This month is the 10-year anniversary of my first online threat. I thought it was a one-off, then. Just one angry guy. And it wasnâ€™t really THAT bad. But looking back, it was the canary in the coal mineâ€¦ the first hint that if I kept on this path, it would not end well. And what was that path? Weâ€™ll get to that in a minute.
Later I learned that the first threat had nothing to do with what I actually made or said in my books, blog posts, articles, and conference presentations. The real problem â€” as my first harasser described â€” was that others were beginning to pay attention to me. He wrote as if mere exposure to my work was harming his world.
But hereâ€™s the key: it turned out he wasnâ€™t outraged about my work. His rage was because, in his mind, my work didnâ€™t deserve the attention. Spoiler alert: â€œdeserveâ€ and â€œattentionâ€ are at the heart.
A year later, I wrote a light-hearted article about â€œhatersâ€ (the quotes matter) and something I called The Koolaid Point. It wasnâ€™t about harassment, abuse, or threats against people but about the kind of brand â€œtrollsâ€ you find in, say, Apple discussion forums. My wildly non-scientific theory was this: the most vocal trolling and â€œhateâ€ for a brand kicks in HARD once a critical mass of brand fans/users are thought to have â€œdrunk the Koolaidâ€. In other words, the hate wasnâ€™t so much about the product/brand but that other people were falling for it.
I was delighted, a few weeksâ€™ later, to see my little â€œKoolaid Pointâ€ in Wiredâ€™s Jargon Watch column.
The me of 2005 had no idea what was coming.
Less than two years later, Iâ€™d learn that my festive take on harmless brand trolling also applied to people. And it wasnâ€™t festive. Or harmless. Especially for women.
I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, â€œfollowingâ€, â€œlikingâ€, â€œfavoritingâ€, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the trollâ€™s mind) â€œdrunk the Koolaidâ€. Apparently, that just canâ€™t be allowed.
From the haterâ€™s POV, you (the Koolaid server) do not â€œdeserveâ€ that attention. You are â€œstealingâ€ an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you donâ€™t have readers you have cult followers. That just canâ€™t be allowed.
You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause â€œpersonal ruinâ€. They arenâ€™t all trolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid youâ€™re serving) threatens that cause.
But the Koolaid-Point-driven attacks are usually started by (speculating, educated guess here, not an actual psychologist, etc) sociopaths. Theyâ€™re doing it out of pure malice, â€œfor the lulz.â€ And those doing it for the lulz are masters at manipulating public perception. Master trolls can build an online army out of the well-intended, by appealing to The Cause (more on that later). The very best/worst trolls can even make the non-sociopaths believe â€œfor the lulzâ€ is itself a noble cause.
But I actually got off easy, then. Most of the master trolls werenâ€™t active on Twitter in 2007. Today, they, along with their friends, fans, followers, and a zoo of anonymous sock puppet accounts are. The time from troll-has-an-idea to troll-mobilizes-brutal-assault has shrunk from weeks to minutes. Twitter, for all its good, is a hate amplifier. Twitter boosts signal power with head-snapping speed and strength. Today, Twitter (and this isnâ€™t a complaint about Twitter, itâ€™s about what Twitter enables) is the trollâ€™s best weapon for attacking you. And by â€œyouâ€, I mean â€œyou the server of Koolaid.â€ You who must be stopped.
It begins with simple threats. You know, rape, dismemberment, the usual. Itâ€™s a good place to start, those threats, because you might simply vanish once those threats include your family. Mission accomplished. But today, many women online â€” you women who are far braver than I am â€” you stick around. And now, since you stuck around through the first wave of threats, you are now a much BIGGER problem. Because the Worst Possible Thing has happened: as a result of those attacks, you are NOW serving Victim-Flavored Koolaid.