I have had similar experiences responding to nasty emails from readers of pieces that I have written. Frequently, if you respond civilly, or acknowledge the other person's viewpoint (and attempt to put aside their tone), they respond really cheerfully and with evident embarrassment.
Tracking down my online haters
Recently, in response to something I wrote on my blog about Jeff Bagwell and the Baseball Hall of Fame, Matt tweeted me a couple of times.
The words were snarky and snide and rude. His final message, however, left an extra special impression: "I got caught up in the anonymity of the internet. I'm sorry and here is a legit post with my criticisms." Upon opening the pasted link, I was greeted by a nasty pornographic image that would make Sasha Grey vomit into the nearest trash can.
When I later noted to Matt, via Twitter, that my 7-year-old daughter happened to be next to me when I clicked on the picture, he wrote: "lmao. You're so full of ----."
Normally, this sort of thing doesn't phase me. Write sports for a living (especially online, as I do for SI.com), insults come with the turf. You're dumb. You suck. You're an idiot. You're a moron. I'll never read your crap again. That's the %#$$ #$@@#$ %$$# thing I've ever heard. How do you have a job? Go to hell. Screw yourself. Drop dead.
I've heard them all, and aside from occasionally entertaining my wife with a reading from my Greatest Hits Packet ("I call it my 'Go back to Africa' folder," says Howard Bryant, an African-American ESPN.com senior writer), I turn the other cheek and move on.
But not this time.
This time, I aspired to know why Matt, cloaked in the anonymity provided by the internet, felt the need to respond in such a way to, of all things, a Jeff Bagwell post.
So, going deep, deep, deep undercover, I tracked him down and, shortly after our exchange, gave him a call.
Quite frankly, I wanted to hate him. I wanted to bash him. I wanted to plaster his name, address and personal information atop a column on CNN.com, so that when someone Googled his name for future employment, they'd find the words "Sent me a link to pornographic material."
Then we spoke. And I (dammit) liked him. Without invisibility or the support of his 54 Twitter followers or the superhuman powers supplied by a warm keyboard, Matt was meek and apologetic. "I was just trying to get a rise out of you," he said. "You're a known sports writer, and I thought it was cool. That's all. I never meant for it to reach this point."
Sadly, Matt's online behavior is far from an anomaly. Anyone who writes or is written about is now a potential target for abuse. Online civility -- it if ever existed -- has withered up and died. And it's only getting worse.
And online civility toward journalists? Well, 15 years ago, when I began my career at Sports Illustrated, everyone within the magazine's office would receive a thick packet of that week's letters to the editors. Some of the correspondence was positive, some negative. But few letters included words like "stupid," "dumb" or "asinine." Certainly no one, to my recollection, ever directed my attention to hard-core porn.
Now, with most online publications allowing readers to comment beneath stories, and with Twitter boasting an estimated 175 million users, and with a phony e-mail address a mere click away, readers can easily lash out. The filter that was a pen and paper has vanished, replaced by the immediate gratification of negativity. The concern for a writer's feelings? Ha. What feelings?
"It's about consequences, and not suffering from any," says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of etiquetteexpert.com. "There are absolutely no repercussions to writing a nasty comment or e-mail, so people feel they can vent at will. They never think that the person receiving the message might be a real human being."
That's why, when journalists take the time to respond personally to venomous notes, proving that they are made of flesh and blood, the reaction is strikingly -- and puzzlingly -- positive.
"I don't know how many times I've tracked down someone who's sent a vile or nasty e-mail, tweet or Facebook post," says Richard Sandomir, the New York Times' sports media columnist. "It often results in their being so astonished, even honored, that you'd find them, that they act normally."
Bryant says, "I reply all the time by saying, 'Thank you for writing, I appreciate your opinion though I don't know why you needed to insult me.' The general response is 'Gee, I didn't think anyone was paying attention.' And they want to be pals with you. It's the kick-the-dog syndrome. People believe no one's listening; they think we're not people, they think there are these giant monoliths controlling thought. Then when they realize someone is listening, they rediscover their manners."
Indeed, along with contacting Matt, I also tracked down Andy, a 23-year-old aspiring writer who tweeted of me: "jeff Pearlman and billy madison share an intelligence quotient (because jeff Pearlman is a f---ing retard)."
When I dialed a number I found for Andy, his mother answered. (I admit, this brought me great delight.) Andy was even more apologetic than Matt -- and more willing to explain his actions.
"A lot of people out here are fed up with sports writing because we feel like all people in your business do is write things to rile us up," says Andy, a New Jersey native who blogs regularly about the Mets. "We feel like there's a lack of integrity."
Uh ... so you call me a f---ing retard?
"You know what's funny?" Andy says. "I enjoy your writing. But I disagreed with you [about Bagwell] and I got caught up in the moment. When you read something you think is bull----, you're gonna respond passionately. Was I appropriate? No. Am I proud? Not even a little. It's embarrassing. But the internet got the best of me."
Andy pauses. It's an awkward few seconds. He is not happy I called, and later pleads, "Please don't eviscerate me." But, to his credit, he takes responsibility, and says this is something he needs to work on.
"All I can say is, I'm sorry," he says. "I'm truly sorry."