I remember a video in which Stephen Fry shares some of his life’s wisdom. One of his pieces of advice is never to read comments on articles in blogs or on news sites. I have to say I tend to agree with him. You can read a story and feel inspired or curious or happy or intellectually stimulated but when you scroll past the end of the text you are brought to earth with a decisive thud. You are almost guaranteed to find someone insulting the writer in personal terms or pontificating in a bitter way about politics and what is wrong with the world.
I went looking for the Stephen Fry clip I remembered, but didn’t find it. I did come across an article on Bit-101 that quotes Fry as saying:
And similarly as long as you don’t lower your eyes when reading a blog, as long as you don’t go down to the comment section where the trolls lurk, where the viciousness is because that’s… I mean there really is just suppurating, boiling seas of acid where if you just so much as dip a toe you’ve lost your limbs you know, just vileness abounding. Again, there is this resentment, “I will be heard and not only will I be heard I will offend.” “I will tear.” “I will lacerate.” “I will wound.” “I want the sensibilities of anyone who disagrees with me to be bruised beyond mending.” That kind of attitude is very strong on the net and for all that we can be advocates for the glory and the democracy that exists online we must be aware too that that dark side of humanity that just needs to be heard…
Perhaps the first commenter was engaging in a bit of participatory performance art. For he said:
sorry but i can hardly be bothered to read or listen to this guy
like most mentally ill people fry is narcissistic and actually rather boring. he craps on about apple most of the time and as far as i’m concerned deserves to be ignored
So we know that the anonymity of the internet sometimes causes people to forget that article writers are human and entitled to the same kind of courtesy as the people you meet face to face.
I was surprised, however, to see the familiar “what is wrong with the world” tone appear in the comments of a feel-good article in the local paper. Good Karma: Smithtown Man Wins $3 Million Lotto Jackpot After Buying Flowers for his Wife.
Perhaps I should have expected the comments to devolve into a discussion of bad marriages and traditional gender roles, but I did not.
Does this kind of article really need open comments anyway?
The other day I reflected on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism “give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” I concluded that it was both entirely true and entirely untrue. (The other day I did an interview for All Indie Magazine. After re-reading my answers I wished I had been a bit less literal and a bit more Wildean. I said, ” I tend to talk about serious things using humor and sometimes humorous things in seriousness.” I should have left the word “sometimes” out of it. Less literal but a much better phrase.)
I would suggest that we have, in the internet era, a grand test of Wilde’s thesis. The internet demonstrates exactly how people interact when disguised and veiled. People seem to enjoy the freedom of being unknown while all the while they long to be known. They scream to be heard, and shout things they would never say if it could be connected to their day to day identities. The content of many of those anonymous screams when you get right down to it is “love me.” Listen to my views, consider me, notice me. Don’t walk by and treat me as if I do not exist, as if I am expendable. I matter.
My forthcoming novel Identity Theft (see the end of this article to learn more about it) deals with this malady of modern life. Each of the main characters feels disconnected and isolated. Two of them turn to the internet to find a sense of connection. I mentioned in my All Indie Magazine interview that most of the characters in Identity Theft use names that are different from those they were born with. Interestingly, I realized on re-reading this observation that the only exception is Ethan, the character who decides to take on an entirely different identity online. I could go into a lot of deep reflection on what this is meant to represent, but I don’t really know. It is one of those things that is there for the reader to ponder if she wants to.
Ethan and Candi, the fan he decides to write to in the guise of his rock star boss, interact in a unique way. They are both masked and unmasked by their internet flirtation. Ethan, playing the part of a rock star, gets to be the person he has always wanted to be. Candi is able to pursue a fantasy she would never be bold enough to go after “in real life.”
Thus there are parts of each of them that are only revealed because of the mask. Yet it is not fair to say that using these masks they are revealing “the truth.” While things that are normally concealed are revealed, things that ought to be revealed must be concealed.
The ultimate truth may be that the self is too large, too fluid and contextual, to ever be revealed all at once. The best we can do is reveal parts of ourselves. The most we can do is catch glimpses of others.
I promised to tell you more about my novel here. I need your help to get it into print. I am running a Pubslush campaign to fund its creation. It has started out very strong and I am grateful to everyone who has contributed so far, but with 12 days to go there is still a long way to go. As of today it is 29% funded. The levels of support are modest and are essentially pre-orders of the book. A print book, for example, is $15. Please follow the link above and read more about the novel and how to order.