THE BLOG

The Perils of the Internet: When Strangers Call You Out

22/01/2015 13:09 GMT | Updated 24/03/2015 09:59 GMT

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I'm a prolific internet user. I blog, I tweet, I facebook, I administrate websites and sometimes, at short intervals between, I eat a sandwich, tend to my personal hygiene needs and call my mother. I might have problem, but at least I'm not the only one.

There are some brilliant side-effects to an internet addiction (all the knowledge you accumulate, for example, about world events, obscure arts practices and what superhero you'd be if you were suddenly blessed with supernatural powers). But there is one terrible drawback, which is that if you want to use the internet to its full potential, you have to accept being called out by strangers.

On the internet, everybody has opinions and they are not afraid to shout about them. If it's not @tinkerbell78 telling Giles Coren he's a fascist tosser then its James Blunt writing pompous open letters to shadow ministers, or it's your mate's mum slagging off Lily Allen's fringe in the Daily Mail comments section.

And it's not just celebrities who have to put up with this crap. Every internet addict, every fledgling journalist, every blogger, every tweeter, every newspaper comment-leaver will know what it's like to be told they're wrong, in one way or another, in no uncertain terms, by someone whose personality they've only experienced digitally.

Perhaps it's a minor celebrity who has taken umbrage at something you posted on Instagram, perhaps it's an ideologically driven middle-aged man from the home-counties who read the 500-word op-ed you wrote for a national newspaper and totally disagreed with your point of view, perhaps it's your ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend, who just can't stand your face. Either way, you'll have been told, and you won't have liked it.

I know that there are those who claim online criticisms don't offend them; that their skin is thick, their experience vast and their mother loving. I don't believe them. (Primarily because nobody who is genuinely unbothered would go to the trouble of telling you about it.)

It feels like shit to be called out online, and there several stages to this shitness, which occur at varying speeds depending on the precise matrix of your sensitivity vs. the harshness of your correspondent. First, there's the initial gutting blow-to-the stomach that inevitably accompanies a public reminder that not everybody thinks you brilliant, witty and worthy of praise. Next the incredulity, followed by a rush defensiveness, embarrassment and finally: ACTION(!), which, depending on your personality, might involve a witty, light-hearted riposte, a counter-attack or a (almost always temporary) deleting of your account.

Being 'called out' is crap at the best of times. It is unpleasant to be told that somebody, somewhere thinks your work, your sense of humour or your conduct is unseemly. But at least when you're called out by people you know, you can calibrate your response using some kind of logic. 'Yes', you think, after the gut-punch and the incredulity and all that, which is pretty much the same in real life as it is online, 'I was a dick at that party and my friend had every right to point it out', or 'Maybe Mum's right, maybe I shouldn't have got drunk and attempted a fist-fight with the bouncer, which might, after all have led to my arrest'. If a friend or a respected family member calls us out we can take the opportunity to hear their criticism and learn from it, so that we can be better in the future. And, conversely, if we're called out by our racist brother-in-law then we can discard the criticism because nobody needs life lessons from a prick.

But this is the rub with the internet: there is no way of knowing. Your correspondent might be a reasonable, rational, morally upstanding human being with a point you should listen to. Or they might be a cunt. Who's to say? Not you, because you have no frame of reference, and anyway you can't see beyond your own rage. You could scroll through their Twitter feed, or scour their newspaper columns for some clue, but, even if they seem cuntish, you'll never know whether that's an affectation, a misguided attempt at humour or their real, true, vile personality. You'll never know whether it's them that's the cunt, or whether it's you.

The only sensible thing I can suggest in light of the above is that you step off the internet. Step off right away, run for your lives and don't look back lest you turn to a pillar of salt. I know, however, that this is terrible advice. None of us are stepping off the internet any time soon for fear we'll miss the BuzzFeed quiz we've all been waiting for (I don't know about you, but I'm on tenterhooks to know what familiar I'd have if I were a witch). So stay put my darlings, but roll your sleeves up and gird your loins: it will get bloody.

*Image is "Ally Friend Computer Mean Partnership And Help" by Stuart Miles from freedigitalphotos.net