The Internet is a wonderful thing. More information is more available than ever before. More people are more connected to each other than ever before. More opportunities are more available to tell more people what we think, know and feel than ever before.
And it’s overwhelmed us. Just like the halcyon days of sexual emancipation in the 1960s, it’s anything goes. Though instead of sticking our sex organs all over the place, it’s who we wanted voted off this week’s X Factor, heavily processed images of last Thursday’s lunch, four-second videos of our neighbor’s cat sneezing. And most of all: our opinions.
We share our opinions all over the place. There are comment and reply boxes in virtually every corner of the Internet. Content creators actively encourage people to respond publicly to their work.
And what a wonderful thing it is! How great that artists can connect with people all around the world. How wonderful to be able to feel what your audience is feeling. How privileged to be able to engage with people you’ve never met, and probably never will.
That is, until the comments turn mean.
I’m not talking about critical comments. Every artist knows not everyone is going to fall in love their work. The wonderful nature of opinion is that everyone is as entitled to love, like, dislike or hate anyone’s work as everyone else. Everyone is entitled to form their own opinion on wholly personal and wholly subjective grounds.
I’m talking about mean comments. Comments that have no value and no useful purpose. They’re just there to express arbitrary distaste. They exist just to make the person writing them feel superior by expressing publicly that (in their opinion) someone else sucks. More often than not, they only prove that the person writing them didn’t really engage with the other person’s work in any meaningful way at all.
The point is that, yes, of course everyone is entitled to their opinion. But great privilege comes with great responsibility. In this case, that responsibility is not to be a jerk. If you aren’t able to express your opinion – positive, negative or otherwise – in a supportive and constructive way, there’s probably no reason for you to express it at all. Especially when someone’s self-esteem is at stake.
The bottom line is that no artist really wants to be told they suck. Why would they? At least if there’s something constructive and formative in being criticized, most artists have learnt to suck it up knowing it’s going to make them better, smarter and more well-rounded in the long run. (In fact, engaging with people who don’t like your work can help you refine and develop it in ways engaging with your ardent admirers can’t.) But when it’s just meanness, when it’s all about the person being mean and nothing about your work, there’s only one thing to do: laugh it off and carry on.
Here’s a clip from the Jimmy Kimmel Show with some of pop music’s greats reacting to the provocation of some of Twitter’s not-so-greats. Enjoy how the comments aren’t about engaging with these artists’ work at all. Enjoy how the comments are personal, not at all constructive and reveal everything about the people making the comments and very little about the people they’re trying to demean. Enjoy how, quite rightly, it’s all about not taking any of it too seriously. As the saying goes, ‘a lion does not worry about the opinion of sheep’.
If you enjoy the video you might also enjoy Nicolas Slonimsky’s incredible Lexicon of Musical Invective: a charming encyclopaedia of unkind criticism levelled against some of Classical music’s greatest composers.
Every age has its fads and foibles I guess: witch hunting, Communism, electronic vitriol. In ours, we have to learn to be vigilant against negative comments for negative comments’ sake. It’s OK that not everyone will love what you create. It is what it is. But don’t let mean people on the Internet you’ve never met stop you making more.