INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: Searching the Internet for kindness

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First Posted: 6/3/2014

There’s a saying about opinions and backsides, but you already know that one.

What you may not know is that the text you’re reading now doesn’t generate itself – there’s an actual living, breathing person behind it. That may seem obvious, but you wouldn’t know it if you’ve read the comment section of any website or browsed social media for more than five minutes. People let those opinions fly like razor-sharp knives at the author’s head or, even worse, they sharpen the words of the author into their own weapons to justify a limited viewpoint.

Being in the news business for the last five years or so, I’ve been the target of such unbridled vitriol now and again, but I’ve largely learned to ignore it. Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, these “trolls,” which I will define in a moment, even extend the courtesy of an anonymous phone call to my work number, usually screeching at an unnecessary volume like it’s WNEP’s Talkback 16 and occasionally even threatening bodily harm because we don’t share the same view on a topic. Yes, you read that correctly, but if you’re brave enough to venture into those comment boards, this probably doesn’t surprise you.

A troll, by Wikipedia’s definition, is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community… with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” They do an excellent job of this because they don’t have to look directly at the face of the person they’re “trolling,” so it’s easy to let loose on a screen, ignoring the fact that the person on the other side of the message is indeed a person, much like your mother, grandfather, sibling, friend, or other human being you would never dream of talking to that way, people that you would never wish such rancor upon.

You may be wondering at this point in the article why I’m “feeding the trolls,” so to speak, by dedicating a few column inches to their bile. My intention, actually, isn’t to respond to these armchair critics at all, but to use a recent example of their destructive power to compliment and encourage others to continue to create content that will, inevitably, be trashed by somebody, but is still worth making.

A few weeks ago, an anonymous user submitted a BuzzFeed article titled “10 Bands In Scranton, Pennsylvania That You Should Know About,” another example of the entertainment website’s many lists that was written by someone who has “not been vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed’s editorial staff,” but even if it was, it really wouldn’t make too much of a difference. BuzzFeed is a “social news” website, and while they’ve tried writing serious articles with mixed results, it’s mostly collections of uncredited pictures and poorly researched pop culture references.

This article, however, is actually a good read, describing the sound of each band and detailing what they’ve been up to lately – a standard list that doesn’t even claim that these bands are the best groups in the area, just that you should be aware of them if you aren’t already. Judging by the backlash it received, however, you’d think the author was recommending “Mein Kampf” to children.

The day it came out, my Facebook news feed was flooded with people sharing the article, but the responses were mostly as follows:

“This band/genre was left out!”

“This writer has terrible taste in music!”

“These bands are awful!”

“I’ve never heard of any of these bands!”

“This writer is an idiot!”

I’m being kind with the wording here because I certainly read much nastier comments, but you get the idea. Viral articles, like these easy-to-read lists, are supposed to stir up conversation and difference of opinion, but to simply tear an article down because it isn’t the one you would have written yourself doesn’t make the author wrong – it makes you lazy and destructive. As a creative person, my first inclination if I disagree is to create another article myself, but those who aren’t creative – or those who don’t know what it’s like to put their work out in a public forum – just complain because social media has made us all feel so self-important, the center of a 24/7 online shrine dedicated to all things you that we call a “profile,” that we forget just how hurtful it is to have the negativity turned back on us. This isn’t to say that you have to be a writer to have an opinion on something or to make a genuine criticism. What I’m pointing out is that maybe, just maybe, our first reaction to everything shouldn’t be pure anger or excessive outrage.

The author’s innocent intention is clear – he or she wanted to expose the world to some bands they enjoy that are from the area, likely their hometown. It wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list representing every type of music out there. Taste is subjective, so to insult their musical palate is pointless and counterproductive, and to dismiss these groups as awful just exposes a bias in the commenter that the author is being accused of. If you’ve never heard of these bands, then you may not want to tell someone else that they know nothing about local music since, as a music journalist, I’ve not only heard of and written about all of these groups, but I’ve seen them featured in various widely distributed newspapers and listened to them on local airwaves, so to cast insults is just admitting ignorance here.

I have yet to see another BuzzFeed article listing other Scranton bands since this controversial piece came out. Why? Because it’s easier for people to whine than to craft their own perfect list that will be invulnerable to any and all criticism and abuse. I have, however, witnessed the aftermath – it actually got to the point where I saw a member of one of these bands questioning their art, wondering why they should bother in a world so cynical and downright nasty.

I’ll tell you why – because those people are a small minority that don’t accurately represent the public at large. They just think they do because they’re louder and more obnoxious than everyone else. One on one, some of those trolls may actually even be decent, reasonable people in everyday life, but there’s something about spewing anonymous hate on the Internet that is fun or therapeutic to them after a long week of taking crap from their job or their spouse (if they have either one), failing to recognize that spreading the misery just makes everyone more miserable.

The Weekender is the most widely read and distributed arts and entertainment publication in the area, yet there are some weeks that go by without a lot of personal feedback from the public other than a few trolls here and there. When I meet satisfied readers or receive a positive response to all the hard work we put in week after week, I feel great and it makes me want to work harder to make the next issue even better. When it’s anonymous threats to my life or insults to my intelligence or abilities, I question why I even bother. Which comment do you think is going to result in a better product? If the goal of these trolls is to improve something they feel is lacking, they’re obviously doing it wrong.

With that said, I find that the vast majority of our readers are awesome people who have been happily picking us up for years, but many of them might not think to send some positive vibes our way – they just finish reading the stories and go about their business. Instead of just “liking” an article on Facebook, I humbly ask that we all take an extra minute to leave an encouraging comment now and again, send a pleasant e-mail to the author, or just share the article with someone else so they can enjoy it as much as you did. We sometimes forget just how good it feels to receive a simple pat on the back, and it truly feels just as good to make someone else’s day.

So to the anonymous author of the BuzzFeed article, here’s your extended compliment that is long overdue. Don’t get discouraged when the trolls come out to play – take pride in the fact that your work stirred up an emotional response at all. Helping the artists who help you get through the day, the people who create something beautiful in a world that can be so cruel and ugly, in any way, even with a simple Top 10 list, is building something great rather than tearing it all down. That’s something trolls simply aren’t capable of, which is why they’re as unhappy as they are.

I’m expecting your next list any day now.

-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at