Impulsivity, Internet Anonymity and the Journalist’s Social Identity

A few days ago, I expressed disdain at the NY Times for overblowing what I thought, at the time, was a minor news story.


What really pissed me off was the wording. We’ve been learning about good ledes and headlines in J2100, and this alert gave me little to no grounds to actually read it.

By all accounts, I did have good intentions when I made an impulsive status calling out the New York Times for making this a news alert. My thought process was that it shouldn’t matter that Michael Sam is gay, because I thought the message was yet another public figure was gay, and that it was somehow groundbreaking.

I assumed he was simply a trailblazer, one of many in collegiate football to come out of the closet but one that was going to get unnecessary media attention. I thought it was like one of those celebrity-gossip articles of sorts, like when Ellen DeGeneres declared she was a lesbian in 1997 and everyone was appalled.

So I, without thinking, wrote that it shouldn’t matter to me that Sam is gay, thinking I was declaring support of him by not letting the NY Times reduce him to a celebrity defined by his/her sexual orientation. I thought I was being brave.

…I didn’t realize I probably should have actually read the story first.

To all the people who’ve been kept up with NFL politics, this was a different story– quite literally. Michael Sam is the first NFL draft pick to come out as openly gay. This was basically a landmark in NFL history; it was not on the same level as an invitation for people to make homophobic comments about a random college athlete. Rather, it was about the fact that the NFL would be forced to confront its history of discrimination against gay athletes and locker room bigotry.

Ironically, he also happened to attend my school, so making a judgement about the story being potentially unimportant turned out to be very, very untrue. And awkward.


Within hours, there were all sorts of statuses from my Mizzou friends congratulating him, a Buzzfeed article congratulating our school on being so supportive, a declaration from Westboro Baptist Church that they were coming to picket our university on Saturday, and a subsequent event to form a human wall against the WBC’s hate.

What was I doing while these celebrations were happening? Unable to post anything because it would directly contradict a point I had unintentionally made. Figuratively banging my head against a wall while my classmates started arguing on my picture.

The most vocal –save for the guy who called me a bitch– were debating because it was in their outspoken, informative nature to do so, but what made it more embarrassing was the mass of people simply liking their comments. These were people who I had not spoken to in months, some high school acquaintances, some Facebook friends I had made because we had made small talk a time or two at a party. The bigger similarity they shared was that they usually did not interact with my profile.

So without any prior knowledge of their true impressions of me, I was inclined to believe that the attention I was receiving now was negative. They must think I’m a dumbass, I thought panickedly as I watched the likes increase on a comment I viewed as particularly harsh. I should have read that story earlier. My credibility as an informed citizen is gone forever.

I haven’t been following the NFL, so I honestly did not know, at first glance, that a college football standout meant a lot to the NFL. The Times did not mention the NFL in their news alert. They made it seem like this was another sensational, TMZ-style post, so of course I was prone to publicly dismiss it. Fellow non-sports-enthusiasts tried to comfort me, saying that no one would care if I simply did not respond. But I could not stop staring at my screen, inwardly cursing myself for posting such a dumb post. At this point I was no better than the people who thought Nelson Mandela was Morgan Freeman.

And the anonymity of the Internet was only aggregating this. Had this been a real-life discussion, I could have immediately clarified my initial misunderstandings, and shown that I was willing to listen and be educated by the knowledge and opinions of others. Instead, I had to deal with a sinking feeling that all 23 of those ‘likes’ signified that 23 people thought I was wrong.

I’m pretty acquainted with the workings of Facebook, so I’ve observed that when people disagree with something on the Internet, they’re more prone to be rude and cruel to the perpetuators of that disagreement. I was cringing at feeling the effects of this in general, even if it probably wasn’t that bad.

Adding to the agony was the fact that something similar happened earlier that week, when I had posted a picture of the NBC Olympics promo.


I thought Meryl Davis looked more unrealistic than her male counterparts. Some annoyed fans asked me what was wrong, countering that she was just that beautiful in real life. I tried to say that ‘her face looked too 3-D’, and got snide responses to what, once again, was a poor choice of words on my part.

I’d see pictures of Davis before, and she looked similar, but over airbrushed relative to her companions. That was all I was saying. I was not ignorantly slamming her unique beauty– I was trying to curiously wonder if she was getting the ‘fashion magazine’ treatment by the networks, especially in contrast to the men around her. But everything apparently had to be a debate again, and I came away even more irritated when the post revived itself the same night as my poor judgement with the Michael Sam story occurred.

In person, I generally don’t have to watch my words as much because people can ask me, then and there, to clarify what I mean. It’s easier to see if your conversational partners actually care to have a productive discussion.

Now I realize that on the Internet, what you say becomes permanent instantly, and I definitely should have been more careful about my word choice. But I’m really angry (perhaps irrationally so) that people I probably would get along with cordially in real life don’t do me the same courtesy online, especially when they don’t know me that well. If it’s a friend I’m more acquainted with, then I’ll understand that they’re joining in on the dialogue. If a multitude of silent ‘likes’ appear, or comments with condescending tones are made, then I’ll feel ganged up on.

Disregarding the perils of word choice impulsivity and brutality of Internet anonymity, I also need to reassess my social identity.

For years, I’ve craved campus notoriety. I enjoy having a vast network of friends, in which I can search for someone and instantly have a handful of mutual friends pop up. I like running into people I know in the most random of places, and having people greet me with grins of ‘Hello, Crystal Duan’. Beyond feeling liked, I feel great, in the sense of appreciated and reassuring myself that I’m relevant in a society with ever-changing attention spans. I can rotate through people’s different attention spans instead, so I’ll never not be entirely irrelevant.

I need to compromise this compulsive need to be liked and agreed with at every turn, regardless of what actually happened on Facebook. It took everything in me to not lash out and be egotistical toward the people upsetting me. I wanted badly to defend the social identity I’ve tried so hard to craft perfectly, but I would have just looked foolish.I don’t understand how Jesus could have turned the other cheek and called others to the same. It’s pretty hard, especially considering that one of the few times that I saw my opinions prominently antagonized, I took it completely terribly.

I probably went wrong when I wrote those things with the intention of having people agree with me and give me a gold star for being able to call out some presumed societal failing. Sure, the ones who liked my pictures probably did agree, to a certain extent, with what I was trying to say. But they should be a silver lining rather than the main audience I always cater to.

Usually I’ve been neutral about most controversial topics. I enjoy looking at both sides of an issue, which is why I empathize easily but make a terrible debater when push comes to shove. I’ve been a bit more vocal about thinking critically lately, but frankly, I’m still very bad at mediating strong opinions; for years I’ve just expressed watered down ones, anyway.

But at the end of the day, sometimes you have to move on and accept that you can’t always win. As a journalist, people are also going to criticize me. They haven’t yet cause I’m young, and I just by coincidence haven’t cried in a stairwell from the pain of hits to my ego.

But sources are going to yell at me. Editors are going to scold me. Friends are going to question me. People are going to make fun of or correct me. You’ll make mistakes in all aspects of your life, and the most important thing is to learn from them.

I now know that being sensitive is going to suck if I ever want to write editorials, or do anything where I’m called to have an opinion.

I now know to think carefully about what I put on my Facebook wall, because on the days I don’t get many likes or comments, that doesn’t mean people aren’t noticing.

I now know that doing things for other people to see or comment on in general is a double-edged sword, and that I should expect for every agreeing individual I see, there will be yet another person who disagrees, and will do so by attacking me.

I now know that people won’t really let you know what they pay attention to until they’re passionate enough to yell at you for it.

….The only thing I don’t know is if this post counts as whining. If it does, sorry. I’m working on it.


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