I’ve gotten drawn into the periphery of a Twitter flame war. I don’t really want to spend time talking about the details – any mention of these people just creates a bigger target for them, they’ve had enough pixels spilt on them as it is, and I generally don’t like to have conversations with people who behave in a childish and unprofessional manner. (Since most of the people who follow writers’ blogs are other writers, there’s a good chance you know what this flame war is about, anyway.) But this seems like a good time for an object lesson in how to behave professionally on the internet.
I once got in a debate with a friend – online, although we know each other IRL – about how the internet encourages bad behavior. I expressed the opinion that people who are jerks online are probably jerks all the time. He thought the reverse was true: that anonymity gives people the freedom to lob insults that they would never say to someone’s face, for fear of being punched in the nose. But the truth is probably a little of both. You don’t build up a backlog of insults, ready to burst out at the nearest unpleasant tweet, without having some feelings of conflict, defensiveness, self-righteousness, wounded entitlement, or other emotions that put you at odds with other people. The real truth is that we all have these feelings, and we’re all likely to blow up at others when we feel provoked. But mature people learn to keep a handle on it.
The internet definitely lacks those social cues that encourage people to grow up. Social media in particular is all about valuing feelings over rationality and maturity – how many friends do I have? How many people like me? Am I hot or not? Of course people are going to ask these questions. (Full disclosure: I already know the answer, I’m not hot, and you’re not going to be able to use that particular arrow against me.) But in some instances you have to detach yourself from these emotional needs, particularly when you’re online in a professional capacity.
The flame-baiters in question are affiliated with the writing and publishing industry, and there was a question of their professional credentials. A person’s natural reaction to this kind of attack is defensiveness. A professional should temper this reaction and respond calmly to the accusation by listing their credentials, rather than lobbing insults. It’s kind of surprising how many professionals, including authors, I’ve seen behave badly on social media. On the other hand, it really isn’t. Social media is about expressing your current state in as few as 140 characters, not about thinking things through. A blog post like this one is going to lose readers by the second paragraph. It’s very easy for authors to write insulting responses to reviewers who don’t like their book. It’s a little harder to remember to think before you tweet.
So here’s my lesson to authors. (It’s a reminder to myself as much as anything, since my new novels are just starting to go out for reviews, and the bad ones haven’t started coming in yet.) You’re a professional. If you want to be treated seriously, act like you take your profession seriously. Yes, it will hurt when someone says your book sucks, when they insult you, when they question your credentials. I have, after all, been called a fantasy writer who knows nothing about writing and nothing about fantasy. This isn’t fun. But it’s also not harassment; it’s not a real attack. In a few extremes, internet badmouthing can escalate to real threats, and then it’s time to – calmly – take matters up to a legal level. But someone saying something you don’t like is not a good reason for you to act like a jerk rather than a professional. If they’re being really nasty, it’s probably because they’ve got a mess of anxiety and defensiveness clouding their better judgment. Don’t let the same thing happen to you.