We’ve all seen the tragic stories of teenagers driven into depression, out of schools, or even to suicide by the online taunts of peers. The media have dubbed the phenomenon cyber-bullying and almost always describe it as harm committed by and against children.
But I’m starting to wonder whether horrible stories like this, this, and this are tragic extensions of the everyday nastiness to be found on the internet, among both children and adults who feel emboldened online to hurl criticism, taunts, and veiled threats they would never speak aloud to a person’s face.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going Unabomber or anything. I still the <3 the World Wide Webs. Although I understand why Tess is thinking about pulling the plug, I get energy from the supportive relationships I’ve formed with readers online. And yet there’s something about the Internet that encourages people to let their guard down and say impulsive things. Is it really surprising that some people’s inner thoughts are better left unsaid?
A couple of weeks ago on my Facebook page, I finally got around to posting some photos from book tour, including one from my joint event with Harlan Coben at Barbara Peters’ Poisoned Pen.
Within a few minutes, the reader comments numbered into the double digits. Love him! Two of my favorite writers! Waiting for you to come back to Scottsdale!
Pretty loving stuff, right? Well, almost all of it. Whoa. Who gained all that weight? Too much touring. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling the love from that one. I tried to convince myself the woman was talking about Harlan (yeah right). My response: Harsh. Guess I won’t be wearing that outfit anymore.
I sort of expected the woman to delete her post, or perhaps back pedal, or at least say nothing. But a minute later: Alafair, maybe you should start riding your bicycle when you go to East Hampton. But you’re still my favorite chubb* writer. Love you. LOL.
Love you? LOL. No, I don’t think so. Block User.
But blocking her wasn’t enough. A few minutes later, I had this nagging loose thread tickling my brain. Something about the woman’s name had sounded familiar. She’d come to my attention before. I googled her name with mine. I got some hits on Facebook. She had posted other comments to my page, and they were also odd: One asked whether I employed some of the cyber-sleuthing technology referenced in one of my books; another made strange mention of the race of a character.
And here’s what’s even stranger: Googling her name with mine pulled up that old My Space profile I’d forgotten about, and hers as well, because she had friended me there. Her profile was very…public. And personal. And naked.
My inner mean-girl was seconds away from unblocking her on Facebook, slapping up a link to her naked pictures, and saying, “If I looked like this, I wouldn’t be calling anyone chubb.”
And, you see, that’s how it starts. With the press of a button, I could have sent thousands of people to gawk at the naked photographs this woman had posted, but only her handful of friends had actually seen. At least some of them would have taken a cue from me and piled on their own insults. They would have forwarded the link to their friends. And who knows how this obviously unhealthy woman might have responded.
Needless to say, I suppressed my inner mean-girl. At forty years of age, it’s no longer hard to do. At least, not for me.
But obviously some adults are still hitting that send key. Although a naked lady’s comments about my weight fall into a category of their own, I am amazed at the number of people who contact writers online to tell them how hard they suck. Granted, the positive, supportive comments outweigh the meanies by 999 to 1, but, man, that .1 percent can irritate. Just a few of my favorites:
Why did the book have to be so long?
Why do you set your books in New York and Oregon? I prefer reading about New Iberia.
The sun does not rise in Portland that time of year until seven a.m.
I’m enjoying your books but feel they are too similar to each other. Not sure I’ll stick with them.
This week I received a nasty-gram based on a blurb I had written. Apparently I wouldn’t know “credible writing if it hit me in the face.” I’m not sure I want writing to hit me in the face.
At least I know I’m not alone. One writer swears to me that someone used his book as toilet paper and mailed the soiled pages to his publisher. (Okay, that one’s got nothing to do with the Internet, but it’s frickin’ creepy.)
A certain two-time Edgar winner and Grandmaster I know receives emails all the time telling him his words are too big, his sentences too long, and his characters too old. A recent gem: “I just finished [name of novel]. It was a tedious reading, I do not know why it was written. I have read all your previous books with relish.”
What a fan! Give that man some relish.
And it’s not just in my writing life that I open myself up to online criticism. Thanks to RateMyProfessors.com, students can post anonymous, unmoderated comments online about their professors. Professor Burke generally fares well in the forum, and I even have a chili pepper (signifying my “hotness”) despite the obvious chubb factor, but it’s not fun when someone calls you “boring as hell.” (Is hell …boring?)
Some of my colleagues have been less fortunate. Comments about weight, body odor, flatulence, attire, supposed senility, and their marriages and other personal details abound. And these are comments by adults, about adults.
To be clear, the jibes I’m complaining about aren’t nearly as bad as the psychological torment that has made headlines, or the growing phenomenon of nasty online comments about obituaries. Obviously most healthy adults (and I’ll include myself in that group) can handle this stuff. You ignore it. Or, if you’re me, you let it hurt your feelings for half a minute, then laugh about it, then ignore it. This stuff’s minor, and it’s rare.
But this morning I felt like exposing the bullies to sunlight. No retaliation. No mean-girl revenge. Just an acknowledgment that as much as I love comments from readers, I could do without the rare nasty aside.
(*Chubb? I have no idea if this is slang for fat, because lord knows we don’t have enough words for obese, or if she just omitted the y, but for reasons I can’t explain, being someone’s favorite chubb writer seems much worse than being someone’s favorite chubby writer. Either way, I am not aware of an award in either category. If there is one, please do not send it to me.)