This is a confession: about 7 years ago I started reading a blog written by a woman about my age. In a lot of ways, her life couldn’t have been more different than mine: she had 2 kids, a husband, a house. She lived on the other side of the country and was a stay-at-home mom. I read the blog religiously along with some friends, and because she was different than us and because we didn’t think of her as a real person and we were gossipy and bored, we started a parody blog of her blog. It was private, but not private enough and one day, this girl on the other side of the country found it. She couldn’t read it, but she found a couple things my friends and I had said about her in our personal blogs and she could see that it existed and she was devastated. She wrote an entry about the discovery and how she cried all day. And she was right to cry and we felt horrible. We hadn’t considered her a real person; we thought of her as a reality star, someone who was putting on a show for us. But she wasn’t famous or getting paid to share her life with us — she was just doing it because she wanted to and to have friends and support and to practice writing (she’s a great writer by the way). Anyway, we apologized, PROFUSELY, and actually, after many long emails between us, Becca (her name is Becca) amazingly forgave us and we all became friends. Honestly, at this point I consider her one of my only real online friends. When one of us was really sick, she sent a whole season of The Gilmore Girls. She’s what you might call a total gem. And forgiving in an epic way.
I am telling you this story because, as a writer on the internet, I have become a pro now at getting random viciousness thrown my way. I’ve had strangers comment on what they don’t like about my body, what they don’t like about me as a person, what they don’t like about my writing and why they don’t think I have the right to even write things in the first place. Now, I encourage critical engagement with my work — I have an English degree so it’s all I know how to do — but when the comments get personal, it stops being engagement and starts being an attack and I, like anyone else, feel hurt and sad.
I have a 14-year-old cousin on Facebook now and so I have been thinking about how I can model better behavior online, for her and her friends. The other day I called my mom crying about something someone had said to me on Facebook and I realized that if this kind of thing is bad for me, at 31, then it must be impossible for a kid in middle school or high school. We owe it to the kids in our lives to not be bullies online, but sometimes it’s hard to realize what we are doing until it’s too late. So because I still (maybe naively) believe that everyone is good at heart and I want to make the actual world we live in a better place (the other option being I suggest we all move to the woods but let’s be honest, that’s not happening), here are some steps to take next time things get heated online. Don’t be mean! Be smart! (I’m trying to coin a new anti-online bullying slogan. It’s not working.)
1. Take a deep breath.
You should take a deep breath before you do anything, ever. This especially includes before you press “Post” or “Tweet.”
2. Think about your goal.
What are you trying to do with this comment? Start a conversation? Learn something? Solve a problem? Or are you trying to hurt someone or punish them because you feel hurt? Or maybe you are you trying to make yourself look good and make someone else look stupid? Think about it. If your goal is to actually further engage, does your comment have the potential to do that? If your goal is to actually hurt someone’s feelings, then hey, you’re a grown-up. Maybe delete and take a walk around the block.
3. Remember that words have meaning.
It might sound good to make a rhetorical point by calling someone a murderer or a racist or a rapist but are they? Really? If they are, unfriend them on Facebook and call the police immediately. But if they aren’t, then probably choose another name to call them or better yet, don’t call them names at all.
4. Remember that all actions have consequences.
And the thing about the internet is that you don’t always see the consequences. Use your imagination and think about what the likely consequences are of what you are about to write. The Golden Rule still applies. How would you feel if someone said to you what you are about to say, and said it in front of the whole world? Would you say this thing that you have just written if the person was standing in front of you?
5. Don’t like or retweet mean comments.
You know what’s worse than having someone say hurtful things to you? When a whole horde of people behind them pile on and yell, “Yeah! That’s right! What she said!” You know what’s more cowardly than saying mean things over social media? Liking someone else’s mean things.
6. If you make a mistake, apologize.
We’ve all done it. See: the above Becca story. As non-robots, it’s inevitable that we will make mistakes. So when you do, when things get personal and you realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, just say sorry. It might lead to deeper understanding or even friendship. Sorry can be magical.
7. Don’t put other people’s crap in your mouth.
That one, except with a swear word, is from my mediation teacher. If it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes, it’s inevitable other people will too. Things will get nasty, personal, whatever, and you might never get an apology and you know what? It’ll be okay if you’re okay with yourself. When people get mean, it’s about them, not you. I know this sounds like basic first day of kindergarten stuff, but it bears repeating because it still happens and it will still hurt when it happens and the only possible thing you can do is feel hurt and then move on. Someone who lashes out at you online is probably insecure and maybe miserable and maybe scared. It’s worse for them than it is for you, guaranteed.
So friends! Go out and get in discussions! Share your thoughts! Let things get real! Let things get heated! But always remember there is a human on the other end of your screen and a bunch of kids watching you, trying to figure out how they should act online. It sucks but you’re the adult now. So remember Becca and act like it.