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.

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Discussion

28 responses to "Internet Trolls to Real-Life Stalkers". Comments are closed for this post.
  • thank you for posting this! we don’t often think about trolls as being people who can access our lives. this realization is very frightening because it goes beyond just a few nasty words in a forum or on a game. misogyny is real, and violence against women is real. it doesn’t help for us to be paranoid, but we should at least be careful. i hope your story opens up a dialog among men as well. there are few safe spaces for women on the internet.

    • Ashelia says:

      Thank you for reading :D

      I think it really is a horrible realization–one I wish no one had to have. But we all have to make it, just understanding the internet and real life are actually not even separate anymore as technology advances, and that people can be targetted due to gender (or race, or sexuality). Plus the larger, more public stories of trolls IRL are things like 4chan IRL harassment which, while awful, are surreal and rarely happen to people. I know before it happened to me, I really thought it was sort of a one in a million type thing that could happen. It’s probably much more like a one in a couple thousand, especially with conventions and other meet-ups always around.

      I remember a couple of years ago someone posting about a con that was supposed to be a safeplace to discuss feminism, women geekery, and so on. This person then wrote on SomethingAwful, complete with dozens of pictures of the inside of the con mocking everyone who went. It was creepy on so many levels; they had so much hatred for a con they posed to get in, and then documented it “for teh lulz.” It was sad. :(

  • Alex H says:

    Thanks for this great post Ashelia. I enjoyed reading it, and it is definitely insightful into social game stalking and the privacy issues inherent in the internet.

    However, I fail to see how this man being asian has anything to do with the issue. Is it just to identify him? Was his stalking not only misogynistic but race-based as well? If so, you fail to mention it in the post, and simply stating that he was an Asian man is careless if there’s no other reason than identifying him. The implication is that him being asian has something to do with the events in your post. If it does, please elaborate as I would be interested in reading. If it doesn’t have anything to do directly with the situation or this post, then don’t think anything is lost in paraphrasing your RA to leave out race, or leaving out description altogether.

    • Ashelia says:

      Oh, it was how I identified him–it wasn’t race based. I just was described that this tall, Asian male was outside my room so I retold it like that. That could be removed, I was just describing him and how he looked. I didn’t seen an implication, I’m sorry, I had no idea it would be read that way. :(

    • Brinstar says:

      If she did not explicitly identify him as Asian, then would people assume he was white? If so, the assumption that white is the default race is problematic. Just as the targeting or assumption that people of colour are a certain way by virtue of their race.

    • Ian says:

      If I’d not read that the guy was Asian, I’d have automatically assumed he was white, if only for the virtue of this happening in the United States. I should also add that the profile of the “stalker”, as depicted in popular media, is often depicted as a white male. The stereotype is problematic.

      I think it’s important to accurately describe someone so no assumptions are made.

    • Matt says:

      Right or wrong, I’d expect apparent gender and race to be part of a physical description every bit as much as build, height and clothing… if John had been white I would’ve expected a description of a tall white male.

      • Brinstar says:

        Agreed.

        On a related point, I think the more we (as a society) normalize the notion that whiteness is called out, the less that calling out the fact that a person is of colour will be such a thing.

        • Alex H says:

          I think the issue is a bit more complicated than can be covered here, and I am probably being overly-sensitive to race issues and derailing the point of the piece, which I think is eloquently and succinctly captured.

          Thank you again Ashelia for the post, and I’m looking forward to your future posts!

  • Thefremen says:

    This is why Facebook’s laissez-faire approach to security is so disturbing. I never really liked myspace because I knew it was relatively easy to get someone’s IRL dox from there.

    Now I’m feeling really uncomfortable about the fact that there’s any sites connecting my handle with my IRL name, something which I’ve avoided in 14 years of internet use.

    • Erin says:

      I know right? I went to Photobucket the other day and was shocked to see my Facebook handle pop up at the bottom of the screen. If I want my real name associated with Photobucket, I’ll do it myself- I don’t need Facebook deciding which sites get to see all my personal information.

  • Mantheos says:

    That was a very well-written and thoughtful post. I can’t imagine what that was like for you (either the hostility in WoW or the stalking). That’s just wrong on so many levels.

  • Erin says:

    Thank you for this post, Ashelia. My heart raced as I read it, fearing how it would end. It’s terrible that things like this still happen.

    A friend recently asked me about Real ID, Blizzard’s new friending/ID system, and he was really excited about it- but I am not. I let him know that I prefer to keep my gender to myself and to guildmates with whom I speak on vent, not sharing my personal information with every person I end up meeting in the game. I am not attempting to hide my gender- just attempting to keep my personal information a secret unless sharing it is necessary. There are still people like John out there, unfortunately, and I’ve met my fair share of jerks who try to use gender to insult me or harass me in-game.

    • Mantheos says:

      What exactly is Real ID? I’ve never done an MMO and only done multiplayer gaming with friends I know in real life. If someone is bothering you in WoW can you block or avoid him or her?

      • Ashelia says:

        Unfortunately Real ID uses your real life name, and it’s shared with people if you play them online and friend them. It makes friending out of the question for a lot of people. My name’s fairly out there, so I have little to lose by now, but anyone who is anonymous (or just a first name basis), is best NOT using it.

        It’s something that Blizzard came up with just a few months ago. Somehow they didn’t think of any consequences, or make options to hide your name, or anything. It’s full name or bust, and it’s used for SC2/WoW.

        • Jayn says:

          Double unfortunate for those of us with extremely unique names. My given name is rare enough in anglophone society–combined with my surname, It would be pretty much impossible to mistake me for anyone else.

          Fortunately my guild is extremely close (many friends for numerous years, more than a couple wife/husband partnerships–including mine, which occurred because of WoW) and I’ve met several IRL, but it would still be nice if I could adjust it…one because I don’t go by my full first name regardless, two because few people pronounce it properly anyways (hence #1), and three minor privacy concerns :/

      • Erin says:

        Ashelia already covered it, but here’s a bit more info I was typing up:

        Basically, Read ID is a friend list that allows you to add friends across different Blizzard games, say WoW and Starcraft. You use your actual personal information, which connects you to all of your in-game characters. You can use it to chat with friends who are playing on different factions (which is admittedly pretty cool) or in different games, to see what they’re doing, or send out mass messages.

        Thankfully, it’s an optional system. While I like that I can chat with friends who are on horde/ally toons, I would prefer to keep my personal information private, and I don’t think my friends need to know who ALL my toons are.

        In the future I think that Blizzard should consider offering customization (so that you can maybe use the list without your real name, and such) but for now it’s a little on the Facebook side of the privacy wars.

    • Lisa Harney says:

      I hate RealID enough that I doubt I will ever actually make use of that aspect of battle.net, even though it means no cross-Realm or cross-game chat.

  • Lake Desire says:

    I think we’re around the same age, Ashelia. I can’t believe how long WoW has been around, or that it’s already been 5 or 6 years since Facebook debuted as an exclusive networking site just for college students. I’ve had some parallel experiences growing up online with stalkers and harassment bleeding over into the real world. The worst of it was around 1999 or 2000, before the police had any way to deal with cyber-stalking. You’re lucky, BTW, that campus security was able to do anything. I’d given up on the criminal justice system for dealing with sexism.

  • Sean says:

    wow, i would have never thought that anything like this happens, it just amazes me that in this day and age there are still douche bags who do not consider women as equals, its petty and immature, i mean seriously, it’s because of jagoffs like that guy that women don’t trust men, good and decent men, thank you Ashelia for the article. it was very well written, eye opening, and you were able to make a huge issue out of something that is seen as so little. you also made me think of people as a whole, so thank you,
    p.s. have you ever thought of doing journalism? because you are a phenomenal writer

  • outwar6010 says:

    OMG thats soooo messed up i hope nothing but bad things to that douche! i didnt know that happened. You should have filled charges and reported him in GOW. im soo sorry you had to go through that as i was i racing through the article to see if the worsed had happened and thankfully it hadn’t. The experience made you stronger and more aware.

  • Silfea says:

    someone up above made a very important point. if any famous person ever, ever posts on the WoW forums after this is implemented, they’ll most likely be outed within a month. no doubt there will be people trawling Google results for specific celebrities’ usernames and servers. hell, I’m sure some probably plan to publicize whole lists.

    that will be the end of the game for all of those people. so they’ll either have to never, ever use the forums, or quit. there’s no alternative.

    what can Blizzard be thinking?

    and yeah. stalking is going to be way too freaking easy if this is implemented. I love WoW, but I’m afraid this is going to be my reason to finally quit. for once, I think most of us saying it really mean it this time. it’s just too scary. it’s not worth the risk at all.

  • Sarah says:

    I’m horrified at your experience, and glad nothing worse came of it. A perfect example of what women face, something which man can’t fathom because they have the privilege of being “norm”, complete with abhorrent, degrading behavior towards women.

    And with the new Real ID system, which has a security leak that allows other players to learn your real name, doesn’t allow you to stop friends-of-friends from seeing your real name, and will only allow forum posting under your real name, I only expect cases like this to happen more often. And who knows what else Blizzard has in mind for that insane system.

    They say they want to stop forum trolls, but they already have the rules and the tools to do so — they just need to START USING THEM.

  • [...] find out who I am. Could find out where I live. Don’t believe that could happen? Well tough, because it already has. (Trigger warning for stalking in that [...]

  • [...] Many players have had their accounts hacked. Some players are in witness protection programs. Others have been stalked by pissed off guild members. Others still have violent ex’s or family members they’d like to not know about. Some [...]

  • [...] This change will not erase the ugly social forces that exist on the forums, merely displace them. Stalking happens in World of Warcraft already. It’s a fact of life for us- us primarily being women- and now Blizzard is proposing forum [...]

  • [...] How about when someone is stalked in real life over this?  This isn’t something that happens rarely.  It happens a lot. [...]

  • [...] Ashelia reflects on when trolls go real. DJ Bell sent me a link on the fury caused when someone’s entitlement is challenged that resonates with Ashelia’s points. Sounds like something similar went on surrounding Wiscon. More, from KTempest. [...]