I’m a huge fan of the internets. I’m also a huge fan of community and the awesome power and influence they can wield when they are inspired by a cause. I can personally testify to witnessing firsthand the power of these communities when they rise to the cause to do good on the internets. I’ve donated money to dozens of causes — getting people to conferences to help their professional development, helping replace a stolen laptop, offsetting the prohibitive costs of medical care for a father, raise money for cancer victims, digging wells for clean water in underdeveloped countries. It doesn’t even have to be a philanthropic effort for people to do good. Kickstarter is an amazing funding site for creative projects. I’ve probably backed a dozen ideas, some of which have been funded. It’s an opportunity to bring attention to people and projects that are doing good work, and to help fund those causes that speak to you. There is a very real power in the collective voice.
But we all know there are trolls on the internets. Those loathsome lonely lurkers who offer nothing of value but wait to bait the general masses. And they can do bad all by themselves. I have only to mention the Oatmeal’s Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad to highlight the latest twisted example of douchbaggery on the internets that has actually, in a weird twist, raised over $211,000 for two non-profits because the community took up the cause and gave over ten times the amount he initially asked for. (Also, he gets back a bit of his own here.) In spite of a losing battle, the lawyer troll cannot let go of his fifteen minutes of fame and continues to threaten pursuing litigation. I guess haters gotta hate.
What about the community that rises up against an organization? Last week, for example, the USOC sent a cease and desist letter to the online knitting community, Ravelry, to put an end to Ravelympics — a celebration of knitting while watching the Olympic Games. Not enough to tell them to stop, the letter took a swipe at the foolishness of the knitting event, which had the effect of angering 2.2 million tech-savvy members to respond with outraged emails, tweets, and comments on the US Olympic Team’s Facebook page — not to mention the personal Twitter account of the sender of the cease and desist. The USOC then tried to apologize, and actually further angered the Ravelry community, for which they apologized a second time. Clearly this would have gone much more smoothly had the USOC considered the consequences of angering a large, closely knit community that isn’t afraid to speak up and defend themselves.
But what about the community attack so overwhelming that it becomes threatening and ugly? What happens when the community actively targets a single person trying to make a difference? A community so wrapped up in their end game of destroying a person that they don’t think (or care) about the fallout? Hate crimes of gender bias and outrage? The frightening reality is that hostility and overreactions on the internet are swift, volatile and scary — and have, more than once, crossed the line into real life (Kathy Sierra being one of the first high profile targets of online hostility toward women). Sadly, the latest example of this all too frequent story is currently playing out on the internet in the form of one Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist pop culture critic whose Kickstarter proposal to explore the tropes and stereotypes of women in gaming caught the attention of online gamers. She’s been intimidated and harassed in a sustained misogynistic and hate ridden coordinated attack. And it’s really ugly. Ugly as in, a gamer created a “punch Sarkeesian in the face” game where you can hit her until she bruises and bleeds. Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks) created a Storify that documents her confrontation with the creator on Twitter. John McGrath’s post Gamerdoodz and the Sarkeesian problem is critical reading. (UPDATE: After I wrote this, I discovered this article on Jezebel that talks about the Daniel Tosh episode and the art of comedy and rape jokes.) And it is fitting to note @Kissane’s thoughtful post on How to Kill a Troll outlines how we can do better. With love.
A community that uses its power for good is a beautiful thing. But engaging in bullying, terror and death threats is as ugly as it comes. And saying nothing? As I’ve said before, to be silent, to stand by and watch while others are bullied and abused, is unconscionable.
We are better than this, people. Stand up and be counted. For good.