I'll admit it: I've written plenty of things I regret on Internet comment boards. Especially in the early days of my blogging career, when I contributed to a political website (over a decade ago now), I got downright nasty and wrote things I never would today. And I live with the knowledge that my own vitriol is floating around on some server, somewhere. It's humbling and more than a little embarrassing.
It took some time to realize that the curse-filled, rageful comments I left — or returned — were more about assuaging my own hurt feelings than helping someone else understand an issue better (which is what I told myself I was doing, but we all lie to ourselves to justify behavior we know isn't right, don't we?). Because while we are back-and-forthing with others online, whether with other readers or the writer of the article, we are really conversing with ourselves most of all. Because the person you are commenting at or towards may never read your comment; you have no idea if they will or won't.
I'm not encouraging you to only write Pollyannaish comments online, because one of the beauties of the Internet is that we get to disagree, discuss and maybe even see someone else's point of view, or understand an old issue in a new way. (It has happened to me many times, and it is both an intellectually wonderful and spiritually sobering occasion when you are reading through comments on an issue you had long decided on and all of a sudden, you realize that someone's comment has forever changed your mind).
So, no maxims about only saying kindly, wonderful things online from me. But here are some ideas of how to be a decent human being while still expressing yourself. These are the rules I try (very hard) to abide by after almost 14 years online.
Don't say anything online you wouldn't say to someone's face: This is rule number one! And that counts for tone too. No need to be Little Miss Sunshine if that's not your personality, but be true to yourself: If you are snarky and sarcastic in real life, or opinionated and challenging then feel free to be so online too. But very few of us are jerks in real life as compared to people being unkind online; there's a disconnect happening between real behavior and online behavior. So, just as you wouldn't run up to someone on the street and scream at them that their face is #superugly, there's no need to do so online. Really ask yourself, before you hit the 'submit' button — if this was someone in front of me, would I say this to them? Sometimes you will vehemently disagree with someone — this is really OK in real life and online — just express it in a reasonable way.
Don't pile on. Just because other people are being cruel or mean does NOT give you the excuse to join in. I know there's something weirdly enjoyable about ganging up on someone (gross to admit, but I'm saying it because it's true), but if you were ever teased at school, and remember what it was like to be surrounded by a three or four taunting kids, you know that it is so much worse than just one person saying something mean. I have honestly been on both sides of this equation, and it's just never right, from either side — online or in real life.
Stick to the issue: Refuse character assassination. There are plenty of politicians, and even a few celebrities who I don't like. But when discussing them online, pick apart what you don't like about their ideas or their policies, voting records or opinions. But don't call them stupid (you can call their policy stupid if you can't think of something better to say), don't critique their looks (see note on body-snarking below), and don't make fun of their family or marital status (yes, even the Lohans count!). By sticking to the issues brought up, you are more likely to effect change on some level. You're also less likely to steer a conversation away from what this person is doing, which may be interesting or objectionable, and towards who that person is. Ad hominem attacks for who people are instead of their ideas or actions gets all of us nowhere. (Example: "I think Miley Cyrus' MTV Awards dancing was a bad example for girls her age because XYZ," versus, "Miley Cyrus is a dumb girl who can't dance.") The first example is an opinion about an action of Miley's, whereas the second is just an attack on Miley as a person.
No body-snarking. Ever. There's just no good reason to make a negative comment about someone's body, hair or face. Fashion choices? Go for it, but only in celebrity-land (regular people don't deserve to be critiqued for something that isn't their job — would you want someone to come watch you try and change a tire and make fun of you while you're doing your best?). But even when commenting on celebs, we all know the difference between saying "Kim Kardashian's dress above looks like it used to be a potato sack and those patent-leather shoes are even uglier than the dress," (which expresses a negative opinion about her clothing choices) and writing, "Kim Kardashian looks like a fat cow in that dress and check out her canckles in those stilettos!" (which critiques Kim K herself).
Do compliment and support. If it seems like much of the online commenting is negative, it's because people seem to be more motivated by negativity. I'm always grateful to the people who post a funny GIF, a supporting link, an anecdote that backs up what is being discussed, or other useful, positive commentary. There's not enough of this outside of funny cat videos and tear-jerker video stories. If you agree, or have something to add to the conversation, please do!
Debate. Discuss. Disagree. Don't destroy or defame.
Do you have any advice about how to be kinder online?
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