I thought that, for a change, I would not do a video but just write a traditional blog post. I would like to talk to you all about a nastier side of doing fountain pen reviews, or in more general terms, publishing my work publicly. Today, we will talk about abuse, its consequences, and how to deal with it.
As my channel grew in popularity, I have faced increasing amounts of abuse. Sometimes, abuse is posted by trolls: people who create accounts on any given platform (in my case, YouTube) with the sole purpose of annoying, bullying, and offending people. Such comments often do not grow in eloquence beyond “you suck”, and those types of comments are usually fairly easy to deal with: the user is blocked, and I try not to give any such comments more than a minute of my time. After all, these comments should be taken for what they are: bullying in an attempt to provoke the recipient.
There is another type of abuse too, though, which is much more personal, and much harder to ignore. A few days ago, I received this public comment on one of my latest videos:
The final sentence concerned my accent, which made me sound “like an immigrant” (some derogatory adjective was added, but I forgot which one. I replied with, “Then why are you watching my videos?” and I received this reply:
It became clear to me that this person has a serious personal grudge against me and was now starting to get really offensive, so I reported him as abusive on YouTube, which led to removal of his comment and an inquiry was started (and, of course, his comment was not found to be in violation of community guidelines – YouTube’s stellar algorithm once more failed). The next morning, I found this comment on another video:
I’m sure you’re getting the point. Once again, the user is blocked, and I am trying to forget about him. Now, let’s discuss this phenomenon in a bit more detail.
The problem seems clear to me: I try to provide the fountain pen world a service by sacrificing hundreds of hours of my free time to provide interesting, engaging, entertaining, and informative content. I do so voluntarily. Yes, I have Patreon supporters and I am deeply grateful to them, but bear in mind: the financial compensation I receive for doing this videos does not even amount to a part-time salary; we’re talking pennies here. Welcome pennies that allow me to invest in equipment, reviewable pens, pay for giveaways, etc., but definitely not an income I can live off of. If it is not the money that makes me do it, then it must be something else: my enjoyment of the hobby and my desire to help out others in that hobby, be they beginners or advanced collectors, in trying to make decisions. Explaining that Japanese mediums are like Western fines, etc. Last January, I entered my fifth year as a fountain pen reviewer, and I still have fun. I do owe deep gratitude to anyone who has offered me kindness, be it in the form of nice comments, letters, surprises in the mail, etc.
However, facing a continuous stream of highly-personal abuse is slowly throttling my enthusiasm. I get personal abuse like this at least monthly, but usually biweekly. Just a short while ago, someone commented, and I have to paraphrase here: “Terrible review. All I get to see is your sweaty face. Stephen, we really don’t need to see your lame attempts at growing a beard.” That is personal abuse. It exceeds “you suck”. I asked the person why he kept coming back to watch my videos, then, and his incredible response was, “Yes, I know it is hard to take constructive criticism, Stephen.”
That is the problem right there: the internet has given everyone a stage. Everyone feels like they have the right to insult people, tell them how terrible they are, call them names, and so on and so forth, because they have the right to do so. I used to check out the fountain pen subforum on reddit, but I stopped. The amount of people there who were downright offensive really put me off. Of course, all of these people use anonymous screen names, and I assume they would not even have the guts to look me in the eye if they’d run into me at a pen show, but they say the meanest, most offensive things about me (if you want an example, the interaction between Azizah and myself in Serious Nibbage was described as, “Absolutely disgusting”). It is the same thing: these people all feel entitled to offend others, because they have the right to express their opinion. What I find most shocking is that some of these people actually believe that their offensive remarks are constructive criticism, as was the case for the YouTube commenter I quoted earlier.
The simple solution, and I know that it is in the minds of a number of readers, is “just ignore it”. That’s really easier said than done. If someone tells me that I suck, without any further reasoning, then yes, I can ignore it: block and delete. However, when someone gets offensive – sorry, that’s not something I can just ignore. It affects me. Of course, in the words of my dear soul brother Eric Orozco: “You have to look at who comments.” Yes, of course. But even that doesn’t take away the bad feeling straightaway. Not when I invest so much time and effort into helping out others and in return, I get called a cunt.
It affects me and I notice it. I notice I get snappy sometimes. Imagine reading someone’s comment, in which you are attacked for doing terrible reviews and only showing off your “lame attempts to grow a beard”. Then ten people ask you questions that are answered in three seconds by google (“Can you tell me where I can buy a TWSBI Eco?”, “Is the Montblanc 149 a cartridge/converter pen?”, “What’s the difference between a fine and a medium nib?”; these are all actual questions of the kind that I receive on a daily basis). Sometimes I just snap. That’s not fair and I know it. But it’s the proverbial one rotten apple that ruins the basket. And of course, that leads to more negative comments on reddit, like, and I paraphrase lightly, “I once asked him a question and I got the rudest answer ever. Fuck that guy.” I do apologize to everyone I have been curt with: you do not deserve it.
Now, how do we resolve this? I think the solution consists of a few parts. First of all, of course everyone is entitled to their opinion. Of course! But that you are entitled to have an opinion does not mean that you need to vent it. If you do decide to vent it, try to be civil about it. More specifically, there are many fountain pen reviews out there. Jason Wan has subscribed to the Pen Habit’s YouTube channel. Clearly, those reviews work for him – so perhaps he should just watch those reviews then, instead of calling me names. Just an idea.
So, if you are going to give someone your opinion of them, and you want them to actually change their ways, make it constructive. It’s not that difficult. Trust me, I have graded hundreds of student papers, some of which appeared to have been written by an inebriated toddler. However, instead of calling those students names, I tried to give them pointers on how to improve their work. Please, do not confuse insults and name-calling with constructive criticism: those are very different things.
Thirdly, beware of the bystander effect. If you see something nasty happening, it is tempting to not do anything about it and just look away. It’s a lot easier to ignore a problem than to actually step up and do something about it. At some point, Matt of the Pen Habit decided to take a break from reviewing pens for a number of reasons, one of them being faced with abuse more than he would like. I made a video to try and offer him some support (and guess what: it got nine dislikes). I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but I did not ignore the problem but addressed it. Anyone can do that. I recall one guy who stood up for me in a particularly nasty reddit thread – he was not prompted by me to do so; he just felt like stepping in and giving people a positive message about me was the right thing to do. I sent him a pen as a thank you. Not because I felt obliged to do so, but because I felt like that was the right thing to do: if someone steps in for you and actually defends you, especially when you yourself are absent, that deserves a big compliment. I’m not going to send out free pens to everyone, just to be sure :-). But if you ever see something nasty going on online (not just on my channel), feel free to step in and tell someone that it’s not okay to do what they are doing. The recipient of the abuse will be grateful.
Finally, just yesterday, I read this beautiful quote from the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (from his Enhyridion, as translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson), which I want to share with you and which I am trying to keep in mind:
When any person does ill by you, or speaks ill of you, remember that he acts or speaks from an impression that it is right for him to do so. Now it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but only what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from false appearances, he is the person hurt, since he, too, is the person deceived. For if anyone takes a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but only the man is deceived. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear with a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.”
Forgive my long ramble here. I will not stop doing fountain pen reviews – but this is a topic that is important to me. To be honest, getting irrational and, I believe, undeserved personal abuse is the one reason that would make me stop doing these reviews.