Imagine this scenario. You are a brilliant, accomplished woman with a great job in tech, who’s listed so many certificates in her bio that people need to keep Google open to look them all up. You posted a pretty cool video the other day which you hopes will help people. So you hop on Twitter and there’s a lot of mentions. You can’t wait to interact with people, but your reading and your heart stop for a second when you read a vile comment by someone hiding behind an anime avatar who calls you dumb and a few choice words and says you should stop making content.
Ouch. You didn’t see that coming, and you certainly didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be treated like this, and yet it happens to a lot of women in tech, both famous for creating content or not – it was just an example, okay?
Or maybe you did see it coming, because it’s not your first rodeo. But it still hurts. Why do these anonymous people choose to say something like that from the safety of their troll account? Because yes, you checked, and all they do is post nasty things online. Is it your fault? Did you do something to trigger this?
First of all, although there is a specific reason why their vitriol was slinged at you, that doesn’t mean you did something wrong or should blame yourself, if you were planning to. There is nothing wrong with the thing you did. You are the victim here, let that be clear.
Secondly, I know you might want to react, because it stings. Maybe you want to tell them to get lost. Or maybe you just want to make sure they know their words can’t hurt you, but please don’t. We’ll explain why later.
Why is this happening?
Why, indeed. In order to understand why these anonymous trolls do what they do, you need to understand something: it’s not personal. (*)
(*) Disclaimer: There is no “universal truth” to people and their motivations. The things written in this article don’t cover every single person who’s being a dick, because then this would turn into a novel. This post focuses on a specific type of “troll” which is unfortunately far too common.
You might not believe it, but it’s just that you happen to be the perfect storm of what they troll can’t live with: a smart woman who works in Infosec or tech, who is active on the same platform that these trolls call their “home”.
Before we continue, I want to point out that this post isn’t about people who are dicks in real life who are also extending their charming personality to online platforms. Some people are just bad people. This is also not about people with a “real” online persona who are also bad people – people in Infosec often like to hide behind a handle for various reasons, and some of those people happen to also be dicks.
Why troll at all?
Why would anyone want to anonymously troll people on the internet, to begin with? What do they have to gain by bullying you online?
In many cases, it’s simply because their life sucks in some shape or form. They are experiencing problems and can’t find a solution or a healthy way to deal with their feelings. Harassing people online is often a result of the pent up frustration stemming from their own lives and an inability to deal with it in a healthy way. They feel powerless and “unheard” and they believe that if they make other people feel bad like they do, it will help them feel better.
And you know what? They’re not wrong, because lashing out of people releases some of the stress. But it’s only temporary, because they’re lashing out at people instead of tackling the root cause. We’ll get to that later.
For some of these trolls, it’s not even about hurting the other person. They just want people to respond to their online shenanigans and they’ve learned that negative attention is easier to come by than positive attention. Once you reach a certain point in your life, attention is attention. Some of these people you are seeing online would never interact with women like that in real life because a part of them knows what is wrong, and they understand that there would be consequences, because they’re not completely socially inept.
That is why they go online: because they believe that there will be no real consequences., and because online interactions and people don’t feel real – especially on platforms where everyone is hiding behind a handle. They fail to realize that their punching bags are real people who, just like them, also have their own problems to deal with. They’ve tricked themself into believing that everyone else on the internet is a NPC and you can say whatever you want.
Once a troll understands that this isn’t the case, they might change their ways. I’ve read an example on Reddit of a self-proclaimed former troll, who enjoyed harassing people on Reddit. Enjoyed wasn’t the right word, because he was frustrated because his social life and his job were in bad shape. He felt like lashing out was the only way of letting go of some of the stress, and the usernames on Reddit didn’t feel like real people.
One day, the troll ran into a woman who called him out on his shit. She asked him why he was harassing people and whether he realized they were real people he was interacting with, who were hurt by his feelings. The ex-troll says that something just snapped in that moment. Instead of fleeing the scene, he realized he was talking to a human being and he ended up apologizing and admitting that he was having a bad day – “one of the many bad days”. Rumor has it they even became good online friends.
The moral of this story isn’t that you should try to educate every troll that harasses you. Although this story has a nice ending, a lot of people aren’t in the right place to make that click and accept that they are interacting with real people whose feelings can be hurt. If anything, the moral of this story is that a lot of online trolls are looking for a vent for pent up frustration, and they happened to pick the worst possible way with the tools they have available to them. A lot of people who troll online aren’t the most socially gifted in the “real world” and often don’t feel heard. If the internet didn’t exist, they’d probably be yelling in a forest or writing in a diary how nobody listens to them.
So why are they doing it? Because in many cases, they crave the attention.
But why women?
Based on no evidence whatsoever, I believe it’s fair to assume that the majority of these trolls are men.
I know it’s funny to make “small penis” jokes about trolls but making dumb generalizations about trolls isn’t helping. However, that doesn’t mean that it is not a gender issue. It’s just not as simple as “lol you don’t get laid.”
While that might be true for some of these trolls, the problem goes deeper. They are often lacking healthy relationships with women. That doesn’t mean they have mommy issues. They lack healthy relationships with women that haven’t “always just been there” ever since they were growing up. Some of these dudes might be perfectly nice to their mother and sisters, and be total tools online.
Why? Because when growing up, the relationship with your siblings and mother just… exists. But as you grow up and become an adult, your view of all other women starts to shape around the interactions you have with women. And for some of these trolls, no such interactions exist beyond the level of “meeting female cashier in the store”. Which isn’t a problem on it’s own, but it becomes a problem when they are at the age when they should have been in a relationship with people, by societies standards.
They start to wonder why they don’t have a girlfriend, or in some cases just female friends.
Unfortunately, some people then come to the conclusion that it’s women’s fault. Does that make sense? No. Does it make sense for people who are struggling to self-evaluate? Unfortunately, the answer is yes and there’s a lot of people that don’t do that sort of self-evaluation to realize that they might need to make an effort to establish relationships with women.
These people, who are probably not the most socially gifted, will start looking for people who both understand what they are going through and whom they can relate to. So they go online, but here’s the issue. There aren’t a lot of communities built around this topic, and the ones that exist are usually extremely toxic. Does the name “incels” ring a bell? It is very rare that the men who fall for this trap were initially looking for a hate group to join. They were just looking for people who understand them, and on a surface level “incel” groups are the perfect fit. They’re made up of men who are having the same problems and frustrations as them. These incel groups will teach them that women are to blame for their problems, and that’s comforting for the troll, because many people don’t want to hear that they’re the problem. People have been putting blame on outsiders for their problems for centuries and what “Incels” are doing isn’t something new.
These groups can give a sense of comradery, understanding and “friendship” that these trolls didn’t find elsewhere. But in return, they’re joining a group which will further detoriate their “relationship” with women, which can make some internet trolls even more combative.
So you have a person who is already looking to lash out at people, who is now told that women are the source of their problem. So bullying women online comes natural to them. It’s a logical next step for them.
Okay, but why women in tech specifically?
Even if you understand why people decide to troll people online, and specifically women, you might be still wondering “but why women in tech specifically?”
There’s a few reasons I can think of. The easiest explanation would be that women in tech are more likely to have an online presence. That certainly plays a part, because one factor is that these women are present on the platform that these trolls call their “online homes”.
It certainly plays a role that women in tech are easier to reach out to using anonymous platforms, but that’s not the sole reason. These trolls could be targeting any women for any reason, but they don’t. So why are they singling out women in tech?
Once again, “home turf” comes into play. They are targeting women because they are speaking up in what these trolls consider to be “their field”, be it video games or Infosec or development.
These women often have succesfull careers in their field. Many of them are stunning on the inside and the outside. If you sat down with the internet troll and asked him to describe his perfect girlfriend or the type of woman he would wand to be friends with, he would probably be describing the very women than he’s pestering online.
These women are usually more succesfull that the troll in question and have a nice online following and online friends. Part of the troll is jealous of these women, and part of them is frustrated because they wish they could be friends with these women, too. But they can’t, because they’ve taught themselves that “nobody wants them” or nobody wants to hear them. So they don’t even try and instead they interact in the only way they know how – by sending their tweets, messages and posts in the direction of these women that, in a world where they weren’t trying to make the world burn would be what would qualify as “girlfriend material”.
You might be sitting there, thinking “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.” And you are right, if you look at it from the outside perspective it doesn’t. If they let go of their emotions and tried to talk to some of these women like humans, maybe they’d manage to make a friend or two and fill the hole in their heart. Which brings me to another misconception. It’s not always about sexual frustration. For some of these trolls, not even their basic social needs are met and a female friends, or even female acquintances would make a huge difference. It’s easy to make “haha, small penis”, jokes but the issue is a lot deeper than that and might be hard to understand from an outsiders point of view.
So what do I do?
I’m not sure I am in the position to tell women what to do in this situation. However, keep in mind that they are seeking negative attention and once you give it to them, they’ll keep coming back for more.
I know it’s tempting to respond harshly, but that’s like pouring oil on the flames. Ignoring these internet trolls cuts off their oxygen, so at the very least they’re not your problem anymore.
In an ideal world I’d tell you to confront them with their bullshit, but a lot of internet trolls aren’t ready yet to make the sort of realization that helps them turn their life around. So if I were in your position, I would just choose not to interact with them and completely ignore them. If you do feel like you need to adress a troll problem, I would be doing it in a general way, while removing the emotion that many people inject in these sort of public service announcements.” Saying something like “Man, the trolls that are trolling me suck” is still the kind of interaction that they’re looking for.
In the end, there is no problem on your end and there’s little you can do to solve the problem of the trolls. How you choose to respond is up to you. Just keep in mind that these trolls are people, too, and that “small dick” jokes are lame.