Continuing on from the return of the lady of shalott, another example of a common online issue and a suggestion on what to do with it. Public service information service:
1. ANTOINETTE (neither her real name nor an online pseudonym) posts constantly on a certain issue on a certain public discussion board. “Board flooding.” Asks the same questions over and over again. JOCASTA is a regular on that same board. S/he also receives many messages off-board (this website has a “private message / mail” area too), being a knowledgeable and helpful person. She has had much correspondence in the past (usually about that same issue) with ANTOINETTE, as well as interacting with her on that board. ANTOINETTE asks the same question on that same discussion board yet again. JOCASTA calls her out on it that discussion board. ANTOINETTE then sends her many off-board private messages. Each one a paragraph long. For hours and hours and hours. All day. Meanwhile, JOCASTA is at work.
What to do next?
As JOCASTA puts it,
Can a 50 year old woman really be that dumb? I mean REALLY??
Yes: there are no limits to human potential, and that includes the potential for deep incurable stupidity. sorry 😦 That’s the way the world is. That’s the way human beings are.
Why is there so much of this sort of thing around?
- People all over the world go online for free information and advice.
- Many people online are in benighted countries where expert professional advice (ex. medical) is expensive and where they don’t have a decent public health service accessible to all. This isn’t just a first-world/not difference: I’m in Canada so I’m lucky (and lucky because at least some of my taxes go to something worthwhile), but our neighbours in the USA are not in as happy a situation, even when they have “decent” healthcare coverage.
- Many people are lazy.
- Some people have issues, including mental health ones.
- And then there’s trolls and trolling, who may or may not intersect with any of the categories above.
Here are some practical suggestions on what to do next. Feel free to copy, paste, adapt, and reuse what follows liberally. I hope it helps others out there. See, this sort of thing is draining. On your time and energy. And mental health, general well-being, and happiness. As well as ensuring your own self-preservation, walking away might help maintain your faith in humanity…
[Ed. Note for the record: while I try to practise what I preach, very often this sort of thing is work in progress.
What I ought to do myself, a working draft of what I’d do next time. L’esprit de l’escalier. Often, I’m slow. I realize after the fact what I should have done; or I work out what to say at the wrong stage, at least a couple of stages after what would have been the right time to say it. I’m here pseudonymously, but I’m still opening up the raw nakedness of my own folly to you. I hope my mistakes will be useful to others; and that you can learn from my mistakes. That’s another side to benefitting from shared experience. Here, learning from my folly.
In this specific case: this is, in an ideal world, what I would do were this to happen to me, or rather, to happen to me again. I should have thought of this before, with The Lady of Shalott. I wish I had thought of it years ago, when I was first on the receiving end of such correspondence on MakeupAlley. The first such was five or six years ago. You see what I mean by my being a bit slow? I think the reason was because I’m a sexist pig. I assume that most of the people with whom I am in contact on MakeupAlley (with a few exceptions, who were either obvious or declared themselves) are women. I’ve been really happy to be able to be in some areas of online interactive life that are predominantly female; the others, for me, are feminist online fora. I am also active in other areas that are not as female, or indeed where women are in the minority. I like being able to be “more feminine” in online persona: not like wearing the metaphorical equivalent of a pink feather boa, but being able to be nicer, more patient and cooperative. But I have to admit, and I do this with great regret, that I have limits. My patience has its limits.
They were reached in this case. It’s one of several: but what hit me here was a key difference. I was used. Screwed over. Taken advantage of. That hurt. It still hurts.
Writing this here, now, and with edits later, is for several purposes:
- to help me to deal with hurt. I might be over-reacting, or over-sensitive. I don’t know. I don’t know whether these things are relative or absolute. But I do know that I was hurt.
I want to deal with that in such a way as to reduce the probability of happening again, to avoid such situations in the future, and to do so in their earliest stages. Not, as I did here, far too late. Years too late. This is so as to avoid my own pain in the future; and you will recall that, as a person with thin irritable skin, I’m rather keen on avoiding pain. To the point of being a wimp.
I want to deal with this so as not to hurt others, and to do that in the future too. No matter how much I might have been hurt. That’s why this, and any other posts like it that criticise specific individuals online, do not refer to them by their online persona / pseudonym. We have seen cases in the past—back at the start of this blog, in spring 2011—of individuals online taking the opposite approach: not only referring to others by their pseudonyms, but finding out and posting information about their real life identities (albeit also using identifiable photos that individuals had posted online themselves; you’ll note that I do not do this myself). Doing that is bad. It is immoral, It is also, in many places, illegal. We’ve had enough cases recently, and with a very serious and tragic one here in Canada, of online bullying using real identity. There is no hurt imaginable that would make that sort of behaviour understandable, let alone OK. And certainly nothing on trivial sites such as the one under discussion here.
- to help me, by retelling what happened and then analysing and commenting on it myself. This is a blog, and one of its purposes is to act like an online diary or journal. That is a personal end; I would like to feel that it is not selfish, because if it were selfish, it would be private.
- to help others, through my own bad example. That’s why this blog is public. When it could be private.
- as an example of folly: this is a blog about folly-praising: by others, by me, and as an educational aid for others. And to help others remember than even amidst the trivialities and follies and flippancies of everyday life, there are important ethical issues. One should, as a good ethical being, treat them the same as all other issues: so as to be acting well in all of life. Just because something seems minor and trivial, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be the subject of the same scrutiny and criticism, and serve as the same sort of case-study / object-lesson, as what seem like more major big events. This is also a feminist and socialist point, so somewhere where ethics and politics intersect.]
STAGE ONE: PRIVATE MAIL MESSAGE(S)
(A) BE CIVIL AND DO NOT BE CRUEL, JUST IN CASE
As ever, if in doubt, read and reread and exercise some common sense.
There are a lot of people online. Many of them have mental health issues, behavioural and social problems, interpersonal awkwardness, intellectual disabilities, OCD, anxiety; many are lonely, depressed, agoraphobic, paranoid, unstable. Such persons constitute at least as large a proportion of the online population as of the offline totality of humanity. They need sympathy and, often, help.
Part of their participation in an online discussion board (and private messaging attached) may be reaching out for help. Or just for human contact. This might be the only contact of which they are capable. They might just be being a bit clumsy about making friends.
But: these overtures and the constant communication might be a last-minute desperate drowning man grasping at straws. It might be a crucial step in a positive direction, for someone on the path to recovery.
You are probably not someone who will be able to help them. You can express basic human sympathy; but that may be as much as you can and should do. The best thing you can do may be to do that, and to suggest the person seek professional help. Keep things short and simple.
Remember: you may want to help everyone, but that’s simply not possible. You can’t. No, not even if you’re a mental-health professional. You’re not Superman. Or God. Hubris is a terrible thing. Wanting to help everyone (especially in a small-scale way, such as on a specialist niche discussion board) can be a mental health and behavioural issue too, in this case your own; to do with control in life, and lack of both in reality, and a desire to please others that may date back to deeper-rooted older troubles. The other side of what’s sometimes behind the negative online behavioural expression that is trolling.
Your own mental health is important too.
You have limits.
Tolerance has its limits: where empathy has ended, when sympathy is reaching its last dribs and drabs, and even the wildest surrealist imagination has to stop and say: “the mind boggles.”
If you think a person is unstable and/or has intellectual disabilities, stay with the first message below. It rhetorically shifts any burden to you; gives a sense of liberation, strength, and potential to your correspondent; and ends on a constructive, positive and productive, note.
One should, surely, be able to make sure the last thing said in any conversation is happy and hopeful. No matter what. And take any opportunity to be kind, and to turn anything into kindness. No matter what (else) you might feel, no matter what the circumstances. It might be naive of me, but I can think of very few situations where being unkind, or even cruel, is the only option. I have never been in a situation where one couldn’t twist things into a kinder direction.
One single message:
“I can see how this is something that is very important to you and that it’s causing you distress. I don’t like to see other people suffering: but there’s a problem. You see, I can’t help you any more. I’m sorry, and I hope you understand. Your situation is beyond my abilities and competence. The best advice I can give you, and it’s just a suggestion: go and see a professional. Maybe it would be a good and useful start to talk to your doctor, and make sure to talk to them about all your worries too? That should help them to help you, and helping you is the most important thing here! Good luck, and goodbye.”
Then cut all contact with the person.
(B) THE MORE COURTEOUS THREE-MESSAGE VERSION
This is my “if in doubt” procedure, but where there have been no warning bells in the other person’s correspondence, board-posting history, etc. that situation (A) above applies.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you any more. Up to you from here.”
“Like I said, I’m sorry but I can’t help you any more. We have reached an impasse, and the limits of my ability to help you. If you keep sending me messages like this I’m afraid that I’ll have to block you. Your correspondence constitutes spam and harrassment.”
“This is the last response I’m going to to send you. As soon as I have sent it, I’m going to put you on my Mail “Ignore List”: that is, block you. I’m sorry, but you have left me no viable other course of action. Please see my last two responses for why. Best of luck. Goodbye.”
(C) THE SINGLE-MESSAGE VERSION
To be used if and only if you are COMPLETELY 100% CERTAIN that this is not the situation in (A) above:
“Please stop sending me messages like this and wasting my time, I’m going to block you from sending future emails to me. Good luck.”
STAGE TWO: IN PUBLIC
1. Keep all correspondence, and perhaps also—especially if you think this might be a troll—screenshots of public activity on discussion boards. This is evidence, just in case. Of a kind that is fast and easy to collect and store.
Obviously, do not keep anything individually-identifying, and stick to the point; ex. for someone whose irritating feature and persistent posting is about them being constitutionally incapable of washing their own face, only keep that material; and ex. do not keep identifiable photos.
If at some point along the way you think that situation (A) above applies: stop collecting and bin everything. Step away. Exactly as with malevolent malicious trolls, this person and their behaviour could hurt you. After making a last statement that is charitable and compassionate (A above), do not engage further. Walk away. Avoid.
2. If they then go on a public board to ask you to unblock them, you then say something along the lines of “this was not an accident.”
3. If innocence and prejudice are claimed: say you had good cause to block, and that you can prove this by posting up message contents (in message not subject-line, so at least it’s only visible to logged-in people on that discussion board). That you haven’t done this till now because it would be embarrassing for the person concerned, and you felt sorry for them, therefore some discretion. But that if they persist, you *will* post.
4. If they persist in complaining / being a pain, and now in public: repeat that it’s your decison, this is a leisure board, it is up to you how you spend your non-work time and you are under no obligation to perform acts of charity for ungrateful lazy idiots.
Keep calm, rational, reasonable, and to the point. Talk about (and criticise) what has been said. Do not talk about the speaker: even if you (think you) can figure out a lot about them, this is an online persona/avatar; perhaps one of many; they may interact online and write differently from how they speak, in real life; and you do not (probably) know them in real life.
Remain charitable and compassionate. This is being “good.” It also sets the tone for all discussion. And gives you the moral and behavioural upper hand. So: add to that: remain a lady/gentleman no matter what.
That is also, usefully, one way to “out” one sort of troll, whose objective is to needle you into losing your cool. That is: being calm, rational, reasonable, to the point, charitable, compassionate, and a lady/gent. Do not allow a troll to get you annoyed and angry. That may include a troll mocking you when you walk away or refuse to interact with them in the first place. That’s kindergarten bullying. You’re a grown-up lady/gent and above that sort of silly nonsense.
5. If they continue and get aggressive, you copy-paste saved idiocies into messages: private correspondence, public posting records. Editing to anonymise any personally-identifying information.
With no further comment(ary). Let someone condemn themselves by their own words. Hoist by their own petard.
Sometimes there is a case for public naming and shaming.
But: do not post defamatory statements about people; do not stalk them and collect identifying information on them. No matter how peeved you might be. Or angry. Or vengeful.
Because that’s illegal and immoral.
[Ed. And yes, if you still have a need to get things off your chest: that’s normal. Go forth and blog about it. But pseudonymising and anonymysing in an appropriate fashion; and being aware that you may also be revealing your own folly. I’m happy with that: I know I’m foolish, and I’m a huge fan of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. That book helped me with my own folly. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read, and is one of the most important and useful ones around. I recommend it as a self-help guide, to anyone.
And do remember that all this bloggery here is folly: there are more important things going on in the world. In the words of the immortal Benedict Cumberbatch:
In the words of a 50-year-old non-dumb woman (well, 52), a Supreme Top Champion Ginger, the immortal Tilda Swinton:
One view would be that I am wasting my time with this blog. A counter-argument: it’s good for me, therapeutic, gets things off my chest, so I am not tempted to lose it and blow up publicly in a public place like MakeupAlley. That would be bad for everyone: bad for someone to whom I was rude (even if with just cause), bad for me, bad for the forum as a whole.
In openly sharing my own folly—for, as you’ll see over the whole course of the blog, it is as much about my own folly as it is about that of others—in sharing my own folly, I get to look at myself from the outside, with critical distance. And criticise. This is good for me. If and when others read the same material, they might laugh at someone else’s folly. They might laugh as they recognize a type of situation, a common experience. Or they might laugh as they recognize their own folly. (This can be an uncomfortable laugh.) They might see something useful, and might use it themselves in the future. Learning experiences can be hard, they can be hard on the learner, but they’re good for you.
All of these are good things.
But it remains true that this is a foolish blog, about folllies, by a fool. That there are more important things to do with one’s time and energy. A compromise: if you blog, it can be conscionable to spend some time on follies, frivolities, fripperies; so long as you regard that kind of blogging as minor and composition-thinking-writing practice for the important blogging. And so long as most of your blogging time is spent on things that matter. So, for example, this blog here counts for 5-10%, of my writing output, time, and brain effort; the rest is work and other—useful—writing about things that actually matter (I usually produce 50-100,000 words/week for work).
Though, as per this post here, there can be things that matter in the things that superficially don’t matter: in this case, when the best course of action is to sever ties and walk away; when one should be kind. Everyday ethics.
For more about everyday ethics, tolerance, and their political implications:
These edits were added at the same time as those to the return of the lady of shalott, and for the same reasons: in the hope of clarifying points that have been sibject to misreading and misunderstanding elsewhere. There’s more on that in another post, update on misreading and readers’ responsibilities (2013-08-18). Some of these misreadings may have been deliberate, with an intention to have negative consequences. Most, I am reasonable sure, are honest misreadings by poor readers. That is understandable and understood, and blameless. You will note, for the record, that in this present case I will not quote any of the misreeadings, and that I will not name any of the misreaders (for example, taking screenshots of chunks of (albeit public) discussion-board discussion threads). Moreover, I take responsibility for any opacity and ambiguity that led to misunderstanding. Bad writing is my fault.]