When The Internet Attacks

By Jennie Jarvis

From my first days of wanting to pursue a career in the arts, I knew that criticism and rejection were just a part of the game. So, I never had that moment where receiving some kind of criticism on my work made me want to give up doing what I do. It’s true that the first time I got feedback on a performance that I gave in my first acting class, I cried. But so did everyone. I went to a School of the Arts magnet school where crying was a regular part of your first term as a freshman acting major. But I got over. I grew my thick skin and went on to receive more and more feedback on why my work wasn’t quite up to snuff.

When I moved into the film industry, I was surprised at the lack of feedback that I got. I would be told that people were passing on my work, but I wouldn’t always be told why. I think it was a part of the general attitude of the film industry – don’t piss anyone off because the person you insult today could be the next hot shot tomorrow – but this always irritated me. I wanted to know WHY people didn’t want my stuff. Why didn’t you like my film? Why weren’t you interested in optioning my script? I’m a know-it-all, and the best way to push my buttons is to NOT tell me what I want to know.

And yet, even this kind of rejection made sense to me. I was irritated and depressed, but I knew in my head that it was all a part of the game. They didn’t want my stuff, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t talented. It was because there were too many good people out there. Or, it was because the people that I was submitting my work to had too many other choices out there to choose from. It sucked, but it was logical.

However, last summer, I received the first real rejection-shock of my life – and it was completely illogical.

For this blog, I decided to write a parody review, and it backfired in a way that I couldn’t understand. To this day, my head still spins a bit when I think about what happened. I don’t understand it because, to me, it made no sense.

Let me explain: There is an internet based movie review show called Red Letter Media that I admired from the first time I saw an episode. What makes what these guys do enjoyable is that they don’t just sit there and talk about the movies like most review shows. These are true movie lovers that know how to break down films intelligently, but they drink beer, swear and make jokes as they do it. They present a highly analytical review of a film in a really accessible and informal way. They make critical film analysis fun, and being a film analysis professor, I friggin’ loved them for that! I teach a new section of a master’s level analysis class each month, and I always include a link to their site to drum up additional viewers for the site.

One day, they posted a gag review of Step Up 4, and I thought that I would write a fun parodic review of their review. In the past, they accused George Lucas of utterly raping the Star Wars series by comparing the prequels to the original three films. So, in my ha-ha-aren’t-I-so-funny-or-so-I-thought way, I reviewed their gag review, telling them that they needed to keep their review standards up to snuff. I compared their current review to their past reviews, saying that they were letting their viewers down by not providing a good review for a bad movie.  At the time, this blog was still relatively small, and I didn’t really think that anyone but our regular readers (which included a lot of my friends that know my dry sense of humor and the friends of my fellow 5 writers) would ever see it. And sure enough, several of my friends read the post and laughed. They thought it was a funny and harmless little ditty that helped to break up the regular monthly topic.

So how surprised was I when, a few hours after the post had gone live, my email inbox was suddenly filled with over two hundred comments for the blog waiting to be approved. We always monitor all comments before they go live on our site to make sure that our readers aren’t confronted with spam, but we have never EVER had this kind of a reaction to a blog before.

It turns out that Red Letter Media found the blog posting and posted it on their Facebook page along with the comment, “It was a joke, you idiot!”

When I looked through the dozens upon dozens of comments, I was shocked to see that most of them were extremely mean and spiteful in nature. I was called a moron and an idiot. People yelled at me for having a stick up my ass and having no sense of humor. At first, I thought that I must have just not been clear in the purpose of what I wrote. My dry humor was too dry, maybe?

So I posted a follow up on the blog, indicating that the post was meant as a joke, and I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear. I tried to make it sound funny, like I was in on this huge cosmic joke, even thanking people for the extra hits on our blog.

But the violent remarks just kept on coming. They called me a liar and a fraud. They looked at my profile and made fun of anything and everything that they could – where I worked, my name, my dog’s name, the fact that I worked on the “bad” Matrix films. They called me ugly, saying that I would die miserable and alone so I may as well go commit suicide.

At first, I was so shocked that I found the whole thing hilarious. I laughed and called my blogmates, wondering what their reactions were to the response. They found them amusing like me, but as the insults just kept coming, again and again, filling my email inbox with bile and hate, we agreed to take the original blog post down.

A girl can only take so many insults in one day – and we had over 10,000 hits within a few short hours.

After removing the blog, we still got the occasional hate comment on one of our other posts, but the chatter mostly died down. However, the debate rattled on under the original Facebook comment that Red Letter Media first posted.

People who came to the party late wanted to be a part of the attack. Someone had copied the blog before it was taken down and posted it there. The insults kept coming, but they began to grow more and more strange. People kept assuming the writer was a male, even after multiple people corrected this error. People would quote the blog, trying to make fun of me, but would wind up making themselves look stupid as a result. A few people even pulled out a quote where I complimented the internet show and then said “oh please!” – meaning that they just insulted Red Letter Media on their page while trying to make fun of me. It made no sense, and I had to resist the urge to try to defend myself or call them out on their own stupidity online. In the end, I became obsessed with reading the on-going hate fest that I had created, and I had to shut my laptop and head to a nearby theme park to force myself to look away from the train wreck.

As the initial shock of this internet attack wore off, the hurt began. This was a kind of rejection that I had never faced as a writer, had never expected to face as a writer, and I really hope to never have to face again. It wasn’t the kind of feedback that I could not use to get better. It was illogical and angry. It was the kind of feedback meant to utterly destroy me.

It’s true that there were some attempts to defend me on the Facebook battlefield – a few friends, Sim and Jessica in particular, but mostly strangers that I never met who read my post and got that it was a joke. They tried to talk sense to illogical flow of hate that was spewing out, but the damage had been done. Red Letter Media had opened the floodgates, and sic’-ed their minions on me.

One of the haters (or “trolls”) put it best. He said, “People are coming to this site to hate you, and they will never come back again”. And it’s true. The purpose of this kind of negative feedback is just to throw hate at the recipient. And there is nothing that you can do except take it or take your blog down. Because when the internet attacks, there are only two options: surrender or die.

Since the internet attack on my post, a lot of really good things have happened for me. I finished my novel, got an agent, have my novel out to multiple publishers, got invited to conduct a panel at MegaCon and got engaged (suck it, trolls!). But that attack stays with me. To this day, I haven’t returned to Red Letter Media’s website to watch any of their reviews. I still refer my students to their site, and a lot of them thank me for referring them. But for me, I now equate that attack with them as a company, and that’s not fair to them (for all I know, it was some stupid intern that unleashed the internet’s wrath) but that’s how it is.

Even writing this honestly makes me nervous. Am I just opening myself up to cyber-bullying again? Will my email inbox be filled with hate and bile once more? Perhaps, but I think that it would be unfair to our readers for me not to address this issue in our month of talking about rejection. We live in a digital age, and that means that trolls are going to be a real part of the successful writer’s life from here on out.

So grab your swords, kids. Prepare to surrender or die.

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  1. #1 by Melissa on February 6, 2013 - 10:40 am

    Hi Jenny,

    I enjoyed reading your post but was sorry to hear about the attack. It’s quite amazing to consider the depths to which people will go on the net. I truly believe that because many feel so powerless in their daily lives, they let go of all the vitriol they have on some hapless, anonymous, faceless person to them. They feel very safe in essentially flushing their toilets down your throat. I would take the troll-hatred and consider it great publicity! It could start a whole string of parody and satire, but that might not be your thing.

    I love that you associated this incident with the issue of rejection for writers. This is definitely a modern manifestation of that; whereas most of us professional types have already grown our rejection skins and have them solidly in place, we probably need a new set of skins for the dangerous foray into the online world. In a sense, I hope I have the good fortune of publishing something on the net that drives people over the edge–all press is good press? Maybe; maybe not.

  2. #2 by Danae on February 6, 2013 - 4:10 pm

    Hi Jenny –

    I’ve discovered the same thing since venturing into the wide world of social sites. There is a population that lives to skulk around the internet and verbally attack people over ridiculous things. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen regular bouts of troll behavior that range from childish insults to threatening someone’s life over trivial situations like the one you mentioned. I’ve learned that people have much less restraint when they feel they can say anything they want without fear of retribution. They can verbally tear you apart and then walk away without any remorse, hiding behind the anonymity of a fake screen name. There are few apologies when it turns out they blew up over nothing because they feel justified in being hateful whether warranted or not. It speaks to the distinct lack of emotional maturity.

    For some of us, playing in that pond is necessary to build a career and as you mentioned in your tale of your first year in the performing arts program, you have to develop a thick skin. The hateful comments aren’t really about you. People are just angry and looking for a target, any target will do. I’ve had brushes with it and before my career is over, I expect to be blasted more than once by people who are just as indignant and illogical as the ones you described. They will screech over the internet as best they can in print and then go skulking off to look for their next victim.

    Personally, I try to take comfort in the fact that even well-known public figures run into trolls. I read a story of a musician who posted a message to his fans encouraging them to give to charity after a devastating earthquake last year. What he got back was barrage of people screaming at him and insulting him for having the nerve to suggest people make donations to help victims of a tragedy that didn’t happen in America. Kinda leaves your mouth hanging open, doesn’t it? He had the same reaction you described. It made no sense and was just as hateful as it was illogical. I guess all you can do is shake your head and move on.

  3. #3 by Jessica on February 6, 2013 - 10:29 pm

    This type of hate is a product of the anonymity given to people by the internet. None of those people would have said what they did had they had to say it to your face. It happens all the time, people say rude, hurtful, mean, hateful comments to any- and everything they come across simply because they can. Some people make these types of comments just to stir the pot and don’t even believe what they’re saying but will say it anyway just to cause drama (troll). It’s easy for people to say things when they’re looking at a name on a screen, and more importantly it’s easy for people to say things when they ARE a name on a screen. It’s an unfortunate by-product of this wonderfully crazy thing called the internet. It still shocks me, though, that people can be so hateful to others (suicide is serious and should never be used as a joke or as some type of insult).

    I always want to explain or defend myself whenever I make a comment on a blog or article and it’s taken the wrong way, but there is just no arguing with people like this because, while you’re argument may be based in logic, their argument is based in illogical hatred and even if they are proven wrong they will still try and argue their illogical position–even if that means taking some weird turns. I’m so sorry this happened to you Jennie, but thank you for this excellent post. Not only is this a good lesson for when the internet attacks you, but it is also a good lesson for commentators: I think we could all learn to be a little less hateful when commenting over the internet.

  4. #4 by R.P. Rodgers on February 10, 2013 - 11:17 am

    Congratulate yourself on writing something that struck a nerve. Eyes did not glaze over, yawns were not stifled.
    As Jessica above stated, the hate is a product of anonymity. It’s like road rage—they flip you off because
    they can drive away and feel big.

  5. #5 by Theresa on March 4, 2013 - 12:42 pm

    Thank you for your post–I plan on using it with youth as a teaching tool and exercise for discussion. Sadly, it appears that as we increase our ability to “connect” technologically, we decrease our ability to connect humanely. One of my mother’s “pearls of wisdom” was that hate is not the antithesis of love but rather apathy. Yes anonymity, ability to drive away, instant gratification of self all provide the arena for this type of internet rage but tragically it’s what’s within where the seed germinates and this is the true sadness. Words, gestures, photos….are mere extensions of each individual’s inner voice or soul.

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