I noticed a piece on CNN about tracking down my online haters. Jeff Pearlman, the author of this piece and a writer for Sports Illustrated, decided to go meet a couple of the people who slung insults at him.
Pearlman acknowledges that “insults come with the turf”. He says that this happens when you write about sports for a living. It’s just as true for those of us in technology, and I daresay that it’s not just sportswriters and geeks who have experienced this. A friend who is a pediatrician once shared with me some of the comments that he deletes from his blog, and they’re no nicer than the ones that I’ve deleted from mine.
Pearlman quotes another sportswriter, a New York Times columnist, who says this:
People believe no one’s listening; they think we’re not people, they think there are these giant monoliths controlling thought. Then when they realize someone is listening, they rediscover their manners.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced this. I’ve been sworn at, I’ve been told that I should be sexually assaulted, I’ve been told that I have no ethics. And then the person behind the comments meets me in person, and suddenly they realise that I’m actually human too. And, of course, this happens towards companies as well. How many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of, “everyone who works at [somewhere] is an idiot”?
One of my favourite experiences at Macworld Expo came while working in the Microsoft booth. Rick Schaut, who is one of the nicest and smartest guys on Earth, was working in the booth that day too. Someone came into the booth with a bone to pick about Word:Mac. The guy swore and said that we’re all “jack-booted morons”. Rick sat down with him, let the guy vent for a couple of minutes, and then walked him through all of the technical decisions that led to the thing that the guy didn’t like. The conversation lasted for about a half-hour. At the end, the guy apologised for what he said, and said that while he didn’t like the outcome, he understood how we got there.
I think that the reasons behind the insults are twofold. The first is, as the NYT columnist notes above, conveniently forgetting that there’s other people in this world too. The second is an assumption that there must be sinister motives behind something that you don’t like. When you hide behind a keyboard and a veil of anonymity, it’s easier to spew vitriol that you would never say face-to-face.