The Culture of Nasty: Where Everyone Has a Right To Share Their Opinion

www.jpereira.net info@jpereira.netI’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and discussing it with my friends. I suspect this is going to be an unpopular opinion. I’ve spent several hours drafting it, hours in which I could have done something more productive, and probably less like to piss the Internet off. I’ve come close to deleting it more than once.

The very fact I feel this way is proof of my point, though.

We’re in a culture of Nasty, where Meanness is King.

Perhaps it’s naive of me to think it hasn’t been there all along, but I have to say that in the last ten years, I’ve seen a huge shift in the attitudes and behavior of others, and I think it has a lot to do with the social media platforms where people spend the majority of their time.

My co-workers and I have discussed how short-tempered and irritable clients are, as well as how demanding they are. They want what they want when they want it. If you can’t drop everything and see to their needs immediately, they snarl, “Well, I’ll just take my business elsewhere, then.” The threat doesn’t change anything. If we could have helped them then and there, we would have. Instead, the attitude puts our backs up. Fine, so be it, we sniff, when they hang up on us.

I blame it on the Internet. I blame it on the instantaneous delivery of so many things. One-click a book. Stream a movie. Order food delivered to your house. That’s just part of it though. The other part is that the Internet encourages you to leave your opinion where ever you go, on whatever you purchase. How was your experience at your salon, your grocery, your daycare, your doctor’s office, Home Depot? Tell us! We really want to know!

The President of the United States started a twitter account recently. Within minutes, he’d received some of the most appalling racial slurs and horribly demeaning, hate-filled Tweets that I’ve ever seen. The President. Of our country. To think that when the Dixie Chicks disagreed publicly with then-President Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq, radio stations dropped their music and people sent death threats. All because one of the band members said she was ashamed that Mr. Bush hailed from Texas. Now, direct name-calling to the President himself is de rigueur. Is it because he is the first black President? Possibly. But I think that the racial aspect is only part of it. FOX News has been cultivating an atmosphere of hatred and disrespect for President Obama for six years now. I think any Democratic president would have faced similar venom because so many people have been groomed to spew the Far Right’s bile. (It’s kind of fascinating, in a horrible way, how long the Koch Brothers have been modeling public opinion of political figures… but I digress)

The Internet has given Everyman a voice.

Everywhere I go, I see people plugged into their iPods or smartphones. There’s even a phenomenon called ‘tech neck‘ because so many people are looking down at the phone in their hands all the time that they are developing wrinkles on their necks at extraordinarily young ages. We had a young pedestrian killed here not too long ago because she stepped off the curb, eyes glued to the phone, without looking at the traffic. She couldn’t even put the phone aside long enough to cross the street safely. I recently read a thread on Facebook where someone complained of making an impassioned speech as part of a lecture, only to look out on a sea of students all staring at their laps. Not a single one was focused on the class. They were all checking their phones. We’ve become addicted to our devices. We’ve also come to a point where we expect to be entertained every minute of every day. Where we can’t cross the street without checking our messages, or we’re on the phone in the line at the grocery store and at the doctor’s office, or we can’t pause the movie for the two minutes it takes us to ladle dinner on our plates, so we have to carry the IPad to the kitchen with us.

And part of that constant need for connection means checking up on what other people had to say. Frankly, the nastier, the better. The more we can gasp and say, “Oh, no they didn‘t!” and yet read on.

I can’t tell you how many times someone will share a link with me but say, “Don’t read the comments. They’ll only make you gnash your teeth.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started an online conversation, only to have to leave for a few hours and come back to discover that it has imploded in my absence and I have no idea how to do the damage control.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen others in that boat, who’ve decided to close the thread to further comments because of the vitriolic disrespect people are showing to each other. Or people who post a strong commentary, but block comments because they know what kind of wank-fest will start if they don’t.

A friend and I were discussing this the other day–this veneration of the nasty, where everyone gets to have their say, but because so often they can do it anonymously, all filters are off. The nastier the better because then people will like your post and you’ll develop a following for your snarky reviews. Maybe it was the hilariously scathing gif-filled review of 50 Shades of Grey that started it, but I see too many reviews aiming for this level of cutting brilliance, when sadly, they are only a pale imitation. Giving celebrity status to the unpleasant critic has become the norm, from Simon Cowell on American Idol to the hordes of talk radio mouthpieces that make a living off being mean.

I think my friend summed it up nicely, however: Reviews have become so important and yet I think they have become so meaningless.

By that, I don’t mean the well-thought out review given by review sites and readers that truly want to share how this story made them feel.These people (and their reviews) are worth their weight in gold! I’m not referring to the people who are capable of articulating the problems they had with a story, either. I’m a big believer in constructive criticism, and I pay particular attention if more than one person makes a similar statement along the same lines when it comes to a story. No, I’m talking about the people who one-star something because it didn’t meet all of their personal expectations. The real issue seems to be one of expectations and entitlement. Because it doesn’t matter if it was well-written or not.  If it didn’t push all of that reader’s particular buttons, it gets low-balled.

This story was about vampires but your vampires didn’t get sparkly in the sun and your heroine (having some degree of backbone) is too bitchy so yeah, I’m one-starring this.

Your hero smokes. Eww.

There was too much sex.

There wasn’t enough sex.

The sex scenes were boring.

Or a personal favorite someone shared on Facebook today: Your Mayans were cruel. The real Mayans weren’t cruel people. (Um, human sacrifice, people? Perhaps that was just a mild aberration, then? A case of being ‘hangry’? Gee, someone hand that Mayan a Snickers bar, for God’s sake!)

Of course, if increased visibility wasn’t tied directly into reviews, then reviews like this wouldn’t matter. They’d just be opinions, and while a few of them might sting a bit, it would be easier to laugh them off. But because they *are* tied into increased visibility, and therefore potentially sales as well, they carry a lot more weight than perhaps they ought.

I’ve said for a while now that I wish Amazon and Goodreads would do away with the ‘star’ rating system and let people just post what they thought without the ranking business. I wonder if as many people would bother in that case? And if no one could give your opinion a ‘thumbs up’, would it still try so hard to be cleverly mean?

The point I’m trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to make is that I think in many ways, the Internet has made us a less kind society. Our right to voice our opinion is what leads strangers to walk up to George Clooney and tell him, “Hey, your last movie sucked.” Like our opinion matters so much, we have a right to get in a celebrity’s face and tell him that. Or that we can be unforgivably ugly to the President. Or we can cyberbully and troll someone into self-harm.

I get upset when I read about stuff like that, or when I have to put out fires on my own page, or when everything I read makes me despair for the future of our species. I still think that the Internet is a kind of awful addiction, and I know I’d get a lot more done if I simply turned off my browser and got to it. There are days when my Facebook timeline depresses the hell out of me, and forget about going to Twitter or Tumblr! At least on Live Journal, there was a sense of community that tempered one’s interactions with others. Those days seem to have vanished. Now it’s about reblogging someone else’s content and moving on to the next New Shiny. If you are spectacularly nasty, you’re more likely to get reblogged, too.

But even as I’ve wasted the last couple of hours writing this, I know that I’m not telling the whole story. Yes, there is a lot of ugliness online. Yes, it is frequently addictive and often depressing as hell. Yes, I think the generations coming behind us will have to deal with an inability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes, and an outrageous sense of entitlement that makes some people think the world owes them a living. But here’s the thing: I’ve met some wonderful people through online communities. I’ve seen these people come together to help someone in need, be it financially or emotionally. I’ve been the recipient of links to funny videos, cute pictures that make me smile, surprise care packages, and astonishing generosity–all when I needed them the most. I’ve had my hand virtually held when I needed the lifeline, and have been given a safe place to vent when I needed that, too. I’m not sure I’d still be around were it not for that kind of support. I know I wouldn’t be publishing my stories. It was the enthusiasm and encouragement of my online friends that prompted me to submit that first story to a publisher.

So yeah. Mean is flashier. Mean grabs headlines. Nasty makes the news. It’s like the Dark Side of the Force–quicker, deadly, makes a bigger entrance. Seems more powerful.

But don’t belittle the power of the Light side of the Force. I believe that kindness, like nastiness, is catching, and as such, it is up to us to spread it around, sending it out in little ripple effects as a kind of shield against all the nastiness out there. I’ll probably be one of the first ones to die in a post-apocalyptic society, but you know what? I’m not sure I’d want to live through that mess anyway. We have to choose between the two, between kindness and meanness, just like in the story about the two wolves.

Two wolvesWhich will you choose to feed?