Facebook comment sections are the most dangerous places a writer can go.
I know this because, despite knowing better at this point, I spend way too much of my time exploring them.
What I find there is almost always disappointing and heartbreaking and makes me not want to ever log onto the internet again. And that’s just the stuff I see written below articles other people have written.
It’s a completely different experience when you make the choice — and mistake — of reading people’s comments on your own work.
There have been days — I had one very recently — where the negative comments about my work, posted right there for me to read at my own convenience have almost made me consider never publishing anything ever again.
You likely know as well as I do that being a writer is hard enough without some of the things we have to deal with while being “present” online. I’m by no means saying we should all delete Facebook or Twitter and keep our heads buried in our laptops. This is just such a tough road to navigate. And if I’m being honest, it’s a road I’ve really been struggling to survive lately.
First, I’d like to clarify that I am beyond privileged to even have this problem. I know that. Not everyone has to deal with trolls because their work isn’t being circulated around at the rate or volume often necessary to become the target of … whatever you want to call people who have enough time on their hands to insult other people on the internet.
But to be completely honest with you, there are days I would rather no one read anything I write ever again than have to put up with people putting me and my hard work down. (Okay, I don’t HAVE to put up with it technically — we’ll get to that in a minute.)
If that sounds a little extreme to you, keep in mind that in my case personally, my job IS the internet. Companies pay me to be aware of what is going on in the world by consuming and producing content on the web. I can’t just turn off the internet.
And I’m also a working writer who is always interested in improving myself and my craft. So sometimes I do go to the comments to see what people are saying about my words and ideas. I do this knowing that it’s dangerous and that I might be better off knowing, but I do it anyway. That is an active choice I am making. I acknowledge that.
It isn’t that I don’t understand why people are so critical — you could use the word “mean” in certain contexts. I get it. It took creating a fictional character who hides behind an avatar and hate-posts about celebrities in order to come to that understanding, but hey, whatever it takes, right?
My problem isn’t that it doesn’t make sense. My problem is that I am pretty much powerless when it comes to dealing with people who have their mind made up to try making me miserable.
I’m also guilty of putting probably too much of my worth into my work — this is something I have been working on for years and will continue to work on for many more to come. I really couldn’t care less if people don’t like me — I am who I am and I don’t need the approval of sad, angry strangers to be happy.
What does bother me is when people imply I don’t know anything about the subjects I’m covering. Or that I’m not a good writer. Or that reading my work was a waste of time. Or that they didn’t bother to read it at all.
That stuff hurts. I’ll admit that. You’re not supposed to show a bully how much they’re hurting you, but whatever. It hurts a lot and I get really tired of carrying that pain around sometimes.
This environment is not going to change. The people responsible for criticizing writers and their work to the point of harassment, unfortunately, are not going to change. So what do you do? How do you respond — or rather, learn how to not respond (if that’s an option for you)?
First, you have to learn not to take strangers’ comments personally, even if they are framed as personal attacks. These people don’t know you. They don’t know what you do outside of work (beyond what you share online). They don’t know who you really are, only who you display yourself to be. And the most important thing to remember is that they also don’t care about you. In heavily criticizing you and your work, they are out for personal gain. What happens to you as a result of their outreach is the least of their concerns.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the criticism you do get. You just have to know the difference between criticism and noise. People are allowed to have opinions about their work, and part of your mission as a writer should be to encourage open discussions of the things you address in your work. But sometimes people complain just to give themselves something to complain about, and that’s not worth your time or your energy. If someone comments on certain flaws in your work, these can be things to consider for future projects. If someone is just listing off things they didn’t like or — sigh — things they would have done differently if they’d sat their butts down and written their own book, just move on. Don’t even give them the attention they so desperately want.
If someone is actually harassing or threatening you, you can report them. The internet is a weird place. But sites like Twitter have policies in place to reel in people who take their “criticism” too far. Depending on where these comments are coming from, you usually have the option to not only block or delete certain users but also to report them for further review. If someone’s criticism starts crossing lines and your personal space or safety is threatened in any way, you don’t have to put up with it. I know people who spend good portions of their days blocking by the masses. People may have the power to say whatever they want to you over the internet, but you have the power to not have to put up with their trash.
Pick and choose your battles. If an angry man is yelling at me about my Star Wars opinions on Twitter, I don’t feel the need to give him the response he is hoping for. I love Star Wars, but it is a fictional universe and it’s not worth my time trying to reason with a self-proclaimed lightsaber form expert. If I leave him alone, he’s just going to go find another female writer to bother.
However, if I write an article about the ketogenic diet and someone responds to my work with dangerous misinformation about nutrition science, it’s probably going to be something I spend a significant amount of time responding to. This is a real-world problem that is worth my energy. Someone not knowing any better could come along and read that comment not knowing it’s misguided and take it as fact. And as a communicator of information related to the article in question and this particular comment, it’s my responsibility to make sure the correct information is passed along. This is a battle worth fighting, and I’m going to stand my ground.
Sometimes, writers, the best we can do is remember who we’re writing for. We’re not writing for people who are going to rip apart and stomp on every little thing we create. They’re not interested in appreciating our work and therefore our work simply isn’t for them. We write for audiences who are willing to give what we write a chance. Who want to find the deeper meanings in our words and accept them as they are, even if they aren’t perfect.
And never forget: A fan of something can appreciate and civilly discuss their shared passion with other fans even if they don’t always agree. Fandom isn’t about everyone liking the same things about the same material, it’s about gathering around a collective thing, celebrating the parts you love, and accepting those people and opinions you don’t necessarily agree with. Those who hate are not fans. They’re just haters. They don’t deserve your time.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.