Vicki Notaro: The end of trolling may be nigh, but not online nastiness
Published 25/04/2015 | 02:30
Twitter's new anti-abuse measures are necessary, but Vicki Notaro knows you can't prevent mean comments
Anyone who's ever been harassed online will know how strange it feels. That someone, somewhere, can attack you through a screen and still has the power to hurt as much as if they're standing right in front of you is a weird phenomenon of the digital age.
The internet has many advantages we simply wouldn't do without in 2015, but it's also terrifying to think a child can be bullied 24/7 or a troll can spread their bile freely across the web.
However, that could all end soon. The news that Twitter is to lock abusive users out of their own accounts in a measure to tackle trolling, could mean that the social-media platform might become a safer place. Support staff will be able to suspend user accounts for a certain period of time, and may even ask them to delete particular tweets before reinstating their site privileges.
It's heartening that Twitter is actually attempting to do something about the vitriol spewed on their site, instead of just dismissing trolling as a nasty side-effect of the modern world.
Of course, I doubt it will be foolproof - it brings up the tricky topic of censorship and freedom of speech. But I expect these lock-outs will only affect the truly abusive and threatening users, and not those whose opinions are just a bit nasty.
The Urban Dictionary defines a troll as "one who posts deliberately provocative messages... with the intention of causing maximum disruption or argument".
Therein lies the rub - the main act of trolling is the intention to cause hurt and upset, hence the use of a word normally used to describe a hideous cave-dwelling monster.
But what about people who don't actively troll, but just post throwaway comments or pass mean-spirited remarks without really meaning to be horrible? We've all probably done it. That sort of thing can't be regulated because it's somebody's opinion and it's their right to express it - however cruel it might be.
The thing is, the nastiness hurts too.
Yes, it's a less serious issue than trolls who consistently and systematically target people, threaten violence and use hate speech, but it's also something that can never be controlled by a website's protective measures - you can't stop people expressing opinions that are just mean.
I'm lucky in that my experience with direct trolling is quite limited. As a writer, I put myself out there and have absolutely no problem with people commenting on my work or debating an issue. In fact, that can be a quite rewarding element of the job, and I don't dismiss everyone who disagrees with me on an issue as a troll - that would be foolish.
The worst abuse I've ever received on Twitter was when I slated Bon Jovi's Slane gig and Jon's fans weren't very happy. A couple of accounts appeared to be set up just to slag me off.
But I know other media professionals who have had nasty parody accounts set up as simply a vehicle to mock and deride.
I write every piece with my eyes wide open, prepared for abuse and vitriol because that's the time in which we live. In the past, if somebody wanted to praise or disparage somebody's work, they'd have to go to the effort of writing and posting a letter. Now it can be done in a couple of clicks. So now to do a writer's job well, you have to have skin as thick as armour as well as the ability to write.
Perhaps in one way it makes us better at our jobs, more aware of our responsibility.
But it can also mean I hesitate briefly before agreeing to certain pieces.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a feature for the Irish Independent about finding the perfect pair of jeans on the high street (see above). The pictures were taken in an unglamorous setting because the entire point of the piece was to be realistic.
In an unflattering vest top, I didn't look my best - nor was I supposed to. I won't be framing any of the photos, but overall I was happy with the piece - until the slagging started online.
I avoid reading the comments sections online in general, because they're not good for my rage. I certainly avoid reading comments from strangers on pictures of myself, because it's not good for my self-esteem. That day I steered clear of the Independent's Facebook, for my own mental health.
However, the nastiness still managed to reach me through friends and family, upset on my behalf at the bitchy comments they saw - my mother even sent me a screen shot.
It's never nice being called fat, and it's definitely not nice being called fat on the internet by people you've never met, people who refuse to believe you are the size you say you are, and who felt free to comment on my body shape as if I wasn't a real person with feelings. Being judged by a bad set of photos isn't ideal.
It hurt. I was annoyed with myself for being hurt, because I know how easy it is to pass comment online without thinking, and that what these people were saying wasn't true. I knew that to them, it was an off-hand remark, and that I shouldn't take it to heart.
I quickly got over it, but it struck me that day how A-list celebrities must feel. Imagine being intensely scrutinised on a daily basis? The pressure to look flawless all the time must be incredible.
We tell ourselves not to care about what's said online, that it's not real life, that it shouldn't have any effect on us. But the fact is, it does.
So while I'm pleased that Twitter and other sites are taking measures to combat serious trolling, I think a lot of the onus is on us to stop perpetuating this culture of nastiness, and to remember that words can hurt, even if it's only 140 characters.
And as for those who actively troll, purposely trying to cause upset?
Maybe more websites will follow Twitter's example and take measures to protect their users. Or perhaps the wifi signal will give out in their caves.