Behind the mask of ice that people wear, there beats a heart of fire – Paulo Coelho
The nature of the Web means that it's very easy to portray yourself as you would like to be perceived. Shy in real life can be outgoing and witty online. Those of us who don't want to show our faces can hide behind a series of masks: avatars, usernames, profiles that reveal as much or as little as we choose. On the internet, no-one knows you're a dog. But as a corollary of that, sometimes they forget you're even real.
We all know of people who have let their facade slip and allowed something through they shouldn't have. In the writing world, it's often an author who's reacted badly to a negative review or otherwise behaved in an unprofessional manner. The online community is entirely unforgiving of such things, and to a certain extent rightly so. One of the main benefits of being an author on the Web is surely that even if something hurts or upsets you, you can keep that information to yourself. Throwing an electronic tantrum because someone disagrees with you or doesn't like your work is hardly the best way to win friends – or readers.
Yet there's a flip side to this. All too often, author meltdowns are passed around amongst other writers with a kind of malicious glee. Rather than quietly note bad behaviour and take a personal lesson from it, we share it with our contacts like a bag of sweets. We point and laugh. We mock. Perhaps we're secretly glad it's not us, or – more significantly – perhaps we feel as though every writer who fails is making more space for us.
It's easy enough to view other writers as rivals. To pore over the negative reviews of their work and ignore the positive ones. To gossip about the misjudged comments they made on a forum or book site. To believe, somehow, that other people's mistakes make us better by comparison. It's nonsense, of course: our work, and our behaviour, stands or falls on its own merit. Maybe we're jealous. Maybe we're insecure. But whatever the reason, when someone messes up we turn into a mob of playground bullies – even (and this doesn't make it any better) if it's only in the privacy of our own minds.
All this is a shame. The individuals we interact with online are real people with real feelings, not just a bunch of pixels on a screen. There's fire behind each mask. And we all have the capacity to act unwisely, whether it's by having a public meltdown or by releasing a book full of basic mistakes. For that reason, a little more tolerance would do us good. After all, writers and readers aren't competitors in a skewed game of one-upmanship. We're colleagues, cooperators, a community brought together by a shared love of books. We should rejoice in each other's successes and empathise when things don't work out. And if we remember that the online people we deal with are just that – people, with the same hopes and fears as us – then maybe we can forgive their occasional blunders and work to support them instead of hanging them out to dry. Isn't that what we hope they'd do for us?