"I'm constantly surprised at what gets a reaction and what doesn't," Time funnyman Joel Stein once told me. Stein said he'd written pieces he was sure were viral classics, like his impassioned account of chopping off his mullet. Then... nothing. Not even a blip on the blogosphere. "Then I'd toss off some piece about peanut allergies, and suddenly my mailbox erupts."
This week I found out exactly what Stein was talking about. In recent months I've published exclusive interviews with Adam Carolla, Dr. Drew and Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black. Each piece appeared and disappeared virtually unnoticed. Then Monday I ran a brief comic riff about returning my iMac to the Apple store, perturbed that the computer didn't come with a Windows installation CD. Suddenly my inbox exploded.
"People like you make me sick," wrote one reader. "I will send a couple of emails off to your editor to let them know just how unqualified you are." "Dear Josh," wrote another reader in 48-point balloon type, "you are an idiot." And: "Your iMac is not the problem. You are the problem. There are so many moronic flaws in your article that I am surprised that you learned to tie your shoes or feed yourself." And: "The entire Internet is laughing at you."
On the post board, readers were equally vicious—and more creative. "You don't know anything about computers, yet you write a review about one," wrote one poster. "That's like me, as a gay man, writing an article about the best birth control." Another scoffed at my title, investigative reporter: "This article's title should be changed to 'I Don't Investigate Very Well; Allow Me to Demonstrate.'" Another reader empathized with my PC-to-Mac transition. "This is JUST like my experience," he wrote. "I rode a bike for nearly 10 years. I switched to a car and it didn't work the same, so I returned it two weeks later." And my favorite: "Mr. Kors: I am ashamed that your descendants learned to walk upright and harness the power of fire." (I left it to another reader to explain that it was my ancestors, not my descendants, that harnessed fire's power.)
The vitriolic posts reminded me just how flat the print medium is, how readers so angered by my piece weren't there to see me wink at the screen, chuckle at my pseudo-serious twists of phrase. It's a phenomenon Roger Ebert, now mute, wrote about beautifully last week: "[Stressing] certain words, adding inflection, adjusting pace... these areas are almost as important as the words themselves in getting a message across." With typed words alone, wrote Ebert, people will never truly understand him.
There were a few, of course, who did pick up on my comic intentions. "I have not stopped laughing from reading this article," wrote one reader, comparing my piece to one of The Onion's deadpan classics. Another said I reminded him of one of the great comic icons, Andy Rooney. Both of us, he wrote, sounded "old, tired, cranky, out of touch, and too fundamentally lazy to use even simple tools."
A dozen more pleaded to know: was I joking? "A friend of mine bet me a decent amount of money, sure of the fact that nobody who works professionally anywhere near computers could be so terribly inept when it comes to actually using them," wrote Mauzy B.
"He continued on that if someone were so embarrassingly inexperienced with basic computer function... they wouldn't dare write an article under their own name, listing point-by-point how little they knew because it would obviously be career suicide. I, having worked in retail and having experienced a customer who tried to return a phone because it 'didn't have good sound,' only to realize they had been holding it upside down, have considerably less faith in humanity and think you were actually serious."
So... was I? Well, I did buy an iMac and did return it. But I didn't send it back because the computer's font size was too small or because I was scared by the iMac's interest in taking my photo. I simply realized I was more comfortable with Windows' set-up and PC's programs. So I returned it.
You wouldn't think a stranger's purchasing and then returning a household appliance would be enough to get a reader frothing at the mouth. But for jtillwick, that was all it took. "[You] douche!" he wrote. "You should be ashamed." Last month I purchased a blender from K-Mart, then returned it when I realized it was missing both the "Grate" and "Liquefy" buttons. Glad I never told jtillwick about that.
To me, the worst emails were not the ones questioning my manhood (or its size) but those who pushed further and questioned my military reporting—the years I've spent covering soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan now struggling to get proper medical care for their wounds. Many a first date has not liked my jokes. But none have directed that discontent towards the men and women in uniform who, despite pressure to stay silent, bravely stepped forward to speak with me about serious flaws in our country's disability benefits system.
As my mailbag grew heavier and more acidic, I found myself thinking of Adam Lambert's wonderful comments in Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" video series. It does get better, Lambert told struggling gay teens. But "even someone like me, someone that has recently come into some success... even I get bullied," Lambert says. "You look under any comment section in any article, and there are bullies in there telling me I'm a faggot, that I'm ugly... all this crap."
Dozens of letters yesterday asked me to expound on my thoughts about Mac vs. PC, Snow Leopard vs. Windows. Instead, I want to push the conversation is this direction. Why is it that people who would never say such caustic and hurtful things to a person face to face feel perfectly comfortable—crouched behind a computer, protected by the shield of anonymity—lobbing verbal grenades at others? How would they feel if they opened their mailbox to these letters? Do they not realize that a real person will be reading their acerbic insults?
Part of Mark Zuckerberg's genius was to push this country towards a real-name culture. To use his site is to use your real name—no pseudonyms, no anonymity—and to use your real name is to be forced to stand by your words.
Of course, Facebook isn't everywhere. This week I'm left to wonder whether the rest of the web has been left to rot, to devolve into a hostile cultural wasteland where vicious is the norm and anyone can unload their vitriol on anyone else, without consequences or public rebuke, for crimes big or, in the case of Mac's font size, small.
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