We’re All Cyberbullies To Someone

A seemingly random twit from someone you don’t know, never heard of before, comes at you. Your [insert expletive of choice].  Yes, I spelled “you’re” wrong on purpose, as it usually goes hand in hand with the balance of the twit.  And you scratch your head, wondering why some random person on the internet has decided to call you a mean name.


In the New York Times Style Section, Nick Bilton says it’s reached “a cultural boiling point.”

Sure, the topic of cyberbullying is not new, but it feels different this time. The debate is happening everywhere: on radio shows, movies, books, talks, TV shows, blogs, book reviews and especially on social media.

It feels different? That’s the precursor to “because this time it happened to me and hurt my feelings.”  And indeed, Bilton goes there.

Women, Ms. Shine said, are often ridiculed on social media in ways that most men do not experience, sometimes being threatened with rape, having their addresses and Social Security numbers posted publicly, being sent death threats, having intimate photos uploaded and being called ghastly names.

While social security numbers posted publicly would seem to cross a line that no one can accept, as it’s the foundation of identity theft, the link fails to bear out that this is a real problem per se, even though it’s certainly a potentially serious problem, as is doxxing in general.  But this slice of twisted internet behavior, revealing publicly information designed to do harm to an individual, can be identified as a particularized wrong.

Yet, it all raises two realities on the internet, that there are sick, demented people out there with keyboards and internet access, and they will do the sorts of things that sick demented people do.  They will threaten rape, call others “ghastly names” (and they are, indeed, ghastly).  They will do whatever they can to harm their perceived “enemies,” and it can be extremely harmful, wholly unjustifiable, and just beyond the pale of any acceptable behavior.

I never realized how many sick, demented people there are until the internet showed them to me.  But is there anything to be done about them?  They fall into a separate category from those who aren’t flaming nutjobs, who can’t hide behind whatever flavor of mental illness guides their actions.  Until there is a sanity test for buying a keyboard, they will be among us.

But what about the rest of us?  There is certainly the disinhibition of those who are anonymous, who can attack without repercussions.  But there is also the ability to speak truth to power from anonymity.  It cuts both ways.

There are people who seem to pile on to whatever frenzy is happening at any moment, but that’s how it appears from the outside. For the people doing the apparent piling, each one is an individual who made an individual choice to get involved or not, say something or not.

“On the Internet we forget that people are dimensional.”

True, but that goes both ways. The person on the receiving end is dimensional. So too is the person on the sending end.  Just because they are reduced to an internet persona, because on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, doesn’t mean that each person doesn’t have their own thoughts and feelings.  Some feelings are hurt. Some feelings are outrage. Which one is wrong.

Curiously, Bilton cites to Anil Dash, who derided the notion that such a thing as cyberbulling was any different or more real than any other bullying.  Then again, Dash showed no reluctance to indulge in silencing those who hurt his feelings online.  But as quoted by Bilton, Dash’s hypocrisy becomes manifest.

Whether it’s an online army of one or 1.2 million, people often believe they are doing the right thing by joining the mob.

You show your proof of membership in a community by criticizing the most erratically,” said Anil Dash, a tech entrepreneur and blogger who has been on the receiving end of racially charged Twitter mobs. “There’s a social dynamic that says ‘Let me show that I belong.’ And there is a reward structure for being even more inflammatory.”

Mr. Dash noted that online mobs can sometimes serve a public good, as in cases when the powerless are given a voice to hold the ruling class accountable.

So it’s cyberbullying when it happens to you, but it serves a public good when it happens to someone who you believe deserves it.

There is a point here, that Bilton is right that we are all cyberbullies, to the extent that word means that our online speech will hurt someone’s feelings.  The viciousness of the crazies is offered as an example of why the hurt feelings caused by the non-crazies, those who don’t threaten rape or reveal social security numbers but still hurt feelings by being critical, must be stopped, but they are two very different problems.

The twitters, the reddits, the facebooks are trying to do something so that people’s feelings are not hurt as often and deeply as they seem to be now.  There is nothing inherently wrong with attempting to make the tubes more friendly and less vicious, but no one has yet come up with a way to distinguish between the rightfully indignant and outraged, the “public service” Dash exalts, from the cyberbullies whose sting he’s felt.

The reason for this seems quite plain: if you’re on the giving end of critical internet engagement, you believe yourself to be entirely right and justified in attacking someone for doing something you feel certain is bad, evil and wrong.  If you’re on the receiving end, it sucks, and you are hurt, offended or worse.  In the worst case scenario, jobs are lost, lives altered; people are even driven to death.  The problem is that when criticism is leveled, it’s never known whether it’s just the random mean twit that you shrug off or the start of an avalanche that will bury a dimensional person for one inadvertent statement.

The internets are a tough place, and raised a great many questions about who we are, how we deal with each other and what, if anything, to do about it.  As for me, I just ignore random idiotic twits, chalking them up to the fact that there will always be someone “out there” who’s going to hate you or what you say.  With the internet, they now get to hear you and you get to hear them. The only way to silence the hurt is to silence the internet.


13 thoughts on “We’re All Cyberbullies To Someone

  1. Bartleby the Scrivener

    As I prefer it, freedom includes the freedom for others to tell me what a terrible person they think I am.

    1. SHG Post author

      In the Age of Emotions, freedom has been turned into a one-way street. You’re a terrible person, but you can’t say anything mean back to me because that would be bullying.

  2. Scott Morrell

    The internet has created this great cloak for people to express themselves in the way they would like, but cannot, in the public view.

    These people fit into two categories:

    The first being pure wimps who lack the courage of their convictions to tell people to their face how they feel. These people are in fact the most insecure people around, despite showing their “macho” behavior on the net. They are also normally are introverts, jealous or narrow minded people.

    The second group are people lacking individuality. They seek the “mob mentality” and follow the most irate leader. You will find these people at any local mall in America, buying the same clothing or gadgets that everyone else has. The want to “fit in” rather than make a difference in people’s lives.

    The two share some overlapping characteristics but have their own uniqueness. I am afraid that unless we have moderators on every website, chat room, Twitter of Facebook post, this will be an issue for all time.

    I learned that the best thing to do is to ignore these miscreants. They want your attention and depriving them of that stings them the most.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s just a computer screen. When it pisses you off, you can always turn off the computer and, poof, they disappear.

      But don’t discount those who have something to say just because they’re anon as well. They too exist, and some have legit reasons for staying under the radar.

      1. Bartleby the Scrivener

        Some in this country have claimed that there is no right to anonymous political speech. When I point out the Federalist Papers were anonymous submissions they react with shock and say it was a different time and place.

        Orwell was prescient.

        1. SHG Post author

          People tend to have an idea in their head about anonymity, which makes it either a good or bad thing. Many anon commenters rely on their personal credibility, while arguing that their identity doesn’t matter because it’s all about their argument. The problem is that their argument is grounded in their personal experience or expertise, and fails when they’re anon.

          Other times, the identity of the speaker doesn’t matter at all, so anonymity is irrelevant. That said, few people are Publius or being hunted by the Mossad, so they go anon without any good reason, and most of us think that the needless refusal to put one’s name to one’s thoughts is a reflection of cowardice. If it’s important enough to write, and you have no reason to conceal your identity, then own your views.

  3. Jake DiMare

    As is often the case, there’s a question of scale and proportion to be considered. Sure, someone calling you a bad name is an absurd thing to get all riled up about. I believe we learned something about sticks and stones in kindergarten where I grew up.

    On the other hand, tens of thousands of people calling you bad names, doxxing, credible threats to you and your loved ones, harassing your employers and getting you fired…All because they disagree with your opinion, or work you’ve done…This is a completely different story. And it’s one I personally believe deserves some thoughtful legislative attention.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, it’s entirely different when it’s a mob. But let’s say you see something I twit that’s particularly stupid and decide to reply by telling me so. Along with ten thousand other people who, like you, think my twit is particularly stupid.

      You made an individual decision to express your individual opinion as to the particular stupidity of my twit. If you thought so, why should the other ten thousand, independent, dimensional, individual twitterers who, just like you, thought my twit was stupid? So are you a part of a mob or does it turn out that ten thousand individuals have the same independent thought as to the same thing?

      1. Jake DiMare

        Your point is well taken, I concede that 10,000 people calling me a bad name is not necessarily more significant than 1 person. Where it gets a little murky is if 1 person disagrees with me and then enlists the zombie support of others who may not even understand the conversation we were having, some of which who turn out to be lunatics.

        If, in your scenario, some of these people say: “I disagree, you’re stupid, and I’m going to rape and murder your brother, who I know leaves work at 4:15 PM on Green Street.” -I think that person has crossed a line which requires some attention. Furthermore, I think the person who ‘enlists’ bears some responsibility for potentially resulting damages.

        1. SHG Post author

          Now you’ve added in the crazies. There’s nothing to be done about crazies as long as they sell keyboards to anyone.

        2. SHG Post author

          Now you’ve added in the crazies. There’s nothing to be done about crazies as long as they sell keyboards to anyone.

  4. traderprofit

    Well, yes Scott, but you solved the problem of hurt feelings with a button for people to click. I should steal that for all my internet posts. Hmmm maybe it can be trademarked/copyrighted and you can license it.

    See , there is money for you in the internets without selling porn and gambling clicks

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