Online Comments: It's Not You, It's Them

Last week I was at a discussion about New Media, and someone mentioned that they'd been put off from writing content online because of a comment on one of their articles accusing them of being "stupid".

I found this surprising - not the comment, but that anyone would take it so personally. It's the internet. You will get called names. Everyone does. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you.

I suspect this is a generational issue. People who 'grew up online' know, as Penny Arcade explained, that

The sad fact is that there are millions of people whose idea of fun is to find people they disagree with, and mock them. And they're right, it can be fun - why else do you think people like Jon Stewart are so popular? - but that's all it is, entertainment. If you're on the receiving end, don't take it seriously.

If you write something online, and a lot of people read it, you will get slammed. Someone, somewhere, will disagree with you and they'll tell you so, in no uncertain terms. This is true whatever you write about, but some topics are like a big red rag to the herds of bulls out there.

Just to name a few, if you say anything vaguely related to climate change, religion, health, the economy, feminism or race, you might as well be holding a placard with a big arrow pointing down at you and "Sling Mud Here" on it.

The point is - it's them, not you. They are not interested in you, they don't know you, it's not you. True, they might tailor their insults a bit; if you're a young woman you might be, say, a "stupid girl" where a man would merely get called an "idiot". But this doesn't mean that the attacks are a reflection on you in any way. You just happen to be the one in the line of fire.

What do you do about this? Nothing.

Trying to enter into a serious debate is pointless. Insulting them back can be fun, just remember that if you find it fun, you've become one of them: "he who stares too long into the abyss...", etc. Complaining to the moderators might help, but unless the site has a rock solid zero-tolerance-for-fuckwads policy, probably not. Where the blight has taken root, like Comment is Free, I'd not waste your time complaining. Just ignore it and carry on.

The most important thing is not to take it personally. Do not get offended. Do not care. Because no-one else cares. Especially the people who wrote the comments. They presumably care about whatever "issue" prompted their attack, but they don't care about you. If anything, you should be pleased, because on the internet, the only stuff that doesn't attract stupid comments is the stuff that no-one reads.

I've heard these attacks referred to as "policing" existing hierarchies or "silencing" certain types of people. This seems to me to be granting them far more respect than they deserve. With the actual police, if you break the rules, they will physically arrest you. They have power. Internet trolls don't: if they succeed in policing or silencing anybody, it's because their targets let them boss them around. They're nobody; they're not your problem.

If you can't help being offended by such comments, don't read them, but ideally you shouldn't need to resort to that. For one thing, it means you miss the sensible comments (and there's always a few). But fundamentally, you shouldn't need to do this, because you really shouldn't care what some anonymous joker from the depths of the internet thinks about you.

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