WHAT NOT TO DO

With the internet now a permanent (and in many cases central) part of our lives, the process of maturing to adulthood is going to have to be updated and expanded to include learning to avoid arguing with critics and trolls online.

This is not an easy lesson to learn, but most of us get there eventually. As a younger person I was ready to argue to the death with anyone who dared to speak a critical word in my direction. Orienting oneself toward the internet in this manner is exhausting and, more importantly, pointless. When we are younger and more idealistic we tend to imagine the internet (and real life, for that matter) being full of people who are in earnest, looking to engage in an honest exchange of ideas. Eventually we realize that most of the people who comment on things online are merely trolls who enjoy saying whatever will raise your ire, or people who are in earnest but who are far too stupid to either make a coherent point or understand the ones anyone else might make.

We also learn that with increased visibility comes more criticism, and that is a reality in any facet of life or format for communication. More hits mean more trolls. It's just the way of the world. The absolute best way to handle it, whether you are a famous celebrity or a highly visible author or a minor blogger of no particular renown, is to ignore it. There is nothing to be gained, ever. At best it is a total waste of time as you try to engage a stranger who most likely does not have any interest in a legitimate exchange of ideas; he/she simply wants to tell you that you suck and then move on. At worst, it makes you look bad – petty, thin-skinned, overly sensitive, and possibly a little unhinged.

It baffles me that no one explained this to an author named Kathleen Hale – nor did she figure this out on her own – who went Borderline Stalker on one of her critics…and then wrote a masturbatory navel-gazing piece about it for The Guardian.

Exposing one's thoughts on the internet invites the criticism of others who are often emboldened by anonymity or distance. It's difficult to do this, whether for money or for the hell of it, without being able to tolerate people telling you how much you suck. It's difficult bordering on impossible, though, if one lacks the self-awareness to realize that writing about it in an effort to garner sympathy or internet merit badges.

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32 Responses to “WHAT NOT TO DO”

  1. zoe Says:

    For many women and minorities, not engaging is also not a viable tactic. See the experience of Kathy Sierra: http://seriouspony.com/trouble-at-the-koolaid-point/

    Hale very obviously and very very creepily responded wrong ,but even the best responses are just less wrong.

  2. wetcasements Says:

    Getting older is realizing that nobody gives a shit.

    A painful truth, but an important one as well.

    But as a younger man I remember how much time I spent trying to convince people that their favorite band was terrible, and my favorite band was awesome.

    In my defense, I did have a part-time job writing record review.

    But still, I look back at that loud, opinionated dude and shudder.

  3. Lee Shore Says:

    I think it also depends upon the topic. If your website is devoted to
    Nordic love poetry or Hopi sand painting 99% of the time, but you
    post one essay on, say, the plight of female game designers, you
    might see an uptick in unpleasant responses.

  4. Nate Says:

    @Zoe also see indie game developer Zoe Quinn and this whole "gamergate" nonsense.

  5. Deggjr Says:

    When we are younger and more idealistic we tend to imagine the internet (and real life, for that matter) being full of people who are in earnest, looking to engage in an honest exchange of ideas.

    Alas, alas, alas

  6. Xynzee Says:

    @zoe: far out! Don't even know where to begin after that, so I'll stop right there.

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    I wish we could ignore that great and terrible troll, Antonin Scalia, on the SCOTUS!
    That man's trolling the SC and the nation.

    Otherwise, yeah, don't feed the trolls.

  8. Well mostly Says:

    Don't feed the trolls: best advice ever given. There ain't enough Zen in the whole wide world to deal well with these folks. It's a virus without a cure, a special kind of sick.

  9. Emerson Dameron Says:

    I recently became pretty active on Quora.

    I more recently swore off baiting libertarians there.

    Man, I thought I had this.

  10. deep Says:

    You suck Ed!

  11. Captain Blicero Says:

    In this case, engaging with an online critic didn't make her *look* unhinged-she was unhinged.

    Stalking makes me angrier than almost any other crime. They're the ones we should be locking up, not drug users.

  12. Skipper Says:

    Just because your "opinion" can travel around the world in milliseconds, it has no more validity than it did in the days when it could only reach to the end of the bar.

  13. Captain Blicero Says:

    @ Zoe

    Point taken, although it most certainly was an option for Hale in this scenario.

  14. Paul Says:

    Ed: You seem not to have completed the last sentence of this post; just letting you know.

  15. ladiesbane Says:

    "Human, All Too Human" — if only Nietzsche had lived to write a chapter on writers, trolls, and online comments. The Internet is our god and we comment so that it hears us. We crave intimacy and get exposure instead. Or we get overlooked, and the gathering butthurt leads us to troll in bitterness.

    What repels me is the bleating of emotionally reactive extroverts who pinball around in a constant state of feedback without reason or judgment. People lament the lack of emotional nuance in online comments, but they seem to show the writer's personality with a certain accuracy. I always think DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN, what hell it must be to date a person — live, talk, relate, and argue with a person — who over-analyzes, under-thinks, and can't leave any reaction unexpressed. Insipid, insubstantial, demanding, and exhausting.

  16. Graham Says:

    I think Hale was foolish to ignore the specific advice, and the general First Wisdom Of The Internet – don't feed the trolls.

    Having said that I think it is rather trollish of Ed to call her piece "masturbatory navel gazing."

    This woman took the effort of writing a book, achieved the amazing success of actually getting it published (try doing this, people, just try it) and sweated hot bricks of anxiety at its publishing.

    After all this, some utterly neurotic non-achieving and non-attempting-to-achieve troll decides to carve her up online.

    One can feel the hurt and anger here.

    But I agree she shouldn't have gone astalking – mainly for her own mental health.

    As other have noted, this reminded me immediately of Gamergate.

  17. Mo Says:

    Eventually we realize that most of the people who comment on things online are merely trolls who enjoy saying whatever will raise your ire, or people who are in earnest but who are far too stupid to either make a coherent point or understand the ones anyone else might make.

    I, of course, am one of those exceptional minds that cannot be shoehorned into either of those two categories.

    Solidarity, y'all.

  18. Alan C Says:

    I have a couple friends who often post libertarian stuff on Facebook. I usually avoid commenting because i end up getting all kinds of replies from friends of theirs who can be really nasty.

  19. mothra Says:

    So is this your plea to get us to stop commenting? I can take a hint…I know I am not trying to provoke you, so I guess I must be one of those too stupid types. (hangs head in shame)

  20. Brutus Says:

    I didn’t bother to follow the link to see what the brewhaha was about. As others have said, I just don’t care. However, it disappoints me that because of a few (OK, probably many) squeaky wheels (trolls), you have handily dismissed the possibility of worthwhile criticism and engagement. Frankly, it’s kinda difficult distinguishing between refusal to feed the trolls, above-the-fray aloofness, and ivory-tower elitism. Being relatively new to Gin and Tacos, I can’t judge which approach you are taking, but you’ve definitely decided your blog is broadcast only. Why have comments at all? Do you read them?

  21. Gerald McGrew Says:

    Guess what? It turns out that I'm guilty of catfishing (sort of).

    I like to debate…not argue, but debate. My employer has us take personality tests now and then, and one of the more consistent results I get is "you see debate as a sport". It's absolutely true. I don't take any of it personally, I don't get upset, I just enjoy the back and forth of a good debate.

    Internet forums and message boards are great outlets for me to engage in the sport of debate. However, the problem is, most forums that are open to everyone are basically elementary school playgrounds, where people compete over the most clever way to call each other names. That's not what I'm looking for.

    So I have to find members-only, private groups where they kick out the trolls and name-calling kids. But most of the time, groups like that are restricted to certain people, e.g., political affiliation, religious beliefs, fans of a sports team, etc. So in order to get in places like that, I have to pretend I'm one of them.

    But once in, I don't advocate positions I don't believe in, nor do I deliberately provoke. I'm there to have a spirited and logical debate, and if I have to pretend to be someone else to do it….meh.

    I guess in the most basic sense, I am catfishing even though I really don't think of it that way. But I'm sure if the people I debate ever found out, they'd write me off as a troll.

  22. eau Says:

    What's 'borderline' about her staking? Incessant social media searching, multiple phone calls, emails, tweets, Facebook posts and messages, tracking down the blogger and GOING TO HER HOUSE, asking around about her… Seems like full-blown, balls-out crazy stalking to me.

  23. sallys dad Says:

    Damn, I must have been living under a rock because I had to Google 'catfishing' to learn its meaning. So does than make me one of the "far too stoopid"?

  24. Suttree Says:

    @zoe Holy mackeral! I knew it was bad but apparently I just had no idea how bad. The internet makes it easy to be a sociopath. These people should face prison time.
    That being said, most trolls are just assholes. Although I certainly look at quite a few comment queues where it is obvious that the trolls are hijacking the discussion. Especially when the subject is not necessarily political, although if looked at through The Lens Of a Wingnut™ it must be defended or opposed at all costs. Sanity and/or truth means nothing. Great obfuscation will abound.

  25. Surly Duff Says:

    @Graham – "Having said that I think it is rather trollish of Ed to call her piece "masturbatory navel gazing." This woman took the effort of writing a book, achieved the amazing success of actually getting it published (try doing this, people, just try it) and sweated hot bricks of anxiety at its publishing.

    After all this, some utterly neurotic non-achieving and non-attempting-to-achieve troll decides to carve her up online."

    That isn't the problem with the article. Yes, the author accomplished much by writing a book and was neurotic over the reception of that book. But then when she received criticism of the book, which she thought was excessive and faulty, she chose to track down, STALK, and then confront the critic herself. That is ridiculous and inappropriate, regardless of the critic's authenticity. She then wrote a interminably long piece for the guardian to attempt to justify her preposterous, bizarre, and ill-conceived behavior. Basically she turned her downright loony decision to stalk a critic as a harangue against anonymous internet criticism. It is ridiculously self-absorbed and disturbing behavior. That is the definition of navel-gazing.

  26. Barry Says:

    People who minimize the effects of a-holes on the internet should re-read the start of the original article:

    'With the internet now a permanent (and in many cases central) part of our lives,…'

  27. Barry Says:

    (adding on)

    "…the process of maturing to adulthood is going to have to be updated and expanded to include learning to avoid arguing with critics and trolls online."

    This is going to be harder, since as said above, the internet is more important. If you were encountering the trolls on AOL in the odd times that you look at 'chat 'rooms" and 'forums', no biggie.

  28. Mo Says:

    So, if you want to stalk someone, hire a private eye, I guess.

  29. KMTBerry Says:

    The problem here is accountability. People want to damage other people's reputations, professional life, careers, and finances without accountability; people want to frighten, threaten, and insult others without accountability.
    Much as I hate to say it, Ed, you are sort of defending those people, and ridiculing a person who tried to defend herself.
    If the tables were turned, and your ability to get any sort of job in academia was grossly disrupted by some internet troll accusing you of, say, sexually predatory behavior with students, would you still say that engagement is fruitless? Would you just walk away from all you have struggled for a lifetime to achieve, because some mental case with an ax to grind came after you, and successfully made you radioactive?

    The internet is going to have to catch up with real life, and society is going to have to enforce greater accountability on the internet. But right now the fever to do so is totally lukewarm, because the vast majority of those receiving horrendous abuse are female.

    And, a lot of men who would never abuse a woman, on the internet or elsewhere, are kind of OK with other guys abusing them. I guess they are just used to a culture that allows this to happen and don't see any reason to get upset about it.

    Case in point: Ed.

  30. kevinsdad Says:

    A number of the commenters here, especially those minimizing the author's behavior, don't seem very informed about what happened here. There is considerable evidence, easily available online, that the critic stalked by the author was not in fact a troll and that the author lied about significant aspects of the matter to justify her behavior. Of course, at least the author did not dump a bottle of hydrogen peroxide on the critic's head, like that other time she got mad at someone. http://thoughtcatalog.com/kathleen-hale/2013/02/169836/

  31. Therese Says:

    Hale is obviously an obsessive, unhinged type herself. Her Guardian article is painful to read from the beginning — refreshing her reviews page constantly, being overly concerned with what others are saying about her, etc. — and does not put her in a positive light. It is easy to see her being just as trollish as the person she represented as a troll in her article considering how quickly she admits to trying to get her personal information.

    I find it difficult to compare Hale's asshattery with Gamergate, unlike the experiences of Kathy Sierra, who has suffered for daring to be a woman showing interest in something perceived to be only for white men.

  32. cromartie Says:

    Some nights, after a bad day, I just like to wander into an article and call people the most offensive names possible. It's a nice outlet. And they deserve it.