Of course, there was no Twitter back then because again, we didn’t really have an internet. Instead we had more of a closed network of computers attached to modems that one could access via their landline phone line. In spite of the expense and impracticality of all this, there were people in those days who set up what were called Bulletin Board Systems or “BBSes,” where people could use their dial-up modems to connect with others. Because my father had tried to set up his own business, we happened to have a new desktop computer that came with a modem – 2400 baud, which wasn’t impressive even back then, but much more than the average person had. (These were the days of landline telephone communication, after all.) So once the sun went down and nobody in the house was planning to use the phone, I would go to these BBSes and start “talking” (everything was typed then) through my computer. And as is unfortunately the case with most public conversations, I would fight a lot too. Worst of all, I was good at it, and I loved it.
Having lost a parent just a few years before BBSes became popular, I was a very angry teen. I had also just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, my favorite book of all time. Malcolm taught me two valuable life lessons I still pass on to others: 1) That a person can change, and 2) never let yourself be defined by what others think of you. And I was more than happy to tell anybody who would listen all about it.
So until I went to college and we had the beginnings of the actual world wide web version of the internet that we all know today, I used to go onto the BBSes at night and tell everybody about how badly I felt about the world and my place in it. I may not be Black, but as Malcolm pointed out, America has always been good at marginalizing us people of color, and I viewed it as my intellectual duty to make sure everybody knew about it. I would go past the online games that the BBSes had, briefly check my first ever email account, and then verbally throw down with any and everybody in “The Melting Pot,” a racial discussion forum in the most popular BBS in my area. Since people of color have traditionally been digitally divided against the rest of society, I knew that it would be me against the world, a world that had always made me feel like an outsider and “less than,” despite the fact that I had every other outsider as my friend. I knew that I was probably among the only users actively listening to Hip Hop (this was the early ’90s, remember), collecting comic books, and who had that special blend of intelligence and nothing to lose to take down all comers. It didn’t matter what they threw at me, I always had an answer, always made people look stupid, and always came back for more. And again, I loved that I was really good at it.
And then I grew up.
Look, this blog posting is not about how cool the BBSes were or how good it makes you feel to successfully “flame” (what we called “trolling” back then) somebody. Nor is it about condemning those angry people who do – Hell, I was a teenager who also lost my health along with my parent just two years prior to my BBS heyday so I knew why I was doing it. I also knew that if any of the objects of my ire had caught me, they probably would have strung me up. I was your typical troll – angry at the whole world for things that life and fate had done to me and my family, and just looking for a way to get it all out. To me, warring with racists was a victimless crime, so it didn’t matter how childish and mean-spirited it was. I was mad, and the world was going to pay for it. I will own that. But I’m sharing this with you all because the world is full of people like I was, and we hear from them all the time, on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook and everywhere else. I happen to like Twitter though, so I figure I could do a little bit of repentance by sharing some tips on what to do if you’re ever on the receiving end of that anger. Here’s how I’ve learned it’s best to deal with Twitter trolls and twitter trolling, if you really want to:
1 – Take a deep breath and don’t react. One of the things I don’t like about Twitter is that whenever somebody likes a posting you’re mentioned in, Twitter will notify you about it. This can create the sense that everybody is against you or that everybody hates or thinks you a fool if you let it. People can like whatever they want to like, so you have to remember that it has no bearing on you. Better, if you can calm yourself with some breathing exercises, it will curtail your urge to fire back in anger. That often leads to typos or incoherent thought, so taking time before replying can keep you out of trouble. It will also keep you from feeling ganged up on, which is why I also think you should…
2 – Uncheck anybody you’re not responding to directly. You’ll notice I never said anything about Facebook because unless you really know how to use it, Facebook is built for people to gang up on you. Somebody posts something, and everybody else can jump in under what they posted and make their ignorant comments publicly, so others can jump in too. Twitter? Twitter allows you to uncheck anybody you’re not responding to and break up the gang. Just as in real life, you never want to take on a mob, and by singling out its members, they flee and lose their power. I got attacked by a bunch of Twitter trolls whose members literally kept demanding that I stop unchecking other members of their group when I responded to their tweets. You want to know what happened in that conversation? They ran, scattering like the vermin they were when they realized I was going to pick them off one at a time. Haven’t heard from them since.
3 – Don’t respond to comments that are just insults or snark. When Twitter first invented the “mute” button, I really didn’t understand what the point was. They could still read what I tweeted, but I couldn’t hear them respond – what was the point of that? Older and wiser, I now get it – there’s no reason to respond to everything anybody sends at you. For people you actually want to debate, uncheck and discuss. People who are just slinging mud by calling you names are just looking to pick fights which are ultimately pointless. They don’t know you and you don’t know them. Take your ego out of it, and let those who don’t have the words to deal with you just exit your consciousness. Conserve your energy for those who you might be able to reach or deserve it.
Bottom line, the internet can be an ugly place, in no small part because it can make you feel alone or unpopular, like you’re out of step with the rest of society. The thing is, you’re not – as many people as there are on the internet who disagree with you is probably how many people there are who agree. Keep the jerks who want to mix it up from getting under your skin and you’ll slay them every time. Engage in live tweets about your favorite shows and live TV events, and you’ll realize how much in the majority you really are and makes Twitter more fun too. The virtual world is a reflection of only a part of the real one – treat it that way, and keep your focus firmly on the parts that matter and I think you can enjoy social media for the communications tool that it is. Good luck!