Years ago, when the word “blog” was about as much a household word as, say, “widget” is today, a friend of mine encouraged me to start my own blog. Michael was an African-American expat in Asia and he wrote a popular blog on his travels and experiences. He glowed when he talked about the friends he had made on-line, friends who even sent him food and other gifts from as far away as Australia (ahem, hint hint). I listened to Michael with incredulousness. He used his full and real name on his blog! He even had photos of himself and his wife! “But I don’t want people to be mean to me,” I had said, memories of my mother’s friend’s daughter teasing and calling me a “cry baby” at age seven resurfacing quickly. “Oh c’mon,” Michael had responded. “You’ll have to be pretty famous before people care enough to start being mean to you.”
Venturing into the internet, to me, is like walking into the ocean. You roll up your pants, inch slowly into the clearness and feel an immediate jolt of cold. Then you wiggle your toes a bit, dig them in and out of the sand and feel the heat of the sun on your back. Before long the cold is forgotten and the temperature feels just right, and you walk in a little further. You walk and walk until the water is about to reach your pants and you can’t roll them up any higher. For now, this is the signal that this is as far you’ll go. For now.
In the three years following that conversation with Michael I would start and stop five blogs. The first three were password protected. The first two were shown to no one but Max. The third and fourth were shown to friends, none of who returned to read them again. Then toward the end of February of this year, I made the plunge. I listed my blog on a small handful of blog directories. I released Gingertea12 from her duties and used my real name. Suddenly, I wanted people to see my blog and I wanted to hear from them. And hear from them I would, slowly and gradually. The comments have been positive. In fact, some would make me so happy that my heart would feel close to bursting, making me realize, this is what I have been wanting to hear from my mother all these years! Blogging really is better than therapy.
And it is this feeling of sunniness, this myopia that cyberspace is a universe of warmth and virtual hugs, that makes me tread further into the ocean of faceless communication. I frequent parenting forums and I get hooked into the debates of the latest parenting news that make the headlines, parenting practices, and parenting beliefs. I am astonished at the level of emotion that these arguments generate – emotions that blur a poster’s ability to respect fellow posters or writers – and many times I finish reading the comments feeling more agitated and angry than satisfied at having discussed an issue thoroughly.
A couple of weeks ago I came upon an essay written by the writer and journalist Delia Lloyd. She had written a guest post on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog about her ambivalence over her current roles in her family’s life. It is an honest story that so many mothers who have never felt 100% sure of their decisions can relate to and it is one that isn’t tied up neatly at the end. To my shock, commenters sprang on her hurling judgmental remarks with words like “self-centered” and “get over it.” I saw the word “puke” in one comment. I added my comment and Delia was kind enough to write back. See? There is a human being behind every comment, blog post and article.
Of course, those of you who read Motherlode may say, well, the New York Times’ Motherlode is itself the motherload of parenting vitriol. And like a masochist I do go back for more, checking out the posts regularly, and commenting when a topic resonates with me.
Then last week one topic surfaced which I felt strongly about. I typed a quick 50-word response and was shocked to find that, within the hour, a commenter had responded to me, calling my attitude “inane” and going so far as to say that I was damaging my son’s potential. He then slipped in one final sarcastic comment to ridicule – the cherry on top of his foaming at the mouth – that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. But I got it. His point was not simply to disagree and offer another viewpoint; his intention was to put me in my place for expressing an opinion that differed from his.
I recently found, through Delia Lloyd’s blog, an article on this type of cyber-bullying. The comments to this piece are varied, as readers offer their own theories for why people bring adulthood debate to the level of 5th grade playground tactics. My personal opinion is that we now communicate invisibly and, just like road rage, it is much easier to feel a sense of protection when your target can’t see you (and you can’t see him/her) and can’t really hold you accountable for what you say. The internet gives us the freedom to, for once, not feel restricted in the face-to-face obligations of good manners and respect. We get to go back to being 5th graders without the threat of detention or a call to our parents. Being mean and one-upping someone gives those who are unhappy with themselves a temporary feeling of power that perhaps they wish they had in other parts of their lives.
Since last week I had decided to take a break from Motherlode, perhaps for good. It wasn’t because of the comment that I received, though it was the last straw on top of several months of accumulated disgust. I’ve got so much to read on-line and so much to do and so little time in which to do it all. Just like in face-to-face life, I feel too old for the nonsense, and as much as possible I’d like to choose the company that I keep – people who make me laugh and think through intelligent and respectful conversation. I know that I am also still in the honeymoon stage of blog writing and I will continue to come back to this to get my fix of intelligent communication and cyberhugging. And if the day comes when someone besides SPAM wants to be nasty? Then I will think, okay, I have made it; someone thinks I’m important enough for his/her attention.