'Will you all shut up?!' by @mdvfunes CCBY
‘Will you all shut up?!’ by @mdvfunes CCBY

It has been a difficult two years.

The last incident left me ready to start pressing that button 24 hours a day.

'One of those days' by Michael Branson Smith CCBY
‘One of those days’ by Michael Branson Smith CCBY

I wrote a pointy finger blog post. It did not help me feel better. I decided it was time to go. I had visited the internet, and it just had not lived up to its expectations.

Meme by @mdvfunes CCBY
Meme by @mdvfunes CCBY (see sources)

The cartoon that opens this post is populated with statements that have been directed at me during the last 2 years. I have followed the usual advice ‘don’t feed the troll’ and have remained silent…except when I haven’t.  When I haven’t I have tried to be smart. This has not made me feel better. I had had enough and I saw no solution but to leave.


I have written before about the idea that my troll is your friend and vice versa. What I have not included in those reflections is the temporal dimension, people shift roles on a dime. All of the comments on the cartoon come from a supposedly supportive community that values learners who  create own path – so difference of opinion should be welcomed. Yes, I thought that too.

The rest of this post is about the wonderful people who convinced me to stay and who helped me learn that it is really possible to see the troll as a gift. 

A lot of the advice we hear about how to handle unwanted attention on the web hinges on silence. We are supposed to never respond, as what that troll wants is to engage you. You also hear many people saying that this just does not work. And it has not worked for me.

When we are not feeding the troll online we are feeding him or her in our minds, unless we are able to find a way to ignore hearing hateful things. I cannot ignore being told I wished somebody’s death when I did not. It is not funny, it is hurtful.

The advice that worked

My first port of call was Alan,

“It is almost impossible to see hidden messages in posts without having the full context. Actually, without being fully immersed in the mess. Well, to have a full understanding of everyone’s true intent might require deity like powers. We all have different degrees of contextual understanding.” Alan Levine

This helped a little. It is possible that people behave badly simply because they do not have the full context of the situation. Yet I was still stuck on the intent of the commenters; convinced they intended to hurt me. Maybe they did, maybe they did not. The point is that I felt terrible and wanted to leave.

Ask me on a good day and I still am with Nick Bilton when he says about social media use and technology:

“So does the good outweigh the bad? For me, yes. And I think it will in the future too, as newer technologies force us to grapple with even bigger ethical quandaries.”

He further says: how we engage online is a personal choice – and we will always find the good the bad and the ugly in it.

As people reached out to me privately after the last incident, I also learnt that others notice bad behaviour and reach out. The good did outweigh the bad in this situation; two people behave in ways I disagree with and many many more than two help me learn from the bad situation. The web is not bad or good, it is what we do with it that has any ethical claim.

And then I found Heather Armstrong.

Celine introduced me to Heather Armstrong. I would never have read or listened to Heather. As she explains on the video, she is responsible for the ‘blight that is mummy blogging’. Our worlds are just so different, and yet I can use this post to say thank you for the words that changed it all.

Alan had said something useful about context and he also said you have to work with what is there, you can’t break the spell(hence the title of this post) and what is more,

“In the end, like our crazy politics here, we talk as if we are having dialogue, but people operate from their world views, and worldviews rarely do dramatic changes.” Alan Levine

This left my idealistic self very unhappy. And the next morning Heather happened.

She has been dealing with the very worst of humanity for blogging about her kids. Did you get that? She is writing about her kids. I thought my work in open education was tame, but how can you get into trouble for blogging about your kids? It turns out that mummy blogging is highly controversial. Some of the comments she reads out at the start of the video, make mine sound like the playground.

Yet she has found a way to forgive. She has found a way to really let go. What stayed with me was this: be proud that ugly comments hurt you, they tell you you are human and connecting with heart. Move away from negativity, you have no point to prove. Imagine the person commenting is sitting on the other side of the table from you – she uses visualisation to help counteract the dehumanising effect of text mediated interaction. Use your mind’s eye to imagine them right there. This will keep you human. This is the gift, of course. I am hurting and yet I can keep an open heart, not give back hatred. These are my takeaways but, particularly if this issue has touched you, settle back and listen to Heather.

“There is deep truth in the old idea that people are able to say these things because they are looking at a screen full of words, not directly at the face of the person they’re about to say a terrible thing to.” Jeff Atwood

I have followed Jeff for a long time. He is a smart man. He writes well. He is funny. The title of the post above is ‘They must be monsters’ and it is about this very thing, what makes us treat others in ways that would be unthinkable if they actually were on the other side of the table? His argument is insightful, supported by much psychological evidence I know of and aligned to my spiritual beliefs (so it must be right, eh? 😉 ). It is also too complex for me to do it justice here. Go and read the post. Here I want to highlight only what helped me in this difficult time.

“I’ve only had a little taste of this treatment, once. The sense of being “under siege” – a constant barrage of vitriol and judgment pouring your way every day, every hour – was palpable. It was not pleasant. It absolutely affected my state of mind.” Jeff Atwood

Yes, it has affected my state of mind. And yet, he adds, that ‘there’s no better way to teach empathy than to practice it, in the most difficult situations.’ Yes, roger that. All I was doing in my rage was escalating the hate. It may have been via Jeff that Stephanie came on my screen. Somebody else who has suffered with trolling,

” Maybe people are just shitty. Or maybe it’s the internet’s fault. Or maybe people are just shitty and it’s the internet’s fault. Regardless, it’s time to resurrect the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. ” Stephanie Wittels Wachs

I really get this. I took a deep breath as I remembered that this is my aspiration in life and that I get hurt by others because I care for others. On reading Jeff’s post  (with some harrowing examples of our lack of humanity online) I had to say with him, I read  ‘these words that another human being typed […], just typed, and something breaks inside me. But rather than pitting ourselves against each other out of fear, recognize that the monster who posted this terrible thing is me. It’s you. It’s all of us.’

I hope this post shows how this is so in my own behaviour. I read some things I did not like, people behaved in ways I did not like. I kept saying to those who were trying to help me ‘I am scared’. My fear was turning ‘them’ into monsters, and monsters are fair game. How could I get my own back? A negative spiral that could end only in one place.

If people who have had much much worse treatment than me could find their compassion and find freedom to be online through it, maybe I could try that?

I love how Heather sums it up: Block with impunity and kindness , honour your ‘pisstivity,’ imagine them across the table, and wish them well.

“Understand that part of the reason I want to read and feel these things is to appreciate just how damn good most of us have it. We are so fortunate. So very, very fortunate that we simply forget. We forget all the time. We forget to be there for our fellow humans, all of us on this tiny rock hurtling through space, 4.3 light years from the next star.” Jeff Atwood

I listened to Lindy West  on This American life and she says: “It seems to me that it is our silence that the trolls want.” Others say it is our anger. Others say it is acknowledgement. In looking for advice, I noticed that any and all of these accounts are attributing intent to somebody else. We simply do not know what ‘they’ want and most of the time attribute intent wrongly anyway. Perhaps if I stop directing my attention to ‘them’ and look in the mirror instead, I can genuinely stop feeding the troll or, more accurately, I can start feeding compassion to the troll. Perhaps this is all we all need.

I made a diagram to help me remember,  whilst my idealistic self keeps looking for a way to break the spell – I believe change is possible and lies not in the personal but the systemic and there are smart people studying the ways in which communities could  thrive. Maybe the answer is something beyond the web and involving our use of space to relate. But that is another story.

We feed the troll
“Feeding compassion to our trolls” by @mdvfunes CCBY


Christina Hendricks brought to may attention ‘Aristotle on Trolling’ and whilst it is a light hearted look at the idea ‘in the style of Aristotle’ it speaks some interesting truths,

But blogs and boards and forums and comments sections are where the troll dwells primarily and for the most part. For these are weak communities, and anyone may be part of them: and so their good is easily destroyed. Hence the saying, ‘Trolls <are> not to be fed’. But though everyone knows this, everyone does it; for the desire to be right on the internet is natural and present to all. Rachel Barney

What was most relevant to this post is the idea of thinking of ‘trolling’ as a verb. This may help us see it as a more ephemeral action that we can all fall victim to rather than the more pointy finger idea of ‘the troll’ as something we are at an identity level.