October 11, 2016

Why I Cyber Stalk My Internet Trolls

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Hi. My name is Kendra and I write for the internet.

(Hi, Kendra.)

I started writing full-time a little over a year and half ago, but wrote for funsies and stress relief long before that. (Yes, I said the word funsies and still expect/hope that you take me seriously — what a world!) The main medium that I have utilized while writing has been the internet. I’ve written and been published by a pretty solid number of places, most of which have been primarily accessible on your smartphone or computer because that’s the world we live in.

Some of those places were more journalistic, some more light-hearted. Some were purely comedy sites, some gave me more artistic liberty to try my hand at prose and more ~*feeling*~ type content. Some wanted sex, others wanted heart. It’s a mixed bag, really.

But there’s one common denominator when it comes to writing for the internet, no matter the .com attached to it.

And that, my friends, is the comment section.

Comment sections are an interesting little devil. On a lot of websites they’re operated in such a way (think along the lines of the hosting service Disqus) where users can remain anonymous by either “logging in” as a guest, or creating a nearly untraceable handle. Other sites (Thought Catalog now recently included) primarily utilize Facebook for commenting, but that’s not immune to fake/anonymous accounts coming on in and saying whatever they want with little to no consequence.

Anonymity is a strange thing. It gives us a bravado that we don’t have in our day to day when there are things like ethics and morality and real life judgement and person to person combat dictating what actually comes out of our mouths.

And when you mix anonymity with the internet, well…it’s a tale we’ve all heard before.

Comment sections are infamously brutal and hateful places where people crawl out of the woodwork to spit venom at their targets in the form of 60 word, often profanity laden messages. They often get so nasty and spiral to such a dark place, that writers never even read them. Jamilah Lemieux, the senior editor at Ebony magazine, wrote this column for The New York Times, appropriately titled, ‘Get Rid of Comment Sections’ stating;

“It is in comment sections that trolls get a static space with a built-in audience, at which they can hurl shocking vitriol and bigotry most wouldn’t dare express offline.”

At the tail end of 2014, several news websites including Recode, Reuters, Popular Science, The Week, Mic, The Verge, and USA Today’s FTW all opted to shut down the comment sections on their sites, encouraging users to utilize social media for discussion instead.

All attribute something similar behind the decision. The commenting was getting out of control, and something had to be done.

But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m not here to debate the ethics of anonymous commenting and this and that and get on my soapbox about the lack of a backbone that comes with calling someone a “bad word” from behind your Egg Photo Twitter handle.

I am here to talk about why I, Kendra Syrdal: internet writer, openly and willingly and DEEPLY, cyber stalk my internet trolls.

I’ve done this…for a while if I’m being totally honest.

I wrote for a site for a bit that where the readership was predominantly men who, if we’re being blunt, HATED me. I was/am fairly sarcastic, they didn’t like my choice of topics that I covered, they didn’t like my affinity for lists, they didn’t like that I fought back, but at the baseline: they just didn’t like me. And they let me HEAR it.

Eventually the comments spilled over to not just on the articles and essays I was writing, but came into my Twitter feed, my Facebook messages, and then I started to get hate mail. I would get emails filled with stuff that would have gotten people fired, would have gotten scholarships revoked, with some coming in so repetitively that if I had really wanted to, I likely could’ve filed a cease and desist.

But rather than doing any of those things, I did something different.

When I got one of my first hate emails telling me how much he wanted me to “fucking die” in the body, instead of panicking, I chose to find him instead.

I’ll admit, this first one wasn’t hard. He’d emailed me from a .edu email address, which combined with a first name and Google search instantly pulled up his fraternity site, and then I could Facebook stalk the crap out of him. I saw smiling photos of him and his girlfriend posing all piggyback in the snow, saw his awkward high school senior photos, learned he volunteered at the Boys and Girls club with his frat.

And in that moment, he went from being an internet troll to being a person.

It humanized him.

And this is something I’ve continued to do. It’s not for everyone who calls me a bitch online, lol that would take forrrrever. But when I get particularly nasty emails or mentions on Twitter, or even happen to glance at a comment, I look those people up. I find their Linkedin pages, their Instagrams with their shitty photos of avocado toast (we’ve all been there), and their oh-so-obviously screenshotted Snapchat profile pics. I find out their birthdays, what they like movie-wise, what sports they play, and sometimes how they’ve proposed.

I find out that they’re people. They’re no longer that asshole with the egg photo, they’re just a person.

More recently, I wrote an article on Thought Catalog called, “Date Someone Who Treats You Like Shit” that went viral. Look it up if you’re curious. It was met with a pretty down the middle response. People either loved it, or they hated it and they wanted to burn me at the stake. After it started to trend and traffic at a particularly high volume, I took some time to manage my social media page. I’m not a celebutot with a Dance Mom, I manage that shit myself. So I got to spend a hot 36 hours removing disgusting comments from my Facebook page, and filtering through abusive and violent emails.

And again, this isn’t commentary about comments and negative feedback. That’s allowed. That’s our god given, internet and wifi possessing right. I’m not immune to criticism, nor do I think I should be.

But I’m not talking about criticism.

I’m talking about tumblr messages saying, “Kill yourself, faggot” and emails saying, “I hope that you get so depressed you jump off a building,” and Facebook comments saying, “Maybe someone should rape you so you know what it’s like.”

It’s…well it’s different.

But each time one of those messages would come my way, rather than ignore it like my friends and my more logical side told me to do, I’d find myself Googling. Searching. Investigating.

I’d find myself putting together that puzzle of this person’s life, in a weird attempt to figure out who they were.

There was one girl who KEPT emailing me, even after I blocked her address, in they’d come. I gathered pretty quickly that she’d been using a fake name, but after the 3rd message I didn’t want to be beat.

So I spent some time Googling and searching, scrolling through social media and searching keywords and phrases until boom. There she was. No fake name, no pseudonym, no anonymity. There she was. The girl who’d be so violent and antagonistic towards me.

And I found out everything about her. Her real name, where she worked, where’d she graduated high school, who her parents were, who her friends were, what she wants to be when she grows up.

Before me, on my MacBook Air screen, was this girl’s life. There were her struggles, her joy, her hobbies, her sadness, her ramblings, her pain.

And even though I still think she was wrong to say the things she said to me, I weirdly got it. 

I understood why she was the way she was, and why she behaved the way she behaved. I sympathized with her. I pitied her. I felt like I leveled with her.

Because I cyber stalked her, and learned about her, it humanized her.

What I’ve come to realize from working on the internet and having a first hand experience both observing and being the target of outrage culture and comments is that it can be very easy to disassociate. Even if we don’t intend to…we do it. We don’t see the person on the other end of our hate spiral as a person, just another screen that our 140 characters will appear on after we’ve hit ‘send.’ We don’t think of our words as being poignant or powerful, because it’s the internet and tomorrow there will be 14 billion other words.

We don’t necessarily consider people as people, and that’s really sad.

In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson says,

“We know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins. So why do we pretend that we don’t?”

And that, is to a T why I cyber stalk the people who shoot hate and venom my way.

Because although initially and forcibly presented with their sins and flaws, I don’t want to automatically demonize them. And by choosing to look for their good parts, their other parts, their human parts, I am methodically separating myself from their behavior. 

Even though instinctually I may want to damn them, it forces me to seek out the human them. And in turn, it keeps ME human.

Comment sections and hate mail are an unfortunate side effect of my chosen field, and one that I will without a doubt still have to manage and deal with for as long as I’m here on the world wide web. I don’t have an end all be all solution to it, and I’m not sure how to improve it for everyone.

But I know that humanizing people is important to me. And that’s why I do it.

Well…that and it makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes. Or like I’m crafty enough that I could take over Catfish on MTV. So that’s a bonus too. TC mark

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