How thick is your skin? Leather or paper? It can be difficult to tell from the outside. For example, I have this one friend whose actual skin is covered in tatts. He’s big, burly and looks quite a lot like a bouncer. He is also wildly successful in his chosen career (not bouncing) and yet he’s the first to admit that his skin is of the paper variety.
Criticism of his work wounds him deeply to the point where he struggles to get past it and keep doing his job. This is a problem (albeit a first world one) because he has a public profile and that means feedback is incessant. And even though correspondence runs the full gamut from abuse to praise, it’s the negativity that’s most potent. “I reckon I’d get 50 nice emails for every bad one but it’s only the bad ones I remember” he tells me. “And I’m not even on Twitter or Facebook – for exactly that reason. Just the thought of it makes me want to be violently ill.”
My skin used to be thin. It was worn down by a particularly bruising stint in a bad job that had a sandpaper-like effect on my confidence. How interesting – or possibly stupid – that I chose that time of my life to begin a career online. It took ages for the layers to grow back but the dynamics of social media and writing daily online certainly fast-tracked the process. It was either that or slam shut my laptop and hide under the bed. Anyone who works online or has their work published regularly on the Internet quickly grows skin thicker than the average bear. Or elephant.
You have to or you’d end up in the foetal position on your therapist’s carpet most days. Actually…
Let’s file under ‘irony’ and ‘karma’ the fact that journalists, columnists and writers often cop the worst of online abuse, particularly if they write opinion pieces. I was recently discussing this with a journalist friend after one of us had endured a particularly bruising bout of social media ‘feedback’.
In ye olden days things were so very different. If you were a journalist, you simply filed your copy and people loved it, hated it or ignored it. Whatever they thought, you rarely found out. “Remember when the worst that could happen was the occasional pissed off reader would ring and get put through to the editor’s secretary?” reminisced my friend as I nodded wistfully. “Or a grumpy piece of correspondence might be buried in the letters page.”
Those were gentler times. And less distracting. Someone once said to me “What other people think of you is none of your business”. I think that’s excellent advice but it’s not always easy to follow. Because no matter how much you try not to care or be diverted by mindless abuse from strangers who can’t spell and use exclamation points with gay abandon, it can be tricky to look away.
To paraphrase: opinions are like bums, everyone’s got one. And expressing your opinions, all of them, IN CAPS LOCK is now an option for anyone with a spare three seconds and an internet connection. BYO expletives.
And what’s with the death threats? One guy I know who was involved in a popular TV show was surprised to receive death threats over it. Death threats? In Australia? “What about you just change the channel?” he mused. “Why must it be ‘No! I don’t like your show! You must die!’”
I often wonder what people used to do with the explosive anger they now hurl around on the Internet behind the very brave sobriquet “Anon”. Did they kick their dogs? Punch holes in their bedroom walls? Pull the wings off flies? Were they road ragers?
Journalist and author, Peter Fitzsimons, has a theory about this. Having copped some charming online abuse in his time, he delights in playing the occasional mind game with the trolls. “It’s like people just throwing open their window and shouting out ‘Peter FitzSimons is a dickhead!!!!!’” he explained to me. “If you just quietly reply ‘Hello, I’m here’ they get such a shock and they slam that window shut in one hell of a hurry.” This is mostly true in my experience. It’s as if they don’t expect you to be real or something and they’re often rather sheepish when they discover you are.
Still, it can be challenging to find the balance between remaining open to feedback while protecting yourself from abuse.
Years ago I had a boss who gave me some invaluable feedback about feedback. “Mia, you’re motivated by criticism,” he said, explaining that he worked with a lot of editors and as a publisher he had to determine how best to motivate each of them. “Some need praise and go to water if you criticise them but others use it to push themselves.” He wasn’t wrong but the key to the success of his approach with me is that the criticism was never mindless, never personal and came from someone I respected.
Anonymous trolls are a whole other bowl of cereal.
How thick is your skin?