Skip to main content

5. Alienated: You Fail It! Your Skill Is Not Enough!

Today, comment sections can quickly fill with posts that would’ve shamed Hitler himself (hence the suggestion “Don’t read the comments”).

Published onApr 03, 2019
5. Alienated: You Fail It! Your Skill Is Not Enough!

“They call you hater well they’re just jealous

Your constructive pearls of wisdom give me thrills I can’t deny

How will we know if you don’t tell us

We could improve our YouTube channels by “fucking off and dying”? …

You wished me cancer and misspelled “cancer”

But I know that it’s a metaphor. You hope that I will grow,

Just like the tumour you hoped would kill me

Inside the tits on which you said you’d also like a go.…

Some might say you’re a …

sexually aggressive, racist, homophobe, misogynistic,

cowardly, illiterate, waste of human skin, …

But if it wasn’t for you my darling,

I would never have written this tune.…”

—Clever Pie and Isabel Fay, “Thank You Hater”

“Fail.” This short comment, frequently seen online, says much: it signifies an ironic, disastrous, or confounding misfortune, with “epic fail” describing the sublimely stupid. This contagious idiom (or meme) went viral in 2004 and may have been inspired by a poorly translated caption to a 1998 Japanese video game: “YOU FAIL IT! YOUR SKILL IS NOT ENOUGH.”1 “Fail” appears in comments, in the titles of YouTube videos, and as an “image macro” (a shocking or funny image with a large textual caption). It is the subject of the FAIL Blog, which once featured a photo of traffic stopped behind a hearse and its escaped casket. “Fail” is also used self-deprecatingly, as when an online community collectively shakes its head in bewilderment.

“RaceFail ’09” is one such incident and resembled a classic flame war from Usenet, the Internet’s early discussion forum. On Usenet, a provocative message could spark a heated exchange in which people said things that they ordinarily would not say and later regretted their participation. The metaphor of the flame was apt since tempers flared, and the resulting conflagration spread quickly, often “cross-posted” across newsgroups. The same thing happens on blogs and Twitter today. A friend of mine wished she could opt out of the “retweet fights” that occur when someone in her stream retweets his or her opponent “so that, presumably, we can all fight with them too.” In the RaceFail ’09 incident, two professional science fiction authors blogged about writing for “the other” (creating characters that are not like the writer). One of those authors, Elizabeth Bear, reflected on the “ongoing problem” of “Writing The Other without being a dick.” She recommended that when writers create characters that are unlike themselves, they should think of such characters as people first, listen to others’ experiences, research their history, not reduce characters to tokens, avoid stereotypes (especially in creating alien peoples based on our prejudices), and “Accept that no matter what you’re doing, some people are going to think you’re getting it wrong.”2

Avalon Willow, a comics enthusiast, blogger, and person of color, thought that Bear had gotten it wrong. In an open letter to Bear, she listed many instances of cultural appropriation and negative stereotypes that she found in science fiction, including some by Bear herself. Although she said that Bear was not a “racist” or a “monster,” she thought that Bear’s posting demonstrated ignorance and privilege.3 Friends and colleagues of Bear responded in her defense and a flame war ensued on the issues of covert racism and cultural appropriation. Unlike other cases discussed in this chapter, there was relatively little explicit racism, hate, or harassment. Nonetheless, there were claims of abuse and racism by both sides. Even well-meaning people can get ensnared in angry conversations that leave most participants feeling upset and burnt out. This pattern of discourse exemplifies Godwin’s law, an observation that cyberlawyer Mike Godwin made in 1990 about the Usenet: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

However, the understanding of this darker side of online interaction that we inherited from the 1990s, including Godwin’s law and the suggestion “Don’t feed the trolls,” is outdated. Back then, conflict was characterized by participants in an ongoing discussion coming to see their opponents in partisan terms, eventually to the point of calling one another Nazis. This behavior could be sparked or inflamed by a troll seeking to annoy people. Today, comment sections can quickly fill with posts that would’ve shamed Hitler himself (hence the suggestion “Don’t read the comments”). The lone mischievous troll who attempted to stir up trouble is now part of a larger culture, and the classic flame wars from before the Web now look harmless with the arrival of bullies and haters.

Lolz, Trolls, and Anonymity

My middle-school friend Jason used to pester me to hang out on his bulletin board system (BBS), a “war board” that he and his older brother had set up for the sole purpose of trading expletives. As one former BBS user wrote, war boards were “an attempt at witty repartee—a verbal one-upmanship. Unfortunately, because many of us were teens, it was rarely witty and often devolved into ‘your mamma’ arguments when people ran out of creative ways to insult one another.”4 I never took to it. I could not generate animosity toward people that I had no reason to quarrel with. My BBS of choice was The Science Lab, which was populated by nerds, including some who worked at NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute. Tempers flared, and insults were exchanged, but that was never the point. In fact, after one such paroxysm, morale plummeted, and some abandoned the system.

Later, when I first experienced the Internet, I recognized elements of both the war board and science board in Usenet’s flame wars. Among the hundreds of discussion groups, an exchange could be serious, playful, and heated. This mixture is seen in the famous feud between Linus Torvalds and Andrew Tanenbaum mentioned earlier. Tanenbaum declared that the design of the Linux operating system was “obsolete”; Torvalds responded with “some serious flamefesting” and called Tanenbaum’s projects “brain-damaged.”5 Even though some felt that Torvalds had crossed the line, this was different from recent incidents: the hostility was bracketed as flaming, it was limited to the participants, the topic was substantive, ideas were exchanged, and there were no threats or harassment. Some scholars at the time argued that flaming was potentially valuable because it “encourages clear writing and no-nonsense communication”: it educated the ignorant, enforced rules, and facilitated effective communication.6 But an undergraduate is not likely to characterize a professor’s work as “brain-damaged” to his face, as Torvalds did to Tanenbaum. This behavior has been confirmed in experiments: online, people exhibit greater status equalization (for example, between student and professor) and disinhibition (such as flaming).7 One theory is that with a relative paucity of textual interaction, we miss the social cues, context, and information that normally are relied on to regulate interpersonal exchanges. We can easily blunder without realizing how we are affecting other people—despite smiling emoticons.

But what happens if visibility is completely removed? Plato asked this question millennia ago via the story of Gyges, a shepherd who was in the service of the king of Lydia. Gyges found a ring of invisibility and used it to bed the queen, kill the king, and become the new ruler. Plato asked whether a just man could be corrupted in such a circumstance. J.R.R. Tolkien thought so and had Frodo, a virtuous and modest hobbit, falter at journey’s end and fail to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. (It is destroyed by Sméagol, who bites off Frodo’s finger to reclaim his “precious” and accidentally falls into the fires below.) More recently, in an episode of the radio program This American Life, people were asked if they would prefer to be an invisible man or a hawk man. The consensus seemed to be that flight would likely lead people along a heroic path and invisibility would lead to shoplifting and voyeurism.

These philosophical and popular suppositions have empirical support. In 1969, psychologist Phil Zimbardo reported an experiment in which people were asked to administer shocks to others. Research accomplices then pretended to receive the shocks. Researchers found that participants who wore large lab coats and hoods were more willing to shock others than participants who wore name tags. Zimbardo believed that the veiled subjects experienced deindividuation: a loss of a sense of self and social norms. In another early study, thirteen hundred children were secretly observed trick-or-treating. They were told to take a single candy. Lone children who were identified by name rarely cheated, and anonymous children in a group cheated most of the time.8

More recently, psychology researcher Tatsuya Nogami attempted to tease apart the differences between identity (such as a name) and anonymity (an inability to associate a person with his or her behavior). As part of a take-home assignment, he asked over a hundred university students to flip a coin twice. Some students were asked to identify themselves on their coin-flipping report, and some received a reward (a coupon book) for getting two tails, which should happen 25 percent of the time. Nogami considered all subjects to be anonymous since he could not know if any individual cheated. Instead, he could infer cheating based on the aggregate statistics. Of the nonidentified subjects who could get a reward, 46 percent reported flipping two tails—well in excess of the expected 25 percent and evidence of cheating. He was surprised to find that those who had identified themselves (but still could not be associated with cheating) did not choose to cheat: only 21 percent reported getting two tails. Those in the latter group were just as “anonymous” and unaccountable as those of the first group because no individual could be blamed: any single person might easily get two tails. Nogami concluded by suggesting that asking people to identify themselves perhaps prompted them to be more aware of their ethical standards even when they could not be linked to unethical behavior.9 Although they often overlap, a sense of self and a sense of accountability can be distinct.

But both can easily be obscured online. In the 1990s, scholars suggested that because the media experience was not as rich as face-to-face interaction, social cues could be lost, and people could have a deindividuated sense of themselves. Popular theories also arose. The Urban Dictionary defines Internet balls as the courage to use a computer screen to write “whatever you want, to whomever you want” in a way you would not if you were face to face: “That would require having balls when you’re away from your computer … which you don’t.” Similarly, the “Internet fuckwad theory” posits that “a normal person + anonymity + an audience = total fuckwad.”10 Some have worried that even people who participate online as themselves might become more extreme by placing themselves in an online bubble of the likeminded or by being exposed to mean-spirited comments that make them more polarized in their views.11

<p>© 2010 CC-BY-3.0</p>

The potential for misunderstanding and rancor online (as seen in RaceFail ’09) is a tempting target for pranksters. Griefing emerged in online games where some players would annoy and harass others rather than play to achieve the putative goal of the game. Some killed members of their own team. On Usenet, trolls provoked newcomers with outlandish statements that were likely to incite flame wars. The term troll was likely borrowed from the notion of trolling for fish with baited lines; the aphorism “don’t feed the trolls” advises that one should ignore “flame bait.” As the “Troller’s FAQ” notes, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”12 Linguist Susan Herring was one of the first to study such behavior in the 1990s. In one early article, she detailed the tactics and consequences of a particular troll in a feminist forum. From her reading of trolling culture, Herring defined a troll as one who sends messages that appear outwardly sincere, that are designed to attract predictable responses or flames, and that consequently waste time by provoking futile arguments. In the case she discussed, “Kent” refused to acknowledge others’ points, willfully misinterpreted others’ motives and views, attacked others for ignoring him, and implied that he could change if people would simply explain their concerns to him. He continued to bait those who did engage him and taunt those who would not. The community was in a bind: if it permitted him to stay, its forum would be polluted with his harassment, but if it banned him, it risked being labeled censorious. Moreover, beyond the personal distress that trolls may cause, communities can become brittle as members argue about what to do or become more paranoid, especially toward newcomers.13

In hindsight, the trolling of the 1990s can seem relatively innocuous. Anthropologist Biella Coleman has noted that “Trolls have transformed what were more occasional and sporadic acts, often focused on virtual arguments called flaming or flame wars, into a full-blown set of cultural norms and set of linguistic practices.”14 This shift is also seen in a competing theory to deindividuation. Instead of (or in addition to) a loss of self and abandonment of social norms, perhaps social media lead people to experience depersonalization, a shift from a sense of self toward a group and its norms.15 Evidence for this theory can be seen as far back as 1979, when a pair of researchers wondered if Zimbardo’s finding about hooded experiment participants had more to do with the hoods than with the anonymity. They replicated the experiment by dressing two groups of women in outfits like those of the Ku Klux Klan and nurses. Those who wore the KKK-like outfits were more aggressive in administering shocks than those who dressed as nurses.16 That is, the subjects did not abandon all norms but adapted to the norms associated with their dress. Zimbardo himself demonstrated the power of context and uniforms in a prison experiment in which those who dressed as police soon became autocratic.17 Today, some take their cues from a culture of trolls and griefers in search of laughs (or lolz, taken from “laugh out loud”) or in the expression of hate.

All of these theories might be characterized as “good people acting badly” explanations, which focus on the lack of feedback from the recipient of communications. Absent a rich media, social cues are filtered out, social presence is attenuated, and people do not appreciate their effects on others. If people could see that they upset someone, then most would be less likely to do so. Other “good people” theories relate to the originator of the communication. Under deindividuation, we lose sense of ourselves and inhibitions. Under depersonalization, morality shifts toward a different set of norms.

However, there are also theories and cases of what I call “bad people acting up.” In this view, some of what is seen online is the disproportionate effect of a difficult minority. In a 2014 study, over a thousand respondents completed a personality inventory and survey of their online commenting. Only 5.6 percent of those surveyed reported that they enjoyed trolling, yet there were strong positive relationships between the expressed enjoyment of trolling, measures of sadism, and a high frequency of online commenting.18 At the extreme, there are frightening folks like Luka Magnotta, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his teens. In his twenties, he became notorious for his online exploits, including suffocating cats and killing and dismembering a man—all posted on YouTube. In 2012, he fled to Europe, where he continued posting videos taunting police and thanking “his fans” for their attention and support. Magnotta was eventually arrested in an Internet café in Germany reading stories (and likely commenting) about himself. Few people have such a disorder or encounter anyone who does, but online everyone is just a click away, and it can be difficult to know who is writing the comments.

Despite the shift in our conception of trolls as a lone man like “Kent,” trolling still appears to be the province of men. In the 2014 trolling study discussed above, men were more strongly associated with trolling than women.19 Whitney Phillips, writing about those “LOLing at tragedy” (those who troll Facebook memorials), has noted that “Facebook trolling, like trolling generally, is an absolute sausagefest.” In two years and dozens of interactions, she encountered “a mere handful” of trolls who identified as women. And those who identify as female are not necessarily so: they “tend to affect and in some cases even amplify the same sexist posture and language as their male counterparts” or use their (supposed) femininity to “accomplish some unholy objective.”20 Furthermore, this gendered pattern persists when it comes to actual harassment. In her book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, law professor Danielle Keats Citron noted that although men are targets of cyberharassment, it is “beyond dispute” that “being a woman raises one’s risk of cyber harassment” as may being a women of color or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender: “Nearly all of the victims I’ve talked to have been female.”21

This discussion of trolls might lead one to think that the line between those acting in good faith and mischievous trolls is a clean one: that if one simply acted sensibly and followed the aphorism “don’t feed the trolls” one would be safe. But it is no longer so easy.

Mean Kids, Mean Men, and “FREEZE PEACH”

According to its founders, the now-defunct group blog Mean Kids was intended to be a forum for “art and criticism, pointed and insulting satire”; it considered itself to be a place of “purposeful anarchy” with a tradition of “you own your own words.”22 This forum for unmoderated insults soon led to misogynistic threats. In March 2007, Kathy Sierra, author of several Java programming books and a popular blog, wrote that she had canceled her workshop and keynote speech at a conference and instead was at home “with the doors locked, terrified”:

It began just over four weeks ago, when something shifted. It started with death threat blog comments left here (which some of you may have seen before I deleted them) including: “Comment: fuck off you boring slut.… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” We all have trolls—but until four weeks ago, none of mine had threatened death.… At first, it was the usual stuff—lots of slamming of people.… Nothing new. No big deal. Nothing they hadn’t done on their own blogs many times before. But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as “Joey”) commented “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.”23

As the story received greater attention, the attacks escalated. In addition to being a (distressing) milestone of sorts, exposing this facet of online culture to a wide audience through CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times, it showed how trolling had metastasized. Trolls had always sought to provoke a response, but writing offensive and hateful comments had emerged as a creature of its own. Haters try to upset and belittle others by expressing extreme hostility and attacking any aspect of a person that is likely to cause distress (such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and appearance). The widespread use of the term hater likely began with the expression “Haters gonna hate” from hip-hop culture. Much like the warning “Don’t feed the trolls,” it implies that some kinds of negativity are best ignored.

But ignoring no longer seems sufficient when faced with a hater. One reason for this is that the labels of troll, hater, and bully have lost some of their descriptive potency. Today these terms are loosely bandied about in arguments, and some people use them for anyone who disagrees with them. More substantively, the hate expressed online today has a frighteningly sharp edge and long reach. For instance, hateful speech is magnified via disturbing images and videos. The manipulation and use of images, such as macros and animated GIFs, is common in Internet lolz culture. Although these GIFs are often funny, in the hater context they can be alarming. Sierra, for example, was pictured as muzzled with women’s underwear. Other targets of haters have received gruesome images. Also, privacy is often violated through the practice of “doxing,” or publicly documenting the target’s contact, financial, and health information. Haters cannot be ignored when they make threatening phone calls, including to family members, friends, and employers. The Mean Kids incident was more than a flame war in which teenagers bandied insults about one another’s mothers. Also, the fact that the threats began with the hostility of notable people made it all the more distressing. This is a feature of what I call a trollplex: an attack by people who come from varied backgrounds, exhibit varied behavior, but share a target, a culture, and venues.

In this case, the trollplex included well-known bloggers Chris Locke (who blogged under the name “rageboy”) and Frank Pynter. Locke and Pynter ran Mean Kids and contributed to its overall tone (Locke called Sierra “a hopeless dipshit”),24 but they made no threats. It also included Mean Kids contributor “Rev Ed,” who posted Photoshopped images of Sierra. (When the person behind the “Rev Ed” account was exposed, he claimed that his computer had been hacked and he had not posted the materials.) Others, whose identities were never publicly revealed, made explicit threats. The attacks on Sierra included insults, frightening threats, and harassment, but all melded into a single discourse that was rooted in the discussion at Mean Kids and other blogs. Some criticized Sierra for condemning all who contributed to the site, but she maintained that participants had a responsibility for creating an environment for this type of culture and speech.

The increasing attention that resulted from the story was unwelcome to many. Things were getting worse for Sierra as others joined in on the harassment, the identifiable Mean Kids contributors were embarrassed, and those who were not yet identified feared exposure. Mean Kids and the related blog Unclebobism were removed, and in a surreal attempt to end the incident, Sierra and Locke issued a joint statement and appeared in a televised meeting on CNN. In the joint statement, Sierra wrote that although she did not feel that the Mean Kids proprietors were responsible for the threats, they still had their differences:

However, Chris and I (and others) still strongly disagree about whether people who are respected and trusted in our industry … are giving tacit approval when they support (though ownership, authoring, and promoting) sites like meankids and unclebob. This is about trust and leadership in our community, and whether those who are looked up to have a (non-legal) responsibility to the community whose trust they’ve earned for the things they promote.25

Beyond the history of animosity that people at the Mean Kids blog felt toward Sierra and others, she suspected that the trigger was her support for bloggers who delete inappropriate comments from their own blogs. This might seem commonsensical today (although it still prompts anger in some), but it was a more controversial position then. Also, the conflagration was likely related to her admission of fear and her style of writing, which differed from a stereotypically masculine norm. The reason that the advice to “Ignore the trolls” has currency is because a panicked or fearful response to negative comments encourages more trolling. Fishing metaphors abound. Reactions to trolls and threats are said to be like “chum in the water.” One of the sharks that was attracted by Sierra’s distress was the infamous Internet troll “weev,” who, among other things, revealed Sierra’s social security number and home address and invited others to “send them gifts that properly express your sentiments.” Sierra later noted that “People did. We moved.” weev explained the harassment by writing, “Kathy hollers like a stuck pig as she wonders why the trolls escalated to magnitudes which she could no longer control. The answer is obvious: she fought the LOL. The LOL won.”26 Although those who left snarky comments saw themselves as distinct from those who left threats (which can be direct or indirect), such nuances are understandably lost on the frightened person at the center of a trollplex.

There is also the issue of gender. Susan Herring’s study of trolling was preceded by work on the gender dimensions of flaming. In 1993, she reported that on the lists that she studied, only about 5 percent of the posters, nearly all of whom were men, were responsible for most of the adversarial rhetoric. (They also tended to dominate in the number of words written.) This led her in the following year to ask, why do “women thank and men flame?” Given that flaming is usually the behavior of a minority of (mostly) men, she discounted simple disinhibition. Her original hypothesis was that perhaps men and women felt differently about politeness; however, both groups reported valuing politeness and disliking rudeness. She concluded that men had an overlapping but dominant value system: men assigned “greater importance to freedom of expression and firmness of verbal action than to possible consequences to the addressee’s face needs.” These men flamed to “regulate the social order” in accordance with these values “as self-appointed vigilantes on the ‘virtual frontier.’”27

Locke’s handle of “rageboy” certainly evokes the persona of an angry (juvenile) male. Moreover, in the joint statement, while he condemned the “offensive words and images,” his main concern seemingly was about free expression. He concluded his statement with a warning that the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment protects speech “that many find noxious” and we must be wary of forces in the world “that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.”28 However, the first amendment prohibits the U.S. Congress from abridging speech (which was not suggested in this case) and says nothing about what individuals, organizations, and communities can condone or condemn. Nonetheless, noxious speech is often justified by way of anarchic and libertarian rhetoric about freedom. As Andrea Weckerle, author of Civility in the Digital Age, has noted, this focus on freedom often makes “innocent victims appear as though they are opposed to freedom of speech, when actually they are opposed to lies and injury.”29 This is reflected in Sierra’s statement in which she was obliged to qualify that her “desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits.” Amusingly, “freedom of speech” is so frequently invoked in defense of offensive and harassing speech that it is now popularly parodied by the exclamation “FREEZE PEACH!” This phrase is used to describe “whiny, entitled behavior” from those “misogynists who think that FREEZE PEACH! means their right to pester women in any way they choose or use any kind of misogynist language they see fit is sacrosanct.”30

One Mean Kid contributor maintained that Sierra’s style invited abuse, to which she then overreacted, exemplifying Herring’s findings about the gendered regulation of speech. He wrote that Sierra “mixes a type of new-age rhetorical spirituality with computer science.” He believed that her aphorisms of “code like a girl” and “beauty drives the computer industry” deserved ridicule. Sierra’s pretense of technical chops was belied by her alleged ignorance of Internet meme culture, as when she overreacted to the comment “IMMA KILL YOU,” which was “borne of Japanese anime and for those who know, it is also hilarious.” (This particular meme was featured in a 2010 Judd Apatow film in which the character played by Jonah Hill receives a threatening text message: “Where the fuck are you? Imma kill you. Smiley Face.”) The whole incident “was a strange collection of odd synergies mixed up with childishness and, frankly, fun between people I was enjoying interacting with.” Finally, “I must add this: authors who write with less childlike magical thinking might also find they receive less childish criticism of their works.”31

Such justifications for abusive behavior often show what psychologist Albert Bandura has identified as “moral disengagement.” People try to lessen the cognitive dissonance of seeing themselves as decent people who do indecent things by using justification (“she deserved it”), euphemistic language (just “trolling” or “having fun”), and advantageous comparisons (“I never threatened her”). They dehumanize the target (“a stuck pig”) and disregard or misrepresent the injurious consequences of their actions (“she needs to toughen up”). And they displace or diffuse responsibility by saying they were only a small part of the conduct. Such is the morality of the trollplex. Yet as Bandura noted, “People suffer from the wrongs done to them, regardless of how perpetrators might justify their inhumane actions.”32

Dongles, Anonymous, and Kneejerks

In March 2013, a “mr-hank” posted a comment on the popular geek discussion site Hacker News in which he concluded: “Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.”33 This observation about comment was part of an apology and explanation of his involvement in what became known as the “forking and dongle incident” at PyCon 2013, the annual conference dedicated to the open-source Python programming language. The conference had well over a hundred sponsors, sold out its 2,500 registrations, and 20 percent of the attendees were women. These figures reflect Python’s reputation as a popular language with a friendly community. In light of a history of inappropriate presentations and sexual harassment at similar conferences, PyCon also had a code of conduct: “Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.… Behave professionally. Remember that harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes are not appropriate for PyCon.”34 This code was at the center of a widespread debate, sometimes referred to as “Donglegate,” about the appropriateness, context, and geography of comment in the age of the Web. (A dongle is a small electronic device, like a USB key, that is inserted into and extends the capabilities of a larger device.)

On her blog, Adria Richards described herself as an “excessively enthusiastic technology evangelist,” and she was at PyCon 2013 on behalf of her employer and conference sponsor SendGrid. On March 18, the day after the main conference ended, Adria Richards blogged, “Yesterday, I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.” She explained that during the closing plenary session, mr-hank (known only by a pseudonym) and a colleague were sitting behind her and kibitzing about the day’s sessions. The two were employees of PlayHaven, which also was a conference sponsor. mr-hank noted that he did not find much value in an earlier session, and Richards turned around to agree with him: “He then went onto say that an earlier session he’d been to where the speaker was talking about images and visualization with Python was really good, even if it seemed to him the speaker wasn’t really an expert on images. He said he would be interested in forking the repo and continuing development.”

“Forking a repository” is a common open-source practice in which a project is copied and extended (creating a fork in the history of the code) and can be merged back into the original or continued independently. Richards noted, “That would have been fine until the guy next to him began making sexual forking jokes.” Richards had already dealt with a much more inappropriate sexual joke earlier in the day when a developer spoke to her about his failed attempt at humor with another woman. Unlike then, she now was in a “packed ballroom” and could not easily discuss the matter. Annoyed, she turned her attention back to the conference organizer:

Jesse Noller was up on stage thanking the sponsors. The guys behind me (one off to the right) said, “You can thank me, you can thank me.”… They started talking about “big” dongles. I could feel my face getting flustered. Was this really happening? How many times do I have to deal with this? Can they not hear what Jesse is saying? … I was telling myself if they made one more sexual joke, I’d say something. Then it happened: the trigger. Jesse was on the main stage with thousands of people sitting in the audience. He was talking about helping the next generation learn to program and how happy PyCon was with the Young Coders workshop (which I volunteered at). He was mentioning that the PyLadies auction had raised $10,000 in a single night and the funds would be used for their initiatives. I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop. I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.35

Richards considered her options and, during a change of speakers, stood and took a photo of the two men behind her. She then tweeted the photo to those following the #pycon hashtag: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me.” Her nearly two thousand Twitter followers could also see the tweet. A few minutes later, she tweeted “someone talk to these guys about their conduct.” Conference organizers separately spoke with Richards and then the two men privately. The men agreed that the comments were in poor taste and left of their own accord. The conference was ending anyway. The staff tweeted that the incident had been addressed, but it was not yet over. The story gathered increasing attention online, especially at the popular discussion sites Reddit and Hacker News. Richards posted a statement on her blog explaining her perspective, as did the conference organizers. mr-hank started a new thread at Hacker News in which he apologized for the dongle joke, disclaimed any sexual innuendo in the discussion of “forking,” and noted that he had been fired:

Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position.… My second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.36

Others were not so charitable, claiming that mr-hank had nothing to be sorry for: that this was political correctness run amok, goofy sexual puns are not necessarily sexist, and Richard’s public shaming of the two men was wrong. Other details of the story emerged. Only mr-hank was let go and not his colleague, which implied that other factors might have been involved in his dismissal. (On Reddit, Richards thanked mr-hank for his message and hoped that his former employers would reconsider their decision.) People also began to scrutinize Richards and accuse her of hypocrisy and attention-seeking. Although some might have felt that Richards was overly sensitive, there have been dozens of reports of sexualized presentations and sexual harassment at recent technical conferences. Any particular incident that gains widespread attention may be only the most recent (and relatively innocuous) one in a lifetime’s worth of subtle bias and overt abuse. As noted, Richards had dealt with a more egregious incident earlier in the day. Additionally, as blogger Gayle Laakmann McDowell wrote, Richards had responded in all of these cases “in a fairly reasonable way. She was not overly aggressive or hostile. Rather, she explained her objections clearly and fairly.”37 The same cannot be said of the response toward Richards.

As the dongle incident gained attention online, attacks were made on Richards, the conference organizer Jesse Noller, and Richards’s employer. Richards, a woman of color, was called a cunt, bitch, and nigger and threatened with rape and murder. As has been noted, sexually violent comments, especially toward women, are an established genre of comment. Media scholar Emma Jane has noted that such “e-bile” is characterized by profanity, ad hominem invective, stereotype, and hyperbolic imagery of graphic (and often sexualized) violence that manifests as a threat or wishful thinking.38 For instance, tweets to Richards told her to “kill herself,” “shut the fuck up stupid bitch and go to the kitchen,” and “you need to be gang raped so you get some common sense.” Her contact information was published alongside threats, including a gruesome image of a beheaded, gagged woman accompanied by the text “when I’m done.”

The worst of these comments likely arose from two sources. First, there is an online community of “men’s rights” activists, some of whom vent wildly misogynistic speech. Second, trolls have long been provocateurs but they now can be much more vicious. A classic but relatively innocuous Usenet trolling from the 1990s was entitled “Oh how I envy American students.” In the post, the author spoke of his admiration for fraternity life, its drinking, and its “para-homosexuality”; this bait prompted over three thousand comments. This pales in comparison to the 2008 infiltration of the Epilepsy Foundation’s message boards with images that were intended to trigger seizures.39 Most trolls today are likely too young to remember Usenet and instead trace their roots to 4chan. This “imageboard” originally focused on Japanese pop culture and today is famous for the “random” board where funny, weird, and gross images are posted and commented on anonymously. On a single day, tens of thousands of threads (posts with their corresponding comments) flow through the board. On average, they last only seconds on the front page and for minutes on the subsequent pages. As anthropologist Biella Coleman noted, “These rapid-fire conditions magnify the need for audacious, unusual, gross, or funny content.”40

Despite the frivolity of many 4chan discussions and the insincerity of many trolls, 4chan was also an early home to the Anonymous “hacktivist” movement that is associated with online pranks and protests, especially against the Church of Scientology. A group identifying itself as Anonymous targeted Richards and her employer. Both her site and Sendgrid’s became unreachable during a denial-of-service (DoS) attack. Such an attack bombards a site with bogus requests, often from infected computers, making it difficult for it to serve genuine users. A petition demanded that she be fired, and a manifesto was anonymously published, noting that “the outrage over the petty and malicious conduct of your employee, Adria Richards, is about to erupt in an explosion of lulz and collateral damage over anyone and anything that had the misfortune of being in contact with this individual.” Harassment against Sendgrid’s customers, investors, and employees was threatened, including, as the manifesto enumerated, “obnoxious phone calls, emails, denial of service attacks, online vandalism and defamation, and even real-life harassment.”41 Anonymous arose, in part, out of the culture and anonymity of 4chan; they use these tactics against targets whom they feel engage in hypocrisy, secrecy, censorship, and corruption. Sometimes their activities seem incongruent: in the same period that Anonymous was threatening harassment of Richards, others, also claiming to be Anonymous, were exposing a cover-up of high school football players who sexually assaulted a teenage girl. (The boys had posted images of and comments about the assault online and Anonymous excels at ferreting out such material.) To the extent that the morality and motivation of Anonymous’s members can be understood, their ethic is often a reflection of their tactics rather than the other way around. That is, almost anyone can claim the Anonymous mantle, and their activities are shaped more by the tools of exposure and harassment than by a consistent moral philosophy.

In the “dongle incident,” the threats of exposure and harassment were followed later in the day by a blog post from Sendgrid’s CEO stating that “Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers.” He later explained that although the company supported the right to report inappropriate behavior, Richards’s public photo and tweet crossed the line: she “can no longer be effective in her role” as an evangelist. He wrote that she had “divided the same community she was supposed to unite” and her approach put the business, its employees, and its customers in danger.42

Many people who read about this story probably thought to themselves: “I’ve made similar or worse stupid jokes. Do I deserve to be fired?” Yet the intangibility of comment prompts anxieties and conflicts related to place. Is a geek conference a social venue or a professional space? In a conference session, is a comment that can be overheard still just between friends? Does tweeting a photo of conference participants violate a boundary between private and public? This story also received a lot of attention because of the character of comment itself. Comment’s shortness, asynchronicity, and reactivity mean that it is often highly contextual, but the link between a comment and its context is also easily lost. Because it is hypotextual (as described in the previous chapter), misunderstandings easily arise, and everyone else can comment on these conflicts without reading much background or considering context and nuance. As soon as a story is posted on Reddit, thousands of kneejerk comments might follow. We all have opinions, and many do not hesitate to express them at the bottom of the Web—even when they are less than informed (“tl;dr”).

Goodreads and Bully-Battles

As discussed in an earlier chapter, the relationship between authors and reviewers can be testy. It was hoped that at Goodreads things might be different. Goodreads is a social networking site where users review, rate, discuss, and make lists of books and even interact with their favorite authors. Goodreads encourages authors to promote themselves and their books by developing a profile or blog, sharing excerpts of new works, and participating in discussions about their books. Many users self-identify as both avid readers and hopeful authors. However, the site gained a different sort of reputation, especially with the launch of the Stop the Goodreads Bullies (STGRB) Website in July 2012.

Professional authors and critics might complain about one another, but their established careers and public identities tend to keep their exchanges relatively sane. For amateurs who write fanfiction as a hobby, snark can be hurtful and provoke a reaction, but their living is not at stake, and readers are not able to complain of wasted money. Conflict is most heated among independent publishers and their readers. Self-published authors who wish to make a living from writing intersect with readers who have paid for works of uneven quality. STGRB set out to identify commenters on Goodreads who worked “to destroy that author’s reputation and career for either their own personal amusement or for vengeance.”43 However, in the exchange of accusations and recrimination, it was difficult to discern who was bullying whom.

To begin to untangle this tale, consider how the Web has changed publishing and reading. Foz Meadows is a member of the young adult (YA) fantasy community and is a self-described geek who is fond of silly hats. She reads, reviews, and writes urban fantasy fiction and blogs at the Huffington Post. When she was younger, she felt that reviews were never about books she might like, but this changed with the Web. Online forums and real life science fiction and fantasy (SFF) conventions exposed her to a wider community and selection of authors. Amazon and eBay made it possible to buy books that she could not find in a local store. Digital publishers like Lulu helped independent authors produce and distribute works that would never have found an audience. And book bloggers and sites like Goodreads made it possible to find likeminded readers and their “good reads” recommendations. She wrote, “I regularly buy not only ebooks, but firsthand and secondhand books online. I keep a list of titles that have caught my interest on Goodreads, and a wishlist of books I plan to buy on Amazon.”44 In this marketplace, where many readers are probably young (teens to thirties) and digitally capable, authors are well served and might even enjoy discussions with their readers. These are all positives for online comment.

This is also a marketplace in which an author’s success is affected by online reviews. Such reviews can be abused by both friends and enemies who mete out praise or punishment. (On the photography-sharing site, such partisan behavior is referred to as “mate” and “revenge” rating.) Those behind the STGRB Website felt that some readers on Goodreads bullied authors by insulting them, posting malicious reviews, and placing books not yet released on “do not read” lists. One STGRB-affiliated author posted his own list of bullies: “So here are the bullies for all of you to see. People who have attacked me and continue to do so by rating and reviewing my books without even reading them.” The titles of peoples’ do-not-read lists seemed especially irksome: “not-in-a-gazillion-years,” “I-refuse-to-read,” and “crazy-shit-authors-to-avoid.” This prompted him to conclude, “They just hate me because they are haters. And bullies.45 I consider such lists to be a drama genre of comment (much like the question and answer genre that is discussed in the next chapter.)

Social media scholars Alice Marwick and danah boyd have noted that “Drama is the language that teens—most notably girls—use to describe a host of activities and practices ranging from gossip, flirting, arguing, and joking to more serious issues of jealousy, ostracization, and name-calling.” Key components include that it is relational and social, reciprocal, and often performed for and magnified by an online audience.46 Drama genres of comment lend themselves to this type of practice. Interestingly, while drama can overlap with bullying, teens tend to avoid the latter term because it is tainted with adult consternation and a presumption of victimhood. Adults seem to be more likely than teens to claim being the victim of online bullies.

Another reason for the drama at Goodreads is that the snark being exchanged between readers at Goodreads is visible, almost unavoidably so, to the authors. As noted earlier, in the age of the Web, unsolicited and unwelcome comments can easily find their way to anyone. Sporkers, the snarky commentators of amateur fanfiction, learned this lesson: if you wish to avoid angry authors, don’t link your spork back to them; what authors don’t know won’t hurt them. Unfortunately, Goodreads was not so savvy. According to Meadows’s analysis of what went wrong, author and reader spaces overlapped. Part of the controversy was about which audience Goodreads really served. It advertised itself as a social site for “readers and book recommendations” but at the same time it promoted itself to authors with a different message: “With an audience of more than 10 million affluent, educated, self-identified readers, Goodreads is the ideal place to advertise your book.”47 The initial, perhaps naïve, notion was that both readers and authors could happily inhabit the space. Perhaps they could if there were no mean reviewers or defensive authors, but such an assumption is equally naïve. As Meadows noted, the architecture of the site made subsequent conflagrations all but inevitable: “it’s analogous to carrying on a bitchy conversation within earshot of the person you’re talking about, with the added rider that, as this is also a professional space for the author, they’re not allowed to retaliate—or at least, they can do so, but regardless of the provocation, they’ll come off looking the worse. Which leads to fans—and, sometimes, friends—of authors leaping to their defense, often with disastrous results.”48

In an essay on the Huffington Post, an anonymous STGRB author noted that a bullied author’s book might receive as many negative reviews in a single day as it had previously accumulated in total: “The next day, the same group of bullies all review another book that is currently on their target list. This is not a conspiracy. They are very open about which book they are currently targeting, and the bully reviews always coincide with their current hate-list.”49 STGRB aimed to document the abuse: “Our methods are extreme but after trying to reason with the bullies, after trying to appeal to their humanity, all of which failed, we have come to understand that only by outing them, can we get their attention.” That is, bullies must be held accountable, and the toxic atmosphere of Goodreads remedied. STGRB advocates argued that much of this would be achieved if Goodreads policed abuse in its forums and enforced the rule that reviews must be about books rather than authors.

On first reading, this seems like a reasonable position, but many Goodreads participants objected to the tactic of “outing” (and perhaps endangering) readers via an anonymous site. The badges and banners of antibullying organizations were removed from STGRB when those organizations learned about the site’s tactics. The resulting controversy about the essay prompted Andrew Losowsky, the Huffington Post’s books editor, to explain why the essay had been posted in the first place. He did not apologize or offer to take the piece down because it abided by the Post’s code of conduct and he felt that the authors were entitled to their say, but he did follow it with a piece by Foz Meadows. She and others noted that there was evidence of poor behavior on all sides, but she argued that disagreement, unkind reviews, and public insults are not synonymous with bullying. She claimed that the notion is being abused, such as when politicians claim that they are bullied when others challenge their sexist or racist remarks. For her, bullying requires an imbalance of power through which one person harasses, belittles, and undermines a weaker person. According to Meadows, real bullying attacks are “vicious, personal, and often constitute criminal offenses … a situation which is demonstrably not the same as some snarky, unpaid reviewers slagging off a book.” She did not consider the sexist comments left on her blog to be bullying, either. Although they are offensive and abusive, she has the power to delete comments, ban commenters, “and publicly mock them for their opinions.”50

However, I do not find the boundaries of online bullying to be as clear cut as Meadows. This case is veiled in a fog of confusion that often results from what I refer to as a bully-battle. The authors of the 2012 book Cyberbullying wrote that while bullying can be understood as intentional aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power, cyberbullying is a bit more complex.51 Does an anonymous commentator have any power? Does the definition apply to adults as well as to minors? Can both sides be both victims and perpetrators? (I would answer yes to all of these questions.) Indeed, the confusion resulting from this later point, of reciprocal accusations (“you are a bully,” “no, you are!”), is the first characteristic of a bully-battle. Amidst the background noise of clearly abusive comment (much, but not all, of it from trolls) the partisans argue about the implications of veiled warnings, the ethics of collecting public information (such as that found on Facebook), exposing identifiable information (like addresses and phone numbers), and the making of amateur diagnoses (including that someone is “obviously a psychopath”). Reciprocal accusations can even include former friends, colleagues, and romantic partners.

Beyond reciprocal accusations, a second characteristic of the bully-battle is division of the community and partisanship. People on one side of an issue characterize those on the other side as bullies and seek to correct perceived injustices by aligning with their allies in a conflict of “us against them.” Third, the conflict is characterized by a strident rights-based rhetoric. For instance, bullied authors complain of being “censored,” and bullied readers declaim that “readers have rights,” as one anti-STGRB site is named.52 Fourth, identities and personal information are revealed or “outed” in a practice known as “doxing” or “doc dropping.” People opt to use pseudonyms online for many reasons: people want to keep their hobbies private from the scrutiny of their employer or avoid online stalkers. They might also use anonymity to behave in a way that others object to, hence doxing is intended to expose hypocrisy and make accountable those who were anonymous; it is also used to harass. Doxing is clearly problematic, as Meadows wrote about the Stop the Goodreads Bullies site: “Without this single aspect, the site itself—despite its occasionally libelous descriptions—might not have attracted nearly so much attention. With it, however, the entire purpose moves from being a counterculture to something legitimately sinister, with various reviewers not only finding their photos, real names and cities of residence posted, but also the names of their partners, employers and—in at least one instance—the name of their family’s favorite restaurant together with the days and times they usually frequent it.”53 Doxing is often practiced by way of “watch” forums, blogs, and hashtags in which suspect behavior is exhaustively collected and discussed.

Fifth, and finally, lists of opponents, often doxed, are drawn up and publicly posted. A useful feature of Goodreads is that members can create lists or “shelves” of works. This feature initially was used to collect works that a member recommended or hoped to read, but it became a way to censure others. For instance, one reader wrote of an author who “became offended when she found her book shelved as something I did not wish to read. She felt bullied … because I did not want to read her book after she applauded my stalker.”54 This is then reciprocated: after “won’t read” lists were created by some readers, STGRB authors drew up lists of “bullying” readers; these authors (in turn) were subsequently exposed on watch sites, including the blog Badly Behaving Authors. Goodreads, alarmed by the acrimony and bad publicity, has attempted to curb some of the rancor by asking its readers to focus on books rather than authors and declaring some comments “off topic.” This turned some partisans against the Goodreads site itself, with combatants reposting deleted reviews and promiscuously labeling others’ comments as off topic.

This pattern of behavior is not an isolated incident, and the bully-battle pattern can be found in various communities, including one that prides itself on its rationality.

Bright Bullies and Bashtags

The “free thought” community thinks itself judicious, applauding reason and empiricism, and denouncing dogma and the supernatural. This philosophy is typically associated with atheists, secular humanists, materialists, and skeptics who sometimes argue among themselves about what they should call their collective self. (In 2003, some advocated that they adopt the label brights.) Among free thinkers, consensus on such issues is not reached easily. This community—long practiced in online conflict with creationists, cranks, and scammers—fell on itself with savage severity in 2012.

Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick blog and a regular on the popular Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. After participating on a panel in which she discussed behavior that makes some women feel unwelcome at conferences, including being propositioned sexually, a man joined her in an elevator at 4 a.m. and invited her to his room for coffee. She later posted a video blog about the conference, mentioned that the elevator incident made her feel uncomfortable, and urged, “Guys, don’t do that.”55 Some thought that she overreacted. After the evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins sarcastically compared Watson’s plight to a Muslim woman’s genital mutilation, Watson said that she would no longer buy or endorse Dawkins’s books. Others blamed Watson for exaggerating the extent of the problem at conferences and for scaring women away. Watson also became the target of misogynistic attacks, including offensive and threatening images. But Watson was supported by many bloggers on the Free Thought Blog (FTB) network, a collection of blogs that is associated with PZ Meyers, of the popular blog Pharyngula, where many align with social justice issues like countering sexism and racism. Eventually, claims and counterclaims of bullying were made. This case exhibited the pattern of reciprocal accusations, partisanism, rights rhetoric, doxing, and lists of bullies and misogynists.

This pattern is common. It can be found at Wikipedia and was also present in the RaceFail ’09 (“writing for the other”) incident mentioned earlier. The experience can be so confusing that some people simply throw in with their friends because it is otherwise such a mess. The fanlore wiki noted that even the trigger to RaceFail is a source of controversy and “several people produced roadmaps to RaceFail ’09 to try to sort out the confusion.”56 In addition to these commonalities, the FTB case has two other features worth noting.

<p>© 2007 CC-BY-NC 2.5</p>

First, much like the Kathy Sierra incident in which some of the Mean Kids subsequently recoiled from the extent to which people could be mean, the free thought community prides itself on its harshness. Richard Dawkins is famous for the acerbity of his critique. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the affable astronomer and science communicator, once told Dawkins that he was taken aback by Dawkins’s sharpness and asked if it best served the purpose of increasing the public’s understanding of science. Dawkins replied, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” and likened his philosophy to something an editor of the New Scientist once said: “Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”57 Similarly, the community of bloggers and online commentators associated with Meyers’s Pharyngula are harsh and are referred to as “the commentariat.” While this term has been used to describe mainstream news pundits, in the online context it evokes a seething mass of vicious typists, much like the character in an XKCD comic. In “Duty Calls” a stick figure refuses to leave the computer for bed because “This is important... someone is wrong on the Internet.” Meyers has written that he approves of the ferocity of his commenters, “even when they’re turning their teeth on me.”58 As one fan of Pharyngula’s commentariat wrote, these commenters are unpleasant but necessary:

You are cruel, rude, and unforgiving. In fact, I’ve found nicer people on fucking YouTube. I do not comment on Pharyngula that often because of you; I’m terrified of it. The thought of wading into those shark-infested waters is an absolutely horrid thought … almost bad enough to create a phobia … a Pharyngaphobia, if you will. So I think all of you owe me just one thing. Don’t. Ever. Stop. Seriously. You have been one of the best online sources of skepticism that I have ever seen. The extreme intolerance for bullshit is refreshing and wonderful, even if my sensible, peace-loving, chicken-shit self is sometimes terrified of it.59

In addition to the irony of combative communities devouring themselves, the FTB bully-battle also found a new medium in which to express itself: Twitter “bashtags,” the disruptive appropriation of an opponent’s hashtag. In 2013, as a parody of the Website Who Needs Feminism, masculinists started tweeting under #INeedMasculismBecause. This was then appropriated by feminists with sarcastic tweets like “#INeedMasculismBecause the way I react to the mocking use of this hashtag shows I think mockery is the same as systematic injustice.”60 The masculinists then appropriated the tag #tellafeministThankYou. (Bashtags are especially confusing because they are hypotextual and comments can be ephemeral, prompting some to document them via screengrabs, which themselves can be faked.) In the case of the free thinkers, some FTB bloggers listed other skeptic bloggers as offensive and worthy of blocking. Those targeted called this censorship and documented this “suppression of dissent” under the #FTBullies hashtag. This tag was then appropriated, as one FTB blogger sarcastically put it: “Like the bullies we are, we FTB bloggers (and our friends and readers) crashed a hashtag originally started by a few people who just absolutely hate that we talk about social justice so much and dare to moderate the comments sections on those posts. Hilarity ensued.”61 Hash crashing and bashtags exemplify the loss of context and place in online comments today and adds a new layer of confusion to bully-battles.

Tropes and Taking a Stand

A common response by people who are hurt in flame wars, trolling, and bully-battles is to pull back, move on, or disappear. Kathy Sierra abandoned her public activity after the Mean Kids incident and has not updated her blog, Creating Passionate Users, since 2007. It took over five years before she ventured to begin a new blog in the summer of 2013. The science fiction author Elizabeth Bear attempted to call a cease fire during RaceFail ’09 by addressing an Internet that seemingly had gone crazy. She wrote that the controversy “keeps following me home, and I’m really getting sick of it, because it’s not about communication. It’s about us versus them. And the problem is—the problem I see, and the reason I’ve been refusing to comment—is that there is no us and there is no them in this fight. It’s a false dichotomy, and worse, it’s a waste of energy.”62 (One of her opponents wrote that this was yet another example of white privilege because Bear could move on but “I couldn’t just decide not to have a conversation about race anymore, because it follows me home. My race issues ARE my home.”63) Adria Richards was once an active blogger, tweeter, and podcaster but went silent for about a year after she was attacked online and fired. Rebecca Watson, who was married on stage at one of the skeptic movement’s biggest conferences in 2009, wrote that she would not attend the 2012 conference. Too many in the community had told her “I’m a whore, a slut, a bitch, a prude, a dyke, a cunt, a twat, told I should watch my back at conferences.”64

Another casualty of the Free Thinkers Blog bully-battle, Jen McCreight of the Blag Hag blog, wrote that she was doing less blogging because people were harassing her family members and threatening to get her fired. Furthermore, “If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter).”65 For someone to withdraw from such attention is to be expected after such a harrowing experience. And after such an incident, it can take a long time for the community to recover, if ever. The cleft between those who affiliate with social justice issues (including critiquing sexism and racism) and those who do not persists in many of the online communities I’ve mentioned.

Occasionally, there are small victories against hater culture. In the summer of 2012, media critic and Feminist Frequency blogger Anita Sarkeesian proposed a $6,000 Kickstarter project entitled “Tropes vs Women in Video Games.” With the money she collected, she planned to expand her earlier video analyses of stereotypically demeaning portrayals of women. Given that sectors of the gaming industry are dominated by young men, she would not have lacked for material. Perhaps because of this aspect of the industry, Sarkeesian was also beset by a “torrent of misogyny and hate.” Her YouTube videos were populated with nasty comments and flagged as terroristic so that they would be banned. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized, and she was repeatedly threatened: “These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen ‘jokes’ to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.” Insults were misogynistic and anti-Semitic, and Sarkeesian was labeled a “feminazi.” (This prompted me to propose a corollary to Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion about sexism continues, the probability of a woman who speaks out being called a feminazi approaches 1.”) Also, a campaign was organized to have her project banned and defunded from Kickstarter.66 In one bizarre bit of thinking, one maligner decided to balance a perceived gender inequity: “There’s been a disgusting large imbalance of women who get beaten up in games. Let’s add a lady to help balance things.” Users could click on an image of Sarkeesian to bruise and bloody her face. The author of the game justified this as an attempt at engagement: “She has refused to address any form of criticism whatsoever, and hides behind the fact she has a vagina, claiming it’s sexist to criticize her in any way. She claims to want equality: Well, here it is.”67 Sarkeesian characterized this as but one instance of “image based harassment and visual misogyny” that she encountered, which also included “everything from vulgar photo manipulation” to “creating pornographic or degrading drawings of rape and sexual assault.” It would be understandable to recoil from such images, but she shared them to document what some people experience online.68

Despite the attacks or perhaps to counter them, Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter proposal garnered almost seven thousand supporters who pledged over $150,000. In March 2013, she released her first analysis on YouTube, which has had over a million views: “This video explores how the Damsel in Distress became one of the most widely used gendered clichés in the history of gaming and why the trope has been core to the popularization and development of the medium itself.”69 Despite this success, Sarkeesian continues to receive hateful and harassing messages, as do many others online. Hate and harassment are a part of online comment for which there is no easy solution. Yet the success of her project suggests that there is an option between feeding and ignoring the trolls and haters: supporting those being attacked. I am not suggesting that the targets of abuse should engage with the trolls or become lone vigilantes. Nor do I advocate for bully-battles. Collectively, we should not ignore the trolls. Just as we should not ignore comments but curate them, we should identify abusive behavior as odious and unwelcome and support targets of abuse—whether emotionally, financially, or legally.

Header icon made by Dave Gandy from



No comments here