Below is a heavily reworded excerpt from an e-mail I had to send to Josh Flanagan at iFanboy last winter after blowing my stack for something like the third time that month. I don’t know if the studies connecting internet use and depression are true, but I know as a matter of settled fact that the web is not good for me, and spending time dealing with anonymous opinions has a corrosive effect on my soul. I (used to?) have periodic flare-ups when the acid-spitting assholes in the ether would put me on the burner until my fingers were melting the keys; I would get so mad that these nitwits were ruining my playground and decide that if I couldn’t get them to stop dishing it out, it was my duty to at least make them take it too. I had completely forgotten what precipitated this e-mail until I looked it up; as it turns out, this one was not because I got into an unprofessional fight with one of the site’s users or accidentally started a dust-up with a comic book creator, but rather because I heard one of my bosses say something I didn’t like on his own podcast, so I started railing against him on the site he owned that employed me.
(I’m someone’s dad.)
That’s what I get like when it comes over me. At no point did it even occur to me, “You actually know this person. His number is in your phone if you have a problem with him.” I heard the thing I disagreed with on his web site, I was at his web site, so I banged “NO! WRONG, STUPID!” onto his web site right then and there. I’m a delight.
Luckily, I have- after trial and error and error and trial and trial and error- learned the stimuli that turn me into the Hulk and slowly conditioned myself to avoid them. I know that I can only spend a certain amount of time, and a certain kind of time, online. It has worked really well for me, except for the part where I work online for every moment the sun is shining.
I take it one day at a time.
In addition to the glowing impression it makes on the people who are close to me, I think this weakness of temperament also gives me more insight than I’d like to have into the inner life of my foe, the internet troll. Troll Town is like the strip clubs in East Saint Louis: I don’t want to go there, but I know how you get there from here.
The rule at iFanboy—the conventional wisdom among all right-thinking people—was “don’t feed the trolls.” I don’t need to tell you this. I did need to tell me this, over and over. I was pretty good at following the letter of that law once I represented someone else’s site, though the spirit of the law was another matter entirely and I faltered like clockwork. I got the logic behind it: these people are lashing out, and if you don’t provide them with the reaction they crave they will wither and head out in search of fresher blood. I got it. I just thought it was bullshit.
Some person online would come into my house and start turning over furniture, just being awful, and for a while I’d just shake my head and pity them for having to be that asshole every day. (Do you ever think about that instead of responding, by the way? Imagine what the world must feel like all day to someone who carries that bile around in his gut.) The longer it went on, though, the more the voice in my head I shouldn’t listen to would hiss insistently, “So… why exactly does a stranger get to try and ruin your day without anyone calling him on it? He just gets to piss on your shoes and go about his merry way while you stoicly walk around all day covered in the smell of him and squishing when you walk? He kicks you into the dumps, and in return you adjust your ‘Kick Me’ sign and change the subject? How does that work? Does that sound like the way this should work?”
So I started getting into it with people. I started to turn around, poke my nose in and say, “Hey! You don’t just get to walk around being a stupid racist asshole today,” or whatever it was. I can remember one time in particular when this little cuss got on my last nerve and I consciously decided, “I am going to log into Twitter and chew out this little prick until he thinks twice about showing his face online to pay his gas bill.”
And I made an important discovery: it is a terrible idea to do that.
It’s not cathartic. There is no triumph. You still have your baseline anger at the trolling, but then venting your anger at the troll just gets you a private dance. As it turns out, what you get out of engaging is not so much “satisfaction at having brought justice to the internet” as it is “a three-day heated conversation with a stranger you never wanted to know anything about in the first place.”
Yes, yes, you shouldn’t sink to their level and life is too short and the poor will be with you always and blah blah & so on. Never mind all that high-minded stuff! It will never fill the hole they’re trying to make inside you; it will only widen it. You cannot deal with a viper by wrestling with it.
Well, I mean, you can. But you’ll die, from all the poison. So, we learned that.