I belong to a group of mom bloggers and it is not uncommon for one of us to Facebook the rest of us and ask for "nice comments" on a post to offset the vitriol being vomited upon the comment section by trolls.
Not sure what trolls are? They're those shadowy internet lurkers who visit blogs seemingly with the sole intention of shredding the blogger. They take issue with the content, the POV, the writing style, sometimes even the gender of the writer. From a mere 1000 words or so, they assign twisted personality traits to the blogger and use the anonymity of the commenting forum to eviscerate a stranger.
They especially love to attack bloggers for expressing strong opinions on, God forbid, their own blogs! Here's a love note Elizabeth Aquino received on her blog, a moon, worn as if it had been a shell:
"Elizabeth, I’m not in a position to judge your 'niceness.' But from your articles I can discern very clearly that you are a self-obsessed, self-absorbed, self-interested, narrow minded person. That is, if the case doesn’t assist Elizabeth in some way or improve Elizabeth’s lot in some fashion, Elizabeth isn’t interested in it. "
It's worth mentioning that, despite her self-absorption and narrow-mindedness, Elizabeth raises three kids, one of whom has a severe seizure disorder.
An example from my own blogging life: in response to my essay that ran in Salon in March 2011, various trolls diagnosed me with an "Axis II personality disorder," accused me of being a "divorced vaginate" and a "horrible mother" and urged me to get "non-supportive, challenging therapy."
I'm confident about my writing, and I know, after a few cyber-public floggings, to brace myself before I scan the comment thread, but still. Watching people who don't even know you stomp all over your integrity can leave you feeling like a frail kid cornered by schoolyard bullies.
What is it about cyberspace that makes some commenters feel they have the right to rip a blogger into teeny-tiny pieces? I'm not talking about those engaging in critical thinking, or respectfully disagreeing, or inviting civil dialogue. I'm all for that.
I'm talking about rabid, mad-dog commenters who hurl vicious, sadistic barbs at bloggers. Or trolls who stand atop their high, sanctimonious horses issuing judgments -- judgments like these, received by my friend Jenny Heitz on her hilariously spot-on Beyond the Brochure post "Perfect Mommy Syndrome."
"Sounds to me like you're feeling guilty about your choices after seeing parents who might be making better ones. Maybe if you were confident in the way you're parenting your children, you wouldn't even notice what everyone else is doing.... A little soul-searching might be in order to figure out what the REAL issue is."
Now, even if you did have some "soul-searching" to do, would snide spitballs spur your motivation?
The Psychology of Cyberspace
John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, has written extensively about the psychology of cyberspace in his online book called just that: Psychology of Cyberspace. Drawing from psychoanalytic theory and other psychological orientations, Suler breaks down the reasons why cyberspace invites conflict and what kinds of people and circumstances stir the maelstrom.
Suler believes that cyberspace is a "psychological extension" of a person's internal landscape. Hours spent online trigger unfinished business and subconscious processes "that can alter sensory experience and can even create a dream-like state of mind."
Suler has some interesting theories linking certain personality types with certain online behaviors. For instance:
- Do antisocial personalities exploit the wild west quality of the internet in order to hack?
- Do narcissists use the internet to gather throngs of admirers?
- Do dissociative people use the internet to create multiple online personalities?
- Do compulsives use the internet as a means to gain control over their lives?
- Do histrionic people see the internet as a forum for theatrical displays in order to get attention?
I'm a PhD or two short of being able to to grasp fully the more nuanced concepts of Suler's theories -- stuff about transferring unfinished business with parents on to the computer itself, which is then exacerbated by transferring unfinished business onto blog posts -- but I think I can adequately convey a few of his basic ideas.
The Disinhibition Effect
Online, people feel less inhibited and more able to express themselves. This can lead to "benign disinhibition," in which people display acts of generosity, for example, sending prayers or even donations to those afflicted by terminal illnesses.
But the kind of disinhibition I'm exploring in this post is the toxic kind, what Suler refers to as "simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all."
My blogging friend Lori Day, perhaps one of the most genteel and refined voices in the blogosphere, shares two of the particularly egregious comments she has received: "Lori, you c**nt," and "wake up from your gynocentric stupor."
I ask you: does calling a woman a c**t invite conversation or shut it down?
How Does Calling a Blogger a C**nt Happen?
The "you don't know me" quality of the internet allows people to dissociate, to separate their words from who they are. "When acting out hostile feelings," writes Suler, "the person doesn't have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors 'aren't me at all.'"
I Can't Tell My Boss To Go F**k himself, So I'll Tell You
Suler explains that the internet levels the playing field. Regardless of social status, race, and gender, everyone has a voice. It's not easy standing up to an authority figure, and if you want to keep your job, you'd better mince your words. But online, says Suler, authority is "minimized. People are much more willing to speak out or misbehave." Combine this with someone who grew up silenced by an oppressive or abusive parent, and the potential for unbridled trolliness soars.
Of course, if you want your insults to be taken seriously, be sure to check your spelling. My blogger friend William Quincey Belle devoted a post to the troll who responded to one of his posts with "Your an idiot."
Suler states that certain personality types vary in their tendencies towards inhibition or expression. "People with histrionic styles tend to be very open and emotional. Compulsive people are more restrained." Suler explains that the disinhibition effect interacts with personality variables, creating an online behavior pattern that is more exaggerated than one's offline behavior.
The type well known to all of us who hang out on blog comment threads is the "oppositional personality." These are the people who take issue with virtually anything that is written. "They struggle with underlying feelings of hostility that can be expressed passively or indirectly, via the act of disagreeing," writes Suler. "They may also need to oppose others as a way to firm up their somewhat fragile identity or to boost self-esteem by proving themselves right and others mistaken."
May I give you an example? From a Beyond the Brochure mommy troll to another commenter (when trolls are not sated after chomping on the writer, they go after their fellow commenters):
"How much did you research your CHOICE to inject toxins in your child's blood veins? Trust me I know WAY MORE on the topic than you do! So yeah, I am a better parent if I took the time to research fully and not just take doctors (who are human and failable -- um, that would be fallible, Madam Troll-- and many are just as ignorant and ill informed as many parents they are leading on) on their word seeing as they have the pharmaceutical reps in their back pocket! And what do you know about homeschool? Except that you would be a terrible homeschooling parent. Get a life lady, you have no clue about the world around you!"
Oh, what fun to be on the Hot Lunch Committee with her!
Suler states that oppositional types are drawn to the "intellectually contentious atmosphere" of online discussion. And in a chaotic, unmonitored environment where it's impossible to read facial expressions or hear tone-of-voice, oppositional tendencies may ramp up.
While insult-hurlers are merely obnoxious, trolls who threaten may actually be sociopathic. I was stunned to read an article in The Guardian reporting on women writers who routinely receive rape and death threats from commenters. Several female journalists have gone public with the outrageous threats they have received in an attempt to get online discussion moderators to establish stricter commenting policies and boot those who are being abusive.
So How Do We All Just Get Along?
Psychotherapist Kali Munro offers tips to resolve conflict online. Here are some of them:
Don't respond right away
Squelch that urge to fire back a response setting the troll straight. Wait 24 hours before responding.
Read the post again later
Sometimes your first reaction is colored by how you're feeling at the time. Read it later and see if it could have been written with a different tone from the one you originally heard.
Choose whether or not you want to respond
If the post is inflammatory and the person appears to be a bully, the best strategy is to ignore him/her.
Use "I statements"
Anyone who's been in couples therapy knows how to do this one: "I feel vs. "You did blahblah..."
Choose your words carefully
Because the person can't see you and must rely entirely on what you've written, choose your words carefully. Imagine how the other person might "hear" what you say.
Start and end your post with validating statements
This one doesn't need explaining.
My New Commenting Policy
While I cannot control the comment threads on other sites that run my pieces, I can control them on this site, and writing this post has spurred me to do just that. So here are my guidelines:
1. This blog contains subject matter related to divorce and custody issues, two hot-button topics that may trigger some people. If you feel that divorce is just plain wrong, and that all divorced people are low-life vermin, you are kindly invited to go elsewhere.
2. Please keep your comments civil. Respectful disagreement and intelligent debate are fine, but remarks that are abusive and accusatory are not, and will be deleted.
3. Spelling and punctuation corrections are welcome.
One thing about my Perils of Divorced Pauline commenters: they are a smart, articulate, and well-mannered lot. I value all of you, my wonderful blogging and commenting community, more than I can say. I don't think I've had to deep-six a comment yet.
But you never know who may be lying in wait...
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