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Getting offended on the Internet

A really interesting post appeared on Regretsy last Friday.  Regretsy is a pretty rough (for the kinds of places I go on the Internet, anyway) community where people get together to laugh at things they find obnoxious on Etsy, the leading website for craft-sellers.  Often the site makes fun of typos in ads, people re-selling things (an unenforced prohibition on the site), and things that are just weird.  But they hurt peoples’ feelings a lot: it’s a rough-and-tumble group, as I said.

Anyhow, early last week, April wrote about a “hobo wedding,” chastising it as one of the most insensitive things she’d seen on the Internet (being, essentially, a theme wedding about poverty).  The people who saw the mocking replied angrily and the regretsy folks replied back.  It’s a whole big thing.  Anyhow, it led April to tell a story about being on the other end of the big internet pointy stick.  She wrote about a photo she posted last October that made a lot of people really mad, and her reaction to the anger:

How could they get it so wrong? I’m not making a comment, I was just being funny! And anyway, I am not an enemy of the LGBT community, not by any stretch of the imagination. I have fundraised, walked, delivered meals, sat with friends as they died… for fucks sake, I was MARRIED to a gay man for fifteen years! DON’T YOU INTERNET PEOPLE KNOW WHO I AM?

No they don’t. They don’t know who you are, and they don’t give a shit. And now that they think they know who you are, their perception can’t be changed. Talking about how much you “love the gay community” or “these nice kids really care about poor people” sounds like the bigot who says, “One of my best friends is black!”

Fortunately for me, something clicked that night. Because at some point, while I back and forthed and obnoxiously tried to prove my point, I realized that I was not dealing with butthurt. These people weren’t reflexively offended on behalf of someone they didn’t know. These people were actually wounded by something I had done. And I was mortified. And I took it down.

One of the things that stuck with me from that thread was an interaction I had with one of the angrier people posting. I protested that context matters, and he said it did not. He said, “If you stepped on my foot and you did it by accident, it would not hurt less than if you did it on purpose.” I thought that was ignorant of course, because hurting someone purposely is very different than accidental harm.

But I’ve come to see that there is, in fact, truth in that statement, and that truth is simply this:

YOUR context doesn’t matter. (Faux-bos and Faux-Pas)

This observation gels much with Amy Bruckman’s essay from High Wired, “Finding One’s Own in Cyberspace.”  The essay argues that the Internet is like a busy city: there are parts you want to go to, and parts you don’t.  But more importantly, it’s not your place to expect everyone else to make themselves accommodating to you, it’s up to you to judge carefully which communities you want to enter, and which to avoid.

But there’s also the issue of speaking to those you disagree with.  The Internet has fostered a new kind of incivility, in which people speak their minds with frankness and performativity aimed more at rhetorical flourish than at truth-telling or sensible discussion.  April’s story here reminds us of the delicate path we tread whenever we make something public.  Of course, professional art-makers have known this for a long time, but as the Internet effect reduces the barriers to publication intensely, we all become public art-makers.  Thus, we all need to learn to take criticism for what it is.

And, as Albert Einstein said, “Please don’t feed the trolls.”

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