Negativity Online: An Essay Inspired By 200,000 Comments

by Grace Bonney

By the time this post goes live, I will have moderated over 296,000 comments during the past 10 years of blogging. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading and approving each one, it’s that people can be toughest on the things they love the most.

Most bloggers (and stat counters) will tell you that people don’t say much online anymore. Comments are being replaced by shares, likes and pins and unless someone has an extreme opinion, they tend to just read and move on. But when we read something that touches a nerve, or worse — an insecurity — the meanest parts of us can come out. In the beginning of my blogging days I was way too quick to be snarky online, but after years of having that sort of negativity directed toward me, I learned it was better to think first and speak later (and most times not to speak at all). Mainly because I believe that most people on the internet are trying to do their best. Whether that means putting out our best writing, artwork or the best version of our homes, we’re all just trying put our best foot forward.

But it seems like more and more these days we’re judging each other based on what we think we know of someone from photos, so it feels like a good time to stop and think about what we say, who we’re talking to and what the consequences of our words are. Because no matter what sort of home we’re looking at, we’re looking at real people inside of it. And I’ve grown tired of seeing people tear each other down based on assumptions that get us nowhere — except further apart from each other and our community.

So today I want to talk about how we might change the course of our conversations. Because no matter what inalienable rights we have to scream at each other on the Internet, it doesn’t release us from the obligation we have to deal with the repercussions of our negativity. I believe there are better ways to define what our problems really are and better ways to speak to each other and work toward creating a more accepting and understanding community.

*Photo above by Oddur Thorisson from Manger

I was reading through this year’s “Piglet,” Food52’s annual cookbook competition, and came across this review of Mimi Thorisson’s A Kitchen in France. I re-read it a few times and came away saddened, but also inspired to talk about what I saw happening in that piece of writing.

In his critique, the reviewer chose to depict the author, Mimi, as saying to readers, “I don’t even have to try,” and “my life is better than yours.” The review was informed largely by the book’s photography, which emphasizes what appears to be an idyllic life in rural France. The review then further mocked the author by depicting her saying she was “triumphing over adversity” by living without marble mantelpieces.

I found this take on her personal life, however “joking” it was intended, unfair and awfully similar to comments I see left under home tours on Design*Sponge that boil down to people assuming someone’s life is fake, showy or “talking down to others” if it’s perceived as too beautiful or too idyllic.

But where is the line between just the right amount of beauty and inspiration and what we deem as too much or too showy? And why do we decide that anything over the line deserves to be questioned or ridiculed?

The lifestyle community at large (home, fashion, food, parenting, etc.) is full of a wide range of ideas and inspiration that aim to show people things they CAN try if they want. I’ve emphasized the word “can” here, because I think that aspect — that the idea is optional — is getting lost.

Books, magazines, blogs, podcasts, Pinterest and every other form of social media are outlets for inspiration. Whether they’re showing ideas for a single DIY project or a larger plan for how to make your life happier and more fulfilling (cue Oprah’s a-ha moments), lifestyle media has always been about showing you different ways to try things at home and in your life.

But unlike 10-15 years ago, now we have what feels like a million outlets providing ideas, tips and recommendations. Every screen we load has a dream home to show us, the newest fashion trends and 10 ways to cook meals that make your family happier.

I understand why that rush of information can feel overwhelming, and why it might lead some people to feel as if they’re being bombarded with images of “perfection” that can seem hard to keep up with.

But this is where the line is drawn for myself. I don’t think the vast majority of lifestyle content being written is intended to make anyone feel bad about themselves. Every blog, Pinterest page and Instagram feed is operated (for the most part) by a single person who is excited to have that one place to share ideas and projects they think are inspiring or that they created themselves and are proud of. And if someone actually does live a life where they make their own cupcakes or sew their own curtains or save up to build their dream home, why do we assume that they think they’re better than us or that they have it easier or that they couldn’t possibly be “real?”

When I read through comments on DS, I get a very clear message that there seems to be some sort of unstated consensus that “normal” is best. People want to see homes and ideas and products that shock them with their creativity and beauty — but only to a certain degree. If it goes “too” far or is perceived as having been made with “too” much money or effort, it immediately tips over into negative comment land.

But what is “too” much? And who decides what’s “normal”? Here’s what I think: There is no normal and there is no perfect. Luxury and “dream lives” are all relative. What seems excessive to one person seems normal to another. And while we’re all entitled to our own feelings and reactions to something not being our taste, style or along the lines of what we would prioritize, when we cross over into making assumptions or judgements about that person’s life based on photos from their home or something they made, we’re distancing ourselves from people and writing them off without getting to really know them.

Here’s what I see happening in the comments here at DS:

1. We assume we know what someone is like because of one small glimpse inside their home/life. Just because someone cleaned up their house for their home tour or doesn’t have a pile of clutter doesn’t mean they have a team of house cleaners or think they’re better than anyone else. The amount of times people have commented that someone is probably “not a good” parent for NOT having toys shown on the floor of a child’s room blows my mind. The same goes for how clean someone’s kitchen looks (“they must never cook if it looks that clean”). The bottom line is — people clean up when they put their lives online. The only thing we can truly know from that photo is that they took the time to straighten up or, like a lot of us, shoved everything messy to the left of the photo.

2. We assume there is a magic “normal” we can find that will somehow make everyone happy. After 10 years of looking at thousands and thousands of homes and reading even more comments, I can tell you, there is no universally loved anything in the world of home design. There’s never been a single home where everyone agreed it felt like the ideal mix of relatable and inspirational or the perfect mix of styles. That’s because everyone’s idea of home is different and the only thing we can do is hope that each person finds a way to create a home that suits their needs and styles.

3. We assume that people who are perceived as wealthy think they are better than other people or have it easier than others. Those people are then deemed fair to attack because they think they’re “above” us. But we don’t know those people, and why do we feel the need to judge their perceived success or financial status? I don’t make as much as a lot of the people we feature here, but that doesn’t make me feel bad about my own life. I admire anyone who has created a home that makes them happy and I assume for the most part that they worked hard to get wherever they are. I’d rather be happy for them and send a virtual high five because that’s exactly how I would like to be treated.

I’m not so naive as to assume that we’ll all just stop judging each other because frankly, I don’t think we’ll stop judging ourselves either. And that, for me, is at the core of what’s happening here. I think that when we see something that makes us angry or upset, there’s usually a little kernel of something we see in ourselves. Whether it’s a kernel of jealousy (wanting that perceived lifestyle) or a kernel of recognizing someone else’s behavior as our own, we tend to get most upset when something connects to how we see ourselves in the world.

Here’s an example: The other day a reader left a comment on someone’s home tour saying that it was “too trendy.” They listed items in the home that are popular on design blogs and in magazines right now and went so far as to list a particular artist in that person’s home, further clarifying THEY had that same artist in THEIR home. The moment I read that part of their comment, I wondered — are they upset because that will make them look at their artwork differently now? That somehow that piece of art feels less special now because it’s in someone else’s home, or someone else’s home that doesn’t look the way we would assume it would look if they like the same artist?

No matter what the underlying cause is, we’re getting frustrated with people for not making the same decisions we would. It seems like we feel as if someone is squandering an opportunity by not doing what we would do if we were in the same position.

I realize that most people reading sites like this one don’t already live in their dream homes or live their “dream lives” yet. They’re working on building them, or drawing up plans and ideas and goals, or gathering ideas and inspiration for what will work for them down the road one day. So I understand why seeing someone who is living our “dream” already may be frustrating. But what if instead of letting that jealousy or frustration turn into an assumption about someone’s life, we just let it go and focus on what’s really upsetting us?

After reading through 200,000 comments, I think a lot of the upset that people feel comes from wanting to see more diversity, more honesty and more transparency online. And I think that challenge is one for me and other content producers, and not homeowners or the people who share their lives online.

It’s my job — and my privilege — to spend more of my days looking for homes, projects, profiles and ideas that reflect a wider range of everything, from styles and budgets to stages in life. I don’t think that will somehow make all of these people immune from hearing negative comments, but I think it will address — and help — the almost palpable desire in our comment section for more ways for people to click with, connect to and see themselves in the stories we post.

I’m thrilled and more than ready to take on the challenge of looking for more ways to share stories that reflect the wide range of people reading online, but where does that leave all of us as commenters?

I think if we all took a deep breath before we reacted we’d be in a better place online. If we cut each other a little slack and trusted that everyone has their own issues, we might see less anger and more acceptance — or at least fewer people being scared to be themselves online. Because no matter how fancy or not-fancy someone’s home is, everyone had good days and bad. Everyone worries about money and their health and their families. No one is immune to a broken heart, a bad hair day or a rough week at the office. And that includes the “angry” commenters, too.

I think that underneath every snarky comment is someone who could use more love and acceptance in their own life. This American Life did an entire podcast about this idea and it sums up everything I believe about negativity online. If you have 10 minutes to listen to the first story, please do. It’s a sad, but eye-opening case study about how we attack others because we’ve felt attacked in our lives.

I’d love to see our community grow to understand and respectfully manage the way the online world works now. I don’t think the “more more more” aspect of our world is going to change anytime soon. So rather than fight it, what if we worked harder to see behind the veneer of it a little bit more and understand that behind all those perfect DIY cupcakes and hand-sewn curtains are people who probably feel self-conscious about another aspect of their lives? Just because they choose to spend time making one part of their life look “beautiful” doesn’t mean that they’re not “real” or that they think they’re better than the rest of us. It just means that on that day, they decided to sit down and try that project and then share it. We all have moments when we’re proud of something we do and the great thing about the web now is that people have so many ways and places to share those moments.

I want to keep providing a home and a space for people to share those moments with all of us. Because I think those moments of inspiration and connection are valuable and important. They remind us we have something in common with each other and that we’re all connecting over a shared effort to create places and moments in our lives that reflect who we are. We’re a far-ranging and diverse audience and I promise to work harder to share stories, homes and ideas here that reflect that depth and breadth of our community. Hopefully that will help us all feel more connected to what we’re reading and feel more excited to build each other up than tear each other down. xo, grace

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  • I loved reading this, Grace. I’ve noticed the escalation of negativity online and it’s sadly become the new norm. I’ve had disjointed thoughts on this topic and your post eloquently framed some of those thoughts. I’ve enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments on this post, too, and I’m so happy you were able to meet that professor face-to-face. That must have been an awful experience. It’s hard to comprehend why some people don’t understand that there’s a human being behind this blog and all blogs.

  • Grace, This is so spot on. Thank you for writing such an eloquent piece on such a difficult subject. I have stopped reading other blogs that don’t have comment moderation because I can’t stand so much of the negativity. I love looking at the way other people live; that is what inspiration is, isn’t it? Of course people clean up before taking photos of their houses. I don’t want to look at my own empty pizza box let alone anyone else’s.
    Anyway. Thanks so much for this!

  • Thank you so much for writing such a thoughtful, honest and positive essay. My favorite part was:

    “Every blog, Pinterest page and Instagram feed is operated (for the most part) by a single person who is excited to have that one place to share ideas and projects they think are inspiring or that they created themselves and are proud of.”

    And you’re right!

    It’s so hard for me to imagine that there are people out there who really have the time and energy to create content for the purpose of making others feel bad. It just doesn’t make sense.

    This was such a great read and I hope we can all take a step back before making assumptions–both on the internet and in everyday life!

  • Yes, we all have to be nicer to everyone. What is the fun of insulting and criticizing someone overly, just shows people are jealous or well stupid. We must say good things, share good things, ideas etc that inspire and interest others which makes life more beautiful in a way not bombard and say something negative and stupid. Anyway…very well expressed and thought out write up, we definitely must think before we comment and in real life think before we say something too and we are all good people who want to be happy and keep each other happy, lets be at it, instead of offending others unnecessarily.

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