Humans Suck (sometimes)

by Sally on March 29, 2011

If you were hanging around Twitter or any number of internet message boards yesterday you may have seen a link to this – a book review site that published a review of a self-published novel.

The review was a little critical, although the reviewer tried hard to find positive things to say. The author, clearly very emotionally invested in her work, took the criticism hard. To say the least. In fact, she had a little bit of a meltdown, accusing the reviewer of being a liar, and ending up swearing at some of the blog’s commenters.

Person takes criticism badly – it’s a story as old as the Internet.

Except I started seeing the link to this post popping up on Twitter and Facebook and various online forums yesterday afternoon. And by the time I visited there were over 300 comments. And most of the comments online seemed to agree this episode was pretty funny. So I started reading.

Somewhere around comment 50, I saw the first “you’re delusional” comment. Then there was a “congratulations on ruining your reputation” and a few “you’ve ruined any chance of ever being published” and “your career is over” comments.

Then there were those commenters who had gone off to look at the author’s website, her Blogger profile, her Amazon page. They downloaded sample chapters of her book and tore them apart. She was declared to be illiterate, embarrassing and unlikely to ever succeed as a writer. Her Amazon profile quickly filled up with negative comments from people who had never read her book, but just wanted to make sure the world knew that the author was a joke.

So how about now? Still funny?

I can’t imagine many people who would consider it fair or reasonable to stand in front of an aspiring author and tell her in no uncertain terms that she is embarrassing, talentless and doomed to failure. No matter what the author had done out of pride, anger or humiliation, I don’t think many of us would stand in line to be the 300th person to laugh in her face.

So what is it about the Internet that makes this okay?

I remember reading a piece by Chris Brogan arguing that on the Internet there are two basic personality types – those who can make the leap required to understand that these pixels represent a real person, and those who can’t.

I suspect those people lining up to pour scorn on the author aren’t bad people in real life – many of the people I observe engaged in this kind of online bullying (and given that bullying can be defined as a sustained personal attack that isn’t proportionate, then that’s what this clearly is) would describe themselves as unfailingly kind and reasonable, I’m sure. But they behave in ways online that they would find abhorrent in the real world.

I remember reading another post once from a woman who worked in an IT company that’s reasonably unpopular. She explained that she always used an avatar that was a picture of her with her daughter because “It’s easy to say f— you to an icon, less so to the nice Mommy holding a baby”.

This makes me wonder whether social media needs to become more humanised, that we need to be more obvious about being people and not pixels. Or is this kind of mob activity just inevitable

*Oh, alright. Sometimes they suck. Mostly they’re okay.

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura LittleStuff March 29, 2011 at 10:04 AM

*hangs head and holds hand in air*
I retweeted it.
I got as far as comment 25, and had better things to do – I had no CLUE it all got so out of hand.
She did react apallingly, and the initial comments to her were balanced and respectful.
It’s the same when you ring a large company to complain – the person on the other end of the phone is just a minion being paid minimum wage, and really doesn’t personally deserve the barrels of abuse they get for being the face of the monstrosity behind them.
Sadly, internet bullying is very easy because it’s everyone’s so faceless – and is all too common. I do also think that perhaps the simple wholesale loss of respect in our culture has a lot to do with it.

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Dan Thornton March 29, 2011 at 10:05 AM

I wish I could find the great blog post recently on one of the big sites, as one of their writers decided to track down some of the people leaving insulting comments on his last article – to the point of calling them up and asking why they’d done it.

Needless to say they all apologised etc…

I always work on the principle that I won’t say anything online I wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

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Sally March 29, 2011 at 1:23 PM

Well, quite. It always amazes me when people are deluded enough to think that there’s no conflict between “I’m a nice normal person” and “I can call complete strangers a twat on the Internet”. As though it doesn’t count. And you’re right, in person those people are almost always mortified by the impact that their comments may have had.

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Rosie Scribble March 29, 2011 at 12:32 PM

I hadn’t heard about the treatment of that poor aspiring author. It’s shocking. Social media definitely needs to become more humanised. I doubt few of those commenters would have said the same thing in the ‘real’ world.

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Sally March 29, 2011 at 1:23 PM

I agree that it’s shocking – I’m absolutely convinced it would never happen in the ‘real’ world – but because it’s online, people don’t think it counts. Sad.

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Alex March 29, 2011 at 1:21 PM

I find some of the dickery (it’s a proper word, trust me) found in internet comments to be astonishing.

This video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnETGNFb_6g of a lorry pushing a car along on the motorway is a good example. Most of the original comments detailed how it was fake and had been composed entirely using VFX software, and you only had to have a modicum of intelligence to see that. Of course the language they used was a bit more coarse.

At the end of the day though if you’re going to write a book, you either steer clear of the reviews if you can’t cope or really think about hitting the submit button after wigging out because if you’re smart you’ll realise that the 4Chan crowd will turn you into a meme before long.

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Sally March 29, 2011 at 1:25 PM

Dickery is totally a word.

Yes, she wrote a book and she had a meltdown. But does that mean she ‘deserves’ to be villified by hundreds of strangers? Surely not – and very few people could walk away from that kind of attack and not be quite seriously affected, I reckon.

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Alex March 29, 2011 at 1:43 PM

Oh I completely agree that she doesn’t deserve to be treated like that but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have been more circumspect but that’s easy to say in hindsight. It’s like walking into a pub in the wrong part of town and having a loud rant about something, you’ll get torn to pieces over it by the locals.

Much like the time I was in a rural pub in Norfolk and a Chelsea tractor load of modern yuppies came in, haw-hawing their way through the menu, delighted by the option of “fish N chips, with mooshy peas”. They didn’t stay for long enough to order food oddly enough.

I like to compare the internet to Mos Eisely Spaceport, a worse hive of villainy and scum you’re not likely to see. Just because within the theoretical boundaries of whatever online community you’re part of, you can behave in a certain way, doesn’t mean if some troll on 4Chan, Reddit or somewhere gets a boner for making fun of you that you’re life isn’t going to be made a misery

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PippaD @ A Mothers Ramblings March 29, 2011 at 1:26 PM

I read the post when it was sent to me and the comments and they didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t that they were telling her she would fail (every rejection letter from a publishing house could be argued to be saying that) but that it started to be a bit of a witch hunt.

Of course had the author just accepted that this one person didn’t like the style that she wrote in she would just be like any other author who has had a negative review.

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James March 29, 2011 at 2:02 PM

You put yourself out there, you have to expect some slings and arrows. I’ve read the stuff in question and it was the self-published author who set the tone early on with comments like:

“You never downloaded another copy you liar!
You never ever returned to me an e-mail
Besides if you want to throw crap at authors you should first ask their permission if they want it stuck up on the internet via e-mail. That debate is high among authors.
Your the target not me!
Now get this review off here!”

So is humanity at fault for rising to this kind of nonsense? Hardly. It’s unattractive behaviour from a few individuals, but it’s pretty clear this person is a valid target for scorn. I know there’s a lot of ugly stuff on the web (look at the comments on just about *any* popular YouTube video) but this is not a very good example. This person is a grown woman who is apparently a little clueless. That’s just what the internet does to people exercising such poor judgement.

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Sally March 29, 2011 at 2:47 PM

But my point isn’t that this woman hasn’t behaved stupidly. My point is the difference in the response between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ conversations.

In a real conversation, after someone had become so emotional and irrational, would 300 people line up to laugh in some stranger’s face? Would they tell her she’s talentless? Would they look to publicly destroy her reputation?

I just don’t think we would. I think offline we’d consider that to be unkind. We’d take a step back, consider that she’s clearly upset and emotional and has her pride dented, and we’d respond accordingly. Saying it’s to be expected that you have a different experience and expectations because “Hey, it’s the Internet” doesn’t really work for me, sorry.

I can see where you’re coming from but for me it’s the perfect example because it shows how someone’s fallibility is pounced on by an Internet mob, in a way that I just don’t think happens offline.

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Bumbling March 29, 2011 at 2:59 PM

I agree it’s shocking. But I also think her behaviour was shocking. She, presumably, wouldn’t respond to criticism in real life that way either. I hope…

There is definitely something about online that depersonalises. In good ways as well as bad – it’s one of the reason many of us find it easier to communicate personal feelings online.

I think social norms will come out eventually. I hope. I have to hope… ;-)

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Lucy Quick March 29, 2011 at 8:29 PM

There are many examples of people behaving like this online, sadly.

I do think that there’s an element of people feel safe behind their computer screens; plus of course, as you say, it’s easy to forget that there is a human being absorbing all the horrible things being said about them.

My Nanna’s favourite phrase springs to mind here – if you haven’t got anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.

Thought provoking post xxx

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Dan March 29, 2011 at 8:39 PM

This one’s not half as bad as the Rebecca Black carry on. that was a 13 year old girl who had done nothing to deserve it.

As Charlie Brooker says, twitters logo shouldn’t be a bird – it should be a torch and a pitchfork.

In fact – Chalie Brooker puts it across better than I ever could:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/28/charlie-brooker-rebecca-black-friday

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Sally March 29, 2011 at 8:54 PM

I thought the Rebecca Black thing was absolutely shameful, I really did. Poor kid.

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Natalie March 29, 2011 at 8:50 PM

I read his review and got through about thirty comments and clicked off. This isn’t a one-sided issue, like the commenters are bullying – she is also very much in the wrong. Her comments are aggressive, disrespectful, outrageous, and inflammatory and while she is being bullied by the commenters, she in turn has attempted to bully the author of the review. She is doing herself *no* favours, however, and it is a big however, I do wonder why people have nothing better to do with their time than jump on her back and chip in their two cents and I personally would have turned comments off. I think that most of these people are bored and it is rather pathetic that they have to go to such lengths. But after reading her comment where she basically claimed that she’d read the grammatical issues that he highlighted in her comment and saw nothing wrong, and posted Amazon reviews from any old Joe in the comments, I think she could do with winding her neck in and engaging in a spot of self evaluation.

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Sally March 29, 2011 at 8:58 PM

I definitely see where you’re coming from – what I thought was interesting about this was that this *should* have been a row between 2 people. She was rude to him, he was aggressive back. Maybe his regular readers might have got involved.

But you put it on the Internet and what you actually get is 300 people with no valid interest in anything joining in simply for the fun of tearing someone apart. And THAT’S what really bothers me about it. It reminds me of those scenes in the Handmaid’s Tale where society is so disfunctional that the powers that be organise public killings as a focus for all that rage and unhappiness – it’s a public blood-letting. Or as Alex says, people with a boner for making someone’s life a misery.

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Robyn March 29, 2011 at 8:58 PM

I guess as easy as the Internet makes it for us to have intelligent conversations and connect with strangers we’d never hook up with in real life, it also makes us easy for us to scorn them too. Trouble is we’re unlikely to get one without the other.

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Robyn March 29, 2011 at 9:01 PM

…I mean makes *it* easy for us… Note to self: proof *before* pressing submit.

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Vegemitevix March 29, 2011 at 9:03 PM

It’s pack behaviour – like wolves but with words not teeth. Revolting, hateful behaviour. Makes me shiver as an un-published writer. If I’d received feedback like that on my book I’ll shrivel up and die.

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Sally March 31, 2011 at 9:25 AM

Agreed completely – it’s a pack mentality.

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Nicki Cawood March 29, 2011 at 9:59 PM

I haven’t read all the comments, and agree that the comments are excessively sharp to say the least. Who was right or wrong isn’t the point Sally is making (unless I’m reading this wrong) but it’s the ease with which people will happily tear someone apart online, without really thinking about them beyond their avatar, screen-name etc. Frightening really!
Great post, really got me thinking.

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Sally March 31, 2011 at 9:26 AM

Exactly – it’s almost a better example because the woman in question did behave stupidly – but the response wasn’t from people who particularly had an issue with that, just people who wanted to get involved in that sort of attack, I think. And that’s what I find a bit shocking about online networks, generally.

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Alex March 31, 2011 at 8:31 AM

Actually, my last blog post is quite pertinent to how crappy people can be on t’internet:

http://doitanyway.co.uk/other/failed-by-failblog/

At least there was no swearing though :/

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