August 31, 2021

How to Behave on the Internet

What is my online persona? (Credit: Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash)

In a recent interview with The Guardian, novelist Sally Rooney decries the modern concept of fame, describing it as turning people into a commodity. “As far as I can make out,” Rooney told The Guardian. “The way that celebrity works in our present cultural moment is that particular people enter very rapidly, with little or no preparation, into public life, becoming objects of widespread public discourse, debate and critique…They just randomly happen to be skilled or gifted in some particular way, and it’s in the interests of profit-driven industries to exploit those gifts and to turn the gifted person into a kind of commodity.”

She isn’t wrong. All it takes is a viral video, a well-read story, a series of Tweets, an accidental side-eye on national television, and you too can be launched from relative obscurity into the always wanting, never giving, hell of modern fame. 

With modern fame, you are more of an idea than a reality. Everyone thinks they know exactly who and what you are, and they mostly don’t have a clue. Your identity becomes a construct, part you, part the public’s perception of you.

And fame is part of the process of our lives now. To be successful, the business gurus tell us, you have to develop a brand and a persona. You have to build a following and market yourself. You have to cultivate a voice and a niche. It’s all very stupid but totally necessary.

My relationship with the internet has always been complicated. I truly credit social media for giving me an outlet for my voice and my work and my writing in a way that I don’t think would have been possible in another media environment. But some of my biggest achievements have thrust me into the sewers of internet discourse. 

As Rooney states, there really is no preparation, no way of warning you about how to behave in the middle of the storms. Even when the feedback is good, it can be completely overwhelming. 

Like death and taxes, the internet comes for us all. So it’s always better to be prepared. In that spirit. Here is some of the advice I always give other people:

  1. Delete pictures of your kids. Scrub them off the internet now, if you can. This is not a moral statement on privacy or on what people should share or not share. I believe that’s a personal decision and everyone has their own boundary. But in 2016, when I wrote a story about the caucuses, I became the center of a backlash mob that would send me pictures of my kids to my DMs with targets over their faces. In 2019, I was in the center of an internet mob that dug up pictures of my old house and put it in the crosshairs along with bomb threats. I now have a public and private instagram. I ask my family not to share pictures of my kids online. 
  2. Delete your personal information off the internet. The internet is crawling with services that will scrape your information and put it on third party websites, which for a free, anyone can access and they do. Services like DeleteMe will scrub your information off of those sites for a fee. I’ve used it to protect my kids, my ex, and my parents. Do it now, because once you are in the storm, it’s too late.
  3. People are allowed to disagree with you. Recently, when I was texting with a friend about internet discourse that was happening around an article I wrote, my friend told me something simple and perfect. “People are allowed to disagree with you.” And you know what, he’s right. And further, not every conversation about my work needs me to interject myself in it. It’s hard to watch sometimes, but I can log off and walk away. Trust me, in 48 hours, they’ll be mad at someone else. 
  4. Do the work. It’s easy to get distracted by the conversations and the comments and the feedback. But remember, you are here for the work. Do it. The internet cycles can make you feel out of balance. Sometimes your best work goes unnoticed, sometimes a one-off tweet goes viral. Don’t think too much about it. Just do the work. It’s what you are good at, it’s why you are here. You don’t need to reply to every negative comment, every passive aggressive suggestion. Heck, you don’t even need to reply to the biggest critics. You only need to do the work. What is going to remain is the work.
  5. Not everything is about you. I once logged on to Facebook to see a woman I know from town who had posted an entire thread criticizing an outfit I had worn on CNN for a guest spot. I was furious. Who was she to critique my clothes and call me unprofessional? I fumed. I thought of all the righteous and profane things I could say in response. But in the end, I realized, it wasn’t about me. Whatever she had to say said more about her than it did about who I was or my career or anything else. I let it go.
  6. Have an honest group of friends.  In the middle of everything, it’s easy to lose confidence in yourself. Did I screw up? Am I a pathetic idiot? This is when I turn to my friends. I have two very good, very honest friends, who will absolutely tell me if I’m in the wrong. And I have been and they’ve told me. Having them there provides a good sounding board, to remind me when to step away and when to get back to work.
  7. Don’t punch down. Listen, I’m a scrappy person. I am not afraid of confrontation and I rarely forget. These character qualities make me good at some things, bad at others. My therapist recently told me that not all fights are worth fighting. Not everyone is worth your time and energy. “Just fight the good fights,” she told me. So, I just mute and walk away. I’ll mute emails and Twitter threads and I recently kicked myself off Facebook. I’ll save myself for the good fights.
  8. Delete your tweets. I think of the internet as ephemera, it comes and goes. Some things last, others don’t. Let it burn up in the fires. Deleting your Tweets and posts is a good way of remembering that. It’s also a good way to ensure that when you do make it big, when your company is bought out or goes public or you have your major promotion, that people won’t comb through your past and take things out of context.

You may not feel like this applies to you, but every company, every person needs to be aware and prepared for the realities of the digital age.