I Fed an Internet Troll and I Wish I Hadn't

Obviously I wasn’t to blame for her illness or her behavior, but would her attack have spiraled so deeply out of control if I hadn’t done what I reviled most and hid behind the mask the Internet affords to give her a taste of her own medicine?
Publish date:
December 3, 2012
internet, community, trolling

I have been writing on the Internet for a long time. Granted, when I began, back on the Geocities-powered webpage that predated even my LiveJournal, my audience was a lot smaller. I wrote primarily for myself, and the handful of school friends to whom I gave the address were the only thing -- in addition to a preponderance of blingees (#YOLO) -- that differentiated my scribblings from the half-filled journals I’d kept up to that point.

Even the content was the same: “I like Boy X, his hair is floppy, here is a sub-par drawing of the dress I will wear out on our date when he asks me out.” It was hardly the sort of navel gazing that incited ire in my totally biased readership. The few comments were supportive, positive or a smiley face wearing sunglasses, an emoticon the true intent of which evades my understanding even to this day.

As I grew up and became more tortured, it was natural that my various Internet musings would grow to include things like meaningful song lyrics, some movie quotes and various niche references to pop culture. For a period of time, my Yahoo mail handle was inspired by the Usual Suspects (@Spaceyforlife, #aforementionedYOLO) and rather than take the time to write about Boy X putting me through the emotional ringer, I let the lyrical stylings of Ms. Ani DiFranco do the talking.

Except for the odd passive-aggressive fight with one of my more tech-savvy friends, the comments stayed mostly the same. It was a joyous, naive, though tragically LOL-free time in my life. Sometimes I think, if it hadn’t been for these, my earliest forays into community-forming on the Internet, I might not have stuck it out.

I can’t pinpoint the moment exactly, but somewhere between college and graduate school, the temperature changed for me. I had once been a huge advocate for online community building. I saw through rose-colored glasses, insisting that if you came across the odd troll -- a malignant, cruel, meaningless purveyor of awful -- on the web, that you had to take the high road and ignore them, focusing instead on the positive comments and conversation that your work started. If that got too hard for you to do, then you stopped reading the comments altogether.

If you know you can’t handle something, don’t put yourself through it; I took a hard line on the subject. Which was easy to do, because no one had ever read something I’d written online, fixated on me and decided to come and kill me.

Before my own personal cyber-monster made herself known to me, I had been having an increasingly hard time practicing what I preached. I didn’t respond to every negative comment that sprung up on my posts, but I definitely thought about them more than was normal or healthy -- ask anyone of my friends who had to listen to the witty retort I’d refused to let myself post.

And those were the good days -- on the bad days, I couldn’t help it. Not a confrontational person by nature, I’d read these very often pointless assassinations of my character and I did what you’re never supposed to do -- I fed the troll.

I do want to make one thing very clear. I have no issue with someone reading something I’ve written and going, “Hey, I disagree with you, I disagree with you so much that it has made me angry -- and here is a logical, explanation and defense of my own system of belief.”

Even when naysayers are passionately saying nay to something I’ve penned, there’s a big difference between a respectful argument and “You Are Bad At What You Do,” a succinct, vile, takedown of a television recap I wrote that hit me -- overly sensitive, bringing-this-on-herself-me -- like a Houdini-killing punch to the gut.

I think it’s telling that I, a person so crippled by what other people think (wooorking on it) have decided to put so much out there in a public forum. Most of the time I think it’s healthy, and a sign of growth. But other times, when faced with Internet-dwelling trolls, I can’t shake feeling that by turning to the Internet in a raw, honest way I’m deliberately sabotaging all the work I’ve done to build myself up. If someone else, some objective third party, is reading my heart and telling me I’m worthless, then it must be true, right?

Like I said -- those are the bad days. The “I QUIT THE INTERNET FOREVER” days -- the days where not one obscure British TV show is Googled.

Because this is a long-running battle that I’ve always viewed as being ultimately internal, I didn’t recognize danger when it actually did strike. When my cyber-stalker posted an innocuous if heinous comment on a personal blog that I seldom update, I didn’t think much of it.

I clicked on her profile, because I thought it was odd that she’d be so troll-ish and not hide behind the veil of anonymity. That was mistake one -- if I had the rhino-hide of a true Internet writer, I’d have never clicked. But I did, and I learned that this latest hater was a woman, like me, and a freelance writer, like me.

Here is where mistake number two happened -- I posted a reply. WHICH WAS DUMB. I kept it brief, saying that as one lady-writer to another it made me sad that we couldn’t have a real dialogue, that she had to sink to name-calling, and that I didn’t think the magazine she worked for -- and that I was easily connected with -- would want their shit sullied by that sort of behavior.

WHIP CRACK! I posted it.

Responding to a troll is dangerous because to do it well, you become a little trollish yourself. It’s like getting really pissed off and hitting that point where you know objectively that you should stop yelling but not being able to -- because it’s just too damn satisfying in the moment.

Within the hour, this harmless-if-jerky woman had posted comments on articles I had written on every site I’d worked for, she had emailed me at every email address I had ever had, and -- this one was awesome -- contacted an editor I work for to let her know that I had a devil inside me that needed to be forcibly removed.

Her messages to me were alarming. They began as apologies, then turned into ramblings about the cruelty of dog breeding, then threats against my cats, threats against me, and finally -- revelations as to the extent of her mental illness: “Go ahead and contact my boss,” she wrote, “She thinks I’m dead anyway.”

Feeling shaky, I began blocking IP addresses, and reporting her behavior, keeping a careful record of our every exchange. I had vowed that if it went on for more than a week, then I’d go to the police and to her boss.

“She has a blog dedicated to her bipolar disorder and chronic pain,” said a friend who had decided to research the woman harassing me. Her comments began to make sense, and my fear gave way to a sick feeling of shame and sadness. Obviously I wasn’t to blame for her illness or her behavior, but would her attack have spiraled so deeply out of control if I hadn’t done what I reviled most and hid behind the mask the Internet affords to give her a taste of her own medicine?

After a week-and-a-half, she abruptly stopped contacting me. I should have been relieved, but I felt jittery, guilty. I made a concerted effort to distance myself from the conversations that sprung up around my work. I was having a hard time overcoming the idea that to focus in so closely on every word sent in my direction was egotism of the worst kind. I didn’t stop writing, but I came close to forgetting why writing on the web was so important to me to begin with.

Luckily, sites like this one exist, ones where the commenters are as fundamental as the writers, and where the conversations that start in the comments exist as their own vibrant entity. It’s hard to see that and let your ego get in the way.

I’m hoping I learned my lesson, but I can’t say I won’t ever take any troll-ish feedback personally -- have you guys had to contend with this phenomenon? Should I have gone through with it and reported this broad to the police slash her employer? Is this whole article just a passive aggressive attempt to exact revenge? I WORRY.