Trolls and lulz: Cruelty On The Internet

“Why should we all build our homes and give residence to the trolls under them?” asks Jason Calacanis in his first e-mail after retiring from blogging.

“Comments on blogs inevitably implode, and we all accept it under the belief that ‘open is better!’ Open is not better. Running a blog is like letting a virtuoso play for 90 minutes are Carnegie Hall, and then seconds after their performance you run to the back alley and grab the most inebriated homeless person drag them on stage and ask them what they think of the performance they overheard in the alley. They then take a piss on the stage and say ‘F-you’ to the people who just had a wonderful experience for 90 or 92 minutes. That’s openness for you… how far we’ve come! We’ve put the wisdom of the deranged on the same level as the wisdom of the wise.”

Calacanis is done with blogging. He’s now limiting his interaction to 1,000 of his readers through a mailing list. His first e-mail, sent out on July 12, went over some of the reasons he chose to make the change from a public blog to the more one-to-one kind of exchange that occurs over e-mail: in short, people are assholes.

LET’S GO WITH THE DIGG MODEL AND LET THEM HAVE MOB RULE

Who doesn’t remember the Sarah Lacy interview of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg at SXSWi in March? Before the keynote address was over my Twitter timeline was exploding with cruel and unusual remarks about the journalist. No one is arguing it was a genius interview, or even a decent one—it wasn’t. But it certainly didn’t warrant the response it received, either.

“Try doing what I do for a living,” Lacy told the antagonistic crowd toward the end of the interview, completely exasperated. And so the mob began to scream that she turn the microphone over. Angry, Lacy snapped, “Let’s go with the Digg model and let them have mob rule!”

And what about when blogger and former editor of Gawker, Emily Gould appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine? NYT.com had to temporarily lock the discussion because its moderators were overwhelmed by the number of comments—most of them negative, of course. But the comments were nothing compared to the kind of rage that tore across the blogosphere. Gould was lynched and quartered, web 2.0-style.

When Wired’s latest issue hit the newsstands with blogger and former Star dating columnist Julia Allison on the cover, Gawker titled a piece about it The Backhanded Art of the Unflattering Cover and closed the piece by saying, “More importantly: editors and contributors who perhaps have some doubt as to your value as a cover model may undermine the honor with unflattering photoshop work and coverlines.”

Commenters didn’t waste a second before jumping in: “How do you photoshop someone’s legs into such elongated, hideous oblivion?” and “I love JA’s shoes! Do they come in human sizes?” and “I’d be totally behind that Wired cover if she were on a toilet and there was a pregnancy test in her hand with a pentagram on the indicator.”

And what about the deletion scandal between BoingBoing and San Francisco Chronicle’s sex columnist and Fleshbot contributor Violet Blue? Late last month, Violet Blue noticed that the content that related to her or her work on BoingBoing had disappeared (LA Times Web Scout blog has the number of missing entries at around 72). BoingBoing offered no explanation for the removal of these posts until after the issue exploded in the public square.

When interviewed by LA Times, BoingBiong’s Xeni Jardin, who had edited the one post Violet Blue had written and who had made most of the mentions to the sex blogger in other BoingBoing posts said:

A year and a half ago when I unpublished this stuff, it was a time when there were a couple of hate web sites specifically about me. Kooky, creepy Internet guys were posting all sorts of grotesque, sexually explicit stuff about me, and trying to find photos of my house and information of my family. Really gross stuff that frightened me. When you’re at the receiving end of that kind of attention, would you voluntarily go out with private information in something that just felt sensitive and felt like your private editorial prerogative?

The problem, of course, is that BoingBoing isn’t a personal blog. But this isn’t about what happened there. It’s about what happens to people online.

IT’S MY BLOG, I CAN BITCH IF I WANT TO

The internet makes us easy targets. But not without our help.

Over 12 million American adults currently maintain a blog, according to BlogWorldExpo. While we know that content we’re putting online is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to overshare.

Most recently, my good friend Katerina received threats from her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and baby momma after the latter found her blog.

“She wants to get a restraining order to keep me away from her son because of the high sexual content of my blog,” Katerina told me.

“That’s patently ridiculous.” I responded. “If she hadn’t screwed herself by changing her name to something so absolutely generic maybe she could have tried to get you for defamation of character considering everything you’ve said about her. But paint you as a sexual predator? Please, just because she’s frigid and could never fuck her ex like you do!”

People are assholes take #1,342,209. No, not really. But that’s how many hits you get if you look up, “I hate you” on Google Blogs.

Who hasn’t ranted about an ex, an ex’s ex, a colleague, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, a boss, a client, a neighbor, a friend, a foe, the government? A blog is a cache of personal stories and people who piss us off are a real part of life.

And so we blog. Usually, it’s reactionary. Something hurts us, we blog and we let it go. But every once in a while you have the case of someone who can’t let it go. Anger becomes vendetta and they begin to dedicate a significant part of their lives to the destruction of someone they once called a friend.

My friend Atherton Bartelby, a Honolulu-based graphic designer, was BFF with a sport commentatrix based in the East Coast whom we’ll call Jackie. I use the past tense because they no longer talk. In fact, they hate each other. What happened? She was flying him out to the mainland for a get together and he stood her up. He said it was work-related. She said he was too drunk to find the airport.

That was just the beginning. For months, Jackie aired all of Bartelby’s dirty laundry on her blog. I don’t know how much of it was true, but from his taxes to alleged medical conditions, it was all right there, just a Google search away.

It was so messy and shame-attack inducing, Bartelby almost quit blogging. He came back, but like a pariah run out of town, he was forced to start from scratch and set up camp at a completely different blogging platform.

PACK OF HATERS

“Behind every success is a pack of haters,” goes the Lil Beck song, but in the microfame game, success is not required. Behind every blog post and tweet and utter and comment is a pack of haters.

“Today the blogosphere is so charged, so polarized, and so filled with haters hating that it’s simply not worth it.” Calacanis wrote in his retirement blog post.

The haters wasted no time responding: “Great news! Twitter will be a much better and less trafficked site now!”, “You had a blog?”, “Wait, you weren’t retired?”

We developed the Gestalt effect as a survival mechanism to visually recognize the whole form of a predator in the wild from an incomplete collection of lines and shapes. Will we in time develop a new mechanism to somehow avoid the frequent acts of random violence that we experience online now?

I remember the first time someone tore me a new one in a comment, completely unprovoked. I don’t remember who it was or what they said, but I will never forget how I felt: it was somewhere between shame and panic. I couldn’t understand it—why would a stranger feel compelled to be so mean to me?

The answer is that they don’t need a reason. The second you put yourself online, you turn yourself into an target.

DON’T READ THE COMMENTS

“You really shouldn’t read the comments,” was the first piece of advice that Emily Gould received when she started working at Gawker, a snarky gossip and entertainment blog about the media.

She disobeyed. It’s hard not to.

“I once received ‘Go back to Toronto!’ as a comment on my shitty editing skills when I turned down a supposedly widely-published author—who also supposedly fucked Bukowski’s sloppy seconds, as if that’s a claim to writing fame!” Laura Roberts, editor of the literary smut magazine Black Heart Magazine tells me.

I can’t see anyone hating on the funny, bodacious Roberts. I begin asking everyone I know with an online presence whether they’ve received mean comments from strangers.

“Yeah,” journalist and former relationship columnist Matt Katz confirms. He’s been blogging for a year about his engagement. “It was from a Malawian living in England. He said, ‘you live in a country where men get shit on their penises and you defend it’ and whatnot. I deleted it.”

Digital girl and media maven Julia Roy linked me to a post on her blog about a troll she contracted via the popular micro-blogging platform, Twitter. Across her timeline, Roy’s been a dick tease, a dumb bitch, a lying ass bitch, and a “hoe ass.” And, no, I don’t know what that is, either.

“You’ve received your share of nasty comments—what’s the worst?” I ask Emily Gould.

“Ha!” she replies. “Um, at this point it all kind of blurs together.”

THE WEB WON’T MAKE UP FOR WHAT HAPPENED IN HIGH SCHOOL

That’s what blogger Meg Fowler’s shirts over at Cafepress say. According to her, it’s a desire to compensate for loserdom experienced in high school that makes people mean online.

Everyone is shot back to the put someone down or be put down mentality that makes high school so brutal. Add anonymity to this equation and the potential for serious assholism is exponential.

“I’m not naive enough to think that anyone will ever wrangle all the assholes into submission and calm the Internet into a state of semi-grace,” says Fowler. But she’s put her two cents out there in an often-Digged post titled How Not To Be An Asshole Or Encourage Assholism On The Internet.

“At the end of the day, everyone will lose their temper now and again, and write something that embarrasses them. It’s just a matter of not making it a lifestyle choice,” she writes. “If you’ve been an asshole, apologize, and let it go. If the person ignores you, you did your part. You can’t make them love you, as Bonnie Raitt says.”

LIFE AFTER WEBSECUTION

“If I were going to completely disavow self-scrutiny and unedited opinion-broadcasting, it would mean the end of my life as a blogger,” wrote Gould in her piece on blogging for the New York Times Magazine. “I still have Emily Magazine as a place to spew when I need to. It will never again be the friendly place that it was in 2004—there are plenty of negative comments now, and I don’t delete them. I still think about closing the door to my online life and locking them out, but then I think of everything else I’d be locking out, and I leave it open.”

As of today, Gould has reinstated comments on her blog after two weeks without that function on her posts. Will her commenters reform and learn to play nice?

Will any of us learn to play nice?

Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and ex-husband to a woman who made a circus of the disintegration of their marriage online, said it best, “Cruelty is a failure of imagination.”

Let’s be more creative.

07.21.08 • posted in: trolls and bullying