Was forming a comment on a blog post by Nathan Bransford (a smart guy, if you're interested in reading writerly blogs), and my comments were too long to post, of course, so figured I'd make a blog post out of it. Yay for you.
I agree, the internet is a place where negativity gains unprecedented voice. When it comes to writers, though, I also see the problem partly being that there are groups of people who are now accessing the dream of being a writer online where all the glitz and glamor is being sold to them, but little of the reality.
There are tons of writing forums and workshops and groups where nobody says anything critical, even if honest. Nobody seems comfortable disagreeing. You don't dare do anything but praise that other person's self-published e-book, hoping they then praise yours. The golden rule in many online writing communities is 'be nice,' whereas in other environments I've seen, like most fiction classrooms, it's 'be honest.'
The writers I know who developed in classroom workshops, for instance, usually have thick skin, know how to deal with criticism, learn to be honest and respect criticism that engages the text, not the writer. A good academic workshop or writing group is a training ground preparing people for being professional writers (not so much writing as well as professionals, unfortunately, lol).
On the other hand, there is a huge influx of writers this past generation that have never had that. What they've had is online groups with other writers who also haven't had this, and nobody in the group gets used to taking criticism, learns to navigate the psychology of interacting with writer/readers, or develops tough skin. What many of these online groups by and large promote is everyone being really NICE.
And this is supported all the way to the top of these communities, by moderators and site administrators. Why? Because nice feeds the 'you can do it' dream, keeps writers subscribing to site services, clicking ads, etc.
Start telling writers the truth, that their work needs improvement and it's not going to be as easy as buying a how-to-write self-help book, and suddenly the 1 in 10 that thrive and improve stay, but the other 9 leave, and the website isn't making enough money to operate.
If you come into such an online group being mean, then yes, you'll be shot down, and rightly so. But the trouble starts when you come into such groups offering any criticism at all, because no matter how well it's worded or well intended, you'll by and large be labeled as a troll, negative, mean, trying to undermine the dreams of other writers if you don't fall in line with niceties and blind praise (true for every online workshop I've observed, sadly).
To make matters worse, more than ever there isn't a strict divide between reader and writer. Increasingly writers ARE the readers, because the writer's dream is more accessible than ever online and feeding into itself; who isn't an aspiring writer these days?! Many of these new generations of writers becoming readers are overly sensitive to the realities that criticism, sometimes brutal, has always been a part of the industry. The 'be nice' writers become 'be nice' readers who point out any criticism as a 'mean' personal attack, instead of just an honest response. And when there are so many so quick to label criticism as personal attacks, we all seem to end up more sensitive than usual, looking for slights that in the past would just be the cost of doing business.
So, the issue is two fold, not only do we have in the internet a vehicle for unmitigated negativity, but also a system that rewards and encourages unmitigated, naive, ignorant, niceness! And I'm all for being nice, but it's not necessarily a virtue as a reader (if we want quality work to be rewarded) or a good way to survive being a writer.
Keeping a cool head is of course paramount either way, but everyone focuses on the negativity, when in my opinion the problem isn't negativity, it's the ignorant, unsubstantiated opinions that people think are valid simply because the internet gives them a forum for expression.
It's especially embarrassing how many writers there are online who can't seem to manage any substance or intelligence behind what they write, whether positive or negative, and it's this vapidity that is the real threat.
The way to deal with 'negativity' is also the same way to deal with this blind 'be nice' attitude. Rise above it all. Don't be one of the ignorant idiots who argues about whether a review or comment by someone else is 'mean' or 'nice,' but instead be one of the people who says things, even if negative, with substance and weight. Leave the bickering over labels like 'positive' and 'negative' for the fools who can't see anything deeper in a comment, and have nothing deeper to add.
Because honestly, especially when it comes to writing, some of the nicest things anyone has had to say were the things that seemed at first the most negative, and sometimes, in the end, the meanest things someone can do to a writer is fuel them with blind, false praise, no matter how nice it seems.
Basically, if you're ever personally up in arms about something someone said on the internet, or elsewhere, you're probably missing the point and falling prey to that saying about arguing with fools.