Thursday, 19 August 2010

Friend or Faux?

In this world of virtual friendships and social networking, it is easy to imagine people are as you would like them to be, and assume that everyone uses the same sites as you for the same reasons, and that they are all like-minded.  

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.


  1. This is an excellent post, Rebecca. If there's a writer alive who hasn't felt a rejection or a critique more strongly than it was intended, I'll be amazed.

  2. Very well said.

    I think that it is always hard to be shown your weaknessess although it is a vital tool of improvment. I think the way the critique expresses it to you is going to be the factor between being helpful to your growth as a writier or just darn right rude!

  3. Some very good points excellently put. The Trolls and bullies, on many occasions do what they do to build their own ego, in the belief that by putting someone else down it automatically raises themselves, any witnesses to these acts don't necessarily view them in the same light that the bullies do.

    On the critique front, I think any writer can accept, and learn from constructive criticism, but should ignore what comments are clearly intended as jibes.

    I personally like your writing and will continue to read it. My own stories are far from literary excellence, but that is how they fall from my imagination and onto the screen, and so if someone feels the need to slate them, I will respect their opinion, but the stories will remain unchanged.

    I will look forward to more of your works. :)

  4. I'm scared of the trolls but they do make me value me online friends all the more.

  5. As you said Rebecca, writing comes from such a personal place that sometimes we feel very vulnerable when we put it out there and the human condition is such that there will always be someone who sees things completely differently from the way we do and not get what we intended. What Ellie said about criticism makes sense, it should always be sensitive and with the possibility of dialogue.

  6. I'm absolutely and entirely terrified of criticism. There I said it. It may not seem that I am so over-sensitive on my blog or my online writing, but I spend hours agonising over why a particular piece hasn't been received well, or whether I've offended someone inadvertently. I wish I wasn't so over-sensitive. I wish I could learn to take criticism in my stride as I have learnt with my commercial copywriting/marketing. I used to laugh with clients 'You dont like these words I finda you another one' But I'm simply not able to separate myself from my creative writing. There's a lot at stake for me. I want (as I'm sure you do) to make writing my career. I need to learn to accept that not everyone will like my style, or my cadence or even my story.What has occurred to me though is this - without this hyper-sensitivity would I be as effective as a writer? I wonder. Would really like to make our virtual friendship real with some coffee and cake sometime soon. Do you feel like a drive south? Vx

  7. By the way I write this about my experiences of bullying in the playground. -

  8. The internet is the only place where people feel that they can be 'anonymous' and say things that they would never say to someone's face. Maybe it's a power thing. I don't know.

    I usually react the same as you when given a criticism, even the most constructive kinds. Writing is personal, no matter what the subject. We are throwing little pieces of ourselves out there for others to see, and well, we all want to be liked, right? I know I do.

    Excellent post...

  9. Excellent post. I didn't read the one you mentioned but I've seen this before where Anonymous commenters say hurtful things. There was one blog I used to follow and quit because too many of the comments were mean spirited. I've never seen this on twitter, I guess I'm not there enough. I've been fortunate so far on social media and not been attacked (much.) Once or twice I"ve gotten mean anonymous comments and I just delete them.

  10. I've disabled anonymous comments on my WordPress blog. Is there no way to do that on Blogger? I just think that, if you're being brave enough to share your work on your blog, with comments enabled, then those who comment should have to identify themselves or be able to be identified through giving an email address, their blog name and/or real name.

    I think you're right that you grow as a writer when you are given (and take on board) constructive criticism. The key word being constructive. There are ways of giving feedback and, just as importantly, ways of receiving it.

    Whatever you write is your work, and your work alone, and you're the one who makes the decisions on it (until you have an editor and publisher on your case!) but it does help to be able to see what others say about it, even if you don't action their points or take their advice.

    I don't know who the anonymous commenter was, or what their motives were. They could have been a troll, or they could have been genuinely trying to help but went about it in the wrong way. I think you handled it exceptionally well. Instead of deleting the comment, which you could have done - this is your blog, after all - you let the comment stand and answered it in a comment of your own. I think that says a lot about you, both as a person and a writer.

  11. Those who insult, harass and provoke for their own entertainment are emotional parasites. I wish we could do away with them. Unfortunately, our culture sometimes celebrates them.

  12. Rebecca, are you or have you been a member of a writing group or have you done any creative writing classes where workshopping your work forms a major part? That sort of forum provides face to face criticism which I think can be a lot more constructive than that available on line - as there is less liklihood for misunderstandings to arise. I hesitate from commenting on people's writing via a blog and would be even more reluctant to do so using Twitter's 140 characters; the possiblilty of someone misunderstanding and being hurt by what I intend as constructive criticism is too great.

  13. Excellent post, Rebecca. Learning to take constructive criticism is tough, but most of the writers I know do it gently, and it's really the best way to improve your work (John Wiswell is superb at giving constructive criticism).

    Trolls are the vermin of the internet. Luckily I have never had to deal with them personally (might have something to do with the fact that I regularily write about killing my neighbours) but good friends of mine have, and it's usually the kindest, gentlest people who have to endure this. Internet bullies are cowards, and should be treated as such.

    Great title for this post too. ;)

  14. He stands, and from his head, takes off the velvet covering of high standing. Four steps he takes, no more, no less, and with the glint of a tear in his left eye, he bows. A bow full of reverence and gratitude, he takes your hand and to his lips does touch but lightly against your knuckle. And leaves behind, the warmth you portrayed, in the gift of a tiger-lily.

    (when speechless, actions speak louder)

  15. I've only just read this entry Rebecca. Its human nature to be sensitive to criticism. I think its a very powerful tool to use it in a positive way, to take on board constructive points and to use it as drive in your work.

    Thank you for posting this, I often withhold from commenting on my favourite blogs in favour of RT links in Twitter. However, you've highlighted the purpose of commenting. For me anyway.

  16. That is a very thoughtful post. I am not a fan of anonymously commenting on blog posts. I have noticed that when people don't have to own up to their comments/behavior they are okay with being nasty. It is very much a bullying technique to cut someone down. I think there is a difference in being constructive and destructive and that ranges with each of us.

  17. Hey Rebecca,

    With honesty & sincerity, I want to say what a remarkable post you have written. I think what you've described here is indicative of our society wanting to hide away from any sort of responsibility or accountability in relation to our actions.
    I have also been blown away by the comments that have been left on my bloggy thing. There are some wonderfully supportive people out there, sweets. Just focus on what you get from the good guys.

    Thank you for sharing, Rebecca.
    D ;D (@22DanielleM)