Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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SEPTEMBER 29, 2010 9:33AM

Judging Us By the Content Of Our Comments

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Earlier this week, Big Salon front-paged an essay entitled “Why My Kids Watched Me Give Birth,” by the aptly named Madeline Holler. One learns to approach these slice-of-life pieces with a jaundiced eye, but this one was quite good: a cynical homebirth tale mixed in with a confident mommy blogger meditation practically qualifies as genre-busting these days.

You could feel what the comments were going to be like before even clicking the little button.

Child abuse! said some.

Narcissistic hippy! cried others.

Even our beloved Dr. Amy weighed in on the evils of homebirth.

While there have been a few people who shared their stories of attending their own mothers’ homebirths and coming through with varying levels of psychological scarring (one said she developed serious behavioral problems that she blamed on witnessing the birth, but allowed might have had more to do with having yet another baby in the house; another said it made her a faithful birth-control user because she knew what she was in for) and a few self-described midwives and birth attendants who felt the Holler kids should have been better prepared and better monitored during the birth, the bulk of the 150+ comments have been pure invective.

I don’t like to believe the world is filled with rude, nasty, insulting people. Internet comments really challenge that belief. There’s something about the anonymity of the computer screen that allows people say the most extraordinarily horrible things about fellow human beings.

Quick example: when Sarah Shourd was released from an Iranian prison last week, the following comment was posted to a story on the LA Times site: “The remaining "hikers" should indeed be left to rot and die. All three are either spies or abjectly stupid idiots who could have only decided to hike in a worse place if they chose Tehran. If the former, they never had any business in espionage. If the latter, they compromised our national security by giving the maggots in the Iranian government a bargaining chip. As far as the "ill hiker" who was allowed to leave, drop dead.”  

The comment called his/herself “Pollyanna.”

In two years of blogging, I’ve taken my lumps. While the majority of my commenters are respectful, challenging my ideas without attacking me personally, I’ve also been called a bitch (sometimes true), a racist (never true) and -- gasp! -- a feminist (true, and will likely be carved on my tombstone). The absolute worst was a guy who posted bits and pieces of my resume on the Washington Post site to illustrate what a “loser” I was.

It’s some kind of quirk of the brain: without the physical presence of a real human being, we forget they have feelings -- in a sense, we forget they exist. So we feel free to ignore that self-censorship that is necessary for any society to move along without constant strife.

I’ve done it myself.  Yesterday, in fact.

I posted a comment on Slate.com on a story about the suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey this summer and it’s relation to “workplace bullying.” This has been a big local story, as well as a national one, and when one commenter posted with that kind of all-knowing tone I’ve really come to hate about an aspect of the story that potentially has more than one side, I chimed in, paraphrasing a quote I’d seen in a different story on the case.

Compounding that error, I also didn’t paste the direct quote with attribution and a back link, as I might have done here on my own blog. I presented as my own viewpoint, even though I have no inside knowledge of the situation.

Not an hour later, I had a note left on my Facebook “Wall” from one of those Facebook-friends-I’ve-never-actually-met, who just happens to be one of the former VQR staffers. By making the comment that I did, I had inadvertently accused him and his co-workers of bad behavior. He was understandably upset.

It really rattled me. It’s not enough to say I didn’t mean any offense -- I simply hadn’t thought about anything other than winning my point. The fact that I was saying something potentially hurtful to people I’ve undoubtedly passed in the aisles at the grocery store or the library or the local bagel emporium never entered my consciousness.

The interactivity of the Internet is not a bad thing. That you all are willing and able to take me to task when I go off the rails has made me a better writer. That some of you have taken cheap shots have left me with a slightly tougher skin. And I’ve gotten to know people I’d never otherwise have met.

I just wish it didn’t have to come along with all the bad stuff.

After this week, I’ve decided to put myself on a Comment Diet through at least through the end of the year. Not here...this is my space. But no more Huffington Post, no more Salon, no more Slate, no more AlterNet.

I take as my philosophical guidance the immortal words of JOSHUA to Professer Falken in WarGames:

Sometimes, the only winning move is not to play.     


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I've received very few brick bat during my career here, but then how many people throw brick bats at poets? I remain amazed, however, by the vituperations that the denizens of these more mainstream web sites heap upon each other, and wonder why we are so well behaved here, at least in comparison to other places.
It seems the diet is a bit restrictive, but you know how diets go. They never last as long as we plan.

??? ... Sage, is this you?
Wise and thoughtful. I recently had two men "screaming" at me in their comments because they disagreed with my opinion. I pointed out that on O.S. I only see men screaming at women bloggers, never at other men. The anonymity of comments allows vindictiveness and harassment that might otherwise be restrained. I've only had to apologize once, to another blogger for my sarcastic comment. Luckily, she accepted it.
Sage, I think here we have some sense of community ... or at least virtually seeing each other ... and knowing that people we might attack have defenders... it's not quite as anonymous as commenting on Big Salon or Huff or newspaper sites...
oh WELL Said! Well said! There are few more nastier sites for unbelievably cruel comments than Big Salon...especially when it comes to women. Add some "fat women" things in and watch the nastiness multiply geometrically.

Whenever I comment on anything, my only rule is that I can only write down what I would be willing to say to someone's face. I think if we all did that....it would be a lot nicer out there.

Sad part is, I don't know whether Anonymous Internet Asshole is the true underbelly of humans, or just childish behavior brought out by the freedom of it.

I hope for the latter, but am terrified it's the former.
i've said more than my fair share of impertinent and intemperate comments and had more than enough directed at me. there is one miserable little dweb who still chases me around. what the fuck? if you don't take the risk every once and awhile, what good is the media? when i'm wrong, i ask forgiveness when i'm attacked i hand out new assholes too. such is life. the ones i feel sorry for are the passersbye who live and think in secret, or the best they can do is "twitter." i guess somebody has to pay the bills. where is that delete button?
Heather, I think your reaction--a "comment diet" that means not playing--is not only unnecessary (read: extreme) but a copout. When I first read your expression "comment diet," I thought "Good idea! Good for her!" because I thought by it you meant taking an extra few seconds to ensure your comments were absent the kind of inflammation that many of us heave out there without thinking. Or maybe slimming your volume of comments down by the percentage that represents the difference between offering something useful to the world rather than just sort of throwing up in public. "Hmmm. Restraint!" I thought. "What a concept."

So to just quit, well, that shows an unwillingness to demonstrate restraint, no? You're smart and thoughtful. You are not the one who should be refraining from play.

My more general response to your piece is mixed. Here's what I think: I think you're absolutely right that anonymity generates disrespect. But it also generates that truthfulness that real life relationships make very difficult to express. I'm not saying that those are the same thing; that is, I'm not saying that one must be disrespectful to be truthful. But I think you can't create a climate of feedback that is so narrow as to include one without the other.

I read the home birth piece you speak of and I questioned the author's motivation for writing it. I trust that you know me well enough--silly as that sounds--to know that I didn't throw out one of those nasty one-liners she got. But, yes, I believe I was pretty direct in criticizing her lack of respect for her own children's choice in the matter. And I'm not sure I'd do that to someone sitting in my kitchen. Maybe I would. I'm known for my honesty even in real life. But maybe I wouldn't. I go back and forth on whether this is a good thing, this liberating honesty.

Sometimes writers complain about their negative responses without once considering that at least a few are offering substantive disagreement, however badly couched. I think we can learn from those. My own blog doesn't generate much traffic, but to the extent that I ever write something that incites a riot (LOL, that exaggeration was for giggles), I mean brings up some controversy, I try to ignore any emotional undercurrent to a commenter who disagrees with me and just go for the nugget, either to defend my original point of view or to muse about this new idea. It's hard, that's for sure. Especially if the commenter hit a nerve. And if there's one thing I've learned about myself, it's this: The more defensive I feel about my work, the more likely it is that I'm resisting a truth that I will eventually see and accommodate.

Very interesting topic, as always. :)
Well put, and I think you're totally right that the Internet sometimes leads us to write things we would never consider uttering aloud in person. I don't even read comments posted on news stories, because the informed opinions are few and far between, and more often the comments are just nasty notes having little to do with the story. Rated.
Best ending to a blog ever and of course it is from my favorite movie!
The quasi-anonymous nature of the Internet causes a lot of people to say a lot of things they wouldn't normally say if they had to attach their own identification information to what they say. I post using my name, so it keeps me from going off with knee-jerk responses most of the time. It doesn't mean I don't post what I don't believe, but at the same time I keep myself from being rude, and when I step over the line, I do everything possible to apologize and bring myself back to normalcy again.

Not a lot of others do that. I get attacked a lot by random, anonymous entities, and sometimes I just have to chalk it up to arbitrary rudeness that you can't do anything about.
Excellent post Heather. I've learned so many things keeping a blog on OS, but without question the greatest skill I've learned is recognizing, and NOT responding to the comments that aren't worth my energy.

Cross-posting here and on big Salon can be a really interesting experience, especially when you end up with two sets of comments: the nice ones on your own blog, and the nasty ones over at Salon. It makes you value the importance of writing community, and how important it is as a big buffer against the big world full of rage-a-holic letter writers. And it really makes you question the triggers for your own letter writing. Every time I make a comment now, especially a negative one, I have to ask myself whether it's worth the energy it's going to take to defend it. Okay almost everytime. I do fall off the wagon from time to time. But much less now than I used to.
Those of us who play a lot of videogames refer to this phenomenon as Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, as coined in a comic by Gabe at penny-arcade.com. It's best to Google the image that goes along with that theory.
I sat on my hands because there'd have been no real point to be gained by saying "I have a colleague who lost their first full-term, home-not-quite-successfully-birthed baby last week." But I did think about it. And yes, I do, and I cannot imagine how horrific it would have been to have children present at that event.

That said, comments here at little bitty OS tend to be sane and gentle by Wide Open Internet standards, even during the monthly eruptions of "I'm OK, You Suck."

Thoughtful piece.

No go clean up those idiotic spam comments. :-)
anonymous invective is my favorite kind: so safe, stress-relieving, and never any need for considered appraisal. the web was made for me!
i only read comments on AOL when i haven't eaten for a bit. i am disgusted by the hatred and violent comments thrown around like shite. there is never any discussion possible as if you disagree you are told to 'get a life' and go fuck yourself.

these same writers (omg, i'm not sure i should use that term! *lighten up, that's a joke*) are usually the ones who defend their general ignorance as a badge of honor.
In the comments to the Salon article a poster said ...without a doctor and a hospital and medical professionals, this kind of New Age crystals-and-candles birth is decidedly risky. -- I laughed.

My grandmother birthed 10 children at home with all the kids in the farmhouse. In 1905 - 1927 the nearest hospital was an hour away by horse and buggy so fetching the neighbor to watch the kids was a better shot. Bonus if said neighbor was a midwife. That's how my Mom had the first 3 kids, too. Birthing at home is decidedly NOT "New Age crystals-and-candles"

I don’t like to believe the world is filled with rude, nasty, insulting people

Yeah, well, pre-Internet all those nasty insulting people had to settle for talking behind people's backs. Gosssssip. The nasty word that hisses like a snake. Now they can say nasty comments and not have to look people in the face. Drive by insults. Go, go Interweave. ;)
This helps confirm my theory....people are great...until they suck.
There are some people who enjoy the give and take of smart, insightful conversation. Dialogue. Not shrieking and pissing and moaning and chest-beating. I've learned, here in recent days and generally, these people tend to be in the minority and also tend to use their real names and photos. When people using screen names and avatars come out swinging, I laugh and step back. They don't have the basic courage of their convictions to state their case and stand by it.
An honest post. You don't sugar-coat what happened, what you did.

Some on OS would have us dis-engage, as if it were somehow cleaner or truthier to not comment, or never respond to comments. Restraint is good, but applying one rigid set of rules is un-necessary and self-limiting.

Some on OS are cruel. Some even, ahem, show up here, making comments on what you wrote. Disregard all such excuses made for "honesty" that is in fact juvenalia.

It's two decades and counting, this internet delusion, that we are "different" on the internet, and drop our "masks".

Sheer nonsense.

People have always lied, posed, pretended, and ranked on each other, using whatever technology was at hand. The challenge is what it always was, always will be: to be compassionate. To be fierce with our thinking, but not with each other. To honor the truth. To realize we all tend to be an ass at times, and to walk it back with dignity. To make our apologies simple, and not just more information about Me.

To say the thing, make the case, engage a bit, then let it go.

Snark works as a spice, as zest, not a main dish. And the very best satire, the most satisfying rants, come from good minds and generous hearts, who speak from a consistent morality.

Snide for its own sake is pathetic, and empty, and addictive. Name-calling is the lowest form of debate. That you agonize over miscues, misjudgments, and mis-communications speaks well of you, Heather. It is a very good thing to not do online fights. No one ever wins.

Ignore those who would have you think there is anything adult about the murk of meanness they swim in.
I prefer to read and not necessarily comment. I think it's a lovely idea to be on a 'comment diet'. I know I can be mean--so true of everyone. We all have 'good' and 'bad' in us. But I am also always complaining about meanness and pettiness (here and elsewhere). It drives me crazy.

Oh, and truly, how funny that they think kids watching their siblings being born is child abuse. I guess every child since the dawn of time until fifty years ago was abused. . . .
Great.... being graded by one´s comments....
I´m graded by my looks...
Never mind....
This is the Canary Islands
And I haven´t met anyone reading books..
All they "talk" (not read) about is sex... homo and hetro....
Even the birds and da beez on the overhead phone lines are..
Living in the capital city of mostly unemployed Canarios and millions of temporary vacationing foreigners it´s not that dull at all.... At least I get a kick out of airing me lungs.... more often than not.... I donated one of my childhood books.... Boccacio´s Decamerone.... in solid German.... Über Deutsch.. !! The voice went dead..... GripeVine & Donah..//
No, you make the other winning move here: to reflect and respond, even when we look like dopes.

Because we all do it, me and thee. I no longer think there is such a thing as perfect, finessed online communications, a place to get to, a skill to acquire, a perfect presence of mind to have at all times.

You identify your own mis-steps without adornment, false piety, or excuses here. The dialog is what matters, and it trumps the One Exchange. We illuminate ourselves more when we turn the light around, much more so than when we hide behind silence or attacks or gossip/posturing/blame. If internet conversations (or the never-ending collaborative memoirish fiction that this is) are to have real merit it is in our process with each other, not in any Declaration od Last Word.

There's a hard core here on OS (and everywhere else on the internet) who factionalize and reduce and wall off, who hold an ax aloft ready to sever someone for one post or comment. As if they had that power really.

Because human beings are thus and ever so. Because it gives us a temporary thrill, the illusion of power, to do so. And once in a while, firm, fierce things must be said about ideas, and behavior, if not to the supposed absolute character of another.

When we feel self-righteous, we're wrong. Life online is not a game of whack-a-mole, but even those of us who know this, and struggle not to, might yet heft that rubber mallet again. None of us have got it quite right yet. It's what we do now, and now, and now, that matters most. I admire this brave, forthright post immensely.
I can understand, but I disagree about the "dieting". As long as you're providing facts--even if you're not directly citing & linking them there--then you're providing information, which is a service. [And it's more than the mainstream media outlets do!]

I do support the practice of providing sources for facts, but this can be done on request if you're in a hurry, or don't feel like typing a wall. And you're entitled to your opinion, and you have the right to share it, so even if it's NOT fact, at least you're participating in a discussion.

Yes, if we comment on sites that allow people we know to view them, sometimes people we know may become annoyed/unhappy/irritated by our comments. But if we're being honest, and providing facts, and not being deliberately snarky, the upset can usually be minimized with a modicum of diplomacy.

There's such a dearth of facts these days, I just can't stand the thought of someone who has them trying to avoid sharing them. Friends are important. Helping to educate the American public before we further destroy the country is important. There's usually a way to do both.

It would appear censorship is Salon's answer to this problem, and arbitrary censorship at that (but not the spammers...hmmmmm...). Four days ago I found I could no longer access the comments section of Salon. I can see the links at the end of articles, but when I click on them nothing happens. Ditto if I type "letters.salon.com" into my address bar. It just disappears, replaced by Salon's primary URL. Now I've had a few run-ins with other commenters since the change-over a couple of months ago, but I'm hardly a troll. Also, it's a bit much to deny folks any access at all to the letters. Denying write access while allowing folks to read is simple enough. It seems the Internet is always underkill or overkill.