So you’ve looked at Twitter and you’ve read through a few angry social justice hash tags and you’ve decided being the target of that is definitely right for you. The following “how-to” guide will make it more likely that you can join venture capitalists, academics, CEOs, politicians and many other famous (and infamous) people on the front page of Gawker!
- Say something publicly that is wrong. Note you don’t have to say something so awful that your best friend would tell you it is kind of bad. You should say something fairly innocuous, maybe a common opinion that you’ve seen others express. For example, you could say there are fewer women developers because they move into roles like product management since women are less interested and prepared for the hard technical roles.
- When someone responds saying that you’re mistaken and actually that opinion is kind of hurtful, make sure to reply as defensively as possible. Repeat that you think you’re right. Make sure they know that what you said is actually okay and really common! You’ll want to start promoting supportive responses.
- When more people start replying agreeing and pointing out that it’s actually a harmful stereotype that has affected their daily life, insist that they are wrong. It’s probably actually something wrong with them as a person. After all, since they aren’t getting promoted as a developer, it’s probably just because they aren’t working hard enough or doing enough hackathons to build up their skills. You should question their credentials or whether they really work where they say they do. Make sure your followers know your critics are nobodies.
- Keep responding to everyone. You want to engage as many people as possible. If you’re on a platform like twitter, you might even consider searching your handle without the “@” to see what people are saying about you that they don’t want you to notice. Pick some high profile people to respond to in the same way you’ve been engaging others. Continue to promote comments from people who are supportive.
- If someone uses strange jargon (e.g. “intersectional”) don’t google it! Insist that they explain it to you. You could insist that their words aren’t real words. Maybe roll you eyes (metaphorically) that people are so illogical and make words up. You definitely don’t want to read any links anyone sends you to explain things to you (but feel free to go read criticisms of those same articles!)
- You definitely don’t want to apologize. If you apologize, especially if it could be interpreted to be at all self-critical, you might take the wind right out of the sails on this ship to Gawker-famedom. Instead, consider telling some of your critics they should apologize for being so hostile and rude. Make sure to comment to your followers about how awful everyone is being.
- When people tell you to leave them alone, don’t give up! You definitely want to keep talking to people to convince them that your original comment was completely right and why don’t they see that? Getting more people riled up by contining to repeat and double-down is the only way to the Gawker front page. A good tactic is to ignore someone talking to you and instead respond to other people. Then hours later after they seem to have lost interest, respond to bring them back onboard.
If you repeat these tactics and just keep strong in your belief that you are right, you might make the front page of a website for a silly internet fight! If you don’t already have a substantial following, you’ll have to work hard at getting attention from some high profile people. You can do it!
Now, as you might have guessed, this is a snarky commentary on how not to become the center of a social media fight1. People obviously don’t set out to be piled on and repeatedly criticized. Instead, I believe they don’t have good skills in coping with criticism and thus extend their original offense, usually minor and easily correctable, past all reasonableness (in particularly egregious and entitled cases this lack of skill continues for years, preventing real self-improvement and becomes a permanent and cringeworthy aspect of their public persona2). If you’re not actually interested in hitting the front page of Gawker for the kind of hurtful things everyone says occasionally, then read on for a more dry but more practical version.
For background, I’ve sadly seen some people (including friends) say they are afraid to talk about some things because they are afraid of the “mob”. While no doubt some people are just tacitly admitting they consciously hold opinions others find odious, for most people I believe it’s a mistaken fear that you just can’t be publicly wrong about some subjects. Since I believe those subjects3 are ones that it would help if more people thought about them, I don’t want people to feel they have to shut up for fear of a minor mistake becoming famous. So here is a dry explanation for why I don’t think “call out” culture is as fearsome as certain people would claim, at least if you prepare yourself and think about how you would react (we all inevitably make mistakes.) What follows is not intended to be a checklist on how to shut up critics. Rather, I believe these are necessary steps to becoming a better person and demonstrating your willingness to do so often makes your critics willing to help you grow. I’ve deliberately chosen a very non-threatening and physical analogy to emphasize that “social media” is not some special realm of human interaction with vastly different rules.
Don’t be defensive. Your first impulse may be to dig-in and assert you are right. Imagine you were in a cafe and someone spilled coffee on you. If they immediately insisted that the coffee actually missed you or it was your fault for putting your bag on the floor to trip them, you would rightly think the coffee-spiller was an asshole. Even if you might share some fault for spilling the coffee (maybe your bag really was in the way), if a person’s first impulse after spilling coffee on you (even unintentionally) is to blame you, you’ll be upset. Their first impulse should have been to figure out how they hurt you.
Similarly, don’t be dismissive. Trying to tell a person their concerns aren’t meaningful or their perceptions are wrong is unlikely to be convincing and is extending the damage. To continue the scene in our cafe, if the person who spilled the coffee immediately said it hardly matters that they stained your shirt because it’s an ugly shirt you shouldn’t wear or it will come clean if you just wash it or it wasn’t that hot so you’re not hurt, you would definitely think they are an asshole. They jumped to explaining why you shouldn’t feel wronged by what they did. They said your experiences and perception were irrelevant.
Maybe shut up for a while. Read things and don’t react. It’s hard to determine the causes for things in the “heat” of the moment. If the coffee spiller had stopped for a moment before reacting, they might notice that actually they had tripped on their untied shoelaces. Online, when you see many people angry at you, it is tempting to respond immediately. But consider this: most people who are angrily responding to you are reacting to something. At the least not reacting immediately means you’re less likely to make the same (or related) mistakes again almost immediately. Our cafe analogy here falls down because no one is likely to spill coffee on multiple people, but imagine if your friend sitting next to you rolled their eyes at the coffee spiller and they responded by jiggling their coffee again and spilling coffee on your friend. Now they’re being an asshole to multiple people.
Try to figure out what you did do wrong. Even if ultimately you don’t think you really said anything wrong, why wouldn’t you assume that you did? Trying to figure out why someone is upset with you has little risk. If they use a word you don’t understand, google it. You’ll probably want to go back to step 3 and ponder a bit. The cafe analogy again falls down a bit because it is usually obvious how the offense occurred, but even online with someone spouting intersectional jargon at you, you have lots of resources to figure out why they are angry.
At some point you might figure out that indeed you did something wrong, even if it was not your intent. Apologize! Say what you found that helped you understand or what you think would help you not do it again. Back in our cafe, wouldn’t an apology and an “oops, I tripped on my shoelaces” do a great deal to make you less angry? While an apology isn’t necesssarily the end of the matter (a greater offense might require more work than that), apologies are a fundamental part of humans getting along with each other. Without one, the person you harmed is unlikely to see that you’ve changed, even if you never make the same mistake ever again. If the coffee spiller and you are regulars at the cafe and they leave without apologizing, won’t you feel a bit hostile towards them even if they never spill coffee on you again?
You won’t convince everyone. Some won’t accept your apology. Some will feel you didn’t respond as well as they think you should. Some may indeed be unfair, taking out their anger on you. Maybe you didn’t even really do anything wrong. Humans have disagreements and this is okay! But if you continue to engage past a good faith effort to rectify the offense, you’re not only wasting your time but risking further offense by reacting while angry (see step 3). If the coffee spiller apologized, but for whatever reason you were grumpy and didn’t accept it graciously (or at all), how would you react if they then intruded further to dab a napkin on your shirt? If they kept apologizing and invading your space despite your clear discomfort, you would probably become even angrier. Your friend would probably become angry on your behalf. An unaccepted apology doesn’t mean it’s not a real apology: it just means people are people and can disagree. An apology is more about your integrity than it is about righting a wrong.
I want us to have complicated and difficult conversations. It’s the only way we make our culture better. But if you say anything interesting at all, you will get it wrong sometimes. You will offend people. Being prepared to admit you might be wrong and moderate your own reactions may not prevent your appearance on the front page of Gawker, but I think it goes a long way towards making it unlikely.
Yes, this article is also somewhat timely in that certain high profile commentators must have read a serious version of the introduction of this piece and decided it was a good idea. However, the idea has been in my head a while. ↩
Yes, I could indeed have linked to a different example for each word in this parenthetical comment. ↩
Subjects include all the common -isms obviously, though this post is intended as general advice. ↩