Online Hate

In a recent Jester’s Trek post, Ripard Teg wrote:

Let’s be blunt: a few of you out there — not many, but a few — are disgusting, sadistic grotesques lacking the most basic human qualities of empathy and compassion.

But go read the whole thing. And while you’re at it, go read the whole Penny Arcade Report post he links.

Seriously, read them both straight through. What I write next assumes you’ve read them.

I’m really glad Ripard wrote this post. Speaking as someone who has done “public” stuff–public speaking, public writing, etc.–in my professional life, I can confirm that there is something broken in how some people perceive their relationship with any sort of public figure, no matter how small or insignificant. The relationship between such a person–whether a blogger, a Space Celebrity, an actor, a columnist, a business leader, whatever–and a typical viewer/reader/listener/consumer has a creepy asymmetry that many don’t like to talk about. Partly because it benefits the public figure, and partly because talking about it weirds out the average fan.

A public figure (like yourself) may be read every day, or every week, or whatever, by someone “out in the crowd” for months. Over time, that person comes to “know” you. Well, we know that it’s only partly true; but at least in *their* mind they begin to think they know who you are as a person. But you don’t know them, do you? Sure, social media and things like forums and comment sections somewhat level that playing field compared to the way it was in past generations, but not really as much as some might hope. And so total strangers will break social boundaries with a “celebrity” because they feel they have a level of intimacy with the person that the person could not possibly feel they have back. Barack Obama and Jay Leno are in a person’s living room day after day, but the feeling that there’s a personal connection is false and one-way. Not that public figures don’t benefit from that misperception.

But it means sometimes people take liberties in their interactions. Most of the time those liberties aren’t a big deal; they’re just “weird” feeling. Sometimes they’re a little flattering, but mostly their just…odd. However, once in a while they are downright evil. People sometimes think that because they know your media persona, and are aware of the ideas that persona puts forth, that they somehow know the real you and are able to judge your worth as a person. And because they are also simultaneously distant from (and perhaps anonymous to) the celebrity, they misperceive that they can get away with “letting out the beast”. Death threats, vile wishes, bizarre promises, and hate-filled demands flow forth.

To which some will say, “Well, it’s just a minority, so brush it off.” But the problem is, the percentage doesn’t matter to a person’s sanity; just the raw number. What do I mean?

I remember when I regularly appeared before small audiences. Usually a few dozen people at a time. Whether in conferences or other venues, the crowds were small. I did okay. Usually, though, there were always one or two people who hated what I had to say. Or nit-picked it. Or were offended by how I said it. Or whatever. Over time, I got good at brushing it off. “There’s always one or two in a crowd.”

As time went on and I started working with larger audiences, I started to wonder if I was getting worse. At one point, when I was appearing before groups in the hundreds, I realized that every time I appeared, there were a dozen people who had complaints about me, no matter how well I did. Yes, the number who loved what I did ALSO went up, but praise has far less lasting effect than criticism. It FELT like I was getting worse, despite the growing crowds.

See, the percentage was the same, but the emotional drain was much bigger. And it continues to scale like that. In any crowd, any public figure can count on there being a set percentage that will NEVER be happy and that is willing to vocalize their unhappiness. But at some point, a normal human being is no longer interested in putting up with the noise. Some are stronger than others. If you have a million fans, that means you have thousands of people vocally pissed off at you every time you perform. And they all have the power to speak to you now.

One of the reasons that I keep my Eve life and my public life so carefully separated is that it is nice to be able to loosen up and not worry so much about public perception in the framework of this so-called game. But part of it is also that there are sickos who really will connect the dots and look up home addresses and send disturbing packages, and I really don’t want to multiply my base of enemies. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a big haters list these days, but it hasn’t always been like that.

At one point in my life, because of political blogging I did, I began to get all sorts of weird phone calls and emails. As I gained audience, I also gained attention from some scary people. The lone whackos were one thing. But in the political world, some of those whackos are organized, and have national governments funding them. My wife finally said she was worried because of some veiled comparisons made in public between myself and another figure who had been put to death for backing a similar position I had taken. By the foreign government that I had been critical of. I think the comparison, in a twisted way, had been meant as a compliment, it having come from a dissident in that country. But it was part of a larger pattern and it understandably freaked her out.

It’s thrilling when you start to get an audience. But there is an inevitable percentage of any crowd that is dangerous and vile, and you can’t build an audience without also building a growing base of enemies. Most of those enemies lack the means and the courage to act on their threats. But it is only a matter of time before the numbers game catches up with you.

So “just brush it off” only works as a short term, small-ball strategy. But the big-leagues approach of private detectives, lawyers, and “private security” is a bit beyond the typical game blogger, dev, or spaceship celebrity. So when yet another public figure of Eve says, “Screw you all, I’m out,” I get it.

One final thought, and one I know many will disagree with vehemently and instinctively: human beings are basically awful. Yes, we are capable of rising. Yes, every single human has the ability to be loving and kind and caring and helpful in amazing, moving ways. But most of the time, the main reason most humans behave reasonably well is that we are all conditioned to stay within certain boundaries through fear of punishment, either by loss of life, property, or reputation. And that’s a good system. It gives us all breathing room to learn to be selfless, if you think about it.

But create a situation where people start to believe that they are beyond punishment, and greed and selfishness will surface where before there was quiet civility. Saying vile things to someone online makes people feel good, because it makes them feel powerful. They are getting away with letting out hate that is normally constrained by society.

I’m an optimistic person, overall. I believe in the potential of the human race. But I have no illusion when it comes to our darker nature. I’ve seen up close too much evil from sources too common and vanilla. People can rise above themselves. But many don’t.

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