Some recent conversations around Internet toxicity have been reminding me about some deeply traumatic, formative experiences I had nearly 20 years ago, with being doxed, harassed, stalked, and threatened online.
What makes things even worse was that this was directly facilitated by someone who is now a self-proclaimed expert in Internet toxicity, and who was recently given “special thanks” in a podcast I listen to, on an episode about these problems that he very directly contributed to.
This actually starts 22 years ago, in 1999. One of the largest opensource discussion communities, Slashdot, was getting overwhelmingly big and toxic. It had a major moderation problem; people would moderate each others' comments maliciously rather than based on their merit, and the Slashdot admins tried paving over it with “meta-moderation” which only amplified the issue further. So, when a new “technology and culture” site opened up, with the idea being that it would do community moderation right as an ongoing experiment, I signed right up.
Early on, the site only had a handful of users, and everyone seemed to be really involved in wanting it to be a better place. It was also a friendly spot where people were open to hearing about my gender-related stuff, and I felt comfortable talking about myself, my academic research, and being trans while trying to navigate the world of computer science and academia at a university based in a conservative farming town.
Over time, more and more people showed up, and the site administrator experimented with more moderation mechanisms. People who got a certain average comment rating had access to one extra moderation tool, the ability to rate a comment a 0, and comments which were below a certain threshold would be hidden to everyone who didn’t have this status. It worked for a little while.
But eventually, there was a sudden influx of trolls, who very quickly figured out that they could game the system by mutually rating each other with a 5 (getting the karma boost) and could then easily unhide any 0-rated posts. There were also no limits on the number of accounts people could sign up for (I had something like a dozen, myself, but entirely for parody/comedic purposes and not for abuse1) and it’s hard to tell just how many trolls there actually were to start with, but there were certainly enough troll accounts to cause some pretty big problems.
The problems weren’t all trolling, of course. There were a couple of white nationalists2, for example, who kept on posting bad-faith statistics articles to “prove” the Rothschild conspiracy. Being openly Jewish I was also subject to attacks from these people; their take was that I was either purposefully part of the conspiracy they were trying to expose, or benefitting from it in such a way that of course I’d want to suppress their “truth.” But like many white nationalists do, they always couched their language in phrases like “I’m just making observations!” and most people on the site did nothing to counteract this; they just saw it as a joke or as harmless ranting.
Being outspoken about the increasing problems with the site and the community only led me to getting targeted. One or more of the trolls dug through my posting history to dig up “dirt” and didn’t have to go far to find out that I’m trans, or to find my very public academic research, and my position at my university. They started threatening to out me to my department, and posted the names and email addresses of my department head and my graduate advisor. They also had my legal name3 and started posting things to link my online presence with said legal name. At one point, one of them opened a “parody” account in my name on the site and started reposting everything I posted under that name under the premise that I was “taking ownership” of my words (or something to that effect).
Also, at one point, a rather unflattering deer-in-the-headlights photo of me ended up on my department’s website, one in which I was not prepared to have my picture taken, particularly not in a context where it would be shared with the world. I hadn’t shaven in a couple of days, my hair was a mess, and the fluorescent lighting in the room made me look especially gross. One of the trolls found this image and started posting it in response to anything I wrote regarding my gender identity, the obvious pretext being “ha ha, look at this ugly dude who thinks he’s a girl.”
I complained about all this to the site admin, who did nothing except to blame me for “putting that information out there,” and made the claim that it wasn’t worth trying to get rid of it as a result.
He did eventually shut down the account that was reposting all of my comments and articles under my then-legal name, but he refused to change the name on the account or remove the posts. Again under the premise that the information was “already out there.”
Meanwhile, the trolling escalated. The harassers had found my home address and phone number, and started signing me up for various religious things. I found myself on mailing and call lists for religious retreats, and on more than one occasion I had missionaries showing up at my door. They said I’d called them to recant on my “homosexuality” and had “found Jesus” and wanted support, and they came to congratulate me on this difficult decision and hand-deliver a Bible. Not only was this both targeted at being trans and at being Jewish, but this was an extreme violation of my privacy. People were coming to my house.
I posted about this and some people were finally getting a little bit aghast about this, but most people just treated it like a harmless prank, like getting a pizza sent to my house (which is also not a harmless prank, especially in the context of strangers knowing my address and phone number).
Now, very early on in the life of the site, he had posted his own phone number in various places, saying that he’d love to hear from users. Of course those posts had long-since disappeared, but I’d happened to keep a copy around because I thought, hey, he might be fun to talk to on the phone at some point. Because things were friendly, right?
I posted an oblique reference to this, which led the trolls to find his number. But because I’d posted the information that led to this, it was somehow my fault that he’d posted his phone number, willingly, online. And suddenly every complaint I had about the site’s toxicity and trolling problem was negated, because “well you posted his phone number!” which somehow made me part of the problem. Even for years after I’d left the site, if I ever brought up the problems with that place, people would say, “Well, I seem to recall you posting his phone number!” completely devoid of the context around my actions, or even what my actual actions were.
UPDATE: Comments reminded me of another thing, in that the admin had also specifically said that he didn’t care about his phone number being out there because he never answered the phone anyway. And I did try calling him a few times and that was definitely the case — no answer. So this is why it seemed like a completely safe thing to make a point about. Of course, once his phone number had resurfaced due to said point, suddenly this was the worst thing ever to happen to him, and how dare I violate his privacy that way…
I finally left the site in 2003, but still had trolls following me around for a long time after that.
A couple years later, the site admin completely shut down registrations for a while because someone posted a racially-charged Photoshop of his wife having sex with someone else. Somehow that was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone on the site and this was cause for immediate crackdown.
I never got any apologies from the site admin, and every now and then his name comes up in a context where he’s some self-described champion of stopping Internet toxicity, and he claims to have always been such a champion, never even acknowledging the many years that he ran a website that was central to a community of trolls and white supremacists, and where he turned a blind eye to at least one user who was being put through the hell of a protracted doxing and harassment campaign, his only response being to blame me for bringing it upon myself via the grievous sin of being open and friendly to a community that was, at the time, intended to be open and friendly. And in the meantime he’s not actually done anything to combat toxicity, so far as I’ve found; he just claims to have been someone who did.
I want to think that he’s changed and come to understand how his actions and inactions caused so many problems, but I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of that so far.
I was going to end this with “Fuck you, [name of admin],” but I couldn’t even bring myself to post it that way because I feel like it’d only invite more abuse and harassment. I can only hope that someone figures out who this is about and it makes its way back to him. Maybe he’ll finally understand how much fucking trauma I still feel, nearly 20 years on.
Towards the end of my time there I am ashamed to admit that I did start to use alt accounts for less-great purposes. I don’t think I ever got outright abusive but I definitely crossed a line with some of my jokes, in ways which in retrospect were pretty hurtful. ↩
Keep in mind this was in the very early 2000s. This is NOT a new problem on the Internet by any stretch. ↩
Ever wonder why I’m strongly opposed to “real name” policies? ↩