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Online Interactions
January 26, 2011 6:01 am | by

I’ll admit, I’m a nerd. My background is in communications and journalism, after working in a newsroom, it was hard to become a stay-at-home mom. As a result, during my years as a stay at home mom, I spent a lot of time online – reading, writing and communicating. So when I read Jeff Pearlman’s article, “Tracking down my online haters” a few days ago, I went through a series of responses – understanding, surprise and shame.

I understood, because in my years in the newsroom, I learned how differently people behave when they are interacting with a machine versus a person. One of my early jobs was to translate messages from the Op-Ed phone line into “Letters to the Editor.” It was eye opening, and not in a good way, to hear the things people say when they are passionate about a subject. It was shocking to see how much uglier it was when they were shielded by anonymity.
I was surprised by the level of hatred towards a sports writer. I’ve spent years interacting with women, especially pregnant, nursing, sleep-deprived new mamas online. I know how passionate they can be about their parenting beliefs. What surprised me was that this article was about men, exhibiting this extreme passion about sports.
And then I became ashamed. I won’t lie, I’ve been on both sides of the online hate equation. During my more sleep deprived, hormonal, nothing-going-my-way seasons of life my fingers were sharp and quick to lash out at those who didn’t agree with me. I’ve had to make a few online, public apologies before. I’ve definitely learned those lessons the hard way. It’s easy to click ‘post’, sometimes easier than pushing backspace.

“It’s about consequences, and not suffering from any,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of “There are absolutely no repercussions to writing a nasty comment or e-mail, so people feel they can vent at will. They never think that the person receiving the message might be a real human being.”

Howard Bryant, an ESPN writer says in the article:

It’s the kick-the-dog syndrome. People believe no one’s listening; they think we’re not people, they think there are these giant monoliths controlling thought. Then when they realize someone is listening, they rediscover their manners.

I have to agree with Bryant’s statement. I know when I was at my worst online was when I felt the most powerless in my real life, my babes were little, my house was a wreck and I felt like a failure in multiple areas of my life. I never took the time to really think about how what I wrote would affect the recipient as they read from their screen. I never considered they might have been up all night with a nursing babe, having a rough patch in their marriage or other things not going well in their life. I never paused to think my words might be one more thing on their “crummy day” list. Though it was never my intent, I know that was the end result more than once.

What do you think of Pearlman’s article? Have you been on either side of the online hate equation? What is your process before hitting ‘post’ in response to a touchy subject online?

About the Author

Heather is mom to four, born within 40 months (single, twins, single). She writes transparently about her chaotic household to encourage others through the twists and turns of parenting.



  • Talula said...
    January 26, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I have to say that I have to take a step back at times. I find myself feeling judgemnetal toward friends back home in the south who make rather, in my opinion, ignorant and inflammitory comments. Actually, it’s not just friends in the south. It’s friends from everywhere.

    I speak of FB more than anything. I don’t have a Twitter account. We all have opinions, most of which vary and should respect that everyone is entitled to an opinion. This is a much more difficult task, when you’re face to face with the immidate barrage of information from an eclectic group of individuals all voicing their opinions at once.

    I do feel that social networking sites, in particular, give people an overwhelmingly instant arena to divulge information that shouldn’t necessarily be public information. It’s almost like a form of tourettes syndrome for some people. They’re unable to abait the overwhelming urge to spew forth the first thought that comes to the tip of their fingers as they’re once removed in the physical realm.

    I think, on the other hand, it does allow for an extremely open and honest message or response. The sad thing about that matter is that it can be quite frighteningly ugly and hatefilled. The truth is that no matter how unpleasant or brief those feelings and thoughts were, they did exist. It’s showing a side of people that would otherwise remain hidden.

    I think that’s the scary, shameful and ugly part. It’s one thing to think it, but when it’s in black and white for everyone to see, you can’t deny that that was a part of you and your thoguht process, which can be embarassing. We’re not at all infalliable. There’s something ugly in all of us at some point.

    My husband and I have begun to limit our exposure to all of it. I’m allowed to use Facebook but if I get angry or upset by something I don’t use it for at least two to three days. Silly? Maybe but it helps.

    We’re moving to an 80 acre ranch this weekend. Making a rather large lifestyle change. Going to try being as self sufficient as possible. ie eventually even spinning yarn from sheared wool to make clothing, farming all of our food, making soap….I think you get the ideaa. Though I think I’ll always buy my CDs from BG!

    Some of our friends think we’re crazy. I just want a simpler meaningful life. I thought about starting a blog once we got set up but after reading this. I’m in two minds. We’ll just have to wait and see I guess.

  • Elyse Anders said...
    January 26, 2011 at 11:53 am

    This hits close to home for me.

    Recently, because of my activism work, I had an organization start a campaign against me using Facebook. They posted a picture of me with my 6 month old daughter and captioned it with inflammatory language. What followed were threats of physical violence against me, including death threats (and worse!) and comments that it would be a shame should anything happen to my daughter. It took close to a week for Facebook to remove the post even after I contacted the police.

    And in the past week I and dozens of other activists in my community have been receiving other, crazier, scarier threats spammed to us via Twitter from the same guy.

    The latter case was inevitable, I think. But the first case was appalling and surprising. Comments with my personal information (e.g.; where I live, where I work) were laced within the threats. The organization refused to remove any of the posts.

    This is not how people behave IRL.

  • Anonymous said...
    January 26, 2011 at 10:52 am

    I have a strange family who are always fighting about one thing or another and it’s all done via facebook or email. I try my hardest to stay out of it, but one of my aunts is picking a fight with me over a comment I made…….I didn’t think the comment she posted was funny and she took offense to it and started arguing; I just ignored her and let the rest fight. She is one that will never apoligize for her comments….she believes she is always right and everyone else is wrong.

    I think people just need to admit when they are wrong and they need to realize just when to keep their mouths shut.

    Kelly K.

  • Jill said...
    January 26, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I think people are more willing to take something you say as ‘negative’ even if there’s nothing negative in the comment. I once commented that I was surprised someone was testing out a diaper champ (since I knew they used cloth most of the time). One of their other friends railed into me saying I obviously didn’t know anything about the person that they usually used cloth and proceeded to call me all sorts of names. I was aghast and wrote back that I knew they used cloth, that I’d been reading their blog for over a year, and that there was no reason to attack me over it. (yes, they were really personal about it, and my comment was really that simple). The thing that I really hate is someone who stirs up trouble just to do it. On babycenter the other day, I saw someone post ‘how do you feel about spanking’. There were several hundred replies–which I didn’t bother reading–I know there’s people on either side of it, and don’t care how other people discipline their children, it’s none of my business. What REALLY got me is that the author of the post went on to say that spanking didn’t really work for them, so they didn’t use it. My question to them was–why would you even bother posting the question if you already have a discipline structure that works for you–all you’re doing is riling people up. So annoyed with people trying to dramatize everything!

  • Michellesayshi said...
    January 26, 2011 at 9:43 am

    My husband actually refuses to read comments on the internet anymore. He swears that people on the internet will say plenty that they would never say to someone face to face. In short, I completely agree with the article. I enjoy reading natural childbirth blogs, and I get it there too. Many people can’t or don’t know how to debate without insulting one another. It’s sad.

  • Catherine said...
    January 26, 2011 at 9:20 am

    I know I seem to take the “drivel” too seriously. I get very upset about what someone I don’t even know has said and end up spending way too much time responding to them. I will say I am probably also guilty. Every time I see a fb post talking about where to get cheap disposables, I can’t seem to stop myself from posting that they would save way more using cloth. Same with baby food- bought vs. home made. The problem is anything involving choices in parenting involves guilt. You feel guilty no matter what you do, and the first response is usually to cut down the other option. I have to admit my first thought when I read the previous drug free birth comment was jealousy. I wish I could do it. I truly think the epidural slowed down my labor and honestly I didn’t think the contractions were that bad. That said I am glad I did it, and will have to do it again next time. I ended up with 3rd degree tearing. It took my doctor 45 minutes to stitch me up. She thanked goodness several times that I had an epidural because otherwise I would have been in unbelievable pain. I can honestly say I am jealous of you. I feel like I am being very selfish in wanting the epidural again, but I really do not want the first few hours of my new baby’s life to be spent in unmeasurable pain. I wish I could be like you, and I am not proud to say I can totally see myself posting a mean comment right after that event. I think many of the snarky comments come from jealousy and guilt.

  • Tiffany said...
    January 26, 2011 at 8:34 am

    I also agree that a lot of people use social media/networking sites as their outlet. In a simple line they can express their feeligns to the world without having to look them in the eyes or say a word. So often people saying things online or even on the phone that they normally wouldn’t say in person.

  • The Halbert Home said...
    January 26, 2011 at 8:25 am

    I agree that people post way too much on social networking sites because they feel like there is no cause and effect because it’s not real life. I know several people who blast their spouses, friends, social groups online and think we won’t read it or care how we feel when we do read it. It’s completely unacceptable. People are completely childish online. At least three times people I see on a weekly basis in an group have defriend me and then talked nasty about me behind my back for something silly like someone in the group told me Happy Mothers Day and didn’t tell them. Or someone left an “anonymous” snarky comment on the blog not knowing I have a tracker and could find out that it’s someone I see regularly. People need to grow up!

  • HannahBG said...
    January 26, 2011 at 7:09 am

    How interesting that this is your post today, Heather, because my husband and I just read an article last night about how downright mean (and often mis-informed) people are on the internet. Sadly, I think these are the consequences of free publishing. People can write whatever they want, however they want.

    I recently posted on my blog about how thankful I was to be lovingly supported by my husband and close friends about choosing to give birth without drugs (hopefully this baby will come SOON, because I’m feeling very squished from the inside these days!). Someone I don’t know posted a comment starting with “One word: EPIDURAL!” and proceeded to lambaste me for being “ignorant” about the benefits of epidurals and how “there’s no reason to try to be a hero during labor.” It was mean, misinformed, judgmental, and the most unbelievable thing is, this person doesn’t even know me or why I’ve made the choices I have.

    Unless I know someone pretty well, I don’t typically post my reactionary responses to their comments (either on blogs or FB or what have you). I don’t bother reading the comments that follow most online news articles now either, because, as my husband says, most of it is “drivel.” And even if I do know the writer well, I try to maintain a respectful, fair tone if I disagree. It really is a shame how basic etiquette seems to have fallen to the wayside in our western culture.