Kim Kardashian and Mario Lopez in H8R
From The Believer:
Last year’s short-lived reality show, succinctly entitled H8R (if you can’t decipher that idiom, you are too old to be watching the program), followed celebrities like Snooki and Kim Kardashian as they confronted people who’d said mean things about them on the internet. It would be foolish, of course, to expect a show of this kind to offer anything terribly insightful about this phenomenon. Since the haters weren’t hiding behind screen names but instead proclaiming their hate on camera and keeping it in compliance with the specifications of any number of producers, network executives, and advertisers, they were no match for even the mildest trolls on a political blog. But the very fact that the show made it on the air at all suggests that the cultural appetite for this kind of confrontation is growing more ravenous by the day. (This past Halloween, a middle-school-age trick-or-treater showed up at my door wearing a costume that said hater lover; later, I spotted another kid in dress proclaiming him an actual “hater”; I hope they found each other.) It makes me think I wasn’t so crazy when I once, only half-jokingly, suggested to a colleague that the opinion columnists at our paper should host a “haters picnic,” wherein we would cheerily serve up hot dogs and potato salad and give our angriest readers the chance to tell us in person what they thought of us.
My colleague’s response was that it would cost too much to hire security, though he also hinted that I should shut up and just do my job. He had a point. Part of our line of work involves being able to ignore the agitators, or at least brush them off. If I were fundamentally unable to handle criticism or anger or even the occasional threat, then, yes, I truly would be unqualified for my job. But there is a world of difference between the traditional notion of public participation in a newspaper or magazine and the cacophonous, sometimes libelous free-for-all that passes for it today. Whereas the old-fashioned letter to the editor involved crafting a letter, figuring out where to send it, springing for a stamp, and knowing that its publication-worthiness would be determined by an actual editor who might even call and suggest some actual edits, today’s readers are invited to “join the conversation” as if the work of professional reporters and columnists carries no more authority than small-talk at a cocktail party. And although some sites are making efforts to weed out the trolls by disabling anonymous posting, filtering comments through Facebook, or letting readers essentially monitor themselves by flagging or promoting comments at their own discretion, most are so desperate to catch eyeballs wherever and however possible that they’re loathe to turn down any form of free content.
This is by now an old gripe in journalism circles, many members of which will point out that the last word on the matter could well have been said three years ago when the Onion published its fake news story “Local Idiot to Post Comment on Internet.” But if three years ago the phenomenon felt like a wave that was about to crest and then surely dissipate into a vague memory of some fleeting, anarchic period in the history of the internet (“Remember back in 2008 when only idiots posted comments?” we imagined ourselves chortling one day), it feels today like the disease-ridden aftermath of a flood. Ugly commentary doesn’t just litter the internet, it infects it. It takes the act of reading an article or watching a video or listening to a podcast and turns it from a receptive experience into a reactive one. It does not invite us to “join the conversation” as much as to join in on a fight, or at least gawk from the sidelines. Perhaps worst of all, it gives the impression that the opinions expressed in those fights are not just the ravings of a few local idiots but the “voice of the people.” Spend enough time in the company of that voice and the world will begin to look like a very bleak place indeed.