Love in flames: finding the joy in hostile comments

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“I don’t know why you care about the shit that a bunch of total strangers say about you on the Internet.”

This was my mom’s delightfully candid and potentially comforting response to this week’s comment eruption on my Harvard Business Review post. My mom is quite an extraordinary person, but her most extraordinary trait may be her almost complete imperviousness to other people’s judgements. I’ve never met anyone who is less perturbed by what other people say or think about her, and while I’m not remotely in her league, her influence is the main reason I can muster the courage to write the occasional provocative blog post.

That said, a day with 100 critical blog comments does send me to the wine bottle when I get home, and leaves me reflecting on whether it’s worth enduring an online onslaught. When people I don’t know tweet that I’m a f***ing idiot, it’s tempting to throw a little pity party, and forget that I was well aware my post was likely to elicit a strong reaction — though I anticipated strong reactions on both sides of the spectrum, as I’ve seen on Twitter, rather than the almost entirely negative pile-on that’s occurred on the HBR comment thread.

It’s even more tempting to take the comfort my mom offered: to simply write off the hostility as the inconsequential utterances of people who I don’t know, and who don’t count, because they are people I’ve never met face-to-face.

But undervaluing online interactions is the exact opposite of what I advocate every time I ask people to stop distinguishing between online life and “real life”. For our online lives to be meaningful and constructive, we have to embrace them as real. And that means embracing the critical, hostile and difficult conversations as real, too, even if it would be easier to dismiss online critics as online strangers.

The fact that I experience online interactions as very real makes a week like this a little bumpy (thus the wine). But the agony of the bumps pales in comparison to the joy that’s come with them: the joy of hearing from so many old and new friends, almost all online.

In the past two days, I’ve received Facebook messages from friends like the seasoned editor who welcomed me into the fold of writers who’ve survived reader outrage. I’ve heard from a high school friend who reminded me how much she loved my writing….all the way back to grade 7! I’ve had a call out of the blue from a former colleague I’ve stayed in touch with only through email and Twitter, encouraging me to take a break from the comment thread for the sake of my own sanity. I’ve received encouraging tweets and DMs from friends and colleagues I know well, and from people I’m connecting with for the first time through this mini-controversy. And I’ve heard from friends who love me enough not only to reach out, but to share their honest and sometimes critical responses to both my argument and the tone of the post.

It’s well established that humans pay a lot more attention to negative feedback than to positive, so it would be natural if these reminders of love and community were overshadowed by hurt or shame at being called a few names. The miracle of this week is that I’ve experienced the opposite: I’m so deeply touched by the warm messages I’ve received that the love has dramatically overshadowed the criticism.

Plowing through the occasional online shitstorm is a near-inevitable part of writing online, and I knew that this week might get windy when I wrote that post. What I manage to forget, between storms, is how much energy it takes to go though them — energy I get from the support and engagement of the people I know and love. I feel like the luckiest person in the world for having such wonderful friends and colleagues, and for living in a moment and medium that allow their loving expression to find me online across distances of time and space.

When we embrace the reality and significance of our online interactions, we not only let in the joy that comes from web-enabled love; we also start to eat at the roots of online hostility. The derogatory flames on this week’s post were the ones that read like folks had forgotten they were talking to or about a human being; the engaging comments (including a great many well-argued criticisms) were the ones that sounded like they came from real people, talking to a real person.

These real conversations are what make the Internet worth living in and engaging with, whether it’s bringing you criticism or love. Because we’re not online strangers. We’re real-life people.

14 Comments on this site

  1. Lesli Boldt

    As someone who also expresses her opinions online (and on in the media) fairly frequently, I too have be taken aback by the liberties people who have never met me to go for the jugular – or to be otherwise patronizing, insulting or borderline libelous towards me. I think there’s something about communication being mediated through a device that gives people a sense that’s OK to open a six-pack of whoopass on a stranger (for forget they’re talkingt a human being, as you put it). Interestingly, it’s something most of them would never do face-to-face. Hang in there, sister – don’t let them keep you from saying what’s on your mind. You’ve got a voice (and a great one at that) – use it! P.S. I’ll stick with my paper notebook 🙂

  2. Eden Spodek

    Wow! I’m honoured to be on your list of people who helped inspire this post. Your article in HBR was disruptive and that’s a good thing – you made readers think – whether they agree with you or not. I knew just from reading the title your it would provoke a reaction because you were challenging the status quo for those who find comfort in their pens and notebooks. Maybe it would have been easier if you added a sentence or two about Evernote Smart Moleskines. 😉  Regardless, there’s no excuse for rude, abusive behaviour online. Whatever happened to constructive criticism? Quite frankly, I was shocked at man of the comments. Not shocked that many readers disagreed, but shocked they had the audacity to be so rude.  I hope this experience hasn’t discouraged you from speaking/writing your mind.  I’ve been there before and it was my friends online (and off) who helped keep things in perspective. 

    Now go have another big glass of wine and enjoy your weekend!

    P.S. I still use a combination of digital and print notes depending on the situation. As mentioned on Twitter, you’ve inspired me to reevaluate my workflow. 

  3. Thao

    I think anyone who spends just a few minutes with you would know you to be a very transparent, kind, and reasonable person. I think it’s brave for you to face the comments head on, as I probably would have just crawled under the sheets myself. Judging from the comments though, I’m not sure it’s worth engaging in conversation because they seem dead set at getting things off their chest. It’s unfortunate people have been so deeply offended by a post about note taking. And this is coming from a notebook person too!

  4. Des Dougan

    I think what was interesting to me was that the post was clearly written in a different “voice” than your previous work, and therefore, at least to me, was presented in a non-Alex persona (in fact, I thought from the start it was written from the meeting-holder’s perspective and I didn’t at all see that as being yours, necessarily).  Certainly it was provocative, but if people can’t respond in a grown-up way, it somewhat underlines your mother’s perspective.

  5. Anonymous

    When I’m criticized online (which happens about every 90 seconds) I think back to the early days of Rush Limbaugh.

    I’ll wait while you pick yourselves up off the floor.

    Back then, regardless of dogma, he was the Democrats’ best critic. If there was something they actually did wrong, he’d call it out. Of course, subsequent to that he went down the rabbit hole of dogma and oxy. But he was useful, and that he disagreed with me didn’t mean he was a problem: he was a tool. In all senses of the word.

    So, I basically expect that if I’m doing anything other than speaking truth, I’ll get blowback from the quislings. If I get no blowback, it’s a sign I haven’t gone deep enough.

    Bringing that hostility home, eg in doxing, is something I feel very comfortable in. If someone is going to threaten someone else, that victim has the right to know from whence the threat came. This is why the pushback against doxing is so ridiculous to me: not only did we recently put all of that information into the phone book, but HELLO, it’s also on public records at the courthouse. Perpetrators always seem to think their actions are protected because they are online. I rejoice that they are not.

  6. Don

    The majority of the negative comments were far less derogatory than your original post.  Dismissing the backlash as group think and flaming indicates you are in denial about what happened. 

  7. David Drucker

    The loudest voices are usually those who feel threatened by the ideas in a post. Since there is a clearly an age divide on technology is mainly because those who the least able to adapt to new tools are the ones who are afraid of appearing foolish or ignorant. The fear of incompetency is a very strong one (particularly in Academia  where the only status one has is how much of an expert you are in the eyes of your peers) , and you definitely struck a nerve. The good news: like all generational changes, those most threatened and vocal will eventually retire, and society will glacially move on.  In the meantime, as any old academic would say: “Illegitimi non carborundum” (Don’t let the turkeys get you down).

  8. Garrett Guillotte

    Instead of posting a negative comment, I went back and examined why I wanted to in the first place. I think this is a more appropriate place to share what I learned.

    1. The tone was condescending toward the people you were trying to convince. Not sounded condescending, but was _viscerally_ condescending, from start to end. The Twitter discussion focused on excerpt-able bits and didn’t require reading the article to comment on it; the HBR discussion focused on the negativity of the tone and the more-than-perceived attack on workflows that were efficient to them and would not be improved by Evernote.

    2. When combined with the tone of the post, the links within the post to your book, blurb in your bio about your book, and the fact HBR publishes the book and published the post, all led to the post looking like an advertorial for the book rather than advice backed by any expertise. The perception of bias multiplied the effect of the tone: not only are we stupid, but we can fix our stupidity by paying you. The effect went from being trolled by you to being goaded into paying you for the privilege of being trolled by you.

    3. A crux of the argument is the time wasted in transcribing notes; as an author of a book about working smarter with Evernote, you present yourself as an expert on Evernote. But at no point in the article, and in a few subtle places in the comments, do you acknowledge that Evernote transcribes notes. Not only do you attack the paper-using audience for being digitally ignorant, and not only do you ask us to pay you to correct our failings, you also expose an apparent hole in your own expertise. Your credibility is already in question from the perceived commercial motivation of the post; basing much your argument on a point that’s compromised by an apparent inexpert omission torpedoes it.

    4. The part that made me most agitated was how the article was not aimed at me–I’m not the demo of HBR. My _boss_ is in the demo. My _boss_ will eat this up, and I won’t be surprised if my _boss_ throws this inefficient, fundamental change to my effective note-taking strategies–strategies that _already include Evernote_, supplemented by paper-note outlines timestamped to auto-transcribed A/V recordings.

    So to recap: You’re telling my boss that I’m a time-wasting idiot because I have a paper notebook in my wallet and offering to guide him through the enlightening process of changing my behavior by making you and HBR some cash through sales of your books–despite my demonstrated effectiveness in my existing, paper-inclusive note-taking process.

    That’s not your intent, but you failed at your intent so completely and thoroughly that most people who would support it either already agree, or agree with the intent or headline but didn’t read the article.

  9. thegreeks

    Des & Alexandra

    Speaking as one of the posters (though hopefully not one of the ruder ones) I think Des has probably hit upon the core of the issue. 

    In the above post Alex sounds like a genuine, caring, intelligent person; however in the HBR article she was not being authentically herself but instead writing in a deliberately theatrical monolog. (Something which is difficult for even the best of writers to pull off ). This writing style may have been appropriate for another forum but departed significantly from the norms of HBR. It also put forward a negative persona which it was easy to respond negatively to.  

     It was this different fake persona which we responded to so viscerally rather than your normal online persona – and certainly not the true you.

    Given the timing and article content it seems likely that the article was primarily intended to promote the Evernote book.  She therefore also walked into an issue which raises the hackles of the HBR readership: namely the perception that HBR (the highly reputable magazine) is using its blogs to promote books/consultants/companies/people rather than to inform. Had the article been a balanced consideration of the pro’s and con’s of different note taking strategies or a useful extract from the book, people would have overlooked the promotional aspect.

    The final aspect – (and this one might just be me) – is I must admit- an element of jealousy and the perception (rightly or wrongly) that there is a network of Harvard graduates who are likely to be marketed as online experts, HBR bloggers or offered book deals – because of who they know.

    So you walked into a triplet of issues:

    (a) Choice of voice, persona and lack of balance.
    (b) Resentment at apparent self promotion.
    (c) Resentment at your success.

    (1) Authenticity.
    (2) Objectivity
    (3) Humility.

  10. thegreeks

    (BTW: If you want someone to be rude to you face-to-face come to London, Head to hyde park on a sunday afternoon, climb onto a step-ladder and speak at speakers corner. You will be called an idiot, slandered & worse but it is all in good fun and while you will be personally insulted – it is never personal. The game is to go for the jugular, to out argue and destroy the persona – but this doen’t mean we don’t respect the human behind it – just that we separate the two.)

  11. thegreeks

    Well you raise an interesting question about the distinction between online and personal identity.  I think the problem is a collision between different expectations:

    1) There are people such as yourself and Alex who are using the internet as a tool for career advancement and to connect to friends. (essentially you are using your real name and living your life publicly). If you can forgive me for being harsh for just a moment, why do you expect to be able to get all the benefits of speaking publicly using your real identity and none of the costs?

    2) There are people such as myself who are using the internet as a kind of masquerade ball for precisely the opposite reasons. I can talk to people I would never normally talk to, argue freely and experiment with different persona’s (If I wanted dull conversation with psychological risk – I would be speaking to my real life friends)

    Disqus makes the situation unbalanced. The initial poster is typically using their real name while the comments section inherits the traditions of online debate forums dating back to the usenet. and indeed to the tradition of political debate.

  12. Lesli Boldt

    I never said I expected to get “all of the benefits of speaking publicly” and accept “none of the costs”. When you speak out publicly and use your voice (online, in media, at a public meeting, in politics, at a dinner party), you make yourself a target, because it is a mathematical certainty that not everyone will like what you’re saying. I think it’s why more people don’t say what they think – they fear the reprisal that might follow (or don’t have a thick enough skin for it). However, I do believe that the social mores/rules that keep many of us from being crass, rude or otherwise inappropriate in real life don’t always apply for some when they interact with others online. I think we’ve all had the experience whereby a colleague will flame you via e-mail…but when you walk down to their office to discuss, you end up working it out without the use of insults.

  13. thegreeks

    Yes there is something about the medium which means that nuance is lost.

  14. Anonymous

    Alexandra, I thought your post was horribly snobbish I’m afraid, and I didn’t hold back letting you know. While I sympathise that you don’t deserve to be called a **** idiot or harassed,  as with so much that happens online, those abused are often at the root of their own problems.

    I think if you hadn’t chosen to take a tone that was deliberately condescending, arrogant and rude, you may have fared better.  When you write something that is so very rude, it makes it very easy for people to feel OK replying in kind, which is exactly how I felt and feel about your article.

    I do think you make a very interesting point about talking to real human beings. But you yourself completely forgot in the first place that your article was doing just that, that it’d be read by real people who could be horribly offended by what you wrote describing them as unprofessional just for working in a different way to yours. Or if you were aware of that, you just didn’t care.

    I’m afraid you’re not a victim here, as much as you’d like to be. You can’t post something so derogatory about people then not expect people to be derogatory in return. While again, you don’t deserve foul language and demonisation, you did actively invite criticism onto yourself when you made the concious choice to write an article that was deliberately insulting. As such, you’re the architect of your own pain, I’m afraid. 

    It takes quite a bit of maturity to admit this to yourself, rather than sitting there wondering “why me?”. As you’re somewhat older than I am, I would expect you already to have the wisdom to know this in your heart, but it’d make you more endearing to the reader if you’d be willing to admit it.

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