The understatement of the century is that the Internet is fantastic in myriad ways. But because of the anonymity of the medium, it's also the Royal Flush port-a-potty for people's raging ids. Somehow it allows or taps into adults' child-like impulse to get away with doing naughty things when no one is looking. And since a magazine or newspaper's article comment box is like one big, empty high school bathroom stall wall just begging to be written on, writers and journalists have become the receptacle for readers' often mean, sometimes depraved, commentary.
I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this kind of ire-soaked language because I write articles that are often posted online. (Well, what isn't these days?) And my latest published piece evoked an unexpected amount of feedback.
The inflammatory article I wrote wasn't about a divisive issue like abortion or gays in the military. It was a humor piece published in The Frisky entitled "10 Signs He's A High Maintenance Boyfriend." It was a tongue-in-cheek article about a high maintenance man, and while there was a lot of positive reaction, the (mostly) women's comments were so vitriolic, you'd think I'd singled each one of them out and humiliated them at a sorority rush event.
For example, one commentator wrote, "Just so you know, every time you typed the word "highmay," it made me want to smack you in the face with a pan." And later again... "You know, I don't think I'm a violent person, but this article is evoking rage in me."
One woman opined, "If this was satire, then you are terrible at it. If it wasn't, then you are terrible at too many things to mention here. I'm going out on a limb and saying that you have a lot of 'dates' with your cats."
One writer commented several times, and eventually took to giving other commentators talking points: "We do need to be careful, while attacking the writer, that we don't stereotype traditionally masculine men."
While I realize that humor is hard to pick up on in print, if you're reading a piece in the comedy section of The Huffington Post, or the piece is written in a wry tone, you can safely assume that the article is written in jest. And if you don't like a writer's brand of humor or opinion, this isn't A Clockwork Orange, no one is holding your eyes open and forcing you to read the article. Move on.
A syndicated columnist friend has a separate email account for reader comments that she gave me access to. While there was the occasional note offering positive feedback, by a two to one margin, most of the correspondence was unceasingly scathing. They included the abusive, yet bizarrely complementary: "Shut the f--- up, quit the sarcastic whining, and use your gifts for something constructive." And the straight up insulting: "You are scary and hateful, and you have absolutely no writing talent, wit or cleverness."
And if you think published emails or comments are bad, imagine how the unpublished ones read. HuffPost bloggers were privy to moderate their post's comments, even the flagged ones. We can't access those anymore, but I remember a male commentator wrote something like (and this is the nice version), "You are a slutty whore who doesn't know sh**... " And then something about sitting on his face. Nice.
I've developed thick skin, but so many of the commenterati's emails and posts are so egregiously offensive, they read like dictation taken from a "Porn Stars with Tourette's" convention. When I read them, it makes me think, Who raised you? Why are you so angry? If I were to send your comments to your boss or mother, would you still post it?
Yes, First Amendment flag-wavers, everyone has the right to state their opinion. But the posts below my article (any many others) read a lot like cyberbullying. If the man who'd written, "this lady is a stupid mother f%^$** c&^%" had made a cogent point, or any point, I'd consider his statement free speech. Otherwise, it's hate speech -- which has repercussions in life, but not online.
But I want to turn this into something positive and constructive. I want to open up the dialogue and extend an invitation of a lunch or coffee to the egregiously negative Frisky commenterati so they can tell me in person, in their own written words -- and with the same passion with which they wrote them -- why they so loathe me and my writing. Maybe we can get to the bottom of this thing together.
I am totally serious. Because there's nothing I like more than meeting people with the conviction to stand up for what they so adamantly believe.
But if these commentators aren't willing to meet, the moral of the story (especially the online ones) is:
If you don't have the cajones to say to a person's face what you post about them online, don't write it at all.
Follow Emily Bracken on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emilybracken