Sometimes, the Internet’s intersection with human nature isn’t such a good thing.
Recently, a work by indigenous Australian poet Ellen van Neerven was included in a New South Wales Year 12 English exam. The poem, “Mango,” is a blank verse exploration of the delight of discovery, and was presumably included in the test as a way to get these students to think critically about a text they hadn’t encountered before. That sort of poem isn’t really my cup of tea, but I can see its artistic merit, and the rich imagery it provides would seem to be ample ground for a little introductory literary criticism.
However, the poem’s inclusion on the test—a decision made by the test’s authors without consulting or notifying van Neerven—led to criticism of another sort as these 16-year-old students took to Twitter in droves to heap questions, abuse, arguments, memes, and even rap diss tracks on van Neerven via her personal Twitter account.
I won’t dignify any of the abuse by repeating it here, but you only need to remember your own high school years to get some idea of what these students might have thrown her way. While I can no longer bring any specific incidents to mind, I can remember feeling put-upon by having to analyze some work I didn’t especially enjoy. I imagine I got fairly grumpy about it, and grumbled and griped more than a little bit—especially in regards to something as seemingly nonsensical as blank-verse poetry. I might just say “Mango” isn’t my cup of tea now, but had I encountered it as a callow 16-year-old, and been required to critique it for a grade, I imagine I would have had a few more pointed remarks to make.
The difference is, though, that we didn’t have the Internet back then. And while I might have made those pointed remarks to my friends and classmates, or maybe even to my parents or the teacher, it certainly would never have crossed my mind to throw shade at the author of the work itself.
But thanks to the Internet, anyone can reach out, contact, and even build relationships with authors and other celebrities online. While this is marvelous from the point of view of getting to know celebrities you could never have hoped to encounter, it also means the temptation to indulge in celebrity-directed negativity is as close as the smartphone in your pocket. And if you’re annoyed about being forced to read some poem that doesn’t make any sense to you, the author of the work in question is a lot more obvious a target than some anonymous test authors you’d have no idea how to reach.
This is the world we live in now. Honestly, I’m only surprised we don’t encounter blow-ups like this more often. But the fact that they happen at all is a potent reminder that there is a dark side to this amazing technology that connects us together in ways we never could have expected just a few years before. It seems that the development of this technology has outstripped our capacity to deal with its implications. As a society and culture, we may have some catching up to do—especially those of us who lack the maturity to know that harassing someone over the Internet isn’t a good idea.
That being said, some of the media reaction to the incident may have been overblown. On Australian blog Crikey, Guy Rundle analyzes some of the blowback at length. He suggests that student criticism of the poem was understandable given the context, and sees the uproar as symptomatic of a culture war between older generations and the younger generation. Perhaps the students are not the only ones who need to think a little more before they press the “send” button.