People on the internet can be so mean

Sometimes, making stuff on the internet sucks.

I have a friend who's been making renovation videos with his partner for years.

They made a new one today, and they were excited about it. It'd been a while since they had posted.

They set aside a bunch of time to script everything out, to buy supplies, to film, and edit the video.

And then, they uploaded it to YouTube.

Some folks on Reddit found it, and that's when the negativity started. My friend and his partner got lambasted. "The negative comments were so overwhelming," he said, "that I removed the video."

"It happens to all of us. If you're doing anything interesting out in the world, you're gonna have people get mad about something at some point." – Rob Walling

If you've received a negative email, a threatening DM, or a toxic comment, it can be devastating. You might think: "maybe I did something wrong," or "maybe they're right."

Don't jump to conclusions. First, let's consider a few things.

It's easier to critique than to create

Creating something, and releasing it to the public, is hard. Producing a quality product takes a long time. Plus, there are years of experience and practice that have to happen beforehand.

Do you know what's easy?

Critique. Putting someone down. Tearing something apart. It only takes a few keystrokes to say "this sucks."

Being mean is often about status

When Tony Hawk got started, the older pro skateboarders made fun of him. "People called me a circus skater," he said to Sportsnet, "I was an outcast. It was isolating."

Likewise, hockey players criticized Wayne Gretzky. "He's too small to play pro," they'd say.

People mock others when they feel threatened. They're reacting out of insecurity. They want to push you down, so they feel better about themselves.

People are in pain

It's possible that those negative comments have nothing to do with you.

Researchers in Korea found that people often use the internet to ease their pain and loneliness. They'll lash out online because they're hurting.

I remember getting a particularly nasty insult on Twitter. It was so toxic and gross, I didn't know how to feel, or respond. But when I visited their profile, it became clear that their life was in disarray. They'd had a death in the family, been in the hospital, and were struggling with money.

The disinhibition effect

In regular communication, we pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues. Also, we've evolved a variety of societal norms for our public behavior.

But researchers have noticed that on the internet, we behave differently. They call this the "online disinhibition effect."

Christopher Terry, at the University of Kentucky, describes it this way:

[The internet] allows people to separate from in-person identity and moral agency, thereby freeing them to express hostility and criticism without any effect to the psyche. [Online], individuals are physically invisible to others, permitting them to disregard any eye contact or physical reaction of the other person.

Those nasty things people are hurling at you online? They would probably never say that to your face. On the web, we lose our inhibitions.

We can all be better

None of us are immune to the online disinhibition effect.

Too often, we're quick to criticize people, and their work, online.

Jason Fried wrote this post years ago, and I still think about it:

I used to be a hothead. Whenever anyone said anything, I’d think of a way to disagree. I’d push back hard if something didn’t fit my world-view. The faster you react, the less you think.

When you feel the urge to respond to someone's work, give it some time. Examine the context. Before you hit send, ask yourself: “am I being kind?”

Also, ask yourself if you've earned the right to critique someone's work.

In Jason Fried's story, he had just met Richard Saul Wurman (the famous architect). He later reflected:

I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas. I must have seemed like such an asshole. Richard has spent his career thinking about these problems. He’s given it 30 years. And I gave it just a few minutes.

Too often I see folks critiquing out of ego, envy, or bitterness. Who wants to take correction from people like that?

However, I do want to engage with people who have the same goals as me: better ideas, enriched lives, and forward progress for humanity. I'm open to their ideas because we have the same destination.

What to do if people get upset at you

There are three good reasons for folks to get upset about your work:

  1. You were wrong.

  2. You were hurtful.

  3. You made a mistake.

If any of these are true, apologize and make it right!

Rob Walling suggests that you "get a sanity check on it." Reach out to a trusted group of peers, or a mentor. Explain the situation. They'll help you recognize when you were wrong.

On the flipside, recognize that some people are just toxic, jealous, or insecure.

"Some people are mad about everything all the time," says Rob Walling, "and today was just their day to be mad at you."

Justin Jackson

Published on March 15th, 2019
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