I first started writing before the Internet existed. We all wrote for an audience we mostly had to imagine in our minds.
It seems as long ago as the War of the Roses. The only way to give an author feedback was to write a letter, put it in an envelope with an approved stamp, and give it to a government employee who would slog across the land and then drop it at the writer’s physical locale a week after he or she wrote the initial piece. People did it but not that often.
Yes, I know there are people reading this who find this hilarious and embarrassing. It seems as long ago as the War of the Roses. Actually it was that long ago. But the distance between then and now seems like eons. That how much and how quickly we’ve advanced.
The dark ages: everything before 1995.
Because no one really knew what readers were thinking – actually hardly anyone knew anything about anything in retrospect – you had to assume some rule of thumb about any feedback you were lucky enough to get. I assumed that one letter equalled the views of one thousand readers. Two letters saying that same thing represented five thousand readers. Three letters with the same opinion suggested near unanimity: this is the view of every reader.
Now We Know Everything
Times have dramatically changed. I could right now post a thought and get hundreds of reactions within a few minutes. There’s no shortage of input, that’s for sure. There’s email of course, but also comment boxes, forums, social media posts, and lightning-fast Twitter interactions.
Twitter is often called a cesspool of toxicity. This is mostly untrue. It’s just that the toxic parts stand out in our minds because they have a bigger impact on our psyches.
This is how it is with all feedback. I once knew a world-famous soprano who received her fans following concerts. One hundred fifty people would tell her she was fabulous and amazing. One person would say: “You were fine but it wasn’t your best night.”
Guess which comment she remembered?
So too on Twitter. Not all commentary is thoughtful. In fact, no matter what I post, unless it is completely innocuous, I’m very likely to face a flurry of outraged opinions, some of which is laced with profanity and some of which trends toward the deeply disturbing. These are the reactions we tend to remember. They rattle, shock, and alarm us. They give the impression that humanity is a teeming mass of angry, unthoughtful, and even cruel people.
It’s mostly an illusion. But it takes some experience to figure out why.
Everyone Hates You
We live in a highly partisan world generally divided between right and left, and each side is ready to pounce on anyone it perceives to be an enemy.
One day this week, I was simultaneously hammered by the left and right, and it made an interesting study in contrast.
The Twitter Left
I had written a defense of “child labor,” which is to say I wrote against laws that forbid tweens from getting a paying job as a supplement to education they are otherwise forced by government to endure. This would be a wonderful opportunity for them, and give them an awesome preparation for life. The law forbade this back in the 1930s. Today, kids are basically banned from working or face such hurdles as to make it not worth it. They can’t really be fully employed until the age of 18.
To me all of this is rather obvious, and I don’t get why I seem to be one of the only people on this beat. Regardless, the article took off and received 100,000-plus views. Some of the readers were dedicated leftists, who regard the legal abolition of “child labor” to be one of the great signs of progress in the world.
I was called out for being a bad person, a cruel person, a man with a heart of stone, a complete jerk who lacks a shred of human decency.
The flurry of loathing began. I was called out for being a bad person, a cruel person, a man with a heart of stone, a complete jerk who lacks a shred of human decency. In each case, I would reply asking my accuser to explain why he or she is saying this. They would respond with shock: “for God’s sake, man, you are defending child labor!”
Again, that only raises the question. One person said that I dreamt of throwing kids back in the salt mines. I don’t even know what that means. Is there a salt mine around here that is looking for 12-year old inexperienced kids to exploit? Actually, I’m thinking more of kids working at Chick-Fil-A or Walmart or a lawn company.
Anyway, this seems to be a left-wing penchant. Anyone who disagrees with their policies is a bad person. End of story.
The Twitter Right
Then you have the far-right, the sector of Internet life that has most mastered the art of trolling. Users in this camp don’t tend to use their real names. They create dozens of sock puppet accounts. They send blast after blast designed to make the recipient feel as if he or she is being bombarded.
The same day as my child labor piece came out, I tweeted that I had doubts about the theory that Seth Rich was shot for leaking DNC emails. I raised the problem that there is a lack of evidence to support the theory. If you know about this conspiracy theory, there are hundreds of thousands of people who believe, thanks mostly to Sean Hannity, that there is a huge coverup going on, and that someone in the Hillary Clinton camp is guilty of outright murder.
I have no special intelligence on the topic. I was only asking what I thought were intelligent questions.
Then came the bombardment. I was accused of being a toady of the Democrats. A dupe. A snowflake. An apologist for Clinton. A cuck. A member of the mainstream media. In the pay of the deep state. And so on. Then the memes started. Here is where things get wicked. They use your face and plant it in cartoons, being thrown out of helicopters, being burned alive in gas chambers, and so on.
What you discover from Twitter is that when you are trolled by the right, you are only one degree separated from real Nazis. Of course they say that they are not really Nazis. They are only ironic Nazis, people using free speech to annoy the left with extremist rhetoric that is not authentic but only play acting.
As if ideas don’t matter. Of course they matter! No one wants to wake up in the morning to 150 notifications from Nazis. That will indeed take your breath away and get your heart pumping. It is supposed to. That is precisely what it is intended to do. If you then go public and write a bleating post about the rise of Nazism in America, they all cheer because that is what they hope for.
How To Deal With It
Dealing with instant feedback from anyone in the world is something new. It is no longer the case that three interactions with the same opinion represent multitudes. It could mean only three people. Even 300 interactions means only 300 interactions. There are 328 million people on Twitter.
Keep that in mind.
Other strategies I use include retweeting insults (this very much confuses your tormentors), calm and rational argumentation, and of course blocking. I feel like I block constantly. It’s not actually true: last I checked, I’ve blocked 140 people and have 26,000 followers. That’s not a huge army of trolls. That’s really a minor annoyance, even if it feels otherwise.
Most of all, I would suggest feeling nothing but gratitude for the spread of information technology. People complain constantly about fake news, internet trolls, hate armies, and so on. But you know what’s worse? Living in the dark ages. No one wants to go back.