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Paul Graham: Haters

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A translation of Paul Graham’s latest essay to date, with edits by Ilon Musk, any insight into behavioral patterns in opinion formation and expression on Internet resources. The following is on Paul’s behalf.
Paul Graham: Haters

(I originally intended to write this for startup founders, who often find themselves surprised by the attention they receive as companies grow, but what I wrote also applies to anyone in the process of becoming famous.)

If you become famous enough, you get a few fans who like you too much. These people are sometimes called "fans, " and although I don’t like that definition, I will use it here. We need some word for them, because they are clearly different from those who just like your work.

Fans are obsessed and do not accept criticism. Loving you becomes a part of them, and in their minds, your image is much better than the real you. Everything you do is good because you do it. If you do something bad, they will find a way to present it as good. That said, their love for you is usually not quiet and unspoken. They want everyone to know how wonderful you are.

Well, you might think "I could do without obsessive fans, but I know there are different people in the world, and if that’s the worst consequence of being famous, it’s not so bad."

Unfortunately, this is not the worst consequence of being famous. Along with your fans, you will have your haters.

Haters are obsessive and do not accept criticism. Hating you becomes a part of them, and in their minds your image is much worse than the real you. Everything you do is bad because you do it. If you do something good, they will find a way to present it as bad. That said, their hatred of you is usually not quiet and unspoken. They want everyone to know how awful you are.

If you’re thinking of looking for differences, I’ll save you the time. The second and fifth paragraphs are the same except for the words "good" replaced by "bad" and so on.

I’ve spent years puzzling over the behavior of the haters. Who are they and where do they come from? Then one day it hit me. Haters are just fans with a minus sign.

Keep in mind that by haters I don’t mean just trolls. I’m not talking about people who will say a bad thing or two about you and move on. No, I’m talking about a much narrower group of people for whom it becomes sort of an obsession, and who repeat it over and over for a long time.

Just like the fans, apparently the haters are an automatic consequence of being famous. Anyone famous enough will have them. And, like fans, the haters feed off the fame of someone they hate. For example, they hear a song by some pop singer. They don’t particularly like it. If the singer were an unknown, they would just forget about it. But instead they keep hearing his name, and apparently it drives some people crazy. Everyone keeps talking about the singer, but he’s absolutely no good! He’s a fraud!

The word "cheater" is important here. That’s exactly what haters think about the object of their hatred. The haters cannot deny the fame of their objects. In fact, fame is only exaggerated. They notice every mention of a singer’s name because every mention makes them angrier. In their heads, they exaggerate both the fame of the singer and his lack of talent. For them, the only way to reconcile these two things is to conclude that the singer has fooled everyone.

What kinds of people become hackers? Anyone can become one? I’m not sure about that, but I’ve noticed some similarities. Haters are usually losers in a very specific sense : although they are sometimes talented, they have never accomplished much. Indeed, any reasonably successful person who has achieved considerable fame is unlikely in most cases to refer to another famous person as a fraud, because any famous person knows how fame is accidental.

But the haters aren’t always total losers. They’re not always the formulaic guy living in his mom’s basement. Many are, but others have talent. In fact, I suspect that a sense of unrealized talent is what drives some people on the path to becoming haters. They don’t just say, "It’s not fair that someone is famous, " they say, "It’s not fair that someone is famous, but not me."

Can a hater be cured if he achieves something impressive? I’d say that’s debatable, because he never will. I’ve had the opportunity to watch long enough, so I’m sure the pattern works both ways : not only will people who do a great job never become a hater, but the haters will never do a great job either. While I don’t like the word "fan, " it says something important about haters and fans. It implies that the fan is so slavishly predictable in his admiration that as a result he is degraded, becoming something less than human.

The haters seem even more humiliated. I can imagine myself being a fan. I can imagine people whose work I admire so much that I could belittle myself to them out of pure appreciation. If Pelham Woodhouse (P. G. Wodehouse) were still alive, I could see myself being a fan. But I can’t imagine myself as a hater.

Knowing that the haters are just fans with a "minus" sign makes dealing with them a lot easier. We don’t need a separate theory for the haters. We can simply use existing ways of dealing with intrusive fans, the most important of which is simply not thinking much of them. If you get any haters, your, like most fairly famous people, initial reaction will be incomprehension. What does this guy have against me? Where does his intrusiveness come from and what makes him so terribly obnoxious? What could I have done to take him out? Is this something I can fix?

The mistake here is to think of a hater as someone with whom you have a disagreement. When you’re at odds with someone, understanding why they’re upset and trying to fix things if possible is usually a good idea. Disagreements are distracting. But to think of a hater as someone with whom you have an argument is a false analogy. It’s incomprehensible if you’ve never encountered a hater before. But when you realize that you’re dealing with a hater and who a hater is, it becomes obvious that even thinking about them is a waste of time. If you have obsessive fans, do you spend time being curious about what makes them love you so excessively? No, you just think "some people are kind of crazy" and that’s it.

Since the haters are tantamount to fans, the same way they should be treated. There may have been something that pissed them off, but it’s not something that would piss off a normal person, so there’s no reason to waste time thinking about it. You’re not the problem, they’re the problem.

Notes [by Paul Graham]

  • Of course there are real cheaters. If X calls Y a cheater, how can you tell the difference between a case where X is a cheater and a case where Y is truly a cheater? Look at other people’s opinions. Real cheaters are usually conspicuous, thoughtful people are rarely keen on them. So if there are a few thoughtful people who like Y, you can usually assume he’s not a cheater.
  • The exception is teenagers, who sometimes behave in ways that literally make them not themselves. I can imagine a teenage hater who then grows out of it. But not someone over twenty-five.
  • I have a much worse memory for misdeeds than my wife Jessica, but I wouldn’t want to change that. Most arguments are a waste of time even if you are right. It’s easier to bury the hatchet with someone if you can’t remember why you were mad at them.
  • A knowledgeable hater won’t just attack you alone, he will try to set up a mob. In some cases, you may want to refute the false claims that the haters have made to cause this, but make a mistake, because in the end it probably won’t matter.

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