|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 AdamsI 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.|
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?|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.