When we write on the internet, we–for just a moment–hold the power.
The power to make people think, the power to sway people, the power to anger people. We have lots of power.
A lot of the power, though, isn’t what we think it is. Because our words tell people who we are inside. What we fear, what we love, what we enjoy, what we hate. Nothing is ever as simple as it sounds or as easy as it looks.
I think a lot of what gives us power and authority is when we decide to not write something on the internet.
There is power in what we keep to ourselves.
There is power in what we learn without sharing.
There is power in what we enjoy for nothing else than the pleasure it gives us.
There is power in what we withhold because we love and respect others.
The mark of a good, mature writer in any arena (on a blog, Twitter, a website, Facebook, etc.) is being able to tell a story or teach something without damaging others.
Let me be the first person to say this is really, really hard. Telling a complete story without throwing others under the bus is difficult. Writing from hurt and brokenness without bringing revenge or personal vindication into the story takes maturity and restraint. It’s something you learn through trial and error, practice, saying sorry, tweaks in your approach.
Writing on the internet is dangerous and hard and not for everyone.
I’m not talking about myself right now. I feel that’s important to say. I’m not calling out my writing as good or bad at this. I’m just processing some things I’ve read, wondering how someone could be so immature in her writing, and trying to figure out how to not be that asshole on the internet.
The bad news is we’ve all been that asshole on the internet before.
The good news is we don’t have to stay the asshole.
Part of growth as a writer is acknowledging the power writing on the internet holds and that maybe withholding is where we’re most powerful.
If I can’t tell a good story without making others look bad, maybe I don’t need to tell that story.
If I can’t teach a lesson without telling you how awful someone else is, maybe I haven’t actually learned enough yet.
If I can’t make a point without tearing others down, maybe I should keep my mouth shut.
If I can’t write without leaving out parts to make myself look good, maybe I don’t need to tell that story.
This discernment is hard.
It’s also why I had to delete Facebook from my phone a few years ago. Nothing is more dangerous for me than quick access to an audience.
Time is always our best friend when it comes to writing on the internet, because if you give yourself some time and distance from what you’re wanting to post, you either lose the desire or you step back enough to re-evaluate the ways you’re writing.
It’s why I have to let a blog post sit for days–sometimes weeks–before I post it.
It’s why people have editors read their writing before they publish.
It’s why if you’re not sure, saying your comment or post out loud to someone is helpful.
If I’m writing about someone or writing to someone and I wouldn’t say the thing to them while standing in front of them, looking in their eyes, I probably shouldn’t be sharing it on the internet.
If I’m writing about something hard and it involves other people, I have to invite them into the writing decision. We are not allowed to tell others’ stories without their permission. This means sometimes I send something to a friend, and they ask me not to post it. This means when I write about my marriage, Chris has to read it before anyone else does and sometimes it doesn’t actually make it to the internet.
Writing on the internet is hard.
We’ve only been doing it for about twenty years–writing on the internet–and while we grew up learning social cues and norms from our parents, it’s like we didn’t realize those translate to the internet also. Making connections is hard, believe me, I know. I try to teach sophomores to make real world connections to things we’re reading, and they just don’t understand how that even works.
But if we realize how much of our real-life and internet-life are reflective of one another, maybe we’d write different things on the world wide web?
This summer, Ellie got a pen pal. She was so excited to have someone to write to and sent off her first letter the day she learned of her new friend. Letters went back and forth a few times and then things got busy–everyone was getting ready to go back to school and life happened. Her pen pal didn’t write back as quickly as she had before. (This sentence could also read: “Her pen pal didn’t write back as quickly as Ellie thought she should have.”)
After a few days, I told Ellie there was no reason she had to wait for a reply to write again; she was more than welcome to send her friend another letter; that was totally allowed.
She immediately jumped up from the couch and got to work.
Later in the day, I saw the note on my desk, waiting to be stamped and put in the mailbox. I opened the letter and all it said was, WHY HAVE YOU NOT WRITTEN BACK YET? -Ellie
I was alone at the time so I got to laugh out loud and read it about ten times before I had to put on my mom face and go have a little talk with my precious oldest daughter.
You can’t write that in a letter, Ellie. It’s kinda demanding and mean.
Maybe we all need to go back to elementary school and learn how to write a good letter. Writing on the internet is just like a letter or short note, but it’s going to be read by many more people than just the intended recipient.
The power we hold when we write on the internet is also great at backfiring.
When trying to make someone else look bad, it actually reflects more on us than that person.
Someone was rude to you and you shared it on the internet? Yikes, sounds like you’re kinda rude too.
Someone embarrassed you and you tried to embarrass them on the internet? Yikes, sounds like you’re kinda immature.
Someone hurt your feelings and you shared it on the internet instead of addressing that person in private? Yikes, sounds like you don’t actually want to heal, you just want to complain.
Someone didn’t respond to your letter as fast as you would have liked? Yikes, sounds like you’re kinda impatient.
I love the quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher that says, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
There’s power in silence.
There’s power in thoughtfulness.
There’s power in the ability to speak and share but choosing not to.
There’s power in what you leave unsaid.
There’s power in writing on the internet.
Be careful with it.