The Thorny Issue of Reader-Writer Online Interaction

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The third Google image if you search “flamewars” is a Warhammer 40,000 one. Coincidence?

The internet can sometimes be stereotyped as “not a very nice place.” There is a belief that, whatever the qualities of individuals, there is a miserly and cruel streak that runs through the collective hive consciousness of the online community. The old adage that anonymity brings out the worst is us sometimes doesn’t seem so far from the truth, and it only takes a glance “below the line,” whether on the comments sections of online articles, videos, or forum boards, to set faith in humanity a-shakin’.

That’s the pessimistic view. It holds that vicious and unreasoning arguments lurk beneath the surface of even the most benign online interactions. It warns us off “feeding the trolls” or stoking flamewars. Antagonism can be found in plentiful supply, supposedly, and no more so than when subjective material is the topic of discussion. Be it digital or print, fiction or non-fiction, animated, live-action or on-the-page, works of creativity bring out debate, and debate can end up showcasing every opinion under the sun.

It’s a long-established rule that someone responsible for creating something should refrain from becoming deeply involved in the consumer’s discussion of the nature or quality of their work. This is without doubt wise advice. Professional detachment and giving consumers the right to voice whatever opinion they desire about your work goes hand in hand. There are few things worse than seeing the creator of a piece of work become entrenched in a petty slogging match with those criticising their efforts. Even if the defence is justified, respect for the author of the work becomes fleeting.

As with so many things though, claiming that a creator should be detached is easier said than done, particularly when they have probably spent many months, or even years, working on their final product. The question of whether or not to become involved in online debate was one I first found myself being ask about a year ago, when my first professional works of fiction began to hit the shelves. It wasn’t a challenge I found particularly hard to overcome, initially. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the praise my efforts have garnered, and whenever there are criticisms, I try to take it onboard. I’m acutely aware that I’m still learning, and any advice is valuable.

That being said, as the volume of my published work has increased, so have the comments, both for good and for ill. Basic criticism, or straight-up hate, remains easy enough to deal with. Every writer should have a thick, gnarly skin, regardless of how long they’ve been in the game. What’s harder is when comments stem from confusion. Sometimes a reader might misunderstand something, and form a negative opinion because of that misunderstanding. Knowing such things could be fixed with a simple comment or two makes engaging in the discourse much trickier.

It was with a degree of trepidation, then, that I recently signed up to several online forums where my work is discussed. My hope wasn’t to crack down on any negativity, but to show my appreciation to those who liked it, and make things clearer wherever there was confusion. Would I get dragged into messy arguments, and squander my fledgling credentials as a professional writer?

Well, no. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true. I was welcomed with open arms into every online community I entered. Critics stressed their comments were aimed towards being constructive. Readers seemed appreciative of any input, and enjoyed having a direct link to the work’s creative process. At no point was I lambasted. Even more importantly, at no point did I feel like an intruder, whose mere presence was stifling debate. As is so often the case, I just felt like another fan, fully invested in the fictional universe I was now helping to expand.

That in itself may offer a cautionary tale for authors. While remaining detached from debate is a commendable default, it seems that for some the pendulum has swung too far. There are any number of reasons why writers can’t engage regularly with their readers (the biggest undoubtedly being the time required for such a luxury), but fear of coming across as unseemly by “stooping so low” as to discuss – and yes, very occasionally defend – your own work should not starve the community of interaction. Ninety nine percent of the time, readers are delighted to be able to discuss all manner of things with the creators of the works they enjoy. That’s a privilege we should not dismiss out of hand. If anything, we should embrace it whenever we have the opportunity.

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