[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
Have you ever found yourself having an unpopular opinion about something popular? Perhaps you’re the only one in your workplace who doesn’t enjoy the coffee the machine serves there. Maybe you’re the only person in your dormitory who prefers slow, quiet music over the loud, heavy metal stuff which continues to blare on the radio. It could be you’re the sole individual among your circle of friends who isn’t massively excited about the upcoming third Star Wars trilogy, instead wondering just how many more millions George Lucas is going to invest in that franchise before he finally lets it die. I mean, how much money can you throw at a dead horse before you finally acknowledge that –
Sorry. Off-topic. The point is, we’ve all at some point found ourselves on the other side of the tracks, failing to take enjoyment in something which pretty much everyone else seems to love to pieces. And you might not think this is a bad thing. You might believe that it is perfectly acceptable to hold an unpopular opinion even about the most popular of foods, movies, books, or TV shows. And at some point in time, you might have been right.
But then this little thing called “the Internet” was invented, and everything changed. Voicing an unpopular opinion suddenly became a gross offense, hardly differentiable from larceny, grand theft auto, or letting your dog bark in the front yard all day. If you state a controversial opinion on the Internet, the responses will likely give you grim flashbacks to that time you were in ninth grade and accidentally wandered into the locker room just as the seniors were coming in from practice. The Internet has thrived on this sort of antagonism; it is the spark that sets forums ablaze, with nary a fire extinguisher in reach.
Well… for the most part. Once in a while, you’ll get a website that eschews personal attacks in favor of polite, well-reasoned discussion. It’s the sort of website that polite, well-reasoned people can enjoy comfortably, cheerfully ignoring the fact that the rest of the Internet considers “polite and well-reasoned” to be a synonym for “sissypants”.
If you’ve spent a lot of time here at Critically Touched, you’ve probably noticed that it’s one of those polite and well-reasoned websites. But more importantly, you’ve probably noticed that it is one thing that many other websites aren’t. This thing, of course, is awesome. In fact, even before Yours Truly came along, it was consistently voted one of the most awesome websites on the Internet, and since I joined, its polling numbers have left all other awesome websites in the dust. (And I should know. I cast all the votes myself.)
On Critically Touched, you can voice an unpopular opinion, and the most you’ll have to fear is some well-argued and thoughtful refutation. Rather than feelings of animosity, you come away with a new sense of perspective on the vices of differentiating tastes and opinions, even if you and your opposing party must ultimately agree to disagree. At the very least, you will have sharpened your debating skills, which is pretty helpful if any of you are considering a career in politics. (Which you should, because… well, you’d probably be an improvement.)
But what if you’re elsewhere on the Internet? Or what if – hypothetically – you post an unpopular opinion on Critically Touched that other people – again, hypothetically – read and subsequently criticize? (Did I mention this was all hypothetical?) The venom of the Internet appears to be inescapable.
But I got to thinking recently. And I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “you’re pretty awesome, aren’t you? Surely you must be awesome enough to come up with an article explaining how to avoid having your opinion attacked in the tiresome Internetly way?”
“Of course I’m awesome enough,” my self replied. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
“Oh, self,” I chuckled. “We gotta get you some new material.”
So here it is. This week I’m taking a break from my West Wing reviews in order to explain to you all how to voice an unpopular opinion on the Internet without fearing that said Internet will then make a feast out of your innards. With luck, the four of you reading this will go out and put some of these methods into practice, and the Internet community will soon become a happy, fluffy, endlessly wonderful parade of bunny rabbits gleefully typing away at their keyboards. We can dream, anyway.
[Step 1: Be Clear]
Picture the following scenario: On one of the many “Browncoats Unite!” websites scattered around the Internet, a group of Firefly fans are chatting about the third-greatest one-season show ever made. Perhaps one of them caught an episode of Suits last night, and is really impressed by Gina Torres’ acting chops, and is thus using the occasion to lament the loss of Joss Whedon’s epic space western.
“Bring back firefly 2morrow!” proclaims NiskaFan22. “Serenity shood fly again!” agrees WashAndJayne4Eva. “U cant take the sky from us!” announces ARiverRunsThroughMal.
Then, from LeaveItToReaver: “Guys, fireflys never coming back. You gotta get over it.”
It’s a seemingly innocuous comment, and one that wasn’t even made with intent to harm. LeaveItToReaver simply wanted to point out the futility of hoping that this beloved show would ever return to the airwaves. Indeed, he likes the fact that Firefly is only 14 episodes long, since it wasn’t given the unsavory opportunity to grow stale in subsequent seasons. And he felt discussion would better be reserved for topics related to the show itself, like what is the deal with Book, or why did Whedon feel the need to show us Kaylee eating a strawberry in the pilot episode?
Nevertheless, it can spark a flood of angry responses. NiskaFan22 could reply with “I will, soons I get over yore mom!” WashAndJayne4Eva could respond, “Hand in your browncoat and get off our site!” ARiverRunsThroughMal could say, “Screw this guy. I bet his favorite show is Lost.”
Harsh stuff. Enough to make you want to mock Firefly while writing an article about Internet ethics, even. What, then, could LeaveItToReaver have done to make his comment seem less antagonistic?
Well, how about this: “Guys, I don’t think fireflys ever coming back. But lets not bemoan what could’ve been… lets celebrate what is! Speaking of, how bout that strawberry?”
It’s only a suggestion, obviously, and it may not even be the best one. But, unless NiskaFan22 didn’t get his caffeine fix that morning, chances are he won’t be incited to start an all-out flame war.
In writing online comments, be sure to be clear. The vast majority of face-to-face conversation is transmitted through facial expressions. The Internet does away with all that, so there’s no built-in emotion behind your work. You have to make it clear to whomever reads your comments whether you’re speaking happily, angrily (preferably not angrily), or just making a joke. It’s all about the words.
Well, either that, or you can devote extra time to making those little punctuation mark faces at the end of every paragraph. But since studies have shown that over 100% of those little punctuation mark faces are painfully, gratingly, unspeakably annoying, I recommend you don’t go down that road too often.
[Step 2: Be Courteous]
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Of course it’s important to be courteous, Jeremy. Have you ever heard of two polite, reasoned people getting into a heated argument with each other? No, angry arguments only happen when both sides decide to pick up the gauntlet. But we’ll forgive your error. You’re awesome.”
(Although I’m actually not entirely sure what you were thinking just then, I’m reasonably certain that last sentence was part of it.)
So, talking about Internet courtesy would seem to be a redundancy, since this site thrives on courtesy, and I’m sure many of its posters apply that courtesy to whatever other sites they frequent. Yet Internet courtesy is an extremely delicate subject, and so I’ve chosen to discuss it in an extremely delicate manner.
I’ve got a theory. (No, it has nothing to do with “Once More, With Feeling”, although I’ve annoyingly had that song circling inside my head lately.) Based on evidence I’ve gathered, it seems that the Internet was first formed by two types of people: Angry people and porn-seekers. We will exclude the latter category from this discussion, as fascinating as it may seem, and focus entirely on the former. Since it went mainstream a good twenty years or so ago, the Internet has become the place for angry, bitter people to vent their frustrations on the world, under the cloak of anonymity and the self-assurance that what they say doubtlessly has purpose, since they’re printing it in a way that all the world can see it.
It’s not inherently a part of these people’s natures (though more on that in a moment) so much it is the combined stimulus effect of a computer screen, a keyboard, and an object ripe for the ridiculing. We live in a cynical world, and when you cross that cynicism with an environment that allows people to rip on things without fear of consequence, crazy things can happen. Often unpleasantly crazy. The kind that can make you wish the words “freedom” and “speech” had never been corralled together into the same sentence.
To this effect, it is understandable if someone logs on to a large forum or chat room with his or her mind set and expecting the worst every time he or she posts a comment. Obviously, this far from often turns out to be what happens, but society has made a point of messing with our minds, to the point that we are primed for negative feedback – and with the resources to respond.
So, as redundant as it may sound – be courteous. Take a step back and look at the perspective of the situation. Look at the context of the other person’s comment. See if there’s any way you could have misunderstood his or her emotional state when posting it (see Step 1). Only then should you post your response, politely and articulately, taking a single step towards a peaceful, more harmonious, more bunny rabbit-filled Internet.
(What? I like bunnies. They got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses.)
[Step 3: Know Your Audience]
If you’ve read this far, you may have arrived at the assumption that any Internet argument, no matter how fierce its implications, can be avoided by just following a simple code of conduct. That’s an admirable level of idealism you just reached there. Bartlet would be proud. However, as lines of thinking go, it’s very, very wrong.
Simply put, there are some cases where you simply can’t avoid the more abrasive side of the Internet, unless you choose not to comment at all. Sometimes you will come across a commenter who simply doesn’t know the meaning of the term “opposing opinions”, and will respond to your thoughts with incredulity and possibly anger, occasionally going so far as to question your intelligence quotient, sexual orientation, and reason for existence.
This is not a case of certain individuals being too thick-headed to see beyond their own personal horizons. This is a case of a certain argument going sharply against the steadfast beliefs of a reader, who magnifies the intensity of his disbelief through an Internet lens. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s also not an uncommon one. And the scariest part is that most of the time, the individual in question doesn’t even realize the illogical extent of his stubbornness. Heck, chances are that you’ve been the stubborn individual in an argument at some point in recent memory (though hopefully, you didn’t cross the barrier into that nastiness we try avoiding).
The trick, then, is knowing how to avoid situations where you’ll end up being the seat cushion for someone else’s rear. And here’s an easy rule of thumb: the more popular a website or forum is, the more likely you are to come across such situations.
Think about it. Critically Touched is a relatively small website at the moment, outside of a small circle of fiercely devoted Whedon fans. (Also, lots of Freaks and Geeks and West Wing fans – seriously, I know you guys are out there!) As I mentioned in the Introduction, you’ll find that we get along pretty well. Step outside the bubble (as I do, every once in a long while) and you’ll find larger, broader television-based websites. Hitfix gets plenty of action on a daily basis, and the AV Club can get borderline crazy at times. In these cases, you’ll find a lot of politeness, but also the occasional user who didn’t get up on the right side of his hammock. Look further, at official series and network websites. There you’ll find an almost equal balance of civility and rudeness. Finally, if you’re feeling particularly brave, go check out a page of YouTube comments. No. Seriously. I dare you.
Done? Okay. Sorry about the nightmares I’ve equipped you with for the next three weeks, but do you get my point? There are some instances when arguing your case is simply useless. If you ever start to get the feeling that you may have become ensnared in one such incident, get out of it. Get off whatever website that ignited the situation is for a while, and spend some time here with me, Mike, and the rest of the Critically Touched crew. We may disagree with some of your opinions, but we won’t question your intelligence quotient. Honest.
Now, for those of you who still have doubts about my critique of the Web at large, know that I did not come to this article with the help of talk alone. I have in fact conducted an actual experiment to prove that there are some cases where you can never, ever voice an unpopular opinion and come away completely unscathed.
A few months ago, I wrote an article about my own personal feelings towards a certain television show that is more or less universally beloved, but which I completely failed to get into. (Don’t make me say the title. As though you and the rest of the Internet don’t know.) My article combined reasoned thoughts with some snarky criticisms, all topped off with a big bow of my trademark awesomeness, in hopes that although the majority of people who saw it would disagree with me, they’d at least see my position clearly enough not to call me a muttonhead just for stating my opinion. However, a group of fans of this show on Reddit caught wind of my article, and although they did not specifically call me a muttonhead, several of them took the liberty of calling me pretty much everything else.
If I were the type to give up, I would… well, give up. But that pesky idealistic streak of mine convinced me to try again. So I rewrote my article, focusing less on snark and more on polished writing, trying to be as polite as possible while still making my points clear. I also decided to include a slow, careful introduction to ease people into the idea of a differentiating opinion. When all was said and done, my rewritten article was eleven times better than the original. (Seriously. I counted.) So I showed it to Reddit and waited for their response.
Here was the first commenter’s reply:
“If someone is going to adopt that stiff, fussy style, but not state his thesis at the beginning, I’m not even going to bother, sorry.”
Tread carefully, friends. Tread very carefully indeed.
So there you have it. Now go forth and spread your own sensible opinions for the rest of the online world. Just bear in mind the rules. Be clear. Be courteous. Know your audience. Avoid YouTube commenters. Remain calm even in the toughest of debates. Never pour a jar of honey on your head and wander into a cave. That last part doesn’t really have to do with the Internet, but it’s still pretty important.
And remember: If you don’t like my article, I’m perfectly okay with that. Just go back to whatever moronic things you do enjoy.
Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. In his spare time, he enjoys being awesome and spaghetti with cheese.