“Don’t Feed the Trolls”: Reexamining a Tired Maxim

Allow me to get meta here for a moment.

I’ve noticed that a very common response to nasty internet comments is to repeat the mantra, “Don’t feel the trolls.” It’s become “common knowledge” that you should ignore mean-spirited (as opposed to simply critical) comments on the internet, especially if you’re the one they’re addressed to, because people who leave such comments are only looking for a reaction from you.

Unfortunately, one side effect of this is that when someone complains about a nasty comment left on their blog or whatever, they often get a response like, “Oh, that’s not even worth thinking about. They’re just a troll. Don’t pay any attention to them.”

This response is certainly well-intentioned, and people who make it are generally trying to reassure the targeted person that the nasty comment doesn’t mean anything. However, there are several problems with it, and with the whole “Don’t feed the trolls” concept in general.

First of all, if someone’s upset about getting a nasty comment, don’t delegitimize their emotions. Feeling crappy when someone says something mean to you is a completely “normal” human thing, trust me. When someone does this in a public place (i.e. the internet) and in response to something you’ve worked hard on (a blog post, a YouTube video), it’s even more understandable that you’d feel crappy about it.

“Delegitimization” in this case refers to making people feel like their emotions aren’t legitimate–that they shouldn’t have them, or that they should just “get over” them rather than letting them run their course. That’s rarely what anyone means to do when they say things like “That’s not a big deal” and “That’s not even worth being upset over,” but that’s the effect such statements tend to have.

Furthermore, I’m no longer sure that “Don’t feed the trolls” is always the best response. True, you’re probably not going to change the person’s mind if you respond to their nasty comment. But something I’ve heard from many fellow activists is that when you write–and especially when you argue in a public forum–you’re not necessarily trying to change the mind of someone who holds the opposite position as you. Rather, you’re hoping to grab the attention of the onlooker who hasn’t really made up their mind yet, and who can definitely be swayed by a well-articulated argument.

And that’s assuming that people never change their minds once they’ve made them up, which, sometimes, they do. I’ve changed plenty of minds, and I’m really just starting to find my groove as an activist/writer.

I’ve also heard the argument that responding to nasty comments (or allowing them out of moderation, period) somehow “legitimizes” what they’re saying. First of all, I disagree that the mere act of responding to a comment makes that comment more “legitimate” regardless of the nature of your response. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek, so for me, responding to an attack is what comes naturally.

This attitude also presupposes that trolling comments are completely arbitrary, and that there’s nothing behind them other than a single person’s desire to be an asshole. That’s rarely the case. For instance, take the trolliest comment of all: “tits or gtfo,” which is often directed by men at women posting on the internet. If you dig a big deeper, you can use that meme to understand the culture that pervades certain male-dominated spaces on the internet. In these spaces–Reddit and 4chan are two noteworthy examples–men often view women as good for only one thing.

In these cases, deleting nasty comments rather than leaving them up and responding can be counterproductive. For instance, take this example, which some of my friends and I actually watched unfold yesterday. A female volunteer for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) offered her help to one of the organization’s affiliates and was met with vile sexism. Publicizing this helps explain how sexism continues to be a problem in the secular community and leads us into a discussion of what can be done about it. (Sidenote: see the comments thread of that blog post for a great conversation about how to deal with nasty comments.)

And the upside in this situation is that people jumped into the original thread and challenged the guy who was being an asshole, and he ultimately apologized. That never would’ve happened if the people who challenged him had just shrugged and thought, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

All that said, there are certainly right and wrong ways to respond to nasty comments on the internet. Responding with anger (or, worse, hurt feelings) is exactly the kind of “feeding” that trolls actually do thrive on. The best responses are confident, snappy, and/or humorous, and show that the troll can’t get to you. One of the best comebacks I’ve ever seen was made by Alex Gabriel of the Heresy Club; someone commented, “i was searching google for circle jerk and ended up here,” and Alex responded, “Oh dear, that’s unfortunate. I can link you to some excellent porn if you’d prefer.”

Or, as my friend Kate, another badass writer and activist, says, “No, I will not feed the trolls. I will fucking trounce them and make them look like public idiots.”

None of this is to say that you should respond to nasty comments. Everyone has their own way of dealing with this sort of thing, and methodically demolishing mean-spirited arguments takes patience and energy that not everyone has all of the time. I’m merely suggesting that we should reexamine the cliche that one should never respond to trolls, not that everyone should do so all of the time.

Blogging (and other creative internet pursuits) can be exhausting and thankless. Do what feels right to you. And try not to end up like this infamous guy from xkcd:

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Types of Moronic Blog Comments I Get

[Snark Warning, obviously]

When I receive comments like this either on this blog, on my Tumblr, on Facebook, or in person, I kind of want to shoot myself in the face.

“Yeah well, I’m [insert group name here] and this doesn’t apply to me.”

I will personally give you $20 if you can find a post on this blog claiming that all x are y. When you’re writing about culture and social science, as I do, a certain amount of generalization is necessary to be able to make a point. I’ve decided not to insult my readers’ intelligence by littering my blog posts with inane truisms like “but of course there is an exception to every rule” and “this may not apply to every individual but” and so on. Apparently, though, people don’t understand this, so I probably need to add a “generalization warning” to the two warnings that I already have.

“That’s just your opinion.”

Gee, brilliant observation, Einstein. This is my blog! Of course it’s just my opinion! I will gladly pay up another $20 if you find a post in which I claim to be the supreme authority on some subject or other.

“Don’t be so judgmental.”

Or what? I’ll be a Bad Person? I never claimed to be a perfect saintly individual who doesn’t judge people. Most people judge people. Granted, most people do not have a blog, so perhaps that’s what sets me apart. In which case, go ahead and state the problem as it really is–I’m a woman, I’m sharing my opinions, and my opinions aren’t always Nice and Kind and Loving. Oh noes!

“Check your privilege.” (and variations thereof)

I’ve already written about this so much that I hardly have anything to add and will simply direct you to this, this, and this.

“I like you better when you aren’t so angry.”

Yeah, and I like the world better when it doesn’t have any problems for me to get angry about. I also like YOU better when you don’t demand constant cheeriness from me. What can I say, we all have our likes and dislikes!

“lol”

I’m sorry, you must’ve gotten lost on the way to your junior high and accidentally ended up on my blog. You should probably get going now.

“Great post! I found it very interesting! For information about a new, low-cost solution to increase the size of your peni$ please visit http://www.cheapbigpeni$.com”

Enough said.

New Comment Policy

From now on, I will delete any negative, anonymous comments from this blog. This is because I firmly believe that if you have a constructive comment to make about something I wrote, you should be able to put your real name on it (or a screen name you use elsewhere online). If you find yourself writing a negative comment that you’d rather keep anonymous from me, this is probably because what you’re saying isn’t helpful or constructive.

If you don’t feel comfortable having others read your comment with your name attached to it, you are free to email it to me at miriam[at]brutereason.net or contact me through Facebook.

If you don’t actually know me personally but found this blog through the internet somehow, I would prefer that you link to your blog or other sort of site. Although, if I think your comment is really interesting and/or constructive, I might leave it up anyways.

Regardless, if I decide to delete an anonymous comment, I will leave a note referring to this comment policy and inviting you to repost your comment with some sort of identification attached. If you don’t want to, that’s fine.

Ultimately, this is an issue of accountability. I criticize a lot of people and institutions on this blog, but I use my real name because I prefer to take ownership of my opinions. If you can’t do the same, then, with all due respect, keep your opinions to yourself. I never expect more of others than I would expect from myself, so I think I’m being fair in this regard.

In other words, no more of this “an acquaintance” or “someone you know” crap. If you know me and disagree with me, own up to it.

Thanks for reading.

Update: Here’s the rest of the comment policy!

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