flowers on the windowsill

Let’s Stop Pretending the Internet Isn’t “Real” Life

Does anyone here follow JK Rowling on Twitter?

(Er, I’m going to assume quite a lot of you said “yes” to that: she has something like a kazillionty-one followers, I’m not stupid…)

JK Rowling is actually one of only a few celebrities I follow on social media, and I follow her, not just because I’m a huge fan of her work, but because of things like this:

gay people just look like people

or this:

JK Rowling takes down WBC on Twitter

or who could forget this?

JK Rowling TWitter responses

Now, I’m not advocating calling your Twitter followers “idiots” here, but I do admire Rowling’s “take no crap” attitude, and the fact that she’s prepared to stand up to the people who antagonise her like this – even although “fighting back” is basically the exact opposite of what we’re told you’re SUPPOSED to do when people troll you, or are just plain rude/mean/stupid on social media/blogs. “Ignore it,” is pretty much the received wisdom on that one. Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t take the bait. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Instead you must rise above it. Grow a thick skin. Accept that if you “put it out there”, you’re going to “get it back” – whatever that means.

The theory behind this “turn the other cheek” philosophy, of course, is that if you keep on ignoring the behaviour you don’t like, the people behind it will get bored and go away. But a lot of the time, they don’t. Or they DO… but they’re quickly replaced by another person, who ALSO wants to try and hurt you, or bully you, or antagonise you into giving them the attention they need.

So while it makes sense that withholding that attention is the sensible thing to do, it’s rarely the most satisfying thing to do, and I think it can actually be pretty dangerous, too. Because it teaches the trolls, and the bullies, and the haters (Yeah, I used the word “haters”. I know a lot of people like to think there ARE no “haters” there are just differences of opinion, but trust me: sometimes there are haters. And they’re not just saying they don’t like your shoes, or slyly asking when you’re due – that’s not “hating”. But hating does exist, and ignoring it doesn’t always make it stop…) that there are no consequences to their actions: that they can do and say whatever they like, to whomever they like, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s “just the internet” – it’s not REAL life!

flowers on the windowsillWhere did we all get this idea that the internet is not “real”? People, the internet is real. Because the PEOPLE who make up the internet are real, and the fact that you can’t see their reaction when you type out that nasty comment or mean tweet doesn’t make it OK to say it. People have killed themselves over online bullying, for God’s sake. Lives have been ruined by it. And still we persist with the idea that the internet isn’t “real” – and the even more dangerous notion that if you publish something on the internet, you should “expect” to be abused for it, which is victim-blaming, pure and simple. By this theory, if you tell me I look hideous in that dress, it’s not YOUR fault that my feelings get hurt – it’s MY fault for wearing a dress that made me look hideous. The onus is not on you to mind your manners and act like the decent human being you probably are – the onus is on me to make sure I don’t do/say/wear anything that annoys you… and if I do, well, I should expect to hear about it, however bluntly you see fit.

This is an idea I see over and over again, and it never fails to horrify me. “Why does she even have a blog if she doesn’t want criticism?” “She shouldn’t have posted that photo if she didn’t want people’s opinions on it.” Look, no one WANTS criticism. Or not many people, anyway. That’s not to say it can never be useful, or that it’s never appropriate, but most people who have blogs didn’t start them because they “wanted” to be criticized over every tiny aspect of their appearance and personality – they start them to share their thoughts/photos or to document their lives. And most people who choose to document their lives online aren’t doing it to garner “opinions”, either, any more than they walk down the street because they want people to come over to them and provide a handy list of everything that’s wrong with their outfit or hair.

I mean, some people do post photos online for that reason, obviously. But there’s a difference between saying, “look at my new skirt! I love it so much!” and saying, “What do you think of this skirt? Give me your honest opinion…” Let’s stop pretending that the first statement is the same as the second, and that everyone who dares to show their face in public is doing it “to get feedback”. While we’re at it, let’s stop pretending that “feedback” is only relevant if it’s negative – and that it is always relevant, and always appropriate.

If your friend showed you a photo of herself wearing something she loved, and obviously felt good in, you probably wouldn’t say “God, I hate that: it makes you look SO fat!” Because what would be the point? If she already wore it, then your “feedback” is too late to make a difference to her: it’s not like she can rewind time, after all, and NOT wear that dress you don’t like, just because YOU don’t like it. And why SHOULD she? If she liked it enough to take a photo of it, and then to show you that photo, then all your “feedback” will achieve is to make your friend feel bad about something she previously felt good about. If that’s what you wanted, then good for you, I guess, although if it were me, I’d be questioning why it was so important to me to make sure someone knew I thought they looked bad. It’s probably not what your friend wanted, though, and to justify it by saying, “I’m entitled to my opinion! She shouldn’t have shown me the photo if she didn’t want me to criticize it,” is pretty disingenuous. And also pretty mean, if you want to know the truth.

Most people wouldn’t do that, though, would they? Because, the fact is, in REAL life most people do tend to stick to the “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all rule”. Most of us learn that rule as children, and we stick to it as adults because we know that if everyone just went around spouting whatever came into their head, no matter how rude or inappropriate, and saying, “But it’s just my OPINION!”, society would break down fast. Sure, there are always some people who pride themselves on their bluntness (or who just don’t care if people think them rude), but most of us know that just because we have an opinion, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always going to be a good idea to express it.

Most of my “real life” friends, for instance, aren’t big internet users, and they’re frequently astonished by some of the things they see people say to me (even when it’s something I’d consider to be pretty mild, as most of my comments are), because they were raised on the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” rule, and they don’t understand why the internet should be exempt from that. And it shouldn’t be. So why IS it? Why is social media in particular considered to be exempt from the usual rules of social engagement? Is it just because people can be anonymous online, and that makes them brave? Or is it partly because there aren’t enough people willing to stand up and say, “Actually, you know what, that comment was out of line, and I’d rather you didn’t speak to me like that”?

As bloggers, you see, you’re encouraged not to do that: not to react to the people who try to hurt or antagonise you, and definitely not to try and defend yourself. If you do, you’re always going to be the loser: I’ve talked before about the “never wrestle with a pig” rule, which means that no matter how right you are, arguing with someone online will always make you look bad. I do still think that’s true and I’ve seen plenty of evidence of it myself: times when someone is incredibly nasty to a blogger, say, but the second the blogger dares to respond, however mildly, they’re instantly branded “unprofessional” and scolded for being “defensive”. Why shouldn’t you defend yourself when someone attacks you, though? Why is their right to free speech considered to be more important than yours is? Why are blog readers allowed to say anything they like, but the blogger being spoken about isn’t allowed to respond, unless it’s to meekly thank the person for their “feedback”? Why do so many people think that the right to free speech carries with it the right to never, ever be challenged, and that anyone who DOES challenge an opinion is “censoring” it? When will I stop asking questions? Will I EVER stop? Is this post not over yet?!

Phew. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. What I was trying to say is that I wish more people had the courage to stand up to rudeness, to hate, to bullying. What I’m NOT saying is that people should be afraid to say anything that isn’t a compliment, or that the internet should just be one giant bubble of positivity, filled with cupcake-eating unicorns, pretty rainbows and inspirational Facebook quotes: that would just be silly. Because unicorns don’t even LIKE cupcakes, for God’s sake. And because there’s an obvious difference between saying something that’s merely “negative” or critical, and saying something that’s truly hateful or antagonistic. This post is about the latter type of behaviour – the kind of thing you wouldn’t in a million years be expected to tolerate in “real life”, but which you’re somehow expected to accept as just par for the course on the internet.

What I’m saying is that if you wouldn’t say it to someone in “real life”, then I don’t think you should be saying it on the internet, either. Because the internet IS “real life” – and if we all decide to “grow a thick skin” and become de-sensitised to behaviour that shouldn’t really be acceptable, then it’ll be a pretty unpleasant one, too.

books by Amber Eve
  • Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.

    Love this post – I wrote a similar one a while back about how people seem to think it’s okay to give negative comments online. It’s horrible how many people are able to dehumanise someone behind a screen to the point where they can be so nasty to them without seeing how they’re hurting them.

    Another similar thing that frustrates me is mob mentality – which you can often see online targeted at YouTubers/bloggers/celebs/etc. I always think of Rebecca Black, a young teen getting sent hate mail, being told she should die, because her parents paid for her to have a song and video made for her birthday? What is this world we live in and where do I get off?

    I think because people don’t have to deal with the consequences – they don’t have to see the hurt in someone’s eyes, or speak to the person at work/school etc, they don’t recognise what they’re doing as bullying.

    I could keep going but my coffee is getting cold.

    Corinne x

    July 29, 2015
    • JJ


      …but you just explained exactly why “The internet isn’t real”. It’s not real life. The people are real, sure, but actually not always. There’s spammers, there’s bots, there’s code scripts someone can write to post a comment. The internet is not reality, it’s an alternate of reality. This is why you shouldn’t get too invested in it being “real”. The dumb Zoomer generation grew up on the internet, so it’s like they don’t know the difference. It has been like augmented reality. Why do you think they are the most socially awkward and morally impaired generation irl? People need to connect the dots. The internet is a social experiment.

      There’s always gonna be trolls, there’s always going to be people who don’t play by the rules. But that’s like life. There’s always gonna be a-holes irl, there’s always gonna be opinions you don’t like and criticisms, etc. That’s called the real-world and thousands of years of human behavior. People judge, it’s what they do. Judging is a primal survival instinct. Everybody judges, whether they admit it or not. The same exists online. To put your name or image out there is inviting whatever that comes with that reality. Accept the environment or just choose not to play / be apart of that environment.

      The internet isn’t fake, but it’s not the real-world. It’s virtual, and too many important dynamics of real-world interaction are impossible to recreate.

      October 5, 2020
  • I totally agree with all of this ~ if I couldn’t say it to someone face to face, in “real” life, then I can’t say it online. It’s not right, it’s not respectful, and most of all ~ you have no idea what the consequences of your tiny little ‘anon’ comment could be…

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

    July 29, 2015
      • Mags


        that’s like saying you shouldn’t leave your house if you don’t want people to walk up to you and start harassing you.

        That *is* said in some circumstances though. See: molestation (which is not on the same level as online abuse but I’m just saying a similar excuse is made). Not that that’s RIGHT, it’s victim blaming whichever way you look at it. Society, as it is now, is built to avoid tempting people to be mean and cruel and base. To take away opportunities for misbehaviour, not to take away the behaviour, period. It places the responsibility to keep society in tact with the victim, rather than the abuser. It even goes so far as exempting the abuser from all responsibility of controlling their own behaviour.

        Which is, as far as I’m concerned, exactly why the behaviour is allowed to persist. So yeah, I vote not putting up with it.

        July 29, 2015
  • … and because unicorns don’t even exist either! I too think that social manners should be extended to social media. Once I accidentally stumbled across a WHOLE BLOG dedicated against hatred against one particular very famous blogger. I was totally amazed that people do that.
    Through my blog, I have personally met some of my “blogging friends” who now turned into very close “real life friends”, so yeah, the internet is made of real people with real feelings. Great post! xx

    July 29, 2015
  • Robin


    I understand the new way to agree with someone is to say, “retweet”. Consider this my five feet by ten feet tall RETWEET. I was quite struck by your point about so many of the justifications for rude and hateful comments being victim-blaming. That was very insightful. Great post.

    July 29, 2015
  • I feel like part of it is that, as you mention, you believe in being polite and not being a garbage human. You mention your friends were raised to be similarly polite and considerate. I’m sure roundly your coworkers have also learned how to behave in “polite society.” I’ve come to think that online haters maybe wouldn’t stand in front of you On the street and say “your shoes suck” or call me a fat ass for no reason. But they’re often the people who would resort to that type of behavior if I bumped into them or cut them off in line. Just having the audacity to be confident enough to put yourself out there on the internet is interpreted as “bumping into into them. ” I think it’s damaging to act like these people are “otherwise normal people” who would never be so rude in real life. Because as you say this is real life and they are rude and I’ll bet they’re rude to their sisters and friends too. I’ll bet they have a less refined idea of polite society. It helps me a bit to feel sorry for rude ppl for obviously living in an environment where this behavior is normalized and having such insecurity because of it. IDK this is such a big issue. I have so.much to say. Blargh.

    July 29, 2015
  • I agree with this. I’ve even heard the “internet is not real life” to justify online infidelity. Frankly, I hold people to the same standards of conduct that I do in physically present situations. Even if they are hiding under an anonymous pseudonym. Sometimes it can be hard to not just think most people are kind of just jerks. But I’ve also seen responses by bloggers to negative comments that defended their words but was done in a really classy way. I think it is possible!

    July 29, 2015
  • Completely agree and I love that JK Rowling has the balls to stand up to these people. I have a lot of respect for her ethics and politics generally, but this is one of the things I admire her for, for sure. It is hard for any of us more ‘normal’ folk to do the same though – and is that because we don’t have her degree of celebrity of power? I haven’t yet – and I don’t know how I’ve managed it – had a comment that’s truly negative. The fact I know it’s coming, because this is the way the internet is, doesn’t mean I’ll be any more prepared for it. I’ve never understood why people think normal laws of decency and civilisation don’t apply online. It would never even occur to me to think the things that some people say, let alone actually say them!

    July 29, 2015
  • Maria


    I agree with every word of this post wholeheartedly: especially the part where people criticize you, then you politely say you don’t agree with them and argument it, and they go all ‘Omg how dare U not agree!!1! Ur not rspecting mY opinion!221! Ur sayiing that I cnn’t think dffrnt!!Beyauotch!!1’ (the misspellings are for comedic purpose, and to show that who reacts like this to someone disagreeing with them usually is either childish or ten years old).
    It’s like we’ve established that cyber-bullies can have free speech, while people trying to defend themselves should just suck it up and go on, even if it creates pent-up anger that will only poison them and make them feel bad. A world where bullies can spit whatever insult they want and be content and victims can’t even stand up for themselves without being labelled as ‘getting at the same level as their interlocutors’ it’s not an healthy world.

    July 29, 2015
  • People who leave hateful comments all have the same mentality. Personally I have always seen it as a superiority complex that people have that lead them to put other people down. It gives them a psychological reinforcement that they are able to treat someone negatively without getting any repercussions. Sure, i appreciate all constructive criticisms and (mostly) negative opinions. But not everyone reacts the same. Some really take it to heart.

    I never understood the people (especially on the internet) that go out of their way to put peoples confidence down. Seems like a waste of time to me.

    July 29, 2015
  • A few months ago I made a folder of photos of my prints of my paintings and asked my friends to share it on Facebook. One of them duly did, adding a little note saying “Simply gorgeous” and the share attracted a few likes. However one of her friends didn’t agree, commenting that he’d looked through and they did nothing for him, in fact they looked like sub-standard Jackson Pollock and a dog could’ve done better with its tail. And of course I saw it! Underneath was my friend’s angry reply that she’d seen me create my work and there was indeed a lot of work in them, to which he sarkily retorted “Oooh, hit a nerve, have I?”

    Truth to tell, if someone doesn’t like my work then that’s their prerogative, plus I was quite flattered that he spent so many lines commenting, so I thanked him for going to the trouble. I was more annoyed that he bated my friend for supporting me and wondered if he was just a bit daft when it comes to knowing who sees what (he’s in his 60s, so not part of the internet generation) or just plain rude. It turned out to be the latter according to my friend who has shared his company on and off since the ’70s.

    On a different note, and one that harks back to your stolen content pieces, I shared the latest photo, on FB, by a talented photographer friend whose ongoing project was becoming more popular with each picture. An old acquaintance I’d reconnected with immediately tagged the twenty year-old photography student daughter of one of her friends, commenting “Do ones like this!” My friend handled it well, saying “Pssst, I can hear you!” then adding that the young photography student would no doubt have no need to copy seeing as her photos already showed a growing talent.

    In both these situations I wondered if the original posters had stopped to ask themselves if they thought their comments would only be read by the people they’d ‘sent’ them too.

    July 29, 2015
  • *Sent them to…! What a daftie not doing a final spellcheck.

    July 29, 2015
  • Great article!
    I always think if someone is an idiot online then they are an idiot full stop.
    Anyone who has not got the ‘balls’ to say what they mean in real life but feel the need to be spiteful online? Is a prize numpty and coward to boot.
    These type of people should be pitied.

    July 29, 2015
  • You totally hit the nail on the head here. I’m often shocked about the kind of comments people will leave when they are anonymous, but I’m equally baffled by the reactions of professionals online to criticism. One of the first things I ever learned in art school (the hard way) is that even though your work can be very personal to you, if you put it out in public you’ll invite others to have an opinion on it. There’s a huge amount of crafting bloggers who started a business and tend to take any (sometimes valid) criticism as a personal insult, completely ignoring that selling a project to customers isn’t the same as posting the things you make.

    July 30, 2015
  • Love your post as always Amber. Have been reading your blog for a while and done a lot of thinking, getting a lot of inspiration (thank you btw) especially about professional blogging. And having been self employed for almost my entire career at the end of the day? Working online or offline is no different. Same challenges. So it has taught me the issue can be addressed in the same way. Keep up the good work! xo Sabina | Oceanblue Style

    July 30, 2015
  • Sound advice, it seems like common sense, but so often people really do behave barbarically online. Some of them are probably nice people in real life (or think they are!). I really feel for people who have to deal with this. As you mentioned Instagram in a comment above, in particular I also have noticed people just using it for gossip/bitchery as you say as if the person isn’t even there. It’s partly why I’ve really shied away from using Instagram with my blog, I really don’t know if I could handle lots of negativity online. You do have to have thick skin when it comes to it I think, but guess what, some of us just don’t. xo

    July 31, 2015
  • Melina


    I’ve long thought the same, that Internet IS basically real life, while everyone else usually goes on sharply contrasting “online” vs “IRL”… I’ve often commented how it actually IS real, living people writing all that stuff online, like on discussion forums, as most people somehow seem to forget that! 😉 (Not sure how it’s possible, and yet they do…)

    But on the other hand, as to e.g. posting my own photos online, I’m very, very hesitant to do that, and I do feel that if you post photos of you or other very personal stuff online, it IS then in the public domain, and one can basically expect to get any kind of feedback… I’m not saying very critical or (especially) hateful comments would be *in any way* right or justified, but that’s what one could expect (at least I would), because people are people… *shrugs*
    And I don’t really agree it’s the same as walking down the street, like in your comparison; to me it’s more like appearing on television, which is also a media, just as internet… (Not *exactly* the same, of course, but much closer to it than just anonymously walking down the street.) And the people who frequently appear on TV do get a fair amount of feedback, I’d assume, good or bad…

    June 1, 2017