It (Isn’t?) Easy Being Mean
by Rod Townsend
In the end, I guess it’s just so easy, and that’s the whole problem.
It certainly was easy this past weekend. Sometime after a breakfast, but before a birthday picnic, I sat in my buddy’s apartment as he checked in with Facebook. “Oh, I guess people are getting their iPads today,” he said. Sure, I knew that people were waking up early and getting their long-awaited iPads, even camping out. (The only thing I’ve ever camped out for were Sting tickets, after his first and greatest solo album, so I sort of understand, but actually don’t.) Anyway, he shows me a picture of what seems to be a nice enough looking guy, sort of sleepy-headed in a shirtless pose with his iPad and a caption: “Look what came this morning.” The inkling was initiated.
The next day was Easter and after breakfast, but before a few hours on the Christopher Street pier and an amazing Italian Easter feast, I was on the computer while my buddy worked on some photography in the other room. That inkling was asserting itself in my head. Guys with iPhones [NSFW] and people generally taking pictures and posting them where everyone can see and the nature of bragging and well, just something about it just rubbed me the wrong way. These people with their iPads. What were they really doing? While it could be interpreted as bragging, there also seemed to be something desperate and lonely at the root of it all. I wanted to expose that root and kill the bragging plant.
Twenty minutes. Found pictures of random folk with an iPad, mostly from Flickr. Copied the image URLs into Tumblr with no explanatory text. Gave it a bleak look with a preset theme. “Lonely People with iPads.” Threw a link to Twitter. Watched the followers grow. Watched the links propagate. Put up more pictures. Saw it on Buzzfeed. Like I said, easy.
The easiness is a huge part of this whole “meanness on the Internet” problem though. See, I was trying to emerge. I’ve done the mean-type blog before. (LOLgay, anybody?) In February I started This Is FYF with a collaborator. We gave ourselves some simple editorial guidelines: Don’t use empty adjectives (fabulous, fierce, gorgeous). Don’t be shrill or bitchy. Don’t be mean. Write about what you love. In some ways the site was a reaction against your typical gay sites that depends on the screaming queen type of writing that turns off many. Beyond establishing ourselves as what we were not, we were trying to create a site from a more confident point of view, or at least one that wasn’t constantly screaming for attention.
Things went smoothly, but old habits are easy to fall back upon though. One night while relaxing and reading, television channels were flipped for some background noise. American Idol came on the screen, and there were new (to me) judges. Ellen Degeneres was a known quantity, but the brunette lady judge was not. She was caustic to the contestants. Even though the show isn’t really topical to FYF, I threw a post on the site: “Sorry, but I haven’t watched American Idol in ages. Who is this garrulous bitch?” Within fifteen minutes I recognized it for what it was: hateful.
It wasn’t just in my own site where the nastiness would come out. On this site there was a profile of a young fellow moving from Michigan to Manhattan (like Madonna!) to work for Gawker. Sort of half-reading it, I got to a name I’d seen around and recognized: Rachel Sklar. To my knowledge, I’ve never met Rachel Sklar, but her name often pops up in stories that, well, annoy me. It’s the whole “we’re a forefront of the revolution of the Internet and we live in an incestuous bubble” stories that are reported by folks in the same bubble. Typically I know to avoid such stories, but in this instance it just set me off. (And my vitriol often comes out at pretty much anything penned by Gawker’s Brian Moylan. If I read another “we gays think this” piece, I might just make a serious lifestyle change.)
The guilt of these acerbic moments is assuaged by others on the Internet that gladly will rally behind an angry statement. Virulence is viral. Lonely people with iPads soon had contributions coming in from other Tumblr users. (Some even sent pictures of children.) And while viral and attention-getting, they do nothing to the subjects except continue the meta-enabling cycle. Think of the things we wouldn’t have if our attention was not expent online. There would be fewer Lady Gaga’s and more Florence and the Machines!
What to do though? The facility the Internet provides to allow impulsive, negative, lazy thought to come out is unmatched. We have “cyber-bullying” in our schools and advertiser dollars and book deals going to blistering, boisterous bloggers. Just like a lot of things in life, the first step is to take a moment and think before acting. While it is easier to stop by McDonald’s for a quick bite, a proper restaurant or even a home-cooked meal is going to yield a greater pleasure. Making quick impulsive buys will satisfy a shopping compulsion, but saving up for something you love will satisfy longer-term. Smoking will calm your nerves temporarily, but maybe taking a regular yoga class will be far better on your system.
So sure, the Internet makes it easy, being mean. Instead of shaking your Internetty fist at all that angers you though, what if you ignored it and discussed things that do work, things that are wonderful, and encouraged others to do the same? It would take more mental work perhaps, thinking through the nature of the things you cherish (or just even like), but the synapses of your brain would be better used and maybe your mood better. In time you might just find that the nicer approach was easier all along.