However beguiling for spiriting gadgets to our doors, the internet has also become the vehicle of choice for the disgruntled, the spiteful and the cruel. But here is the thing: we ask for it. We actually go looking for vileness, slander and abuse at our own expense. We put ourselves in the way of it every bit as perversely as coalition forces deliberately place young Western men in the sights of terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some time ago, I got a small, poisonous taste of the inaccurate, poorly written and poorly reasoned nastiness that lies in wait on the internet about me. My husband had started reading aloud choice titbits from the long, snarling reader comments that ran under my columns — often intrusively personal snipes with nothing to do with the subject at hand. I had to beg him to stop, and for years now he’s been forbidden from sharing any more unpleasant discoveries on the web.
Had I instead pored over every line of vitriol, or — shudder — mucked in and joined the conversation (i.e. gormlessly volunteered for Afghanistan), I’d have soon stopped publishing journalism altogether. If nothing else, the unremitting revelation that so many readers cannot comprehend standard prose — that so many people prefer to make up what they wish you had written so they can object to it; that, not to put too fine a point on it, readers cannot read — exposes the whole business of writing comment pieces as utterly pointless. I long ago opted for the happy delusion that, while my audience may not always agree with me, they at least roughly understand what I’ve said.
Lo, I am wearing Dorothy’s shoes. If I don’t read that slop, my feelings don’t get hurt. I don’t waste precious mental time on responding to ludicrous, unfounded accusations and unwarranted name-calling even in my head. I can deny any so-called “trolls” satisfaction by refusing to submit to their conniption fits. I got the power.
We all have that power. When the internet was young, it enticed us with intoxicating access — to information, to purchases, but also to other people, and they to us. But access has got out of hand. Especially with the burgeoning of social networking, the problem is no longer how to invite throngs of other people into your study. The problem is how to keep them out.
Cyberbullying is not only the bane of public figures and schoolchildren. Anyone who puts something out there — a book, an article, a comment, a song, a Facebook or Myspace page — is potentially the target of digital rotten eggs and spoiled tomatoes. Worse, negative emotions like indignation, contempt and loathing by their nature have energy, raising the probability that this dark matter will manifest itself in the form of action. By contrast, agreement and appreciation are mild sensations, and rarely move people to do anything. Ergo, a disproportion of the feedback you’re likely to invite in response to just about anything on the web will be malevolent.
Surely, the most primitive protection against this frenzy of mudslinging is to duck. Accordingly, I do not have a Google Alert on my own name. Unless unavoidably tracking down a particular reference, I don’t do searches on “lionel shriver” either. I no longer look up my reviews on Amazon. I boycott social networking sites, since I’ve a rather old-fashioned notion of what constitutes a “friend”. There’s a name for everyone else, which is old-fashioned, too: they’re called “strangers”.
Strangers have always had opinions about us. But one of the culturally unfortunate consequences of the web is a universally raised concern about what other people think of us, along with a deadly access to those views. My solution is old-school, low-tech, but it is still possible to deftly, discreetly take advantage of contemporary interconnectedness without asking to be insulted: I simply don’t go looking for vituperation. Granted, whether I read it doesn’t change the fact that vats of invective pitched at me are still splattered about the web. But subjective reality is still a reality, and we don’t exercise nearly the control we might over this subjective world. Mean graffiti on your Facebook wall? Why not leave the building? It sounds fanciful now, but if enough parents got their kids off the likes of Facebook altogether, forcing nasty pieces of work to go back to insulting your children in person might catch on.
So here’s putting the trolls on notice: all those sneering passages they laboured over? I didn’t read them. I’ll never read them. I may be kidding myself, but I’m content in my denial. Try it sometime. With no new application other than that of our own willpower, we can protect ourselves, and continue to imagine, however naively, that some people are nice.