Trolls, Bullies and People with Personality Disorders

Recently, a number of women in Tech have come out publicly describing horribly close encounters with misogyny and outright aggression on the Internet. I’m not talking about subtle attitudes of discrimination that don’t hurt immediately but that hurt women’s careers in the long run  — those are real discriminators, I’m afraid, and I’ll write about them some other time. This post is about explicit hostility and intimidation of the kind we have seen happening with Kathy Sierra, and more recently with Sarah Parmenter.

This is not a women’s-specific problem; it happens to a lot of people; to women, men and in between; to blacks, whites and in between; to people of all religions. It happens to people who stand out of the crowd and become visible — simple as that. It’s Internet trolling and bullying at work. Those trolls, like children, know how to push the most sensitive buttons on  everyone, so it’s no surprise that they find the buttons that most women fear. But the line is crossed way before porn featuring mock-ups of tech women and pictures with death threats are uploaded on Internet sites. The crossing point happens when verbal hostility starts coming in, and everyone who is visible enough can be a target of that verbal diarrhea that feeds on community attention.

I’ve had a few close encounters with hostility on the Internet. However, I’ve learned to ignore completely the threads and comments in Web 2.0 style; they are the new trash TV, and anyone who has half a brain these days should abstain from participating in, or valuing,  such sad displays of human stupidity.

A much nastier and harder to ignore hostility and intimidation is the one that comes in the form of  direct emails from people whom I don’t know and that scare the sh&^ out of me. Mind you, this is quite different from engaging in flame wars with colleagues — not pleasant, but perfectly normal when people who know each other disagree on issues. This is about being contacted out of the blue by people whom I don’t know with emails that range from bizarre to outright threatening. The fact that I don’t know those people, and they don’t know me besides my public contributions to the communities I participate in, is what’s really scary. Who are those people, and what’s going on in their heads that makes them behave so aggressively? If they feel that it’s ok to contact me like that, what else can they do? — are they just barking their frustrations out loud or can they go beyond words? I don’t know, and that’s scary.

Whenever I receive one of those emails, I confess that one thought always crosses my mind: being in the public eye by means of taking highly visible roles in some of tech communities I participate in may not be worth it. I’m old enough that I could just pull back to the relative safety of the Ivory Tower and not be exposed to this sort of behavior from random strangers. But for better or for worse, I tend to completely forget the bad things that happen in the process of doing the things I love, at least while that good old feeling of excitement is there. So I try not to feed the trolls behind those emails, and move on, hoping they will stop. So far, they have stopped when I ignored them.

In all these years of public exposure, I’ve detected three categories of people who send strange emails out of the blue: the misunderstood geniuses, the conspiracy theorists (with or without me as their perceived “offender”), and the demanders. I feel sympathy for the misunderstood geniuses. They always sound like they have been trying for ages to spread their belief, whatever that is, but nobody takes them seriously. They’re usually bright, but their reasoning seems clouded by obsession. The conspiracy theorists, especially those who accuse me of participating in some obscure conspiracy to make their lives miserable, scare me. Those people have some serious personality disorders. But of all of these, the demanders are the ones that freak me out the most, because their emails are of the form “pay attention to me… or else”. I.e. bullies. I’ve seen “or else” threats from complete strangers take the form of Cc’s to assorted staff at the University — just like that!, no history, just a raged, threatening Cc to some administrator. If it stays like that, that’s fine. But the cloud of threat stays hanging in the air for a few weeks. These people are not children, so who knows what else a grown-up person exhibiting this behavior can do!

In those moments, I take comfort in the thought that I’m probably not alone. I imagine that Tech celebrities who are 1,000 times more popular than me must be bombarded by emails of this kind all the time. Not sure what can be done, probably nothing!, it comes with exposure to the crowds beyond the Ivory Tower…

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