Of Online Anger, Puppy Dogs and Ice Cream

"What began as an innocuous addition to my writing life ended in insults, passive-aggressiveness and puppies eating ice cream."

Get a life. Who taught you to write? Really?! You know NOTHING!

That’s a small selection of comments submitted to “Comedy of Manners,” a blog I wrote for the Albany Times Union website for the better part of a year. What began as an innocuous addition to my writing life ended in insults, passive- aggressiveness and puppies eating ice cream.

We’ll get to the puppies and ice cream later.

But first, let me establish some blogger bona fides. I’ve blogged for literary magazines, booksellers, my own site, group blogs and English departments. I always moderate comments, if I allow them at all. I do this, as best as I can tell, because I am neurotic, have low self- esteem and cannot handle criticism well.

I continue to work on these issues with a series of qualified therapists.What I have learned over time is that there are others, infinitely more bonkers than I, who supplant counseling with writing in a blog comment box to make public their disdain for humanity.

That sounds like whining to me. Check your facts! You simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

When I was asked to join the Times Union’s “blog community,” I envisioned “Comedy of Manners” as an account of my life as an upstate transplant, a venture outside the often hermetic world of literary magazines and writing workshops. In an early post, I wrote about getting a straight-razor shave from a downtown barbershop. I considered it a NewYorker “Talk of the Town”-style piece, a slice of the everyday. Perfect for a local blog.

Do you have to make everything so goddamned important? Get a freaking life.

Most comments, I later learned, came from a core group who made it their goal to plant the first disdainful bon mot. The effect of reading these comments outweighed any prestige I might have attained writing for a Hearst publication and pushed the limits of my anti- depressant’s efficacy. Soon, I developed thicker skin and began to see my job as that of being a provocateur whose posts were deserving of the abuse I would get. I blogged about my support for residential parking permits, about the relatively low cost of living upstate—oh, how they hated that term, upstate—and about how students from the state university littered whole neighborhoods with red keg party cups. I didn’t want to write about most of this; I just thought that if I was going to be called names, I might as well deserve it.

Either way, the reactions were the same.

This is the most boring thing I ever read. Does this guy get paid for doing this?

I did not get paid, and this, to be sure, is another argument against blogging in someone else’s sandbox:You provide content that the site, at least in theory, profits from, but you are responsible

for soaking up the resulting emotional backlash.

Typical NewYork City liberal psychobabble.

There is a blog-related school of thought—a very popular one—that says negative and hostile comments are good. Discussion is good. Let them vent about you, and people will come to your defense, or the boorish ones will go away. Either way, it all drives up traffic, which increases your cachet.

When I first came on board, Michael, the editor in charge of the TU’s online initiative, told me I would become a “local celebrity.” “Just fair warning,” he said. “People will recognize you in supermarkets and the doctor’s office.You’ll be kind of a big deal.”

I giggled at the prospect of being a celebrity in the Albany-Schenectady- Troy area. After a while, however, it became debilitating, especially when the comments poured in. I would walk into Price Chopper with my 1-year-old, glancing sidelong. Was that the guy who called me a “douchetard”?

Pa.The.Tic. I hate your sorry ass.You seem waaaaay too sensitive for this.You just suck.What does your wife think about what you do?

There came a point, much earlier than I’d like to admit, when I gave up on provocation and experimented with creating the Most Innocuous Blog Post Ever. A post that would be Teflon for the snark-rage set. I saved drafts for posts called “Against It Being Cold Outside,” “Speeding on a Highway is Bad” and “Sometimes, Darn It,You Just Have to Eat That Second Piece of Chocolate Cake.” But I didn’t hit the “publish” button until I wrote what would be my final post.

That was “Puppies Eating Ice Cream!”

Playing it completely safe, I didn’t even provide text alongside the images of the golden Lab, cattle dog, Australian shepherd and Rhodesian ridgeback puppies lapping cones of frozen goodness. I held my nose and let the commentariat loose and vowed to approve every wacko witticism. After some pro forma “get a life”-type comments, the real freaks came out. “This is exactly the way the left promotes its socialist/homosexualist agenda!” one “Bill Rider” wrote. “Shame on the Times Union (read that name again, Union/ socalist [sic]/communist)! Shame on Mr. Nester (a suspiciously foreign name).”

A couple of “are-you-kidding?” comments were followed by another scolding. “Dogs should not EVER have chocolate,” one commenter, “jen,” wrote. “End of story. Not even a bite, not even a lick, not even if they have such a cute face. It’s poison.”

These two threads—was I a socialist homosexualist-foreign sympathizer? or was I a puppy-killer?—went on until I broke down and unapproved comments. Some had curse words. One mentioned my children by name.

Finally, someone made an attempt to take things down a notch.

“I think everyone needs a little time out here,” wrote “Tina.” “I’m hoping Bill is joking, and we all know dogs shouldn’t eat chocolate.Take a chill pill and enjoy

a warm, fuzzy moment, looking at the pictures, for crying out loud.”

And that’s when Bill Rider returned to fan the flames again.

“I’m kidding only the way the Founding Fathers were kidding when they told the Redcoats to take a hike,” he wrote.

The Puppies Eating Ice Cream Anger Experiment went on for two days, with back-and-forth comments about chocolate and caffeine and puppies and the government. Even Michael, the TU blog leader, got in on the act: “You’ve struck gold, Nester!” I shared the post on Facebook. It seemed a fitting end that Bobby Boyle and Jeannie Brown, two of my classmates from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary in Maple Shade, N.J, vouched for my being neither a foreigner nor communist nor puppy-killer.

It was then that I decided “Comedy of Manners” should come to a comedic, unmannerly demise.

In a 2008 study, computer science researchers found that in conversations with the online chatbot Jabberwacky, “Users were often rude and violated the conversation maxims of manner, quantity and relevance.” Out of 146 conversations, 10 percent contained abusive language, and 11 percent addressed hard-core sex. “[I]t may be the case,” the researchers write, “that people treat computers that talk, less as they do people and more as they might treat something not quite an object yet not quite human.”

Whatever the reason, I’ll never post photos of puppies and ice cream again. You can bet on that.

About the Author

Daniel Nester

Daniel Nester is the author of four books, most recently How to Be Inappropriate, and an associate professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Recent work has appeared in Salon, The Morning News, Kugelmass, Bookforum and Freshly Hatched.

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