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.