Online Nice Guy Justin Long and the Internet Writer's Oath

BlogHer Original Post

We live in a world of deadlines, and the online world has only increased the number of those self-imposed and work-dictated deadlines. If you're not racing to be the first person to break the news, you're racing to be the first person to write the best commentary on it. We don't thoughtfully examine a controversial tweet and pause for a few hours to consider our response. We jump on it -- shooting from the hip (and sometimes taking casualties when words are spewed without thinking things through to their ends). If something is hot, you post it immediately rather than letting it sit in your draft folder over night. And sometimes, our desire to be first, to be clever, to be the most read leads to flame wars.

Actor Justin Long attends the premiere of the motion picture biographical thriller Conviction , at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills, California on October 5, 2010.  UPI/Jim Ruymen Photo via Newscom

A case in point is the review of Justin Long and Drew Barrymore's new movie, Going the Distance, written by Michelle Orange in an 18-hour period between seeing the film and filing the review for Movieline. She didn't like the film, and she ended up bashing the people who were in it, writing scathingly of Barrymore's eye make-up and Long's features.

And Long spoke about it on Jimmy Fallon's show, quoting what she wrote about his face word for word. And as she heard her words spoken back to her -- by the man she wrote them about, whom she hadn't considered might read the review -- she felt like sinking into the floor.

Orange explains how she rethought her actions after she found out about Long's comments:

I am acutely aware that, as recovering internet mean person Emily Gould recently put it, “it often feels as though whatever writing spotlight still exists belongs to whoever can be the most abrasive or pandering.” For working critics, it can seem like the ebbing tide has lowered all boats; there’s an option available now that wasn’t there before, and no one’s going to stop you from using it -- if anything it’s encouraged; in some fields it’s the competitive option, a way to attract attention and keep the vicious commentariat appeased -- or sliding inexorably toward it. That’s on you, and vigilance is required if you want to maintain a sense of identity and purpose uninfected by the internet’s constitutional grammar of incivility.

The problem is that being a critic is no longer a job that requires training and daily consideration about how the subject will receive the words. Anyone can be a critic -- and many of us are critics in the very public, very searchable forums of the Internet. Justin Long doesn't just have to endure what Variety and the New York Times and Premiere magazine thinks. He now also can read what Amy in Chicago and Moviegrrl in Seattle think about his film. And beyond that, what they think about his film, his voice, and his ass. Because while the New York Times has a series of standards for their reviews, personal blogs do not.

Though maybe they should.

Perhaps it's time yet again to think about setting some etiquette rules for the Internet -- ones that can be used by any publication since it certainly isn't personal bloggers who are responsible for all the thoughtless comments strewed across the Internet (a case in point, Orange was writing for Movieline).

You can add your own amendments (like a founding foremother in the same way those dudes argued out the Constitution) in the comment section, but I think we need to start with this statement I drafted:

The Internet Writer's Oath

As writers, we need to take a long look at the concept of nonmaleficence, that maxim doctors utter (primum non nocere) and apply it to our use of words: first, do no harm. Which does not mean that a surgeon can't cut the skin, obviously bringing the person's life into danger, but instead, having writers thinking like doctors means that we take into consideration that we are all humans, we are all emotional beings, and for the love, words hurt.

So in that regard, we promise that whenever we hit publish, we will think about how the Internet is Googlable, and in this world of Google alerts and searches for our names, that we understand that anything we write can and will be read by the subject. When we have a problem with another person, we write them directly rather than posting a critique for the world to read as a first step. And that we will stick to critiquing words and ideas and not the people behind those words and ideas.

We know the Golden Rule isn't really applicable -- that sometimes we have nothing nice to say, but we must say something, and sometimes we can't write the review we'd want to receive ourselves if we were the creator of the art. But we can take into consideration how the subject will receive the words and write accordingly. We write with honesty, with circumspection, with thoughtfulness -- never straying from the subject at hand into personal attacks.

That's how I would begin. What are the amendments you'd add to my oath?

Getting back to the story: It has a happy ending. Orange posted another article about having her words read back to her, and Long read this article too, commenting on it.

Seriously, read his comment, because the man has class. And we can learn a lot by how this exchange wasn't a flame war, but instead became a wrangling of minds and emotions. And each allowed the other to save face while still speaking their mind. As reasonably as possible after the first piece of writing that kicked the bad feelings off.

Jon Stewart would be proud.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.


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