Let’s Fix the Internet

The art of saying “you’re a jerk”

elizabeth tobey
Apr 14, 2016 · 12 min read

Welcome to Part Two of my occasional series on How To Fix The Internet: An Entirely Incomplete Suggestion Guide. Today, we’re tackling the much needed and very fine art of saying “you’re a jerk” to someone who is, well, being a jerk on the internet.

Welcome to the breeding ground for sociopathic behavior

Combine a virtual world where you are divorced from human interactions (voice, facial expressions, body language, the psychological effect of a crowd who is watching and listening to you) and have nearly total anonymity, and you’ll find yourself in a world that is a breeding ground of sociopathic behavior.

This is not to say all jerks are sociopaths, or even that, when they are jerks, they are exhibiting actual clinical sociopathic behavior. However, when you take the volume and trends of the shitty things we say and do online, cumulatively, it’s really, really sociopathic. Like, American Psycho sociopathic.

, we talked about the power of saying sorry, for both the person who did something wrong, the person who was wronged, and for all the people online around us who might be in one of those positions in the future. There’s another group who benefits from seeing the transaction of an apology: people who might be jerks in the future. We’re going to fix the internet through social engineering and by creating societal norms that are enforced by the whole. After all, the opinions of our peers is the true deterrent that keeps us in line in life, not laws: those are reserved for extreme (and edge) cases.

Sorry goes a long way, but it is, frankly, the most toothless tool we have in our kit in terms of how we’ll fix the internet.

When someone’s a jerk, we need to say it. All of us need to say it.

Be intolerant of intolerance

We seem to be living in a horrible self-fulfilling shitfest where people either are offended and upset by anyone unlike themselves or are derisive and condescending towards people who are ever upset and offended about anything.

Being intolerant of intolerance is not the same as refusing to accept anything other than something you approve of or think is correct.

Nuance is the most important takeaway from this lesson. Taking the stance where everything beyond your own opinions is offensive is likely not going to work out well. Likewise, taking the stance where anyone who is offended by anything is wrong and thusly worth a dressing down is also a subpar way to interact like a human being.

If we can start from a head space where we understand that we are limited by our own experiences and attempt to see another person’s point of view through their life experience (which is not our own and likely not one we can ever completely understand), we can get to a place where judgment, derision, and generally shittiness is not our first reaction.

And for people who do not want to do this — or cannot, or will not?

Be intolerant of them.

You are wrong sometimes

Yep, there it is: sometimes, you’re wrong. That’s just life. And when you get online, you’re introducing yourself to a huge swath of people with many, many different backgrounds, expertises, and perspectives. Even if you insulate yourself in a niche community full of people who have proclivities that are much like your own, inevitably, there will come a time when differences arise.

It’s important to note that opinions are not the same as facts. Online, we conflate these two (hell, I do it a lot). Regardless of which conversation we’re having — one of opinions or facts — sometimes, you’re on the wrong side of right. Without fail, once we go down this route, someone becomes a jerk. When this happens, it’s up to us to speak up on behalf of both parties.

You are out-of-line sometimes

Going hand-in-hand with being wrong, everyone can lose their cool sometimes — and it’s super easy to do this on the internet. Sometimes, it’s because of miscommunication. Sometimes, it’s because the internet doesn’t have all those other human inputs (like seeing and hearing people) that breeds miscommunication or escalates conflict much faster than a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Sometimes, it’s because you are dealing with someone who will never agree with you on a very fundamental level. Sometimes, it’s because you are dealing with someone whose aim is to make you do something out-of-line.

Regardless of the situation or reason, the fact remains that it’s not okay to cross that boundary and become an asshole. Also, when it happens, even if it happens to a good person, we have an obligation to speak up.

Some people just want to watch the world burn

“Don’t feed the trolls” is a statement I agree with and practice with frequency. I recognize when people are saying something to me online specifically to piss me off — or even just to get any response out of me. In these instances, the bait is too painfully easy and obvious to deal with: Disregard these people.

Staying silent towards all hateful and hurtful speech, however, is a dangerous road to travel. Yes, there’s a very large contingent of people on the internet who derive pleasure out of angering and hurting others. This is not okay, and it’s our obligation to construct our online society such that behaving in this way is unacceptable to a level that the costs far outweigh the benefits. Referring back to our metaphor of society keeping most people in line: where that fails, yes, there are laws. However, society largely keeps these kinds of assholes in check in the real world, and we should echo this behavior online.

Mob justice is not justice

Trolls who like to target a person or group of people in order to incite hate, inflict pain, or cause anger are just as bad as the mobs that form in retaliation. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that good stuff — but going back to my point on intolerance, being intolerant of intolerance is not a license to be an asshole yourself. If someone doxes a woman, you don’t dox them back. Public shaming is barbaric. To make a very ham-fisted analogy: we don’t shit on the desks of co-workers we don’t like because even if we weren’t fired for the transgression, the impact of our social dealings and ability to continue to thrive in business would be severely impacted. We deal with a desk-shitter through intolerance, but we don’t respond by collectively shitting on the desk-shitter’s desk and then making desk-shitter eat all that shit.

The parable of an internet jerk

Several years ago, I ended up in a weird Twitter argument with a fairly well-known video game critic named John Bain. The argument started because Bain couldn’t stand how narrow the field of view (also called FOV, basically the angle of the digital camera “lens” you see the game through) was on a newly released game. I ran community for said game, so when this prominent, influential person posted upset things on Twitter, it was my job to respond.

Back then, I was way more close-lipped and corporate. I’ve actually only started expressing real opinions online since I left the gaming industry (and that’s not a coincidence). Still, we’re looking back several years to a younger, stupider me. Today, I probably would have been a lot more honest and blunt with Bain: that there’s stuff I can and cannot talk about without checking with the dev team, for example. There are technical and monetary constraints to decisions we make and fixes we can deploy and while I can be influential in getting other people to make those decisions, I don’t get to make them myself. It doesn’t matter how vitriolic the users are or how influential critics who take personal pot shots at employees of the products they find unacceptable are.

Does it matter that what I said to Bain was all I was allowed to say at the time? Does it matter that I personally wanted to throttle the developer for saying more than I was previously allowed to say, making me legitimately look like an idiot? Does it matter that all of this is pretty par-for-course in fast moving business, particularly back in 2012 when companies understood the importance and impact of social media far less than they do today and were even worse at how they utilized it?

Nope: none of that matters. What matters is that there was a legitimate issue with a video game, an employee was not giving enough information to help the people with this legitimate issue, and a critic was a jerk to the employee.

There are so many ways to have this exact conversation without ever calling someone vapid.

Just because these conversation happen online does not mean social norms go out the window.

Bain didn’t just stop with our Twitter conversation. Now riled by the problem with the video game and my responses to him, he made a 16-minute video about the issue. Bain being a game critic who makes video blogs, making one about a game is totally normal, except that the framing of this video (and thesis that weaves throughout the narrative) is entirely centered on dressing down me, personally.

Does it matter that the hack Bain demonstrated in this video was known by our team to crash the game? Does it matter that I, personally, get super nauseous when playing games with narrow FOV? Does it matter that I advocated within my company to fix this issue, repeatedly, for multiple games (well before Bain and I had our chat)?

No: none of that matters.

What is not okay is for Bain, at the 6:45 minute mark of his video, to plainly tell his hundreds of thousands of users my Twitter handle (under the pretense of them being able to read our discussion) — going so far as to call out that they should “be respectful” (something his base is known to not be, and, in this instance, were not in the slightest).

While I had received shitty comments and threats through multiple private and public avenues before and certainly over larger controversies pertaining to far greater groups of gamers, this is the first instance I’d had an influential person turn his ire on me, singularly, and thusly his fan base.

It wasn’t the best couple weeks of my life — but those weeks weren’t even the parts that made me think of him as the example for why we need to point out jerks on the internet.

I think of this first because, three years after that event, one of my closest friends linked me that same YouTube video and said, “did you know what this guy said about you?”

I laughed, and said, “yeah, I remember that.”

My friend was appalled: he’d found it through a friend of his own, who had linked it because it was such an aggressive and angry rant. (I thought that was cute because, really, it wasn’t that bad. That’s one reason why it makes it a good example: something more horrific would lose the point in the vitriol.)

My friend’s adorably defensive response to belatedly hearing about this debacle, though, is still not the reason why this is a good example for this post.

This becomes a good example when juxtaposed with the time I met John Bain in person.

A year after that video published, I ran community for a new video game company. That company hired Bain to promote one of our upcoming titles. And me? I was to be his handler during the event.

For two hours, Bain and I were alone in a room while he live streamed a video game I worked on — a game I knew was very, very rough around the edges. I’m no critic: I worked on a ton of games and played even more, but a critical eye is not something I’d claim to have — and even I knew that the praise he heaped on this early version was far beyond what I’d be comfortable putting my name behind — and I worked on the damned game.

I was actually pretty damned worried about being Bain’s handler: after all, the man had spent at least 16-minutes trash-talking me, and here I was, representing another game that was far from adequate. And yet, perhaps worse than his inflated (and in my opinion, dishonestly kind) praise for the early version of the game, he looked me in the eye, smiled, and shook my hand, introducing himself and saying it was a pleasure to meet me.

Did the man remember my name? Quite possibly, no. Quite likely, he dresses down people so frequently and with such vitriol that my moment of targeted hate was, literally, a blip on his radar.

Or, perhaps, being a jerk on the internet is easy for him. Looking the woman he called vapid in the eye, the woman whose social media account he carefully spelled out for his following — and then told them, of course, to be respectful of her — perhaps it’s difficult for him to be a jerk to her when she’s standing in the room staring at his face.

Did I say anything to him about our previous online interaction? No. Because my professional reputation was more important than deciding to refresh my contractor’s memory about the time he was a jerk to me for doing my job in a way he deemed unacceptable.

Was I an asshole to him for doing his job in a way I deemed unacceptable? No.

My interactions with John Bain were not acceptable. Bain was an internet jerk and I did not stand up for myself and say as much, online or when I met him in person. If we’re going to build a better internet, it’s imperative that everyone — the ones in the interaction as well as the bystanders — be accountable for how we act and what we say.

How to say “you’re a jerk”

There is incredible nuance to the art of saying “you are a jerk” without falling into the numerous pitfalls that can make your actions identical, in essence, to those of an actual jerk.

So how do we overcome this?

Approach the situation with respect, and the benefit of the doubt, and an earnest and honest desire to help.

Yes, I know that sounds pretty weak, but let’s picture this not as a mental exercise but a physical exercise. When you are working out, you can cheese your routine. You get through all the sets and reps, but you aren’t actually doing the work and, deep down, you know you aren’t, even if you look the part. It’s the nuances that make a physical exercise session truly beneficial, requiring work that only you can undertake in order to actually make something happen. Whether that’s tightening your core, picking up heavier weights for a bigger challenge, or just ensuring the right posture: it’s those details that flip the situation from “I showed up at the gym and checked the box” to “I actually pushed my body and worked out.”

That’s what this is about: those little details inside yourself that make you someone who is trying to make the internet a place where comments that are net negative are not welcome.

Here’s an (admittedly imperfect) example of a better interaction when someone’s kind of a jerk on the internet. This is a website I frequent pretty much every day in my spare time; I’ve posted there for over a decade so I’ve drawn on it several times as an example of how communities interact online.

In this example, I’m posting my thoughts regarding (and ended up losing). I’ve experienced quite a bit of harassment while being public-facing online, so I was sharing my personal experiences on scary trolls while thinking about harassment that felt very real and scary to me but would also not hold up in criminal court and yield a guilty verdict.

Another poster was a jerk to me in response to my story. He wasn’t trolling me, he wasn’t threatening me, he wasn’t trying to ruin my life. I use this example specifically because, in the grand scheme of the internet it’s barely even notable on the scale of shitty behavior.

And yet, this poster would never have said this to my face. In terms of making the internet a better place, with basic standards of respect and decency, he falls short of the mark.

And the community called him out on it.

And they were civil in doing it.

Five years ago, this conversation wouldn’t have happened on this website for a plethora of reasons. Society as a whole didn’t take harassment as seriously, so the court case would have never happened. I would never have spoken up about my experiences. The community rarely called out someone for being a jerk and, if they did, it was by being jerks themselves.

This is how it’s done. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t always happen, but this is how we change the world. One step at a time, together, by modeling and learning better behaviors.

The art of saying “you’re a jerk” doesn’t include actually saying those words. Actions: they speak louder than words, especially when on the internet.

elizabeth tobey

Written by

East coaster with a secret SF love affair. I enjoy juxtaposing things. Also: Cheese and tiny dachshunds.

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