Friday, April 26, 2013

Beyond Constructive: "Get Off My Internets" and the Phenomenon of Bullying in the Blogging Community

Beyond Constructive

Last week, I checked out Get Off My Internets for the first time. I'd heard about the site before (its tabloid-ish reputation proceeded it), but it never sounded like it was up my alley. (Spoiler alert: it's not!) However, after reading this interview IFB did with a GOMI contributor, I wondered if I hadn't rushed to judgement. 

The contributor, Lancelle was insistent that GOMI is a platform for "constructive criticism" rather than personal attacks: "I think that 50% of readers on GOMI legitimately hate a few GOMI targets, but the other 50% just like having a forum to express constructive criticism."

She also said that a lot of former "targets" (her word, not mine) haven't been "featured" (that's one way of putting it!) in a while because they took note of the criticism and made positive changes. "A few have even thanked GOMI for pointing out their problematic posts or habits," she said.

All this was very convincing, and I was curious what all that constructive criticism looked like, so I popped over. The main page of GOMI is a blog that's difficult to peruse. It has no visible archive or even tags. It soon became clear to me that the forums, not the blog, are the star of the show.  

What I found in those forums was a deep dark hole. 

You know those holes the internet has where you fall in and don't emerge for a few hours at least? Well this is like that. But it's not the lovely interconnected rabbit hole of knowledge that is Wikipedia. Instead it's a deep, dank, smelly hole. Once I emerged, I was in a bad mood for the rest of the day; it just put me in a funk. And I haven't gone near it since for fear of falling in again. 
Let me set the record straight. GOMI forums are not 50% constructive criticism. They are less than 1% that if any at all. What they are instead is a free-for-all of cyber bullying. Let's call GOMI what it is: a burn book.
Here I want to take a moment to clarify terms. Last year, after Dan Savage was accused of bullying Christians by saying that there is "bullshit" in the Bible, an article in the Economist, written by J.F. defined bullying as "the strong picking on the weak, not the other way around (the other way around is satire)."

It may seem to some that bloggers, the ones with a huge platform and a huge audience, are the strong, while lowly forum posters are the weak, but I'd argue that anonymity makes all the difference here. Bloggers post personal information, photos, and feelings on the internet for all to see. We make ourselves vulnerable to our readers, and the more popular a blog is, the more vulnerable the blogger becomes. Forum posters on the other hand, rarely even share their real first names.

Anonymity is also what makes cyber bullying different (and, in my opinion, worse) than the classic schoolyard bullying most of us grew up with. When I started to hear the term "cyber bullying" a few years ago, it annoyed me. As linguist Geoff Nunberg points out here
We spent the 1990s tacking "virtual" and "cyber" onto the names of what seemed like new kinds of things. Then we spent the next [decade] taking the prefixes off again, as we realized that the new things were fundamentally the same as the old ones. "I have to get some e-money from the virtual bank so I can play cyber-poker" -- that sounds so 1997.
I thought "cyber-bullying" was the same. Wasn't it just like regular bullying? But, in light of recent events, I've realized that it's different. The anonymity makes it different. People say harsher things in forums than they would ever say to a person's face. In fact, lots of posters claimed to have met various targets in real life but never mentioned doling out any of their "constructive criticism" directly to the blogger during these face-to-face encounters.

Now that I've clarified terms, let me lay out my argument for why GOMI forums are not, as they claim, constructive. 

First of all, one would think that a fair platform meant for the purposes of debate and constructive criticism would have forums structured around questions like Does So-and-So Seam Disingenuous to You? or What Bloggers Don't Disclose C/O Products Well Enough? But most of the threads on GOMI are each titled simply with a blogger's name. Implied in the title, "Jane Doe of Jane's Closet" is "This is the thread where we talk about how much we hate Jane Doe." 

There is not at atmosphere of debate in these threads, and one gets the feeling that any attempt at defending the blogger in question would be unwelcome. In fact, I saw no such defense in my hours of perusing the forums. 

No, these threads are not debates, but instead each is a page in one giant burn book, a free-for-all of personal attacks, name calling, and speculation. 

The attacks are often over tiny, strangely specific things like personal idiosyncrasies. One blogger was repeatedly criticized for overusing the word "peek" as in "Thanks for taking a peek at my new space!" One poster joked that every time this blogger says "peek" she wants to "smack that girl in the face with a shovel." 

The name calling is eerily reminiscent of schoolyard bullying, where kids found some unflattering word that rhymed with the bullied kid's name. One blogger named Jessica is routinely referred to as "Messica," "Messy," or simply "Mess."

As for the speculation, it's just flagrant! In one forum, several posters speculate that a blogger's husband only married her for the bump to his career that her blog must have given. They just can't imagine another human being might be capable of actually loving this women whom they hate so much, nevermind the thousands of readers who do love her. 

Among all the name calling and threats of violence, one blogger was held up, admired, and never criticized: Blair Eadie of Atlantic-Pacific. Lancelle even cited Atlantic-Pacific in her interview with IFB as an example of a blog that she likes, "[Blair Eadie] deserves all the hype she gets because she dresses well and takes photos of what she wears. The end."

I love Blair Eadie's style too. In fact, I think she's in a league of her own style wise. But if I had one complaint about her blog or if I were asked to give constructive criticism about it, I would say that I wish she actually wrote something -- anything -- besides outfit credits. 

Blair doesn't share personal details of her life, ergo she's not an easy target for GOMI. Her blog is literally all photos (good photos) of outfits (amazing outfits) so there's not much to criticize. 

If that's how she wants to run her blog, that's fine. But I don't think an images-and-outfit-credits-only format should be held up as the only acceptable way to write a blog. Bloggers who share opinions, feelings, and snippets of their personal lives are taking a bigger risk, and that should be encouraged, not punished.

The thing that makes blogging such a unique and special platform, and I'd argue one of its biggest appeals to readers (or, at least, to me as a reader) is all the personal stuff. When bloggers share their personality, their personal style, and their opinions; when they make themselves vulnerable, that's where the magic happens. I hate to see that magic discouraged by a forum full of haters. 

Strangely, while bloggers who write in a casual voice and share details from their personal lives are targeted by GOMI forum posters, bloggers who write in a more professional voice are also targeted. They get called "fake."

The more polished and profession a blog is, the more GOMI forum posters label the blogger as "fake" and criticize her for "trying to be perfect all the time." You really can't win. Unless you're off-the-charts stylish and beautiful (but silent) Blair Eadie. 

It's fine to dislike some blogs, and it's fine to have valid criticisms (like the criticism of GOMI I'm sharing right here in this post), but GOMI has gone so far beyond that. I would never argue that critical opinions shouldn't have a space on the internet or anywhere else, but I don't think that means we have to make a place for bullying in our community.

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  1. You wrote this so, so well. I've lurked at GOMI on occasion, and have found that occasionally the posts do have useful criticisms of a niche or blogger underneath the snark. But the forums? They're a hard pill to swallow, that's for certain.

    Your comments about the differences between bullying and cyber bullying were especially provocative and thoughtful, because you're right: the anonymity makes people take it to a new degree. And I imagine that for younger people, who aren't used to being anonymous on the internet (whose first interactions may be on FB at 13), that it may just get worse and they won't realize the repercussions of their name attached to what they say.

    Thank you for so articulately and thoughtfully reacting to their site.

  2. I've personally never been on the GOMI forums. The comments on the posts are often too much of what you've described above to pay attention to. But it's important to address cyberbullying on the internet, and yes... encouraging troll behavior (sites like Reddit could be an example of this).

    So thank you for this.

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  4. Thank you , I have just discovered this GOMI through your article . It's clear that most of the time commenters don't bother being kind or courteous but I feel like most of they say is the truth ... for example how Scott is so cold and how left his wife and daughters , or how some "Elite bloggers" are so shallow , fake and getting irrelevant . But anyway you're right that's a ghost hole I spend like 2 hours there without realizing :)

  5. i am so glad you wrote this. and i am equally glad i found this on ifb. i found out about GOMI from that article on ifb that you mentioned. What i found on the site was exactly what you said. but since it had the stamp of ifb i felt maybe i have a different idea about what can be called constructive criticism or maybe i just plain do not welcome any form of criticism. i have never been to the site after that and never wish to return to a place which basically is like the table where everyone sits together to bitch about the world.

  6. as they say if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all !

    You jsut alerted me to this website. It is not constructive criticism, just a free space for people to judge each other, uneccessarily !
    Not cool !
    Love Dani xx

  7. Thanks for this post. It sums up so well what this site is all about. i've been targeted by them and it feels really lousy. It's taken the joy out of blogging. But it's hard not to read what they say.

  8. I only recently discovered GOMI and saw this post as one of the options when I googled GOMI.

    I do think that some people on GOMI had good intentions. I've been reading threads here and there on my fav and non-fav bloggers (it's a guilty pleasure even if it's somewhat despicable) and it looks like there are some threads that were started because the blogger would not respond to constructive criticism in comments and would go so far as to delete any comments that weren't singing praises. And I think that resulting frustration (of the commenter's good intentions) turn into anger and bitterness and snarking on GOMI. I'm not defending GOMI by any means but I do think that the unreceptiveness of the blogger can fuel the GOMI fire.

    The anonymity of the site obviously makes its contributors brave enough to say whatever mean thoughts come into their heads with no consequences. And the meanness of their fellow GOMI participants just makes it so easy to ping pong the hate back and forth so the snark grows and grows.

    P.S. On a separate note, you used the word "week" several times instead of "weak" with an 'a.' Week is like "days of the week." Weak is "strong is the opposite of weak."

    1. Thanks for the proofread – fixed!

      ...and thanks for sharing your opinions. In my occasional lurking sessions since I first wrote this, I've definitely seen a few more examples of the good intentions you mentioned, particularly on a thread about a blogger who I've noticed seems a little lost lately.

      One particularly insightful comment I read included this: "The thing is, once you turn it into your job, you shouldn't really be living based on what makes the best online content. You have to have boundaries between work and your life, no matter what you're doing. Otherwise things do get sad and disconnected fast. You should be working to make the best online content and then living your life when you're not working, like everyone else does. Where bloggers fail is becoming full time bloggers but still only treating it like a hobby . . . If *** really wanted to have a cooking blog, and she put real-job hours into becoming an experienced cook and gained some expertise, her food posts would probably suck a lot less. But her food posts seem to just be the stuff she cooks occasionally when the mood strikes her. That be fine if she was just sharing what she did, but she wants to publish recipes and give other people tips."

      I really took this comment to heart because I know that for a small-time blogger like me, figuring out where my blog posts should fall on the professional/personal spectrum is an ongoing challenge, and when I first started, I definitely felt pressure to speak from a place of authority like some of the bloggers I admired did, and I'm certain that I sound like a total ass in my attempts to imitate their professionalism and expertise.

      So, that comment got me thinking and really made me wish that there were a better forum for readers to give good, constructive criticism. The problem is that GOMI isn't set up as a haven for constructive criticism, and insightful comments like the one I excerpted here are more often the exception than the rule. The anonymity is a big part of that. It's why social networks like facebook are often a much better place to have courteous debates than the comments section of a news article. Anonymity often breeds the worst, most hurtful corners of the Internet, and, while I can certainly respect readers' rights to review the work bloggers produce, the thought of how upsetting it must be for any blogger to read the hateful, personal attacks that permeate most of GOMIs forums keeps me from ever endorsing GOMI as a positive space.

      As for the frustration of critical comments being deleted, I don't think it warrants the kind of venomous conversations that GOMI hosts. I think it's a blogger's right to pick and choose what comments they host there on their own blog or social network page. The most mature and confident bloggers will welcome critical comments (that aren't personal attacks) alongside praise. Many bloggers will choose not to enable comments at all perhaps because reading personal attacks is too hurtful or because they don't have time to monitor comments or even because they've taken to heart the age-old advice that you shouldn't read your own reviews. It is every reader's right to find a forum (their own blog, GOMI, whatever) where they can voice their opinions, but bloggers don't owe anyone a comments-section free-for-all. A critic can write a negative review of a book, but no one would force the publishers to print a negative blurb on the cover of the paperback.