The Internet is a strange place.
On one hand, here is a place built for connection. We're finally free from our bodies and the judgements and prejudices that come with them - just souls without a vessel, able to bare ourselves in whatever way we wish. Unless we chose to upload a photo of ourselves, we don't have to be judged based on our physical appearances - what we were born into, what we can't change, what we are as a result of our lives. Finally we can be judged purely on our character, our spirit, our kindnesses and our actions.
Sounds great, right? Doesn't that kind of sound like the Utopia we've all been hoping for?! Oh man.
Somehow, this incredible opportunity for judgement-free connection got hijacked by people who, like The Joker, just like to watch the world burn. I say that with a wink and a twinkle in my eye, because really, the negativity that comes with the internet is something you must play with. In fact, that goes for all of life's hatred and negativity. You need to soap up and learn to let that stuff slide off your back, into the water beneath you to dissolve and dissipate - back into the abyss from which it came. Life is a real tricky beast sometimes, and learning to have fun with it is very very important. Because the Real Hard Times are coming for us all, and wow - if I hadn't had a really really really good attitude and mindset (to people, to life) I don't know how I would have gotten through mine.
So, here are my own personal experiences of Haters, and how I got through it.
(self portrait from almost exactly 8 years ago today, I was 17)
1) Teenage Years
I'll be the first to admit - I wasn't a lovely teenager. Granted, I wasn't the kid who pushed people about and spat at people or mentally destroyed people (at least to my recollection, I never did that) - but I was a very defensive teenager.
When confronted with arguments or conflict, when I perceived to be the "misinterpreted" party, instead of calmly saying "Woahhhh, I'm so sorry you thought I meant to hurt you - that isn't what I meant at all. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings there, buddy" I would emotionally leap up in self defence, shut people out, talk about them behind their backs in order to build up a safety net of "friends" to validate me and protect me, I would sometimes say hurtful things in order to "get one back" and other childish things that teenagers do. Yikes. Just reading that makes me feel uneasy. It's very clear to see why kids these days dread going into school - when even the Nice Kids Aren't-That-Nice.
What first changed my mindset during this time was being totally isolated from my entire friendship group at one point - I can't remember why. But I remember that people were being told not to talk to me, I felt very alone and very misunderstood, because inside I felt like I was a "nice person".
This is when it hit me - actually, I wasn't that nice. And actually, why would people want to talk to me? What good WAS I in their friendship group? This little revelation hit me like A TON OF BRICKS.
Once I dropped the "people owe it to be nice to me" thing, and started actually wondering WHY they owed it to be nice to me, I began to transform.
I decided that I was going to become The Kindest Person Ever. I decided that I was never going to talk about people behind their backs, ever again. I decided I was going to try try try to understand EVERYONE, regardless if I disagreed with them, because holy crap I wanted someone to try and understand me at that point. I started walking down the street, and thinking lovely things about people I passed along the way. "I love the colour of her dress" I thought. I started smiling at people, enjoying people, for the simple human they appeared to be in the seconds that I encountered them.
Of course, people don't suddenly notice you've gone from being Average-Nice-ish-Person-Who-Is-Sometimes-A-Bitch to The Kindest Person Ever in a week. Or even a month. Or even a few years. In fact, I'm pretty sure there are still people out there who probably hold hurt from things I said to them when I was younger, and for that I will be always willing to apologise. But, what I do have, is an inner peace and confidence in myself that I am Kind. I am always still learning, and it is not always easy to act with kindness when you feel misjudged and misinterpreted, but I am learning.
This was the first lesson I had to learn in how to deal with Haters - first I had to deal with my own hate, my hatred for who I was. When I understood myself, and then forgave myself, it allowed me to understand and forgive other people.
2) Internet Haters
The Internet seems to be the place where Haters gather and pour insults like shots at a bar. It's a scary place to be, it's an even scarier place to lay out your vulnerable self - in blogs, in photos, on social media. You're pretty much opening yourself up to All The Criticism. It's an even scarier place to try something new - like photography. I was 17 years old when I first started uploading self portraits on Flickr, for my 365 Days Project.
Very soon, due to my "openness" (I mean, I was The Kindest Person Ever now, what did I have to hide?) my flickr profile started gathering momentum. I think people were just intrigued by this 17 year old kid who took weird pictures of herself dressed up as a clown in her bedroom after school.
My photos weren't particularly great. They were imaginative, but technically, they weren't great. The kind of broke all the rules of photography - and not really in a badass way. They were out of focus, they were photoshopped to near death, they were slammed over and over with texture upon texture, they were filled almost as much teenage angst as they were textured, and then blasted through ALL THE FILTERS and uploaded with pride. By a teenage girl. I wrote about my life - about my day, about my thoughts, about the good, about the bad. I mused on things, I connected with the strangers that stumbled across me, I felt at home.
A few people saw this, and didn't like it. When I say "a few", I'm going to translate that into what felt like the entire internet. After the photo series with my then-boyfriend Aaron got featured on a few blogs and news networks, I was suddenly open to every criticism known to man.
I mean - who the hell did I think I was?! I was some teenager who had spent zero years and zero money being educated on photography, shooting on the most basic of kit, making a big textured mess of what I did make, and getting more recognition and support than people who had been SLAVING over their craft for YEARS had gotten. I'm the first to admit, I can totally see why people were agitated by that. And then there was the time where I ran out of ideas for self portraits that I was trying to post every day and didn't credit the original ideas (which I very much should have) on my photos. What followed was the most heart wrenching period of my teenage life.
I had hate campaigns set up in my honour, people on websites and forums all over the place talking about how I should just curl up and die, people wishing cancer on my family, people in school coming up to me and asking if my relationship was being sponsored by Adobe as a marketing tool "because they'd read it online somewhere". I was torn apart, for being an 18 year old kid excited to share something I had created, that I was proud of, that I wanted approval for.
I knew that I could very easily switch myself off from it, that I could just turn off ALL the hate - simply by deleting my Flickr and never picking up a camera again. I stopped my 365 Days project for a week and felt huge surges of guilt whenever I saw art online that inspired me. I felt like The Kindest Person I had tried to become was dying a death, I felt myself wanting to turn on the people who were making my life miserable to live, who were taking my passion away from me.
I remember being sat absentmindedly in Biology class, ruminating on my horrific online situation that was unfolding, paying no attention whatsoever to what was being taught. I remember thinking I was never going to be able to get a job in anything else, because nothing captured me like Photography did. I didn't love anything like I loved photography. And then it clicked - what else did I love photography more than? I loved it more than people's validation of me. I loved it more than I loved the safety of being liked by everyone, I loved it more than anything I had ever loved.
It was that day I knew that Haters were just going to be something I took on as part of this journey - and that every day I picked up the camera, it would be worth it. I started shooting self portraiture again, and wrote a massive post about my mistakes and handed the haters exactly what they wanted - acknowledgement that they had a point. Because sometimes, just sometimes, people do have a point.
The decent lot who had been writing mean stuff about me, took my apology and allowed me to move on, some of them supported me, some of them are now my friends. Some of them carried on hating, because haters gonna hate. I don't know what they're up to with their lives - and that's something else that I've realised - the things you are willing to take from your situations are the things YOU have to live with. If you go about taking bad, giving back bad, don't be surprised when you're living a bad life that you don't think you deserve. I try with all my might to give good, to take good, and for the most part, I will happily confirm that this has yielded me a Good Life.
3) Shake It Off
Once you have accepted that haters gonna hate, the next step is how much you let it penetrate your life.
I have chosen to pay attention to approximately 0%.
If someone writes a mean blog about me, I don't read it.
If someone writes me a mean email, I delete it.
If someone writes a mean comment on a picture, I just leave it or delete it. I don't let it sink in - because the general rule of thumb is that anyone who has time to spend making someone else feel bad either a) hasn't felt enough sorrow in their life yet to really appreciate how silly it is to do that
b) has also felt sorrow in their life, but has not felt enough kindness to know how wonderful kindness is.
You would be amazed at how often it is the latter.
So, here is my solution to Hate.
When someone shows hate, so often they just need to see what understanding and kindness looks like. They just need a hug, they just need someone to listen, they just need a bit of connection, a bit of patience. And though I'm no Dalai Lama and won't be driving round to theirs with a bar of chocolate after they've told me they hope I get hit by a bus, I will certainly not throw more hate back their way.
My friend Adam posted an amazing photo onto a photography group today - and got some grief about it linking to his editing tutorials he sells. One person wrote how they were going to download and pirate his tutorials, because they were broke. I suggested he send them a free copy.
If there is opportunity to good - do it. What's the worst that could happen? Someone walks all over you? Feel free. If I'm a doormat, then I have a big fat "WELCOME" sign on me. The risk of being used FAR outweighs the possibility of that kindness making that person go "Wow, actually, that was nice and I'm going to try and be a bit nicer."
At the end of the day, there are no prizes in life for those who live with Kindness. You won't avoid pain by being kind. Pain comes for all of us, the concept of karma is just another way of hoping those who hurt us will be unhappy. There are no prizes for those who live with Hate - you won't avoid pain by being hateful or hard.
The Real Hard Times are coming for all of us. Mine came for me just six weeks ago, and I was launched into the depths of sadness so deep I had never fathomed. As I sunk lower into my sadness, I kept hoping my toes would touch the sea floor, it never came. So instead, I am learning how to swim, and appreciating all the time I spent on the shore, glad that I savoured every single moment on it with him.
There are no prizes either way you live your life. There are no ways to avoid the tragedies that you are on a collision course with, the entropy that you are furiously speeding towards without even moving from your sofa.
But I can tell you, life is so much lighter lived with kindness. Life is so much lighter when lived without hate.
So when you encounter it - first understand it. Put yourself in their shoes, even if they're totally wrong, even if they're totally misunderstanding you. Forgive it. Apologise if you need to. Work it through your fingers and if you can, help out the person behind it, who is probably struggling in their own way. You could even hug it. Embrace that hate, and before you know it, it will slide off you like water. There are no prizes waiting at the end of this race, but a journey that you enjoy taking is surely the best you can hope for. Let's all try to make it a good'un.