My parents live in a small island community out on the Georgia Strait. There's a path from their house down to a beach littered with oyster shells from the leases that run just offshore on their side of the island. The steps going down the hill are old and rotten but serviceable.
During one visit I stepped on a stair which was apparently home to a nest of angry wasps. I got stung on my head, my back, my arms and legs before I was able to make it to safety. I guess I had an allergic reaction because it felt like I had the worst sunburn of my life for the rest of that day and night. Massive headache, burning skin, trouble sleeping - the works.
In case you're wondering: yes, this is what writer's call an analogy.
We've all done it before, said something "wrong" or insensitive, whether intentionally or not. In real life (or IRL, as they say on the internet) we have the benefit of facial expressions, the ability to backtrack or apologize, or further explain what we've said.
On the internet, where facial expressions are emojis and tone is implied (or more often, inferred), all we have to rely on are the words we've typed. Words which can be interpreted in varying ways, depending on the mindset of the reader or the clarity of the phrasing.
That's why it's important when you're "in the public eye" to play nice.
Here's a thing you probably don't know about me: I have a pathological need to stick up for myself. (Also for others, which has put my life in danger multiple times. But I digress). In person or on the internet, if someone slags me off, or if I've perceived someone to have slagged me off, I will bark back. And if I'm backed into a corner, or feel like I am, I will bite.
I'm working on this. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd, Ringo. But it still comes out of me when someone, particularly a stranger, kicks sand in my face.
This knee-jerk reaction is most likely a response to being bullied when I was a kid. In grade seven I had my ass kicked hard almost every single day by the same three punk kids. I was 4'8" or something and they were giants. They cornered me in the halls and tried to stuff me into open lockers, they beat on me in the portables when the teacher wasn't there, etc etc. I still can't remember any of their names.
I always fought back. I guess that was the "scrappy little guy" in me. But I think that made it more fun for them, more of a challenge. They never got me into those lockers. Never were able push me into a toilet stall. I squirmed and I kicked. (Actually, I remember laughing for some reason when they would pound on my back in the portables. Maybe the same reason that makes people laugh during horror movies.) One on one, I might have made some leeway (might have) but it was always the three of them, like they were joined at the hip. Conjoined tripshits. (That's a portmanteau of dipshit and triplet, in case you were wondering.)
After that year, when my family moved to a small town and I got away from them, I read that Stephen King story "Sometimes They Come Back" and it really resonated with me. I wondered if I'd be haunted by the memory of those guys picking on me for the rest of my life.
But I wasn't. Eventually I got over it. I dealt with my shit, as they say. Still, a twinge of that kneejerk defensiveness sticks with me. It's the same reason I proactively swat wasps before they can sting me.
A while back I got in a beef on Twitter with a semi-famous TV writer. I said something stupid because his tweet referenced a show I hate that everyone else seemed to love. Not sure why I stepped on that particular hornet's nest. There was really no reason to, and I regret having done it. But when he barked back, I bit.
Rather than delete my tweet or walk it back, I further entrenched myself. This is what anger does. This is why arguing on the internet is such a problem. This particular argument turned into a flame war, where a handful of his fans did a bit of light dogpiling and retweeting his insults to me and he ended up @ing me from L.A. long after I'd already gone to sleep.
I wrote a blog post about it the next day, not trying to paint myself as a hero or anything or even to capitalize off it, but generally stating this is not appropriate behavior for someone in the public eye. I think it made me look like as much if not more of an idiot than this famous writer.
After a day or two, I thought better of it and deleted the post. I didn't want to perpetuate that kind of negativity. In retrospect, I'm pretty embarrassed by the whole situation. It's one of the main reasons why I try not to act like a prick on the internet these days.
But when someone barks, I still have that urge to bite.
Recently, I stumbled into another metaphorical hornet's nest. I expressed my schadenfreude for the comeuppance of a writer I won't name, who'd been a source of frustration for many people in the "horror community." It was meant to be commiserating, a reply to a Midlist Author's tweet, but was misinterpreted as schadenfreude for what the people this writer had harassed had gone through.
The Midlist Author came in hot. With expletives. Aimed at me.
That old feeling returned.
We parried back and forth for a few minutes. Light jabs. A few choice barbs. Eventually when he tweeted that his friend was sick and undergoing an operation, I backed off. I don't want to add to anyone's pain and anxiety in a situation like that, no matter how much of an asshole they might be at that particular moment. I've dealt with hospitals my whole life. I know how it is.
Unfortunately, someone I was once Facebook friends with popped in a little while later to stoke the fires against me, and the very next day I was inundated with messages from friends and people I've never spoken to informing me that the Midlist Author in question wrote a long blog post attempting to shame me, lumping me in with hangers-on and trolls (and his readers, even though I've never read any of his work). Implying that my tweet was in some way worse than his tweet I was reacting to - one in which the culprit of a "punching down" blog post was named (even though she was previously and later called "Jane Doe," as if she's dead).
Those posts are still up there for anyone to read, should you care to go looking. It also name-shames an aspiring author who was merely defending me. Actually, the Midlist Author went on to rant about this aspiring author more than me, despite his previous post about "punching down." Because the blog post wasn't about our brief altercation. It was about self-aggrandizement, moral grandstanding and clicks.
Never mind what he did was essentially trying to take food out of another writer's mouth.
But I digress.
I like to think I've learned from these mistakes. And it was a mistake, even though I still stand behind what I said. I just shouldn't have said it on the internet.
The internet can be a cold, unforgiving place. But it's also a great place to meet like-minded people who share your interests. As an indie author, using social media is practically essential. That's why it's important to play nice. What happens on the internet stays there forever. It can have lasting consequences.
So next time someone shouts at you in ALL CAPS, take a moment to consider whether it's worth risking your reputation to respond in kind. Or to respond at all. Sometimes it's wiser to take the higher ground.
Next time you consider "naming and shaming," think about what you would feel like if someone did the same to you. Probably not good, right? I realize I'm sounding a bit Mr. Rogers here, and I'm definitely not saying "don't defend yourself." I'm just suggesting you ask yourself, Is it worth it?
When you post negativity, you get negativity in return. Put negativity out into the world and you'll get it back.
Sometimes you deserve to get stung. It's not a karmic wheel. It's cause and effect.
So play nice, huh?
Unless a stranger kicks sand in your face. Then just make sure you get screenshots.
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