Internet Trolls to Real-Life Stalkers
by guest contributor Ashelia
Ashelia is a 20-something female who works as a community manager for an indie video game company. She recently started the weblog Hellmode.com to cover game theory, news, and more. You can follow her @ashelia on Twitter.
(Trigger Warning: stalking)
Trolls are real–the human variety is, at least. As the popular saying tells us, “haters [are] gonna hate,” and it’s fairly true. From big name rappers with platinum hits to artistic teenage nobodies on DeviantArt, everyone’s got their share of objectors on the internet.
All it takes is an instant, however, and they aren’t merely objectors on the internet anymore.
I will always remember my time in student housing in college. Not because I spent every night at a party or because it was the day I started the rest of my life, but because it was the first time I saw the dark underbelly of the internet. It took a long time to get past what I saw that year. I went to a large, well-known university. This was the beginning of 2005, Facebook was just getting known in what was then mostly collegiate circles and a whole lot of us were unaware of the internet’s now widely publicized ability to make private things public. The internet was getting smarter and, as for us, we were still just kids. We posted copious amounts of pictures of ourselves online, gave out our dorm room numbers freely on everyone’s wall, and were lulled by the privacy setting of “in our network.” Facebook told us this meant anyone who didn’t go to our university couldn’t see and this made us sleep easy.
We just never counted on someone in our network being anything but harmless.
It was a Friday. It snowed that day. I remember because I had a history class I was late to, but I was hurrying back to my dorm room to grab a jacket instead. One minute it had been a nice warm March day, the next it was freezing as a mixture of rain and snow started falling from the sky. Walking inside the building, I found the elevator was full so I opted to walk up eight flights of stair instead. In retrospect, it was probably that walk that saved me from being scarred for life.
When I got up to the eighth floor, the stairwell’s exit put me next to the RA’s room on the other side of the floor instead of where the elevator usually would put me. My dorm room was then at the opposite end from me. In a hurry, still thinking of my class I was missing, I started to make my way to my room. Then the RA emerged from his room and grabbed my arm gently to catch me before I ran off.
“Hey, a head’s up,” he said. “John’s outside your room, he said he’d wait.”
(Author note: He actually did not give me a name, he just described the guy, but I am using a name for reference in this article.)
I stopped. “John?”
“He’s a thin, tall Asian guy. He’s been waiting for about thirty minutes now. I asked him what’s up and he said he knew you.”
I didn’t know who John was, nor did I have any real life friends who resembled the description, but I had a weird feeling. I told myself it was probably someone from class and that I shouldn’t overreact as I thanked my RA for giving me a heads up. No longer in a hurry, I slowly walked to the corner of the hallway. Peaking around the edge down to the corridor, I saw John.
And I did know him–just not in real life.
John was a member of my World of Warcraft guild, and someone who trolled me frequently. I recognized him instantly from the photos he had shared with the guild. He was misogynist who had been at odds with me for months; he’d called me derogatory names and he was absolutely enraged when I passed my trial in the guild because he believed females shouldn’t raid in what was formerly an all-male guild. Though the officers were initially hesitant to do anything about the situation, exercising their privilege to dismiss his misogyny as casual ribbing, his behavior got too far out of hand (in their opinion, not mine) that they eventually demoted him to a casual rank and he was no longer allowed to raid with them anymore because of his remarks and general attitude.
Ideally, the guild would have stripped him of his status and make attempts to correct his behavior the instant he displayed these traits, but the relaxed attitude of the officers towards misogyny and other issues of gender was common amongst the Warcraft elite. Any attempt to speak out would cause one to be shouted down for being “dramatic,” a commonly used accusation and a dismissal of misogyny as nothing more than a female’s attempt to make a big deal out of nothing, which also served to further empower the misogynists.
It felt like a boy’s club, and it was.
I was young, naive and determined to not let John or anyone else ruin the game for me, so instead of finding a new guild despite the hostility I constantly faced, I simply stayed and held my ground. This action, inevitably, made John quite angry. A few nights prior, as I would learn later from interrogating guild mates, John joked to his friends on another forum that he was going to pay me a little visit to snap a few photos of where I lived and “put me in my place.”
Apparently, John wasn’t bluffing.
I don’t know what John had planned for me. I don’t know if he had just intended to peek into my door while I played World of Warcraft, or if he was going to actually confront me. I have no idea if he would have physically assaulted me. Then again, it doesn’t really matter what he would have done, I guess. The bigger problem was he could have done anything if not for my RA. I assume he’d talked to the RA not because he was a forthcoming individual wanting to make his presence known, but because our RA was very hyper vigilant about strangers on the floor. For this, I thank the RA to this day. Without a head’s up, I would have thought John was just another student on a campus of over thirty thousand wandering the halls.
It also turns out that, in some ways, he was. John went to my university. This is where it ties in with how we–all of my fellow college students–were naively unaware of the internet’s growing staying power. Because our walls were viewable to those in our network, which back in the day was based on your school and school email addresses, John had been able to find my Facebook and read everyone’s wall. Thanks to my unique first name, it had taken him no time to get access.
He had probably seen where I told my roommate Alicia that our room number was my new lucky number. Or maybe he’d seen when I told my other friend to come on by to our room number for a round of Halo.
Either way, he’d gotten it. He’d gotten it because prior to this event, I lived with the expectation that it was not normal to be assaulted or harassed for my gender. That it couldn’t happen to me–that we didn’t live in a world where people would let this happen to me. I wasn’t as cautious because I knew I was an equal and I wrongly believed being perceived as an equal would be the norm in video gaming, not the other way around.
John changed my expectations. He changed a lot of things, things like feeling safe in my room or things like walking down the street late at night.
I didn’t see John again and, after digging online and talking to other guild mates, I got his real name (redacted for privacy reasons in this post). I then told campus security, who talked to John and gave him a warning. He wasn’t charged with anything and, while the fear lingered, it went away with time.
It haunts me to think what it could have been and that’s the point of this post.
In the first place, I shouldn’t have had to put up with any of this. The guild should’ve been able to rein him in and correct his behavior, if not kick him out, and those whom he had joked to about confronting me ought to have prevented him from going through with his decision to pay me a visit. There is no reason why anyone, for the sole virtue of their gender, should have to deal with a potentially dangerous encounter with a misogynistic or homophobic guild-mate, workmate, or stranger. It’s a situation unfathomable to most male members of the gaming community, and society at large, because it isn’t an issue they have to deal with at all in their entire lives–but one that so many others have to deal with on a daily basis.
Trolls, as I said in the beginning, are real. I’m not saying this to scare anyone. I don’t want anyone to go into hiding and I would be sad if anyone felt their paranoia rising as I told my tale. But I want us to be aware–that the internet and the gaming community, while it’s distancing at times, contains real people with real locations and real intentions. When you argue with someone on a forum and it goes south, tomorrow they could teach you their version of a twisted lesson, and it could be online.
But it could also be offline.
Know yourself, know your friends, and know how to get help. Watch the information you make about yourself available. If you register a domain, protect your registrar information or use a P.O. box. If you want to tweet about your life, consider leaving those exact coordinates the iPhone might give out of the equation.
Furthermore, spread the message that misogyny is real and not a myth. It is important to listen to those who face these problems, and not casually dismiss their fears simply because you have the privilege of never having to face them yourself. Furthermore, laughing along with the threats of people like John can be empowering to them, but it is no joke to their victims. If you have friends like John, you should do all you can to dissuade them from their hateful thoughts and discourage them, through words, if not actions.
Either way, you might just be saving a life–whether it’s your own or not.