Sometimes When You Win, You Lose
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.