Imagine you’re participating in a discussion in an internet forum somewhere. Someone replies to one of your comments by calling you a stupid prick who can’t tell his ass from a hole in the ground. Or maybe something even more insulting. What’s your first reaction?
This sort of thing happens all the time on the internet. I’ve encountered it frequently, though only occasionally directed my way. In the old incarnation of this blog, I often expressed extreme opinions on controversial social or religious issues. Those posts would sometimes attract extremists from the other end who would often post comments full of insults. My response in those cases varied. If the comment was nothing more than expletives and name-calling, I’d bait and mock. If they managed to throw in something resembling a debate argument, I’d add my own arguments to my mockery. It was fun for me.
It was fun because I expected people to come and leave inflamed comments on the blog. I even wanted it. Often, my posts themselves were somewhat inflammatory. If I read about someone who did something that I found silly or unreasonable, like demanding that a school library ban books featuring homosexual characters, that someone would be branded a moron in my post. I even had a “Moron of the Week” award that I handed out when it took my fancy. My point is that the insults didn’t bother me at all, primarily because I expected them. Then again, anyone who comments on a blog for no other reason than to call the blog owner names really can’t be taken seriously anyway. Unfortunately, not all insults can be so easily brushed aside. Sometimes, they do sting a bit.
As a hobbyist programmer, I am a member of a handful of different programming communities. I often participate in discussions on topics relevant to each community. Within the walls of most internet communities, there’s a set of certain social rules which members are expected to follow. Some might be written somewhere on a policy page, others are unspoken but widely understood. When I make a post there, I don’t expect random idiots from the internet to come and hurl insults at me. I’m participating in serious discussions, expecting serious answers. So when someone comes along and violates the standards by which we all abide, it’s all too easy to take it personally.
If I write an inflammatory blog post, my shields are up and fully charged. No matter how many insults are flung my way, it’s all a game. In those programming communities, though, my shields are down. I’m not expecting insults. There’s no way I would even consider making an inflammatory post there. I can behave how I want in my own home, but when I’m visiting someone else’s house or hanging around the public square, I should be on my best behavior. My blog is my home. Everywhere else on the internet is not. Because I’m going to behave that way, I expect others to as well. That attitude makes it more difficult to be impervious to any insults directed my way.
There was a time that I would return any insults I received in an internet community. I would be sitting at my keyboard, fuming. Eventually, I realized that only adds fuel to the fire. Over time, I think I’ve developed a fairly thick skin. Reading an insult that’s aimed squarely at me can still be a little unsettling, but I quickly let it pass. If there is anything in the post to reply to, I’ll do so and ignore the insults completely. If all the community members do the same, the deviant will eventually either go away or learn to be more civil.
If you are going to participate in discussions on the internet, a thick skin is a very important tool to have. In some communities (YouTube is a primary example) insults are so frequent that if you let them get to you, you’ll find yourself angry all the time (actually, I avoid commenting on YouTube completely because I don’t think even my skin is thick enough for that cesspit).
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about cyberbullying in this post. That’s something else entirely. I’m referring to the day-to-day, off-the-cuff remarks people make when they’re frustrated or upset. It’s hard to picture sometimes, but I try to remind myself that most of the people who do throw insults around like that probably don’t really do so when they are face-to-face with people in real life. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon of the internet age.
If your skin is still so thin that online insults bother you to one degree or another, don’t worry. Skin grows callused the more you use it.