Recently I was startled to realize that a woman I’ve met several times at local networking events is one of the people that hover around the edges of my internet life merely because she enjoys engaging with others making negative comments about my life and my choices. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised – I’ve long suspected that behind the anonymous Twitter accounts and sites dedicated to picking over the lives of bloggers are members of our blogging community. In fact, more often than not, “haters” and “trolls” are people we know.
Which was certainly the case for Leo Traynor, a blogger living in Ireland who discovered that the troll harassing him online for over three years – and then eventually moved into actually sending threatening packages to his home – was actually the teenage son of a neighbor.(I discovered this story thanks to the eagle eye of Babble Stroller Derby writer Carolyn Castiglia.)
He talks about it in his blog.
It started in July 2009. I’d been on Twitter for over 2 years at that point having joined in May 2007, and I’d never had a problem. My account was followed by a fairly innocuous looking one which I followed back and within 10 minutes I had received a Direct Message (DM) calling me a ‘Dirty f*cking Jewish scumbag‘. I blocked the account and reported it as spam. The following week it happened again in an identical manner. A new follower, I followed back, received a string of abusive DM’s, blocked and reported for spam. Two or three times a week. Sometimes two or three times a day. An almost daily cycle of blocking and reporting and intense verbal abuse.
When he finally discovered who the troll was (with the help of an internet sleuth) and set up a confrontation with the boy’s parents, the results were rather telling:
I told them of how I’d become so paranoid that I genuinely didn’t know who to trust anymore.I told them of nights when I’d walked the rooms, jumping at shadows and crying over the sleeping forms of my family for fear that they would suffer because of me. Then it happened… The Troll burst into tears. His dad gently restraining him from leaving the table.
I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him “Why?”
The Troll sat there for a moment and said “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry. It was like a game thing.”
Yep. A game thing. It felt like a game to the boy, not real life, not like what he was doing was hurting a real person.
I’ve long theorized that the people that make a game out of demeaning, nitpicking, and endlessly discussing other people’s lives don’t think that the people they do it to are, well, actually people (also I’m noting in advance that those same people I’m referring to will claim that the way this boy harassed Leo Traynor was “real” cyberbullying, not like what people do to me and other mom bloggers). But the idea that they feel like it’s a game makes so much sense to me; just like you get a rush when you complete a level on a video game, I think they get a sort of rush from “catching” online folks doing things they don’t approve of.
Well, it’s a theory anyway. I find this story immensely heartening, however: the idea that once confronted, a troll might realize their mistakes. God willing, right?