If you follow me on Twitter — @grollman :-) — you may have seen me complain about online trolls and other criticism every once in a while. But, I usually give the caveat that what I have faced from nay-sayers online is a mild irritation compared to the hate mail and threats that other academic bloggers (especially women) have received. Sadly, even the most seasoned among us do not know how to deal with the criticism and hostility we receive online. How do we stop it? Or, how do we at least ignore it? I have zero expertise to offer on the subject, but I do offer a few tips from things that have (and have not) worked for me.
A few tips, which, in places, will seem contradictory — but, choose what works best for you!
- Pursue legal action… but, don’t bother. To be safe, I consulted with the legal counsel at my university. Free speech, which seems so much freer online, eliminates any real options. Apparently libel is almost impossible to demonstrate because the (huge) burden of proving you were harmed in some way by it falls on you. Legal dead-ends aside, I found relief in notifying my university and being reassured that what a few cowardly anonymous colleagues say about me online has no baring on my status or job.
- Also, notify trusted (senior) colleagues. Initially, I let my chair and dean know just to be on the safe side. I would rather be ahead of the criticisms to avoid surprises in formal evaluations. One expected benefit of these conversations was their appreciation of the risks involved on the work that I do (i.e., blogging). I suppose this links back to the “you’ve arrived” sentiment; if you are pissing off white supremacists and closed-minded colleagues, you must be pushing the right buttons as a scholar. I do want to express some caution about letting others know because it could backfire, particularly if you must “out” yourself as an activist or blogger or whatever else you might do that is not valued in your department and institution.
- To extend the point above — do not suffer in silence. Talk to someone about what you are going through. When dealing with online criticism and hostility, the anonymity and amorphousness of the internet can make you feel like you are alone in a hostile world.
- Don’t seek it out! Fortunately, the criticism I face is almost exclusively contained in one relatively unknown site. When I stopped visiting that site, I generally stopped being exposed to online criticism. I realized I was giving power to cowardly, closed-minded colleagues by welcoming the stupid things they say about me into my life. At the moment, I feel that the opinions that are really worth my attention are those that put as much time and energy into responding to me as I put into my writing. Negative tweets and comments on your blog/website are quick and easy, often reflecting an unfiltered, grammatically incorrect rant that one would never say to your face. (Really, why not extend a healthy dialogue by writing a response on your OWN blog?) Certainly on others’ blogs/sites, do not read the comments! The downside of this tip is that it will not work for writers and bloggers who have really eager critics and trolls that take the time to email you or contact you in other ways.
- Ask someone else to keep up with what is written about you on the internet — and only let you know about the most important things, and maybe anything positive. Really, if someone really wants you to read what they have written, good or bad, they should be sending it directly to you.
- Related to the previous point — if others let you know about new criticism online, probably out of concern, you do not have to look at it! Maybe ask them to give a summary if you want to know anything about it. Or, let them know that, for future reference, you prefer not to know. Good friends should appreciate that this approach is best for self-care.
- Don’t take it personally. Yeah, even I struggle with this one. But, once some time has passed and there is some distance between me and some bit of criticism, I begin to see that others’ criticism is often a reflection of something other than me. When I began blogging occasionally for Inside Higher Ed, I received a few comments that essentially say “I am angry about the adjunctification/corporatization of academia,” albeit in the form of a snarky remark toward me. You may also find that the hostility reflects implicit rules about who is allowed to speak, especially when critiquing academia, or the status quo, etc. At this stage in my career, some believe I have no right to criticize the discipline or profession. Besides age/seniority/experience, it seems closed-minded academics are very intolerant of marginalized scholars (and I include here contingent faculty and graduate students) daring to speak up. These identities and statuses are personal, but criticism outside of real effort engage in dialogue really says more about your critics and their values.
Some of the above I have borrowed from friends’ advice and the following sites:
- Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin“
- “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama” by Joshunda Sanders
- “How to Stop Caring About Trolls and Get On With Your Life” from Lifehacker
- “Thank You, Hater!” – a musical response to trolls by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay [video]
- “Don’t Read The Comments: The Psychology of Online Trolls” by BrainCraft [video]