by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D

The vast majority of those one meets on the Internet through social networking are sane, well-educated, interesting, and often thoroughly delightful people one would be happy to meet for a hamburger or beer without bodyguards, one’s mother, or the Secret Service present.

But there are notable exceptions.

I’ve had three utterly jolting experiences on-line the past few weeks, and I’d like to tell you about them because a) venting is fun, and b) maybe you’ll tell me about your similar experiences, so I’ll know it isn’t only me. 

One of these experiences involves the Thank You For Clicking! series I wrote for the Community Marketing Blog-Off. I’ll leave it for last.  Another involves an article I wrote for a senior services site, in which the fault lies, in my opinion, with the site moderator.

But let me start with perhaps the strangest of these incidents, because I still don’t know how I might have provoked it, nor what I could have done differently to prevent it.

I don’t know about you, but I have no qualms about inviting someone with an interesting-sounding bio to join my social network. I believe I’m interesting myself, so if they are, too, why not? I feel this way especially about anyone in my sorority or anyone who attended my alma mater.

Well, I’m a Ph.D. from Penn, and I came across the bio of another Ph.D. from Penn, a few years younger than I am, who had recently joined Linked In. What was intriguing to me about this fella was that he had previously worked at one of the preeminent nonprofits studying aging and had a background in gerontological research. I currently run a business in the senior services sector and have also published several articles about this sector.

So as I generally do, I sent him not a final invitation, but a PRE-invitation to join my Connections list: Algernon: “I’d be delighted to have you in my network. Please read my bio and tell me if I might send you an invitation. Thank you.” Ellen

I feel this puts the ball in the other fella’s court, as it were, and is the formula I generally use. Do you see anything disturbing in it? Neither do I.

But Algernon – not his real name – must have, because he wrote me back saying that surely I had not contacted him just because we were both Penn graduates, and what was it about his background that had inspired me to write.

I quickly messaged back just four words, “Obviously, your gerontological background.”

Would you, even on a very bad day, when, say, your house had burnt to the ground, your wife had just run away with your best friend, and your favorite TV show had been canceled, possibly construe the four words “Obviously, your gerontological background” as a provocation and an insult so extreme, they assumed the status of an attack upon your manhood, your citizenship, and the American Way of Life

Algernon did.

He sent me back what can only be described as a screed – an E-mail so long, it would take up four or five closely-typed pages if printed, and so nasty that after I read it, I cried, screeched, threw a shoe at my computer, and went out for a long walk on the beach followed by a lobster dinner.

Algernon described my four little words “Obviously, your gerontological background” as “haughty,” “condescending,” “insulting,” “malicious,” “horrid,” “stupid,” “reckless,”  – and quite possibly fattening. (OK, the last one is mine.)

Not only did they prove that I “felt I was above him,” they clearly showed I had no sensitivity to his innermost feelings and that I was probably a man-hater, a shrew, and maybe a vampire.

Moreover, he said he had showed my four-word note to “various colleagues,” and they all agreed I should be “taken down a notch” and if possible stoned to death, a la Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” 

Since this entire incident transpired via a series of E-mails, without any mediator involved, I felt there was little I could do, other than purge all correspondence with this unusual man from my computer caches, spray my screen with a flowery cologne, and vow never to use the word “obviously” again – Oh, No! I just broke my pledge!

The second disturbing incident I want to tell you about, however, did involve a mediator – and it could and should have easily been prevented

A Genteel, Elderly Gentleman Who Likes to Send Computer Viruses

This incident involved the reprinting of my article “Summer Camp for Seniors.” The story excoriates the incompetence and lack of respect for residents exhibited by some recreation directors in nursing homes and assisted-living sites, who treat elders like kindergarten tots, herding them through endless bingo games, embarrassing sing-alongs, and “fitness” activities like beach-ball volleyball. 

The story is a tad mordant, but hardly shocking, and the vast majority of readers have responded to it warmly, citing their observance of similar practices and their intense dislike of such disrespect towards the elders among us.

The story received a couple of comments that were less than wholly positive, from professional caretakers who cited their experience with frail elderly, who they felt couldn’t cope with a demanding activities roster. These comments were thoughtful and fair, focusing on the ideas in the story and debating the author’s – i.e. my – opinions.

Such debate is always welcome – in fact, necessary – if an article is to warrant lasting attention. Writers love it when their stories arouse enough passion in the “audience” to provoke spirited give-and-take from a group of those who care enough to comment.

Then came  . . . let’s call him “Herbie.”

Herbie claimed to be a 78-year-old affluent gentleman with a 102-year-old mother in a nursing home. He swooped into the Comments section of my article one day, saying “I have so many objections to this horrible article, I can barely organize my thoughts, but I will respond at length in a few days.

Now, I know from years of experience in the world of tabloids, women’s magazines, and “trade” – business and professional – magazines that a “comment” like that just isn’t normal – and I told the publisher of this site as much as soon as I saw it.

Real people with real comments focus on specific things – specific facts or specific ideas – they either agree with or don’t agree with. They tell you why, usually thoughtfully and concisely.

When someone – generally a made-up identity far removed from the commentator’s real identity – makes blanket statements without any specifics about an article – or worse, the article’s author – you almost certainly have a hatchet job on your hands. The faux commentator either has something against the site, something against the author, or – since we’re talking Internet – is a spiteful little hacker out to make trouble.

I have a sixth – or maybe seventh or eighth – sense for these things. I told the publisher of the site that I did not believe this was a person using his/her/its bona fide identity and asked that if any additional comment came into his mailbox, he should at the very least let me vet it before it was printed.

Either the publisher, who is a lovely man, an attorney and construction executive without prior hard media experience, disagreed with my intuition about “Herbie,” or he was – more likely – simply very busy and not sufficiently monitoring what got posted on the site. 

Whatever the reason, a several-paragraph rant from the supposed elderly gentleman came into the Comments section a couple of days later. it was actually well-written, in the sense of being grammatically correct, without any spelling errors. But it made not one concrete reference to the material in the article. Not one! No “I disagree with this point, and here’s why.” No “I think recreation directors do this right and this wrong.” No “if I were running a recreation department, I would do this, that, or the other.

Instead, Herbie’s so-called “comment” trashed the story, then me, in terms without any “anchor” whatsoever – the entire article – no specifics – was “horrible” and “elitist” and “out of touch with what nursing homes are like” and “my 102-year-old mother is in a nursing home, so I am an expert.”

Then he went on to say, “I have read the body of Miss Brandt’s work” – note, not Dr., not even Ms., but Miss – “and it shows that she has no sensitivity for those in nursing homes and should not be writing about nursing homes.”

Now, this is not only silly and malicious, it is ridiculous, because this was the first and only article I have ever written that used the phrase “nursing home” – out of a “body of work” comprising over 3,000 magazine articles in the past 30-odd years. 

Since the vast majority of my “body of work” isn’t easily found in Internet search engines  (like everything from women’s magazines, men’s magazines, general interest magazines, or virtually ANY magazine published over a year or so ago – about which more in a future article), there is no conceivable way “Herbie” could have read the “body of (my) work,” unless he broke into my office after hours and ransacked my files – which I guess is possible, but not likely.

In any case, I was furious that the publisher of the site had allowed this kind of drivel – to my mind, clearly from a faux identity – to appear on his site. I telephoned him, in fact, the minute I saw it. He claimed that the comment had “slipped in by accident” without his knowledge, but that the poster in question was “probably a harmless old crank.”

My gut said differently, and I asked the publisher to remove this “comment,” which I thought slandered my entire reputation, immediately. He agreed to do so. But because of the way the site was set up, with comments made part of the story block, he had to take down the article itself overnight while the comment was removed.

I’m telling you this because of what happened next. That evening, when the story temporarily disappeared, I received an E-mail from “Herbie.” How he got my E-mail address, I don’t know, although I suppose it’s not hard to get. “Ha-ha, Witch,” he charmingly told me. “I got your bleep-bleep story taken down.”

Which in itself would be bad enough. But the minute I opened this delightful missive, my entire computer started doing crazy things, with lights flashing and windows replicating themselves wildly, dancing across my desktop.

I managed to do a System Restore and to send the Evil E-mail to a relative who’s a computer guru, who analyzed it and told me the obvious: that it contained some viral material.

Now, to my knowledge, very, very few Genteel Elderly Gentlemen spend their leisure hours experimenting with computer viruses and sending them to women they don’t know. I have actually never once heard of this pastime being popular among Genteel Elderly Gentlemen. But perhaps I am simply being naive.

The publisher in question had do a security scan of his entire site. I don’t believe he found anything, and “Herbie” disappeared forever.

The third and last disturbing incident I want to tell you about involves the Community Marketing Blog-Off competition, at least indirectly, and once more points out the need for publishers and other site monitors to keep on top of what goes on at their sites.

We Are Blackballing You Because We Don’t Like The Cut of Your Jib, The Color of Your Eyes – Or Possibly Because We Have Tummy-Aches

As part of my successful strategy in the Community Marketing site’s Blog-Off competition, as many of you know, I set up a sort of “pre-Blog Blog” on Word Press to test ten generic headlines of the kinds typically seen in supermarket tabloid publications. I was interested in testing which kinds of sensational headlines received the most page views, the most comments, and the most through-clicks to a series of links, which took people to the Community Marketing contest site, as well as my Linked In profile, a sampler of 50 of my magazine articles, and a recent interview with and about me published at a prominent Baby Boomer site.

I posted the ten generic headlines, which included “Swimming Pool Features Underwater Computer,” “7 Out of 10 Blog in the Nude,” and “Women Want Men Who Smell Like Fresh Peaches,” in both the News sections and Discussion sections of the maximum 50 Linked In Groups I belong to. The headlines were clearly labeled as coming from the Preparing for the Blog-Off blog site, and they had my name and photo attached to them, so anyone who knew me realized they were vetted by me.

My “click through” from Linked In to the “pre-Blog” blog and from there to the Community Marketing site was just superb and played a large part in my winning the competition. And of the nearly 200 comments I received during the contest – 50-plus at the Community Marketing site, 90-plus at the “pre-Blog” blog site, and 40-plus within the various Linked In Groups – almost all were highly positive, relating that people thought the experiment interesting and amusing and that they were impressed with the link-within-link-within-link design I created.

There were a few exceptions, however. In my Senior Services, Sorority, Finance, Marketing, Internet, Venture Capital, Political, and Ivy League Alum Groups, comments were near 100 percent favorable. The only demurrer was a lovely gentleman from Virginia in one of my all-Ivy Groups. He had been impressed by my non-humorous work on the Internet – including the aforementioned “Summer Camp For Seniors” – and said he was dismayed I didn’t choose more “dignified” subject matter for my Blog-Off entries.

I know not everyone is interested in social media analysis – nor for that matter, humor pieces – so I felt his commentary was certainly legitimate and welcome.

The incident that disturbed me occurred within three of the Linked In Media Groups I belong to. I should tell you that I had become very disenchanted with these Groups well in advance of this incident. They tend to be way too large to be managed properly – in some cases, with over 40,000 members. There seem to be no requirements for entry, with rank amateurs who have never published anything nor worked in a media position routinely accepted. And the News feeds, which Group managers can control as they wish, are mostly dominated by Big Media sources, rather than coming from Members themselves, which I as a Member would much more appreciate.  

I am acting on this disenchantment by forming a new Linked In Group called Media Revolution, which will accept only experienced journalists, editors, publishers, and scholars; use only feeds of Members’ own published materials; and focus on serious debate and discussion about the changing Media landscape and how we all can best navigate through a time of sector upheaval. 

But back to my Public Humiliation. It happened in a matter of minutes. I posted “Corpse Found In Internet Guru’s Gym Locker” in the News feed section of a few Media-related Groups, clearly labeled as part of the “Preparing for the Blog-Off” blog site.

It was the fifth of the Faux Tabloid Headlines I had posted, starting with the more outrageous ones, including “Thailand Swallowed By Giant Clam” and “Kinky Sex, Chocolate Truffles, Adorable Puppies.” Readers had begun commenting favorably on the Tabloid Headline exercise, at Linked In and elsewhere, so I thought everyone pretty much knew what was going on.

Apparently not so! Because out of the blue, a young fella from India posted a diatribe saying he had clicked on the “Corpse” headline expecting a real crime story and “How dare I waste his valuable time on a cheap trick that goes against eternal journalistic ethics.”  Since the young fella’s bio lists absolutely no publications nor journalistic experience whatsoever, his concern was a bit surprising, and if clicking on a site you didn’t expect to go to – which has to take all of two-and-a-half seconds – really wasted so much valuable time, how extraordinary to waste more minutes of it typing a several-sentence comment.

The young fella alone didn’t upset me, however. What came next did. Because within a few minutes, three more Group members, who had to have been lurking there waiting for a chance to pounce, came out in rapid-fire succession with escalating rants attacking not the “Preparing For the Blog-Off” site, nor its design, but me personally.

“She is clearly not a serious journalist,” said the first. “Not worthy of a Linked In Writers group,” said the second. “Vulgarly commercial,” said the third. And so on.

This third poster, by the way, is a public relations manager, so aiming the arrow of either vulgarity or commercialism at another writer seems just a tad odd. The other two posters seem to be legitimate science writers, but both eagerly participated in the longest topic discussion I’ve seen at any of the Media Groups, a 60-comment, obviously profoundly “serious” dissertation on “What do you like to eat when you’re writing.

Since to my knowledge, I have not met any of the four people who verbally squashed me, the real reason for their apparent intense dislike could conceivably have been a quip I made on the “What do you eat when you’re writing?” thread. Among the “tofu and bean sprouts” and “clear broth only” posts, I said, “I’m a cannibal.

The saga of the Nasty Four doesn’t end with one Group only, because they quickly migrated to two other Media Groups and began to post the exact same things there. It was clearly a well-coordinated and planned attack on my integrity and character – and when they got to Group Three, I essentially said, “Basta!” and deleted my “Corpse” feed, which in turn deleted THEM.

I’ve never heard from any of the Nasty Four again and sincerely hope I never do. And I’m not sure I blame them as much as I do the Group managers involved, anyway. These comments should have been “mediated” out – i.e. deleted. – before they were printed.

And before you say “Freedom of Internet speech” – sorry, in cases like this I disagree with you. Any site that is mediated is under the discretion of the site manager or publisher. There is absolutely NO assurance that any suggested comment must be posted.

Where an article – or in this extreme case, only an article title! – is the object of commentary, responsible mediators and publishers should allow criticism of the article, its facts, its writing style, its ideas  . . .  all criticism of the actual piece of writing is entirely legitimate, so long as it does not stray into, say, a string of curse words or – I dunno – insanity?

But moving from there to attack the writer’s character or integrity or intelligence or ancestry or right to exist . . .  In a social media Group, yet? Not OK. Very, very not OK.

Beat Me With Palm Fronds, Assault Me With Ripe Tomatoes, Pull Out My Eyelashes One By One

But perhaps I am an abnormally delicate plant, and others enjoy being bent, spindled, and mutilated for no reason whatsoever. (A reference to ancient information processing, which those under 40 will simply not get, in keeping with my Baby Boomer Champion image.)

Tell us what you think.

In fact, please tell us about similar incidents you have experienced – or endured – and how you handled them.

Are the publishers and other mediators of Internet sites falling down on the job and allowing too much hurtful, bullying, not to mention totally insane commentary to be posted?

What further remedies – beyond better mediation – would you propose for social media sites?

And shouldn’t anyone who dares to send a computer virus knowingly to another human being be immediately sent before a firing squad?

We eagerly await your (thoughtful, sweet, sensitive, non-Evil) comments.

I recently repatriated “Summer Camp for Seniors” to EllenInteractive. To read it, please go to: http://wp.me/pycK6-t

And for a humorous story about more! malice on the Web, please read about my determined Twitter Stalker: http://wp.me/pycK6-L

Those who enjoy the “Summer Camp” story might also like to hear about my ideas for a “University for Elders” at: http://wp.me/pycK6-v

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