Love in flames: finding the joy in hostile comments

“I don’t know why you care about the shit that a bunch of total strangers say about you on the Internet.”

This was my mom’s delightfully candid and potentially comforting response to this week’s comment eruption on my Harvard Business Review post. My mom is quite an extraordinary person, but her most extraordinary trait may be her almost complete imperviousness to other people’s judgements. I’ve never met anyone who is less perturbed by what other people say or think about her, and while I’m not remotely in her league, her influence is the main reason I can muster the courage to write the occasional provocative blog post.

That said, a day with 100 critical blog comments does send me to the wine bottle when I get home, and leaves me reflecting on whether it’s worth enduring an online onslaught. When people I don’t know tweet that I’m a f***ing idiot, it’s tempting to throw a little pity party, and forget that I was well aware my post was likely to elicit a strong reaction — though I anticipated strong reactions on both sides of the spectrum, as I’ve seen on Twitter, rather than the almost entirely negative pile-on that’s occurred on the HBR comment thread.

It’s even more tempting to take the comfort my mom offered: to simply write off the hostility as the inconsequential utterances of people who I don’t know, and who don’t count, because they are people I’ve never met face-to-face.

But undervaluing online interactions is the exact opposite of what I advocate every time I ask people to stop distinguishing between online life and “real life”. For our online lives to be meaningful and constructive, we have to embrace them as real. And that means embracing the critical, hostile and difficult conversations as real, too, even if it would be easier to dismiss online critics as online strangers.

The fact that I experience online interactions as very real makes a week like this a little bumpy (thus the wine). But the agony of the bumps pales in comparison to the joy that’s come with them: the joy of hearing from so many old and new friends, almost all online.

In the past two days, I’ve received Facebook messages from friends like the seasoned editor who welcomed me into the fold of writers who’ve survived reader outrage. I’ve heard from a high school friend who reminded me how much she loved my writing….all the way back to grade 7! I’ve had a call out of the blue from a former colleague I’ve stayed in touch with only through email and Twitter, encouraging me to take a break from the comment thread for the sake of my own sanity. I’ve received encouraging tweets and DMs from friends and colleagues I know well, and from people I’m connecting with for the first time through this mini-controversy. And I’ve heard from friends who love me enough not only to reach out, but to share their honest and sometimes critical responses to both my argument and the tone of the post.

It’s well established that humans pay a lot more attention to negative feedback than to positive, so it would be natural if these reminders of love and community were overshadowed by hurt or shame at being called a few names. The miracle of this week is that I’ve experienced the opposite: I’m so deeply touched by the warm messages I’ve received that the love has dramatically overshadowed the criticism.

Plowing through the occasional online shitstorm is a near-inevitable part of writing online, and I knew that this week might get windy when I wrote that post. What I manage to forget, between storms, is how much energy it takes to go though them — energy I get from the support and engagement of the people I know and love. I feel like the luckiest person in the world for having such wonderful friends and colleagues, and for living in a moment and medium that allow their loving expression to find me online across distances of time and space.

When we embrace the reality and significance of our online interactions, we not only let in the joy that comes from web-enabled love; we also start to eat at the roots of online hostility. The derogatory flames on this week’s post were the ones that read like folks had forgotten they were talking to or about a human being; the engaging comments (including a great many well-argued criticisms) were the ones that sounded like they came from real people, talking to a real person.

These real conversations are what make the Internet worth living in and engaging with, whether it’s bringing you criticism or love. Because we’re not online strangers. We’re real-life people.