At the Festival of Faith and Writing two weeks ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my friend Jennifer Grant and I co-led a discussion group titled “Troll-Proofing Your Online Writing.” Based on our conversations and my own reading and musing, here are a few thoughts about what we can and can’t do about trolls, and why it’s vital that we do something.
Trolls cause real and significant damage. Several circle participants said the biggest benefit of our conversation was realizing that they are not weak or shallow or silly for being deeply hurt by mean-spirited online comments. We shared stories about trolls who have called us names; dismissed our knowledge and expertise; accused us of all sorts of nefarious activities, from being a terrible mother to not really being a Christian; and gone way way way over the line of good taste to leave sexist, suggestive, and just plain rude comments. Good writing requires a deep investment of time, work, and self. So when people attack us—when they don’t merely disagree, but ridicule and dismiss and name call—it feels personal because it is personal. We feel hurt and vulnerable. Those feelings ought not be dismissed simply because the attack came via characters on a screen instead of someone yelling in our faces. Sometimes, writers decide they can’t write about certain topics any more because they are such magnets for vitriol, so that writers and conscientious readers lose opportunities for thoughtful engagement with important issues. Sometimes, trolls feel so empowered by their anonymity and unchecked ability to attack us with their words that they up the ante. They bring their attacks to our phone lines and doorsteps. And now it’s not just our emotional equilibrium or our list of preferred topics that are compromised, as we begin looking over our shoulders out in public and being afraid to answer the phone or the doorbell.
“Thick skin” is not the best or only solution to trollish behavior. The most common advice given to writers when we complain about troll attacks? “You need to develop thicker skin.” Translation: Get used to it. Trolls aren’t going away so figure out how to do your job without letting them bother you. This is not bad advice. My skin has absolutely gotten thicker since I began blogging a number of years ago. I frequently read comments that would have left me raving mad or deeply hurt in the past, and feel little more than mild annoyance or even maudlin curiosity about what would lead someone to leave such a ridiculously overblown, off-the-mark comment. Thicker skin is a valuable tool for protecting ourselves from troll-incited damage, and we can only develop it with time and experience. But given the real, significant damage that trollish comments can do to civil discourse, to writers’ psyches, and potentially to our and our families’ safety, thicker skin cannot be the only or primary way that we deal with Internet trolls. If a kid is being bullied at school, we can encourage him to keep his chin up and look for support among true friends, but we would be remiss if we didn’t also figure out how to stop the bullying. Trolls are online bullies. And given how much excellent writing is born from writers’ willingness to be vulnerable, or to say things that other people are afraid or unwilling to say, do we really want writers to build up a thick defensive layer between us and the reading world?
Writers have the right to protect ourselves, even if that requires bucking social media convention. Writers whose primary outlets are online (and especially those who regularly write about touchy subjects, including religion) have come up with a variety of methods for protecting themselves from the whirlwind of feelings churned up by trollish comments. Some writers will not read comments on their posts at all. When I first started blogging and heard a writer mention this as her strategy, I was floored. How could she not read comments? Wasn’t she curious? And isn’t it even kind of rude to write something but refuse to engage with your audience? Now, I get it. While I don’t avoid comments altogether, when I write for online outlets other than this blog, I usually just skim the comments. If it’s clear that the thread is being dragged downhill by trollish comments, I’ll stop reading them altogether. On this blog, I feel obligated to read the comments; not doing so makes me feel like I’ve invited people to hear a lecture without allowing for any Q&A. Most of the time, even those who disagree are cordial. It helps that I have full comment moderation privileges, so I can delete offensive comments and block repeat offenders. Another self-protection strategy for writers is to ask someone they trust to read comments and summarize the overall tone and content; one Festival circle participant has her husband do this for her. A less direct but useful strategy, which I wrote about here, is to build up a mutually supportive “tribe” of fellow writers and readers who will speak up on each others’ behalf when commenters get nasty.
Editors have an obligation to help protect their writers. Some blogs and web sites tend to have positive, constructive comment threads, while others seem to attract the most vitriolic comments around. Constructive comment sections don’t happen by accident. They happen when those ultimately in charge of content and with the power to set policy make (and enforce) clear guidelines about what sorts of comments are and are not acceptable. Comment software (including Disqus, which we use here at Patheos) also helps by allowing readers to like or dislike particular comments, so that ideally, the most constructive comments float to the top of the thread while less constructive comments eventually get buried at the bottom. Many writers (myself included), however, have been told either outright or through subtle discouragement that complaining about vitriolic comment threads is potentially threatening to our careers: We don’t want to become known as high-maintenance complainers, do we? No, we don’t. But it’s not helpful for any of us—writers, editors, site administrators—to allow “anything goes” comment sections to flourish. I and others, for example, have had the experience of writing on a faith-related topic for the religion section of news sites, and then watching as 90 percent of the comments ridicule us for being people of faith instead of engaging with the topic. We all know that controversy, unfortunately, leads to high traffic. But it’s possible to allow for spirited debate on controversial topics without also allowing vitriolic and/or off-topic comments to dominate.
I believe it’s possible to troll-proof our online writing—or at least minimize the damage. How about you?