My alter ego would definitely be a detective.
Blame my childhood addiction to Encyclopedia Brown and Mary-Kate and Ashley whodunits, or my fervent viewing of Harriet the Spy and Inspector Gadget shows. (Not to mention my Nancy Drew computer game hobby. I one hundred percent definitely do not still play on junior detective mode.)
Something about sleuthing around with a notepad watching people spoke to my quiet-yet-irreverent self (in college, I would become a journalism major, and leave the crime-solving to the people with real badges).
So as a young lass of 13, with nothing but time on my hands after school and the luxury of parent-paid cable TV, naturally I became obsessed with the MTV show Room Raiders.
Let me explain.
The show’s premise was simple and creepy: At the beginning of each episode, the TV crew rolled up to three different girls’ or guys’ homes, snatched them from their beds (extra points if they got someone half-dressed — you go, MTV), and hauled them into a van.
Then, an attractive member of the opposite sex would sift through each temporarily kidnapped person’s bedroom, examining intimate items and drawing conclusions about the room’s occupant (results ranged from thoughtful deductions to leaps of dubious reasoning), and ultimately choose one of them to date, in a grand an awkward reveal at the end of the program.
“I chose Heather because … uh … she had a lava lamp, so I think she must be a relaxed person, and well … I am, too.”
Real meaty stuff. I watched it constantly.
As an adult, I further delved into this person-analyzing interest by reading Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, wherein I reasonably concluded that life is a big performance and we’re all just actors and nothing is real.
All the world’s a stage indeed — my nihilistic attitude extended to the Wild West of the internet, and perhaps more scarily, to my own performance as an online writer.
Cue the tomato throwing?
As if it’s not challenging enough having the standard litany of information about us available for others to judge, those of us who write online for a living face additional challenges. Our written thoughts are strewn about the internet on blogs, websites, publications, and social media, ripe for the passerby’s ogling gaze and thumbed scrolling.
These writings aren’t just stuffy, academic prose, or strict journalistic reporting either.
In my case, my writing portfolio includes experiential accounts of weird things I’ve done (dumpster diving, anyone?) to rambly reflections on purpose and passion in the modern-day workplace, to impassioned political pleas, calling our elected leaders on the carpet.
My professional writing work is not devoid of emotion or voice — I’m laced all throughout what I write (sorry, hard news journalism, I gave up on the pursuit of perfect objectivity).
So, much like the participants of Room Raiders, who were judged by the books on their shelves or the contents of their closets, I face the frightening reality that pixelated words and photos on a screen from a single piece I wrote in a single moment will be taken by the wider world to sum up my entire identity (personality, intellectual might, opinions, etc.).
If you are an online writer of any stripe, you open yourself up to this marketplace of ideas (read: what people say about you) every time you hit “publish.” From those glimpses, readers and skimmers form opinions, for better or worse.
This normally goes in one direction — there’s a reason we call them internet trolls.
Dare to publicly post anything creative, controversial, or lacking bulletproof reasoning, and you open the floodgates to the internet mob mentality. And as we’ve seen in the past, it only takes but a few hours for the internet’s cruel hammer to publicly shame those deemed perpetrators, and even devastate their careers.
Call it the result of years of touting 1984 as my favorite book, or the mild depression I fall into after reading YouTube comment threads of outraged internet people with X-rated user names and the typing dexterity of Keyboard Cat, but sometimes I feel a certain malaise when I sit down at the keyboard.
Even when writing about seemingly innocuous topics, I often nervously anticipate the criticism fallout — double- and triple-checking my sources, wording, and line of reasoning. I wonder about how quickly a mediocre piece of work can besmirch a writer’s reputation.
There’s lots of hand-wringing, and that’s all before I hit “publish.”
Once the piece is up, the crippling impostor syndrome worries come: What if I’ve committed a heinous grammar faux pas or unwittingly used an offensive term? What if my intended sarcasm gets taken seriously? What if I’ve overlooked a crucial argument?
What if I change my mind?
After all, over the last 10 years, at different points in time I’ve identified as a bleeding heart liberal, sensible centrist, government conspiracy theorist, and Dave Matthews Band fan, nothing else, nope, that was it.
I briefly wrote for my university newspaper before I realized that longform magazine work was more my speed. I’ve started many-a “Just another WordPress site” that I later abandoned. I’ve lived in six different zip codes, with one being international.
My teenage self wouldn’t agree with or approve of much of what I think today.
Things change, people. People change. To some degree, we’re all inconsistent, complex, and misunderstood.
We are humans — reacting to, learning from, and evolving in the world in a way that the pixelated versions of our photos or words on a screen can never wholly represent.
Hearing a person speak and reading words they’ve written spark different reactions.
While we tend to more readily and kindly respond to ‘real’ people’s idiosyncrasies, divergent opinions, and mistakes, a disconnect occurs once things go online.
Somewhere in this acceptance of the new digital normal, we have replaced humanity with hasty judgment and outrage. Call it keyboard confidence or “digital-fuelled alcohol” that emboldens people to new lows of cyberbullying, but ultimately, the rules of human decency change online.
Empathy, constructive criticism, and patience evaporate when the mob descends.
And the internet doesn’t forget. Despite the seeming transience and editability via Ctrl + Z or “delete tweet” of today’s internet playing field, a sinister permanence exists, too.
Just talk to any self-proclaimed hacker for a few minutes, and they’ll tell you the deal: sure, we can delete this, tweak this, change this, and click “refresh”; but words posted online live forever, meaning that sooner or later, we’ll probably need to answer for them — our online “selves.”
It’s hard to reconcile these black-and-white-typed self- (or society-)proclaimed versions of ourselves with the squishy pink reality of humanity, and as we’ve noted, the internet isn’t exactly a hotbed for thoughtful discussion and acceptance of nuance and incongruency.
I mean, did you even watch that Heineken ‘Worlds Apart’ commercial?
It may come as a surprise, but I have not managed to find the magic key to writing with abandon online, without worrying about minding the web of online observers out there.
But there are a few things that we as writers can do to at least approach this concern with more perspective and optimism:
Unless you are incubating the next, revolutionary version of Facebook, Twitter, or Google in your basement, you likely will not upend the current climate of dialogue on the internet.
We live in an age of democratized platforms of speech, where 7.5 billion people all have something to say. There’s no turning back now.
Sounds strange, but accepting that you are not responsible for changing the way people deliver feedback online can be strangely freeing. Instead of fretting that someone is going to criticize, make fun of, or otherwise disparage your work, anticipate it — and know in advance how you will respond.
For example, if you often write on a highly trafficked site with lots of feedback, aim to read the comments for only five minutes, or wait a few days before you check in on the audience’s input. Unless you often find nuggets of constructive criticism that might improve your writing or arguments in the future, why waste time wading into that negativity at all?
Serenity now, friend.
Let’s Dr. Phil this shit for a second.
Would it make sense for someone to get a clear picture of who you are by only browsing through your internet history, only reading your college transcripts, or only perusing your Amazon purchases?
Probably not. So why worry that your entire identity is summed up in what you’ve written?
Even if people end up judging you (the person) based on your article / blog post / short story / haiku about sandwiches, that’s their faulty reasoning, not your worry. Their hasty conclusions based on paltry research can be blamed on their high school English teacher. (Don’t worry, Mrs. Fuller — you nailed it!)
Remind yourself that you are a person, and your words are not an extension of you, but something you have created.
You are not what you wrote once.
Writing something silly doesn’t make you a silly person. Publishing something poorly written doesn’t make you a poor writer. Penning a political piece doesn’t make you an activist, and writing an opinion column doesn’t cement you in one perspective for life.
Don’t catastrophize, or worry yourself into paralyzing writer’s block. Let go.
People may hesitate to write with fervor or passion for fear of what the hell they’ll do if their opinions change later on.
Spoiler alert — they will. Have you ever seen those articles citing people’s initial thoughts on the first iPhone?
If you don’t wholeheartedly commit to writing what you think, your qualified words ring hollow and timid. Spend too much time couching your opinions in softened language, and you might as well not write anything at all.
Obviously, do your homework — seat-of-the-pants lazy publishing deserves the criticism leveled at it. But once you’ve done the necessary research, chewing, argument-building, outlining, and more chewing, write your words with confidence. (Also, you know … edit them.)
Then, when someone later proves you wrong, calls your bluff, or makes you reconsider your viewpoint, write about that, too.
That isn’t a bad thing — that’s growth!
As I mentioned above, reading threads of name-calling, mean-spiritedness, or other downers have the power to bring you down like a storm-cloud-soaked anvil of negativity falling from a window. It’s made me want to go off the grid more than a few times, and buy a helmet.
But as we writers learn to be creative in an environment so largely unconducive to the vulnerability of creativity, it’s important to remember that it isn’t all bad, and ultimately, we get to choose how we respond to the haters.
Learning how to take the hard knocks in our stride turns out to be a must for anyone on this road of writing as a career. Sink or swim.
Plus, there are plenty of good, earnest people out there — sometimes it might just feel like they’re a little too quiet. If you don’t already, count on your colleagues in your space or industry for a good old airing of grievances. They’ll understand this problem more than most will.
Or, you might find a community of other writers that can serve as support. The New York Book Editors have 11 suggestions to start.
My favorite strategy? Get off the internet for a while and into the world. Friendly faces have a way of putting everything in perspective.
At the end of the day, we’re all people out here writing (unless one of you freaky AI author robots has snuck in). The messy beauty in that fact is that we don’t have to place the expectation of perfection on our writing, nor on ourselves.
Sure, virtual avatars, bylines, and posts can link back to us, but they do not holistically represent us.
While the landscape of hasty, biting commentary can prove intimidating, accepting its existence and choosing your response can place the power back into the hands of you, the writer, not the trolls. Plus, even when it seems like only negativity abounds, positive support and community can be found if you look for it.
If you were to sift through my portfolio of work, you’d surely find out a lot about me.
But in the end? You’d only really know about a tiny fraction.
I’ll just leave the rest as a mystery.
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.