Edit: I embarrassingly misspelled Eugenia Williamson "Eugenia Williams" initially. I have now fixed. I regret the error.
Last week, PJ and I wrote an article in response to a failed interview between Boston Magazine writer Eugenia Williamson and former child star-turned Velvet Underground parodist Macaulay Culkin. I read the article as fairly mean spirited, viciously personal, and not particularly illuminating of its subject. But in writing the article about it, I strove to keep my critique measured and specific. The larger internet picked up on the story, and didn't make a similar effort.
There were people besides us who found the article distastesful, but a real internet hate frenzy began in earnest when comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted about it to his 1.6 million twitter followers:
And then, of course, came the tired, disappointing, and wholly expected gendered attacks on the author.
Look, the reason I do a show about the internet is because I fundamentally believe in it. It has flattened communication to the point that everyone gets a say. And that is a good thing! Voices that were previously marginalized or completely ignored are able to garner as much attention as old well-heeled schmucks like Tom Friedman. It gives us the opportunity to communicate with sound and video and writing and interaction all at once and when properly harnessed it is magical.
But if I could get a little Uncle Ben from Spider-Man here for a minute, we have a responsibility to one another to try to use our new ability to speak to everyone constructively and apportion our rage appropriately. To only get precisely as angry at things as they deserve. I thought that article was bad. But I don't think that means that the author is a bad person or even a bad writer. That's where it ends.
Whenever I am reading the internet and find myself getting whipped up into netrage, I find it helpful to do a little exercise. And that exercise is to try and imagine the day of the person I'm angry with. If you think of them as an abstraction, you can just turn them into this monument to all terrible behavior in the world. But imagine them waking up, paying bills, hanging out with friends, going to the bank, walking their dogs, calling their grandparents.
This may sound ridiculous, but what I'm trying to say is you don't know them. You don't know Eugenia Williamson from reading this article. Neither do I. And while she is the person that wrote this article I didn't like, that is not the sum total of her existence. She's a real person. The venom directed at her is actually landing on a real person. So just think on that for a second.
One of my particular weaknesses on the internet is engaging with people against my better judgment. Even when I know intellectually that it never turns out well, sometimes I just can't help myself. So when I saw the garbage posted above, knowing full well it was none of my business and I was not asked to do so, I responded anyway:
What I read in this tweet is "I know I'm being a terrible misogynist, but she was asking for it." I am having trouble imagining any circumstance in which someone deserves being talked to like this for writing an article about pop culture.
Way back in TLDR episode #2, I said "the internet is incapable of a measured response." At the time, I took it as a given, one of the inevitable byproducts of the disinhibiting freedom of anonymity and lack of culpability that the internet provides. But there's no reason, really, that we need to take it as such. Criticism and debate are great. No one likes to argue more than me. But the speed and alacrity with which it teeters into bullying on the internet is not a fixed inevitable byproduct of the medium. We have the power to change it.