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:
or who could forget this?
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!
Where 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.