So maybe you heard the story that was circulating a couple of weeks ago?
A woman named Danielle Smith, a mommy blogger from Saint Louis, had gotten an unnerving message from a college friend now living in the Czech Republic. Did Danielle know, he asked, that a family photo of hers he'd seen on Facebook -- the Smiths' holiday card photo, actually -- was being used as an advertisement on the front of a local grocery store? Well, no, actually. Danielle didn't know that.
Quite naturally, Danielle blogged about this strange turn of events. And as sometimes happens, her story grew legs and went viral. Thousands of people visited her blog and weighed in on the saga of the stolen Christmas card picture and how she and her family unwittingly ended up shilling for cereal, half a world away. Hundreds of media outlets the world over told her story.
But this post is not about Danielle's photo, per se. What I found even more fascinating is that in the aftermath of her initial post about the stolen photo escapade, Danielle felt obligated to write another post. This one was about the incredible amount of vitriol directed at her. Writing about the quirky little photo caper opened Danielle up to the cesspool of vipers. You know, the anonymous online hordes who spend their time looking to say cruel things about anyone they can? They came to Danielle's blog to tell her that her family was ugly. They belittled Danielle and those who defended her as "soccer moms....clearly bewildered on Bisquick and oven cleaner." They haughtily scoffed at her stupidity for posting photos of her family on her blog or Facebook. Because clearly everybody who does something so supremely idiotic should just sit back and wait for those photos to be plastered on grocery store windows in foreign countries. "Get over yourself," a commenter calling himself "Brighteyedangel" wrote.
Ironically, Danielle herself had marveled just weeks earlier at the depths of hatred online, reeling from a comment on the uber-popular mommy blogger Heather Armstrong's site, dooce.com. Armstrong, who was then 35 weeks pregnant, wrote about an unexpected ultrasound. And this is what she heard in return:
162. Anonymous said:
Too bad. I am still hoping something horrible happens to that troll fetus inside of you. What is it like having such a hideous daughter? I wonder what she’s going to do when all the kids start picking on her for being ugly? Ugh. It’s so disgusting you are bringing another creature into the world. Don’t end up in the looney bin this time. LOLAnyone who's ever written anything online, whether it be a column, a blog, or a message board posting, inevitably sees it happen. I've seen mothers on a parenting message board ridicule someone else's child as ugly. Years ago, when I wrote a humor column for Slate -- a humor column! -- my work would occasionally be teased on the MSN homepage. Whenever that happened, scores of people who were clearly not regular Slate readers would click on the link. And then they would proceed to leave comments.
What would they say about my lighthearted humor column, you ask? Oh, you know, that I was a stupid f*cking worthless bitch who didn't deserve to live. That I was a moron who had no right to have a column. That sort of thing. I can't even remember all the names and epithets that were hurled at me. For something as innocuous as writing funny columns about the supermarket tabloids. It floored me, seriously. The level of hostility out there is beyond terrifying.
But now I know for certain that no one, and no subject, is immune from this kind of spewing. Blogger Heather Spohr posted yesterday about the ongoing agony she feels as she grieves the unexpected loss of her 17 month old daughter, Maddie.
And look what some peach of a chick named "Kelly" chose to share with her:
I don't want to put too fine a point on it, and I hesitated whether it was even worth drawing further attention to, but just try to imagine, if you will, sitting down at your computer, composing the above and hitting "post" on the blog of a woman whose baby died not quite three months ago. Who are these people? And what in God's name is wrong with them? (Full disclosure: I have left comments on Heather's blog that I later regretted may have come off differently than I intended; it's sometimes hard to say the right thing to someone in pain. But I can say with absolute certainty I was never this far off base.)
And it doesn't stop there. I just came across this terrifying New York Times Magazine article about online trolls. Trolls who make a sport of, say, ridiculing the families of children who've killed themselves. You know, that sort of thing. Lord knows I am no purveyor of puppy dogs and rainbows. I'm as cynical and jaded a former New Yorker as they come. But this makes me feel incredibly naive. And honestly frightened.
What terrifies me is that this can't be just an Internet phenomenon. Anonymous and Brighteyedangel and Kelly aren't just screennames. They're people, with arms and legs and hearts (well, not really.) They work in the cubicle next to us. They serve us fries and a shake. They're our cousin's next door neighbor. They're the mom with three kids we held the door for at Target. And they are so clearly seething with hatred and loathing. Must it bubble up in their real lives as well, or does the Internet simply provide an effortless outlet for them to spew without real consequence?
I'm not sure. And I'm not sure I want to find out.