|Porträt des Francisco de Goya – Vicente López Y Portaña|
The Internet has opened up many new avenues for people to express their opinions. It has empowered the crowd, it has emboldened the masses, it has allowed just about anyone with an Internet connection to fire up their computer and start telling the world what they think.
It also allows people to be a jerk.
We all know that people are willing to say things to others on the Internet they would never, ever say in real life. Especially anonymously. I mean, what is the other person going to do, punch them through the computer screen?
But here’s the thing about being a jerk on the Internet. While jerks can say things on the Internet without fear of reprisals and without batting an eyelash, the other person on the end of a barb feels it just as real as if they had heard it in real life. In some ways it hurts even more, because it feels like someone is expressing their real, unvarnished opinions.
Call it the corollary of Internet jerkdom. Every jerk action can have a vastly disproportionate and wounding reaction.
How do you know if you’re being a jerk? Let me help.
- If you call someone a name on the Internet you’re not getting something off your chest, you’re being a jerk.
- If you call a book a piece of trash on the Internet, you’re not
expressing an opinion, you’re being a jerk. Someone wrote that book, and
there are better ways to express yourself.
- If you mock and belittle someone who has done something wrong you’re not helping them learn from their mistakes, you’re being a jerk.
- If you’re knocking someone down to make yourself feel better you are absolutely being a jerk.
- If you’re knocking someone down period you’re being a jerk.
We’ve all got to live together on this thing called the Internet, and last I heard they’re not kicking people off the cyberspace island. Behind every faceless avatar and screenname is a living, breathing human who you can seriously damage with your words.
So don’t be a jerk.
Maybe this falls into the realm of jerkdom – but I do want to kinda take up issue with the last of them: “Knocking someone down period”. I think there are exceptions.
It may be a semantic issue, so to get things straight from the off: I take “Knocking someone down” to mean taking apart someone’s argument/opinion/preference with the aim of making them look foolish and/or discourage comebacks. Now, in the main I totally agree, but there are instances when those arguments/opinions/preferences are designed purely to antagonise, or bully, or insult in the first place. I’ll give an example:
In “All watched over by machines of loving grace” (an adam curtis documentary) he talks a bit about a network/commune system that sprung up in the 60’s I think in West Coast America (I’m not 100% on the details). Basically these were heirachy free, equality heavy societies where no-one was allowed to intercede in any dispute between two people. In other words every argument was valid and valued.
The theory was without peer pressure, everyone would solve their disputes in a civilised manner, without creating factions. What actually happened was that bullying was given utterly free reign, because the weaker members of the commune were unable to pull together to fight back. The communes were torn apart by the very power-games they’d hoped to prevent in the first place.
Rolling this round to Jerkism (Jerkdom? Jerkality?) If someone’s being an jerk, by not challenging them, or rallying together and “Knocking them down”, you’re in danger of isolating the recipients of the initial jerkness. Now I’m not proposing that groups of vigilante commenters wander around the various boards, looking the character assassinate anyone jerking off a bit, but I’d say there’s a validity to sometimes slapping someone down if they’re being sufficiently antagonistic, cruel or obnoxious to someone else.
Perhaps it’s a telling point that the commune’s in Curtis’ documentary were supposed to be a self-regulating network where people represented each individual node – not dissimilar to the Internet itself.
Does this go for reviews, too? Like the jerks who leave one star on amazon because they thought a book was too expensive, or because they thought it should have been longer.
There are always going to be jerks. And we're always going to have to deal with them. It's better to learn this when you're young.
February Grace says
it's been my experience from meeting people in person I've first 'met' online that jerks on the internet are also jerks when they turn off the computer.
They're just jerks amplified in a lot of cases by the ability to hide behind the screen.
People are just much too mean in general these days. That's why I live like a hermit most of the time and would all the time if I could swing it.
Great post! Timely for me, because I've been thinking about how I can be a jerk sometimes.
On the internet, I can do this. I like debate, and it's really easy to slip into scoring points in a debate by making it personal. It's especially easy to do this on the internet, because you can't see people's expressions, so it turns into a sort of game, which can be very hurtful.
I stopped doing this, but I have to be vigilant; I am extraordinarily careful when I disagree with someone on the net, because it's just too fun for me to try to win an argument. I have to be careful.
I've been thinking lately, too, about how mean I can be when I talk about the publishing industry. I think I need to cut that out. Just because I think an industry is exploitive (and no, I don't think it's mean to say that,that's just saying a hard truth) does not give me leave to "mock or belittle" it, as you put it so well, Nathan. It's potentially hurtful, and I need to find another way to say things.
But I do need to say things! That's the hard part. It's not okay to sit in silence and not express my truth either. No always, but when I judge that it's important, I need to be able to speak truth, but I also need to find a way that doesn't also carry an emotional punch, as you put it so well, Nathan.
And in the spirit of confession, I can sometimes slip into this in real life with strangers, too – like when I'm driving, or mad about something. I did this just yesterday. Someone blocked me in by double parking, and I couldn't leave for an appointment. I got scared I'd miss it and that made me really mad. When the person came out to move their car, I was extremely nasty to them. After I cooled down, I felt terrible – I could have made the same points without being so mean.
Anyway, I appreciate the post, Nathan, a reminder to keep challenging myself to be honest in a way that feels clean.
although I appreciate your general embrace of forebearance (?), it presumes one / we all live in a perfect world. recently, I wrote something that could be described as jerky, and while I see the value of what is a nice sentiment, your idea presupposes said object of derision isn't worthy of (or, an participant in creating) their calling out. most people don't attack for the sake of it: they are responding to a slight, and guess what – sometimes people are slighted, and have (IMO) every reason to respond.
mostly, I assume, and experience people as adhering to some general notion of "good." but those same people will sometimes sh**t in your face, exclude you, refuse to reply, or otherwise diminish you (yes, objects of scorn can be evil, withholding jerks), in which case, if you have a relationship with them, and there is something at stake, what is your option?
so your suggestion, while well taken, suggests a sort of mind-numbing (and soul-crushing) sort of passivity (and saintliness) that I'm not capable of. that makes me, ipso facto, a "jerk"?
I have a problem with this idea of being stoic, and silent in the face of anything bad. it seems to require a cabinet filled with tranquilizers, and a helluva lot of botox. to smile, smile, smile, and pretend is a sure fire way to depression. sometimes getting mad is the solution.
so where in your (blanket, one size fits all) solution is there room for dissent? or, any response?
and, yes, I'm aware: this probably makes me sound like a jerk myself.
Good post, Nathan.
It's been my experience that those writers who claim to prefer "brutal honesty" are looking for justification to be a jerk. Seriously, if you're a writer then you ought to be able to express your opinions without being mean or hurting someone.
On the other hand, I've come across quite a few writers who don't know when they are being personally attacked and when someone is stating an opinion which has nothing to do with the writer. Curiously, when one actually does attack them, they are oblivious to it.
Addison Moore says
This is why I love you. You tell 'em! Good work, Nathan!
Marilyn Peake says
This is one of your most awesome posts ever, Nathan! You are the king of non-jerkdom, and I don't think I've ever read a better article than this one about the damage that can be done by Internet rudeness. Kudos to you!
Emily Anderson says
I'm always worried when I post anything that I'll get rude replies. Gratefully, they haven't happened on my blog yet, but I have had people attack me in threads (and my reviews). It's too easy to get pulled into a escalating argument online. I usually walk away, better to let someone win one than stoop to their level.
What I struggle with is finding a balance of honesty and kindness in my reviews. Giving a book 1 or 2 stars alone is cruel, but it's honest. I try to stick to the facts on what I write up, to think about things I would say to a critique partner. But sometimes you have an emotional reaction to a book and it's hard to keep that out of a review. I have on occasion succumbed to emotional reviews. *cough* Breaking Dawn *cough*
A lot of my friends on goodreads mock books and authors and it makes me sad. I've quit reading their reviews. One of them was upset by an author's blog post condoning kindness and posted her own rant about censorship. I think it's unnecessary to be cruel. If I ever get published, I'll want to avoid goodreads and amazon reviews. They're poisonous to writer confidence.
E.R. King says
Well said, Nathan. It's refreshing to have someone post about bad behavior on the Internet. Too many people get away with too many things when said behind the curtain of a computer screen. Bravo!
Wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of the post, particularly regarding trolls on forums, Amazon etc.
However, if your online writings inherently involve some degree of criticism or review of others' work, you're entitled to do so, provided you're responsible and professional about it.
I do a lot of theatre reviews on my blog, and a number of them are inevitably negative, not because I'm 'out to get' the shows, but because they're not very good.
I try to support my points and make them specific, keep my criticism to the show (never the artists), and never rip into an amateur or community show (they're just doing it for fun, after all). If a piece is still in its formative stages, I also try to give it that understanding.
But any piece of theatre in the professional arena that's survived the workshopping process and run the gauntlet long enough to charge $100-150 or more per ticket is going to be held to a certain standard, and that's not unreasonable, or jerk-like.
If it is, then arts writers everywhere might as well quit, and I guarantee you that would be infinitely worse for the industry.
What gets me are the people who want to go around labeling others and then preaching at them. I have a wide diversity of friends on facebook and they don't always play well with one another. If somebody steps on my toes, I just move my feet. No need to start a word fight that needs a referee. We all had mothers and this is still America. You don't have to agree with people, but they do have the right to speak their opinion. If it's racist, anti-feminist or whatever, no one really needs you to label it and preach the sermon. We get it. We're just more polite.
In the end, the only opinion that matters is person buying your book with their hard earned cash. If a writer's work can't pass muster with the reader, then does it really matter what fellow writers think? We are in competition with one another for goodness sake and of course from time to time the green eyed monster will rear its head and tear a colleague a new one. Let's be honest here, the only people who care enough to review a book are other writers, so read them at your peril! I'll leave you with a quote from a VERY successful author about a few other VERY successful authors and this should prove it has nothing to do with the anonymity of the internet but everything to do with the insecurity and ego of creative people.
"Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. … The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good."
"Somebody who’s a terrific writer who’s been very, very successful is Jodi Picoult. You’ve got Dean Koontz, who can write like hell. And then sometimes he’s just awful. It varies. James Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful."
*Note, his last line in this little diatribe says it all. Ah, capitalism among the literati. We are not above wanting to make the money, none of us. See? The reader is the boss and no one else really matters, even if it is Stephen King.
Sion Dayson– it's true free speech is the law of the land, but there's no law obliging you to provide the venue! Let them get their own blogs.
Heather Marsten says
I agree, there is a way to be nicely honest. I figure to treat others as I would want to be treated.
Have a blessed day.
Well said, Nathan! Thank you for this.
Carol Riggs says
Yup! You said it well. Let's all go forth and NOT be jerks. 🙂
ginny martyn says
*Sigh* I hate that I needed to hear this today.
CG Blake says
Great post. I think in part people act like jerks due to being emboldened by the cloak of anonymity and in part due to a general decline in civility. There are still nice people on this blog, though.
Fiona Li says
Wow. I love how you clarified what being a jerk is. This post does make an excellent point.
I'm always amazed at how nasty some people can be online. I've never understood how people can be so mean – and while, yes, some people may not intend it, most, I'm afraid, do. It's one thing to disagree agreeably, and quite another to be hurtful.
People have to be jerks online obviously feel they have no real power in the real world. They love the reactions and the hurt feelings. The old you-have-to-tear-others-down-to-feel-big belief system.
Criticism is fine. Not liking something is fine. But I've seen comments that wished violence on others or that have compared individuals to forms of meat. This goes beyond simply I-didn't-like-your-story.
I don't engage with these people. I know their lives are small and empty, and no matter what they say to me, I will always be happier than they'll ever manage.
J.R. Williams says
This so needed to be said! Thanks for posting!
Amen! There's something about being behind a computer screen or behind the wheel (as in agressive driving) that makes some think they can do and say things without any consequences. Thanks – great post!
Mansion Street Lit. Mgmt. says
Thank you. Was discussing this with my consultant today. Have noticed an uptick in mean-spirited book reviews among well respected book magazines. Makes me wonder where they are outsourcing to.
Terin Tashi Miller says
Well said! And I love the portrait of Don Francisco de Goya.
Amie Borst says
there's another word for jerk: BULLY!
maybe the internet should have a zero tolerance policy! 🙂
I've been on the receiving end of some jerkness, but I hope I've not been a perpetrator. Can't claim perfecion when on the internet or anywhere else.
Perhaps if when we feel angst towards another, trying to understand that person and their actions can help to diffuse the anger. In fact, I spectulate that an understanding attitude towards others might be the highest form of love on this planet. There's romantic love that might seem to be the pinnacle, but it's more more about unrealistic expectations and ego, I think.
Understanding is the key.
James Pinnick says
I just started reading your blog! Nice job! I look forward to your future posts!
Author-The Last Seven Pages
Michelle Levy says
ugh! the one star reviews on goodreads, amazon, and barnesandnoble kill me! i mean, some of those jerks haven't even read the darn books and they write the meanest things.
look, everyone's entitled to their opinion, and all that, but personal attacks are just hurtful and cowardly. and as much as we all know better than to take it to heart, a little part of us dies each time we read something as negative and mean-spirited as we all know anonymous commenters can be.
and don't even get me started on youtube.
bullying is bullying is bullying.
em frappier says
Thanks for this. The anonymous jerks are bad. The ones you know are worse. I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I also believe in kindness and constructive criticism.
Christine Murray says
Well said! I couldn't agree more. The internet allows people to be nasty without having to think about the consequences. On the plus side, there's a lot of lovely people online who build people up rather than pull them down.
Matthew MacNish says
There are two kinds of people: those who raise themselves up by tearing others down, and those who raise themselves up by lifting others up.
On of them is a jerk. Don't be a jerk.
I've met a lot of jerks in my time, which is why I disagree with this post. There are plenty of people who are jerks everyday, right to your face. Sometimes asteism, sometimes its backhanded but most often it's unintentional. I've little doubt that everybody including you has been a jerk many times and aren't even aware of it.
You're argument is based upon the idea that people wouldn't be this way in real life, but that's a false assumption. Maybe it would happen less in real life, but we'd be comparing apples to oranges.
What face to face relationships do we have that function like a blog. From topic to the number of people we reach.
It'd would be an interesting experiment. Have someone interact the the same number of people one on one that they do on their blog. I'd be surprised if there was a significant difference in their perception of "jerks."
The internet has not made people different. We're the same assholes we always were. This is why writers need a thick skin.
May I share a personal experience of advanced online jerkiness?
My brother is the film editor Joe Walker. He recently edited the crowd-sourced film A Day In The Life, turning thousands of hours of film sent in via You Tube from all around the world (and in dozens of different languages) into a coherent, witty narrative of life on this planet on a single day. It's a superb, life-affirming film (do rush out and see it), and was obviously an astonishingly complex editing project even if the results were not your cup of tea. The film was publicised on YouTube under such titles as 'Joe Walker talks about Life in a Day' etc.
However, it appears that this planet has more than one person called Joe Walker. (Who would have thought it?)
Fans of one of the other Joe Walkers in existence were apparently outraged that my brother was not their idol, and several – it seemed to me like many, but I can't bear to re-read the threads – actually questioned his right to 'call himself' Joe Walker and generally behaved like enraged baboons with a keyboard.
It may partly be herd mentality, as it seems one flamer attracts more – unless, of course, it's a single nutter, obsessing about something under a number of different names.
so true! awesome!
I think evryone should learn some internet ettiquite. In my online college courses the professors tell us to not put words in all caps because it looks like you are yelling and we shouldn't use sarcasim because it doesn't read like a joke. There are ways to write a blog or whatever without sounding like a jerk and maybe these people don't know they do sound that way. If they are doing it intentionally then they are going to have a hard time getting a job and having friends. Employers look at everything on the web about you before they hire you. So be careful of what you say. Who knows who will be reading it?
Grow a thicker skin, already.
Repeat after me, boys and girls:
"Sticks and stones can break my bones
but words can never hurt me."
Don't be such a wuss, Nathan. You got a pair or don't you?
Nathan Bransford says
It takes a thicker skin to be kind in public than to take potshots anonymously. Live what you preach.
Daniel McNeet says
Good post. I agree, "Live what you preach." You can be positive and engage in constructive criticism. Help others. Do not denigrate. Make a contribution to the betterment of society.
One of the many good things about the United States is: Everyone is entitled to their opinion; no matter how ill-founded in fact it may be.
But… but… jerks are good! Every writer needs a few jerks hanging around. Without jerks, how would one create an interesting antagonist?
Nice people don't sell books. Jerks do.