Sometimes When You Win, You Lose

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré

"Any idiot can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out.” - Antonin Chekov

In this era of social media and constant interchange, disagreements have become the norm, and they often escalate into full-blown verbal wars at the speed of a data packet. Each time the soi disant Internet Hate Machine gets going, we get a set of "usual suspect" sort of responses. I'm not fond of any of them, but the one I find most infuriating is the notion that the best solution is for the target to just stand there and take it. That the best thing they can do is let it happen and it will all blow over. Proponents often trot out the geeky quote from the film Wargames: "The only winning move is not to play."

I wish that worked. In practice, that's just another way to lose.

I agree there is a certain level of toughness you have to have just to get through any day, online or not. But there are no good tools to help in this situation. That old playground saw of "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," does not work when there's no teacher in earshot. And now that we're grown up, it turns out the various schools of more formal enlightenment aren't as helpful in this situation as you might hope. The tactics of satyagraha are all well and good in the large-scale political and philosophical arenas, but Ghandi himself pointed out that they only work where the practitioners (in this case, the targets) are the ones have the power and are choosing to not use violence to solve their dispute. With the current internet climate, the target has very little power against a faceless digital mob. The Western notions of non-violent resistance can be practiced to good effect by the downtrodden, but they require numbers to work. A targeted individual just standing there and taking it doesn't get anyone anywhere.

The game doesn't start when a person says something rude; the game starts when you make something. Every time you create or speak, you have to consider whether or not it's worth this type of reaction. Non illegitimi carborundum is all well and good for a bad day, but life in public isn’t just one day, it’s a career. And it’s a career of having to trudge upstream through a wind-tunnel pelting you with reeking garbage. It wears on you, and it takes a special kind of monomania to keep going. I don't have it in me to criticize someone for deciding that they don't have it.

No matter what you do, you're wrong. Talking back — either engaging angrily or responding with cool reason — usually makes matters worse. But staying silent doesn't do anything constructive, either.

We've got plenty of examples of how not to respond. A good recent example would be the verbal fisticuffs between writer Marcus Beer and Fez creator Phil Fish. Phil's table-flip on the next release of his game and on the games industry in general was definitely incited by Beer's ranting and puerile name-calling, but the whole situation is obscured by a large dust cloud and the several grawlix signs thrown up when he struck back. The only clear point coming out of that type of discussion is that no matter how right you may or may not be, doubling down on whatever jerk-sauce you've been basted with and giving the rotisserie a crank or two yourself doesn't help matters.

Despite people's insistence, it doesn't appear that staying classy stops this sort of thing either. Read about the response to the guy posting technical details about patch notes for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. They were the kind of nitty-gritty details that anyone playing the game hardcore should have been ecstatic to see. But instead of thanks for sharing the information, he got violent threats. He's acting "professional" about it by responding very calmly, but that doesn't make any difference to the trolls. They're still spewing vile threats. And at the end of the day he has to go home afraid of what he will read, and what people will do.

If you think they will stick to words from the shadows and won't keep at it face-to-face, you're dead wrong. I've personally had real-world run-ins with people several times for things I've written over the years. Most of the trolls left their vitriol online, but on top of the muck thrown at me directly, my kids were bullied at school because of my "Cleaning Up Thunder Bluff" article. One particular person tried to get me fired from my day job over that one.

I've done what I can to be safe. It's not like I've just thrown myself out there. For a writer who also works in the technical industry, I'm fairly well off the grid. I don't have a Facebook account at all. I use Twitter and what other services I do use anonymously, and usually don't link to my articles. But I do have my name in the byline, and the trolls still find me. I feel a little easier about the risk of collateral damage now that my children are grown and half of them use their married names, but I still worry.

But those who know me had my back, and it's turned out okay. Others stepping in can help, but it takes a very special situation for that to work. To contrast with our helpless CODBlOps2 developer above, recently there was another small exchange where a gentleman offered to help the beleaguered targets of a rather vicious Twitter post contact that troll's mother. The troll came back with an abject apology in about half an hour.

In the case that consequences can be brought to bear, the trolls do sometimes crawl back under their bridges. But those cases are few and far between, and their rarity really doesn’t help the overall picture. Besides, the base premise is wrong. This isn't a zero-sum game; their loss doesn't mean everyone else wins. Do you think what the trolls say just magically vanishes if they apologize? It's out there on the internet, where nothing ever really goes away. And the many others who echoed his sentiments to the target didn't have a friend of their mom to smack them down.

Because something's supposedly blown over doesn't mean it's truly ended. Just because the pack has moved on to another target does not mean they won’t come howling back the moment you do something else they disagree with, and they’ll be all the meaner for their previous practice. The roar from Thunder Bluff has long since died down, but when I put up my more recent #1reasonwhy article, they were right back at me, both in person and online, bigger and badder than ever.

The whole thing is not fair. The target made, said, or did something, and it was important enough to them that they invested the time and the work and shared it with the world. All a bile-spitting troglodyte has to do is come up with 140 ill-spelt characters. As Joel Watson said recently after his friend went through the comment-grinder, "You make games and comics and books. They make comments." (Fuller story here.)

Some people have been crowing that it's a good thing Mr Fish has decided to get out of the games industry, but I disagree. Whether you liked Fez or his attitude or not, no one deserves this treatment, ever, for any reason. Not the innocent, not the guilty. Neither friend nor foe. I don't care if you're a man, a woman, or a fish. I don't care if you're black or white or plaid. Paul Christoforio, wide-bore douche-canoe that he presented himself to be, didn't deserve it. Hitler wouldn't deserve it. Yes, I'm going to Godwin myself here, but on purpose. That's how strongly I feel about it.

Keeping your head down and letting the trolls tear your work and you into scraps isn't winning. Swallowing the pain and fear doesn't do you any good, and silence only benefits the trolls. In the current climate, the only way to truly not play is to not create and not communicate. When someone leaves (with or without table-flipping), we lose what they could have taught us, and what they could have created. And that's a loss for us all.

Comments

A lot of people say that the only reason people behave this way online is because they're anonymous. I don't think so. I believe people behave this way because they have a space to put their opinion out there, and if they want people to hear it they're going to be damn sure they try hard.

Unfortunately, I don't know if there's a good way to handle this without trying to force people themselves to being better. I've seen hashtags on Twitter for "not reading the comments", and can't help but think you're giving up intelligent discourse to those who want nothing more than to be heard. After all, that's a lot of what it is. They don't want to learn, they don't want to exchange. They simply want to yell and be louder than everyone else, and one of the easier ways to do it, theoretically, is to crowd Twitter, YouTube, and blogs with their asinine comments and ignorant "feedback".

I don't know if "ignoring" them is going to work, but I think it's better to simply refuse to argue with them. Acknowledge their presence, but let them know they aren't even worth your time. Will this work? Well, I don't know.

As my grandmom told me once, you cannot teach the unteachable.

I can only offer my sympathy for those that have been on the receiving end of one of these internet...storms. Most of the internet is a cesspool in that regard, unfortunately.

I have my uses for the internet, mind you: email/pm's, news, shopping, hobbies, but I refuse to entangle my self, or my ego, online much. GWJ is one exception, if one stays out of P&C of course.

Part of that is I'm sure, but I've still seen people seriously messed up over this, and I worry about my kids from time to time. The Internet Kolectiv doesn't care about people. It's not going to, nor change its habits. YMMV.

Cheers.

Relevant again, re: trolls only gaining their power via anonymity:
http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/08/0...

There's a reason the only two forums I engage in are this one and Fear the Boot. There's a reason the only people I'll play games with are Booters, Goodjers, and people I know from my life in the physical world. It's awful out there. I try to use Hanlon's Razor (don't attribute to malice what stupidity/ignorance can explain) as a philosophical touchstone in my life, but man, people are unremitting JERKS online.

Internet anonymity isn't an excuse anymore. I see newspapers and various sites, like ESPN, using Facebook now for comments. So people are using their real names and still being complete jerks to each other.

Good article. I've noticed this has been a theme of several threads here lately, and I think you've managed to sum up the problem nicely.

I've come to the conclusion that anonymity isn't really a the defining factor, despite the Penny Arcade cartoon. We're in a postanonmous age, and it hasn't slowed down. If you're making death threats because you've been turned invisible, you weren't a "normal person" to begin with; you were like this all along.

I've seldom been targeted by trolls; I've avoided most flamewars. So I've only observed the abuse being targeted at other people for the most part. And, on the other hand I've never intentionally tried to hurt anyone online, so I don't have direct experience with what would cause someone to behave this way. It certainly feels like there's something broken in our collective socialization process.

I do have a theory I've been kicking around; this seems less like anonymity-fueled showoffs, and more like a decentralized, asymmetric warfare approach to societal relationships. A troll is frustrated at achieving a goal through society's normal processes and responds by lashing out at vulnerable targets. Doesn't matter how legitimate or illegitimate the goal is--a cry for attention, a slight frustration with a video game patch, a frustration with one's position in life--the response is violence, in a sophisticated form. Bullies off the playground. The channels of ordered society get repurposed for individualized chaotic guerrilla warfare.

I should go digging and see if there's any current psychological research on all of this. Someone has got to be looking at this already.

If you think they will stick to words from the shadows and won't keep at it face-to-face, you're dead wrong. I've personally had real-world run-ins with people several times for things I've written over the years.

The abuse can get a lot worse than verbal, as you pointed out. A security researcher has dealt with SWAT teams and planted drugs.

Something else I considered: someone I knew in high school basically started a YouTube series on comment etiquette, where it's sort of a satire about leaving trolling comments. The problem is, it doesn't dissuade people from being complete trolls on YouTube, but only draws humor from it. It's closer to the "for the lulz" trolling, where the intention is to make light on anyone taking anything seriously.

It's something I noticed in College among a number of my friends, and then some. I blamed it on "the 4chan mentality", but it's sort of spread like wildfire. A kind of notion that anyone that takes themselves seriously on the Internet should be antagonized. That if you're not in on the joke then you're a primary target.

While trolls existed before things like 4chan, and most of the people responding like irresponsible children with some major, major mental problems are something far worse, I can't help but wonder if we're seeing 4chan's twisted Rosemary's Baby of a culture spreading around, only much, much worse.

ccesarano wrote:

While trolls existed before things like 4chan, and most of the people responding like irresponsible children with some major, major mental problems are something far worse, I can't help but wonder if we're seeing 4chan's twisted Rosemary's Baby of a culture spreading around, only much, much worse.

I don't know if 4chan is the symptom or the disease, but there's too much of it around.

It's not the internet, it's people. Within living memory people were burning crosses in other people's lawns with sheets over their faces. Le plus ce change,....

Gremlin wrote:

I've seldom been targeted by trolls; I've avoided most flamewars. So I've only observed the abuse being targeted at other people for the most part. And, on the other hand I've never intentionally tried to hurt anyone online, so I don't have direct experience with what would cause someone to behave this way. It certainly feels like there's something broken in our collective socialization process.

We are much alike. The internet sometimes oftentimes baffles me because, for me, I act on the internet by the same rule I act on in real life: treat others yadda yadda. The hate that comes with the Internet appalls me. And I know it's out there in the real world, but I don't see it as much up close like I can on the Internet.

The Internet Hate Machine is why I don't publish under my real name. A few years ago, in discussions here, when the guys decided that everyone should write under their legal names instead of under their 'nyms, and I said that because I had stalker problems in the past, I wasn't comfortable using my real name going forward, I caught a lot of flack about it, because people assumed that I was just being over dramatic about how the hate machine responds to women especially.

I know how crazy the IHM can get. My kid walks to school. There's no chance I'm going to let some crazy asshat who doesn't like what I said about his favorite game take it out on my kid, or my animals or my property, or me. The first go-to of the IHM is to threaten rape. I've had people email me photos of my house, and tell me they'll be by to rape me. It's lovely. It's why I don't write under my real name.

You had me until the unfortunate Hitler comment. I and several million other Jews would jump at the chance to have a few choice words with him in the vein of Marcus Beer. And in my opinion, he would certainly deserve it. That truly was disappointing. And I'm not sure I can take your writing seriously anymore.

willcode4food wrote:

And I'm not sure I can take your writing seriously anymore.

As someone who has been friends with people constantly on the opposite spectrum of political, religious, and philosophical spectrum, I find this quite unfortunate.

What you're saying is that you're all on board until she went to an extreme to represent just how cruel, violent, and horrible these people are. And let's face it, there's something earnest to be found in her statement. Hitler was a horrible man, but did he deserve death threats and rape threats in the same vein? Well, I guess that depends where you fall philosophically, but if you're the "two wrongs don't make a right" sort, then momgamer's statement is quite true. If you're the sort to think Hitler crossed the line from being a man to being a monster, then I'm certain you feel otherwise.

But to me, the real problem is the instant refusal to see from someone else's perspective. This is part of what momgamer's article is tackling, people that refuse to empathize at all, and ultimately you end up saying. "There's ONE thing I disagree with vehemently, and as a result everything you say, no matter how logical, rational, or reasonable, is null and void".

That's ignorance at its finest, and in the most willful manner.

Feel free to disagree, but at least respect the person enough, no matter your own personal prejudices, to figure out what drove them to say such a thing first.

This is one of those rare GWJ articles that doesn't have a silver lining or ray of hope in it. Spooky.

There are times in which I feel very strongly about my disagreement with someone, and there are stances and actions that I feel are deeply, deeply wrong. In my most passionate moments, I'll often pull back and re-gather my wits, but ultimately I know that the only way to amend wrong is through education — educating the transgressor and educating others. As they say, "Crescat scientia, vita excolatur."

Thanks for deepening and contextualizing my understanding of the threat posed by trolls and internet hate, Momgamer.

@ccesarano. There is too much value in this article to turn this thread into a diatribe about sensitivity to minority groups. I understand your point of view on what aspect of this article stuck out to me. And I appreciate your feedback. However, I can't help but feel polarized when someone offers sympathy to Adolph Hitler. I'm just wired that way, and like momgamer, I won't apologize for my convictions.

Thanks so much for this momgamer. 'Don't feed the trolls' is such a passive attitude that only empowers them. Allow them to control the discourse and they win. Engaging with a troll doesn't beat it, but it does demonstrate to observers the emptiness of their position and takes away the power the internet at large has given to them over the last few years.

The Hitler comment was over-the-top, but I guess it was an emotional exaggeration used to get the message across.

I've not felt the full sting of the Internet until putting a small game project on Greenlight a few months ago. While several comments were strong-worded and yet contained constructive criticism, most were Youtube-quality snarls with no content. Edgy stuff like "no. just no" or "can't believe I wasted 2 minutes on this video".

So I followed the constructive comments and made the game less visually jarring, updated its video and screens, but couldn't bring myself to relaunch it on Greenlight and get that initial massive influx of comments again.

Because it surprised me how deeply those initial comments hit. No Zen attitude would help me there. I'm no stranger to dishing out or taking criticism, but vile words aimed at a project I spent years slowly developing, alone, it was pushing the buttons I didn't know I had.

This is why I side with Phil Fish and other abrasive personalities, like "Vince D. Weller" who is making an indie RPG. These people are not cogs in a corporate machine like EA or other companies that treat games like software packages with fancy graphics. They sacrifice a lot to create something they genuinely care about.

And when the Internet hits them, the hit isn't dissolved over the larger entity of a corporation where you're just a background animator or a sound manager - it is squarely focused on the creator, who, in case of indie games, is often one specific person.

Glad to see you again, shiho! Might I ask what project you're working on?

Heya dejanzie Thanks for the kind words.

I have two - "magnum opus" RPG which was suspended while I worked on the smaller project, a Robotron-style 2D shooter with a story. The smaller project has proven to be a failure, so I've resumed work on the RPG very recently.

I kind of guessed it would be a Fallout 1 - 2 tribute Looks cool, I'll be watching

Depressing article, momgamer. It seems there are more high profile examples of this kind of behavior every week, and nobody knows what to do.

Way back yon in days of USENET, I used to respond to trolls by posting over-the-top messages in an over-the-top trollish style. I'd pack in as many random ad hominem attacks and as much discussion of structure rather than substance as I could muster. It even worked a couple of times. Most of the time it just wore me out creatively and emotionally. I do think publicly calling people out for what they're doing has a place. It may derail whatever context the trolls inject themselves into, but that was going to happen anyway if they were trolling properly.

Also, I just wanted to say that I had to look up a fair number of words on this page.

I really appreciate that some things, like youtube, allow you to downvote a comment, and enough downvotes hides the comment, and enough more gets it removed entirely.

I'm done calling the hate machine "trolls." They're not pretending to be jerks for a negative reaction. When they threaten someone's life, take down sites, hacking emails, post names/addresses/phone numbers... That's not trolling. That's crazy people trying to scare the hell out of someone. That's trying to get a person harmed IRL. And all it takes is one crazy guy to make that scenario a reality.

People who are harassed like this actually fear for their own safety and the safety of their families. One dude on Twitter isn't a problem. A hundred of them is. "Not feeding them" doesn't solve anything.

Stele wrote:

Internet anonymity isn't an excuse anymore. I see newspapers and various sites, like ESPN, using Facebook now for comments. So people are using their real names and still being complete jerks to each other.

^ Also, this.

Ceterum censeo Internet esse delendam.

willcode4food wrote:

You had me until the unfortunate Hitler comment. I and several million other Jews would jump at the chance to have a few choice words with him in the vein of Marcus Beer. And in my opinion, he would certainly deserve it. That truly was disappointing. And I'm not sure I can take your writing seriously anymore.

I am sorry but I have to agree with most of this.

Genocide and death/rape threats are not equivalent on any scale. Both are bad, but one is so much worse than the other it is almost unfathomable.

I like you momgamer, but this is a little too much for me.

I appreciate your points, and the calmness with which you've stated them. It never dawned on me that it would impact people this way, and I feel bad that people are upset. I guess I need to explain myself.

Hitler is not in there for a frivolous reason. That comment was put in there was to forestall the usual next step in this argument, where people start listing off people that they think it's okay to bully and threaten. Hitler is usually pretty high on that list. Would you feel better if I changed it to Stalin? Pol Pot? Jim Jones? Oppenheimer? My stepfather? Or maybe take it a little more old-school and go with Tomas de Torquemada? Or would that one anger Catholics?

Manta, I did not attempt establish any parity between getting death/rape threats and what whichever villain did. If there was any equating going on (which there shouldn't have been) it would be with the target, not the troll. My point was that I believe there is nothing any human being can do to ever deserve being hounded and threatened. And when I say nothing, I really mean nothing on any scale whatsoever.

This is not in any way a bid for sympathy, or that I'm not angry at evil and I don't think that people who do evil need to see stern consequences for their actions. If I had my druthers, I would have personally dragged Hitler to Nuremburg, rubbed his nose in what he did like a bad puppy, then pulled the lever on the gallows myself. The same holds true for my stepfather. From the posts here, many would concur with that. What I do not believe is that he needed to be hounded, threatened, belittled, or bullied in any of that process.

I have a question for you, willcode4food. Your first response says that you agree with everything up to those words. How do you say you agree with previous sentence, which states that no one ever deserves this, and then proceed to insist that a person deserves it? Or do I misunderstand you and you disagree with the entire paragraph?

And some general questions for everyone else. Say I go with you on this, and we allow that there is something out there that is bad enough to deserve this. Where do we draw the line, and who gets to draw it? A church? Some court or other? Do we legislate it? Or is it one of those everyone-draws-it-for-themselves things?

Who is it okay to abuse in this fashion? Maybe Pedophiles and drunk drivers, but not people who kill others in traffic accidents caused by texting? Murderers, yes, but people who commit manslaughter, no? Do we start when they're charged, or wait until after the trial?

I'm not being facetious here - I'm dead serious. My answers to those questions is why I hold this hard of a line on it. There is no way to make that call without risks of collateral damage. And when we decide to take the humanity from even one human, we make it just that much easier to take it from us all. I would much rather concentrate on concrete consequences and hold off on a hundred people who may or may not have "deserved" it to forestall it happening to the many people who do not.

To support you, momgamer, I've actually always been bothered by the cartoon status we attribute to Hitler's villainy. He was a man, which means his actions had a rationale to them. Even if someone's logic is broken, there is always a method to their madness. I think we ultimately do harm by simply labeling Hitler a monster and viewing him worthy of any negative treatment we can possibly give, because what does that then say about us? Aren't we supposed to be above such actions? Aren't we just rationalizing the same cruelty that he dealt to others, merely on a larger scale?

Once you harass someone, you basically stop viewing them as a human being. You view them as something less than human, and thus any treatment is viewed as being "deserved". At that point, the target's status as a victim is legitimized. It doesn't matter if their logic is unsound, the fact that people would wish them horrific harm is enough to prove that they are now a victim of abuse.

If you find the target deserving, then that means you do not respect that person's status as a human being with real and rational thoughts and feelings, which means you have elevated yourself above them. Is this not what causes the sort of harassment we see every day in the first place? Are you going to argue that it's okay for you but not for anyone else? If that's the case, we ought to rethink how we teach our children, because we've been teaching them the basics of morality wrong.

I'm not sure I like a world where two wrongs make a right.

I have a question for you, willcode4food. Your first response says that you agree with everything up to those words. How do you say you agree with previous sentence, which states that no one ever deserves this, and then proceed to insist that a person deserves it?

In the context of your post...

Some people have been crowing that it's a good thing Mr Fish has decided to get out of the games industry, but I disagree. Whether you liked Fez or his attitude or not, no one deserves this treatment, ever, for any reason. Not the innocent, not the guilty. Neither friend nor foe. I don't care if you're a man, a woman, or a fish. I don't care if you're black or white or plaid. Paul Christoforio, wide-bore douche-canoe that he presented himself to be, didn't deserve it.

... the sinning threshold has been established pretty well. "No one" here clearly means "people who are assholes". Something still within the background of your everyday life in our current civilization.

It doesn't LITERALLY mean "no one", and I doubt an impartial observer reading your post would interpret it that way. There are degrees of sin that call for corresponding degrees of punishment. There are people who are in prison for 1 year and people who are on death row. There are people who get traffic tickets and people who strap bombs to children.

So, following up with an immediate

Hitler wouldn't deserve it.

creates a jarring "sin spike" which does not mesh with the previously established context. Suddenly, indeed, one starts question the meaning of "no one" as it was used earlier, as the Hitler comment puts it in an entirely different, very literal, light.

I agree.

I am sorry if you think I unfairly made a leap in the equation, but Hitler is most famous for genocide as are many others you mentioned.

Where I draw the line on who deserves bullying is not the issue. Bullying is bad and shouldn't be done, but someone who murdered millions should really not be used in analogies other than for others who murdered millions.