In light of the discussion this week about cyberbullying and Twitter abuse, which resulted in Rebecca Marino and Laura Robson deleting their Twitter accounts (Laura has since reinstated it) I figured I'd post this email exchange I had with Slate's Emily Bazelon a few years ago. Bazelon was working on a project about bullying at the time, the result of which will be released as a book this week. The book is called "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy" and I'm looking forward to reading it. I've followed Bazelon's reporting about the issue over the years and the results of her research should be interesting. Here's a link to Bazelon's recent appearances on The Colbert Report and NPR's Fresh Air. Both worth a watch/listen.
When the project began she put a call out for stories about bullying and online abuse. I reached out to her to tell the story of the time I was targeted via this site. At the time I was publicly pretty quiet about it. I didn't fight back, I knew it was going on, and I tried to take the high road and ignore the hurtful things that were said about me and my friends. I told the story to my close friends in a "can you believe this hilarious story" tone but deep down, yeah, it bothered me.
The thing is, it's all well and good to tell the victims of online abuse to suck it up, grow thicker skin, and ignore the vitriol from complete and utter strangers. But the bottom line is that we're all fragile people and I'm thankful for the fact that at the time of this incident I was in a pretty good headspace. It was easy then to dismiss what was being said. But had I been in a different headspace, had I been in a depressive state or if it was a time of my life when I was genuinely questioning myself, my self worth, and my self-esteem, things could have turned out differently.
Because that's the thing. You never know where the target of your anger, meanness, or viscious comments is at the moment they read your shit. What can be, at least to you, a critical but mild comment, could be the thing that sets someone off. It could be, in that moment, the absolute worst thing that person could hear. We can say "oh, you're being oversensitive" and "toughen up", but isn't that basically victim-blaming? I can't think that's the solution here.
Despite my willingness to stay above the fray I would be lying if said I didn't spend many sleepless nights wondering what I had done to suffer the wrath of these strangers. People who I thought liked what I did, who I valued as members of a community and who I thought valued me as well. Much of this incident still lives with me. I think of it often because the whole thing was so confusing to me. To this day I simply do not understand it.
So here's my exchange with Bazelon. I'm now good friends with a number of the people who were involved in this gambit. I hold no grudges. It was the incident, not the people, that was hurtful. Because of that I've redacted names because I know a number of those who were a part of this feel absolutely horrible about it and have gone out of their way to let me know that. I've appreciated that more than they'll know.
But I thought I would share it because I hope people understand that even the most innocuous of things (from their perspective) can really fuck people up. And what you think might be a passing comment could burrow its way into a person's head for years. I've never been called a cunt to my face. But I have online. Funny how that happens.
Cyberbullying still connotes "high school" to me and since I'm not in high school (I'm a 32 year old lawyer/blogger) I'm not entirely sure if this story fits into what you're looking for. But it sure *felt* like cyberbullying, so here we go.
I run a small professional tennis blog. It started simply as a writing outlet and morphed into a small community of strangers who began to build relationships in the comments and in a chat box I placed on the site. As the volume of comments grew I instituted "commenting rules" in an attempt to make the site easier to navigate and the comments easier to read. They were all fairly simple and if you read the forums at Television Without Pity, they're familiar. Use proper grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Don't put other people down. Treat people with respect. Basic rules.
Well this caused quite the uproar among a small subset of commenters who had over time morphed into a clique. They had their own inside jokes that they'd reference on the site, codes, etc. (Yes, this all happened on a TENNIS website -- I'm still baffled by all this). To put it mildly, they took great umbrage to my attempts to bring order to my own personal site. They thought the rules were overbearing and directed at them. I assured them they weren't but that if they had a problem obeying the rules they could leave. Since it's a personal blog that provides me no monetary gain, blog hits weren't a priority for me. I just wanted a fun site with fun people who connected with what I was writing. They were insulted when I told them "I didn't need them" and so they huddled up and hatched some idiotic plan to "start a war" and "bring me down."
As I would come to learn a few months later, they actually started up their own tennis website, which I thought was great. When I first stumbled on the site I was excited for them. I'm always happy when my blog inspires other people (especially younger folks) to write. Little did I know that they had a "Dictionary" for the website.
Inside the dictionary they called me (C Note) a "cunt", and my friends (Carrie, Love All, and Sodapop) a variety of names. They coined us the Four Milkshakes of the Apocalypse:
The Four Milkshakes of the Apocalypse - self-explanatory if you've read this far
- Pestilence - Scarrie, because she is so annoying. She is like a swarm of insects attacking you, combined with a bad rash. She lurks/chats in the Crack Box all day and no human force can stop her verbal diarrhea. The Bubonic Plague had nothing on her.
- War - C Not, because she became a fascist and forced us to revolt, thus creating a bloody conflict that continues to this day. We are winning said conflict.
- Famine - Loathe All, because she is the least offensive of the Four Milkshakes, due to her scarcity of posts on FD. Apparently, she only posts/chats on FD when Kobol is aligned with New Caprica (meaning never).
- Death - Sodapoop, because she is the most boring person ever. She can bore you to death just by typing 3 words. The most fatal 3 words are: "I wish Dina..." If you see those words, you will die within 20 seconds. You have been warned.
In addition, they repeatedly harassed me on my site. They had their own chat (which they stupidly left public and which is how we found out about all this) wherein they would call us names and "plan their attacks". They would play a game to see how many times they could get banned from the site and they took an odd amount of glee out of the whole endeavor:
The Three Martyrs - [Redacted] for being the first three [redacted] members to be banned by C Not @ FD. Sometimes referred to as "our fallen heroes" and the like.
NB: as of 2009.04.18 [Redacted] has been banned twice from both the Crack Box and the comments; she is the reigning Queen of the Martyrs; bow before her, all ye pretenders
2009.04.21 - [Redacted] is banned from the Crack Box for a record third time!
2009.06.18 - [Redacted] is banned from the Crack Box for a record fourth time! This time for posting a speech by Winston Churchill.
2009.06.26 - [Redacted] tries to get posting rights back, but Scarrie sees her and makes snarky comments; they get into an agrument; 5th ban ensues
As you can see, this went on for months. Those who weren't banned would leave comments in code to each other slagging on me or my friends, making passive-aggressive comments with the intent to needle me. It was ridiculous to the point that I just didn't want to bother blogging anymore. So yes, as dumb as it all was it did have an effect on me because all of this ugly hatred was coming my way simply because I asked people to hit a shift key when they typed. In addition, my site is ad-free and is purely for my own expression and here was this army of people who spent hours out of their day trying to cause me trouble, all despite the fact that I continued to let them comment on my site even though I knew all about this (high road and whatnot). And just as a reminder, I didn't know these people. They were complete internet strangers.
I found the whole incident fascinating. It was my first personal experience with the truly ugly side of the internet and again, I simply could not understand how this all stemmed from me asking for proper use of "their", "there", and "they're".
Hope this is helpful. If not, at least I hope it was entertaining.
what a crazy story! Thanks for telling me. I'm figuring out how to focus, and this is really helpful.
Just a quick follow-up to all this. I had the opportunity to catch a screening of "Life 2.0" at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past weekend. Life 2.0 is a documentary tracking various people's use and obsession with Second Life, the online virtual world. It was fascinating for a variety of reasons but one thing made me think of your bullying project. The movie ends with a short interview with the CEO of Linden Labs, the company that created Second Life. He says, or argues as I would put it, that the only thing that differentiates virtual worlds from the real world is that online users are under no threat of physical violence. Because of this, he argues, they are more free to develop their "emotional" selves online and therefore, virtual worlds will allow human beings to "take that next step" in their development.
I scoffed. Rather loudly.
While I completely disagree with his spin, I do think the lack of a threat of physical reaction drives the off-the-charts negativity, meanness, and aggressive behavior on the internet.
I'm sure you saw that NYT article over the weekend, "Antisocial Networks", that makes this observation:
"today’s youths may be missing out on experiences that help them develop empathy, understand emotional nuances and read social cues like facial expressions and body language."
I worry sometimes if this really is becoming true. If you don't have to deal with the awkwardness of saying something mean to someone's face, look into their eyes, see them cry, see them get angry, or, worst case scenario, see them try to inflict physical harm on you, there really are no personal ramifications to your conduct. This is especially true if you're a bully. Heck, no one's even going to talk back to you.
My friends and I spent much of the afternoon after the movie discussing this very concept. If one believes that there are no ramifications to their online behavior, what exactly serves as the check? Just being a good person? Having manners? I see so much bullying and just plain mean behavior in the online tennis community and it absolutely mystifies me.
The woman who was my cyberbully is still going strong. I ignore her comments on my blog, I don't follow her on Twitter, and I basically ignore her and refuse to engage with her in any way. But she continues to bully other people through some pretty expert passive-aggressive behavior, causing quite a few issues to the point that I find myself stepping in to privately email these victims, many of whom are in their late teens or early 20s and all of whom are complete strangers to me, to make sure they're ok and to tell them not to let her bother them.
All in all, the topic of cyberbullying and its effects have been discussed quite a bit in my circle of friends. We've come to the conclusion that it's just so easy to do and the only thing that stops people from engaging in it are (1) you don't have a "bully" personality, (2) you have better things to do with your life, and (3) you simply refuse to engage in internet meanness.
Hope the project is going well.