When I was growing up, I was frequently bullied. I had all the stereotypical markers for bullies to pick on: I was overweight, socially awkward, a klutz in sports and inevitably last to be picked, bespectacled and brainy. It didn’t help that my first name could be twisted to spell out the very insult that my peers from four decades ago refused to release.
Even when I eventually thinned out in high school, my tormentors clung to that image of the stocky nerd, and I did little to disabuse them of their cruel notions. There was name-calling, kicking of books and body parts when I was least expecting it, the kid who punched me in the face and broke my glasses, and the way I had to sneak up to the bus stop from a distance in order to make sure Rick L. and his posse were not waiting there, too.
The bullying stopped when I got to college, where most of the attributes that had been so disparaged during my teen years were now in demand. I was popular (enough) and finally happy. I graduated, met my wife, got married, had kids and moved to Israel. With bullying banished, it’s been a good ride for the last 30 years.
But now the Internet has caught up, and the bullying is back. Two of my recent columns in The Jerusalem Post Magazine
generated some surprisingly ugly talkbacks and letters to the editor.
See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
I’m no Pollyanna – someone who thinks good things will always happen – and I have read enough of the hateful speech that usually accompanies anything about Israel on social media to know that the Web can be a scary place. Not just about Israel, of course – cyberbullying, of teens in particular, is a serious scourge that can and has had fatal consequences.
So I’m almost embarrassed even to write about my own feelings toward the nastiness directed my way. No one has cursed at me or used anti-Semitic language.
Suicide is certainly not on the agenda. But I’m still in shock at how personal the writers have been, going for what they perceive as my weak spots and making me question the value of vulnerability.
Both my real-life friends and longtime readers know that I am very open about my life, sometimes to a fault.
Over the years, I’ve shared inside information about my family (much to my kids’ dismay), about sex, about losing a loved one to terror, about my health, about religion and the importance of blazing your own truth. I have always embraced the public exposure that is concomitant with writing from the heart.
Still, it can hurt. One writer lashed out at my column “In praise of ‘datlashim’” (June 5), calling it “a sad reflection on [my] parenting skills” and adding that I act as if I am “proud of the fact that [I have] failed [my] children.”
Another writer shockingly warned me to keep my children “as far away as possible from [his] children.”
For my follow-up column, “Pick and Choose-daism” (June 19), the letter- writers continued with the personal failure theme, with one calling my approach “a recipe for failure, as is painfully evident from the author’s personal experience,” while a talkbacker online hiding behind the pseudonym of “Shel Zahav” called me “an idiot trying to justify his failures” and said the Post ought to drop me “like the hi-tech industry did before.”
Now, I can deal with comments about my parenting skills – I know I’m a good father, and no anonymous Internet hater is going to convince me otherwise, But that last comment was particularly stinging, because whoever Shel Zahav is, he or she seems to know me personally. I never indicated in either of those columns that before I began writing full time, I used to be a start-up entrepreneur. Was this talkbacker an investor who lost money on one of my companies, or maybe a disgruntled ex-employee still holding a grudge? Should I be worried in real life? I wondered if any of my writing colleagues had been similarly bullied and how they related to it. I asked. The response: All of them have been on the receiving end of nasty comments.
Many, like Post Managing Editor David Brinn, say they have stopped reading the talkbacks entirely.
“Or more accurately, I stopped paying attention to them,” he says. “Sometimes I still look at them, because they’re so strange and interesting in what they reveal about the writers. But I have never responded to a talkback and don’t intend to.”
Post and Israel21c writer Abigail Klein Leichman says that before making aliya, she wrote an op-ed in her local paper and got “some very nasty feedback.
It was upsetting, and the experience made me think twice about writing on personal topics ever again.”
Freelance editor and writer Eve Horowitz, who writes only about personal topics in her “Therapy in the Holy City” column over at The Times of Israel, says she’s received “just one outwardly negative reaction... if I were the recipient of a lot more reactions like that one, it might make me shut down.”
Another colleague says he makes a distinction between a talkback online and a letter that appears in the print edition of the paper.
“Talkbacks are like the plague. Anyone can write what they want, it’s an anonymous note,” he says, adding that, like Brinn, he doesn’t read them anymore. Letters, however, are another matter entirely. “I don’t think that there’s an inherent right that everyone who writes a letter has to get in print.”
Some websites edit talkbacks before they go online, deleting the most racist, sexist or anti-Semitic diatribes. But most don’t, embracing the ensuing slugfests as opportunities to increase page views. And with no nuance online and anonymity the norm, it’s easy to go straight for the jugular.
It’s not just newspapers, either. Last year, Amazon.com received a petition demanding that the online bookstore remove reviewers’ ability to comment anonymously. Best-selling novelist Anne Rice (of Interview with a Vampire fame) was one of nearly 10,000 signatories who decried the world of book bullies who mercilessly attack authors on sites like Amazon and GoodReads when they don’t agree with something the author has written (or stands for personally).
The Internet works both ways, of course. After I posted to my Facebook friends about the comments I had received on my articles, I was overwhelmed with support – both against the trolls and in favor of the actual content of what I wrote.
The truth is, I’d really like to steer clear of both the talkbacks and the letters to the editor entirely. I know that the writers are just acting on their own insecurities or narrow-minded fears.
But part of being a proactive citizen of the social web is staying on top of what people are saying about you. It’s true for politicians and brands, and it’s true for columnists as well: Ignore what’s being written about you at your own peril.
Post columnist Lawrence Rifkin takes a different approach. “I positively love letters that berate me because very few, if any, agree with me. So at least it means people are indeed taking the time to read me. I’m of the school where it’s taught, ‘Say what you want about me, just spell my name right.’” I’m not planning to let the bullies get to me. I’ll keep on baring my soul – I don’t know how to be any other way. And – to borrow a line from one of my more notorious commenters – if I didn’t, then I’d really be a failure. The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers, in order to rank higher on social media and search engines. www.bluminteractivemedia.com.