A few weeks ago, I made arguably the biggest splash of my modest writing career: a paid publication on the virtual cover of the lefty web magazine, Salon.com. The piece was a pared-down version of a narrative essay I had been shopping around for some time, the story of a Woofing (volunteer farming) trip my girlfriend and I took two summers ago to Alabama, Texas, and New Mexico. It was a significant experience for both of us, leading to paid internships on another farm in New York state, and I was happy the story would see the light of day.
But my joy was short-lived. By the time I had even been made aware of the piece’s presence in cyberspace, it had garnered more than a dozen comments. The final tally was around 170. While some of the responses were positive, most were not. Over the next few days, I would be accused of self-hatred, self-importance, self-parody, self-aggrandizement, and more. Gawker, in perhaps a knowing gesture of ironic self-effacement, blasted the piece for its “pointless journalism.” Numerous blogs mocked my sententiousness and pretension. Commenters speculated on everything from my upper-middle-class upbringing (not true) to my poor performance in bed (hard to say—writers are notoriously unreliable self-critics).
Naturally, I was a bit stunned. An unpublished poet and fiction writer, and an occasionally published essayist, I had had relatively little public exposure to my work to that point. But the volume, not to mention venom, of the response to this piece was unprecedented.
Much of the haters’ enthusiasm seemed to derive from a seemingly innocuous paragraph, early in the story, in which I expressed frustration with certain cultural trends popular in places like Portland, where I used to live. The subhead of the article refers to “yuppie liberals,” a useful enough approximation of what I was trying to convey. Part of the motivation for leaving Portland for the farms, I explained, was our creeping frustration with what might be called mainstream liberalism.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that this was a message that some Salon.com readers did not want to hear—after all, at least one part of the website emphasizes the kind of partisan, self-congratulatory liberalism that I had been complaining about. And while I could understand, intellectually, that the attacks were not personal—that my stupidly-grinning mug on the cover of the magazine was simply an easy target for the rantings of frustrated lives—I still felt blindsided by the rancor my piece had provoked.
But then it did get personal. One of the haters acquired my e-mail address (probably through my personal blog), writing that since he had tried to addend an angry note to one of my Rumpus pieces without success, he wanted to make sure I got the message personally. (In summary: Get a Job, Hipster Scum.) All of a sudden my blog, mostly viewed by friends and family, saw a surge in traffic, the source another blog called, “Die Hipster.” In a comment thread there, the anonymous e-mailer had posted my personal e-mail address, my blog URL, and links to other articles I’d written. Someone else mockingly linked my father’s four-year-old obituary notice. Others opined about my girlfriend—her race and ethnicity as well as other, more intimate topics. Finally, someone else (hopefully not a Jewish relative of mine) called me the “opposite of a mensch” and a “perversion of development.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some of this triggered deep-set insecurities. After all, what poet doesn’t sometimes fear that his development has been perverted? What writer doesn’t feel shame about the work she does? And what person on the Left doesn’t often feel like a fraud, “squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital,” as Adam, the poet protagonist of Ben Lerner’s excellent recent novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, puts it?
As I reflected more, I realized the nasty commenters had been right about at least one thing: I had been sheltered, as an author, at least. My previous web publications had appeared on literary sites like The Collagist and Bookslut, where comments are disallowed, and The Rumpus, which moderates their threads vigorously. As a result, I could write a personal essay, as I did for The Rumpus a year ago, about my state of demoralized unemployment and not worry that I would be pilloried as a slacker because of it. Or I could weigh in on the heady topic of the politics of work (or in my case, idleness), as I did ten months later, without feeling like I had to apologize for my lack of comprehensiveness. The essay would simply serve as the catalyst for a discussion, I knew, one that might very well commence in the comment thread below.
Which isn’t to say that Rumpus readers never challenged me. In response to the latter essay, for example, which shamelessly advocates for idleness, one reader pointed out that I had failed to take gender differences into account. Historically charged with child-raising and other domestic tasks, women often did not have the luxury to just be idle. Another reader took issue with Bertrand Russell’s prescription of four hours of work per day. How could one survive financially working so little? Both were valid points and obviously worthy of discussion.
At Salon.com, though, by the time I had even caught my breath, the conversation spiralled out of control. Hate had responded to hate. The pettiness proliferated. The story I had tried to tell was thrust to the backburner. Most disturbing, though, was that the points I had been hoping to raise—about the viability of organic farming, the problems with urban living, liberals’ complicity in systems they claim to abhor—were largely ignored. Instead, the argument centered around negative speculation about me: my privilege, my hypocrisy, my work habits and finances. I had become their punching bag, their piñata, the commenters flailing gleefully to score points against whatever kind of person they had imagined me to be.
“An unmoderated fray is no comments,” the blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates said recently in an interview on NPR, and I think that’s basically right. I can’t help but feeling a little cheated by the response my Salon.com piece received. I had spent a lot of time and energy on refining my argument and revising the language with the hopes it would resonate with readers fed up with their city lives. I had been looking forward to the discussion, even to a debate. What I got was an earful of errant hate and manifold attempts to discredit me personally.
As I look back on the experience, I mostly feel lucky. Lucky to have found an online community like The Rumpus, where voices that only want to harm are actively excluded. The result is a place that plainly attracts people who seek refuge from the petty, reactionary voices that dominate so much of our public discourse. We, those of us who frequent The Rumpus, come here to share our stories, art, and ideas among the online equivalent of friends—even those who respectfully and thoughtfully disagree. We expect others in the community to hold us accountable—after all, there is a converse danger in being too cuddly, too undiscerning, too automatic in our support. But the space exists in part because we exclude those voices who would infect it with hate. That’s how creativity can be cultivated—not only with gung-ho support, but with meaningful, relevant commentary.