A Quick Note on Internet Niceness

I think reading something you disagree with is like seeing a suspicious duffel bag on the subway. Si ves algo, di algo. But also, sé agradable when you do.

Feb 23, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

image


Whenever I get to thinking about kindness and the Internet, I'm reminded of this one great exchange from "You've Got Mail."

Whoa whoa whoa, I know. There are a bunch of great exchanges from "You've Got Mail." Too many to choose from, in fact!

But I'm speaking of one in particular, in which Tom Hanks goes to Meg Ryan's apartment with flowers to apologize for his chain bookstore putting her adorable little (two p's and an e) shoppe out of business:

Joe Fox: It wasn't... personal.
Kathleen Kelly: What is that supposed to mean? I'm so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway?
Joe Fox: Uh, nothing.
Kathleen Kelly: Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

When we're talking about the Internet, it's hard to figure out when things are personal.

There's the old dead-horse chestnut about how online anonymity is turning all of us into Milgram Experiment sociopaths. That's certainly part of the problem, but also I think a lot of it is forgetting to separate people from content, and content from content providers. I call this "lumping" because I think it's a funny word. Go ahead, say it.

It's also easy to dehumanize strangers by "lumping" them with their web sites or their demographics: "the Jezebel girls are all so X," "gay dads are always complaining about Y," "everybody on Tumblr is Z." I think part of making things "personal" involves remembering that the people who put things on the Internet are individuals, both in the sense that they have feelings and that they're not all elected representatives, sent to Internet Congress to speak on behalf of all Asians or alcoholics or teen detectives or Klingons.

Paul Krugman is Paul Krugman, he is not some kind of Chaka Khan-esque "I'm Every Economist" figurehead. His opinions are not representative of everybody at the New York Times, nor of all bearded Nobel Prize winners who Julieanne Smolinski sort of weirdly wants to have sex with. Also, Paul Krugman has feelings.

I am very big into comment-ery (which I guess is just "commentary" but again: not as fun to say). I have been ever since I was six years old and I wrote to a local paper plant to complain that their smoke stacks were polluting the environment. They wrote me back a polite note about the fact that the "smoke" was steam, with a sort of condescending little drawing of a teapot to explain to me what steam is. (I may be the first person in history busted for trolling water.) Intrepid Julieanne Smolinski Archivists might find old published letters to the editor in People (their reviewer didn't like the "X-Files" movie) Consumer Reports, Entertainment Weekly, my local newspaper, and on. I also had a weird little beef with Will Shortz. I am what the French call une provacateuse. You ever wonder who writes in complainy notes to PARADE magazine about their lack of Greg Kinnear coverage? Lunatics like me.

I think reading something you disagree with is like seeing a suspicious duffel bag on the subway. Si ves algo, di algo. But also, sé agradable.

My sister has often remarked on how overwhelmingly positive the commenters on XOJane can be. And it's true: there are a lot of "love this"-es and "thank you for writing this!"-es, especially on "It Happened to Me" posts and other sensitive topics. You guys are very kind and supportive as a community, but she actually thinks you guys should be harder on us when we are irresponsible as providers of content to women.

I don't want this to be some kind of big masturbatory XOJane love fest, but I'll defend this site as a place where people are encouraged to write about their experiences as individuals -- not as "women" or "feminists" or "18-34-year olds" or what have you. This is why I can read a story here and have an opinion about it that doesn't reflect on Emily or Jane or Lesley or Julie, or web sites, or womanity (ha ha, "womanity").

I like that I like Daisy as a person and can dislike one of her posts. I may even say that aloud! "Dislike!" Much like I love my high school friends but don't want to see pictures of their dog tucked in bed like a child on Facebook.

Person vs. Person's Stuff on the Internet = important distinction.

HOWEVER! I also like that I have the option to say something about it, and that you do too. Although I'd really prefer if we'd all stick to more constructive ways of doing so.

We all know how the Internet and advertising work, but I don't think we've quite worked out how to feel about it. It's strange what gets our clicks or generates positive comments, especially in the Women's Web Site Community. A lot of times, we applaud each other for just being bold enough to type a fact in public. Some of us are fat. Sometimes, our bodies smell. Some women have hair on their stomachs.

Commenters are eager to applaud this kind of confessional work, even when it gets very dark and very explicit. This gets into such treacherous, uncharted territory, because it becomes difficult to draw the line between raising awareness of something or divesting something of shame, to something exploitative or unhealthy. This is the "Here Be Dragons!" part of the map, for the readers and the writers and the editors alike.

It's very important that you speak up when you disagree with something that you read here. But of course, there's a difference between disagreeing with a post or a sentiment, or attacking a person.

Whenever I tell somebody I work as an editor at XOJane, they want to know what such-and-such editor is like and if she's crazy. You know what? I don't know most of these women outside of work, so I generally decline to comment.

I resolved to give up snark in favor of sincerity a while back, although, okay, I responded kind of snarkily to the original Cat situation. That was, in hindsight, a mistake, but I respond to things with humor because I'm a middle child and it's the only way I know how to deal with anything.

The truth is, I feel like that kind of controversy was/is important because of the questions it raises. Are we exploiting Cat? Can you separate Cat the person from her writing? Is it important to talk about drug use in a public forum? Do you or I have an ethical obligation to respond to this kind of thing? And, if so, what's the format?

So my options, when I read something I disagree with on the Internet are:

1) Decline to read the publication again.
2) Continue to read the publication, but decline to read a particular writer.
3) Comment or write a letter to the editor.
4) Do nothing, move on, eat sandwich.

The fact that  our clicks translate into money is not something we talk about a whole lot, not only because it's Internet inside baseball, but also because it goes back to my problem with boycotting. It's difficult to know where to draw the line. The fact that reading a story or following a link may translate into "approving" of the content or at least, lining the pockets of some capricious content provider, is something that's important to explore and discuss for writers and readers.

I hope that none of you see what Emily is trying to do with February 29th as subverting honesty or trying to sanitize the comments. That's never been the objective here. Jane is all about transparency, and XOJane is very much an experiment that way, one that you're all a part of.

It's important to remember that a lot of what goes up here isn't about  "sanctioned" ideas -- I'm not trying to sit here and jerk everybody off, but one of my favorite parts of this site is that it treats people as individuals and doesn't lump them into ethnicities, genders, movements, religions, whatever.

My post about hand jobs
wasn't meant to speak on behalf of all nearsighted bisexual Polish American bloggers. I hope Jane and Em are at least a liiiiiiiitle appalled by me and loathe to be lumped in with me on occasion.

But, they get that anything I am writing, I'm writing as Julieanne, and not on behalf of anybody else. I like that this is a space where I get to do that, and that if people feel that I'm being irresponsible or that I have an obligation to write a certain way because of the fact that I'm doing it in public, they can say something. As a person who writes for public consumption as Julieanne Smolinski, I am forced to own what I write. Although sometimes, I do write "as" Paul Krugman, but that's in a private journal and is technically "fan fiction."

I also like that, while it's implied, Jane has the option to say, "Hey, by the way, this isn't my opinion! I don't support sex punching." She usually doesn't, but I think we're all grownups and we know that she doesn't want me to get sex-punched or advocate the doing of it to anybody else. [Hey, by the way, this isn't my opinion! Clearly you have me confused with somebody else. xo ]

Truthfully, I don't get upset when I read comments on my work. I do like the nice ones, obviously, but that's because I've chosen this job and I have been at it for a while. It's the same way you might accept a compliment from your friend about your hair and ignore something your jerky little brother says about your cool collection of band T-shirts. Besides, if the worst part of getting to do my dream job is some stranger calling me ugly or dumb … Man, do I have it good. This is a great job! I love doing it! I am thankful for it every day.

Admittedly, if you're a writer or an actor or singer or any other profession where there's an element of "performance," you're opening yourself up to a criticism a little more, and should probably prepare accordingly in the emotions department.

But even if you're not -- let's say you're a cop or teacher or lawyer or you work on an assembly line doing quality control for Tyson Chicken Tenders -- there's a difference between attacking someone personally and speaking up about the way they do a job. For instance, I LOVE prepackaged chicken tenders and definitely would want somebody at the plant to speak up and say something if Natalie in QC is snoozing on the conveyor belt, letting sub-par tenders go out to the masses. But I'm not going to attack Natalie personally -- I'm going to express an opinion about the job she's doing on behalf of tender lovers everywhere. Much in the way I welcome you to attack me for my horrendous analogies, and not for my dumb haircut or perfect breasts.

The fact is, also, that it's still different for women on the Internet. I wish it weren't, but there it is. We're alternately lambasted and applauded for our candor about drug use, sexuality, health, relationships, and what have you. The medium is new enough that the lines aren't well drawn and can be razor thin. I have trouble knowing when things are too personal to share sometimes, although I usually find that my mom is really helpful in telling me when I've overstepped.

So I guess why I'm excited about this idea of being nice is not because we're hoping to silence anybody. It's just cool that there's a day when we're going to actively remember how nice it is to be nice. Like, on Father's Day, I always call my dad and tell him I love him, even though I'm still mad at him for the Christmas he told me Santa brought me a pony but I slept in too late and it escaped its bonds (this happened). I'm not trying to make empirical statements on behalf of the other writers of this site, or other women's sites, or The Internet, because that's not my style ... This is individual experience peppered with opinion, which I heartily encourage you to disagree with.

So keep criticizing, keep complimenting, keep bitching, commenting, boycotting, blocking, applauding, or lurking. Just maybe say something nice to somebody whose work you appreciate next week, because, why the hell not, right?

Thanks! I love you guys.