I remember when I started leaving bitchy comments and arguing with people on the Internet. It was around the year 2000. I was an administrative assistant at an Architecture firm in San Francisco. It was my job to write letters, schedule appointments and file paperwork. I was paid reasonably well, but I was bored. So I killed time arguing with people on CNN.com’s comment forums, way back when Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school.
In the years since, I spent the most time commenting negatively on other people’s content when I was least invested in my day to day life. Whether I was doing the bidding of a sociopath in Beverly Hills or following corporate policy in some retail stockroom or doing hours of mindless data entry for a university hospital, I still could tell someone off on some forum or comment thread. I could tell some writer that he or she was an idiot. Sometimes when you’re having a shitty day, it feels good to type a big “fuck you” to some stranger.
When I was most powerless and least influential, the Internet gave me a voice that felt like it mattered. Someone more important and more successful than me would have to listen to me.
Most of that was before smart phones. I actually had to be near a computer to attain bitchy comment catharsis. Now that power is right there in people’s hands all the time. No matter where you are, you get the high of finger-tapping out your sacred opinion — which is similar to voting or praying, except that someone, somewhere may actually give a shit about your Internet comment.
Over the past few years, I’ve reached a point where I get a genuine sense of accomplishment from my work and I basically make my own schedule. I’m not held captive anywhere I don’t want to be. I don’t have anyone micro-managing me or looking over my shoulder — except for the government, in some abstract and unknowable way. Life is sometimes still, “one vile fucking task after another,” as Al Swearengen would say, but I have all of those years of being the low man on the totem pole to put things in perspective.
If I have something I want to say to the world, I write an essay like this one, so other people can leave bitchy comments and tell me I’m an idiot.
And they do. I used to be that guy, spraying his desperate graffiti all over some freshly printed page or photograph — so I know what to expect. It’s part of the job.
Now that I’m on the other side of it, I often talk about the Internet game with a few other guys who are putting themselves out there, producing content, attracting attention. We all deal with the same shit. We’ve all had real jobs, and we’ve all probably been that guy at some point.
When you press “post,” you brace yourself for the inevitable hatestream and you may even get a chuckle out if it.
Sometimes it gets under your skin — usually when you’re not expecting it or ready for it. But you learn to shake it off, because, again in the words of Swearengen, if you get aggravated, “that’s when the enemy has you by the short hairs.”
To be honest, I wrote this essay because I was still in bed when I read the first pointless bitchy comment of the day, written by some guy who I’ve never heard of, but who obviously cares about me enough to follow me and who wanted me to care about his sacred opinion for just a second. He reminded me of some points I’ve wanted to make for a while. So, thanks, guy whose fake name I don’t remember. You made a difference.
People who have never been that guy sometimes take comments too seriously. They think they are sincere — that they actually mean something. That someone’s reaching out or even genuinely upset or offended. They don’t see that people are just commenting because commenting on social media is so accessible. They’re just commenting because they had some immediate reaction or half a thought or a feeling about a headline or a phrase and that “triggered” them. They’re just reacting to whatever passes by and comes within reach, and they’ll forget about it when the next thing comes along.
Most people are too lazy to even hit ctrl+tab to send an email. I get maybe one critical email for every few hundred negative comments on social media.
When I talk about this with my friends who have their own followings and their own collections of those fucking guys, what we see is boredom and helplessness. We imagine the lonely bastard who wrote this comment or that comment hunched over his computer in his IKEA-furnished apartment, or dorm room, or maybe his parents house. We think of all of the people standing in line, idling in commuter traffic, taking a mandatory 15 minute break, or sitting alone in some sterile corporate lunchroom.
People used to read magazines in doctor’s offices and employment agencies and Jiffy Lube waiting rooms. Now everybody has a phone, and to pass the time they can engage themselves in some choose-your-own-adventure online soap opera. They can start a Twitter war with some rival contingent or mock some celebrity millionaire. They can jump on some bandwagon and shame an NFL player or a politician or a musician who said the “wrong thing.” They can have a heated debate with some Facebook acquaintance who they don’t even really like, about whatever the media told people to talk about that day.
For the most part, they don’t really care, though. They’re just bored. Modern life is easy and unrewarding for most people. Most jobs are either mind-numbing busywork, or they require 6-to-10 hours of submissive behavior.
“Would you like room for cream?”
“Did you find everything you were looking for today?”
The unemployed have even more time to waste. They can literally troll someone all. damn. day. What else do they have to do?
The last time I left a negative comment on someone else’s profile, it was out of disappointment. A local guy who I thought seemed admirable and interesting, and who I genuinely wanted to meet, started posting a bunch of uninformed opinions that indirectly insulted people who I support or care about. I argued back and forth with him for about half an hour to make sure I wasn’t reading him wrong, and then I just blocked him and wrote him off. I won’t allow myself to waste a lot of time on the enemies of my friends or people who have incompatible values. Making time for friends and allies is challenging enough. Why cultivate relationships with people who aren’t even close to being on the same page? I have plenty of things to do and plenty of other ways to procrastinate.
Most of the comments I write these days are positive. I follow friends and I follow the work of people who are doing things that inspire me in some way. Aside from occasional writing projects where someone asks me to react to someone else’s work, I can’t think of the last time it occurred to me to follow someone whose work I don’t like. I just can’t be bothered.
If you spend time commenting on the work of people who you don’t like, who don’t follow your work or even know who you are — it tells me you don’t have a lot going on.
When I see your bitchy comment, I just figure that you’re bored and your life sucks.