I saw the horror flashing across the faces of the women crowded above me as I slipped down, backwards into the crack between the moving bus and the platform.
I never thought I would actually see one in real life -- usually they lurk within the shadowy pages of the Internet, appear anonymously to hatefully shit on a piece I have written that I care a lot about, then disappear.
If you’ve ever composed anything that has been published on the Internet, you may have also had this experience. But coming face-to-face with an Internet troll in real life was something I didn’t think would ever happen.
What I find most perplexing about Internet trolls is that they are actual people. Like, not robots. They are people that spend time and energy being assholes on the internet. And they’re not just regular old commenters, either -- they’re people that go out of their way to find things they disagree with and be aggressive in the comments.
I’m not trying to point fingers, because I am sure I have hurt people’s feelings on the Internet before, I’m just saying that to be classified a Troll you have to actively be a jerk.
I met my Internet troll in real life before I knew he was an Internet troll. I was introduced to –- uh, we’ll call him Mr. X -- about a year ago, as an acquaintance who ran in one of my boyfriend’s many social circles. He was an asshole to begin with, but it seemed like that was his shtick. I actually don’t mind people with this kind of shtick -- if it's intelligent or funny. But it wasn't. He was just mean, virtually all the time, to anyone who came around him.
Mr. X and I didn’t see each other often, but when we did, he usually wanted to talk to me about the daily online publication I work for. I write a lot of first-person pieces and have a weekly column about my own life, so many of my personal experiences have been shared with strangers via the Internet. Sometimes it is a great way to connect with people I don’t know.
Other times, it can be scary experience, one that leaves me mentally backpedaling and thinking that I’ve shared too much because a person I’ve never met before is suddenly comfortable approaching me in an invasive way. But that’s part of the job I’ve chosen to do. I’m OK with that.
As often happens with people I may have only met once or twice, Mr. X and I became friends on Facebook. I quickly learned that this step was possibly the most detrimental of my social moves regarding Mr. X, because now, in addition to having access to my writing, he had access to my friends, people who do not write for the Internet and do not put themselves out there for public viewing.
I am very active on Facebook -– I post links to my own stories, other blogs of interest, personal anecdotes, inappropriate photos and what have you. A lot of it is political or at least conversation starting; I see Facebook as a great forum for exchange, a way to engage people who may not otherwise ever meet in real life. Mr. X saw this Internet friendship as a portal to verbally bait me, and many people I care about –- many people who have strong political and social views. Many people who also happen to be feminists, his favorite segment of the FB population to screw with.
Like most people I know, many of my friends on Facebook are friends in real life, but I also realize that all of my friends don't actually know each other and they may only cross paths in my newsfeed. This means people interact with each other online every day with no real life context.
So, it usually went like this: I would post an article I had written or was of interest to me that was most likely about feminism. Mr. X would promptly leave a comment on it, making a blanket statement like: "Women are already equal to men and should quit whining” blah, blah, blah. It was just bait. I saw it as bait instantly.
But I knew Mr. X in real life and knew his “I’m the asshole” social angle. My friends, who are all very smart, didn’t know Mr. X. They just saw a fucked up comment from a dude and responded accordingly, thus starting a Facebook comment war between themselves and the troll I had inadvertently introduced them to.
At first, I was actually defending Mr. X’s Facebook behavior. Sometimes, I would private message my friends who had become Mr. X’s targets and say, “Oh, he’s harmless. He’s trying to be funny and incite an argument for the sake of it, just ignore him.” And then I thought, why the hell am I doing this? So I stopped apologizing.
But I didn’t delete him. I thought he might mellow out and besides, I think censoring people isn’t always the answer. Deleting people isn’t always the answer. Sometimes we can work stuff out in a Facebook comment war and life on the Internet can go on.
For some of us, the distance between our real life personas and online personas is minimal. For some of us, it is like we are completely different people. When I did see Mr. X in real life, it was a reminder that we all have an online persona and sometimes it is an exaggeration of who we are at our core.
I respect letting people do their thing online when it comes to social networking and I try not police anyone else or let that behavior carry over into our real life interactions. But Mr. X had also become more aggressive in person. It seemed like every time I ran into him, he wanted to talk to me about something I had written or something he saw online or something that had happened on Facebook.
At one point, he described to me his regular Reddit trolling routine and how he would, essentially, search for trouble. That’s when I realized I was looking at a real life Internet troll in the flesh. This wasn’t just a lovable misunderstood asshole that my friend’s “didn’t get” out of context. This was a real life jerk.
I told him this very thing. I told him he was behaving like an Internet troll. Then it was like he grabbed ahold of this idea and just ran as fast as he could with it: He started trolling me in real life. His in-person conversations with me became more aggressive. When my boyfriend and I were at a show, Mr. X appeared as if from nowhere and immediately started hounding me about a recent blog.
I told him plainly and calmly that I didn’t want to talk to him about it or my work or the Internet anymore. Ever again. This made him angry. I saw him again at another gathering not long after that and did my best not to engage him. I acknowledged him with a polite hello, but I didn’t initiate any conversation or let him engage with me.
By all accounts, I had avoided him and thought that maybe he had come to his senses and was going to back off.
The next time we were in the same room together it was at a bar about a week later. It was a small place that made it almost impossible not to overhear his loud-mouthed bragging as he told the same story six or seven times over –- a tale involving a woman who initially had rebuffed him and later slept with him.
It felt like he was circling me with his story, talking as loud as he could. Maybe I was being oversensitive? But it kept happening -- he would walk up to a mutual acquaintance standing near me and say something along the lines of “Remember that chick that blew me off last weekend at that party? I banged her last night.”
As a feminist and a human, I do not ever want to hear another woman being talked about this disrespectfully. My response to a statement/conversation like this from Mr. X would normally be something like "Maybe women wouldn’t insult you before they boned you if you treated them like they were people.” But as any feminist/sensible person (as well as anyone who has to deal with Internet comments) knows, there are only so many times you can express rational ideas to a misogynist before you get exhausted. So instead of saying anything or acknowledging his antics, I ignored him.
But it’s when I ignored him that night that the real problems began.
I was sitting by the DJ booth and minding my own business that same night when Mr. X saw an opportunity to corner me.
“I want to talk you,” he said in a stern bellow.
I politely declined and kept talking with a friend. He said it again. I said no. He said it again. I said no.
Then he said, “I want to go to lunch with you and talk to you.” I said no thank you and asked him to please leave me alone.
Then he said, “I’m going to send you a Facebook message.” Um, OK.
Sure enough, he sent me this Facebook message the following Monday:
“I want you to know that I'm going to stop being nice to you, I've tried too much for too long. I enjoy being friends with people, that's something you don't like unless you're already friends with them. I've tried to set up a lunch with you so that we could talk about our different views and hopefully better understand each other. But not anymore, next time you make a snarky comment towards me or give me a dirty look I'm not going to stand for it and I'll be very vocal. Your holier than thou attitude is very unbecoming. So just pre warning about being your constant hating self, I'm not gonna sit back and let it slide anymore, I've got plenty of things to say too. “
I won’t waste your time explaining every single thing that is clearly upsetting about this message, because I’m sure most of it is obvious. But there are a few things I think should be noted: accosting me publicly and demanding that I go to lunch with you and “setting up a lunch to discuss our differences” are two very different things.
And a “pre-warning?” I’d call that a veiled threat, except there’s barely anything hiding it. And I won’t apologize for anything I do being “unbecoming,” as it is not my job (nor is it any person’s responsibility) to make myself “becoming.”
Needless to say, I couldn’t ignore this last bit of harassment. I couldn’t politely ignore his attempted intimidation. I was pissed. I showed the message to my boyfriend and he was even angrier. My boyfriend tried to call Mr. X, but his phone was disconnected. Mr. X took it upon himself to show up uninvited to a private business where we happened to be that same day.
After escalating a calm conversation with my boyfriend into a loud argument, Mr. X threatened to break into private property, and screamed “Bree, your boyfriend is a pussy!” as he was escorted outside and the cops were called. Naturally, Mr. X disappeared before they arrived.
And after all of these terrible interactions, all I saw materialize was a really sad dude, a man who was drunk more often than not, and always in the middle of an argument.
This is the picture of an Internet troll in real life: an unhappy, substance-abusing, violent, unemployed liar with no friends. I know this isn't the story of every Internet troll, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was the story of many of them.