As a freelance writer in the digital age, I know from internet commenters.
“Do you have a drinking problem?” “SHAME ON YOU.” “I can’t believe I just wasted two minutes of my life reading this trash.” “Are you fully retarded, or just half retarded?” (That last one is not only offensive to me personally, but really, to humanity as a whole.)
I’ve heard it all.
It’s funny, because personally, I’m not a very opinionated or confrontational person. If you disagree with me on a certain subject, I’m the one who will be willing to hear your side of the matter, and I might even change my mind when you’re done. I must come off differently in my written pieces, because in the past two years of writing for various online media outlets, my articles and blogs have inspired a pretty shocking level of outrage.
Print media, in my experience, is a whole different beast. When you write an article that runs in the local paper and someone takes issue with it, there’s a whole protocol for readers to add their two cents. They have to craft a letter or email to the editor and sign their name (if they want to be published). Sometimes, you will even personally connect with this person by phone to write a follow-up piece or to explain your side of things. Their complaints are usually thoughtful; they have generally given their words more than 30 seconds of angry thought before vomiting hatred at you across a computer screen.
But there are no rules for commenting online. We are smack in the middle of the internet’s wild west age, and anyone can do or say anything – from stealing a copyrighted picture to writing “YOU SUCK ***!!!!1111!!!” beneath a well-researched article on a national news site.
I’m not saying that I, and other writers, do not deserve this criticism. I didn’t become a writer for people to tell me how great I am. But like most other writers, I am hugely self-conscious, and it’s a little jarring to be attacked by a nameless, faceless entity who really seems to hate me.
“You know, they do that to everyone,” my husband used to tell me. “They’re just sad people with no lives.”
But I knew that wasn’t true. Yes, many times, the so-called “trolls” were a bit kooky. But many of them were professionals with successful careers. Many of them were married with families. (Yeah, I stalk my internet haters. What of it?) Many of them were educated and had a lot of friends.
So what did that say about me, that they had such a profoundly low opinion of me — low enough to write things like: “How did you get this job?”
A few months ago, I took a break from writing for digital media. It was just time for me to focus on other projects for a while. I won’t lie, the lack of e-hate didn’t suck. It was kind of nice to pretend it was the ‘90s and write for print-only outlets. I started focusing on Catholic media, because religion is something I have a passion for, and as I learned more about my own faith I joined a few Facebook groups in my free time to discuss life and theology with other women my age.
The other members in these groups are dynamic and thoughtful, and threads often feature heated but civil debates on a wide variety of topics. However, especially when you’re discussing religion, it’s hard not to get so sucked into a discussion that it becomes an argument. Several times this has been the case, and though I rarely comment, I have on more than one occasion found myself having visceral reactions to the opinions of other women in the group.
A few weeks ago, one discussion in particular really hit a sore spot with me, and my jaw dropped at a comment that another group member made. Like a rankled mama bear I leapt to my keyboard, tapping out a vicious response to let this woman know, in no uncertain terms, just how far out of line she was.
As my pinky hovered above the “enter” button, it hit me: the image of myself, angry and hunched over a laptop, spewing animosity into a little white box to be published for the whole world to see. I had made a 180-degree turn. I had become the internet troll.
I deleted the comment and told myself to wait two hours, give it some thought, and then come back and post if I still felt like it.
Debate is important, especially on philosophical or religious matters, but the words I had typed to this woman were so filled with my own passion that they bordered on unkindness. My response wasn’t mean, it wasn’t unkind, it didn’t call the poster any names. But it was written in the spirit of anger, and when two hours had passed, I no longer felt that anger. I had even given a little thought to the words of the poster who had so aggravated me, and I could appreciate (a little) her opinion.
I still didn’t agree with her, but I didn’t feel strongly enough about it to take public issue with her words.
If I had posted a reply to her, I would have been careful to emphasize that I respected where she was coming from and the life experiences that led her to having this opinion. I would have tried to give a sense of my own life experiences, which led to my having an opposite opinion.
All in all, my brief foray into trollhood was a healing experience for me. I had inhabited the skin of the furious internet commenter, that mythical ogre who haunted my REM cycles, and I realized that inside, that ogre is just a person who is feeling a very, very strong emotion at a given moment, and maybe hasn’t totally thought about how they are coming across in black-and-white Times New Roman.
I still don’t think it’s appropriate to call someone the “r” word because of a blog post (or for any reason, ever). And yes, there are some people out there who genuinely derive pleasure from making others feel bad about themselves. Just like there are some writers out there who absolutely live to rabble rouse.
But for the most part, we all fall somewhere in the middle. We are writers who are passionate about something and maybe don’t always consider all sides of the story. We are equally passionate readers who cannot fathom that someone could possibly type this gibberish, submit it to an editor, and proudly post their name to it.
We are human beings who get carried away by our emotions. And we should try to take at least two hours to understand each other.
Image via badfads.com