According to its founders, the now-defunct group blog Mean Kids was intended to be a forum for “art and criticism, pointed and insulting satire”; it considered itself to be a place of “purposeful anarchy” with a tradition of “you own your own words.” This forum for unmoderated insults soon led to misogynistic threats. In March 2007, Kathy Sierra, author of several Java programming books and a popular blog, wrote that she had canceled her workshop and keynote speech at a conference and instead was at home “with the doors locked, terrified”:
It began just over four weeks ago, when something shifted. It started with death threat blog comments left here (which some of you may have seen before I deleted them) including: “Comment: fuck off you boring slut.… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” We all have trolls—but until four weeks ago, none of mine had threatened death.… At first, it was the usual stuff—lots of slamming of people.… Nothing new. No big deal.
Nothing they hadn’t done on their own blogs many times before. But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as “Joey”) commented “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.”
As the story received greater attention, the attacks escalated. In addition to being a (distressing) milestone of sorts, exposing this facet of online culture to a wide audience through CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times, it showed how trolling had metastasized.
Trolls had always sought to provoke a response, but writing offensive and hateful comments had emerged as a creature of its own. Haters try to upset and belittle others by expressing extreme hostility and attacking any aspect of a person that is likely to cause distress (such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and appearance). The widespread use of the term hater likely began with the expression “Haters gonna hate” from hip-hop culture.
Much like the warning “Don’t feed the trolls,” it implies that some kinds of negativity are best ignored.
But ignoring no longer seems sufficient when faced with a hater. One reason for this is that the labels of troll, hater, and bully have lost some of their descriptive potency. Today these terms are loosely bandied about in arguments, and some people use them for anyone who disagrees with them. More substantively, the hate expressed online today has a frighteningly sharp edge and long reach.
For instance, hateful speech is magnified via disturbing images and videos. The manipulation and use of images, such as macros and animated GIFs, is common in Internet lolz culture. Although these GIFs are often funny, in the hater context they can be alarming. Sierra, for example, was pictured as muzzled with women’s underwear. Other targets of haters have received gruesome images. Also, privacy is often violated through the practice of “doxing,” or publicly documenting the target’s contact, financial, and health information. Haters cannot be ignored when they make threatening phone calls, including to family members, friends, and employers. The Mean Kids incident was more than a flame war in which teenagers bandied insults about one another’s mothers. Also, the fact that the threats began with the hostility of notable people made it all the more distressing.
This is a feature of what I call a trollplex: an attack by people who come from varied backgrounds, exhibit varied behavior, but share a target, a culture, and venues.
In this case, the trollplex included well-known bloggers Chris Locke (who blogged under the name “rageboy”) and Frank Pynter. Locke and Pynter ran Mean Kids and contributed to its overall tone (Locke called Sierra “a hopeless dipshit”), but they made no threats.
It also included Mean Kids contributor “Rev Ed,” who posted Photoshopped images of Sierra. (When the person behind the “Rev Ed” account was exposed, he claimed that his computer had been hacked and he had not posted the materials.) Others, whose identities were never publicly revealed, made explicit threats. The attacks on Sierra included insults, frightening threats, and harassment, but all melded into a single discourse that was rooted in the discussion at Mean Kids and other blogs. Some criticized Sierra for condemning all who contributed to the site, but she maintained that participants had a responsibility for creating an environment for this type of culture and speech.
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