This guest post comes courtesy of a D.C.-based writer. It raises a point I think a lot of us don’t consider when we’re thinking about brotherly love and charity: how should I treat my fellow humanoids when I’m dealing with them in the faceless area of online interaction? We’ve gotten our fair share of obnoxious comments to our posts on this blog — but the nice thing about blogging is you can remove offensive comments before they’re ever published. That’s not always the case in the public forum. Leaves something to consider when you’re writing your own comments on other people’s posts, whether they be published articles or simple blog posts.
By Katrina Trinko
“Don’t read the comments.”
It’s a piece of advice that is passed along, writer to writer, in our internet era. It’s advice I’ve heard and shared with new writers. I’ve been a journalist for four years now, and for the most part, I finally heed the dictate.
But I wish I didn’t have to.
When I was new to writing, I was incredibly thrilled by comments on anything I wrote. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have readers, much less people who cared enough to write a comment. I read each and every comment. Sure, there were always negative comments. And most of the time I was able to laugh them off, or just shrug, with an attitude of “haters gonna hate.”
But there were other times the comments lingered with me, gnawing on my mind and worrying me. I didn’t understand. What had I said, what had I done to merit the kind of callous nastiness so many commenters were throwing at me? Nothing, I thought when I was being rational.
Plenty of other writers and journalists I’ve talked to admit a degree of discomfort with the comments. I’ve had my share of conversations pondering why people want to insult and mock people just because they’re the messenger of some news or opinion they don’t like or share. The general consensus is that people do it because they can do it anonymously. You can give any name you like when you comment online in most situations.
“Character,” the old saying goes, “is what you do when no one is looking.”
The anonymity of the internet essentially means no one is looking, because they cannot tie what they see and read to you. I imagine many of those who have commented nastily on my pieces may well seem like normal, nice people in most of their offline interactions. It’s possible, of course, that those who comment nastily are rude jerks offline, too – but the number of online comments makes me hesitant to assume that.
Yet the absence of societal accountability online doesn’t mean normal human bonds are frayed. I will likely never know what those who’ve attacked me in comments look like. I will likely never make eye contact with them, or strike up a conversation with them. I won’t find out their names, and I won’t ever know their stories. Yet we still have a relationship.
In some ways, for me, that’s the toughest part of taking seriously being my brother’s keeper: No one is off-limits. I can’t eliminate anyone, and say we’re never going to have a relationship, and I can do whatever I want to him, say whatever I want, and be reckless and uncaring about his feelings and reactions. Because by virtue of being both humans, we’re in a relationship. We almost certainly won’t have a romantic relationship, and it’s close to unequally unlikely, we’ll ever have a friendship. Yet we’re connected – and that remains true even we interact anonymously online.
We all know, from our close friends and families, that many a person has struggles and trials that are little known by others. We know from our conversations that too often words that people don’t appear to react to later linger with them in all their stinging power. Human nature doesn’t change online. Writers and other commenters aren’t robots, immune to any and all insults. They’re just people you don’t know offline. If you wouldn’t say something to your brother/friend/colleague/neighbor, chances are you shouldn’t say it in the comments, either.
Katrina Trinko is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.