Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Where's the Love?

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, Armstrong, who was then 35 weeks pregnant, wrote about an unexpected ultrasound. And this is what she heard in return:

162. Anonymous

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. LOL

Anyone 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.


  1. The only thing that makes me feel better about people like Anonymous, Brighteyeangels and Kellies of the world is to think how grateful I am not to be them--how awful it must be to live inside their hate-filled little brains.

    I feel like all I can do is add my positive support to those people like Dooce and Heather who are the targets of those bottom-feeders. There is something sinister about the facelessness and lack of accountability that comes with the online world.

  2. Ugh. It's sad that these people spend so much time and energy directing such viciousness at others. It would be amazing to see what they could do if they could put that energy into something good.

  3. As much as I appreciate the amazing community-building aspects of the Internet, the darker flip-side is really ugly and scary. I appreciate Sarah's reply about how it must feel to be one of the trolls, and can only hope that there MUST be some kind of karma for those willing to spew such hateful comments. Kelly's comment toward Heather in particular hits close to home for me. I can only hope Heather receives 1,000 supportive comments for every "Kelly" comment out there (actually, I wish Kelly had never taken the time to write such a hurtful reply, but unfortunately I can't wish that away for Heather...). I'm realizing that I probably haven't given enough thought to what people open themselves up to by blogging.

  4. You stuipid bit... Oh, wait sorry. It's me, your brother.

    Jen, this is a really good column. Some people are just plain ugly. After yesterday's beautiful little piece in the Post about Denyce Graves getting remarried, someone posted a comment taking issue with the paper's characterization of her as "the foremost diva of her time." The commenter said that calling her that was like calling Jason Campbell the "foremost quarterback of his generation." And all I could think was, it's a story about two people finding love. Why on earth would anyone choose that moment to take pop shots at Denyce's star quality.

    People are mean. People are jealous. People are uneducated. People are catty. People are bitter. People are.......


  5. It's telling that when I saw I'd gotten an anonymous comment, I got a little nervous, no?

  6. Jennifer - this is so well written - you amaze me. The truth is, I too, believe that the people like Brighteyeangels, Kelly and Anonymous are EXTREMELY unhappy people. I imagine they are locked in some miserable hovel of a life and their only outlet is to spread hatred in the hopes of bringing that same type of misery to other....they love company, right?

    I also have to say, while I was initially offended, appalled and wounded, I do believe what was said to me doesn't carry an ounce of the venom that Kelly directed at Heather. Telling me I'm ugly? That my kids and husband are? My anger at those coments disappears entirely in the face of someone like Kelly's idiocy. To direct that kind of drivel at a grieving mother? That is a special kind of evil.

    And I do believe in karma.

    And Brenna -you better believe Heather's supporters came out in droves - the comments are worth reading - if only to know that so many people have their hearts in the right place - and would never, EVER kick someone while they are down the way Kelly did.


  7. These people have always been out there, but the internet is like bug spray. Everyone crawls out of the wood. Anyone who writes a comment like that- about Maddie- is obviously seriously disturbed. To attack someone grieving the death of a child is to announce you are mentally ill.