As part of my work yesterday, I read a California appellate court case that discussed how the courts distinguish between libelous falsehoods and constitutionally protected opinions. A court looks at the totality of the circumstances—both the language of the statement and the context in which it was made. Whether it is an assertion of fact or a statement of opinion depends on how the average reader would interpret it. Statements made on blogs and Internet message boards often are seen as opinions, even if they might be regarded as factual assertions in another context.

For example, if a mainstream news organization published an article falsely stating that a company’s management had defrauded the shareholders, the article would be libelous. But if a news website published an accurate news story about a company’s financial performance, and then a disgruntled investor posted a comment calling the management crooks, the comment wouldn’t be libelous because the average reader would not take it seriously. The culture of Internet posting is one in which readers expect to find exaggeration and name-calling. As a consequence, most of what’s posted on blogs and message boards is not actionable, even when the character of the statement is such that it would clearly be libelous if published in a more respectable venue.

I’m not among those who lament the supposed passing of a golden age of civility. On the contrary, I believe we’re much better off in a society where most people confine their expressions of hate to yelling at each other on the Internet, as opposed to throwing bricks or forming lynch mobs. The past century, with all its ugly prejudices, was very far from being an age of grand public civility. Still, in light of the Internet’s potential to bring us together, it seems a pity we haven’t made better use of it.

In the dark ages before the Internet, creative writing was a very personal and often disorganized hobby. When inspiration struck, writers scribbled their stories in diaries or notebooks with a ballpoint pen, maybe sharing them with a best friend or two. An occasional article might be thought worthy of the time, paper, typewriter ribbon, envelope, and postage required to type it up and nervously send it off to an editor of a big-city magazine, who would likely reject it (by way of the obligatory self-addressed stamped envelope) because there was so much competition. Writers daydreamed of being published and gaining worldwide acclaim, but most didn’t even have a small circle of friends regularly reading their work.

Now anyone can put together a blog or join an online writers’ group and share stories with readers around the world—it’s instant gratification. The old constraints of scarce publishing resources are no longer a problem. One would naturally think that creative writing ought to be easier, more fun, and less stressful than in the past. But in line with the human penchant for complicating just about everything, it often doesn’t feel that way. Instead, writing has become another sad entry in the long list of modern social pressures.

When we’re not posting new material to our lists and blogs regularly, we’re left feeling guilty and embarrassed. We compare ourselves to the most prolific writers we know, and then we beat ourselves up for being so lazy and inadequate. Like yo-yo dieters obsessing over their meal plans, we devise schedules for when and how much we should write; and inevitably we don’t stick to them. (True confession here: I meant to write this post last weekend, but instead I ended up reading a goofy novel about ghostbusting witches.) We imagine our neglected blogs as virtual vacant real estate, foreclosed upon and boarded up, with a few spambot tumbleweeds rolling down the dusty street.

How did we do this to ourselves? I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s classic observation on human nature in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom has to whitewash a fence while the other boys are free to play. He pretends that he’s having great fun, and soon his friends are lining up to pay him for the privilege of helping. Tom has discovered “that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

We have, in effect, turned our writing into work—even when we’re not being paid. We feel obliged to do it because otherwise we’ll lose face with our online acquaintances and plummet to insignificance in the Google rankings. Sometimes the pressure gets to be too much for us, and then we close our blogs and quit our lists, slinking away in shame and despair—only to start all over again in a year or two.

Of course, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Like all cultural constructs, the notion that prolific writing determines our social worth has only as much power over us as we allow it to have. No stone tablet has been handed down from above commanding “Thou shalt not fail to update thy blog.” We can shift our mindset to change our stories back into the playful hobby that they originally were, once upon a time.

Last weekend I moved two hostas that I had planted in my front garden almost a decade ago. They were a gift from a neighbor who found that she had extras while she was doing her spring planting. Because I already had a few hostas of a different variety, I assumed that the new ones would be about the same size. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case, as often happens with assumptions.

For the first few years, I admired the big glossy leaves of the new hostas, which were noticeably larger than the leaves of the other variety. After a while they grew together to form a big clump, and I thought that was okay because the older hostas also had grown close to each other. My husband mentioned that he liked the big ones. They looked very impressive, robust and healthy.

But they just kept on growing. I realized that I had a problem when they started overgrowing the front walkway. Because hostas are round plants with leaves growing out from the center, they can’t be trimmed along one side without ending up lopsided; so cutting them back was out of the question. Last summer their leaves stretched halfway across the concrete next to my porch steps. Visitors and pizza delivery people had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on them. Now that they had become so enormous, I was left with an embarrassing display of gardening foolishness in full view of all the neighbors. There was no doubt those hostas would have to be moved farther back in the garden to give them more room to grow.

I wasn’t looking forward to that chore, though, and I kept finding reasons to put it off. The heat of the summer wouldn’t be a good time to move plants; and once we got into the cooler autumn weather, there was always something going on that made a convenient excuse. Then it was winter and they dropped their leaves, allowing me to ignore them until the spring. I finally got around to moving them last weekend.

Relying on assumptions when we don’t have enough facts is, of course, human nature. It served our ancestors well for most of our history, when people often had to make immediate decisions on which their lives depended. Was it a hungry wolf in those rustling bushes, or was it a deer? Did that group of men from another tribe, coming into view over the hill, have plans to attack the village? Making snap judgments was a very useful survival skill in those days.

Now we have easy access to information, and most of us aren’t likely to find predators (human or otherwise) lurking near our homes when we step outside. Still, both our decision-making processes and the structure of our society took shape when life was much more precarious. We make assumptions all the time, just as our ancestors did; and when they are challenged, our first reaction is fear. We’re afraid of what might happen if we let ourselves get distracted thinking about other possibilities, only to find out that there really was a wolf in the bushes after all.

So when we’re told about a group of people who need more room to grow in our collective cultural garden, we don’t want to hear it. We react with denial: those big leaves can’t be taking up that much space, can they? Maybe we step on them sometimes, but hey, there’s got to be some way to shove them back where they belong and make sure they stay there. After all, they weren’t so much in the way before. And just think of the nuisance it would be to dig new holes!

Then after a while, our society grudgingly decides it’s time to stop putting off the chore, just as I did with my hostas last weekend. Even though I’d been dreading it and making excuses for the better part of a year, it wasn’t really that hard after all.