A Response That Risks Something: People In The Computer Are Real People

I consider it a great privilege to spend so much of my time writing, and so while I don’t want to complain overly much about this negative aspect of writing, but anyone who has ever written or posted anything online knows the venom that comes (especially) from anonymous or semi-anonymous commenters.

{The most outrageous one, probably, was one that attacked me for being a wealthy (ha!) hypocritical elitist by posting property values where I live relative to NY State averages; but I’m getting a fair amount of venom–in addition to some very lovely, gracious comments–on my most recent post at CT on Marilynne Robinson.}

Comments can be useful. They can offer encouragement, fresh perspectives, probing questions. They can be a tool for thoughtful discourse.

But perhaps it is because it is so easy to make comments–especially when you have only to enter your nom de plume and a fake email address–that they are often less than worthless.

New Yorker Cartoon (see here)

And I am sad to say that there is very little difference between the kind and degree of hatred in Christian comments than comments anywhere else.

(Jesus said: “by this they will know you are my disciples: because you love one another.”)

I will admit that there are times I am sore tempted to comment, especially on posts espousing supposedly “Christian” values that I find reprehensible. There is a place for good criticism.

But in such places it is too easy to comment without thought and without risk; to do so too quickly. Letters to the editor, at least, used to require people to find an envelope and a stamp and go to the mailbox. The careless word (and I have let many of them fly, to my shame) is quickly disseminated online.

At the very least, I suggest this: that more large sites follow the lead of sites like Sojourners’ God’s Politics Blog and require commenters to comment using Facebook. But it is worth considering what you and I can do:

1. Always use your real name and real email address to comment

2. Link to your blog (or to your public Facebook URL) if possible & appropriate

3. Consider James 1:19–Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry
and Proverbs 17:28–Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.

4. Remember that the people ‘in the computer’ are real people. Use a clear headshot when possible to show your actual face…

Maybe #4 is obvious. But for some reason, the disembodied nature of online interaction can mean that we say things we would never, never say on the phone or in person, or even, I daresay, in a video chat/Skype/GoogleHangout. One of the best parts of going to the Festival of Faith and Writing was meeting my “computer friends” in person, and finding that those friendships and connections are real, real, real.

Computer friends–and foes–are real people.

Many things do demand a response: I felt compelled to expose the dangerous teaching of Michael and Debi Pearl. I have written my share of negative book reviews and even commented on blogs and articles that I thought espoused dangerous ideas.

But if there are compelling reasons to speak, there are also compelling reasons to remain silent, or, at the least, to respond slowly.

{When it is fitting, I occasionally enjoy responding with humor.}

How do you manage comment venom (yours and others’) online?

4 thoughts on “A Response That Risks Something: People In The Computer Are Real People

  1. This is a great topic, and a hard one. Just this morning, I left a comment on a blog I don’t read that often. It was a criticism of the blogger’s post. I thought about it for 24 hours before posting. I used my real name (first name only though) and entered my real e-mail address. I didn’t connect to my blog, which I usually do, largely because I was commenting on a post by someone who also blogs for Patheos, and I wanted to do so as a reader, not as a fellow blogger. Bottom line is that, if this blogger wanted to figure out who I was, she could do so easily, but I didn’t offer my full online identity up front. I did it this way because I was speaking reader/parent (her post was about parenting) to writer, not writer to writer.

    I did my very best to name my criticism while recognizing that the blogger’s intentions were no doubt good. And I’m still not sure if commenting was a good or bad thing. On the one hand, I think this blogger needed to know that what she intended as a reminder for good parents of the sacrifices that help us raise healthy, happy children came off instead as a message telling parents that if their kids mess up it’s THEIR fault for engaging in run-of-the-mill parental “sins” of, for example, not always listening 100% or choosing to go recharge alone in a hot bath rather than doing something with your child. I mentioned a personal experience in my family supporting my argument that the last thing most thoughtful parents need, particularly parents whose children are struggling with destructive behavior, is someone to focus on what THEY might have done to cause their child’s problems. On the other hand, I know that this is not the message the blogger intended and that my criticism might cause her some pain, anger, etc. She might feel deeply misunderstood. I’ve certainly been there as a writer!

    In general, I often jump in to comment to do the opposite of what I did in this comment: to encourage the writer and uphold his/her message in the face of unfair criticism. Often, before I comment, I think, “Do I have something new to say, or have other commenters covered it?” That can be hard to do, though, on a post with 100-plus comments. Of course, with such a post, will my comment be heard anyway?

    There’s a lot to think about and I don’t have the answers.

    As for your Marilynne post, while I know from experience that the negative comments feel much more significant and powerful to the writer than the positive, overall, I think the conversation there has been pretty decent. And what I especially like is that some of the other commenters have spoken up in your defense when people have criticized your words. I think there’s nothing better for a blogger than to have readers come to his/her defense, so he/she doesn’t have to. So if I can ever do that for another blogger, I try to do so.

    1. Ellen, I am right there with you on reflecting before commenting, deciding whether I have something new to say, and how to support and encourage writers when possible. You know what I like about encouragement? It’s so encouraging!


      1. What you say about not always putting a full name and URL makes good sense, esp. if you are not interacting as blogger-to-blogger. I like your idea of scanning the comments to see if what you want to say has already been said in some way…often comments threads can become pile ups with everyone harping on the same things…

  2. Rachel, these are wonderful reminders! Irenic discourse is such a blessing, and can be done even when not in agreement. After all, just because I may disagree with someone doesn’t mean I have to be disagreeable about it.

    Back when I started commenting, I didn’t always give a name. Then I started using my name, but not much else. Now my name and face and blog-links (just guest posts, of course, but at least it’s a link) and often my profession are out there for everyone to see. Transparency is as important as kindness when commenting sometimes.

    For the sites that require facebook, though, I feel left out. I don’t have a facebook account and I’m not inclined to get one just so I can comment. What I have to say isn’t all that important anyway.

    When it comes to the naysayers who comment on my articles, I subscribe to that wonderful Latin aphorism non illegitimi carborundum. Base perhaps, even a bit crude, but usually helpful!


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