BRENT STOLLER

Writer. Advice giver. Peanut butter and chocolate enthusiast.

Why Do I Read My Articles’ Comments Section?

“I think enjoying sports as a ‘hobby’ or a ‘recreational’ activity is the least of your problems. Your 37 years old and your biggest purchase is a dresser from IKEA. I think sports is the last thing you probably need to change about your life.”

“You’re 37 and your just now realizing you’re an adult? Are you serious? You’ve been an adult for the past 19 years. What have you been doing with your life?”

“He still doesn’t live in his own house. He is getting married eventually to some woman, presumably also as old as him. He walks around in public with his fingers in his ears if there is a chance he could hear something he doesn’t want to. But he wants to talk about being too much of an adult to be a sports fan. Talk about a lack of ethos.”

__________

In November 2014, my article “Am I Too Much of an Adult to Still Be a Sports Fan?” was published by Yahoo. The story was a look at my struggle to blend my childhood obsession — the Texas Longhorns — with the priorities of adulthood.

This was huge for me. For seven years, I’d been sending out my writing, hoping someone somewhere would take notice. I’d been fortunate to be featured on some terrific websites, but none with the notoriety of Yahoo.

At best, this was my big break. At worst, it was a weighty addition to my LinkedIn profile. And as I clicked on the story, barely able to conceal my excitement, I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Then I scrolled to the comments section.

*****

For aspiring writers, exposure is oxygen. Of course, with more exposure comes more scrutiny.

We live in a culture of criticism, and that’s a good thing. It inspires conversation that pushes us forward, and it creates transparency that uncovers anything that inhibits such progress.

Unfortunately, this instinct to evaluate has a dark side, often devolving into derision. Tools like Facebook and Twitter that were designed to connect us instead are used as ivory towers from which we unload cheap shots.

We love to condemn, and we can’t wait to square up our next target. This behavior is so accepted and so prevalent, it’s become a source of parody. Jimmy Kimmel has celebrities read mean tweets they’ve received, and the audience roars with laughter.

It is funny, after all, the clever cutdowns and snarky punchlines. That’s the price of the public eye, we say, and it’s not anything anyone should take too seriously. This is an easy stance to embrace — until you’re the one they’re laughing at.

*****

A keyboard, a blank screen and something to say.

That’s all you have when you write. It’s a solitary endeavor; even when you’re surrounded by others, you’re alone with your thoughts.

This insulation cuts both ways. In the moment it’s freeing, like when you’re by yourself in your car, where you can say whatever you want without immediate consequence.

When this internal dialogue goes public, however, problems can arise. Forget mastering “lie” vs. “lay,” the hardest writing skill to acquire is gauging how what you create in here will be interpreted out there. There aren’t just two sides to a story, there are as many as there are people reading it, and it’s impossible to anticipate all of them.

I consider as many as possible, but there have been instances in which people have taken my words in a way I never imagined. Hearing such feedback is as embarrassing as it is shame-inducing, because, lord no, that’s not what I meant.

There are litmus tests you can conduct — What would my mom say? — but it’s still more art than science, and it’s an art that must be solved alone, because you’re critiquing your own thoughts.

Ultimately though, it’s going to be somebody else critiquing. And when they do, they’ll be in the same situation reading those thoughts that you were in writing them: alone with a keyboard, a blank screen and something to say.

*****

One of the most insightful commentaries on this dynamic was done by comedian Trevor Moore in his folk song, “The Ballad of Billy John.” (WARNING: NSFW)

Like Billy John’s ballad, my article was nothing if not personal. It was also, I believed, self-aware. I knew my fandom was immature. I knew my life’s been progressing behind schedule, and I knew I was, in many ways, pathetic for my age. I wasn’t proud of any of it, but I was owning all of it.

And yet, certain readers viewed this admission not as introspection, but as an opening to pile on. Had they simply ridiculed my writing, I could’ve laughed it off. Instead, they attacked me on a more personal front.

Imagine your deepest insecurities, those shortcomings you desperately conceal, the self-sabotaging beliefs that have you convinced you’re less than what you are. Maybe it’s something about your finances or career, or maybe it’s something to do with your hideously skinny chicken legs. (One of mine.)

Now imagine opening up about those insecurities, only to have people taunt and mock you for them and throw them back in your face. When the world validates everything you hate about yourself, what do you do then?

*****

I had opened myself to this treatment, but it’s not like I’d Ronald Miller’d anybody’s door. I didn’t know these commenters, and they didn’t know me. It’s flattering they read my article, and in hindsight, I could’ve communicated my message better. But I cannot grasp why anyone feels the need to go out of their way to convince a stranger that he’s a loser.

I’m sure for some it was a redirect of anger, and I’m sure for others it was a way to feel better about themselves. But for the recipient, it was nothing but schoolyard mean.

*****

I am not a victim, nor am I asking for sympathy. I’m simply putting a face to these faceless encounters. Having trolls read my writing is better than having nobody read it at all.

When I (foolishly) wrote a new piece about being a sports fan for the Huffington Post, I was determined to correct the mistakes I’d made the first time around. And I thought I had.

It took exactly 50 minutes for someone to comment that I needed psychological help.

Looking ahead, there’s no telling what this article might inspire. If I had to guess, though, I’d say I’ll be told to get off my high horse and that the comments section exists for a reason; that this is what I signed up for, so essentially, I did this to myself; that I need to grow a pair and pursue an Oedipal relationship with my mother; and that I should stop whining and start appreciating that anyone is paying attention to my pitiful, pathetic existence.

These commenters will be 100 percent correct. But that won’t make them right.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

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