How to Become an Internet Troll

Maybe not the meanest, but still dangerous when unchecked . . .

Maybe not the meanest, but still dangerous when unchecked . . .

I think I just did my own internal case study about how internet trolls are born. And rescued myself from the mouth of the cyber beast just in time. I kind of get it now, how this behavior happens.

I first became troll bait, which is likely a gateway drug to actual trolling. (Here are some definitions of behaviors I'm referring to.) There’s more than one way to sink down the black hole of the interwebs, and none of them is healthy. What follows is the lesson I’m sure I’m not done learning, as long as I have a relationship with the World Wide Web.

It's a start. At least now I have an escape plan for the next time I find myself getting sucked into the vortex.

What happened? You seem so non-troll-ish.

I'm certainly not the most evil kind of internet lurker, that's true. In fact it was exactly the strange new strata of stress that this recent incident reached that shocked me into awareness.

Here's the backdrop:

Over the weekend, rather than starting my day with doodling and/or writing, I started with reading and listening. That’s not too unusual, nor is it always dangerous. You can often find me on the couch or in my dining room "studio" these days with my nose in a book by Brené Brown or Tara Mohr or bell hooks or Seth Godin. When I paint, I like to listen to podcasts by Liz Gilbert or Rob Bell or Danielle LaPorte or Chantal Pierrat. Their topics all feed my work, while their messages feed my spirit.

On this particular day it was a combination of TED Talks and The New York Times. How bad can that be, you ask? Sounds very educational, and it was.

The Start of the Binge. Also: Too much of a Good Thing.

It’s kind of a blur now, but I think the binge started with a talk by an architect from Oakland. He described his experience with his wife giving birth in a windowless, beige room with buzzing fluorescent lights overhead, and his vision to create buildings that dignify rather than dehumanize the people who use them. (Hello ridiculously long lines for the women’s restroom; he asks, not “why do women take so long in the bathroom?” but “what’s wrong with the men who designed that building?”)

Next up was one called, “I’ve Lived as a Man and a Woman. Here’s What I Learned.” You can probably guess which gender finds more obstacles in her path (sorry about the spoiler pronoun), but it’s worth a watch to have your suspicions documented by a qualified judge. Then there was one called, “Why I’m Done Trying to be Man Enough.”

There was a very illuminating and disturbing talk called “What Young Women Believe About Their Own Sexual Pleasure.” Watch this if you don’t want your daughters—or yourself!—caught in a spiral of depression and self-loathing.

You can see a pattern in what I was choosing to consume. I was on a roll.

Backing Up for More Context

About six weeks ago I heard about a book called Your Story is Your Power, by Elle Luna and Susie Herrick. I immediately went to Powell’s Books to get a copy, plowed through it in about three days (written exercises and all), and even got to meet the authors a few days later at that very same bookstore. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

The subtitle of the book is, “Free Your Feminine Voice.” It’s beautifully designed and illustrated with watercolor drawings. You’re uplifted by art as you read the definitions of “patriarchy” and “misogyny” (surprisingly helpful), and follow the journaling prompts. Hand-lettered quotes like, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” (Gloria Steinem) keep the tone inspiring and light, as you dig in to explore the heaviness of the cultural water you have been swimming in your entire life. And have not been aware of, most likely, if you're middle aged like I am.

Then you dive into your family stories around divisions of labor and attitudes about pregnancy and pre-marital sex and what kinds of clothing is appropriate for young girls and women to wear and whether the messages you got were different than what your brother was told, and other things you've probably never sat down to specifically describe.

You’re psychologically over-stimulated but also fired up by the time you get to parsing your own stories, the ones that float around in your head, keeping you small and in line and often afraid. The authors gracefully lead you in uncovering your own inner misogynist—because we women have ingested the attitudes around us and, sadly, take part in keeping ourselves and each other down. Recognizing this is a great place to start the cultural shift. Start with yourself, always.

I’ll end my book review there. But once you start noticing the messages our culture sends to girls and women—and yes, there are many disturbing messages being sent to boys and men, and obviously blatantly horrible messages directed at people of color, LGBTQ folks, and differently-abled folks, and all of them are worth unpacking—you can’t unsee them. It's hard to forget about it. The casual comments that pop up in the grocery line, over the phone line, and most definitely online, become a palpable part of a larger, mostly invisible system.

That’s when Gloria Steinem’s quote comes to life: It starts pissing you off.

Now that I'm more aware of it...

So back to my case study: I’m increasingly aware of the sexist stew we live in. I’m listening to interesting talks online by men and women (and those who’ve been both) who are committed to turning the tide toward equality. This dovetails with my lineup of podcasters and stacks of books by thoughtful authors who know that feminism is not a dirty word or a man-hating word, but a we-are-also-worthy-of-respect word and a word for “this is the only way we can heal the planet, because the patriarchy isn’t working so well for the vast majority of humans and other species."

It was a particular NYT article that brought me down the troll hole, because unfortunately, I started reading the comments. It was an opinion piece called, “Stop Calling Women Hormonal.” The author happens to be an expert on hormones with a book coming out soon called, "The History of Hormones, and How they Control Everything." So it seems like she’s in a good position to write about this topic. Plus she's been dismissed as being “hormonal” a time or two in her female life. And it was an opinion piece, remember.

I found it very thought-provoking and went to leave a bland but heartfelt comment like, “Thanks for the insights, great article!” That’s where the trouble began: other comments were already right there. Among the many left by women, appreciating the author's angle on the subject, were others written mostly by men who had lots to say about women's hormones. Some thought the topic was a waste of the NYT’s hallowed space. Another asserted his knowledge, anecdotally, that men “were much better able to control their emotions” because he had never witnessed, in his 50 years,  a man “going from a puddle of heaving sobs to a fiery rage in two seconds flat the way women do” (I’m closely paraphrasing).

Ok. (Deep breath here.)


I submitted another comment, this one a reply to that last one. It started, as polite women are so well-trained at doing, “Here are some other ideas: …” I suggested that perhaps most men were conditioned out of recognizing or expressing their emotions from a young age, while women were still more honest about theirs. And that the wild swing from tears to rage that he described could have been two appropriate responses to one single distressing situation. I pointed out the thousands of instances of very impressive emotional control that he hadn’t noticed, exhibited by women in demeaning situations where sobbing and raging would have been completely appropriate. There were plenty of other women replying to him as well, pointing out the gender slant of murder statistics and mass shootings—is that the emotional control your men are so good at, they wondered? One said flatly, "Have you heard of teenage boys?" Don’t know if anyone brought up hockey games or NBA games or Little League dads or girls’ soccer dads for that matter, but the female respondents—and some male allies—were covering most of the obvious territory, as well as sharing personal stories that reinforced the article's message.

But wait, of course there's more.

There were, naturally, more men chiming in with other opinions, some pulling apart the author's entire premise by claiming that her personal experience was “wrong.”

We’ve all (those of us with vaginas, anyway) been told that our feelings are wrong, and our reactions are wrong, and our ideas are wrong. It happened to me yesterday, in person. And last week. And about 12,000 or more times in my 52+ years living and breathing in a female body. I’ve had my ideas shoved back at me as "wrong" so many times that I grew to believe it was normal and maybe even true. I learned to cope as a young woman by talking myself out of “making such a big deal about it” and “over-reacting.” I believed “he was just stressed out, he didn’t mean it,” both when he said he didn’t mean it, and when he didn’t say it. He probably meant all of it.

Sometimes even now, I don't notice while it's happening because it's so normal. Or rather, it's been normalized. It's not until later, when I start to wonder where the knot around my solar plexus came from, that I start to ask, what's going on here? Why do I feel off-balance? Then voilà, I'll make the connection.

And I’m white! My life’s long list of small injustices would surely be dwarfed by the experiences of people with brown or black skin. Or who don’t conform to gender norms or expected body shapes, who have probably had their whole existence labeled "wrong."

So what’s my point? Where’s the case study, and the lesson?

By this time, I was riled up, and having trouble concentrating on anything else. For the next 24 hours, my brain was busy formulating responses to imaginary (and some real) arguments against feminism and against most anything to do with women's lives. It didn't feel healthy, but it did feel necessary.

But I wondered where to draw the line between speaking out and sparing my nervous system.

Do we stop replying to ill-thought-out comments by people who are so privileged that they can’t see their privileges? Who don’t want space taken up in their newspaper by issues that they believe are only relevant to the apparently insignificant half of the population, not their more worthy-of-column-space half?

No, I don’t think we should stop. We all have privilege of some sort, and the sooner we recognize it and adjust our attitudes and behaviors to be more inclusive, the more humane our world will become. As long as we recognize it in ourselves and are working to correct our own biases, I think it’s ok to nudge others along, too. In a respectful way. Not adding gasoline to the fire.

In fact, I’m actively practicing (because I’ve been so conditioned to ignore it) calling out sexist comments as they are happening around me or to me—including inside my head. I’ve written this goal on my office chalkboard. It says, “Practice noticing in real time when I’m feeling invisible, and say/do something about it.” Because that’s how I experience sexism and misogyny. It feels like I’ve vanished from the scene, and all that’s left is my bodily shell.

The crazy thing about all this is that in my daily life here in Portland, I encounter mostly kind, well-meaning men. And yet it still happens. This sh*t runs deep, well beyond Hollywood and Washington DC. There's a spectrum of it, from the small and unintentional comments or omissions, to the egregious and nefarious stuff that makes the news headlines. Our culture started teaching us, from a very young age, that boys were more valuable than girls. We've been living out the effects, and they're not good for anyone. Thankfully, more people are waking up to it.

It's hard work, and it's exhausting.

Speaking out is hard to do, as we know very well from the #metoo stories. Whether serious abuse or unintentional thoughtlessness, all of it stems from a patriarchal culture that glorifies male dominance, and keeps girls and women small. It comes from the gross imbalance of power, and the desire on the powerful side to keep things that way.

Cultural change takes vigilance, and it takes energy, because rarely is the response, “Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that I did that. Let me make a change right now.” No, more likely each encounter will (at best) lead into a 10-minute volley of excuses and your-fault-too’s and "that’s not what I said," and then, "ok I said it but that’s not what I meant," and then, “I already said I was sorry” when actually no, you didn’t… and then maybe you’ll get to a real apology that may or may not come with an awareness of what was done, that could inform and improve the next interaction. Maybe, maybe not. This is if there's any dialogue at all—i.e. assuming the person is safe to converse with, without putting yourself in more danger.

It’s exhausting. I often feel like giving up, and like I said, I'm just battling small stuff these days. Recently I spent time alternately crying at my computer screen and sitting on the couch staring off into space. I was despondent. And all the while I was aware that someone observing me might think, “oh, she’s just hormonal.”

And there's this low-grade, quaking energy that needs an outlet.

My restless flux between seething energy (I’ve never biked to the gym that fast!) and numb wall-staring lasted for two days. I was too wired to sleep, so I stayed up late watching episode after episode of the Gilmore Girls. During this stretch, the low-level buzz (rage-, not alcohol-induced) also prompted me to post a thoughtfully planned but scathingly sarcastic comment on Facebook, after reading another NYT article. (Here's where I turned from troll-bait to troll.)

This one was about my Golden State Warriors, and their winning half-time routine that, frankly, was described with such an array of feminine-sounding characteristics, not patriarchal at all, that I felt compelled to point it out. This is a team—now a dynasty, whether they win the championship this year or not—led by a coach whose style definitely rings of introversion (based on another great book I read recently), and who does not need to shout and pump up the testosterone and play top dog. The article was peppered with so many words like "emphasizes the positive" and “listens” and “intuitive” and “community” that the message I heard was “a feminine management style” even though the writers instead described the strategies, bewilderingly, as “straight out of business school.” I guess that sounds way more manly than “straight out of feminism,” or "with the quiet thoughtfulness of an introvert."

Signs of Trollishness

So I had some thoughts about the article, and I shared them in a snide, self-deprecating way that started, "I know I'm just a girl and so what do I know about the gloriously important world of boy sports, but..." and I went on to cite examples that supported my point.

My snarky tone likely detracted from the very awesomeness of the Warriors’ strategy that I was pointing out, which is what felt troll-ish about it. Plus my hands were shaking as I tapped/pounded the keyboard, and that’s usually a sign that it’s better to stop and take a breath. I didn't.

The tone, I probably adopted as prevention. I’ve been "deprecated" so much that maybe I was shielding myself from more deprecation by inflicting it myself? I ended my comments by noting that my theory "probably won't be correct until a man first rejects it reflexively, then comes up with this same argument himself."

Because I'm Tired Of This, Specifically

It reminded me of a podcast I listened to recently, a male meditation expert being interview by a prominent male thought leader. The topic was the value of conversation in building connection. Conversation about important things, like your purpose in life, and your greatest challenges, and your current struggles, and what makes you feel most alive. Conversation that involves vulnerability and listening and support and truth-telling.

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes, even though of course, I agreed with everything they were saying.

The eye-rolling was because either one of those men could have gotten the exact same wisdom from their grandmother, or their sister, or their girlfriend, or the barista at Starbucks, if they'd bothered to ask or pay attention to the women in their lives. This is not expert knowledge — unless yes, let’s call all women experts, for once! Connecting through meaningful conversation is what women excel at. It's what we've always done, and continue to do. As in, practically every day.

But when we do it, it’s often dismissed as “chit chat” or “clucking hens” or “gossip.” I’m not saying that all female conversation is profound and relationship-building. I am saying that it’s pretty obvious that most women engage in meaningful conversation way more often, and more fluently, than most men. (I kept waiting for the podcasters to mention this, but no.) We're just not labeled "experts" for doing it, and probably not getting interviewed about it.

I felt diminished as I sat there listening to these serious, respected men wax philosophical, as though they’d just come up with the idea themselves. I think the meditation guy had just published a book about it. Somehow this very female form of wisdom didn’t hold value until the men in the world, or in the podcast, or in the publishing house, decided it did.

I’m tired of this pattern where women's ideas and behaviors and natural tendencies are shot down automatically… only to then miraculously reemerge as good ideas out of a man’s mouth. When they prove to have business value. Or when they help an NBA team win games. Then these behaviors and skills and strategies will be called something else entirely, and men will act like they invented them. Those geniuses!

I’m half glad I wrote the Facebook post, and I half regret it. It felt troll-ish in that yes, I wanted to provoke the men who might read it, and let the women know that I get their pain. There was venting involved. I was mad.

Which leads to the lesson. For real this time.

The next morning (still restless and teary-eyed), I doodled about my bitterness, and the trouble I was having calming and soothing myself. I knew I'd been hovering for too long at the mouth of the cyber monster, and it was pulling my real life down. I was desperate for an escape route. So, as I usually do in the midst of a crisis (amid puddles of tears and/or fiery rages I still do this) I started problem-solving. “What can I do with this seething energy—and simultaneous lack of energy?” I wrote in my doodle notebook. Then I embellished my sentences with little swirlies and loops and sunrays, because this is how the meditative magic of doodling works. (I made a whole video about it last year.)

Here are some things I came up with:
1. Go on a media diet. If the NYT readership can get me rankled like this, just imagine how much worse it can get!
2. Take deep breaths. Really, just stop and breathe. Maybe step outside to inhale.
3. Focus on LOVE. I think it’s Tara Mohr who enters potentially stressful arenas with the simple prayer, “Let me be the representative of love in this situation."
4. CREATE before I consume. This is a mantra of my online gal Marie Forleo, and the real message I want to convey in this article.

We are more than responders and consumers and ingesters, we men and women of the world. We are creators.

It's Really Simple, But Not Always Easy

So when drowning in frustration or testosterone or general ickiness, I need to shift gears and make something. Go for a walk and photograph the spring flowers. Open up for some art lessons, if I'm not ready to leave my computer screen quite yet (this helped shift my whole mood). Even when what's in the news is important and educational and instructive, I want to stay focused on putting something beautiful and new out into the world, rather than just consuming and reacting. Getting my hands dirty with paint or garden soil keeps me grounded.

Just by sitting down to write this article, still deep in a funk, my focus had to shift from righteous rage to "How can I best express this? Which word conveys what I mean? Does my argument have a flow? Does it makes sense?" Now I was making something. I'd entered a whole different ball game. And because it took so darn long to write, I was able to let it rest for a day, get some fresh perspective, and come back to clean it up. Check my words and my tone. Ask, does it reflect my true self, or is it just a rant? Is there love, or only bitterness? Will I regret what I've said here?

I’m not saying I’m good at this practice of stepping away—or that we shouldn't sometimes allow ourselves to cry and rock back and forth and feel our shaking limbs and let our anger seethe. I’m done explaining other people’s bad behavior away. I do intend to keep speaking up, and what I say might not always be thoughtful and polished.

Love, Air, and Paint-stained Hands

But my healthiest contribution to the world is creative, not destructive. It is born from love—love of myself first, which requires deep self-care, so that I can continue to love others. It's ok to give my fierce inner warrior an occasional rest from trying to fix the world's ills. (Man, does she still surprise me sometimes with her tenacity!) I can stop to fill up the part of me that gets utterly depleted when I spend too much time and energy in battle mode.

Breathe in fresh air. Regenerate my spirit through art-making. Save myself for the good stuff. That's the lesson here, and always.