Over the weekend, the same blog post kept showing up on my twitter feed: “Writer-on-Writer Crimes” by Andrew Scott. In a nutshell, it’s a thoughtful examination of the fact that the writerly community is smaller than we often imagine it to be. And for that reason, we should remember to be considerate of one another, even when we’re delivering criticism. The post–and its frequent retweets–got me thinking.
I don’t disagree with Scott’s message. In my view, he’s reiterating one of the most basic principles of netiquette: think before you post. It is, sadly, also one of the easiest rules to forget. We’re all talking through machines these days. Maybe you believe that your blistering review is a victimless crime or that it will be forgotten within a week or that not many people will read it. But as many have pointed out, the internet is forever. Even deleted posts can be copied and archived. And information is traveling faster than ever. Literally faster than seismic waves. Do you really want to go on record with your admittedly-smaller-than-it-looks community as a troll or a bully?
(By the way, yes, we’re all a little bit guilty. We get carried away. We forget that we’re not just talking into a void. I know there are conversations I have had online, particularly as a teenager, that I wish didn’t happen. But live and learn, right? Also, mistakes might be forever. But so are apologies.)
Does this somehow diminish the quality of our critical discourse? You could make that argument, I suppose, but I have a different one. I think it actually improves it. The web community creates, after a fashion, accountability. If you write a lousy book, plenty of people are willing to tell you, from blogs to Amazon to Goodreads. And if you write a lousy review (distinct, mind, from a constructively critical review with rationally presented arguments), you are also held accountable. Can that accountability be taken too far? Absolutely. Should we boycott every mean person who shows up on the internet? Eh. I’ve got better things to do–like reading books I actually enjoy.
There’s always a line. And it’s always shifting. That’s, I think, what makes netiquette and net-ethics so difficult–and not just for writers. We’d like to be able to point and say: “That, that’s how it’s going to be. These people broke our unspoken internet laws and we shall oust them.” But that misses the nuance of the situation. We’re on new ground here and I think we can only feel it out, step by step.
Where is the line for you? How should online communities deal with breaches of netiquette?