This is a confession: about 7 years ago I started reading a blog written by a woman about my age. In a lot of ways, her life couldn't have been more different than mine: she had 2 kids, a husband, a house. She lived on the other side of the country and was a stay-at-home mom. I read the blog religiously along with some friends, and because she was different than us and because we didn't think of her as a real person and we were gossipy and bored, we started a parody blog of her blog. It was private, but not private enough and one day, this girl on the other side of the country found it. She couldn't read it, but she found a couple things my friends and I had said about her in our personal blogs and she could see that it existed and she was devastated. She wrote an entry about the discovery and how she cried all day. And she was right to cry and we felt horrible. We hadn't considered her a real person; we thought of her as a reality star, someone who was putting on a show for us. But she wasn't famous or getting paid to share her life with us -- she was just doing it because she wanted to and to have friends and support and to practice writing (she's a great writer by the way). Anyway, we apologized, PROFUSELY, and actually, after many long emails between us, Becca (her name is Becca) amazingly forgave us and we all became friends. Honestly, at this point I consider her one of my only real online friends. When one of us was really sick, she sent a whole season of The Gilmore Girls. She's what you might call a total gem. And forgiving in an epic way.
I am telling you this story because, as a writer on the internet, I have become a pro now at getting random viciousness thrown my way. I've had strangers comment on what they don't like about my body, what they don't like about me as a person, what they don't like about my writing and why they don't think I have the right to even write things in the first place. Now, I encourage critical engagement with my work -- I have an English degree so it's all I know how to do -- but when the comments get personal, it stops being engagement and starts being an attack and I, like anyone else, feel hurt and sad.
I have a 14-year-old cousin on Facebook now and so I have been thinking about how I can model better behavior online, for her and her friends. The other day I called my mom crying about something someone had said to me on Facebook and I realized that if this kind of thing is bad for me, at 31, then it must be impossible for a kid in middle school or high school. We owe it to the kids in our lives to not be bullies online, but sometimes it's hard to realize what we are doing until it's too late. So because I still (maybe naively) believe that everyone is good at heart and I want to make the actual world we live in a better place (the other option being I suggest we all move to the woods but let's be honest, that's not happening), here are some steps to take next time things get heated online. Don't be mean! Be smart! (I'm trying to coin a new anti-online bullying slogan. It's not working.)
1. Take a deep breath.