There are times when being ‘out there’ isn’t so great. Recently, I’ve been talking with fellow writers about their online experiences and repeatedly heard tales of two online creatures that are at minimum annoying and at worst traumatizing. What are these virtual animals? Trolls and cyberbullies.
These invisible beasts aren’t the same. They’re motivated by different goals and appear in the writer’s virtual life for different reasons. Unchecked, virtual attacks can do more than soak up chunks of time and patience. They can damage an author’s reputation, spirit, and creativity.
Troll attacks aren’t personal. The troll seeks to disrupt an online community or ongoing conversation. The more positive or meaningful the troll perceives the online environment to be; the more motivated they are to damage it. Ironically, it’s for this reason that the presence of a troll in an author’s online community is an indicator that the author has created a cohesive, vital online community.
Most everyone agrees that trolls exist. Authors I spoke with were comfortable discussing trolls and the consequence of trolling behavior. Even the self-proclaimed trolls were willing to discuss their behavior. “I love to make people dance,” said one, laughing, when describing the enjoyment she got out of tormenting strangers online. “It’s hilarious how upset they get.”
When I asked another what she got out of disrupting people’s conversations, she told me about her fake profile, giggling as said she didn’t really know. “They don’t have to stay there (in the online community),” she reasoned. “Whatever I do to them is their own fault.”
Arguing with a troll is not likely to be successful. The committed troll operates under a cloak of deception and truth is irrelevant. In fact, truth and openness are contrary to the troll’s persona and goals. Arguing with a troll gives them additional satisfaction because the argument is proof of their success. What to do? Delete their comments and move on. Followers in your online community will recognize the troll for what they are and generally, the troll’s long-term effect is minimal.
For authors, trolls are a hassle, but not as harmful as cyberbullies. Cyberbully attacks are personal. The cyberbully engages in intentional, targeted harassment and seeks to cause direct psychological pain. Authors who’ve been cyberbullied don’t need to be told the emotional pain caused by virtual harassment is equal to ‘real life’ bullying. For the working writer, who must be online 24/7, it may be an even greater source of distress. The cyberbully can attack any time and through multiple channels.
Authors I spoke with told me about being anxious in the morning because they were afraid to see what chaos had been created overnight. Those with day jobs spoke about day-long anxiety as they worried about what they’d find when they logged in at lunch or during breaks. Knowing that this constant damage was being done by someone they knew, a so-called friend or relative, complicated things. If they rebuffed them, asked for support from others who also knew the bully or blocked the disrupter, other so-called friends and relatives connected to the bully would minimize the victim’s pain and professional damage and step in to ‘resolve’ the ‘misunderstanding.’
Cyberbullying is one of those things that happens but nobody wants to talk about. Writers I spoke with were hesitant to admit it’d happened to them, and those who did share their experiences were reluctant to talk about the details. It became clear to me that the harm done to the writer’s reputation is easier to deal than the personal pain caused by toxic shame.
‘Toxic’ shame isn’t the same as guilt that comes from choosing to do something later regretted. Toxic shame occurs when a person has been exposed in a way they weren’t prepared for or in a way that’s too intimate. In this case, the so-called friend or relative has invaded an author’s public space in a way that intentionally humiliates and crosses boundaries. This isn’t the same as basic stress. Toxic shames creates feelings of inadequacy and lack of emotional and intellectual safety. This combination of mental wounds not only weakness confidence but also stunts creativity.
My sense, if it feels like bullying it probably is. Trust yourself. Don’t try to reason with the bully. They know they’re causing harm. Don’t waste time trying to figure why the person is doing it. Why they’re doing it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they’re intentionally hurting you. Talk about how the situation with one or two close friends and silently block the bully on all social media. Be patient with yourself and understand healing from the attack may take time.
These virtual beasts aren’t going to do anyone the favor of staying in their invisible liars. Acknowledging what these creatures are, understanding what they want, and having a plan of action for when battling with them can be a useful tool in an author’s kit.