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A lack of empathy on the internet

This tweet (and some of the responses) caught my eye the other day.

What was that tweet about, I wondered? A frustrating general truth about the internet, and/or commentary on a specific event? Ah yes, it's probably related to Phil Fish, who has canceled Fez 2 and is quitting games. That sucks. I don't even know the full extent of what went down, but I would hate to be driven away from my passions/career by some entity that fought against me and turned my emotional responses against me and was outright cruel to me. 

Speaking of games, there was a game jam at my house yesterday. We semi-ironically listened to some music from Fez and other music by Disasterpeace. One of the randomly chosen themes was Stockholm Syndrome, so I read about nasty things humans do to each other and the bizarre ways humans respond. I made a game in Javascript that started out with fairly good intentions. I wanted it to be a reasonable game template for a friend who was learning to program. I wanted to incorporate the game jam's themes somehow. I wanted a fun "graphical" reinterpretation of Candy Box ! with more compound-candy-interest. I wanted the player to experience Stockholm Syndrome so I needed the candy man to be threatening and abusive with small bouts of kindness. I think I made the candy man too creepy to feel positive about, though, so I had to throw in some victim blaming: (e.g. "It was your own love of candy that brought you here!") It's a weird game. I didn't really know how to end it/I didn't really want to end it. You can experience it here or the creep-free, candy-only version here.

The game doesn't really capture my thoughts, though. There is so much more that I've been thinking as I observe the (online) world around me. I need to write long English paragraphs instead. So here goes. This post is about hate, bullying, harassment, nasty human behavior, and empathy.

Responding with a justification

If something is uncomfortable, we try to explain it away, find a rationalization for it. Then it's not quite so uncomfortable. This seems to be the basis for Stockholm Syndrome (according to a Freuidian hypothesis on Wikipedia) wherein the victim identifies with and adopts the values of the aggressor in order to make them less threatening/resolve cognitive dissonance.

I don't think that's a good thing. I guess we all have Stockholm Syndrome with respect to the internet/life.

There are so many nasty things we wind up trying to justify that really don't need it.
  • Rape: S/he was asking for it. 
  • Bullying: S/he needs to just ignore it. 
  • Vile threats: The internet is full of trolls and that's just how things are.

I reject these justifications. Threats and rape and abuse don't deserve to be justified and rationalized away. Even emotional manipulation in a relatively benign relationship does not need to be justified and made okay. These things deserve to be acknowledged... and then addressed head on. 

(Meta comment: This whole blog post is kind of me trying to break down and justify this discomfort so that it leaves me alone. Hmm.)

Victim blaming

Victim blaming is a pretty big part of responding with a justification. Find out more about it here. Don't do it. If you catch yourself doing it, consider why and if what you are doing will have any positive benefit except to make yourself feel better about someone else's terrible situation. My brain now automatically flags comments/articles/actions that fall under this category and then I feel sad and annoyed. Try empathy instead. Or just not getting yourself involved.

Tomb Raider

This article has stuck with me for over a year. Apparently, the "boss level" of some new-ish Tomb Raider game involves fighting off some rapists. If you lose, Lara gets raped. It makes me feel sad for Lara Croft and annoyed that this was how some game designers thought to make players connect with the character. What, why, that's not okay. The article has some good quotes to explain blaming the victim. I don't know how to segue into them, so here:
“She is literally turned into a cornered animal. It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.” Generally, character evolution involves how people respond to situations, not what other people do to them. ...
Kat Howard points out how disturbing it is to have whether a character is raped be entirely dependent on the actions of the player: “Here is what we get asked: What were you wearing? Did you know him? Did you scream? Was your skirt too short? Were you in a bad part of town? Did he spend a lot of money on dinner? Were you wearing a bra with that dress? Did you let him touch you? Did you hit him? Did you fight back? Did you fight back enough?”
What. Lara Croft was already sexualized to the extreme... and now this. Go watch Feminist Frequency for more like this.

Anonymity and accountability

I think face-to-face communication can smooth over a lot of ill will between people. And maybe tying peoples' online identities to their real identities can help hold them accountable. But people are still non-anonymously bullied and harassed on Facebook and driven to suicide. And people will still spew hate at each other in person.

Cars vs. bikes

Here's another fine example of blaming the victim: drunk driver cuts off cyclist who is minding her own damn business in her own damn lane, vehicles collide, cyclist loses chunk of thumb, and people on the internet say the cyclist should have been more careful. What?!?! I hate you, Internet. The cyclist, Karlyn, who I worked with at Startup Weekend and is awesome, had the most dignified response I've ever seen:
Thanks guys... agreed, responsibility is shared all around. Although I don't think a bike lane would've prevented the crash, an infrastructure that legitimizes bikes as transportation and separates them from traffic is necessary. There are a million reasons why bike transpo is good for people and cities everywhere, not to mention it's cheaper for everyone involved! I like the idea of holding bikes accountable while riding on the roads, and maybe a formal license would help with that. Bottom line, look out for yourself and each other, wear your helmet, and in Bike + Car crashes, bikes always lose!!

Why are people nasty to each other?

Get ready for a big ol' justification! I think it's for sport. That doesn't mean it's good or right. I think it gives people certain feelings/experiences that they/we as humans crave, but that there are other ways to get similar feelings and experiences.
  • It can be a challenge (a game) to come up with the nastiest thing you can think of
  • It requires some creativity (e.g. the who/what/where/how details of a vile thread)
  • It's an outlet for self expression (see above point on creativity)
  • It's a way to communicate with/show off to their peers
  • It provides a bit of an adrenaline rush
  • It feels powerful 
  • It is one way to hold onto and preserve a specific opinion 


I don't know what each of us can do except try to be more empathetic and make the situation around us a little more positive.
  • Is your hobby sating nasty things online? Why is that your hobby and what do you get out of it? Consider alternative hobbies. 
  • Did you just blame the victim? Reflect on that. 
  • Are you about to justify/rationalize a nasty situation just to say something/provide input/show you have an opinion? Maybe there is a more supportive way to join the conversation.
  • Self-preservation: Extracting yourself from a toxic environment sounds like a good option to me. Lean on your friends. Pay someone on Mechanical Turk or ODesk to filter your tweets. I'm sorry, I totally just made that sound easier than it is... it can be hard/impossible to get out of a shitty situation, but it is worth trying.
  • Acknowledge someone else's shitty situation and let them know you support them.

Empathy to be found some places online

I ran into this Reddit thread on twitter in which a person discovered through a blood test that they were not biologically the gender they thought they were. I read a lot of it and felt many things: empathy for the poster. Warm fuzzies that the internet was being so loving and supportive. Curiosity about the physical, psychological, emotional and cultural logistics. 

I hope online culture changes

Humans have always hated other humans for one thing or another... for being from different tribes/races/religions/sexual orientations. But society changes and we look back and say, "Man, that was really messed up. We're so much kinder now." Maybe we're in an internet cultural dark age and the next generation will be more civil to each other. Maybe the internet is helping us be kinder to one another.

Seattle. Look how pleasant and jolly this bus is!


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