When I started writing on the internet, everyone gave me the same piece of advice: “Never read the comments. And if you do, never respond.” At first I thought that sounded helpful, as a way to minimize the pain of the unwarranted criticism that trolls bring. However, I wondered to myself, “What are we missing out on when we dismiss all criticism as 4chan nonsense? Are we also denying ourselves valid opportunities to learn and grow as people, and possibly develop thicker skin?”
We’re always so worried about what people say about us that we forget that people might be saying things that are positive or at least good for us, criticisms designed to help us learn and grow. At their best, the comment boards of the internet have made me more reflective and accountable, whether that’s fact checking, spelling or not turning in crappy material. I know I’ll get eviscerated for it. Learning to cherish the criticism has helped me learn I’m not perfect and hold myself to a standard, as a writer and a human.
They say we are often not the best judges of our own writing, and while the internet can be a useful critic, sometimes it’s an even worse judge. Sometimes the comment section is filled with slut-shaming or people intentionally misreading your piece to hear what they want. Sometimes the internet affirms you for being a survivor of sexual assault; sometimes you get personally victimized by someone who believes you’re lying about being raped, as if you would ever just talk about it for fun, a thing to do.
Like the larger society it represents, the internet is a mixed bag. One of my recent pieces quickly devolved into an argument about whether or not I hate Jewish people. I facepalmed and then laughed. Sometimes it’s all you can do. I feel lucky that the criticism I’ve gotten I’ve been able to laugh off or learn from, but I know others who have taken it so personally that they’ve stopped writing, learning to keep their words to themselves. They felt like it’s not that people didn’t get it; it’s like they didn’t want to.
With those folks in mind, here are some healthy tips on how to comment on the internet. It’s my opinion that we all should read our comment sections, and writers are more likely to do that when they aren’t wantonly labeled as anti-Semites. Let’s start a culture of respect on the internet.
1. DO read the whole article before you reply. DON’T check out one sentence of the way in and use TL;DR as an excuse.
Remember when the critical establishment jumped down Ebert’s beautiful, departed throat for reviewing 15 minutes of Tru Loved? There’s a reason: You don’t get an opinion of things you didn’t finish, because you might find that thing actually answers your criticism or you end up liking it. It would be like kissing someone on the cheek and then later claiming they are bad in bed. You don’t know. You haven’t been there yet.
2. DO comment with something apropos to what was discussed. DON’T leave spam, statements about the Holocaust or Jewish New Order conspiracies, take downs of the person’s weight or appearance or replies that make no fucking sense.
This goes for everyone, except for Fernando, everyone’s favorite nonsensical Thought Catalog comment board mainstay. Sometimes I try to picture what Fernando’s life or what he thinks about. One time, I dreamt as Fernando. It looked a lot like one of those Glamour Shots from the 80’s, and there were tigers there, like a Siegfried and Roy show. I think this is what happiness is.
3. DO address the writer with respect and tact. DON’T resort to childish bullying or name-calling.
When commenting on the internet, you should generally do the opposite of whatever Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly would do. Don’t try to invalidate others opinions, use inflammatory rhetoric for no reason, go off on a rant or talk so much that you bore everyone else around you. Do you see yourself typing in endless paragraphs? Do they have words like “asshole,” “idiot,” “jerk” or “bitch” in them? It’s best you put down the keyboard and go do something fun. Have you watched Bob’s Burgers yet? It’ll charm the hate right out of you. Tina Belcher has that effect on all of us.
4. DO respond one time and wait for someone else to comment before you reply. DON’T endlessly reply to your own comment, because it makes you look like a Unabomber.
Responding to your own comment on the internet is the online equivalent of talking to yourself. When you want to look like a productive, put-together member of society, do you engage in endless conversations with yourself on the train? If you plan on commenting on an article, imagine that you’re doing so around a group of your closest friends or work colleagues, who can read everything you’re saying. Would your activity change? It’s a pretty good indication of whether you’re being a Goofus or a Gallant.
5. DO put your name on your comments. DON’T leave comments anonymously or put it under a fake name.
Take responsibility for your opinions. It’s fine to just say, “Love ya, bai” under the name “Guest,” but if you’re going to spend paragraphs denouncing someone who was at least brave enough to put their work out there to have it ripped apart by the mob of the interwebs, have the ovaries to do it under your name. Be accountable and take pride in your opinion. If not, why are you voicing it?
6. DO critique something specific. DON’T just say “This is stupid” without giving any indication as to why you feel this way.
As a babysitter, I often have this problem. Charlotte, the little girl I take care of, will tell me she doesn’t want to do something. I will ask why. She won’t respond rationally, insisting on her earlier diagnosis instead, “Because!” This doesn’t tell me anything about why she feels that way or help to address the situation. However, she doesn’t understand this. She’s three and still not completely over shitting herself. You’re a grown adult. You poop in the toilet. Use your words.
7. DO read closely. DON’T invalidate your criticism by not having your facts straight.
I get misgendered often, so much that I wrote an entire piece on it. Folks tend to read whatever ethnicity or gender they want into my name, which means I get attacked for being female, male, too white, not white enough, an angry lesbian or anything they please. If you’re going to attack someone, have the right information — because the minute you show the writer you aren’t engaged enough to even get it right, they likely won’t take the time to respond to you.
Misgendering happens all the time. I get it every day. When it comes from a place that’s affirming and isn’t meant to denigrate me, I don’t mind, and I think it can be beautiful. Call me a lady, if you like, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being female. However, when you call me out as a woman and attack me for being a “bitch,” that’s a horse of a different misogyny. It doesn’t offend my person but offends me for all of the women who can’t say “Actually, I’m male bodied” every day, whose voices are discredited, simply because of their gender. We need to stick up for each other.
8. DO remember that there’s an actual human on the other end of the computer. DON’T make the world a worse place.
Every time I see someone leave a heartless or thoughtless comment on someone’s piece, I’m genuinely disappointed. Imagine if your friend gave you an essay they worked very hard on to read and you simply threw it in the trash. This teaches us that everyone wants to dismiss you and is out get you, when that’s rarely the case. I generally find that people want to believe in you and that they spent their time (of which there is sadly too little) on something worthwhile. We focus on the negative.
As a writer, I’ve learned that people want to connect with you, so much so that they can be a little creepy about it sometimes. I have an internet stalker in the UK who is living proof of that. He sometimes emails me to tell me about his dreams. (This is why I stopped putting my email address in my bio.)
Stalkers notwithstanding, writers cherish the weird relationships we built with our readership, and I believe that relationship can be used as a tool for positive change. We can start dialogues, learn from each other and, every once in awhile, make lasting friendships out of it. We think about the internet as being a world outside our own, but the community inside is all too human — for better and worse.
We should inspire the best in ourselves, and that begins not by always agreeing with each other but disagreeing mindfully and respectfully. A world where we all agree all the time and don’t push each other is boring. I don’t want to live in that world. I want to live in the world where we cherish our criticism. I want us to help each other get better.