A Lesson in Being Nice

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Don't be mean. Be nice.Don't be mean. Be nice.

Don't be mean. Be nice.

It’s no secret that people can be mean on the Internet. You know the archetypes: Trolls. Flame warriors. Cyber-stalkers. And weirdos.

As a writer, I get my fair share of the negative and the nasty. I would say the kind of feedback I receive tends to fall into three main categories:

1) I found an error you made.

2) I disagree with you.

3) I’m crazy and I just need to vent.

It’s hard to respond to the emails I get from type number 3. These tend to be tangents and rants that seem to be triggered rather randomly by what I wrote. There’s no reasoning with a crazy person. As for number 2, I’m fine with people who disagree with me, and welcome lively debates. But the number one kind of letter I get is from a reader who falls into category 1. “Hey Mr. Smartypants,” this person says. “You got something wrong. Ha ha.”

Just this week, in response to a review I wrote of the movie That’s My Boy, I received this email:

Does “journalism” on the internet mean never having to proof read anything (especially headlines)? =/

That was the entire email. (Note this person’s typo in “proof read.” But never mind…)

In my review, the actor Andy Samberg’s name was identified as “Samburg.” As it turns out, someone else involved in the editorial process accidentally made the typo in the headline. Oops. Dang. Bummer. But not exactly a punishable crime.

To my mind, the real offense was this person’s lack of tact and manners. It’s pretty standard to begin a letter with, for instance, “Dear Ethan” or “Mr. Gilsdorf.” One might then add a line or two about how “I enjoyed your review” (even if that sentiment is baloney). Then, ease into the critique with a transition such as, “It probably wasn’t your intention, but I did spot an error I thought you might want to know about…” Or some such pleasantries. No?

Nada. No “Hello.” No “Dear Mr. Anything.” To top it off, this writer had zero courage to sign the email with his or her name. When did “writing a letter to a journalist” on the internet mean never having to follow basic formalities of communication?

I have to say this: I’m amazed by the boorish, rude, self-important, fault-finding behavior I see again and again from people on the Internet. They delight in pointing out errors. But they make absolutely no effort to respect the person they are are writing to. And they often don’t even have the decency to sign their full names.

People are to blame, but technology plays its part, too. The computer screen and the impersonal form of email let people hide behind a veil of protection. They say things they wouldn’t normally say to your face.

Another time, I wrote an essay about my challenges being in relationships with non-geeks. The essay contained the line about how the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Within a few hours of my essay’s appearance on the Internet, my editor received this comment:

Ethan Gilsdorf seems to be a very superficial geek. … Any real geek would know that a parsec is a unit of distance, not time.

Right … but any real geek would know that’s what Han Solo actually said. Han Solo’s exact words are: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” Of course, a parsec is a unit of distance, not time. But Lucas made the blunder, not me, and then fixed by backtracking and erasing his steps. (According to Wikipedia, Lucas said that in the Star Wars universe, traveling through hyperspace requires careful navigation; no long-distance journey can be made in a straight line. Therefore, the “fastest” ship is the one that can plot the “most direct course” — the least distance.)

Point is, Ethan the writer knows what a parsec it. It’s Han (or rather, Lucas) who gets it wrong. But the person who loves to find fault is so busy getting his (or her) thrills pointing out errors, that basic etiquette and common sense get thrown out the window.

I don’t have a problem being wrong. I have been wrong many times and I will continue to be wrong in the future. We all make mistakes. If a person points out an error in a kind way, or even in a neutral way, I’m cool with that. That’s how a reader IDed as “pl1x” recently responded to my recent GeekDad 35th anniversary Star Wars appreciation post. I made an error about the wording of the opening credits to the original Star Wars. The commenter responded kindly, with no attitude. A nice dialogue ensued. But what I can’t tolerate is the way that, increasingly, behavior on the Internet is downright rude.

In each of the first two examples, I fired back a sternly-worded reply. And, from each, I got a reply in return. To the Samburg/Samberg guy’s credit, he apologized. As for the parsec guy, he even replied with what I’d call grace and, it seems, some degree of embarrassment:

My apologies. Anyone who can spout all that trivia about Star Wars is certainly a real geek.

So folks, a kind reminder. We’re all geeks. We love to get stuff right. But please, the next time you write to a stranger, kindly do so with attention to good manners. Be nice, and nice comes back to you. Or, eventually, the bad mojo is going to come back to haunt you.

And teach your children well, too.

Sorry for the rant. This message is brought to you by Association for Making the Internet a Nicer Place. OK, I’m wrong — it’s a fictitious organization. But maybe it’s worth a Kickstarter campaign to get one going.

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