Commenting Culture Infects the Internet, Inviting Us Not to "Join the Conversation" So Much As to Join a Fight–or at Least Gawk from the Sidelines
When I was twenty-five years old I appeared in the pages of the New York Times Magazine in my underwear. Well, almost. A cartoon drawing of a girl in her underwear—a girl who, with her short blond hair and apple cheeks over a pointed chin, looked remarkably like me—appeared in conjunction with an essay I’d written about the way Generation X was reacting to the safe-sex message. The year was 1996 and the AIDS crisis, though technically past its apogee, seemed to have finally succeeded in infiltrating every corner of the general public consciousness and scaring the hell out of it. Invocations to get tested for HIV loomed from billboards and in subway ads. Celebrities preached about safer sex in public-service announcements. Music videos and advertisements appropriated AIDS awareness as not only a form of provocation but an agent of style. It was the year of the Broadway debut of Rent, a modern-day retelling of La Bohème that featured several characters who were either infected with HIV or dying of AIDS.
The essay had been brewing in my mind since at least two years before, when I’d been jolted by a print advertisement for the Benetton clothing company. It featured more than a thousand tiny photos of smiling, attractive young people purporting to represent every part of the world. Intermittent faces were shaded and partially obscured by the word AIDS, creating a visual effect that spelled out the word in larger type when you looked at the image from farther back. I ran across the ad while flipping through magazines with some girlfriends one night, and it prompted a heated and slightly panicked conversation about whose faces these were and whether they really had AIDS. One friend said, “Yes, of course they do; that’s how bad things have gotten.” Another wasn’t sure, and I thought it couldn’t be possible. This led to an even more heated discussion about how dangerous the world was and how we, as twentysomething females living in New York City, should perhaps hang up our dancing shoes (or, in our case, black leather lace-up boots) and marry the next person we met (after the requisite health screenings, of course), lest the single life literally kill us.
I was a young writer back then. I won’t say “aspiring writer,” because I’d actually managed to publish a few things that elevated me slightly out of the “aspiring” camp and were steering me into the “promising” camp. Still, I was green. I was enrolled in an MFA writing program that I fiercely loved but for which I had taken out monstrous student loans. It seemed worth it, though. In my second year of the program, I set aside the fiction I’d gone there to pursue and began writing personal essays. Things started clicking almost immediately and a central theme emerged: the relationship between myself and society, the tension between the trappings of contemporary life and the actualities of that life, what it meant to be “alive” (i.e., twenty-five years old) in “today’s world” (i.e., New York City). And, as is always the case for a young writer, every experience I had—every book I read and film I saw, every trip to the corner deli, every ranter I heard in the street—was potential fodder for another piece of groundbreaking, human condition–explaining nonfiction.
Hence the week in the fall of 1995 when, after visiting the health-services office of my university for a head cold and deciding on a whim to get a free HIV test, I started thinking about that Benetton ad and those shaded faces and found myself suddenly gripped by the terrifying possibility that, despite not having engaged in anything remotely constituting risky behavior (at least from a rational standpoint; in those days of equal-opportunity alarmism, any acts of uncondomized sex, possibly even those involving only oneself, were considered a death wish), I could wind up among their ranks. And when I went home that evening and sat down at the computer (Band-Aid stuck menacingly to my arm from the blood-draw, my stomach queasy at the prospect of waiting two weeks for the result), an essay was born: a loud, flashy, nakedly ambitious essay about the way non-promiscuous, non-IV-drug-using heterosexuals often abandon condoms a month or so into their relationships, after which they get paranoid so they get tested for HIV and then drive themselves insane with anxiety during the wait, after which they usually resume the behavior that made them paranoid to begin with. I talked about the way the national conversation around HIV-awareness had resulted in millions of little white lies that people told each other on a regular basis: for instance, “I’ve never once had sex without a condom.” I talked about how it was difficult for a woman to go on a date with a man without looking for subtle clues that the guy might once have had sex with another man. I spoke of how messages like “There’s no such thing as safe sex” had promulgated the idea that paranoia and mistrust were the keys to a healthy life. I talked about how, as a freshman in college, a senior who claimed to have inside information about the public-health stats of the student body looked at me earnestly and said that there were lesbians on campus who had HIV, which they’d contracted from other lesbians. I spoke of how stuff like this was simultaneously so hard to believe and so terrifying that it was tempting to just ignore the message altogether. I spoke of my own melancholy and loneliness and confusion. I think at one point I might have used the word dystopia.
I also called Benetton and asked if the people in the ad were really known to have HIV or AIDS. They weren’t. I mentioned that, too.
I may have been in graduate school, but I was already flinging my work all over town, pitching ideas to magazine editors and hand-delivering work samples (somehow this seemed more serious and professional than using the U.S. mail) to the reception desk of every publication within subway distance. When an editor at the New York Times Magazine called me and asked if I had anything edgy and new to say about my generation, I sent him the AIDS essay and he immediately invited me to lunch to discuss it further. Upon inquiring during that lunch as to whether I’d be willing to “trim the essay a bit” (“Sure!” I chirped. “Anything you want!”), another lunch was scheduled, this time at Orso with two more editors who plied me with yellowfin tuna and told me the piece would need to be cut nearly in half to accommodate a two-page spread, but that I shouldn’t worry because I was the voice of my generation and everything would be spectacular.
They were right about the spectacle. Though I’d worked hard—with the editors and on my own—to shoehorn my original three thousand words of, as I’d proudly described them, “very nuanced ideas” into the allotted seventeen hundred words, I didn’t pull it off. The final edit was abrupt, not all that coherent, gratuitously provocative, and suggested that I might have had unprotected sex with upward of five hundred people (in truth, the number was in the low single digits, and “unprotected” was a matter of interpretation). In addition to the tarty cartoon drawing (which had been sent to press without my knowledge, and which the art department had conceded to only after I declined to sit for a photo shoot), the essay had been assigned the rather awkward title of “Safe-Sex Lies.” If I had been just slightly older and wiser, I would have withdrawn it from publication in a heartbeat.
But of course I was neither of those things. I was the voice of my generation, which, in the case of this article, wasn’t proving to be a very appealing one. The article came out, the Times received roughly six hundred irate letters within five days, my phone rang off the hook, and I was invited to appear on the NBC Nightly News. Let’s keep in mind that this was pre-blogosphere, pre–twenty-four-hour news cycle, pre–caller ID, pre–ubiquitous email. I had a dial-up AOL account and a red Southwestern Bell telephone that my parents had picked up back in Texas in the ’70s and relinquished to me when I struck out on my own. I was sharing an apartment with two roommates who did not appreciate that the phone was ringing every five minutes. Usually the person on the other end had called to say how disgusted they were with what I’d written and what a slut I was and how I was either appallingly homophobic (for suggesting that HIV might not be affecting heterosexuals at the same rate) or had a “pro-gay agenda” (for suggesting HIV was a problem at all). My classmates, who’d been the first to read the piece back in workshop, seemed perturbed about the whole thing. (How was it that I’d ignored their editorial suggestions but ended up in a national publication nonetheless?) My parents were rightfully mortified, and my friends were rapidly growing tired of talking me off the cliff every day, listening to my whining and rationalizations and telling me what I wanted to hear, which is that the “right people” understood what I was trying to get across; I was ahead of my time; and, besides, no one was saying I was a bad writer, merely a bad person.
When a correspondent for the NBC Nightly News came to interview me in my apartment (roommates eavesdropping from the kitchen as they made grilled-cheese sandwiches), I tried to acquit myself but mostly made things worse by rambling on in a sound bite–unfriendly fashion (again with the “dystopia”) and looking slightly derelict with an aggressively short, bleached-blond haircut (it was the mid-’90s, after all). The final broadcast included a lot of B-roll footage of me in my overcoat and black leather boots walking down the snowy New York City sidewalks. When the segment ended and Tom Brokaw looked up from his desk monitor and into the camera, he shook his head with an air of such profound, almost avuncular concern that I felt like I had been sent to my room. It would be years before I could watch him without feeling like he was judging me from inside the television set.
Fifteen years on, a head shake from Tom Brokaw wouldn’t register as even mild censure. As much as the culture has eased up on HIV-preventative scare tactics, it’s become ruthlessly punitive in the face of just about any point of view that embraces ambiguity or gets expressed in a less-than-literal fashion. A young person (any person) who published a piece as incendiary as “Safe-Sex Lies” today would be chewed up and spit out so many times over by bloggers and commenters and cable-news screamers that the idea of “understanding what I was trying to get across” would seem not just quaint but moot. Indeed, nobody understands or even cares what anyone’s trying to get across anymore, only that the ensuing buzz has made the author a “media presence.” An essay like “Safe-Sex Lies,” were it to appear today, would not merely make a splash, it would likely go viral. It would ricochet around email boxes, fill those yawning expanses of airtime on talk radio, and appear on the home pages of countless news aggregators, all the while dragging behind it an ever-expanding trail of “response,” much of it from people who haven’t read all, or perhaps any, of the essay, but nonetheless feel compelled to weigh in. The writer would then be inveighed upon to react to the reaction, to compose blog posts and participate in live chat sessions and call in to radio programs, not so much in an attempt to clarify her original message, but to talk about how “interesting” the public reception has been, and what a “wild ride” it all is—“wild ride” being a euphemism for thousands of anonymous internet comments calling you unprintable words.
These days, being attacked isn’t just the result of saying something badly, it’s the result of saying anything at all. I can testify to this, because for more than six years, I have been a weekly opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This is a great gig, and I have many loyal, smart, thoughtful readers. But I also live with the fact that practically everything I write is met with an avalanche of invective. It runs the gamut from partisan attacks to personal attacks to entreaties to my editors to stop publishing me immediately. Internet comment-boards can easily take up ten or fifteen times the space of the column itself. My email in-box overflows with outrage and umbrage: “Shame on you!” “You are an idiot and a disgrace.” “What a stupid little twit you are.” And, in one of my recent favorites, “You have no credibility because you let your opinion get in the way.”
Some weeks, if I’ve hit a particularly sensitive nerve, blogs of every imaginable variety will link to the column, offer their own spin, and then invite their own legions to chime in. On one hand, of course, this is what every columnist wants most. Like anyone who publicly expresses his ideas, be it through writing or music or visual media or anything else, the goal is to be heard, to inspire reaction and generate discussion. But based on much of the reaction I get—especially the comments in my own paper, where a stable of regulars have become so personally invested in their dislike for me that they’ve taken to remarking not on my column but on my looks, marital or reproductive status, and standing on the bitch-o-meter—I can hardly give myself credit for starting anything resembling a discussion. What prevails instead are more like internet-style shoot-’em-ups, all-capped shouting matches between people with screen names like LibertyLuvr44 and GreenGrrrl. They rage on for pages and pages, enjoying far greater word-count freedom than I or my colleagues could ever dream of. Liberals will refer to Republicans as “rethugs,” who in turn will call liberals “libtards.” Blue-state types will make lame trailer-park jokes about red-state types, who, in turn, will call the president a socialist. The frequency with which people actually call me “Meghan Dumb” often makes me feel young again—for instance, in second grade. My commenters also have a great affinity for making things up—again, a freedom not enjoyed by those in the newsroom.
Meghan is 40 years old and still not married. Tick tock tick tock… Anyone who knows Meghan knows of what I speak. She’s an angry middle aged woman and an intolerant hack.
What a pathetic, inept, and uninformed person you are. Your articles are brainless, and when I read them I think of how miserable as a person you must be. Probably a fat ugly little girl who needs to prey on others to feel better…A fat, ugly squashed bug.
You are a vile, loathsome, despicable pig. Your stench permeates through the web.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I know that online hecklers represent but a tiny fraction of readers. I also know it’s actually a privilege to get feedback like this. It means that people are actually reading what I write, that editors are actually publishing it, and, moreover, that I’ve been able to make a career out of observing the culture and expressing my thoughts in writing. Over the years, I’ve scrambled to pay rent with enough menial office jobs to know better than to take even one day of uninterrupted, paid (or even unpaid) writing for granted. I know that a lot of writers would kill to be called a squashed bug or a despicable pig, if only because it beats not being called anything at all. But if most writers have long understood that publishing is a privilege that carries certain responsibilities—foremost among them taking the time to present ideas in a careful and thoughtful manner, ideally with the help of one or more editors—many readers seem to be approaching their commenting privileges like teenagers with newly minted driver’s licenses. Belted in by anonymity and often distracted by the equally reckless ravings of their peers, they take potshots, spread untruths, and, at their worst, spew racism and bigotry that would put a professional writer out of business in a nanosecond. In so doing, they spread a rancor that can eclipse not only the original article but also the comments of readers who take a more constructive, civil approach. They take the very privilege the internet has afforded all of us—the privilege of equal opportunity, instant expression—and spit on it, making the very notion of “speaking your mind” seem almost like a dirty practice, the national pastime of the lowest common denominator.
This “haterade” (as the young blogger types have brilliantly coined it) is especially acute around political subjects and, in the case of my colleagues and myself, doubly acute when it comes to President Obama or Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin or any subject remotely connected to race or gender. It by no means stops there, though. I’ve written about everything from shelter pets to the lost pleasures of waiting for the mail, and still been called a “retarded scum pile that personifys [sic] everything that’s wrong with society today.” As many times as I’ve been called a feminazi—more than once by Rush Limbaugh, who apparently skims my column regularly—I’ve had liberals calling for my resignation because I’m not politically correct enough, and feminists wanting to break my knees over any number of perceived slights to the cause. Like most of my fellow columnists, I’m told on a daily basis that I’m utterly unqualified for my job and the sole reason that print media is dying. For all the sputtering outrage I’ve provoked in my socially conservative readers, most of whom know nothing about me but nonetheless like to fantasize that I’m some kind of East Coast blue blood who gets abortions in her spare time and was educated entirely by vegetarian, Marxist lesbians at fancy schools I didn’t have to pay for (“Meghan comes from a very rich family that paid for all her schooling and supported her lavish lifestyle,” a commenter once declared), I also hear from plenty of humorless progressive types who find me “offensive” and “terribly disappointing,” and who want to be removed from my mailing list immediately.
Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who’s capable of hearing a single boo amid a cascade of applause. Though I don’t always realize it, a lot of the feedback is not only positive and flattering, but critical in ways that I need to hear and fully accept (one of the great lessons of doing a weekly column is accepting that you won’t hit it out of the park every single week and that your audience has a right to inform you when those weeks occur). Though I know that it would be a lot better for everyone (first and foremost my husband, who must endure my efforts to “reappropriate” the meanness by printing out the most egregious examples and attaching them to the refrigerator) if I could just focus on the respectful communiqués, it’s not always easy. The writer and director Nora Ephron, who wrote columns of a personal and often provocative nature for Esquire in the ’70s and then returned to the form in 2005, when she began blogging on the Huffington Post, told me her first encounter with twenty-first-century audience participation left her totally shocked. “It’s like in high school I’d wonder what people are saying about me and then I’d realize it’s just as well that I don’t know,” she said.
In “The Readers Strike Back,” a particularly thoughtful article on this subject that appeared on Salon back in 2007 (Salon being famous for some of the more affronted and pious commenters on the web), Gary Kamiya admitted that “it’s very hard for writers, who want to be read and want to know what readers are saying about them, to ignore letters or blogs about themselves.” He quoted Salon senior writer Laura Miller, who allowed that “practically every writer I know has gone through the mill with this,” and then invoked Anthony Trollope’s line from Phineas Finn: “But who is there that abstains from reading that which is printed in abuse of himself?’”
Though I’ve never been tempted to go undercover to avenge myself, as was the case with Lee Siegel, the New Republic reporter who created a false account and attacked his attackers on his blog on the magazine’s website (and got himself suspended in the process), I do have my share of confrontation fantasies. I’ve often imagined tracking down some of my more vehement detractors, knocking on their doors and asking, “Who are you? What has made you so angry? What has happened in your life that you’re reduced to spewing bile at people you know nothing about?”
It turns out I’m not the only one with this fantasy. Last year’s short-lived reality show, succinctly entitled H8R (if you can’t decipher that idiom, you are too old to be watching the program), followed celebrities like Snooki and Kim Kardashian as they confronted people who’d said mean things about them on the internet. It would be foolish, of course, to expect a show of this kind to offer anything terribly insightful about this phenomenon. Since the haters weren’t hiding behind screen names but instead proclaiming their hate on camera and keeping it in compliance with the specifications of any number of producers, network executives, and advertisers, they were no match for even the mildest trolls on a political blog. But the very fact that the show made it on the air at all suggests that the cultural appetite for this kind of confrontation is growing more ravenous by the day. (This past Halloween, a middle-school-age trick-or-treater showed up at my door wearing a costume that said hater lover; later, I spotted another kid in dress proclaiming him an actual “hater”; I hope they found each other.) It makes me think I wasn’t so crazy when I once, only half-jokingly, suggested to a colleague that the opinion columnists at our paper should host a “haters picnic,” wherein we would cheerily serve up hot dogs and potato salad and give our angriest readers the chance to tell us in person what they thought of us.
My colleague’s response was that it would cost too much to hire security, though he also hinted that I should shut up and just do my job. He had a point. Part of our line of work involves being able to ignore the agitators, or at least brush them off. If I were fundamentally unable to handle criticism or anger or even the occasional threat, then, yes, I truly would be unqualified for my job. But there is a world of difference between the traditional notion of public participation in a newspaper or magazine and the cacophonous, sometimes libelous free-for-all that passes for it today. Whereas the old-fashioned letter to the editor involved crafting a letter, figuring out where to send it, springing for a stamp, and knowing that its publication-worthiness would be determined by an actual editor who might even call and suggest some actual edits, today’s readers are invited to “join the conversation” as if the work of professional reporters and columnists carries no more authority than small-talk at a cocktail party. And although some sites are making efforts to weed out the trolls by disabling anonymous posting, filtering comments through Facebook, or letting readers essentially monitor themselves by flagging or promoting comments at their own discretion, most are so desperate to catch eyeballs wherever and however possible that they’re loathe to turn down any form of free content.
This is by now an old gripe in journalism circles, many members of which will point out that the last word on the matter could well have been said three years ago when the Onion published its fake news story “Local Idiot to Post Comment on Internet.” But if three years ago the phenomenon felt like a wave that was about to crest and then surely dissipate into a vague memory of some fleeting, anarchic period in the history of the internet (“Remember back in 2008 when only idiots posted comments?” we imagined ourselves chortling one day), it feels today like the disease-ridden aftermath of a flood. Ugly commentary doesn’t just litter the internet, it infects it. It takes the act of reading an article or watching a video or listening to a podcast and turns it from a receptive experience into a reactive one. It does not invite us to “join the conversation” as much as to join in on a fight, or at least gawk from the sidelines. Perhaps worst of all, it gives the impression that the opinions expressed in those fights are not just the ravings of a few local idiots but the “voice of the people.” Spend enough time in the company of that voice and the world will begin to look like a very bleak place indeed.
When I think of the coiners of the term haterade, those young, mean/smart, media-obsessed bloggers on mean/smart, media-obsessed websites who seem to be able to whip up five hundred words of clever commentary in the time it takes people my age to think of an opening sentence, I wonder if their brains are wired in such a way that the slings and arrows of free-flowing obloquy don’t inflict quite as much pain on them as they might on their elders. The fact that they’ve developed several playful iterations of the word hate—you can hate on someone, show some hatitude, or simply be a hater—suggests that they’ve found a way to laugh at and therefore defang (reappropriate?) the whole gestalt. But I also wonder how often they get to experience the thrill of clueless abandon. I wonder if they’ve ever really been able to express anything—in print, on a blog, on Facebook, wherever—without on some level bracing themselves for mockery or scorn or troll-driven pestilence. I wonder if they could write something as controversial as “Safe-Sex Lies” (even in a more coherent form) and expect anything less than a full-blown assault from an electronic lynch mob and a lifetime of damning search-engine results.
Still, for all the ways in which haterade feels like a scourge of very recent vintage, it’s crucial to remember that in some aspects the acrimony has always been thus. The earliest newspapers in America were penned almost entirely by pseudonymous writers, many of them up to just as much mischief as today’s anonymous bloggers. Benjamin Franklin created several false identities under several different pen names, including a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood, a gossip named The Busybody, and, his best-known, Richard Saunders, whose aphorisms and predictions became the basis of Poor Richard’s Almanac, an annual publication, launched in 1732, whose mocking tone went so far as to report deaths that hadn’t occurred.
During the federalist era, political opponents Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and their respective acolytes, were hating on each other and on the Adams administration so vituperatively that the president signed the Sedition Act of 1798, a statute that made it illegal to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. Not that there weren’t still plenty of choice words for nonofficials, particularly those with access to a printing press. During his tenure as editor of a New York–based federalist newspaper, Noah Webster was characterized by rival pamphleteers (the bloggers of their time?) as “an incurable lunatic,” “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” (It’s fitting that these barbs made such baroque use of vocabulary; Webster was the founder of the first modern dictionary.)
In other words, angry people of the millennium, haterade in public discourse didn’t spring fully formed from the digital cabbage patch; it’s part of the DNA of opinion itself. Betty Winfield, Curators’ Professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a specialist in mass-media history, sees it as little more than the latest form of public expression. “If you have a democracy and people have viewpoints, this is another way to express it,” Winfield told me. “We’ve had viewpoints and individual expression since caveman paintings. The question is whether you own it.” The whole notion of accountability in journalism, she said, didn’t start until the advent of journalism schools, in the early twentieth century, when the concept of “professionalism,” with its emphasis on standards, criteria, and established procedures, took root in America.
But a funny thing has happened since the rise of professionalism. The tenets it embraced—that some people are more qualified than others, that training and apprenticeship have value, that not everyone can or should (or needs to) gain admission into the club—have become unfashionable. And that is because haterade is not exclusive to the media world. It’s not merely an occupational hazard of being a bigmouth. It affects just about anyone who tries to do anything that is subject to public (which is to say online) discussion. It affects the business owner who’s at the mercy of random, nameless Yelp reviewers who might well be his competitors in disguise. It affects the physician for whom the few patients who post reviews on medical-ratings sites are inevitably the disgruntled ones. It affects the educator who can’t give a poor grade without risking retribution via the websites Rate My Teachers or Rate My Professors. It takes the very essence of what it means to be a professional—training, experience, sheer chops—and reduces it to a stage act to be evaluated with an applause-o-meter.
Part of me wants to conclude this essay with a manifesto. I’d like to declare an end to the self-torture. I’d like to call on every writer, musician, comedian, cartoonist, chef, glassblower, nail-salon owner to promise right here and now to stop reading his own bad press and concentrate on doing work that’s true to his vision and unencumbered by anticipatory concessions to ankle-biters who probably won’t ever be satisfied with anything. I’d like to be able to make my own vow to stop looking over my shoulder and go back to writing like the person I was before I’d ever seen a comment board (even if that means taking a little messiness with the exuberance). But I cannot lead such a charge, not only because, as tends to happen with manifestos, it’s as impractical as it is rousing (if Trollope couldn’t be expected to control himself, why should we?), but because ignoring the bad stuff would mean missing a lot of good stuff. And when that stuff is good it can be really, really good. When the criticism is valid it can be priceless. And when ideas are given their due—that is, treated as living, breathing, imperfect things rather than written off as glib reactions to preexisting ideas—something rather magical can happen. There can be a second of silence during which we, as readers, think before chiming in. There can be a gasp of recognition that reminds us why we read or write in the first place. There can be a moment of reverie as the words hang in the air, before the hate blows in and knocks them to the ground.
Such things are possible. They are just uncommonly rare these days. Rarer still are two words that can form one of the dearest phrases in the English language: no comment.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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