A Rant About Followers

Someone reposted a few paragraphs from Quinae Moongazer’s very excellent essay on toxicity and abuse in online communities. They just happened to be paragraphs about the backlog of unpublished blog posts she had written:

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

This was written in January when the debate over internet toxicity was going strong in online feminism. Moongazer’s blog post hit home with lots of people, not just because it’s so well written but because most of us who have opinions about online feminist issues have a pile of blog articles we don’t dare put on line – not because we’re afraid of individual bullies, but because we think the online feminist community as a whole stands with the bullies who claim to speak for it.

Every now and then a bully apologizes. But do we ever see that bully’s followers apologize? Do we ever see them acknowledge that a bully only really matters when enough people follow him or her to reshape the community? I don’t mean to give bullies a pass here. What I’m tired of is seeing followers give themselves free passes.

I belonged to an online community once that included lots of very established, powerful people in the field, lots of mid-level and new people, and one toxic bully. Whenever the bully hassled lower-status people, the established people made excuses for him. From their point of view, he was harmless; even amusing. Why were the rest of us overreacting? Why couldn’t we see the good in him, and ignore the toxicity? Why were we so focused on his tone, when he was making so many good points? It wasn’t until a visitor blew her top and said she’d never join an organization with such a toxic atmosphere that the folks in power recognized they had a problem.

Whenever accusations of toxicity start flying, people give themselves credit for not being actual bullies. Whoop-de-f**ing-doo. Being followers — supporting a bully because you’re big enough to ignore somebody’s tone, or because the content’s really what matters, or because it’s fun, or because you don’t want to be a killjoy, or because you enjoy being part of the in-group, or because they’ve been right other times — that’s worse. When you find yourself saying:

Yeah, s/he’s stepping over the line, but some of his/her points are important…


It’s abusive, but it’s funny as hell…


That was over the top, but so well-written…


That’s just the way s/he is, don’t take it seriously…

Then it’s time for you to ask what your responsibility is for the community as a whole. Because it’s that kind of complacent amusement or dispassionate approval that’s reshaping the community, far more than the bully is. And that amused, unthreatened commenter/retweeter/reposter/reinforcer is the person who will never, ever, take responsibility or apologize.

Update: I’ve never been so glad to be proved wrong — behold a bully’s follower – and a true gentleman – apologizing! Every now and then I read something that reminds me why it’s worth poking around on the internet, and I feel better about humankind in general. Thank you, Inverarity!

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