Don’t let assholes rent space in your head

Cory Doctorow wrote an excellent piece about trolls here (from which I took a phrase to furnish the title field for this post).

Here be sage advice. Life’s too short for meaningless quibbles with people who are either pathologically argumentative, or who will simply never understand your point of view. Ignore them when you can.

Goodness knows, I’ve had a few rows during my life online. My first exposure to a flame war was in 1997, while I was an undergrad. I had subscribed to an anti-APEC email list (this was around the time Indonesia’s then-murderous president Suharto was invited for a global trade meeting at my university at the time, which involved the famous barricading of the MOA, as well as the ANSOC department, and much of Northwest Marine Drive, to boot, remember? Then, when protesters scaled the fence they got pepper sprayed by the RCMP who at the behest of the Feds were determined to protect the delicate Suharto from ever seeing a placard…not to mention the civil liberties of many students were violated when they were arrested prior to the demonstrations, prohibiting them from taking part…).

Anyway, did I say email list? Yes. After subscribing to this well-intentioned and valuable email list for about a week, many of the well-intentioned and lovely people who posted to it heavily began to disagree over..tactics, was it? I can’t remember – perhaps there’s an archive somewhere. In retrospect, there were two fundamental errors made by this group of hostile posters: (1) they had no mechanism for defusing or deflaming flame wars, and (2) they had not a whiff of respect for the concept of using “Reply All” sparingly, self-centeredly posting their arguments for all to see, rather than emailing their opponent in private. The eventual result was a mass unsubscribe, which quietened what could have been such an amazing tool for student mobilization at a time when it was required.

Then there was the time (don’t I sound like an octogenarian….maybe in Internet years, I am!) I took a week off from EVERYTHING to defeat an Indymedia troll (likely a Provincial right wing political campaign office flak flunkie … shall we call them “flakkies”?) who sought to defame a grassroots recall campaigner here in Vancouver. I used every rhetorical trick and legal resource I could muster to embarrass this servile piece of crap, staying well within Indymedia’s guidelines, and being as polite as possible. Eventually the asshole retreated (logic triumphed over emotion), and I think his final salvo was of the “get a life” variety. Sadly, he was right. I fell behind in term papers, in course readings, and my girlfriend just stared at me like I had transformed into an insect, much like Kafka’s Gregor, fit only to be shut up in my room, a burden to everyone…whatever, I won.

Debating people online is always a risky endeavor, as text seems to (for disputed reasons) lend itself to easy enflamement; this observation is nothing new. My main pitfall is my tendency to feed trolls, who then become emboldened and attack, like raccoons do in cities when they are fed (don’t feed the fucking raccoons, either!). I’d like to swear off it altogether, but I don’t think it’s healthy (for the web) to do so, as I and many acquaintainces of mine report learning something from the exchanges. I do keep myself in check better than previously, which is working out well, and there are some old fora in which I no longer even lurk (believe it or not, some trolls manage to dominate and sustain entire communities that center around their own childlike political whims). And yes, the comments on this blog are moderated. Lump it.

What lessons can we take away from this shambolic retrospective about my experience with trolls and flaming? Well, for one (as argued by the perpetually insightful Alex Halavais here), show respect for the community, email list, or what-have-you to which you’re subscribed if you really want to be there. Secondly, if you really want to parade around like an emperor of something in the marketplace of ideas, get a fucking blog like I did. And thirdly – and this is especially directed at well-intentioned political activists out there – be sure to understand the nature of the medium you are using to mobilize and motivate people. As with the APEC student movement case, the email list got the better of the group to some extent, because they apparently had no idea that email was different from shouting through a megaphone.

And to reiterate, reclaim your head whenever it’s possible. Squatters should inhabit empty houses – not open minds.

(Apologies to my Facebook mates – I promise it’s the last time I’ll post this phrase here. You must be sick of it by now.)

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