This is a false sense of security, as people are different everywhere in the world and the internet is no different. There will always be a wide range of characters in every human group, whether online or out in the real world.
As a writer, it is hard enough to put your work online but when you consider the personality behind the piece, it is not always easy to judge accurately. Some of the most powerful writing in history has been created by people with mental illness or deeply ground issues that you may never suspect by reading their work. Even when a piece is strong, and a writer is a bestselling, famous author, the person behind the mask could be crumbling when faced with a negative comment on their work.
Recently on Twitter I have witnessed people that have only every demonstrated that they are lovely, helpful and friendly people be attacked by others. This usually happens in an anonymous way, and is done people who hide behind fake names. Sometimes referred to as trolls, they seem to get pleasure from upsetting others.
I think I am the exact opposite of this. I watch what is being said to people that I like, and I feel the anger rising up inside me. Not the sort of anger that wants me to be aggressive or violent, but the type that makes me want to go and administer hugs, chocolate or a stiff drink, and to tell the person that is being attacked how wonderful I think they are.
It is usually the gentle, friendly types who are subject to this sort of flaming. This is what bugs me the most. The people who lash out think they are being clever or amusing, hiding behind fake names and flaming people for sport. They have no idea or worse, no mind, for the amount of upset they can cause. I could name (but I won’t) four people in particular who I have grown fond of on Twitter, and each of them has been subject to this sort of mindless behaviour.
One of them said to me recently, “This always happens to people who are influential.” I wasn’t so sure. I did wonder whether it was a case that anyone would do. But now I think she may have had a point, and that it is indeed a way for people to try and get noticed.
I was a victim of playground bullying. I am now 39 years old and it is only this year that I have been able to forgive the ring leader, and this was because someone who knew both of us (and had no clue about the bullying) recently told me what the bully herself had been through at a younger age. It helped me to understand and forgive her 11 year old self, but at the same time my character was formed during those experiences as an 11 year old, and I have spent my entire life suspecting that people dislike me. Somehow, despite this, I am an eternal optimist, and I have no idea how this tallies, but I always see the best in everyone, until they prove me wrong.
This knowledge about me may help people to understand that when I put my work out on my blog I am constantly waiting for the negative comments. It has literally blown me away how many lovely, talented and gracious people have commented positively on my blog posts again and again.
My first dip into the world of constructive criticism was when I emailed one of my earliest short stories to a few fellow writers that I had got to know on Twitter and to a couple of friends. I had a few “loved it” comments, which is always a pleasure, and then one of the writers, who I admired and had a lot of respect for – ok I was kind of in awe of – gave me more of a critique as an answer. The bristling happened, the hackles went up, there was a quivering lip and a ‘bloody… sodding … flipping’ type rant as I stormed around the house, thinking “I am crap, it is crap, I give up.” This is my in built reaction to criticism, I admit. However, I braced myself and I went back and looked at this writer’s blog. I realised how much she knew that I still had to learn. I read the message again. I no longer have the original, but the thought is lodged in my brain. It was all about removing unnecessary words, and only including words that were vital. This person has given me a gift. She has helped me to sharpen my knives and slice and dice every piece that I have written since. She has been like the teacher that you completely respect and love at school and want to impress. She has taught me so much and yet she treats me as an equal. Imagine how I felt when I saw her comment under my last short story and it said: “This is extraordinary, the descriptions, the measured pace, the emotion but without being overly sentimental. The emotion built up over the story. This is my favourite of everything you've written.” Imagine, also, how it felt when she refers to me as her writing twin. Especially as she feels like mine too.
If you are reading this post and have got this far, you may have seen what happened yesterday when someone left me a ‘helpful’ comment on my latest story. Perhaps they genuinely thought they were being helpful. Parts of the comment did in fact tally. But the thing that stood out for me was that this person felt the need to hide behind anonymity. There is no way I can discuss what they have raised, or ask them more about their point of view, or even understand their own experience and see how it relates. I have no idea who this person is. It could even be someone that I consider a close friend.
Anonymity is a useful tool in some cases. Personally I would rather let people know that it is me giving the comments. I also hesitate to criticise unless I know it will be considered helpful. I am the first person to advise people not to listen to critics as it is only one person’s opinion. I actually don’t read reviews of films or (generally) books, as I think each to their own, and I like to make up my own opinion, and in many cases I have loved films that have been panned by the media.
I’ve made the decision now that I will treat anonymous comments on my blog similarly. I appreciate every comment that I have received from friends, writers, and everyone else who has commented and put a name to their words. It is helping me to develop both as a writer and a human being. But an anonymous comment only leads me to wonder who is behind it, and actually the reality is that I prefer to know who it is that I am meant to be respecting the opinion of.
I also appreciate more than I can put in to words, my reliable bunch of Twitter and Facebook contacts who I now think of as friends. It constantly amazes me how people that I only know online can feel so important in my life, but you really do. You know who you are. You’re amazing.