“Boring post. Who cares.”
Rebekah. Her words linger in my memory, tangled in the wings of the angel of history as he stares back on Latino pop culture blogging of the early aughts, mouth agape. I did not and do not know anything about her — she might not even be “her.” She was a few letters on a screen — a round, friendly “R” and “B” slashed through by an aggressive, biting “K” — dotting the bottom of most of my posts. And she was also much more. She was my hater. My biggest fan.
This stranger, existing somewhere within an abyss made up of 1's and 0's, pushed me to be better. I was new to online writing and I was having fun with it. But how many posts about Jennifer Lopez can a person write without spiraling into a dark place? A dark place lined in velour. I would slip up, get lazy. But my hater pulled me out of that. She kept me on my toes (while firmly, permanently, forever seated). She made me care enough to steer clear of clichés like “kept me on my toes,” or at least to loathe myself when I used these.
Haters like Rebekah are useful, and writers can benefit from having them around. They’re often dismissed and lumped in with trolls, those who harass for the sake of harassing, their words fading into a noxious haze. Sometimes they're confused for people who are, bluntly, idiots, who come to a site to read a headline and look at a picture and skim comments and show that they do not understand the (sometimes tricky, often misleading) way their internet is made. But haters are a different animal entirely. Haters choose you. They are little gems, winking up at you in that manure pile of a comments thread. They hold us to a higher standard. They are the wind at your back as you run along the course. There is a difference between bullying (a word that has, admittedly, become putty — pliable and able to stick to whatever is convenient) and criticism. Bullying is focused on destruction, criticism on reconstruction. Criticism suggests that improvement is possible, that by following suggestions, one can become better.
There’s a trend, online, towards a self-conscious, cultivated positivity. BuzzFeed, for instance, has a stipulation that “no haters” need apply to join its fold, and its books section drew attention late last year when its editor announced that it would eschew negative reviews. In 2012, New York Magazine wondered when the internet had become so “nice,” and viral content pushers like Upworthy attempt to repackage items as uplifting choose-your-own-adventure stories where the end is always something wonderful that you’d never guess, like a gay police woman saving a baby animal, or a small child not murdering a military veteran. And it all rings so false, a putrid quality underpinning the sweetness, like too much artificial sweetener in a perfectly fine black coffee.
There's a tang to "hate," and the internet requires it.
There’s something to be said for positive reinforcement as a means to buoy one’s ego enough to get him over the next wave of crippling self-doubt and despair so that he may continue crafting various lists of things, but no one will ever become better without knowing what he is doing wrong. Or, in my case, what she is doing that is very boring to socialists possibly named Rebekah. The truth is, really, that haters aren’t “hating.” Though they've chosen you, taken the time to craft a response and hit send, they will soon forget whatever it was you wrote that left them bothered or displeased, confused or temporarily enraged. They aren’t jealous of you or hoping that you fail. They are criticizing you. They dislike something you created, and they are telling you why. That’s isn’t hatred; that’s help. We are all, obviously, in a position to disagree with and reject the feedback we receive, but that doesn’t mean that displeased commenters are utterly incorrect, and it does not mean that the comments they write are borne out of some sort of emotional outburst. And while it's true that their goal may not be to help you improve as a writer, that makes their criticism all the more worth considering. They don't care about you and yours skills, they simply want to read the best possible product.
There are people behind that glowing screen, and they are real, and they are spending parts of their day reading and interacting with the things you have created for them. You cannot do what you do, whether it's writing an article for work or publishing genderswap Smurf slashfiction for fun, without them. So look for the diamonds in the dirt, the useful feedback in the strangled yawps of “who cares.” Because that question has an answer: You care, Rebekah.
You really care.