I wrote a post last week that was not exactly well-received. While there were some very supportive responses, I was also told that I didn’t know what the heck I’m talking about. I certainly expected the criticism — I’ve written online long enough that negative responses aren’t exactly a surprise.
But that post was the first one in a while that I was nervous about publishing. I’m far more used to stumbling into controversy by writing about situations that I know occur, but that aren’t generally discussed. I don’t usually set out to stir things up on purpose.
But by writing about an ongoing controversy, particularly from a point of view that is not in step with the leadership of the community in question, I knew I was opening myself up for opposing responses and, since this is the internet, some personal attacks.
I almost didn’t push publish.
But What’s the Point of Not Publishing?
Not publishing means giving up an opportunity to be heard, to add a point of view and even to be a part of the discussion. It’s just like not voting — if you don’t do your civic duty, you don’t have nearly as much room to complain later on.
And when you’re publishing one more blog post on how your favorite web app is truly awesome or how to get noticed on social media (or most of my own archive, to be honest), that’s not scary in the least.
But when you’re opening yourself up for attacks, suddenly being heard doesn’t seem to matter quite as much. Publishing anything is a specific request for attention. None of us want negative attention, though: the thought of a thousand people reading a post and responding with attacks on your logic (or your personal preferences) is enough to make many of log out of our social media accounts and cower under the covers.
It sucks on a fundamental level to be attacked and publishing anything the least bit controversial is the same thing as asking for those attacks. Not publishing, plain and simple, means that we can avoid feeling crappy about the mean things people say about us.
This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s Letter to the Editor
The problem with not publishing, however, is that you automatically let the bastards win.
If you’re reading this right now, you’re in a layer of society where the rules have changed. Fifty years ago, you could have stirred up some serious trouble with a letter to the editor or a speech to a local organization. There were established channels you went through to be heard, some of which allowed for anonymity and some of which demanded you speak your opinion in person. But those of us who live our lives online have a different set of channels: in order to play the game at all, you need to be publishing your opinion. It can’t just be yet another shared political cartoon on Facebook — we expect some serious discussion and original thought. If we didn’t, all those ‘me too’ posts on every given topic would get far more rough critiques. These rules aren’t universal: anyone still on dial up isn’t going to spend time sorting through thousands of blog posts. But they become a little more prevalent every day.
We’re in a participative culture. Each of us who wants to share an opinion or steer the conversation has to hit publish, preferably on a regular basis. Otherwise, we’re certain to be drowned out and ignored.
Hardly anyone who disagrees with me is actually a bastard, despite my earlier statement. But I’ve never been one to give up a fight just because I might have to have a few arguments along the way. I’m not going to let anyone claim a victory without bringing up points that I consider necessary.
Taking Your Lumps Like a Grown Up
One of my first online writing gigs was at a site called Lifehack. I was told, specifically, by my editor that I was to bring a little more non-technical content to the site. I did exactly what I was told, which did not delight Lifehack’s core audience — the people most likely to comment.
Reading those comments — and the comments when my posts made it on to Digg (which dates this gig if you think about it) — was unpleasant. Sometimes, it was downright confusing, like when one reader posted on his own site that he was declaring himself my arch enemy because I was ruining his favorite site. I’m pretty sure that’s not actually how you get to be someone’s nemesis, especially if they’ve never heard of you before or since.
I’m still not as great at taking comments as I’d like to be. While I can deal with criticism that discusses specific points in my argument, that’s not usually what you’ll get online. I specifically time when I read new comments on my blog so that I can jump into something consuming afterwards — it’s the only way to keep myself from dwelling when someone says something nasty.
There aren’t a lot of options for making commenters play nice, which can make it much harder to psych yourself up for posting something controversial. You’re going to get some virtual bruises if you take a viewpoint contrary to what’s established in your online communities. You may even take some bruises if you fall in line with popular opinion but have the audacity to have two X chromosomes or more melanin in your skin.
I believe being able to play the game is worth taking a few bruises, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. I work hard to keep myself from attacking back, as much as I would love to respond in kind, because I want some civilized discourse on any topic that I’m willing to publish a controversial opinion about. And I keep on hitting the publish button in the meanwhile, working to be taken seriously. If you’re willing to put your work out there, continuing to publish may be the only possible thing to do. It may be scary, but it’s better than being silent.
P.S. While not exactly part of this article, my thinking this week has been informed by Jamelle Bouie’s excellent article, And Read All Over. Bouie’s writing rings incredibly true in my own experiences (though I come at the matter from a perspective of gender, rather than race). I thoroughly recommend Bouie’s article.
Image by Flickr user Eric Harrison