How do You Use the Facelessness of the Internet?

Today, my local newspaper had an article about online rants, bloggers and free speech, and how the Internet has allowed millions of people to publish writing both worthy and unworthy. This is exactly the realm my thoughts have been in all summer as I’ve put this blog together, tried to include links to kind actions, and fielded less-than-nice comments on the poetry journal site where I usually put in time. Rant versus free speech is in my head when I promote my own work or link to someone else’s on social networks, when I start a professional conversation on LinkedIn, and when I update my Facebook status. All of these actions offer opportunities to be a professional writer, a kind person, or a raving lunatic.

One of the things that got my attention in the article was how easy it is to track anonymous comments. We all see them on blogs all the time: the anonymous person who might say, “This sucks!” or “This poem isn’t working” (mind you, after it’s already published on a respectable site) or “Who do you think you are?” Who, indeed. The vastness of the Internet, the sheer volume of blogs to be read or conversations to comment on gives a sense of bravery to those who might otherwise keep their mouths shut. “Oh,” someone might think, “I can say whatever I want. Who’s going to stop me?”

Turns out someone’s lawyer might stop you. The same ideas about libel, slander, and maliciousness exist for the Internet arena as they do for the word on actual paper. Even better: your Internet rant, which you may live to regret, will hang around accessible to search engines for years to come. So, unless you have an iron-clad reason for saying something nasty online, a reason that will keep you out of jail and beyond a hefty fine (you know, like facts), perhaps thoughts are best kept inside your head.

Now I need to get back to a little side note of that same article. The one about how the Internet has allowed millions to call themselves writers. That got me thinking that the Internet has also allowed many, many people to call themselves publishers. I had an interesting experience last spring with a woman who wanted to start up a publication for emerging writers, a publication offering advice that would appear both online and in print. She solicited articles from writers via some fairly decent writers’ newsletters that I receive. So, I checked into it. She asked me if I would contribute a simple article on how to be professional when submitting to help her get that first issue off the ground. Okay, I thought, I can do that. She had asked for something that was easy to do, that wouldn’t take much time. I was a bit worried when she promptly took my initial article with no editorial corrections whatsoever. I was a little more worried when she came back and asked if I would consider doing a regular column. We didn’t know each other that well. The first issue was not yet together and the website was not yet fully functional. Her editorial was up, but it had a couple of mistakes in it. I told her I would be more comfortable waiting until I saw that inaugural issue. She begged. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one she begged. There were columns by other writers of varying skill on the in-progress website, so I knew she was working to pull things together. At last, we had a deadline. The website got closer to being finished. Then, one day, I pulled up my own article to show my sister-in-law and discovered a notice on the main page that said the publication would fold after this one issue. The publisher could not pull enough money together to keep going. The publisher did not notify her writers. She simply put a notice on the website and called it a day.

I was furious. I fired off an email asking why she hadn’t told her writers about her decision, why she left us to find out the next time we pulled up the site on our computers. She never responded. The site stayed up for a month or two. I checked the website again today, out of curiosity, and discovered that all the earlier articles were gone and the site has been revamped as a travel writer site. I Googled my own byline to see whether there was still a link to my own article and found there is not, which is what I had hoped for. I don’t really want my own articles from a defunct publication that never got past the first issue hanging around. I won’t name that publisher here because I don’t know what happened that caused her to fail before she really started. Maybe the travel writer site will work. Maybe she learned something. Maybe she’ll communicate in a more professional manner with her next group of writers. 

Thing is, the Internet makes it easy to call yourself whatever you want. It’s seductive in its potential. But, no matter what, you still have to be accountable. You still have to deal with real people. And it’s kind of nice if you do so in a professional way.

DO A KIND THING

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