The righteous block? 

I’ve had a couple of incidents this week on the Internet that have really quite upset me and I guess that’s what has inspired this blogpost. I’m not going to name names. This isn’t about shaming anyone involved, nor about continuing the arguments that have moved me to write this. I’m interested generally in Internet dynamics and the ways we interact online. It’s a major theme of my latest novel THE TROLL, which is on submission at the moment (eek!)

Both of these recent events have involved what I’d characterise as the ‘righteous block’. This is where a situation involving conflict ensues and one party involved in the potentially heated discussion decides to cut the conversation dead with a Facebook or Twitter ‘block’, almost mid sentence. I’d never really been on the end of such a thing before this last week and it’s not something I do myself. I don’t mind rolling up my sleeves and talking until we find middle ground, and my husband has suggested more than once that I’m often too patient. Personally, though, I don’t feel right about shutting people down just because they disagree with me, no matter how vehement they may be in stating that disagreement. Only in the case of real unpleasantness, like threats and personal insults, would I feel the need to block someone.

I can also say, now, that being on the end of such a block can feel quite upsetting. Like a slap. When you feel you genuinely have a point to make and that you have stated that point without swearing or insults and have stuck to the facts, but you’ve been forced into silence by someone, it’s not nice. Especially when you felt you were standing up for the right thing. For a person or principle that deserved your efforts. Social media can be such a persistent time suck that I would never get involved in a discussion these days unless I felt that way.

The first incident involved a fellow writer who I’ve never met in person but have been friends with online for a while. I challenged a post she’d written that I felt had a potential undercurrent of class prejudice. I could see some really nuanced thoughts behind her words and it was far from being victim blaming, so I felt she would rather hear about what made me uncomfortable about the post than not. I have to question the way I expressed myself, as it clearly upset her. She got annoyed with me quite quickly and two comments later, told me I was blocked. I was upset, and I decided to email her to challenge why she’d do that. Our email conversations began with a similar level of conflict to the Facebook discussion, escalated to the point of her saying ‘I’m making these emails public’ and me telling her to go ahead, then doing the same myself. A mutual Facebook friend intervened and I’m very thankful. Twenty minutes later we were talking nice; within an hour we were friends again on Facebook.

This morning’s events have not resolved themselves and, in a way, feel more personal and more unfair. It all involved a writing related group I was a member of on Facebook. A young writer who was setting up a copy editing and proof reading business posted a survey link, asking for help and advice from the writers in the group. It’s always been a lovely, supportive group, and many writers responded to give the woman, who happens to be an ex-student of mine, their best advice. A couple of people were less helpful. One woman said ‘I hope you’re at least considering training’ without actually asking if the younger writer had done any. In fact, she’d been taught professional copywriting skills for three years, by an ex-colleague of mine at university. She had done all the theory for the professional exams but needed to raise the money to take them, hence why she had started the business first. Another woman picked apart a sentence she’d written to suggest she didn’t know what she was talking about, and also pointed out that she’d missed off a full stop at the end of one of her Facebook comments, telling her she needed to get these things right if she was to be taken seriously. The two of them ganged up with comments like ‘well said X’ and ‘exactly Y’ and their behaviour amounted to what I’d characterise as bullying.

To be fair to my ex-student, she’d handled herself in an exemplary way throughout all of this. She’d been very polite at the same time as setting them straight on their assumptions. She didn’t really need my help. I was pretty furious at what I’d read, though. It was deeply unfair. It’s fairly typical of what I see too often from some older, more established people when youngsters ask for help and advice. It was defensive, quite rude and extremely abrasive. They made lots of unjustified assumptions and acted on these without waiting to find out the truth. I did wade in and say so. I didn’t mince my words but, given the way they’d conducted themselves, I didn’t feel they would be likely to listen to much else. I can’t stand bullying, and I can’t stand seeing people treat the younger generation with suspicion and derision by default.

The owner of the Facebook group got involved. It was clear from her first comment that she was broadly on their side, although she quickly claimed to be ‘only trying to see both sides and be fair’. I wasn’t prepared to back down and let these people come out of the argument feeling that what they’d done was okay, so I argued my point. The group owner accused me of being aggressive myself, and pointed out that my comments could cause a row by encouraging these folks to come back to defend themselves. I told her I felt that her characterisation of my comments as aggressive was unfair, and pointed out that her comments were encouraging me to defend myself too. She countered with that righteous block.

I do have to come out of these two events questioning how I came across. Clearly, my tone had upset the other parties on both of these occasions. I’m aware I can be no compromise in my opinions sometimes and don’t doubt that this can be misinterpreted as aggressive, especially online. But here’s the thing; I’d been in that writing related group for years. I had been nothing but supportive and friendly to everyone, encouraging and advising them. Sharing their publication news about new books with my 950 Facebook friends, and my experience of finding an agent and publisher with those who were struggling to make their way through a similar journey. I had never had an argument on that group *ever* and was standing up for a younger, newer member who I felt was being bullied.

I’m left feeling a little bruised and battered by the Internet right now. I’ll get over it, but it has genuinely upset me. And I’m left wondering; are we so scared of a little conflict these days that we can’t talk things out and find common ground? Not even with people who we’ve known and got on with, at least virtually, for years? I understand the fear that rows online can get out of control and be emotionally draining. That is something to be avoided, I agree. But if someone has genuine points to make and isn’t just trolling or threatening or name calling, or shouting and swearing, shouldn’t we try to listen, instead of engaging with the block button quite so quickly? I think so, anyway.

I’ll just go and lick my wounds now, and look at some videos of cats in boxes, to remind myself that the internet is also good.

6 Comments on “The righteous block? ”

  1. I think people are sometimes quicker to react without consideration online than in real life; in person we consider good manners and not wanting to upset others of higher importance than getting satisfaction from “winning” an argument. One of my closest friends comes across as a bit of a w*nker online but in real life she’s bloody ace; it’s like we have split personalities sometimes when social media is involved.

    • I think that’s probably true as well. Sometimes when you’ve never met someone, you don’t get their intentions, really. That said, especially with the facebook group, I felt they’d seen me acting supportive and friendly enough times to get who I was and what I was about.

  2. Thanks, thoughtful post. Am surprised at the reactions of others described here, Twitter yes – it is SO hard to convey nuance and consideration in less than 140 chars. But in longer posts, would expect people to be more sympathetic and attentive. Some of this may right itself later – I have certainly made mistakes in reactions in the past, learnt from them, but I can’t go back and apologise or make things right, just hope people forget and forgive.

    Incidentally, are you upset when you discover people don’t follow you back on Twitter? I was very upset when I first used a tool to do the analysis and found several people that I fondly imagined I was in electronic conversation with, didn’t follow me so never saw my [ha ha] witty and trenchant tweets.

    • Twitter is a strange one. It can feel quite personal when people don’t follow you back. I think some people play games with all that. They try to get their ‘ratio’ (followers to followees) as high as possible, without thinking about how that feels for people they disconnect from. When you’re unfollowed by someone you know in real life, that does feel like a bit of a slap. But my guess is that it’s nothing personal in 99% of cases. I don’t like twitter very much because I think it does something to people’s egos that isn’t always that pleasant. And there’s all the shaming too.

  3. Thank you for defending her Niki. I know she was pretty taken aback by the comments from some of the people on the group. I think sometimes we forget that bullying doesn’t just happen at school and it is a bit of a shock to find that people who should know better still do it. You did absolutely nothing wrong in stopping the bullying, and yes it was just pure bullying. If they have blocked you then they are the ones missing out on the wealth of knowledge, experience and support you bring. They can’t justify bullying, they can’t justify their actions and by blocking you it has meant they don’t need to. It is the equivalent of a child putting their hands over their ears and saying they aren’t going to listen to you anymore when they know they have lost the argument.

  4. I completed that survey but I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention to the comments so the whole issue passed me by until now. I think it’s sad people feel the need to tear others down. Lets face it, there are enough people out there wanting to do that to writers anyway, so it’s a shame we turn on our own. We need to be honest when we’re asked for feedback, but there are ways and ways of doing it (this from someone with years of experience breaking bad news, telling people they’ve not got jobs or are going to be dismissed). It is possible to make negative comments in a constructive way that still leaves people with dignity. It’s about the work, not the characteristics of the person and, most importantly, it’s about not writing something you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Maybe I’m just being naïve here…

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