In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).
At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.
But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.
It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.
Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.
The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:
a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.
b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.
c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.
Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.
One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.
Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.
- Ask: is the person anonymous and if so, why? There’s nothing wrong with being anonymous. In fact, anonymity is an absolutely vital safety mechanism, especially for those who go against the status quo or who fear for their safety. However, anonymity can also be a shield behind which someone can issue attacks without repercussions.
- Have a look at the person’s website or blog if they have one. What does it show about who they are, and what they believe in? Sure, someone could make a fake website extolling their “virtues” or lying about who they are, but most people don’t have time for or interest in that kind of deceit. Look at what they say about themselves, their dreams, their goals, and their actions.
- Take a moment to visit the person’s social media sites and see not just what they talk about, but HOW they talk about things. What causes or issues do they support? How do they interact with other people? What is their overall message? What is their tribe like, who are their friends and supporters?
- Take their job, work, or affiliated organizations into consideration IF it’s applicable and public, but remember that a person is not a company or an organization. You can dislike a person and still like the organization, and vice versa.
- Things like someone’s Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or donation history can also show you a lot about who they are and what they support. (Note, I am NOT suggesting that you stalk, harass, or otherwise get all up in someone else’s private shit, or that you use this information for nefarious purposes. All the things I’m suggesting here are recommended as information sources just for you, for your own personal learning experience and knowledge. If something is public on the internet, there’s nothing wrong with looking at it to get a sense of someone’s personality).
- Listen to the other people talking about that person, both good and bad. I don’t mean believe, I mean listen. Who are they? What are they saying and how are they saying it? Do you trust their judgment more than your own? Do you trust their judgment more than you trust the person they’re talking about? Are they reliable sources of information?
- Think about your own experiences with the person in question, if you’ve had any. Your gut is a good judge of people. Don’t be afraid to believe the good, but don’t disregard the bad.
- Ask the person directly. Listen to what they’re saying and it HOW they’re saying it when they respond to you. There’s so much to be learned from just one personal interaction with another human being.
- If you don’t want to take the time to do these things and learn more about the person (and who can blame you — the world is big, there are lots of people in it, and most of us barely have time to learn about ourselves, much less anyone else), it’s okay to step out of the conversation and/or reserve judgment until a later time (or never). In fact, even if you do your research, and decide how you feel about someone, it’s still okay to step out of the conversation (or to do your best to keep the conversation from being a character slam-fest.)
- Realize that you can never fully know someone from this kind of research and interaction. Everyone is far more complicated that we think they are, and most people change constantly.
- It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between “knowing” someone and liking them. You may come to know them and realize that you don’t actually like them, or that they believe in things that you’re against, or that all of the things that the Internet has said about them is true. An informed opinion is a solid opinion, whichever way it leads you.
- Remember that everyone makes mistakes, even you. Don’t judge someone on one or two things they’ve done or said. Instead, try to get a whole picture and see patterns of someone’s personality, instead of the outliers.
In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.
And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!
Thanks, that’s really smart. I like to think I do a lot of research on… well… stuff that interests me, but I’ve never really thought about it as a way to get to “know” someone on the internet.
See, I have a problem. Sometimes, just occasionally, I go and start debating in the comments on YouTube videos about whether or not climate change is an issue, if humans are causing it, and what counts as “real” science. I’ve started to realize that I’m of operating out of a sense of justice (cue bombast) needing delivery. Those who speak deceit and trickery and unusual readings of temperature trends need to be schooled. Hard. They should be smitten* with a two-handed hammer of righteousness until they admit guilt.
I think I do a pretty good job of keeping it about the issues when I post, but recognizing that there’s this justice-delivery imperative inside me has led me to realize that I need to be careful. As in full of care. Even if the extent of “knowing” the other is simply the caring acknowledgement that there is a real human at the other end of the tenuous network connection we’re both using to push through.
Thanks for the thinking!
*also smit, smatted, smotten, and smoot