Saturday, April 16, 2016

How I Deal With Harassment, Abuse, and Crazies In General.

Whenever I write about a topic that upsets me, I calm myself by illustrating it with royalty-free, reassuring stock photos.
"People are a problem." - Douglas Adams
I get a lot of requests for advice from young developers. Some of these questions regard advice on how to deal with being harassed online. Sometimes, these requests come from people actually experiencing harassment. This is a topic I've been afraid of writing about for some time. It tends to draw firestorms.

Also, it is an issue that affects other individuals WAYYYYY more than it affects me, and I don't want to be a callous buttinski around other peoples' troubles.

But I do get asked. And I do want to respond. I don't think young developers should value my feedback, yet they do. They certainly deserve to get fair warning about what awaits them. So.

This is how I, me personally, handle the threat of online harassment. Your mileage may vary. No, it WILL vary.

I Am a Public Figure

When I release a game or write something visible to the whole world, even a tiny something (Warning: Twitter counts!), I am acting as a public figure. A teeny tiny one, but a public figure nonetheless. Public figures have always received hate mail, abuse, threats, and messages from the unhinged, and they always will. Alas, the internet makes them much easier to deliver.

If you are a public figure, you will be abused eventually. Maybe mild insults. Maybe much worse. This abuse can spread to those around you. (Employers. Loved ones.) You should start thinking about this (and your tolerance for it) now.

This means that, unless something changes very drastically, from Day 1 of your life as a public figure, you should be thinking about your public image and how you will manage it. What is your mental resilience? How much abuse can you take?

Yeah, these chocolates are really reassuring, until some rando finds your street address and gets 100 boxes of them shipped to your house.
1. Harassment is real, and it has a real effect.

Being harassed is harmful. It's easy to say, "Just toughen up. Walk away from the screen." until you've actually experienced it.

Humans are tribal creatures, and tons of insults are upsetting to us on a deep lizard-brain level. Anonymous threats are terrifying, even if they aren't credible. Organized swarms of bad Steam/iTunes reviews can sink a vulnerable business. Organized swarms of angry people can cost you your job. And getting swatted (someone giving an anonymous call to your local emergency services to get a SWAT team sent to your house) might kill you.

By the way, these days, they don’t just come after you. Your family and loved ones will be considered targets as well. You may be capable of ignoring being called every dirty word in the book. But is your mom?

So complaining about harassment isn't just whining by sheltered nerds. The more visible and outspoken you are online, the higher the chance that a whirlwind will land on the heads of you and those you love. There is no chance of this changing in the foreseeable future. This is serious business. I am scared. Everything I do online is weighed against the risk of harassment.

Actually, that's another good reason why I haven't written about it. I don't want to be yet another sheep, bleating loudly in the middle of wolf-infested woods.

Actually, these macaroons look sort of gross. Also, who ever thought it'd be ok to charge two bucks for one small cookie?
2. I filter my input. Mercilessly.

I know a lot of creators of nerd culture. Game designers, writers, comic artists. Old, gnarled, crabby, battle-hardened pros with decades of experience. You'd have heard of a bunch of them.

They all have something in common. It never fails to amaze me, but a single mean email or bad review can send them into a spiral. Like, they'll still be obsessing over it days later. I think, "Wow. After all these years, they still won't let this stuff roll off of them?" And then it happens to me.

So we filter our inputs.

Consider this. Suppose you are, like all right-thinking people, a big fan of Taylor Swift.  So you want to write her a piece of kind fan mail, telling her how awesome she is.

She might read it. It's entirely possible. However, before it hits her iPhone, I bet it will have been filtered by at least one handler. (All of this is just my guess, of course. I would NEVER presume to speak for T-Swizzle.)

There is a super-good reason for these handlers. I've never met Taylor Swift, and I likely never will, but I do know one thing about her: She is a human being, so she is heir to all human vulnerabilities. If hit with the wrong email at the wrong time, she will be thrown off her game for a day, or three. If Taylor Swift is thrown off her game, major corporations lose millions of dollars. So they filter.

I do the same thing. Your messages to me are checked before I get them. I almost never read forums. I'll bet most public figures with any kind of profile do the same thing.

Some people are mean. Some people are crazy. Some people are both. I do not let people in these categories pour poison directly into my ear.
That's odd. I don't find this picture reassuring at all.
3. I remember that life is not fair.

Suppose someone gets angry at me for what I write. He gets a bunch of friends together and they give my games bad reviews on Steam and iTunes.

This is really mean and genuinely harmful, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it. They will cost me earnings, and I have no recourse. They walked up, punched me in the nose, and strolled away, and I could do nothing.

Meanwhile, anonymous hordes gather and attempt to cause real suffering to their targets (and their targets’ loved ones). Targets often chosen for silly, trivial, or even factually incorrect reasons and given punishment utterly out of proportion with what they might possibly have done (or not). There is no logic to it, no justice. Just mad lashing out. I have tried to understand it, and I have failed. It is simply maddening.

Life is not fair.

If there was a solution, I would be suggesting it. If I had ever heard or read an answer which would really work and not be a bandaid and would actually make things better, I’d be shouting it at the top of my lungs. But I got nothing. What can’t be changed must be endured.

So, when I get scared or angry (which is often), all I am able to do is attempt a measure of Zen acceptance. I mean, sure, I could rail about how mean the Internet is. But the Internet is what makes my business and awesome life possible in the first place, so it seems a little churlish to hate the Internet.

I will never be totally safe. There will always be fights. Afterward, I get up, dust myself off, get back to work, and try to make enough money to endure the occasional asshole assault.

Well, this is kind of reassuring, I guess. Bones are good. We need them to live.
4. I am very careful about poking the beast.

Over the last year, my writing output has dropped to almost zero. I'm still writing. I have a folder full of completed articles. I just don't post them, because of fear.

The main way to draw abuse is by saying things that anger people. Saying true things still makes people angry. In fact, true things often make people more angry.

When I chose to make a living as a creator, I picked a very difficult job. Very hard, long hours, with a minimal chance of success.

Suppose I also decide to try to change the world in some way. In this case, I picked another very difficult job. Very hard, long hours, with a minimal chance of success.

But there's a key difference between these two jobs. When I try to make stuff to make people happy, most people like me. Only mean, nasty people are out to genuinely hurt someone who only wants to share neat things with the world.

When I am trying to change the world, it's different. Human beings naturally hate and fear change. If you try to change the world, no matter how noble your cause, you will make some people angry.

Remember what I have egotistically termed Vogel's Iron Law of Anger: If you try to make people angry, intentionally or not, you will succeed.

Now what I am not (NOT NOT NOT) saying is that you should be quiet and never state your opinions. I am NOT saying that. In fact, as a citizen of a republic, I believe it is my sacred responsibility to occasionally speak up and try to nudge opinions.

However, a republic is not a suicide pact. What I AM saying is that I weigh my opinions very carefully. When I decide to speak up and try to change minds, I must ask: Am I currently ready to be shouted at? How much? Is the piece I am about to write a ticking time-bomb that will explode and destroy my career in five years? Then I pick fights that will not overly distract me from my first work: creating.

OK, my reassurance-evaluation algorithm is definitely on the fritz. Give me a second.
5. Beware Twitter. 

Twitter was designed, from Day 1, to enable any random person to send messages directly to any public figure. In other words, from Day 1, it was designed to be an abuse and harassment engine. It's not a bug. It's a feature. All that abuse and controversy is how it gets clicks and money.

They are a publicly traded, for-profit corporation, so they will never change in a way that brings them less money. In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they receive overwhelming pressure to not do so. Do not trust corporations to make the world a better place. They are not your pal. They do not love you. Beware.

6. I have obtained a weapon for self-defense, and I have become proficient in its use.

Ha. Ha. I'm just kidding.

Or am I?

I'm certainly not going to tell you here.

Online harassment has been around for a long time. Every year, it increases in prevalence, ingenuity, and raw damage. I see no reason why this trend will change. I suspect, five years from now, things will be even worse. I don't know what will happen or how I will deal with it when it does.

I've been lucky. I've never gotten to the point where I seriously considered calling the cops. Not yet. Not because I didn't want to, but because I knew it wouldn't help.

Because who are we kidding? They won't do anything. The Law's ability to deal with crimes that haven't happened yet is pretty much zero. (As so many who have gotten restraining orders against an abuser can sadly testify.)

However, the police might make a note in some database saying that SWAT teams heading to my house should be a little extra-careful. That's more than zero.

Look, I've gotten legit scary messages. I've had nights where I sat up on the couch, scared to death, listening for someone trying to break in. I have explored my gunpowder-based self-defense options.

(If you think I am being over the top here, please bear in mind that I am very intentionally leaving out the details of problems I have personally encountered, as I will NOT say anything publicly that might reawaken those problems.)

Writing about this topic, all I can do is shake my head slowly and take deep breaths and try to calm the anxiety. I tell myself that the person who actually comes to kill me probably won't bother to send a polite warning first. Weirdly, this doesn't make me feel better.

I don't know. I just do what I do and hope for the best. Does this count as advice?

GAH. OK. Time to wrap this up.
Scared Yet?

If you're thinking of being a public figure, you need to be ready for it. I guess I do have advice. If you are nervous now, you have taken it: Be nervous. It's OK. It's the rational path.

And that's all I have to say about it. This is a very unsatisfying way to end the article, but the online environment now is very rough, angry, and in a state of flux. I think things will get worse before they get better. (Spoiler warning: They will never get better.)

I respect the damage harassment can do. I don't blame the victim. I don't back down from every fight, but I am prepared for others to fight back. I am nice and respectful whenever possible. I remember some humans are mean, some are crazy, some are both, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. I also remember that the vast majority of people are quietly decent. Finally, I remember that being a public creator is a tough, noble path, and I am proud of it.

I hope you can pick something worthwhile from this heap of scraps. Good luck.


I also say things on Twitter.

Edit (4/17/16) - Replaced the sentence "In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they are legally prohibited from doing so." with something more accurate.


  1. Crazy. And unnerving that it has that ring of truth to it. Thank you for writing about this subject!

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  2. I saw this on hacker news and knew your name was familiar- I remember downloading the Exile 1 & 2 games on AOL for my Performa 476 (along with Realmz). Loved those games. Pretty interesting write up, thanks for sharing. I'm hoping there's been a lot more positive experiences in your career to outweigh the bad ones (although, the bad ones are certainly easier to remember).

  3. Another great article Jeff. Although, ironically, you may get abuse for releasing this article to the public! But please don't stop writing and airing your views, your such a great voice for the indie dev community.

  4. It's a shame there is no real way to combat this sort of thing. I like the idea of the internet being a free and open place; it's a shame that the cost of that is a total lack of accountability. There are always people out there that are going to mean we can't have nice things.

    1. Actually there is- a neural networking spam filter, that engages hostile communication and binds them by interacting in a long term deescalating way. The hostile elements are bound, Eliza-style might even get some insights, while the person interacting is shielded.

      The trouble is- when is hostility hostility- and when is it a immature person, trying to protect itself from the insults that is just reality? To a evangelical person, darwins evolution theory, though having evidence on its side, is a insult and would be filtered bubbled. So the resulting technology would tribalize society even more - and in that way, "hostile" persons with divergent views, are necessary needles to comfy bubbles, and actually preferable to radicalization.

    2. As an evangelical my self I agree with your point. But I think there is a huge difference between someone that wants to tell me how stupid I am for believing in a personal God and someone that is willing to start a campaign of harassment. Some of the harassment described above is going to have a real impact on someone's life not just hurt their feelings.

  5. Oh man, the message of this article really sucks... Did the bullies really won? I'm heartbroken to hear that :-( I think soon we will face more and more of such bad behavior across many industries, because 1) Internet is more popular, and 2) it gives more possibilities to obtain sensitive information, and 3) people are getting more and more radical and crazy. I feel the future will be decentralized, wall-gardened and more personal—instead of "me facing the whole wide web world", it will be "me facing people who I know, and their trusted friends, and maybe some strangers, but they will need to be allowed into my space first".

  6. "In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they are legally prohibited from doing so."

    I understand that's actually not true; there is no legal obligation on a publicly traded company to pursue profit above all other considerations, and no legal prohibition against taking a path that reduces profit.. It's an idea that grew out of the "shareholder value" fad in the eighties, but there's no law behind it; publicly traded companies have a number of considerations of which profit is but one.

    1. While it's somewhat incestuous to reply to oneself, here are a couple of jumping off points regarding this pernicious, damaging myth:


    2. Thank you for this note. Soon, I will try to do some research on this and add a note clarifying what I said.

      - Jeff Vogel

    3. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if they were happy to watch Twitter continue to be a horrible experience for women in the pursuit of profit, but it's not out of any legal obligation; the profit is more than motive enough :)

  7. My primary means of defense is to make sure that what I share is as nerdy as possible.

  8. My primary means of defense is to make sure that what I share is as nerdy as possible.

  9. Good article, I liked it. Don't feed trolls :)

  10. Respect, Jeff; thank you for posting this.

  11. Great post as always, Jeff. I did want to send you a link that covers one of the claims you made:

    "In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they are legally prohibited from doing so. "

    This, as far as my reseach (and graduate school studies) have shown, is a myth. It's certainly an ideology about how corporations SHOULD be run, but there is no legal mandate. To quote the Washington Post's 2013 story "Company Town's Decline Reflects New Mantra: Shareholders First":

    " The mantra that executives and corporate board members have a duty to maximize shareholder value has become so ingrained that many people assume it must be codified somewhere.

    But legal experts say there is no statute in state or federal law requiring corporations and executives to maximize shareholder value. Blair, the professor at Vanderbilt, said that courts in fact allow wide latitude for managers and directors when it comes to business decisions.

    "Let me be clear that this pressure comes from the media, from shareholder advocates and financial institutions in whose direct interest it is for the company to get its share price to go up," Blair said in testimony before a House hearing in 2008, "and from the self-imposed pressure created by compensation packages that provide enormous potential rewards for directors and managers if stock prices go up."

    1. (actual link not provided because it's behind a paywall and can only access through Proquest - sorry!)

  12. This makes for pretty depressing reading, and I think you've done a great job posting it.

    As to your games: You keep making them and I'll keep buying them.

  13. Even if I weren't scared by death threats, I would be annoyed by the threats.

    You say you have no solution, but you found a way to improve your personal situation. It is to filter input. Filtering input has been very productive for me.

    P.S. Sorry for the nickname, 'Unknown'. My nickname is `Unknown` because I deleted my google+ profile to protect myself from wolves.

  14. I enjoy reading your articles, Jeff, even when I don't agree with them. I like seeing how other people think.

    A long time ago I was attacked on USENET; the person attacking me (who I didn't know, and hadn't interacted with until he started attacking me) tried to get me fired. Some people at my company backed me up, some didn't understand what was going on and didn't like the negative press. So I get what you're saying. Keep doing what you feel you need to do, but please keep creating!

    - a long time fan/customer (Exile: Escape From The Pit!)

  15. In some countries, like some european countries, twitter harrasment can lead to jail. that's a little (little) reassurence on the matter. But this thing you're talking about goes with every public person (game designers, artists, politicians...) and is sad. And is sad, the same way big companys harrass little enterpreneoures, like the youtube thingies, with the Fair Use and the DMCA. And this is only entertainment. Politics is worse, and people do less. It's sad that "public person" sometimes means "private harassment". it will need to be "public harassment", don't?

  16. If someone says to your face, "I'm gonna kill you", it's very unlikely that they'll actually try to follow through. If they wanted to do that they'd just do it instead of warning you. That's my real life experience.

    I'm quite sure the same works for public figures online. People are trying to get inside your head, not hurt you. By making a post confirming that they succeed, is counterproductive. If you want it to stop, appear calm even if your heart is racing.

    A good way to learn to let internet talk flow off you like water off a duck's back is to join RPG Codex. There's a lot of critical thinkers there but next to no trolls, though ofc sometimes criticism that strikes true hits the hardest.

  17. Hi Jeff,

    My experiences being indie game dev confirm it - most of people will want you to succeed (well, with as little cost for them as possible - preferably 75% discout sale :-D).

    Once in a while you meet this crazy idiot who will just split hatred on you and your product. There is little you can practically do - the best approach seem to be to disengage and wish him well (other people will read it online).

    However, you said it might escalate in next year. Why you think is that? Twitter already exists, reviews are online. What else could be there?

  18. It is just what I was looking for and quite thorough as well. Thanks for posting this, I saw a couple other similar posts but yours was the best so far. The ideas are strongly pointed out and clearly emphasized. 

  19. The problem is that like a lot of people, when you say "telling people true things makes them mad" what you really mean is "telling people my opinions as if they were the only truth of reality makes them mad" to which the only reply is: no duh.

    For example, your comment on Alex St John's "taunting the world." I read his article in its entirety. I thought it was enlightening and an interesting take from someone who loves working in the video games industry. You saw it, apparently, as a taunt and a 'mess.'

    The problem, as I said, comes when you try to pretend your opinion is how things are, instead of just how you see things.


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  22. This is depressing, but true. I learned the hard-way when I was casually playing a online multi-player game and one of my teammates decided he didn't like my style of play and managed to dox me and threatened to call in a bomb-threat to my workplace. He actually mentioned my real workplace so I had to call the police and let my workplace know. On top of that he also threatened to come over in 3 days and do harm to me. I didn't sleep that night after erasing all information about me online that I could, and then it took me a week or two to even go back playing that game until I felt I was safely anonymous. Nothing ever did happen, but it sucks when you are on the receiving end in that moment.

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