Picture the scene, if you will: a speaker is about to present on a topic of their choice before an audience that knows virtually nothing about them and who the speaker can’t actually see. The audience is present of its own free will and, at least broadly, they know the topic before the speaker begins. The speaker gets all the way through their presentation without interruption and as soon as they finish, they’re gone. Then the gathered masses let loose – all at once, a veritable tsunami of both congratulatory back-patting and scathing criticism. In the initial minutes and hours after the presentation, those offering their sometimes less-than-constructive critique do so at the same time – effectively talking over the top of each other.
Within the critique on offer are three distinct schools of thought: glowing praise from those who loved the presentation; tempered praise from those who also offer some considered comment on anything they didn’t entirely agree with; and vehement disagreement with some, most or all of the presentation. Not content with simply saying they disagreed, all too often this latter group make their feelings known in aggressive and sometimes offensive ways – shouting, ranting, issuing poorly constructed personal attacks, frequently using more expletives than should rightly co-exist within any one statement. Sometimes they make it clear that they were never interested in the topic of the presentation in the first place which, as feedback goes, can prove somewhat bewildering to the speaker. Sometimes they even level derogatory comment against other audience members, the viewpoints of whom they also violently disagree with. In response to their base behaviour, members of the first two groups will almost always jump to the speaker’s defense in the aftermath of a feedback bloodbath.
Following the initial frenzy of comment, further feedback on the speaker’s presentation may continue to be provided for days, weeks or even years afterwards. The speaker is rarely present when any of this is happening, but they generally have the luxury of being able to review all comments from all three groups at their leisure some time after the event. In almost all cases the speaker also retains their right of reply, though few engage it. Somehow they find ways of coping with the abrasive, irate responses that their work can generate and maintain their composure as best they can.
Sounds horrible, right? People can’t really find themselves in situations like that, can they? By-and-large that kind of unpleasantness doesn’t actually happen… surely? If you’ve never had anything published online, you’d be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t possibly be true. Rarely would anyone in an offline setting – let’s just call it the ‘actual world’ – find themselves the target of such confrontation or affronting abuse. That’s because as they go about their day-to-day lives people, as a general rule, tend not to become childishly incensed to the point of screaming abuse at complete strangers, simply because they disagree with them. It’s just common courtesy and human decency – plus most people just aren’t that unhinged.
But online – the ‘virtual world’ – is a strange and mysterious place where the rules of common decency that govern the ‘actual world’ are apparently quite different.
Late last year I started writing for a pop-culture website. It was a huge challenge but I had an absolute ball. Relative to the parameters of the site itself, I could write about an almost endless list of topics of interest to me and, to varying degrees, to lots of the site’s visitors too – in fact I racked up almost 200,000 views in just over 6 weeks and amassed several hundred thousand more during the months that followed. I even started getting paid for it my work! The ‘per 1000 views’ pay-rate made it all a bit token, but it was better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. Previously I’d only had my ‘oldmanrants’, so I was happy with the outcome on both counts. Eventually the volume of output I needed to maintain meant that my hobby was becoming a chore. With that mindset, my creative juices quickly dried up so I stopped, but it was an invaluable experience. Certainly, if nothing else, it taught me once and for all that the very people who you want and need to be reading your work are, in many ways, the main pitfall of publishing anything online, particularly opinion pieces.
For some people in the virtual world it seems the word “Comment” anywhere on a web page is like the proverbial flag to a bull. In ordinary life, they’re probably reasonably well-balanced, somewhat educated, a pleasant-enough kind of person. But for reasons I’m yet to fathom, the mere presence of a Comment text box is enough to morph them into a vicious, hateful, angry beast with a chip the size of Tasmania on their shoulder and a tongue sharp enough to slash even the sturdiest writer to ribbons with its poisonous vitriol. From reading only a handful of articles on any given topic and a bio that’s all of six lines in length, these people somehow get the impression that they know everything about you and feel the need to tell you exactly what they think of you and your work. And, apparently, that taking this approach is actually OK! Social niceties go right out the virtual window with these folk – believe me, there’s no ‘softly softly’ here. They see their way clear to insult you, your opinion, your work, your brain, your appearance, the particular piece of writing in question, even the topic!
But the ever more venomous diatribes that online Comment boxes seem to encourage aren’t nearly as bewildering as some of the more fatuous remarks that are posted, the most fatuous being from those seeking to utterly annihilate the very topic of the article they’ve just read. It’s one of the many curiosities of the online world that I’ve yet to grasp – not only reading articles on topics of no interest, but then expending even more effort on commenting to that effect as well. Why would anyone do that? Are they so lost for something to keep them occupied?
Sadly the scenario I kicked this rant off with, involving our speaker’s presentation and his audience’s response, is all too real for many who publish online. It’s enormously rewarding to get feedback and comments from those who enjoy your work and whose only intention is to thank, praise or congratulate. Any writer worth their mettle also strongly encourages debate, varied opinions and viewpoints and actively seeks feedback on their work. But it’s disappointing and frustrating when people become immediately dismissive of anything they don’t agree with, at times aggressively so. It’s frighteningly evident in the way some people respond to group pages and shared posts on social media where, all too often, the passion, fury or outrage of any given response is massively out of proportion to whatever triggered it. Sadly, it’s often a very similar story when the Comment option comes into play at the foot of an online article.
But why? Is this the society we’ve become? One where it’s not OK to have a different point of view? Or where the only way to express one is to shoot another one down in flames? How can this be? And how to solve the problem when the faceless, masked nature of life online only serves to promote the behaviour? It’s wonderful how the internet has allowed some people a voice they possibly would never have found. Talent should be allowed the chance to flourish and, for so many, the internet has been a conduit for both personal growth and professional success. But the unavoidable reality is that it’s also allowed too many people who have no place publishing anything anywhere, least of all as a permanent record to the public domain, to do just that. Vile, angry, abusive people who have little of any value to say about anything.
I’m all for freedom of speech. It’s the associated costs I don’t especially enjoy.