I’ve touched on professional conduct and etiquette occasionally in the past, but in reflecting on some of the events of the past year (’tis the season for such thoughts you know) I thought I’d talk again about an aspect of being a pro, this time as it pertains to parts of social media. Fair warning: I’m going to use some dirty words—because they fit and it’s the way I talk—so if you’re easily offended, I’ll understand if you stop reading now.

For most, the various social media venues are happy places populated with cat pictures, goofy videos, food photos, jokes, personal news updates, commiserations, and words of encouragement. Really, it can be pretty innocent and enjoyable.

But if you’re on Facebook or Twitter or this-or-that blog, vlog, or message board for any significant stretches you know that the internet is at a constant boil. Virtually every “nice” bit we might encounter seems to be contrasted with shrill, obnoxious, ignorant, and ugly pronouncements about pretty much everything. I guess we should expect the vitriol associated with such polarizing issues as politics, religion, gun rights/gun control, race, gender equality, and foreign policy, but…art and artists and art directors and publishers as hot-button issues?!?!? Differing tastes as sufficient reason for threats and insults?!? Yesh. It’s this constant pastime—verging on addiction—of fucking with each other via social media that is both inexplicable, inexcusable, and disheartening.

Above: As in The Ox-Bow Incident, social media justice often
tends to be meted out in a hang-first-ask-questions-later manner.

Everything is fodder for online “shaming” these days; anything—and anyone—can be targeted by zealous vigilantes eager to deal out some mob justice for any perceived slight or infraction, real or imagined. And the most common tactic? Rouse the like-minded (or the malcontents looking for mischief) and relentlessly attack in a swarm until the target cries uncle or disappears from the Virtual Arena.

Misspeak or express yourself clumsily or voice an opinion that is not generally popular? How dare you, you slime! Like something I don’t like? Attack, gang! Tell a joke that offends me? Why don’t you drink bleach? (I actually saw someone post that comment directed at an artist who drew a dumb cartoon.) Create something—a drawing, a painting, a film, a comic, a book—that doesn’t toe my personal/political/moral beliefs to the T? You should never work anywhere ever again! Oh yeah…and DIE!

Above: This year’s Hugo Award controversy, which brought out the worst in people
on both sides of the embarrassing mess, got so much mainstream attention that Jeopardy
used it as a topic on a recent episode.

The thing is, you never really know who is going to get pissed off over what. Is the anger real or is it being manufactured by a “Rage Profiteer?” Question motives and you’re only asking for more explosions. Whether your societal outlook is liberal, conservative, fringe, or unaffiliated doesn’t matter a lick; the internet is a melting pot of dysfunction that will happily spill itself over the head of the unwary. There are no absolutes and no consistency, no way to predict when someone might ignore common sense, overreact, and attack—and, yes, even though men and women both get furious when told they’re overreacting in a situation, most of the time…they’re fucking overreacting.

These days people are outraged by those who get outraged; others demand “trigger warnings” for fear of encountering language or images or topics or ideas that might upset them—and woe to you if upset they become. Life with a Movie Rating System (and there are plenty not too happy with that NC-17 rating at all, lemme tell you). Ban this, censor that, demonize “cultural appropriation” (did you know that taking Yoga classes was culturally insensitive? Me neither), and vilify historical figures or works because what was acceptable 100 years ago sure as hell doesn’t jibe with the thinking today, nosirree! (Yes, yes, entirely specious positions that ignore context, but that rarely stops half-baked personal opinions from being posited as universal facts and going viral.) And you’d better apologize profusely when “wrong”—but, guess what? When on the receiving end of a Facebook or Twitter assault, you’re always wrong and no apology if offered will ever be good enough. Online vows of petitions, boycotts, and website hacking are positively quaint when compared to those far-too-common threats of battery, rape, and murder. Naturally, such threats are 99.99% of the time little more than hot air…but the knowledge that there’s always at least one nutjob in the shadows who might be armed (particularly these days) always gives the recipient of hateful messages at least a moment’s pause.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote recently in The New York Times, “The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, the internet is terrible.”

How did we get to this point? I really haven’t a clue.

Oh, sure, no question there are great people to be encountered online; great conversations to be had, great things to learn. We don’t have to all agree about everything to get along: that’s part of being a grown up. When you really think about it, the “bad apples” are relatively few; the good people far outnumber the villains. It’s just that the villains tend to make the most noise, get a disproportionate amount of attention, and persuade otherwise calm and sane folks to join in with their lunatic crusades. A handful can keep stirring a pot again and again and make it seem like the whole world is somehow lined up against you, but that’s not true: little people trying to build themselves up by tearing down others can only have an impact on our lives if we allow them. Not giving them any attention denies them power over us; eventually they become less than a faint noise in the wind.

I’ve seen friends attack others online (though they’d never admit that that’s what they were doing) and am always surprised and deeply saddened when it’s happened. I understand how the temptation to chime in when somebody says or does something “dumb” can seem irresistible, but the old schoolyard retort of, “Who died and made you king/queen?” should always be remembered (but rarely is) along with the answer: “Nobody.”

Above: “You’re floatin’ in a big sea of shit and instead of just stayin’ in the boat,
no, you reach out and you pick up this one little turd and you say, ‘This turd, well
THIS turd pisses me off. I’m gonna do somethin’ about THIS turd!'”
—Dix [Fred Ward] in the film Off Limits

No matter how closely I look, there never is a valid justification for either the attacks or the time wasted to launch them—and even if there was some questionable “reason,” I’ve simply never condoned behavior that is pointless, self-righteous, and, let’s face it, mean.  During her Women of Wonder panel at the last SFAL, my wife Cathy pointed out that when trying to overcome people’s prejudices, “The big danger we must avoid is in becoming what we hate. Answering one form of abuse with another keeps everything toxic and solves nothing.” A civil conversation, a calm exchange of views and opinions, an honest debate of ideas and philosophies, can result in a positive outcome, but fighting online doesn’t change people. It doesn’t “fix” anything; it only creates anger and unhappiness and often causes unforeseen responses and consequences.

Never start a fight unless you’re prepared to get hit back. Hard. And don’t cry foul when someone you pick on turns out to be a tougher sonofabitch than you are. Let’s not beat around the bush: deliberately inflicting emotional pain on others—fucking with people (as I mentioned at the outset) just because the internet facilitates it—is wrong and indefensible.

Just as I’ve watched friends and associates misbehave online I’ve also seen friends get hammered: sometimes they’re blindsided by morons, sometimes they inadvertently bring it on themselves by being flip or thoughtless—and get blindsided by morons. Regardless of when or why, I’ve done my best to console them. I can think of very few circumstances in which a public drubbing—a public shaming—is ever deserved and the unfortunate truth of our cyber age is that when they occur online they can resurface unexpectedly and take on an entirely new life years later, reopening old wounds and causing hurt all over again.

The internet—and social media in particular—has an insidious way of undermining our connections of civility, allowing us to forget that there are always—always!—people on the receiving end of the snark and barbs.

Above: “Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside.
Better yet, to the incinerator.”
—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, cover by Joseph Mugnaini

Ryan Holiday wrote a solid piece for The Observer which astutely talks about the current social media climate as a parallel to Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451. I was particularly impressed with his summation:

“Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.

“What also separates us is our capacity for empathy. But how empathetic the speech we decide to use is a choice for each one of us to make. Some of us are crass, some of us are considerate. Some of us find humor in everything, some of us do not. It’s important, too—but those of us that believe it and live our lives by a certain sensitivity cannot bully other people into doing so, too. That sort of defeats the purpose.”

Mr. Holiday much more succinctly makes the point I’m trying to make here: each of us most definitely has a choice as to how to comport ourselves, of how to treat others. Remember that we don’t live and work and create in a vacuum. Remember, too, that whatever we post or tweet is seen—and often seen by people that don’t necessarily share our views—and remembered (often with screenshots). Managing your career as an artist—or art director, designer, editor, or writer—also means managing your social media presence and behavior. Etiquette, empathy, and ethics all combine to help make us successful in life and in our careers and is often reflected in the work we produce; engaging in or condoning in others’ antisocial actions online undermines our professional opportunities and personal happiness.

So this is a reminder: be a pro. But also…for goodness sake be kind to each other.