Bitterness Loves Company on the Internet

How can a magazine profile of one Main Line woman inspire such vitriol?

The reviews are in. I wrote a story in this month’s Philadelphia magazine. Perhaps you saw it. It was a profile of a woman named Amy Burnham, who lives on the Main Line and circulates in the peculiar social orbit that exists out there. I do a lot of stories, for this magazine and others, writing about different people who do all sorts of different things. But every once in a while, I pen something that just makes people insane, for reasons I usually don’t completely understand. But the story comes out and the heavens open up, and down pours a thunderstorm of consternation, condemnation, and finger-wagging indignation.

That’s certainly what has happened here. To give you a flavor of what the brickbat-throwers have been saying, let me present a recap, as Zagat might a restaurant review:

The story is “BS,” and “a truly terrible piece of writing,” which must be “some sort of joke” and “so stupid I wish I didn’t read it,” opined various readers. While a few found the piece “vivid and captivating,” most felt this “piece of trash” was “one of the most boring articles that I have ever seen in this magazine” and warned that “much more like this and doctors will start prescribing Phila Mag instead of Ambien.” (Points for metaphor, Mark Miller.) “This writer is no Tom Wolfe” opined yet another, while one critic declared, “I’d expect this kind of article in the Enquirer.” (One assumes he meant the National, not the Cincinnati.) My personal favorite of the more than five dozen that have piled up in the story’s comments section like an interstate car crash is this one, from a “Monicalr”: “I am assuming Michael and Amy have an intimate relationship … ” I must say, that would certainly be a news flash to all of the people I came out to 18 years ago. Not to mention to the men I’ve dated since.

Such is the nature of the modern blogosphere. The Internet Age has handed anyone with online access a soapbox, and encouraged them to step on it—constantly—and be heard. And this has yielded many positives, as the marketplace of ideas goes democratic in a way that would have been unfathomable just a generation ago. The Tea Party was largely fomented, and quickly became a formidable force in American political life, through Internet discourse; just this past week, a firestorm of chain-linked Net chatter forced the Susan G. Komen Foundation to back down from a controversial decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings. That’s powerful.

But with this “free exchange” of ideas also comes talismen, and they are not to be taken lightly. With no one at the door to curate what gets thrown out for public consumption, and innumerable opportunities to hide behind anonymous postings, the Internet has become a haven for speech that is not only hateful (we’ve always had that), but dangerous, as the epidemic of teens killing themselves from cyber-bullying proves. Perhaps this can’t be helped if we want everyone to feel free to express his or her opinion, and I believe we do. Even if I disagree with most of the people who have tarred and feathered me for my story, for example, I remain committed to a Voltaire approach of defending their right to do it. I just can’t help but wish they did it better. Or at least classier than simple name-calling and sneering. Snark has replaced debate as our national voice, and I can’t believe there are a lot of people who see this as a positive development, a fulfillment of Thomas Paine’s vision. After all, voicing disagreement, now matter how vehement, by utilizing the cyberspace equivalent of flipping someone the bird hardly solidifies one’s argument. Or makes anyone take it seriously. It only makes it that much more easily dismissable, as the rantings of a lunatic, even if it’s not.

A friend asked me last week, “Doesn’t it bother you that all of these people are saying these awful things about you and your story?” And honestly, the answer is no. I read them, of course, because it is my job to read them, and because I am always on the lookout for the occasional well-reasoned, piercing critique, no matter how rare. In the 25 years I have been a magazine writer I have made mistakes—some of them doozies—and I would never represent that anything I’ve written is beyond commentary, no matter how withering. But I will always dismiss the childish and the churlish, and sadly almost all of what stands as “opinion” on the Internet these days seems to fall into those categories. When we lose the voice of Christopher Hitchens only to have the silence filled with screeching for or against the Kardashian family, something has clearly gone very, very wrong.

“But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing,” Paine once wrote. When it comes to how we critique, comment, and complain, whether in an email to the boss or in the comments section of the Downton Abbey recap on, perhaps we’d all be better off if it appeared a bit more often. And a bit more thoughtfully, too.