That's what the notification says. Dozens more just like it follow.
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, and so on and so forth, all from the same handle: @fxckjustinpot. Someone spent their limited time on earth making a Twitter handle that includes my name.
It's November of 2015 and I'm supposed to be working. I moved to Oregon four months ago, which isn't a great amount of time to be in a new place. It feels like I should have friends here already. I don't, and it's starting to feel like I never will. I'm spending too much of my time online. I work from home, which doesn't help in terms of meeting people. Twitter is the main place where I hang out with friends in any meaningful sense.
I feel like no one cares enough to reach out, but I'm wrong: someone is sending me multiple messages! They're all fuck you, granted, but it's something. Hahahaha.
It hits hard, like someone is punching me in the gut repeatedly.
Which surprises me. I've made a living writing about technology since 2009. I'm not prominent, but the articles I write show up a lot in search results. My sister once told me she didn't realize I was famous until her MacBook broke.
So this isn't the first time a stranger yelled at me on the internet. I know that trolls exist, and that all they want is for me to react. I know, intellectually that they don't necessarily mean what they say. And yet here I am, suddenly anxious about every public facing decision I've made in the past year. I can't help but wonder what it is I—a person who writes software tutorials—did to inspire this level of animosity.
So I ask.
There's a saying: don't feel the trolls. It's a sort of internet folk wisdom. The idea is that some people act like assholes on the internet because they want attention, and reacting to them in any way is just giving them what they want.
I don't think this particular folk wisdom aged well. In 2014 an online mob launched an ongoing harassment campaign against women in the video game industry. I had a single fake account flooding my notifications, and only for an hour or so. Women like Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu had tens of thousands that are still going now. These were coordinated campaigns that went well beyond rude messages. There were bomb threats, photoshopped porn, and so much worse. The idea is to make public life so intolerable that people give up and being a public figure entirely.
So as the "fuck you" messages continue to roll in I think about how much worse it would be if there was an army of anonymous accounts, instead of just one. The internet would become unusable, quickly. I wouldn't be able to talk with the people I use Twitter to connect with—at least, not without being subjected to a never ending wave of hatred.
The language we use to talk about the internet makes it sound like it's imaginary, or some sort of video game separate from the "real world". But that's not true. The internet is woven into the fabric of our lives. The things that happen online matter.
So I'm not dealing with a troll—that language is way too abstract. I am dealing with some guy who is being an asshole. I respond like the Canadian I am.
That was it—the notifications stopped. I never heard from him again. I never found out what upset him, or if he was just trying to get a reaction.
I'd love to wrap this up as some kind of lesson, to say that if we're all kind to each other the problems will instantly end and no one will ever be an asshole online. But that's not true.
Social networks have re-wired our collective consciousness—intentionally so. Nothing about them is neutral. Some of the smartest people alive worked to make them as addictive as possible. We're all living with the consequences. One such consequence is that assholes looking for dopamine hits have plenty of incentive to keep making fake accounts and attacking people.
I can't help but imagine, though, that in that one moment someone realized what an asshole they were being. I'd like to live in a world where more people realize that more often.