I’ve been a big fan of the internet for more almost two decades now. Ever since I can remember I’ve been absolutely blown away by the sheer volume of information it contains – even in its earliest days.
I was an early adopter of blogs, too – I had a GeoCities page back in the day, complete with sparkling jellybean background and gif overloads. Over the years I transitioned first to Blogger, then Tumblr, then WordPress, then the self-hosted site you’re reading now. I enthusiastically embraced Facebook and Twitter and Instagram as they emerged onto the scene.
Although I’m quite social and outgoing, too much social interaction drains me. I need to recharge by retreating and having a few days to myself. As I grew up and realized this about myself, online interaction became a way to continue communicating and interacting during these down times without getting that overwhelmed “too much” feeling. It also became an amazing tool for a fledgling writer who desperately craved an outlet (and an audience) for all her dramatic prose and overwrought poetry.
The poetry has gone (thank god) but the blogging has remained, and since September I’ve been fortunate enough to share my words on a larger platform via my column at The Guardian.
Before I began, my editor warned me that the comments could get a bit harsh at times, so my original plan was simply not to read them. On the day my first column was published, still at my cottage in Ontario, I had my brother read me a few of the positive comments and then closed my laptop and called it a day. Until I got an email from my editor asking me why I hadn’t responded to them yet.
-Responded to them? Oh, no, I was planning to just not read them.
-Um, Madeleine, you have to read them. Reading and responding to comments is essential to creating engagement with your readers.
I opened my laptop and dove in. That article had a fairly strong response (now at 48,000 shares) and ignited some fiery opinions. I’ll be honest, it was challenging at first. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough that 99.99% of all of the comments I receive here have been positive. Not just positive, but, like over the top supportive and amazing and wonderful. I don’t moderate comments here, what you see is just what you guys contribute. It’s unreal.
This was different. The critical comments weren’t being cruel, they just didn’t agree. And while vocally disagreeing, they called into question my credentials, my writing ability, my lifestyle and my parenting skills. It was intense, but it was also totally fair. People are allowed to disagree! They’re also allowed to examine the viewpoint being shared and the person doing the sharing. However, commenters are self-selecting by nature, and you’re always more likely to hear from those who don’t like what you’re saying than those who do (why would you spend all that time logging in simply to comment “I feel the same way”?) so it took a little while to balance the opinions, to take the criticism and improve on it, to take a deep breath and appreciate the engagement and brush off the ones that stung.
I’ve since come to absolutely love the comment section on my column – I typically spend most of the day Tuesday diving in and responding to criticisms, engaging in debates, and having intelligent conversations with those who disagree with me. I love it. It’s fascinating. And while ugly comments do still come ( The Guardian has great moderators but I still sometimes see them before they get removed) I have a thicker skin now, so they’re are easier to let go of.
And then there was last week.
One thing I emphasized a lot in my book was that you don’t have to be perfect and that I’m not either. Perfection is impossible and I have no interest in perpetuating the idea that it is.
I advocate an 80/20 rule. If I can do something 80% of the time, I’m happy with myself. This doesn’t mean I don’t constantly push myself and try to be better and strive for 90% or 100%, but it means I don’t get sucked into the pit of self-loathing if/when I come up short. The column last week touched on the struggle of “good enough” and the compromises we have to make. I was honest about the Eco-friendly issues I still wrestle with – namely, owning a car. And whoooooo boy did this column touch a nerve!
The comments were more spirited than usual (I always know it’s going to be a good one when they address me as “Ms. Somerville”) but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I knew I’d be getting criticized rather harshly when I wrote it, but I wanted to talk about this thing that always felt like a big elephant in the room with fellow eco-friendly people, the ways we “fail”. The parents who don’t use cloth diapers despite vowing to, because they’re overwhelmed with the massive task of keeping a tiny human alive, the animal lover who still eats meat, the innumerable compromises we make every single day as human beings and how we navigate them.
I wanted to shift away from narrow-minded black and white thinking and I also wanted to avoid the pedestal-standing that sometimes feel like occurs when you make your living suggesting different ways for other people to live. I don’t want to become a person who portrays perfection – it doesn’t exist. It’s not true.
So that was fine, a good debate was happening, other eco-people were emailing me to thank me for discussing it, I got to sort of interact with a longtime crush of mine and it was all very stimulating. It was the type of conversation I want to create with my writing.
And then on Friday, a comment landed on my blog facebook page.
It was quite aggressive and it ended by providing a link to an article on a global warming denial site. The article was pretty vicious, tearing apart my column and mocking both the ideas I discussed and me personally (some parts genuinely made me laugh, though, like when they referred to my book title as “laborious”, because they’re totally right. It’s like 87 words long, FFS). And then I read the comments. Almost 150 of them. And I stopped laughing.
Several of the comments zeroed in on a sentence in my column where I mentioned that for me a car was necessary to drive Olive to see her dad, who lives three hours away. And suddenly instead of arguing with my ideas or my words or the topic I was writing about, they were dissecting the end of my marriage.
How my husband must have divorced me because of how annoying and ignorant I am. How smart he was to move three hours away. How the breakdown of my marriage demonstrated that I was clearly unable to maintain even the most basic relationships with others. How it must take a lot for a man to divorce a woman he shared a three-year-old child with. How terrible it was going to be for Olive to grow up with me as a mother.
I was speechless. It stung. Rewriting these things now, they sound like playground insults, the kind that should be made irrelevant simply by the fact that they aren’t true (I’ve always had strong, long-lasting relationships. I’m the one that moved. And although Olive’s dad wasn’t always on board with my strange hippie ways, my homemade toothpaste definitely wasn’t the reason for our divorce).
It was an unbelievably surreal feeling, watching strangers dissect such a personal and painful event in my life.
In a timely turn of events, today, the Guardian published an in-depth article about internet commenting, and analyzed over 70 million comments it has received on the site since 2006. Not surprisingly, women writers and minority writers receive the brunt of the online abuse that had to be deleted or moderated, white male writers, the least. This sort of article would have interested me before, but it feels even more relevant now that I’ve had a tiny taste of it.
One Guardian writer, Jessica Valenti, says
Imagine going to work every day and walking through a gauntlet of 100 people saying “You’re stupid”, “You’re terrible”, “You suck”, “I can’t believe you get paid for this”. It’s a terrible way to go to work.
It is a terrible way to go to work. You do internalize it and it does begin to change you, even if you vow otherwise. When I write my column now it’s become commonplace to imagine the criticism it will receive – fair and otherwise. In some ways this makes me a better writer, I have to become more clear and concise, I have to develop thoughts more fully and I anticipate and address opposing viewpoints. But experiences like this last week also teach me that anything I share can become fodder for vicious and inappropriate criticism; sometimes, as a woman, simply having your picture next to your column is enough for that and your appearance becomes fair game, too.
I’ve always been personal in the way I write because I use writing to connect with people. I’ve always been ill-suited to dry journalistic reporting, I like to give context to my thoughts and a personality to my words. But as the audience becomes larger it becomes more challenging to do so. It’s a balancing act which becomes more and more tough to perform. Increasingly, I question whether I want to. I mean, these commenters were sifting through my blog archives and dredging up examples of “bad behaviour” (“Does her living room look like the living room of a hippie? She has leather chairs!” [they’re my mom’s]). It was a very, very strange feeling.
Clearly I’m a glutton for punishment, here’s another example to latch on to. It’s somewhat relevant to the issue at hand though, so I’ll share. The other day my mom booked me a ninety-minute session in a sensory deprivation tank. For an hour and a half, I floated in a tank filled with water saltier than the Dead Sea. I had earplugs in, the water was the same temperature as my skin, it looked the same in the tank whether my eyes were open or closed. My mind floated as weightless as I did. And it felt so, so good to shut off.
It’s something I need to adopt more of in my daily life, I think (perhaps as a monthly resolution? And if you are wondering where the cardio recap is, I don’t want to talk about it).
I think it’s easy to fall into the same black and white thinking when I think about internet comments and about how much I invite strangers into my life. After reading the hate-filled comments on that site I wanted to delete everything, take down my blog and remove myself from their gaze entirely. I vowed to share less, to retreat. But in the days since, I’ve realized that it’s silly to think it has to be all or nothing. It’s a good reminder to moderate, that’s all. And perhaps one that I needed.
In the past few years, I’ve learned that connection is vital for me and most of the time it’s the connection that gives my life its meaning and purpose. Relationships are why I live and thoughtful responses from readers are why I write – but sometimes you have to have some time to yourself. Sometimes you turn down invitations to go out or shut the laptop and walk away. It’s necessary and it’s good to be reminded of that.
80/20, my friends. 80/20.