You Talkin’ to Me?

By Poison Ivy,

I’ve been visiting some writers’ web sites and noting the criticisms writers have received and their responses to that criticism. And the responses of third parties, which is of some significance in the blogosphere.

You read something on a web site, and you fire off a flip comment. Boom. You’ve flamed someone. They respond. Or their friends respond. They flame you back. More levelheaded individuals run with the topic and explore it in a more intellectual manner. You and everybody else vie for the last word until the possibilities for insulting, arguing, and just acting weird get used up.

And that’s the negative side of all this blogging. People who speak rashly and without any checks (other than filters or web mistresses to keep extreme comments at bay) attack other people with their words. In real life, face-to-face, most people wouldn’t say these things. Maybe at Thanksgiving dinners after everybody is sick of everybody else. Or at bars when people are drunk. But in general, home truths are meant for families, not for strangers. Fight at the family gathering, and you may become estranged. Fight at the bar, and somebody gets hurt and/or you wind up in jail. Fight on the Internet? No consequences! Yippee! Let’s fight!

Of course as soon as web hosting was invented, people realized that there would have to be standards and controls. But despite all kinds of moderators and filters, plenty of annoying, stupid, filthy, and basically useless comments get through anyway. But I’ve also noticed that a lot of people have figured out what to do about this. (Aside from having their friends beat you up.) They just don’t respond.

Awhile back I wrote about how the romance writing world is filled with lots of holier-than-thou harridans intent on teaching each other good manners. I cited the chiding responses to romantic suspense writer Anne Stuart’s saying in an interview something to the effect that she did not think her current publisher was doing a lot to promote her books. These words of Anne’s provoked horror, dismay, disdain, anger, and many other negative reactions. She was charged with being unprofessional and worse. Miss Snark wrote a column about it. Others wrote columns about Miss Snark. Jenny Crusie wrote a long declaration of writers’ rights defending Anne’s absolute right to say what she thinks in public. Many people weighed in on Jenny’s blog both positively and negatively. And elsewhere, no doubt, but I haven’t tracked them all down.

Meanwhile, Anne Stuart went back to writing, what she does best and what she also happens to do better than at least 99% of all romance writers. Really. She’s that good a writer. I can name fewer than ten—and that’s being optimistic—romance writers in the past 30 years who write as well as she does. I don’t always agree with her take on life, and thus I don’t rush to read all her books. I usually save them up for a few years, and then wallow in her world view for a while, alternately heavy breathing about her sexy, manipulative, dominating heroes, and hating their guts. Well, that’s me. What I’m trying to say is that Anne Stuart is a very good writer indeed. She tends not to get the numbers or the acclaim that her talents deserve, so maybe you haven’t heard of her. If not, check her out. But other writers know how good she is. Anyway, so Anne (that’s her nom de plume, by the way, not her real name) reacted to all the lecturing and sniping and flaming on the Internet by doing what she does best—writing. She alluded to the unfortunate incident on her web site, indicating that she got the message to shut up and write. And then she busied herself with her fiction writing and book promotion from then on.

That’s one way to deal. Use the Internet as a publicity tool and introduce a new topic when the tenor of the talk or the topic isn’t to your liking. We live in an intensely critical, rude world. Everyone believes themselves fully qualified to tell others off, to try to flog their own point of view. (And you know, maybe we are.) The blogosphere is the easy place to do it because one can be more or less anonymous even while saying some rather wild and crazy things. But clearly, lots of people who initiate discussion don’t like the connection to be fully two-way. They love to write. Some of them also love to talk. But when you visit many writers’ web sites, you will see that the writer tends to talk on a topic, allow commentary, but then talk on something else. It’s not a conversation. Despite being described as a very busy highway, the Internet is more of a one-way street than it at first appears to be. Regardless of all the hype that everybody is now so connected, the fact is that we aren’t. We are each in our private worlds. Don’t like the content of a site? Leave that site and find another. Getting too much e-mail from spammers and flamers and other assorted jerks? Change your e-mail settings or address, and dump them all. Not anonymous enough? Get a fake name and e-mail account to use for all your contacts on the net. And so it goes.

Another popular variant is the loop, whether formal or informal. Someone starts up a web site, or a group on Yahoo, and then a small group of people routinely talk to each other through it. It’s an open forum to the degree that most of their comments can be read by anyone (although some loops are members only and some forums have members only areas), and others can join in the discussion. There’s nothing evil about this, per se. But in both situations, the individual author site and the group site or forum, the person just randomly coming to a site is going to realize in short order that each site is like a new high school. You have to learn new rules and figure out who the popular girls are and who are the bullies. And woe unto you if you raise your hand too soon and draw the wrong kind of attention to your newbie self.

Which brings us back to the subject of saying indiscreet things, whether on a blog or on a website or even just in an interview that gets on the Internet. You want to express yourself. You want to join an interesting discussion or two. Ideally, you might like to make some new friends. But you also want to control the parameters of the experience, just as you would in real life, by choosing the people with whom you associate. But on the Internet such selectivity is impossible. If you want to talk publicly, you have to be willing to risk getting all kinds of responses. Even dead stupid ones from hostile people who just like being nasty. So what’s the lesson here? Say what you think, and ignore the reactions? Say what you don’t think, and try in vain to please the millions of people out there on the Internet (at least some of whom, statistically, will believe that anything you have to say is useless drivel)? Say what you think, and listen only to people you like? You tell me. Maybe I’ll listen.