How We Speak On The Internet Matters

Catching Snowflakes on Tongue

Yesterday, Will Hindmarch — a writer, game designer and thinker I respect dearly — said something smart on Twitter (which for him is not uncommon). He said, “I think how you write something makes a difference, especially when you’re doling out writing and creative advice.”

This is somewhat perpendicular to another meme that’s going around, which is a question over the value of negativity on these here frothy Intertubes. Lots of questions abound: can critique find a healthy place on the Internet? Is there any value to negative reviews? Should negative reviews be constructive instead of destructive? Should we build up and not tear down? Should we be, as the saying goes, a fountain, not a drain? (Related reading: “Don’t You Like Anything?” At the Seven Keys of Ventoozlar.)

I say these two points are perpendicular because I think they hit an intersection point. (They hit this intersection point after dodging all the rampant pornography, Justin Bieber fan pages, Justin Bieber hate pages, political rhetoric, and funny YouTube videos where some skateboarder accidentally skateboards his way into the whirring turbine of a 747 airliner — this is, after all, the Internet and the Internet is home to 90% Alice In Wonderland-style nonsense and madness and maybe 10% of sane, semi-rational discourse.)

The intersection of those two ideas, for me, really ends up with: how we speak on the Internet matters.

It matters when you’re talking about writing or game design advice.

It matters when you’re offering critique or review.

It matters when you’re writing dumb-ass crazy person blog posts like I do, here.

It matters on Twitter. It matters on Facebook. It just plain matters.

At first I was going to say that all this remains especially true for creators: after all, our value is in what we create, and we can only give the world our creations if the world wants them, and the world may not want our shit if they think we’re just a gaggle of blustery fuckwipes. (“Blustery Fuckwipes” is not the name of my band, my album, my first novel, or my autobiography. It is the name of my pet ferret, who wears goggles and an aviator’s hat. “Blustery Fuckwipes,” I say, “Take us to to Mach Speed so that we may catch the Chartreuse Baron in his Sopwith Ultra-Thousand!” No, I don’t know. Shut up.) But it’s not just true for us. It’s true for everybody. Everybody is selling something. Everybody is looking for work. For friends. For loved ones. For something. And how we speak on the Internet has an effect on all of that.

In this day and age, the Internet isn’t just a reasonable facsimile of real life but rather, a substitute for it. People spend as much time online as they do off of it, and while that merits a whole other discussion, it doesn’t change the reality that a great deal of our social discourse is here. It’s not outside our doors. It’s on our computer monitors. The people online aren’t avatars or characters. They’re actual human beings like the same blubbery skin-bags you see at the grocery store or the malt shoppe or the dildo emporium.

Now, I think the knee-jerk response to this revelation is a kind of paranoid uncertainty (which I’ve felt keenly in the past) — “I shouldn’t present a strong opinion because then I’ll make people mad.” But that’s not it, either. Because our opinions are important. Whether it’s about a movie we saw or about labor unions or abortion or the publishing industry or whatever, our opinions frame us and tell the world who we are.

So no, I don’t think we should be afraid of critique or review, nor do I think we should be afraid of having opinions or giving advice. I just think that how we convey that matters. The message matters most, but what that message purports to be — what supposed truth it delivers — can’t matter if it’s poorly put forth.

Here’s an example, then, of how it matters:

Yesterday, Colleen Lindsay called me and said that she wanted to talk to me about taking a look at her Sekrit Projekt. She said, right off the bat, that she wanted to connect with me because she thought that I was funny and fairly upbeat and — well, wasn’t a constant wearer of Internet Cranky Pants. Now, I’ll grant that some of you might be furrowing your brow — after all, I’m the guy who says things like Why Your Self-Published Book Might Suck A Bag Of Dicks. Or, PC Gaming Can Punch A Baby Seal. I’m not Doctor Thumbs-Up over here. I’m not Joe Smileynuts. That being said, I do endeavor to put forth a certain attitude in even my most extreme rhetoric — an attitude that aims to be self-deprecating, imperfect, funny, and that allows room for me to be the wrong-headed asshole. I have strong opinions, but I do not try to present those strong opinions as if they are also bulletproof. Do I misstep? Sure. I strive to do better.

Anyway. Them’s my Saturday morning rambles. For a long time I kind of worried that strong opinions were the concern, but I’m coming to terms that having opinions isn’t the problem, but rather, it’s how we give those opinions out. We can pitch them at people’s heads like frozen shit-balls, or we can make some effort to deliver them so that they don’t put out somebody’s eye in the process.

This is all of course provided your opinion isn’t, “I like to stomp babies” or “I loathe Algerians and I think we should institute a pogrom.” Some opinions won’t hold water no matter how nicely you frame them.

(To go back to the beginning, I assume that Will was referring in some way to this post that asserts that game designers are somehow playtesting incorrectly, as if such a thing were possible. I read that article and to me, it’s very much an example of what I’m talking about. It felt pedantic and cranky. I found a few snidbits of wisdom in there, but I had to read it a couple times just to get past the bad attitude. It’s like hiding pretty little pearls in a bucket filled with thorns and snakes. Don’t make me reach in there to find your wisdom because that does nothing to earn anybody’s respect.)

15 comments

  • When I post feedback on a game’s forums, I usually talk about both what I liked and disliked. I try to be constructive with why I disliked something, and provide possible solutions.

    When I review a game on the blog (or more correctly, when I used to review games on the blog), I do that but with 900% more asshole. I wouldn’t say either is more correct, but I do like being an asshole. I think it’s because it’s the difference between lecturing and having a conversation — if I’m having a conversation, I’m not going to tell someone their opinion is fucking stupid and they should shut up before I punch them. If I’m just lecturing, though, I can say Mr Strawman with said opinion is stupid because it’s not like he can be offended.

    Maybe it makes me two-faced, or dishonest? Maybe. But really, being a forum troll isn’t going to get me heard. Providing negative, hopefully-amusing comentary in a way that isn’t personally offending people might.

    On a related note I didn’t really see anything wrong with the playtesting article, but eeeeh, to each his own?

    • @Danielle —

      I inject “asshole” into my posts, but usually with an equal measure of, “I’m the asshole and I know it, which means you should take my opinions with a giant salt lick.” That said, I think blog posts and reviews are just as much a conversation as forum posts, and should be treated to some of the same rules.

      Re: playtesting article — yeah, absolutely, to each their own. Obviously it was speaking to a certain audience and it resonated with that audience. I am clearly not that audience.

      — c.

  • I like the metaphor about pearls in a bucket full of snakes and thorns. That is exactly how I feel about harsh, destructive criticism for anything. They say you need a tough skin, but how can you gain knowledge when you’re aching all over from the thorns and bites? I’d rather just ignore it completely.

    When it comes to dialogue on the internet, I try to be as intelligent sounding as possible, but I think you need to choose carefully which forum you decide to participate in. When its a forum full of people who are immature or just don’t respond with logic or politeness, it’s hard to be the grown up and stick to your guns, and easy to get caught up and join the crowd.

  • Even when you’re titling a blog post about how one’s self-published book may suck a bag of dicks, it’s clear that the aim of what you write is to share what you’ve learned and that you’re trying to help people. What you write is always real, and the vast majority of your entries are humorous and positive. (Like you said: it’s not about what you say, but how you say it.)

    I’m a big fan of The Nerdist podcast. In a recent episode, Chris Hardwick–the main Nerdist host–talks about negative people online. Being a stand up comedian, he jokes about his fragile ego and how one negative comment about him can negate the hundreds of positive comments he receives about what he’s doing. He talks about how it’s no longer so much that he’s hurt by an attack on him, but that it hits him on a larger level.

    We lose a bit of our humanity when we shit all over things just because we had a bad day and spend time being negative and ripping at people and things, instead of being positive and putting that time into supporting the things we love. As battle-tested as Harwick is, it still floors him by how mean people can be, just because they’re unhappy.

    I spent a fair amount of time writing my first-ever review on Amazon for Irregular Creatures and writing about it on my blog. I’ve told the guys in my writing group to buy it; I tell anybody I hear into the kind of stuff you write to check it out.

    There are things out there that I hate, but I don’t give them much time. If a friend is going to see a movie I didn’t like and I know their tastes are similar to mine, I might say, “It didn’t do anything for me; if you check it out, let me know what you think.” If they hated it, too, yeah–we may spend time over a drink talking about the pile of suckage. But I never feel compelled to jump online and rip on something when my time is always better spent doing my own thing online, or letting people know about stuff I liked, rather than hated.

  • An addendum: what you say on the Net never goes away. I can still find online work of mine from 15 years ago without any trouble. Once it’s been sent from your computer, it’s totally out of your control, and it’s forever, baby.

  • I dunno. I think that there’s been a bit of a toxic meme of late, largely centered around holier-than-thou grousing about negativity on the internet… ironic, because by definition, such grousing *is* negativity. It just seems there’s a certain type of internet hipster who feels the desperate need to tell everyone how they’re so over all this negativity, man. It’s harshing their grok, and impacting their personhood and self-actualization, ya know?

    Generally, “don’t be a dick” is a fine rule, for netspace and real life. It doesn’t really require much more thought than that. Or any grandstanding.

    If you spend all your time worrying about *how* you’re saying something, that’s time taken away from making sure *what* you’re saying is worthwhile. (Of course, most of the types I mentioned earlier seem far more concerned in how OTHER people are saying things. Not so much with the self-awareness, there.)

    • @Gareth —

      I generally wish the ‘Net was a more positive — or, at least, more constructive — place. I don’t know that puts me in the “internet hipster” department, but you’re free to judge as you feel necessary.

      I’m also not sold that worrying about how you’re saying something takes time away from the message itself. That smells of false dichotomy to me. I’ll agree that if someone is more concerned with the conveyance of the message than the message itself, that doesn’t say much for the opinion at hand, no.

      *shrug*

      — c.

  • Well, there’s the general and there’s the specific.

    I agree that how we choose to say things matters. I think that questioning one’s approach to an argument is fair play. Arguments get improved and refined that way.

    I also think that questioning the writing can distract from a debate on the issue contained within. The value of a position isn’t necessarily equal to the quality of the argument or its writing.

    In specific, in the case of that comment thread, we’re not seeing my finest hour.

    I’m genuinely curious why Mr. Lehman chose the language he did to make his point. I was recently admonished for stating my own opinions online, so I took some advice and phrased them as questions. At the same time, though, he doesn’t have to answer to me—he’s free to say that he doesn’t want to distract from the issue and discuss the style of his argument. I would have been disappointed to miss out on the discussion, but I’m not the boss of him.

    Instead, though, I took his response as a dismissal, implying that my questions of “tone” (when in fact I’m talking about something more substantive than tone) are inappropriate or without merit. The implication of the anti-tone argument being that your position is all that matters and how you say it is never up for discussion. I disagree with that extreme position, but it may be a strawman—maybe that’s not what Mr. Lehman meant when he waved me away.

    Looking back at the post today, I don’t feel I was out of line, though I admit I eventually felt that way because of Lehman’s responses. I can see how it’s possible to read my comments as being sarcastic, I suppose, though that’s not how I meant them. Maybe my tone got in the way.

    I had the opportunity to politely keep my mouth shut or to just blandly say “I agree in general that bad playtesting is bad, but not with all your specifics,” which might have been smarter. I could have just clicked the metaphorical Like or Dislike button, but I don’t believe that simplistic yea-or-nay comments are as valuable as questions or weighing in with other opinions. We’re not voting on a bill, we’re in committee—the language should be on the table.

    The smartest thing would have been to not engage at all, but I’m not always that smart.

    So I asked my questions. I thought it was lowly of me to talk about his post elsewhere without addressing him directly, so I weighed in there. I admit, too, I was irked by the way Mr. Lehman dismissed a previous commenter and I maybe should have taken that as a sign to ignore the post altogether, instead. I don’t have to care what Mr. Lehman thinks.

    I’ve also been corrected that the post isn’t a public, unfinished essay, I guess, but an open letter to other people and therefore, apparently, none of my business. That’s a dismissal of a different sort, but whatever. It’s his soapbox. If I’m not welcome, I’m not welcome. On to other things.

    (Except, now he’s calling me disingenuous, I see.)

    The truth is that, related to all of that, I hesitate to take stands online on various issues because I’m hesitant to make enemies. By taking a position—whether it’s on the quality of a TV show or the role of government or the suitability of a writing style to a particular argument—I risk driving away people who disagree. It’s a form of cowardice. I want to be liked. These, again, are not my finest hours.

    Anyway, I guess maybe some takeaway messages for me are these:

    1. Other people are allowed to use sass and attitude when writing about things they find important, but I am not. I can’t pull off the mix of encouraging vulgarity and free-wheeling energy that you can, Chuck, so I write in a different style and avoid making big statements on my blog. As a result, I don’t rile people… but I don’t rally people, either.

    2. A lot of hidden context and unspoken meaning potentially lives behind every post online—a lot of factors went into my decision to comment and the language I chose—yet not everything is innuendo. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, sometimes a question is just a question.

    3. Wear a fucking helmet.

    • 1. Other people are allowed to use sass and attitude when writing about things they find important, but I am not. I can’t pull off the mix of encouraging vulgarity and free-wheeling energy that you can, Chuck, so I write in a different style and avoid making big statements on my blog. As a result, I don’t rile people… but I don’t rally people, either.”

      To be clear, @Will, this is probably because you’re not nearly as full of shit as I am. I mostly just make crap up and hope that my relative lack of content is in some small way amusing — and, when amusement fails, I spackle over it with a hefty glob of creative profanity. I love your blog and you should continue to write there and be truthful about yourself.

      — c.

  • A clarification: “I was recently admonished for stating my own opinions online, so I took some advice and phrased them as questions.”

    This should read: “I was recently admonished [when] stating my own opinions online, so I took some advice and phrased [my opinions] as questions.”

  • @Chuck — you’re a hipster for other reasons. Because you’re hip in REAL LIFE. (Or at least you are until the kidlet is born. Dads Are Not Hip. Says so on the package of black socks that we have to wear with sandals).

    No, what I’m getting at is that there is a particular crowd who seem terribly concerned with *everyone else’s* negativity, and have, of late, spent a great deal of time spreading that concern. For the record, I really don’t consider @Will part of that crowd either.

    Or maybe there is no crowd. Maybe it just seems to be since I’m seeing it a lot, from folks whom I tend to lump together.

    As you say: *shrug*

    • @Gareth:

      I am hip in real life, and I only have three more months to *be* hip. DAMN YOU CHILDBOY.

      But I do like these sandals. And these suspenders!

      Anyway — yeah, no, I hear you, there is a sense of… I dunno, bitching about bitching, which is really not that helpful.

      I definitely don’t think @Will is a part of that crowd. He is, however, part of the IN CROWD.

      Or something.

      — c.

  • On my book blog my goal is to encourage. Hell, I don’t even have the vocabulary needed to be constructive in my reasons for liking a particular book or character and the last thing I would ever attempt to do is criticize anothers work. My biggest concern is representing people in a way that they won’t find offensive…it consumes me more than it should, I’m afraid.

    When it comes to my personal blog…my thoughts are mine and I don’t really care if others agree or not. But don’t call me names over a difference of opinions, cuz that’ll just tick me off, and then I won’t play nice…

  • @Will — the only thing I’d like to say in response to your points:

    Yes, if you avoid taking stands online you’ll prevent people from getting pissed off at you.

    You will also prevent people from getting to know you.

    ….which I think would be a shame.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds