One of my children’s favorite books is The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. In this classic tale, a grouchy ladybug invades a leaf where another ladybug is happily snacking. When the second ladybug suggests that they can share the leaf, the grouchy ladybug refuses, yelling, “Hey you! Want to fight?” The polite ladybug calls his bluff, saying sweetly, “If you insist.” The grouchy ladybug claims she’s not big enough to waste time on and heads up the food chain to pick a fight with someone else.
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Eric Carle could not possibly have known it, but there’s a valuable lesson in that book about anonymity, bullying and the Internet.
In December 2012, after the tragic Newtown school shootings, I posted an essay sharing my family’s painful experiences with mental illness to my formerly anonymous blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom. The Blue Review republished the essay using my real name and the provocative title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”
Overnight, I was far from anonymous. In the wake of Newtown, news outlets across the world were asking for my story in an attempt to make some sense of an incomprehensible act of violence. “No, I cannot fly to New York this morning,” I remember telling one aggressive television producer. Those media people did not seem to understand that I was living the experiences I had described in real time: My son was in the hospital, and I had three other children to care for.
This post is part of a TBR Forum on online anonymity. You can also read:
While most of the reactions to my essay were positive, there were plenty of negative and even frightening responses as well. I followed the comments at first but soon became overwhelmed, so I had to delegate that task to my partner and a few close friends. They promised to alert me if there was anything serious enough to require a response from me.
Sarah Kendzior and Hanna Rosin were both Code Red. “Take it down!” a friend texted me. “Take your blog down now!” as Kendzior’s malicious tweets mined some regrettable whiny content from the immediate aftermath of my 2008 divorce, sentiments I had long since put behind me, thanks to the wonders of modern therapy and hot yoga. Hanna Rosin soon picked up Kendzior’s thread, suggesting that perhaps I was the one with mental illness (she has since apologized to me on Twitter). I reached out to Kendzior privately and suggested a truce: the last thing I needed in that crisis moment was another Mommy War.
As Twitter swirled, I did not take my blog down. I knew it was too late. After all, I had in fact written those words once upon a time, and now I had to stand by them. I had naively expected the Internet to protect my anonymity; with my decision to reveal my identity on a single republished essay, I had to face the inevitable consequences: that people would read and respond to my entire “anonymous” blog. Though I had put my past behind me, the Internet operates in an eternal present tense, when everything is happening the moment it is discovered.
The immediate consequences of my decision to put my name on my story were harsh: I lost my younger two children for almost a year when an Idaho judge decided, on the basis of my essay alone, that their brother was a danger to them. Had I known what might happen, I would not have attached my name to my story. But I could not have known — after all, every writer knows that no one reads your blog! While I can never regain the year we lost, I can say I found my voice, and that I do not waste time on regrets.
Since I am a female blogger who has been stung plenty of times by anonymous Internet venom, I follow the arguments for and against preserving anonymity with some interest. As one example, in March 2015, a man posted a particularly hateful rant against me on my public Facebook page. Several people chimed in to agree; one said, “So glad I saw this before it gets taken down.”
I didn’t take it down. I think it’s important for people to see the anger and hate for themselves. I suspect this man would never come up to me in a grocery store and say the kinds of things he was perfectly fine expressing in the public forum of the World Wide Web. Many of my friends were concerned about me after that post. I was fine. I’ve found that the Internet does a pretty remarkable job of self-policing trolls. Vigorous and sincere debate about ideas can and should exist, and in many forums, that debate flows right around the nasty personal attacks, in large part ignoring them, with one or two commenters politely standing up to the grouchy ladybugs. But because of my personal experiences, I generally only comment in closely moderated forums, where conscientious admins can control the tone and shut down personal attacks.
The truth is that I don’t really care what anonymous strangers say about me on the Internet, precisely because they are anonymous. On the other hand, I think the reason people did care and respond to my formerly anonymous story is that I made the conscious decision to reveal my identity. As we discussed possible consequences, Nate Hoffman, the editor at The Blue Review who gave my essay its title, said, “Until people put their names on their stories, it’s not real.” That statement has stuck with me. Advocacy trumps privacy.
Just as people have freedom of speech, we have a choice about what we read, and how we choose to respond. I see trolls more as Eric Carle’s grouchy Internet ladybugs. I’ll gladly share my leaf with them, but if they don’t reciprocate, I’ll block them and let them take their vainglorious arguments elsewhere. Life’s too short for trolls.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.