Confession time: I’m addicted to internet comments. They’re probably my worst, most destructive vice. No, really. I have a problem — I absolutely MUST know what anonymous people on the internet think. I will often gloss over huge portions of articles I’m genuinely interested in just to see how the commenters reacted. My problem runs so deep that, if I’m reading an article on my phone and can’t get the comments to load from my mobile browser, I will email the link to myself so that I can read the comments on my laptop later on. Yeah, it’s pretty bad.
Why the obsession with what random people online think? There are too many reasons to list, but the ones I’m most able to articulate are: 1), I’m a glutton for other peoples’ ignorance and stupidity, 2), sometimes commenters genuinely bring perspective or further depth to an article or concept that I’ve never thought of, 3), the lawyer in me simply MUST know what the other side(s) are saying so I can stay in front of their arguments in the inevitability that I end up in a real life debate on the topic, 4), because clearly I hate myself and don’t value my own time. Ha!
I try to keep in mind the fact that the people who consistently comment on internet media are not representative of the entire population — the vast majority of folks are like, “meh, this is not important enough for me to get involved,” while internet commenters are like:
For me, it’s more like, “I can’t. This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet and I have to watch someone else destroy them in the comments section!”
According to my brother, most anons who angrily comment on the internet are either teenagers in their rooms with nothing better to do, or worse, adults with nothing better to do.
But still, their words seep into me and I find myself fearful of them. They color both my perceptions of myself and the thoughts I share when I write. Ultimately, I fear both rejection and harassment and as silly as it sounds, one of my worst nightmares is hundreds of anonymous people telling me how horrible, stupid, fat and unworthy I am.
By constantly reading what they write, it’s almost as though I am trying to arm myself against them — trying to stay one step ahead of them, so I can ward them off preemptively. So that nobody will ever say something terrible or hurtful to me anonymously again. Because that’s how THAT works.
I’m no stranger to internet harassment. When I was a Freshman in high school, somebody made a screen name on AIM called “ChelcIsFat” and proceeded to send me bullying messages day after day:
“How much do you weigh? 38729202339392728292 lbs?!”
I blocked them, and they came back around time and time again under different burner screen names — over and over, until I had nothing left but tears and the burning question:
“Why me? Am I really so horrible?”
I had my faults, for sure. I was a hanger on and a bit annoying, but I didn’t deserve cruelty. I didn’t deserve harassment. And I found all of those negative internet experiences to be extremely alienating and scarring. They still profoundly affect me and the way I interact with others.
Sadly, cruelty and harassment are just par for the course when you’re a woman on the internet — or anyone on the internet, really (though, let’s be honest, women are particularly targeted).
Here’s the thing — as much as I try to compartmentalize all of those anons, and tell myself to brush them off, I’ve noticed lately that they’ve taken on a life of their own in my mind.
They’re perpetuating my self-doubt: “I shouldn’t publish that — nobody cares about what I think about racism. I’m no authority!”
They’re lurking beneath my words, urging me to be more diplomatic when I’m really, really not: “Maybe I should tone down that argument… I don’t want to anger anybody or have them criticize me.”
They’re keeping me from fulfilling my potential and being true to myself: “I shouldn’t post too much in my blog, or promote myself too enthusiastically or people will get annoyed,” or “I can’t post two essays in a row about my grief or I’ll drive people away. What if people think that’s all I am?!”
They’re holding me back from fully pursuing writing: to this day, I won’t publish my work anywhere that has anonymous commenting systems, for fear of backlash or harassment.
I’m ashamed to admit that I police myself based on the words of anonymous people who are, for all intents and purposes, extremists. But I also don’t know how to get them out of my head or get past my paralyzing fear of being bullied again.
I’m sensitive, and I don’t want to (slash honestly couldn’t) change that.
So what do I do? Do I keep quiet and let them win, or do I put on a brave face and keep writing? Is it worth it to get hit in order to be authentic? Am I seriously this pathetic and cowardly, when there are people like Malala Yousafzai in this world (who, if you’ll remember, was a CHILD when she risked her life to write about being under Taliban occupation, and despite being shot in the head for that conviction, she is STILL putting herself on the line to advocate for girls’ education)?!
These are the questions I grapple with constantly. And of course, the internet commenters in my head have plenty of opinions in regards to the answers.
But today, I’m going to very maturely give them a big ol’ double middle finger and say, LA LA LA, I’M NOT LISTENING.