Let's Talk About Being Humans Online, and Not Bots


Last week I went through the worst Troll Attack of my life, and found myself having to defend myself against baseless charges of plagiarism. Even with all the facts on my side, still the trolls came for me in waves, yelling at me, calling me out for some shit I didn't do, and accusing me of the exact thing they were doing to me in the exact moment they were doing it. It was a positively Trumpian experience! 

As I hacked my way through the waves of trollery, my online friends hacking away by my side, taking down senseless arguments and standing up for ancient values like Reason and Words Having Meanings and Time Zone Math, I had a lot of Capital F Feelings about it all. 

The first was gratitude that my online squad rolls so deep and so fierce. Seriously, I had a couple dozen women standing up for me and my (relatively) good name, and their grasp on reality held me down when it felt like I must be taking crazy pills. 

The second was uncontrollable laughter at the absurdity of the situation. Because, seriously, two minutes of looking at the timestamps and language of both posts made it crystal clear that I couldn't have stolen anything, unless I had a Time Turner, which I don't have, but probably wouldn't tell you about even if I did. 

The last, and the one that stuck around the longest, was a deep feeling of sadness.

Because as I pictured the witches clacking away with their baseless arguments, and me and my friends clacking away in my defense, all I could see in my mind's eye was millions of people, isolated in our own homes, clacking away on our devices.

What are we clacking for? Is anything changing because of all this clacking?

Or have we unwittingly allowed ourselves to become bots in the dopamine-fueled online culture wars?

What I mean by becoming bots is that we repeat the same arguments, almost as if they were on a loop, without actually checking the facts behind what we say, and without acknowledging the truth that the folks we are clacking against are live, breathing human beings.

When the Australian witches decided to witch-hunt me, this is exactly what I saw. There were a few folks in that crew who took the time to look at the facts of what was going on, and saw that I was correct and their leader was not. But most of the witches just saw that someone they like online, someone they follow and trust, was upset with me, and accepted her incorrect take as truth.

And after they chose a side, they were completely resistant to facts. They hurled accusations with no proof to back it up. They insulted me and called me a shitty feminist, a grotesque thief of another woman's glory (as though going viral is a glorious experience -- HA!) Even when presented with screenshots that proved there was no way I could have done what I was accused of, they responded with insults rather than facts. 

In short, these witches became BOTS, and they mobilized against me on a scale much smaller but almost identical to how so many of us have become bots in political discussions. Once we choose a side, facts don't penetrate. We just want to clack away against the forces we've been told to clack away against.

And I'm not saying this from some elevated position outside of it. I have botted my way through many online discussions in my years on the internet -- trying to explain the concept of privilege to folks who reject it ... trying to get dudes to listen to what women are telling them about our experience when said dudes are still fully embedded in the misogynist Matrix that is our rapey culture ... trying to explain why Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve even a fraction of the hate that's been directed at her over the years.

Even though I know it's useless, and I try to be thoughtful in how I discuss stuff online, it's still something I find myself doing. Just drop me into a thread where someone is talking about how Hillary is a demon, or how Bernie is our savior, or how Donny Johnny "tells it like it is," and you will witness my heart starting to pound and my fingers starting to clack away almost before I even know what's happening.

Why is it bad? I think mostly because acting like a bot is literally dehumanizing -- to the clacker and to all the clackees. And it means that meaningful conversation isn't possible, because we're all just running our clacking programs and trying to score points and not listening. So much clack clack clack into the void. It's depressing, isn't it? 

And who benefits from this? It's certainly not me or you or the Australian witches or any of the millions of people clacking and being clacked at online. Facebook benefits, though. Twitter benefits. And the status quo in general benefits, because of the opportunity cost of all the energy we waste clacking away into the void. What else could we be doing with that time? Literally anything else is more productive than clacking. 

So, I am going to work on this. No more unconscious clacking. No more wandering around the internet like a bot with a twitchy trigger finger. Like any bad habit, it starts with NOTICING when I'm falling into bot mode. And then I have to make another choice. Because, seriously folks, with humans like us, who needs bots? Here's what I'm going to try instead. 

  • Take a breath before clacking. Am I mad? Am I high on self-righteousness? Am I about to pop off about some shit I don't fully understand? Are there facts I need to check first? And, if there are, do I feel like looking that stuff up and making a reasoned response? If I don't, that's a signal that I'm better off just letting it go and moving on with my life. As Luvvie Ajayi says, "Shutting the fuck up is free." 
  • No repetitive arguments. If I find myself clacking out some shit that I've said before? Using the same examples and language and everything? That is a good sign that I need to play my Shut the Fuck Up card. 
  • Be OK with everyone not agreeing 100% on everything. I mean, it's not like I LOVE that there are racist/sexist/horrible people walking around in the world, and I will make my points known to them for sure. But acting like a bot never convinces anyone anyway. So what I can do is this: make my points clearly and emphatically and with humanity, then stop. 
  • Reframe my goal from being RIGHT to being HUMAN. The best outcome that we can hope for in any online debate, I think, is to be able to listen to each other like human beings. I'm not going to be able to change everyone's minds, and they are not going to be able to change mine. The important thing is to plant a seed in a way that it might possibly grow. That means not salting the ground around it. 
  • "Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me like a reasonable human being." If being human is more important than being right, then we should acknowledge other folks when they engage like humans, and ignore folks who don't. I like this phrase because it allows that human beings can disagree about some stuff and still allow each other to live in the world.

All of these points are especially important, I think, when talking with people who see the world similarly but not the same. Because, you know, the Bernie Bros do have a point about money in politics. And Hillary Bitches like me have a point AND A HALF about misogyny, and also about how incremental change is way better than reverting to the 19th century. (This is part of what made the conflict with the Aussie witches so extra stupid -- because I'm sure over a beer, them witches and I agree on like 99% of reality.)

Anyway, how about you? Do you ever find yourself acting like a bot and not a human? Do you see a couple of keywords in a paragraph and immediately fly into a rage without even reading the words around them? Do you have a tendency toward salting the ground so nothing will ever grow there again? Does it make you feel hopeless about the world, or at least gross about your online interactions? 

I hope you will join me in trying to break down the calcified pattern of uninformed, habitual clacking that's taken hold in so many of us, and endeavor to be human instead.