‘Dave, step away from the internet, Dave.’
I love social media. I’ve made – real! – friends, discovered amazing stuff, been invited to share poetry in ways I would never have envisaged a decade ago.
But there are risks, other than suffocating under the cuteness weight of kitten videos. A couple of weeks ago two separate – and very different – rows both had one major factor in common: hasty, ill-judged online comments. This blog is really me thinking about these and reminding myself of how I hope I’ll behave if – when – anything upsets me online.
The first – and most widely noticed – online melt-down was the Suzanne Moore transgender spat. An unfortunate turn of phrase in an article in the New Statesman led to a Twitter response from a few vocal trans tweeters. Instead of politely responding or walking away for a breather, Moore countered with intemperate offensive tweets which upset not just the trans community at large but a lot of bystanders, myself included. Moore’s “friend” Julie Burchill then waded in with a remarkably vile – even by her low standards – polemic. To top it all, the Observer later removed Burchill’s piece, thereby bringing cries of “censorship”.
It was all ugly and horrible and quite unnecessary. Moore could have simply politely acknowledged the hurt in the first responses and then moved on.
The second was big in poetry circles: Christian Ward, a reasonably well-known, respected poet (we were not FaceBook “friends” but we had over 50 acquaintances in common) won a minor competition with a poem that was almost the same word for word as a poem by the very well-respected poet Helen Mort. Research seemed to suggest this was not a one-off plagiarism occurrence; the same poem had also been placed in another competition and other poems allegedly bore striking resemblance to published poems by other poets.
Of course, one thing for anyone NOT to do is plagiarism – words, pictures, music all are copyright. But another is to keep cool online – even if you have done something potentially wrong (usually it’s just misunderstandings that cause spats). Ward responded on a Guardian story (first comment) with whining self-pity of his “victimisation” which did his reputation yet more damage. At least Joanne Benford maintained public silence regarding her outing.
Social media are changing the way authors interact with their audience and peers. Mostly it’s very positive: support, enthusiasm and that elusive marketing dream of “buzz” are all out there. But some people post when upset; or drunk; or upset and drunk; they do not think through what they are saying – or they don’t care; or they are Julie Burchill or James Delingpole (two sides of the same stupid but unfortunately they do both exist). Anonymous criticism can be vitriolic (as Mary Beard highlighted, most recently). However, just because some criticism is hideous doesn’t mean that all criticism is beneath contempt. Somewhere, there’s a fine line.
Walk away from the internet; meet some friends for coffee; find a park; feed the pigeons; buy The Big Issue (and read it: it’s an interesting mag); have a nap. Think it through. What kind of a person are you – inside? How do you want to be viewed? Is there (some? much?) validity to the criticism? Does it merit a response? If not, don’t. If you cannot word a response that seems right, don’t. If you are descending to their level or beyond, don’t.