Sometimes the internet depresses the hell out of me, you know that?
This isn’t a personal observation, by the way: I’m not talking about the way people treat me on the internet, specifically. And, OK, it’s true that the past couple of weeks has been slightly above average, in that I’ve had a couple of mildly snarky comments, and another couple of ‘WTF?’ ones, but it’s been nothing compared to the kind of thing I see around me: on other blogger’s sites, in the comments sections of news sites, on Twitter whenever politics or celebrities are mentioned… you know the kind of thing I’m sure.
I mean, last week Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint, and there were people on Twitter saying they wished she’d actually been shot, for God’s sake. Now, whatever your opinion is on the Kardashians, I’m pretty sure they haven’t actually harmed you – or had any real impact on your life at all – so why on earth would you be sitting behind your computer screen, wishing one of them dead? That’s not normal. It’s not right. And it honestly terrifies me when I read that kind of thing.
It makes me worry for a future in which people are so used to using “free speech” as an excuse to say the cruellest, most hateful things imaginable to each other, that this kind of behaviour becomes the norm: which it already IS for some people. These are the people who think it’s OK to say these things because it’s “just the internet” – or worse, because, “they put it out there, so they have to expect to get it back!” Last week plenty of people were gleefully telling each other that Kim K somehow “deserved” to be robbed, because she posts photos of her jewellery on Instagram – just as they say that bloggers “deserve” to be called names, and subjected to the most hurtful speculation and rumours, just because they have a blog, or an instagram account, or whatever.
We are told to expect this kind of treatment: encouraged to believe that if we make ourselves visible in any way, we’re somehow choosing to be abused, and that it’s our own fault – if we don’t want that (And who DOES want it, seriously?), then we should essentially make ourselves invisible. What a dangerous point of view.
I’ve reached the point now where there are some websites whose comment sections I won’t venture onto, because the commentary there is so depressing. Even some of the more popular Instagram accounts horrify me, because there seems to be an assumption that once a person reaches a certain level of internet “fame”, they’re no longer human, and it’s perfectly acceptable to say the vilest things to them, and then, when someone calls you out on your nastiness, to simply shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, she shouldn’t put photos on the internet if she doesn’t want to hear people’s OPINIONS!”
I mean, I say “you”: YOU would never do that, obviously. Or… would you? Because, let’s face it: someone has to be leaving the snide comments and wishing death on complete strangers, just because they don’t like their haircut, or think they make too much money. Don’t they?
I remember back when I worked in a call centre, I’d basically spend my entire weekend being verbally abused by angry customers. Most of it was reasonably mild (although, honestly, ANY amount of aggression towards a person who’s just doing their job is too much, as far as I’m concerned), but some of it got really, really nasty – to the point where customers would threaten to track me down and break both of my legs unless I did what they wanted. (Which was normally to switch their satellite TV back on, even although they hadn’t paid the bill for 3 months. So, life-or-death stuff, for sure.)
After a while, the cumulative effect of all of this anger really did a number on me, and … well, it made me suspect everyone, you know? I’d be out shopping, say, or just going about my business, and I’d find myself looking at the people around me, and thinking, “Is it you? Are you the kind of person who calls up a business and threatens to kill the person on the other end of the phone, just because you’re missing your favourite TV show? I mean, you look nice enough, and you seem nice enough, but… it has to be someone, right?” And sometimes it’s the last person you’d expect.
A few years after I left that job, for instance, I was scrolling through Twitter, when I happened to see one of my Twitter friends tweeting about the company I used to work with, who she’d been having problems with. “I’m going to phone them now,” she said, “And whoever answers the phone is going to get a mouthful of abuse, that’s how angry I am!”
“Wow!” I thought: “it’s YOU! I’d NEVER have suspected you, either!” And then came the support from other people I considered friends. “You’re so right, huh: you tell them!” that kind of thing. The kind of thing you might dismiss as harmless, or even supportive – until you one day find yourself on the other end of that phone, being treated as if you’re not even human, and don’t deserve the most basic of courtesies or respect. And you’ll be treated like that by the same people who you considered “friends”, and who you thought were just lovely: yes, anyone can have a bad day, but not everyone feels the need to take it out on someone else. Or DO they?
The fact is, Internet trolls don’t tend to have green faces and giant boils all over their bodies. They don’t live under bridges, either. They probably look and behave exactly like the rest of us, most of the time: it’s only when they get behind a computer screen (Or on the other end of a telephone line: because I’d bet good money that the people spewing so much venom over bloggers and celebrities are the same ones who used to call me at work and call me a “stupid Scottish bitch” when I told them they’d have to, you know, pay their bill if they wanted to use the service…) that they get brave, and the nastiness comes out.
And that’s what’s so scary about trolls: they’re US, aren’t they? The sheer number of them means they HAVE to be. Because it can’t possibly be just the same few people, managing to spread themselves over half the internet – one minute commenting on a news story to spout their bigoted political beliefs, the next telling some blogger that her hair is “disgusting”, before hopping over to Twitter to talk about how sad they are that a celebrity didn’t die a horrible death. There are just so damn many of them. Some days I get to feeling like almost everyone in the world must be secretly going around just HATING everyone else – and telling them so, on the internet. I don’t think there’s a single news story I’ve read lately that HASN’T had a selection of crazy comments attached to it, and I sometimes feel almost glad that my instagram following isn’t very large, because every time I look at a photo from one of the “insta-famous” crowd, and then scroll down to the comments, it genuinely makes me worry for the future of humanity.
Where do they all come from, these hate-filled people, all frothing at the mouth over some trivial detail? That blogger’s hair is too long! This one has chipped nail polish! OMG, must make sure she knows what a TERRIBLE person she is, and feels really, really bad about it! Heaven forbid we just ignore that tiny detail that annoyed us, huh?
Even the mild snark is hard for me to fathom. I know it comes with the territory (If you don’t want people to be mildly snarky towards you, why do you even HAVE a blog, right?), but any time someone leaves me one of those comments, there’s a part of me that really wants to reach out to them and say, “What made you say that to me? Did it feel good? Did it make you feel better about yourself? What was it about my post/my photo/my tweet that made you think, ‘I want to make this woman to feel bad: I wonder how I could make that happen?'”
I’m not being facetious, either: I genuinely want to know. It’s actually quite fascinating to me. What motivates people to leave those comments, I wonder? I know the standard answer is that it’s “just jealousy!”, but I’ve never bought that. I know there are people I don’t like, who I’m not remotely jealous of: the difference is, it wouldn’t even occur to me to leave them a comment somewhere telling them what I think of them – because what could it possibly achieve? I might be far from perfect, and I’m certainly not going to pretend I’ve never had a single uncharitable thought about someone, but I can’t even fathom looking at someone’s blog or social media and thinking, “I hate that girl’s outfit: I HAVE to tell her that!”
But there are SO MANY PEOPLE who DO leave those kinds of comments: and much, much worse ones. I see them literally every single day, as I scroll through my favourite blogs and Instagram feeds, and lately it’s been making me feel so sad that the world – or the internet, at least – is like that. It feels far too easy to say, “Why can’t we all just be NICE to each other?”, but seriously: