Feed the Trolls


Click for 2011-12-04 update.

From the very beginning I've been examining almost every scrap of traffic we get to Fat, Ugly or Slutty. I've tried to determine the context of the discussion that brought us a visitor and understand if people are interpreting FUoS as a positive or a negative beast. Over and over and over again, the same themes emerged in forums, blog comments, articles, etc. I discussed several of these in the bit-gamer.net article and linked to them within as a little bit of "proof" of each theme. For a long time now, one of the major pieces of "common-sense" advice given to the harassed has been bugging me, and I'm starting to see evidence that I'm not the only one.

To back it up a little, let's be clear about what happened to FUoS. We started a dumb little joke site for us and our friends -- a laughter repository. Our group of friends also maintain a little IRC quotes website for our channels that we can browse and laugh at, so it's not without precedent. Just like the IRC quotes database, no one but us should have really known or cared about FUoS. Ever. But that's not what happened. A huge amount of people found the site and were shocked by the nature of the messages sent by gamers to other gamers, primarily women. Can I emphasize that again? Genuinely shocked and horrified.

While there have been women discussing online gaming harassment for years now, all it took was actually posting some real examples of harassment to startle many people into realizing that yes, we have a problem. As Rhoulette speculated,

the medium makes all the difference. FUoS is yet more proof that a picture is worth a thousand words. "pics or it didn't happen"

We are seeing a similar kind of thing happening now, with the discussion of the harassment that women bloggers receive. Granted, it's not screenshots, but women are posting and tweeting their harassment publicly -- and people are shocked and horrified. Sound familiar?

So the obvious question is, why are they shocked and horrified? Because of "Don't Feed The Trolls." DFTT encompasses a few response behaviours: don't reply, don't get angry, don't get upset, don't let it get to you, don't give them attention. Talking about it with anyone else, particularly in a public manner, gives them attention. So don't do it. The trolls will take pride in negative attention, so don't give them what they want. When the troll sees that you aren't giving them the response they want, they will quit and leave you alone.

It's taken a while to get to my actual thesis (shut up this isn't college I'll essay how I want), but here it is: The classic "Don't Feed The Trolls" advice leads to silence about harassment, which leads to other people not realizing that harassment exists. If the harassed are not encouraged to talk about the trolls, we will never know what they are actually experiencing. The shock that people experienced from FUoS is evidence of this fundamental disconnect.

The thing that has been nagging at me is that some people have taken the stance that this reaction began with willful ignorance. You would have to be blind to not see how women are treated online, and not just in the gaming community! More than blind, you'd have to be a bad person for choosing to ignore the obvious!

This is where you lose me. FUoS has received countless emails and comments from men who honestly did not realize how women are harassed in online games. I don't believe that all of these people were willfully ignorant of the situation. I believe they just didn't know.

For those of us who were shocked by seeing the actual messages, there's something different there, don't you think? You can hear someone tell you that they get all sorts of "show me ur tits" messages, but I think there's something that "pix or it didn't happen" really emphasizes in this case. It's like the screenshots remove all doubt. I mean, you never really disbelieved it before. You don't think they're lying. But now that you actually see it... well, there it is. Right there. Staring you in the face.

It's different, right? Downright visceral.

That's the reaction I had when Jaspir first showed me those messages, and apparently that's the reaction that thousands of other people had. We thought we knew what was going on, we thought we understood, we thought that it only happened occasionally to our friends. Besides, everyone gets trash-talked in video games, right? It's all the same. If it happened all the time and was really hateful, they would have told us by now. It can't be worse, because we would know about it.

But the fact is, we don't really hear about it from our friends. They don't feed the trolls. If the harassed are told that everyone gets treated this way, they have no incentive to talk about it as a strange occurence in their own lives. We now have evidence that the 'everyone has it bad, therefore suck it up and let it go' off-shoot of DFTT is also flawed.

If the harassment was fundamentally the same for everyone, FUoS should not have gotten any sort of traffic. You don't tell your friends about a website that states the obvious. Again, I've followed our traffic sources. I am proud to say that FUoS has provided much-needed evidence of the gendered difference in harassment in plenty of online discussions. In many cases, those who claim that "we all have it bad" stop saying so after seeing FUoS. (see update below) They see a difference. This is an aspect of the harassment discussion that has also been playing out in the blogging world, too. The harassment is different in both quantity and quality. Let's stop pretending otherwise.

If the trolls are going to "win" anyway, let's let them "win" in public by giving their behaviour all sorts of public attention. If you want to call it "Feeding The Trolls", fine. But I place my friends' need for love and support far above the need to have the trolls "lose". The tiny benefit of "Don't Feed The Trolls" is vastly outweighed by the benefit of everyone finally understanding each other.

2011-12-04 Update:
The assertion "In many cases, those who claim "we all have it bad" stop saying so after seeing FUoS." was bugging me. I was pretty sure at the time I wrote it that this was a phenomenon I had witnessed, but over time I had trouble remembering examples. I can try and go through to find links to support it, but I actually think a different set of evidence still serves to illustrate the flaw in "everyone has it bad, so let it go" advice. I first saw this analytical point mentioned at pandagon.net. In the last paragraph, the author notes:

I see one sign that sites like this are effective. Usually at Kotaku, when there's a post up about racism or sexism, the comments turn into a sea of white dudes yelling, "Nuh-uh!" And this didn't happen, probably because the evidence is just so compelling. Instead, they started to bicker about whether it's worse on PC or console games, an irrelevancy that was nonetheless heartening for what it wasn't.

This is a set of evidence that is subtler; it relies one's broader knowledge of "Nuh-uh!" online gaming discussions to see its importance. I can tell you that in my examination of FUoS reactions, this lack-of-denial pattern has been repeated quite a bit since the quote above. Of course, there are still a few people saying "everyone has it bad" after seeing FUoS, it's just that... most of the time, no, no they aren't. The discussion doesn't even go down the "equally bad" path. A lot of the time people are just laughing together and posting their favourites in a forum thread. And the way that they talk about it -- it's usually stated like "haha, people write some crazy stuff to women". I think that even that sort-of offhand acknowledgement of this being a problem for women is important, because as I wrote originally: They see a difference in treatment between genders.

After being around the internet for a while, the amount of people dismissing harassment as "everyone has it bad" is much lower than I would have ever thought. Is it because of how "compelling" the evidence is on FUoS? Perhaps. At the very least, it's nice to see so many people acknowledging a specific gendered problem instead of fierce denial.

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