People Online Are Mean

Meghan Daum has a very interesting post in The Believer about what it’s like to be a columnist for the L.A. Times and the amount of invective that’s thrown her way:

These days, being attacked isn’t just the result of saying something badly, it’s the result of saying anything at all. I can testify to this, because for more than six years, I have been a weekly opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This is a great gig, and I have many loyal, smart, thoughtful readers. But I also live with the fact that practically everything I write is met with an avalanche of invective. It runs the gamut from partisan attacks to personal attacks to entreaties to my editors to stop publishing me immediately. Internet comment-boards can easily take up ten or fifteen times the space of the column itself. My email in-box overflows with outrage and umbrage: “Shame on you!” “You are an idiot and a disgrace.” “What a stupid little twit you are.” And, in one of my recent favorites, “You have no credibility because you let your opinion get in the way.”

Some weeks, if I’ve hit a particularly sensitive nerve, blogs of every imaginable variety will link to the column, offer their own spin, and then invite their own legions to chime in. On one hand, of course, this is what every columnist wants most. Like anyone who publicly expresses his ideas, be it through writing or music or visual media or anything else, the goal is to be heard, to inspire reaction and generate discussion. But based on much of the reaction I get—especially the comments in my own paper, where a stable of regulars have become so personally invested in their dislike for me that they’ve taken to remarking not on my column but on my looks, marital or reproductive status, and standing on the bitch-o-meter—I can hardly give myself credit for starting anything resembling a discussion. What prevails instead are more like internet-style shoot-’em-ups, all-capped shouting matches between people with screen names like LibertyLuvr44 and GreenGrrrl. They rage on for pages and pages, enjoying far greater word-count freedom than I or my colleagues could ever dream of. Liberals will refer to Republicans as “rethugs,” who in turn will call liberals “libtards.” Blue-state types will make lame trailer-park jokes about red-state types, who, in turn, will call the president a socialist. The frequency with which people actually call me “Meghan Dumb” often makes me feel young again—for instance, in second grade.

It’s said that writers need to have  a thick skin when it comes to bad reviews, but we’re reaching a point where the negativity is so common and predictable that even a scathing one-star review seems to say a lot more about the reviewer than the book.  Of course, there are those well-considered bad reviews that might make you want to curl into a fetal position, but the majority of one-star reviews seem to be written by a person with a personal vendetta.

Were people always this unhappy – and the web is just revealing so many people’s private minds?  These are difficult economic times, but there have been hard times in the past as well. Maybe this is being done by non-writers – people who don’t see words as carrying as much weight.  Whereas a writer is more likely to choose words carefully and think about his or her audience. It’s puzzling to me – because I’d never throw this much anger at a stranger. But then, I have an outlet in fiction, and I might lose my head if I didn’t have that.

Here’s an interesting post from New Scientist outlining why commenting has become so vitriolic:

Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity, a process called deindividuation,  we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.

This may seem far afield of self-publishing, but not really. Every comment is a form of self-publishing, and it may just be the ugliest kind of publishing there is.  Most of all, don’t take any of this criticism to heart.  The more successful you get, the more these types of comments will come.  So, really, negative reviews are as much a result of success as failure.

  • There’s more to it than deindividuation. It’s well known that if you can’t see the person as an individual, it’s easier to attack him. The darkness and distance in suicide baiting contribute to that. The internet allows both–you can be totally anyonymous, and you can easily forget that the other person is actually a human being like yourself. Add in other factors–political infighting is more out in the open, political divisiveness is widespread, and people have many reasons to be frustrated and angry, with few outlets for expressing it. The internet provides that. Finally, true literacy is going downhill, so a lot of people have a real problem understanding what they’re reading, and react to their own misinterpretations. Argument has become the substitute for discussion and debate, and television “debates” have simply encouraged that.

  • There’s a specific bias against writers at work here. The internet has democratized discourse, but the gates have been opened for wannabes with a grudge who tend to coarsen discourse.

    Those of us who really can write, who are confident in what we do, who can earn a living at it, are both admired for our success and made the targets of jealous, frustrated assaults by people who have ideas they cannot coherently express. We get the right to say something profound, but they don’t. Many believe a byline is a ticket to wealth, and they see success at writing as a zero-sum game. By winning anything at all, we cause them to lose–or worse, to be shut out and left for dead.

    • Eric, do you have any idea how elitist that sounds? And you do know that’s a capital offence, don’t you? But I’ve always been an elitist, come hell or high water.

      • Yeah, that’s elitist alright. But I loved every word of it. I’m prepared to die. Let the match be struck.