This one jumps around a lot, so I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while. It all comes together in the end, I promise.
Last week I put up an interview with Kathy Griffin about her experiences with the internet “woodchipper.” Here’s another interview on the same subject that is really worth your time… again, no matter what you might think of the person who was the target of the onslaught (and is still– decades after the original scandal and subsequent investigation.)
Then there’s this, from political essayist Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station.
…More and more lately I’m finding social media to be complete garbage.
It’s not the trolls, bots, religious nuts, right-wing nuts, and fanatical Stormtrumpers who spew hate and insanity in my face every day. I expect that and it doesn’t bother me. Much.
Or rather it’s not JUST that.
No, it’s the other side. The Tone Police, the Purity Patrol, the Social Justice suicide bombers willing to die on every goddamned hill, the self-appointed Editors who want to argue over every single word, the tedious pedants, and the guy who screams “BOT!” in response to every comment.
More than anything it’s the smug self-righteous left-wing gatekeepers who show up to every post with “do better.”
I hate that fucking phrase.
Do better. No. Fuck you. No one should have to put up with that condescending bullshit. As soon as I see “do better” or any variation, out the airlock you go.
It’s not about disagreement. Or even about reasonable criticism. All of us should be able to handle that.
It’s about ENTITLEMENT.
It’s about those who see the rest of us as objects to be OWNED, improved, edited, managed, controlled, silenced and redirected. It’s about dancing monkeys. More and more I get why people leave this place. I totally get why celebrities like Wil Wheaton left Twitter completely, just dumped 4 million followers and walked away. He couldn’t take it, it was literally destroying his mental health. I totally get that, because lately my various timelines are becoming for me an increasing source of irritation and frustration. Rage. It’s affecting me in the real world. It’s making me angry all of the time.
…I’m not going to leave, not here, not Twitter, not Instagram, or Counter.Social, not yet anyway. But I AM going to start cleaning house a LOT more vigorously and without warning. I have to, to maintain my sanity.
If you don’t want to get blown out of the airlock, then maybe give some thought to how your comments might be affecting others.
Now, here’s the thing that struck me about all these anecdotes and reactions. They all sound really familiar to me. And it dawned on me that was because I’ve been witness to the phenomenon for over thirty years. Before there was even such a thing as social media.
Except it wasn’t about politics or social justice issues. It was in fandom.
Nerd culture. Letter columns and fanzines and conventions. When the internet happened, it migrated to CompuServe forums and message boards. And now it’s everywhere.
What I’m talking about is what is often dismissed as “fanrage,” or “trolling,” or whatever we’re calling it this week. But it’s the phenomenon Jim Wright describes. The posse of keyboard warriors who saddle up and ride when a cause is presented to them. ANY cause. No matter how stupid.
Here’s what it looked like in the olden times. (That is to say, the 1980s.) Many of you reading this will recall The Comics Journal‘s infamous interview with Harlan Ellison that resulted in Michael Fleisher suing the Journal for libel. What you may not know is that the Journal used to feud with people all the time. Even more often, a disagreement that began with a review flared up into a back-and-forth in the letter column that would play out for months, and the Journal happily encouraged such. The letter column was a free-fire zone by design, it was called “Blood and Thunder,” and readers were routinely witness to all sorts of raging conflict between fans and pros.
Here is a pre-internet example of what we know today as a dogpile. “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” began with Collins and Beatty taking exception to a review of Wild Dog and the Journal responded with their usual snark, and the ensuing letters were typical of the sort of acting out you would see in the Comics Journal from fans who wanted to share in the fun. Remember that this was before email, these folks were actually sending real letters… like with envelopes and stamps and trips to the post office.
This isn’t to say that the causes weren’t good. Sometimes they were. (The crusade the Journal undertook to get Marvel to return Jack Kirby’s original page artwork to him was certainly a good thing.) But just as often the point at issue was trivial and stupid. Honestly, the cause was incidental. It was free-floating fan anger that “Blood and Thunder” was built on.
And it was hardly unique. A lot of SF fandom revolved around feuds, both pro and fan-driven. As the old-guard science fiction author Hal Clement once said, “Remember, though, that among your readers there will be some who enjoy carrying your work farther than you did. They will find inconsistencies which you missed; depend on it. Part of human nature is the urge to let the world know how right you were, so you can expect to hear from these people either directly or through fanzine pages. Don’t let it worry you.” Of course, this was a half-century before GamerGate; if Mr. Clement had seen how brutal it could get, I daresay he might have worried at least a little.
Closer to home, several of us here at the Junk Shop used to write for Comic Book Resources. A couple of us also were forum admins there, and believe me, we have stories. The others can weigh in down below in the comments if they want, but those are their stories to tell; and anyway, after about a decade or so running CBR’s Film and TV board, I have way too many of my own. Some of the topics that blew up into feuds so horrific that I had to delete posts and ban people and generally just shut down the rioting were…
…whether or not it was okay for James Bond to be blond, back when Daniel Craig was announced as the new 007. (Roger Moore was a redhead and no one cared, but blond apparently was just a bridge too far.)
…Organic webshooters, pro or con, in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. (That wasn’t just us at CBR– that one was EVERYWHERE.)
…the Teen Titans cartoon and how it was an utter betrayal of everything Marv Wolfman and George Perez did in the comics. (A sentiment that was not shared by the actual Marv and George, as it happens, but that didn’t even slow them down.)
Wednesday mornings were the worst. I came to dread them.
Why? Because that was the morning after Buffy and Angel aired, and I would rise in the morning to see my board engulfed by fans shrieking in rage and grief over what “Joss” had done to them the night before. Always on a first-name basis. It took me years to get over my antipathy to those shows, just because of this. Turns out I rather liked them and so did my wife. (Though I still get twitchy when I see writers in the fan press talking about “Joss” and what he’s doing. Good reviews or bad, doesn’t matter; it’s the first-name-basis thing that gets on my last nerve. You aren’t pals, damn it.)
The common denominator in all these things is the anger. The level of rage in internet culture goes from zero to kill-you in seconds, and it stays there. Routinely, I had to deal with people whose online presence was fueled only by screaming about things they hated.
There was one incident, a fan taking on a pro (and all that pro’s fans who immediately leapt into the fray) that I still shake my head over to this day. I was asked to look into it by a couple of board regulars who were horrified at how it kept escalating, despite the actual professional writer whose work was under discussion begging them all to stop, please. I looked at the timestamps on the posts and saw that the angry guy had been at it for fourteen hours straight, replying to everything, no gap between posts longer than ten minutes. Not short ones either. Articulate, eloquent paragraphs documenting his seething rage. Every ten minutes at least for fourteen hours. And in no way was this unusual for that particular fellow, he was the bane of our existence at CBR for way too long. (Why? Because the majority of fans tend to be bookish people who are shy and not good at confrontation, and since many of us had been the victims of bullying in our youth, we would obsess over whether we were being fair or just mean-spirited when we’d take any disciplinary action whatsoever. Whenever a controversy came up we’d dither for days. I always felt like I was the Designated Asshole who would finally snap and say, “Did we DECIDE anything? What are we actually going to DO?”)
Over the decade or so of doing the moderating job it got worse and worse. It reached the point where I’d come home from work in the evening and spend at least an hour — at least— refereeing and trying to deal with complaints from people who’d been wounded by some net warrior on the CBR boards who was deeply enraged by the idea that ANYONE liked Supernatural.
After one particularly stupid argument with a comics pro who should have known better, I finally emailed CBR’s owner, Jonah Weiland, that I was done, period, adding that I’d understand if he wanted me off his site permanently rather than alienate a comics professional with a hugely vocal following– but enough was enough. He phoned me a few hours later to tell me that he understood completely; he just asked me to please not quit the column as well. The memory of that call will keep me warm at night for years, it was hugely validating and flattering. Jonah, as it happens, also had a number of horror stories about this pro (nope, not telling you, so don’t ask.) A bunch of others as well. Always, the defining characteristic of all those anecdotes was the hugely disproportionate anger.
When I settled in to just doing the blog thing life got a lot pleasanter at CBR. My wife was also hugely relieved; she’d been wanting me to quit moderating since we were first married. (“I hate it when they call you a Nazi,” she always said. Julie has family who fell to the Nazis, the real ones, and it meant a lot more to her than it did to me when that word got thrown around.)
But it was by no means the end to the fanrage. I could always tell when Jonah highlighted a column of mine on the front page of the site because the comments would balloon up into triple digits, while at the same time the average commenter’s IQ dropped by about forty points. All of them foaming at the mouth about the sins I’d committed to print.
Here’s the thing– they enjoy it. Rage is a recreational drug for them.
We saw this on the boards and later on the blog, ALL THE TIME. I could beat my brains out writing a thoroughly researched piece on some odd pop culture thing that I thought would be fun to share with readers, and the reaction was usually some variation of, “Oh, that was nice,” or sometimes, “Hey, that was interesting, did you know about this other related thing also?” Rarely over four or five responses from the regulars.
On the other hand, if I wrote something on CBR titled, oh, I dunno, something like The Death Spiral of Superhero Movies Marvel is Leading Us All Into, it would blow up. Comments would leap from I think you are overstating it to Reviewers like you need to die in a fire in less than an hour and we’d be in triple digits on them. Anything negative summons them. A nasty headline’s almost an incantation.
There are people that take pride in their experiences with this, who have an attitude of competition about surviving them. “This is nothing, you should have seen CompuServe back in the day,” they say, in the tone of a sheriff who had to tame a roaring mining town. That may be true, but am I such a fool to suggest that it’s ridiculous that they had to deal with this crap in the first place? That it shouldn’t happen at all?
I imagine if you’ve come this far, you are wondering So what, Hatcher? So there are a lot of jerks on the internet. What’s your point? It’s Chinatown, Jake.
My point is this. It’s a disease. And it’s spreading. The exultant spiral of righteous fury that Hal Clement encountered in the SF magazines of the forties and fifties is ramping up to be the defining characteristic of forums like Twitter and Facebook today. And I really think that fandom was patient zero for this.
Look, here’s the problem. It’s one of distance. Once upon a time, over here in one place were folks who Made Things, movies and music and books and comics, and over there, in a completely different space, were the people who consumed those things, the audience. Communication and feedback were limited. It took a lot of effort to tell an actor or a writer what you thought of their Thing, whatever it was. Most of the people who were moved to write were doing so in a spirit of appreciation, and it never occurred to them to use a name other than their own. Angry anonymous letters were treated as weird, crazy exceptions to the normal state of things.
Except in SF and comics. The pool was so tiny that fans and pros interacted socially all the time, it wasn’t just a hobby; it was a subculture. And feuds and anger were a big part of it, all the way back to the Futurians in the heyday of John Campbell. (Including the anonymity– the older folks might remember when “Vastator” was hunting up dirt on Gary Groth, or when “Name Withheld” set the Comics Buyers Guide letter column on fire for a year or so.) Because so many SF and comics fans are also techies, we tend to be early adopters. We staked out our turf on the internet as it was becoming the World Wide Web, and most of the current shitty online conduct seemingly baked into social media sites got its start back in fanzines. We brought it with us.
Today internet anonymity is acceptable…. indeed, it’s the norm. Fans sign their screeds with names like BuffySuperfan or Skywalker4ever and no one thinks anything of it. Meanwhile, celebrities and creators have learned they can interact much more directly with their fans. Creators moved closer to their audiences, and audiences now have an extra curtain protecting them from responsibility or consequences. The result is a place where you can say any awful thing to anyone and nothing happens. If it bothers you, you’re just a big baby who shouldn’t have an internet connection. And somehow this is all accepted, the price of participation.
The thing that has been bothering me about all this since I saw Kathy Griffin’s interview wasn’t just the familiarity of the story, but the ubiquity of it. Used to be it was just SF and comics pros who had horror stories about angry internet encounters. Now it’s everyone. Doesn’t matter what your politics are. The point is, this behavior has been normalized.
Worse, it’s been weaponized. Cross the wrong person and they’ll unleash the hordes. The free-floating anger that currently permeates social media can be aimed at specific targets. “So-and-so thinks this. Here’s his Twitter. Let’s let him know what we think about people who say THAT!” Without control, without restraint of any kind.
There’s very little recourse for the people who are on the receiving end of this sort of thing. Partly because no one can think of a workable solution, but more often, just because it’s not taken seriously.
This attitude seems to be largely shared by most people. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.” Can’t be helped, it’s just the way the internet is, what can we do?
Well, goddammit, just because you can’t chase off all the people who salivate over the prospect of joining an online lynching, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you can.
Responsible writers and columnists try to prevent these kind of wildfires. Jim Wright, who I quoted above, writes passionately about politics. Rightly so– there’s a lot going on these days to be angry about. But he also had to learn the hard way that his readers will gleefully embark on wars he had no intention of declaring. These days he knows to caution his audience not to go after a reader who’s giving him a hard time. I’m glad he hasn’t been scared off the internet, but lots of other folks have been.
I’d bet a year’s pay that a great many of those Joss-haters are from my old CBR Wednesday-morning headache brigade.
I said above that it’s not about politics and it’s not. It seems to me that what Josh Marshall wrote on his news site is becoming a universal online phenomenon.
What I’m focused on is the sense of futility. People sense that the pace of bad acting and outrageous behavior is so unrelenting and seemingly unopposed that their engagement doesn’t matter. All they’re doing by watching or staying engaged is ingesting a kind of general poison which is bad for them individually and accomplishes nothing civically.
I can’t really argue with that. I walked away from online discussion boards when I quit moderating forums and I rarely get into it with commenters on my own columns any more, not even if they say things that are spectacularly wrong and stupid. Unlike the many who seem to thrive on it, I don’t like being angry. I literally get sick to my stomach. Even when it was something real, something genuinely important and necessary (like, say, years of family fights over alcoholism) it was never recreational. The fierce joy that so many people get from proclaiming their rightness is just not a thing for me. They clearly are not in it to persuade anyone of anything, which is the only rational reason I know to even have a goddam argument in the first place. (I say this as someone who was on the debate squad in high school and college, and we had it pounded into us then that getting angry was the easiest shortcut to losing the debate.)
On the other hand….
(I know this piece is running long. I hope you’ve stuck with me, because the unification of the thesis is at hand.)
The internet might well be fated to end up as some sort of cross between a cesspool and a free-fire zone. It’s global and can reach billions of people in seconds. Even if your particular country has legal safeguards against death threats or doxxing or whatever, the guy in the next country over can leapfrog over them like they don’t exist. Horrible behavior on the net looks like it’s inevitable and impossible to prevent. Hell, foreign governments have learned to use that addictively-righteous anger in orchestrated intelligence operations– plural– to foment all kinds of discord. The internet is just too big now.
But…. most of us aren’t using ALL of the internet.
Most of us just have a few news sites and blogs and a preferred social media platform we visit. We can make those places better. Your blog, your website, your Facebook page, whatever. Clearly no one’s going to police you, so damn it, police yourselves.
We do it here. I made a big deal about what we’ll stand for and what we won’t when we started, and I will continue to do so. (At one point it was proposed that we include message boards here and my vehement NO was so forceful my fellow Junk Shop founders probably felt it physically through their monitors.)
The rule that I insisted we stick to, no matter what, is really simple. Content is free-range, talk about anything you like, but you don’t get to be an asshole. Presentation matters. There are a zillion other sites on the internet that cultivate rage in the audience: “Controversy means clicks.” But this will not be one of those sites as long as I’m here. (I should add that there was no pushback on this at all, everyone agreed instantly. The Junk Shop’s a united front on this. I don’t want you all to think we were arguing about it.)
That’s what I can do. My feeling is that the reckless, no-consequences, tantrum culture that has evolved online was something that sprouted and became normalized through SF fandom way back when, which makes it incumbent on us who are still part of it to do whatever is possible to make things better. The internet getting devoured by rage culture is only inevitable if we leave the trolls to the cesspool.
Your mileage may vary. I’m not scolding anyone who’s gotten burned out on what social media’s turned into. I honestly can’t blame you. All I can offer is this….
…it doesn’t HAVE to be Chinatown, Jake.
I truly believe there are more decent people online than there are anger-addicted keyboard warriors. Let’s try and prove it.
Back next week with something cool… and a little lighter. Promise.