Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were discussing the culture of online commenters. Specifically the phenomenon of how they usually take on one of two tones: “This is the greatest thing ever!” or “I hope you contract feline leukemia for this!” If you look at the YouTube comments for a baby giggling or a dog catching a Frisbee, you will witness more racial and homophobic slurs than you ever imagined could be directed at a dog and/ or baby.
For a long time, we discussed the improbable vitriol that people level against each other online. Personal attacks from people who don’t know each other. Vicious professional critiques from folks with no background in the field they’re commenting on. It’s easy to say brutal things anonymously about people you’ve never met. There are no consequences. My girlfriend mentioned how frustrated she is that so many people tear down the work of others without considering the value it has to others or the time it took to create it. She’s baffled by people who criticize without ever creating.
I earn most of my living as a standup comedian. Despite the popular conception of standup comedy, hecklers are not common. Most of the time, when someone speaks out of turn, it’s just because they’re drunk or caught up in the excitement of the show. It is rare to get someone saying something intentionally disruptive, especially with animosity.
The internet, however, is a different story. Take a chunk of material that has been performed hundreds of times in front of thousands of people. A bit that has never, ever elicited so much as a single legitimate “Boo!” Throw that same material up on YouTube and just watch the deluge of ad hominem attacks begin. Sure, it’s good to know when material doesn’t resonate with an audience, but is it really necessary for anonymous commenters to critique the fashion choices and facial features of a performer? Probably not.
I’m an adult human. It’s not going to ruin my day when someone writes: “Not funny.” or “Yur bald.” Especially because it’s easy to write the commenters off as a brigade of shut-ins who take breaks between Skyrim sessions to raid their moms’ fridges and write mean things about anyone whose comedy clips pass across their browsers. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
Last night, after our conversation, my girlfriend and I went to the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ to watch the Boston Bruins play the New Jersey Devils. (Those are two hockey teams. You probably knew that, but maybe not.) The arena was not full. Lots of the more expensive seats closer to the ice remained empty even midway through the first period. Still, there were probably eleven thousand people in attendance.
Almost twenty minutes into the game, Petr Sykora of the Devils scored against Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, making the score 1-0 in favor of New Jersey. (Sorry for all the sports talk, people of the internet. I know it’s not really your thing. I’ll get to the point.) The arena erupted. Lights. Sirens. Cheering. “Rock and Roll Pt. II” by Gary Glitter blared over the speakers. We all know it as the song with the world’s simplest lyrics: “Duh da dat du da dadadada… HEY!” It’s one of the most popular tunes ever written by a guy with a child pornography conviction, but that’s beside the point.
After the entire crowed shouted “HEY!” the fans, in unison, tacked on an unscripted “YOU SUCK!” Not just once. Each time the “HEY!” came around. That’s four-ish cries of “YOU SUCK,” followed by an additional “BOSTON SUCKS!” as the song faded out.
We like to think of professional athletes as herculean figures beyond the reach of criticism from the common man and woman. Sports talk radio gives the average citizen a chance to vent about his/ her frustrations with Local Sports Team, but only regular callers are delusional enough to believe that coaches, players, managers, or owners would ever listen to their complaints. Most people understand that it’s just entertainment.
An assembly of 10,000+ people shouting “YOU SUCK!” in public, though. That seems harder to ignore.
I’ve had people tell me I suck before. But I’ve never had ten thousand people at once tell me I suck. In fact, I don’t think ten thousand people total have ever told me I suck. That seems like a lot to deal with.
To put things in perspective, I got teased a little bit in school. I think everyone did. But usually, it was one person at a time. Maybe two. Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins got told he sucks by the equivalent of my entire high school, plus forty percent of my hometown’s population. That’s not only the school bully making fun of you. That means if you go to the grocery store, and there are five lanes open, two out of five of those cashiers will statistically have told you that you suck.
The NHL season is eighty-two games long. That’s forty-one games on the road. Forty-one crowds saying you suck. (Assuming they’re all as vocal as the Devils fans.)
That hockey game gave me some clarity. I’m no longer frustrated with the internet. I’m just grateful that the YouTube commenters make their anti-Semitic comments one at a time.