When I was an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati, we had a guy come to campus to spread the word of the Lord. Usually he’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t look twice at if he were handing out Jesus pamphlets on the street, but in this case, he wasn’t about preaching the good word. He stood on the grassy knoll of the campus hurling inflammatory insults based in scripture at just about any group he could come with up. Blacks, gays, Jews and women were all fair game. There’s a street evangelist who does the same thing in Chicago, and we call him the Old Navy preacher, even though he’s not at the Old Navy anymore. The store moved, but he stayed.
This seemed like an odd marketing strategy until some explained to me that it wasn’t about conversion. These guys want to piss people off. Every year that same grassy knoll man would come to the campus and stand on the demarcated space to express free speech, hoping that someone would punch him. The man had a crew filming his interactions with the crowd, and if they couldn’t get a shot of physical violence, the intense screaming and shouting would do. The man does this at a number of universities around the country, using the footage to get attention and donations from the flock. It’s nothing but canned hatred as the ultimate ad campaign, convincing Christians the world is out to get them.
The man on the grassy knoll operates in a world where we are controlled by what we believe other people think about us, where hate can be as lucrative and profitable as love. Jessica Valenti once wrote that in today’s society, the girl “with the most likes wins.” However, hate clicks drove Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” to record VEVO views, sending the song to number-one on the Billboard charts, her first ever. She’s since become the most-searched person on the internet, just so people can hate her more. The tsumani of online backlash also helped Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” remain at the top of the charts for an absurd number of weeks. In our internet culture, hate is its own form of love. At least people are watching.
Whether we are hated or loved, this leads to a mindset where we live for the mob’s attention — especially in the age of the internet, where we wait for Twitter or the internet comment board to chime in. It’s not just that we no longer live in a vacuum. It’s that instant feedback is always a click away, and the ability to always have access to what other people think about us is addictive, like the girls on YouTube who just want to know if they’re pretty. Tina Fey once joked that if you ever feel too good about yourself, you can always find someone to say something terrible about you on the internet. It’s an easy way to wallow in shame and self-pity.
The first article I ever published on the Huffington Post was an instructive experience in the way the internet works. I wrote a critique of Chris Brown performing at the Grammy’s after assaulting Rihanna, a fellow Grammy nominee. Rihanna’s restraining order against him would have to be broken so that the show could go on, which sends a strange message to women about how society prioritizes their safety. I wrote from my perspective as the son of a domestic abuse survivor and sexual assault victim, who was very open with me about her experiences, and I worked with her to talk about those respectfully.
Friends on social media voiced support for my openness and honesty, but commenters virulently lashed out at me for addressing these issues, many defending Brown’s right to abuse whomever he wants. (Male privilege is pretty neat, huh?) They also chimed in to say that my mother deserved to get beaten. My stepfather repeatedly smashed her in the face with a box fan. They said she had it coming. This wasn’t honest criticism, as they’ve never met my mother, but a remark designed to get a reaction. They hoped to shut me up. Such feedback is a way to control online opinion, keeping quiet anyone with whom you you don’t agree. For everyone who loves you on the internet, three more are waiting to tell you to kill yourself. It’s usually for the same reasons.
This last statement isn’t hyperbole. This has happened to me, as well as multiple people informing me that I loved getting raped, which was news to me. I’ve gotten used to the fact that whenever I write about certain topics, including race, sexual assault or gender issues, I’m going to get backlash — pretty much no matter what I say. The criticism is built in, little of it real or constructive. A friend of mine and colleague wrote the other day about the Cleveland Indians logo and why its racist, putting it into a cultural context that the readership would understand. I thought it was smart and informative, a way to bring important ideas to a broad audience. Some readers didn’t agree. They called her a “c*nt.”
If you talk to nearly any internet writer, they will tell you their troll stories — because opinionated writing elicits a myriad of reactions, some of them angry, others just weird. A guy from Wales once wrote to say he masturbates to me, which made me wonder how that’s even possible. He doesn’t know what I look like! Another writer on the site can’t write a single piece without getting attacked for her gender identity, whether she’s talking about transgender issues or going to the store to get a glass of milk. It doesn’t matter the topic. There’s always that strike against her. But it doesn’t matter who you are. After writing about her cancer treatment, commenters chimed in to hope that Mary Elizabeth Williams’ disease would kill her.
These comments are, in truth, few and far between and far more people on my Rihanna or sexual assault pieces were kind to me, but the hatred takes on an outsize importance in our brain. It’s the only thing people remember. A friend once came up to me and asked about the comments on a recent piece of mine, which he claimed were “crazy mean, yo,” and I hadn’t checked it. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but now I expected people to be asking for my head. This sounded bad. However, when I looked, only a handful were actually negative. Williams was similarly asked about her dyspeptic commenters at a party, as if the comment section enjoyed equal weight to her actual article.
Like Williams, I used to read every single comment on my articles, obsessing with feedback and this ersatz dialogue I was having on the internet. I thought it was my duty to take it all in and internalize it — because learning to deal with criticism would make me a better writer. To an extent, that’s true. I often joke that once someone on the internet has told you that you don’t deserve to live, you can deal with anything. Do I look fat today? Who cares? At least I’m alive. But in the midst of all that, I’ve built these facsimiles of friendships with my favorite Thought Catalog commenters, and I often look down to see if “WhatGoodWouldItDo” has responded yet.
However, I also think that the writers who don’t live for the hate or overtly get off on pissing people off become more likely to reign in their opinions, making them digestible for the public. We’re scared that we’ll spend days writing a 3,000 word essay only to have people dismiss it as “too long” or stop reading after the second paragraph. We write what we know will drive likes or hits, rather than just writing what we like. On the internet, we start to live for other people, as if we all become the girls crafting the perfect public persona on Facebook or Pinterest, showing you the highlight reel of their life.
You can get all the likes this way you want, continually kowtowing for as much approval as possible and writing to get pats on the back. Or if you’re a troll, you can spend your days hoping that Jezebel will pick up your piece and drive hate traffic. It’s what they do. This is how the internet works. Or you can start living for your own approval, writing what you think is important and notable, irrespective of whether other people care. No matter whether people love our work or hate it, we always want people to care and fill the comment section with some kind of emotion, but without that space, there’s nothing. There’s only you and what you care about. It’s your self-respect that matters most.
Williams vowed to stop reading the comments on her articles, as other friends of mine have done, but I plan on going further: I’m turning the comments on my articles off. Some might say that it’s a way to escape criticism, but anyone who writes on the internet knows that’s impossible. If people have something to say, they will find a way to write to you, tweet you or Facebook message you — whether its an inane correction or telling you that you’re the dumbest person in the world. I had someone track down a personal email I’ve never posted on the internet just to contact me. Criticism is inescapable.
You can’t turn off the internet’s comments altogether, but you can filter out which kind of critiques you get, deciding which kinds of feedback matter to you most. As a writer you have to ask yourself if you’re going to spend your days responding to every negative comment or hold out for the ones that matter? A fellow Chicago writer, Ryne Poelker, wrote a critique of my article on Kate Menendez a couple days ago in the Socialist Worker, and he voiced concerns I’ve had about internet culture and slacktivism that I didn’t know how to say. He said it better than I ever could. I wrote to him to thank him, not only because it was a necessary addition to the conversation but because it was the best example of what the internet can be: an actual discussion.
I don’t know what I’ll do with the extra time I might have spent browsing the comments or quietly obsessing whether or not people are paying enough attention to me, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not spending it on the internet. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing online, it’s that WhatGoodWouldItDo will find me anyway.