It is a well-known fact that the Internet is filled with people writing horrible things to each other.
Whether it is filled with bona fide horrible people is less clear.
Sure, there are theories. Two studies published last fall found that the trolliest of trolls, the ones who spend a lot of time spewing anonymous hate in the dim light of their computer screens, share some serious personality traits with psychopaths and sadists.
But what about the amateur troll? The regular guy who makes an off-color joke and, in the fog of his own cleverness, hits “send”? Or the young troll-in-waiting, steeped in the comment sections of frat-boy websites, who types horrible things but might someday come to his senses?
This is the dilemma of Curt Schilling, the former Red Sox ace and would-be gaming entrepreneur, who took a famous stab against trolls this week after he posted a proud tweet about his college-bound daughter. In life, this is what dads do. On the Internet, it’s an invitation. Sure enough, reply tweets came, scraped from the bottom of the human-discourse cesspool, sexist and gross and apparently meant to be funny.
This would come as no surprise to, say, female campus activists and feminist critics of video games. Schilling saw it, rightly, as the stuff of affluent, entitled, idiotic jocks, plus an Internet run amok. He ranted on his blog and called out the worst offender, a community college student in New Jersey. He urged his readers to “have at it” at some others.
And he got action: That college student got expelled, and a part-time ticket seller for the Yankees got fired. Schilling was everyone’s hero this week, Internet policeman, Defender Dad.
Troll-shaming is appealing. It flips the power balance — unmasks an ugly joke and finds the weakness underneath it. And these days, in light of the feebleness of Twitter’s “report abuse” tools, there’s a growing sense that the mob works better. In 2013, Mary Beard, a gray-haired professor at Cambridge University, retweeted a college student who had seen her on TV and called her, among other things, “a dirty old slut.” The Daily Mail published a photo of his house, and of him, lounging on a yacht. He was a villain in England, for awhile.
But public shame isn’t the only thing that can give a troll pause. Lindy West, who writes fearlessly and hilariously about feminism — sadly, another standard troll invitation — quietly tolerated her many trolls until one went beyond the usual rape jokes and made a Twitter account in her dead father’s name. She wrote about it on Jezebel.com. He wrote her back, contrite, and made a cancer donation in her dad’s memory, and told the kind of story we’d like to believe of every troll, and every analog bully, too: that he did it because he was unhappy with himself, and he’s sorry. In a later interview on “This American Life,” he attested to becoming a better guy.
West, pointedly, has never named him. The knowledge that he’s changed, it seems, was satisfying enough.
Of course, on Twitter, anonymity isn’t always possible. Twitter accounts often have real names and actual photos; the profile pic of Schilling’s college-age troll is plastered all over the Internet now. He says he’s sorry. He should be. And bravo to Schilling for leading the charge against casual Internet misogyny.
But what should the proper punishment be? Lifelong shame? If there were an Internet Behavior Court, I might recommend, before the pitchforks set in, an in-person meeting: force the troll to sit across from his troll-ee, to see the human being on the opposite end, without a 4G network between them.
This can go surprisingly well. Beard eventually had lunch with her college troll, declared that one stupid act shouldn’t bar him from a job forever, and wrote him a character reference. She owned the power of the situation from the start, and she still does. He’s kind of a pet troll now.