They say there is nothing new under the sun, and bad behavior on the internet is no exception. A lot of fancy new words have been invented to describe social interactions online, such as trolling, flamewars, and griefing. But we have a perfectly good older word that applies as well: bullying. Most people associate bullying with childhood, and the school yard, but bullying can occur wherever humans interact, of any age or social status.
I can’t give you a simple list of bullying behaviors. Is it bullying on the schoolyard every time one kid throws a punch at another? Quite the contrary, in fact. There are many instances of acting out that occur when an individual is defending themselves from a bully, due to lack of intervention by those with the authority to do it properly. (Often followed by mutual punishment for “fighting.”) And bullying can often be disguised as a superficially “polite” series of questions or statements, that only amount to bullying when looked at as a pattern in a context of intent to harm. This tends to be the way young girls bully each other. Those kind of bullies are experts at convincing people in authority that they were “only talking” and that the victim is being “oversensitive.” (See Gaslighting, an abusive tactic designed to make the victim appear insane to herself or others.)
Bullying destroys reputations (and not only of the victim), fractures relationships, and poisons communities. Imbalances of power contribute to bullying. That can manifest as an individual with the power to intimidate a person (or affect her livelihood) or as a group with the ability to flood one person with so much abuse that they withdraw. The power imbalance in the bully-victim relationship may or may not reflect the power relationships of respective social roles. That means that although the bully could be the stereotypical popular kid and the victim the stereotypical outsider, things can also be reversed. Moreover, just because a person has been a victim of bullying in the past does not mean they can’t become a bully. In fact, a failure to intervene and stop a bullying situation can legitimize the behavior, and the victim may emulate the behavior by bullying others or by organizing a counterattack if she gets the chance.
Bullying in the workplace is a contributor to hostile work environments and even workplace violence. As a writer, my “work place” is the internet, and after fifteen years, give or take, of hanging around the water cooler, I am weary of the bullying that so frequently fractures our communities. No one benefits, and many are substantially harmed. The distraction and discouragement of online abuse needlessly interferes with writing productivity and promotional activities that would otherwise make the pie bigger for everyone.
I have experienced bullying on the internet, and had intended to tackle this topic by sharing an incident from my past. However, it is difficult to write it in such a way that it does not make me a target, yet again. Mostly, I can avoid bullying by avoiding online forums where it occurs, but I have found that bullies will at times follow me from place to place and wait for a chance to attack. I have also been alarmed by recent internet discussions that suggest that women and minorities are being bullied with much greater vigor and intensity on the internet.
I can’t precisely define behavior that IS bullying because it’s context-specific, but I can tell you what’s not bullying with great accuracy. It’s not bullying if, when a person in an online discussion complains that they feel attacked, and other parties in the discussion apologize and back off.
Think about what happens with children. A child comes to you and says, “Suzy is bullying me. She took my toys and hit me and she won’t stop.” And Suzy says, “I am not bullying Bobby. He is being a whiny spoiled brat and he deserves to be punched because he is annoying.”
As the adult in that situation, what do you say? You say, “STOP IT NOW.”
And that’s what needs to happen. The abuse needs to stop. The bullying and intimidation needs to stop. If you’ve been bullied, I want to hear your story. For those that give me permission, I will share them in a blog post. Feel free to add them publicly in a comment, or email me privately. If we stand together, people will listen.
If you are reading this now, and can’t comprehend what I am talking about, or why it’s such a big deal, please consider that maybe you’ve been lucky. Or privileged. Or, possibly, you are actually a bully.