How Not to Behave on the Internet

The Internet has opened whole new levels of communication and ways to present yourself to the world. Like many opportunities, though, these come with risks. You will be speaking to a much broader audience, one not necessarily cowed by a string of letters after your name or a list of credentials. The modern communication pathways require a certain level of coherent discourse to avoid being mistaken for a spammer, or a troll. The Internet is also not a wise place to air your grievances under the guise of unbiased opinion simply because it’s very easy to discover a greater context.

Where does this come from, you might ask?

Well, let me tell you a story. It’s long, but I think you’ll find it worth the read:

I moderate the first comment anyone makes on my blog to reduce the amount of spam that gets through. Last week, I received two moderation requests from the same person on my pre-review of Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie. While someone adding to their comment faster than I can approve it is not unheard of, the content of these comments did surprise me a bit.

Because I do not want to fall into the trap of quoting out of turn, please click the following link to read the comments yourself (and the pre-review above if you wish for context), then come back and finish the story.

So, did you go? Did you see the same inarticulate generalizations with poor spelling, etc. that I did?

I do not suppress negative comments on my reviews. I do not expect everyone to like the same books I do, or even to see the same things in them. Especially when we’re talking non-fiction, though, the assertion that the facts are incorrect is intriguing if nothing else.

However, when a glance at the address showed it came from an edu site, and the poor use of language coupled with the focus on Catherine the Great’s sexual nature (which, by the way, Massie does not ignore but rather provides the emotional and psychological grounding for her risqué behavior), I was torn between the right actions. I prefer articulate commentary, but I don’t control the world. At the same time, the likelihood that someone was pretending to be the professor and undermining his professional reputation seemed higher than that the comments were legit.

It took a few clicks to find him at the school and see that he was indeed a professor rather than a student. In the interests of fairness and an abhorrence for identity theft, I sent him the following message:

Dear Mr. Alexander:

I received the below two comments on my blog regarding a review I wrote about Robert K. Massie’s newest novel [*history]. While I do not suppress negative comments as a rule of thumb, there are some flags here that make me suspect this is someone pretending to be you. The use of poor grammar and spelling, along with a list of errors that could easily be copyediting issues and not one specific is not what I would expect from a history professor. If this was from you, I’d be much more open to a reasoned argument with examples than an easily dismissible rant. If it wasn’t, you may want to look into the included IP information to identify who is pretending to be you.


Because his response came to my private email, I cannot, and will not, quote it here. Suffice to say it was more of the poorly edited, over exclamation pointed, lacking in specifics, and at times incoherent jumble of letters example of how not to communicate that the original comments were, showing that he did, indeed, seek out my blog, skim not my full review but rather my pre-review much later than when I posted it, and leave the comments.

Again, I went to the Web to see just who this professor was. I found his own works covering the same periods that Massie has covered, including a quote from one of Catherine’s letters that is also featured in Massie’s book, indicating that Massie did research similar to that of John T. Alexander despite Alexander’s claims, and this is just based on a Google Books summary of Alexander’s Catherine the Great biography, the key elements of which also matched what I had read in the Massie book.

Now, it’s easy to laugh this off and consider it a fluke, but I’m in the business of learning, and of teaching, so I look for lessons in what I experience.

Alexander had an opportunity, two if you count my email, to point to specific errors and make me curious enough to check some of it out. He even had the opportunity to challenge me to read his book and compare the two. He had someone who had already stated an interest in Russian history, the area of his expertise, and someone who cared enough to discuss it in a public forum. All I asked of him was specific examples and a coherent discourse. What I got was a barely coherent rant by someone who sounded like he was having a fit.

My walk away from this a disgusted pity. Why? Because the inability to offer examples or a discourse makes me suspect sour grapes. Rather than using the popularity of Massie’s account as a jumping off point to encourage interest in history, rather than using the new focus on that period to bring his own book back into the forefront as a rivalry of historians, all he did was throw out empty accusations against someone who has been publishing in the same areas Alexander has, without once stating that he has similar work. This, to me, automatically undermines any viable complaint in his words.

There’s another piece to this. By using his title and his edu address, he has made this incoherent rant a representation of the university he works for, giving a poor impression not just of himself but also of the school as a whole because they employ someone so inarticulate in a department such as history which is based on academic, and supported, writing.

The learning experience here is simple: how you communicate on the Web reflects back on you. Use poor grammar, spelling, and language, and people are less likely to take you seriously. Use exclamation points and generalizations instead of reasoned arguments, and people are more likely to dismiss you. Let your anger control your responses, and you will win no one to your cause. And most importantly, be upfront about your potential bias, because whether or not it affects your arguments, if those reading the argument discover the bias on their own, it will negate any gains you may have made.

The above is true whether you’re an author responding to a negative review, a politician undermining your competition, or a random individual with strong opinions. What you say on the Internet stays available long past the flash of anger that provoked it, and makes a lasting impression about you and those associated with you.

* I mistyped in my email because the majority of my reviews are fiction not non-fiction.

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8 Responses to How Not to Behave on the Internet

  1. Deirdre says:

    I somewhat wonder if he does searches on the internet for mentions of Massie just so he can comment…because otherwise how did he find your review, and what caused him to choose today to comment? I’m going to guess that if anyone with authority over him ever asked the question his response would be some version of the “you have no say over my personal life” quote.


    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Well, I only approved the comments today, but it was last week. And why didn’t he read the full review rather than the preliminary. But yes, that’s probably exactly it, or someone pointed him to it as a twig. On the other hand, if he used that argument, they could come back with the fact that he used his business email.

  2. Brett W says:

    This is almost like the author who exploded on a review that they didn’t agree with months ago.
    It worries me that we have people who claim to be writers that can’t expound a reasoned argument with proper grammar and English teaching our young people.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      That’s actually why I decided to post this. Because there’s been a string of authors behaving poorly, and a lot of people don’t think about the impression that leaves with potential readers.

  3. Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

    And just to prove my point, he has offered up another gem: *Fixed Link*

  4. Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

    And again he’s back, this time in response to the full review. However, it’s nothing but a repeat of his first comments and gives no indication that he even read the review he’s supposedly responding to. I gave in and contacted his institution because they should know how he’s representing them:

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