Stop. Think. Don’t press ‘Send’ just yet …
I am compelled this week to consider the state of electronic communications and the ease with which people take offence, misread information and then, and this is the killer bit, post some excessive, out of all kilter bit of vitriol that somehow – somehow – is okay because we all know it’s okay to be offended and outraged and to say so in the strongest possible language.
Many years ago when on-line forums were new and before FB really got going; there were no Blogs, no Twitter or Snap-chat, etc etc, I joined an on-line writing community. I thought this would be a good thing – post some of my stories, the odd chapter of an odd novel and get some feedback from like-minded people. It was a reputable organization over-seen by someone big and respected in Hollywood. In order to get feedback you had to read and comment on three stories. The more you commented the more you could expect feedback on your stuff. All good, I thought. But you know where this is going…
I dutifully read my quota of stories. Most were pretty ordinary, some had potential and some should not have been published, even in such a forum – they weren’t ready for the light of day. I read some erotica, well it was presented as that, but it really was some horrid bit of porn masquerading as erotica. I ummed … I ahhed … and then I commented, saying that perhaps for it to be more appropriate to the genre it needed to be more nuanced, more subtle, less objectifying of the female character. I cannot tell you how bad it was but how kind – relatively speaking – my commentary was. I did the teacher thing and said what worked in the story, what didn’t and what I thought could be done to improve. I thought very carefully about what I wrote.
And then the gates of hell opened.
This guy, and it was a guy, and it was not clear from my non-de-plume that I was female, accused me of all sorts of things; of being some up-tight frigid bitch who’d never enjoyed sex and had no idea how a real woman might feel, and that I had no idea about men or writing, was clearly miserable in all aspects of my life, so why was I commenting at all. I was clearly too stupid and sexless to understand his wonderful work. Yes, he had missed most of what I’d said, which was that the sex was fantasy cliche, the characters were wooden and the situation was not remotely credible – but in nicer, more helpful words.
He had, as often happens, attacked me personally instead of engaging with my critique. I had responded to the work, he had responded to me, his ‘attacker’.
Needless to say, I got off that forum before he could look at any of my stories and rip them to shreds in a revenge-response. It cured me of on-line writing clubs and taught me a salient lesson, which has stayed with me through my later and current on-line writing. I keep away from the personal criticism unless they are public figures like Gove and Wilshaw and I am pretty much unidentifiable on places like fan-fiction and some of my e-books. Yes, this is to protect my professional life but also to protect me. I do not want to endure the merciless self-indulgent, vile criticism of strangers ever again.
I have been reminded of this matter this week through the unfortunate story of the Oz Mummy-bloggers bitch-fest. Notorious Mum posted, what from my reading, was quite a fair comment on the ‘queen’ of the mums-sphere, Constance Hall. Now, I am well out of the demographic for either blog but from the side-lines it has been a sad story to watch. Notorious Mum didn’t say anything outrageous; she was quite complimentary about Hall but then made a couple of fair and soft criticisms that unleashed hell for her. I do think it is disingenuous of Hall to write about panic attacks and collapsing and not realize that her posse will respond, will take the high ground and attack on her behalf, which is what they did. Rather like wolves circling in an ever increasing pack they went for Notorious Mum and trolled and spited and vitrioled her beyond belief.
This is the ugly side of the internet, the dangerous side of tribalism; this is like football hooligans going on a rampage after their team loses, smashing and trashing all in sight. This is the anonymity of groups, of the herd; the danger of the pack, that lets terrible things happen. One person wouldn’t do this; one person face to face would not say the things that are said on-line. This is mob-rule and it is incredibly dangerous.
We need to talk about this. On-line bullying happens all the time. It is the dark-side of electronic communications, of all of them. Adults bully adults – on Face-book and Twitter. We all know that the lovely but sensitive Stephen Fry takes himself off Twitter when the bitching gets too much and who can blame him? Children and teens bully all the time – indeed it may be less in the real world but it is greatly increased in the cyber-world. Have you not read the tragic stories of teen suicide from on-line bullying and trolling?
Why do otherwise sane and normal people think it’s okay to be as vile as possible on-line? Is it because you can’t see people’s faces? Is it because you are hidden in another place behind another name? Is it because electronic messages (texts and emails can fall foul here too) can be so easily mis-read – that humour, or banter, or something nuanced and subtle cannot be judged effectively?
Is the meaning lost because people are too busy reacting and feeling hurt or out-raged to read the text/message/blog correctly? Are we not allowed to make valid criticisms of some people or subjects? If the language of the text is reasonable, if the comments are sound but simply offering a different point of view, are we not allowed to say such things anymore? Are we not allowed to respectfully disagree?
Why is it okay to be as bitchy as possible about Clinton and Trump – how does the plethora of cruel memes and unsubstantiated stories about both of them add to the debate, to electing the right person? How has everything become so personal and vindictive? One only has to think of the Brexit campaign to know that facts and reason were lost in the face of the personal and unsubstantiated bullshit flying from both sides.
Why are people so ready to react with nastiness and venom? Have we all become Edward Hyde, our dark and mutated selves full of blackness and evil allowed full reign by the anonymity of the internet, buy the lack of face-to-face connections?
Perhaps it’s time to think long and hard before we comment on a post, before we reply in haste to a text that has upset us, before we send off some hastily composed email that might not be read in the spirit it was sent. Perhaps it’s time we took ownership of our words as well as our actions. Perhaps it’s time we realized the power of communication and took responsibility for what we write and how we write it, with a heightened awareness of how those words might be received. And yes, I am with Notorious Mum, grammar and spelling do matter, especially if you have a large on-line presence.
So, comment fairly, dear friends … (images from Private Collection)