esp. strangers) say or think isn’t really productive to becoming a better person or writer. Sure, every so often they’ll point out incorrect information, present an alternative opinion, or otherwise point out something that actually is helpful. That’s rare, though.
In general, you find shit like this:
This specific message addresses my piece investigating dope dives in Atlanta. First of all, isn’t the term “dive bar” a little fluid and open to interpretation? Secondly, I did a little cursory research on the human who felt the urgent need to share this opinion with me. He lived in freaking England—which, sure. Maybe he’s visited Atlanta before or maybe even spent time living here. Third, that scale doesn’t make sense given his final score. But none of that seemed important enough to dissuade him from hunting for me on social media and shouting his feelings in a very direct way.
Not that the above dude’s message is unique. This is what I find in my Facebook Other and Tumblr inboxes like... often. It’s harder to ignore the bullshittery when readers specifically seek you out to let you know how much you suck. When I wrote that one piece for VICE back in August, that was a fucking shitstorm of direct nastiness. People were @ mentioning me about a hateful thinkpiece on not only my work but me, for fuck’s sake (not to mention this all rained down on me while trapped in a bumpy moving truck, set on a 2000-mile move south). It’s not like my experience is an isolated one, either. One of my good friends, Jessica Misener, is a senior editor at BuzzFeed. She told me about a Reddit thread directed not at anything specific or even general she wrote. Nope, it concerned her, as a person. “One time Redditors came after me,” she said. “And posted screenshots from YouTubes of me and discussed my ‘neck and arm fat.'” This attack was most certainly personal.
If the comment section on websites is an open platform to speak your mind, deliberately approaching a writer via a personal email address or Facebook or Tumblr message is like holding a megaphone to one’s mouth and shouting it directly in their ear. And when you do a lot of writing for websites who abandon a comment section altogether—like I do for several outlets—the very specific, direct hostility grows in frequency. When I covered music with more regularity, I always prepped for a negative album review to run by turning off the option for anonymous Tumblr messages. Now that I mostly write commentary on sex and dating trends as well as my personal life, I’ve had to block several people from a Gmail account I created while still in high school. But anyone who makes a living writing for the Internet will tell you that’s just part of your job: tolerating trolls.
Comment sections can be really valuable for creating a sense of community amongst a readership. Manifesting a productive dialogue is great—it’s part of why the Internet mostly rules. Plus, having your opinion heard is a common human desire. I get that. Unfortunately, though, it’s a privilege that seems to get abused more often than it is used for constructive conversation.
It’s a little different, too, when someone you vaguely know IRL gets aggressive in making sure you know their strong dislike of something you said. Recently, I shared a Twitter exchange between Diplo and an artist from who he lifted some art and initially did not give her credit—although he eventually did remedy that, albeit which some pretty chauvinistic language. Anyway, I quickly shared this on Facebook, adding, “What a cool guy!” Within five minutes, a lot of my feminist musician friends replied with the same hasty disgust I felt. But then one person I knew peripherally about a decade ago started blowing up my Facebook chat, responding in a visceral way. She pointed out the same slippery reality of the Internet and sharing and those rules. I shot back a succinct, polite response then left my apartment. She kept messaging so much I eventually muted the conversation because like, I had shit to do and it had my phone vibrating. I deleted the post in a failed attempt to sate her and end the aggression. But when the mute expired or whatever, revealing her continued efforts to harp on my momentary lapse in judgement, I tried to mute it again from my phone. Unbeknownst to me, though, it actually blocked her.
A few days later, my phone buzzed with a text from an unknown number. It was the same woman from before, demanding to know why I blocked her on Facebook, why I deleted the post, calling me a “hypocritical feminist,” and WTF WTF WTF. I don’t even remember ever sharing my number with her but apologized for the unintentional block, hurting her feelings, and asked her to let it fucking die because like—seriously?
I’m all for being accountable for what you post on the Internet because it’s just so easy to be willy-nilly about it. We all remember the Justine Sacco snafu—and have been recently reminded of the tradition of punishment by public shaming. At what point does someone cross a line? There is some sick sense of congratulatory satisfaction that comes with calling someone out. I know I caught a quick whiff of it when mindlessly choosing to share the Diplo Twitter exchange. There’s a tiny hint of a back-pat we get when we correct someone’s bad behavior or uninformed opinion. I stand by my first feeling that Diplo was wrong for saying what he did to that woman—but why did I need to share that with my 1.7K Facebook friends and 120 “followers” with that caption? It was an impulse I allowed in a brief lapse of judgement and foresight.
However, with this specific case, I feel like this transcended Internet justice and accountability and encroached on harassment. If this was a stranger, I would have had no hesitation in reporting her to Facebook and blocking her on every device possible. Since she is a person I have interacted with in human form, though, it felt extreme. But would it have been? Where is that line and how do you handle people not just toeing it, but dramatically leaping across it and maybe even peeing on the other side? And should I have just not deleted that post and continued arguing my opinion?
I wonder if this sort of online culture that takes such zealous delight in highlighting others’ mistakes will force more accountability on us. In a way, that could be good. It could entice folks to research issues about which they proudly, loudly, and publicly make proclamations. Maybe more people would have listened to just one Lesley Gore record in its entirety if they knew someone would quiz them re: their fandom following an obituary FB share. But does this mean we have to have fiery feelings to back each passing opinion we share on the web? That sounds like more work than is reasonable to expect.
Regardless, I think we all need to chill the fuck out. Once the communication crosses a threshold—breaking free from the democratic restraints of a designated comment section and moving on to more direct approaches—shifts the person’s role from Internet vigilante to bully. These people think they’re holding a functioning microphone but little do they know the power is cut because they already blew the P.A.