October 21, 2014

What’s the difference between criticism and harassment?

In light of my last post on doxxing and anonymity, and the debate about the nature of things like RequiresHate and Kathleen Hale’s willingness to essentially stalk her reviewer, I thought it’d be worth looking at another key issue in this discussion: the difference between criticism and harassment. If the content is strongly negative, can it mean that the two are essentially the same thing?

To which I’d say, no. There’s a lot of gray area here, but in my own estimation, the key differential is a matter of boundaries.


In the simplest terms, the critic has a platform. It can be their blog. It can be Goodreads. It can be both – for many, it is. Regardless, this is Their Space, their corner of the internet. It’s theirs, and no one else’s.

On this platform, the critic states their opinion of a work. The nature and content of their opinion doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s racist, misinformed, or totally off-base. It’s theirs, and they’re free to say what they like in that space, even if you hate it.

Critics can lead a discussion of the work (and this is the tricky part) on social media. They can talk about their feelings for it on Twitter, Facebook, or the social space of their choice. This is, again, Their Space. (It’s just that this space tends to be bleed over into other people’s spaces.)

The author is not allowed to infringe on any of this. Other people can, sure – other fans, other readers, random people, bots – that’s all fair game. But the author isn’t allowed to infringe on Their Space. There’s a boundary around it, and inside the boundary there is a sign saying NOT YOURS.


A harasser – or, more popularly, a troll – is different.

A troll can critique, but a critic never trolls.

If you, as a critic, find yourself doing any of the following, there’s a pretty good chance you’re no longer a critic, but a troll:

  1. If you parse through the author’s or other reviewer’s social media to find incriminating subject matter for you to post on your platform, you’re probably a troll.
  2. If you incite people to spam or dogpile the author’s or other reviewer’s social media platforms, you’re probably a troll.
  3. If you spread the personal contact information of an author or another reviewer in hopes that others will attack them in real life, you’re almost certainly a troll.
  4. If you excessively attack the author’s or other reviewer’s updates on social media, you’re probably a troll.
  5. If you create numerous accounts to further your own opinions of the author’s or other reviewer’s work, you’re probably a troll.
  6. If you post extensive negative comments on other reviewer’s sites in disagreement of their opinion, there’s a pretty good chance you’re a troll. (In my own estimation, you have to do this a lot and do it quite vehemently for it to count.)

Not all of these could qualify someone as a troll on their own, but you’ll see a common theme here: leaving what is “Your Space” to go into someone else’s, something like an aggressive invasion.

If you’re exploring someone’s personal social media feed for the sole purpose of attacking them, that’s likely harassment, or intent to harass.

If you’re actively finding someone else’s opinions that are in disagreement with your own, and you go onto their platforms and wage an exhausting fight over it, that’s probably trolling. If you then incite people to dogpile on in agreement with you, that’s probably harassment.

In other words, when you leave your platform, your own personal space of the internet, and go to someone else’s, or even to a community platform, it requires a different code of behavior. This isn’t your space anymore, so you need to act differently. And remember, you’ve had your say back on your own platform. That’s the place to speak your mind.


Both trolls and critics can be and often are anonymous. That’s the privilege of the internet: you’re on your computer, far away from the person you’re talking to or about. They don’t know who you are, and they can’t get at you.

But trolls, I think, rapidly lose that privilege. They aren’t here to discuss a work: they’re here to make life difficult for someone. Maybe it’s the author, maybe it’s another reviewer, but regardless, a troll is someone who’s investing a lot of time and energy into making the online world a hostile place for a person to visit on any platform – Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. It often escalates into a multi-front assault.

And I think when people make that shift from critic to troll (or perhaps just start out as a troll to begin with), then they should expect for people to try to puncture their anonymity. Often the person they’re attacking is public, hanging their opinions on their real name. So there’s a tremendous power differential between the public person, who’s held accountable for their actions, and the anonymous one, who isn’t.

I think what Kathleen Hale did is nuts: it was stalking and a wildly disproportionate response. But in my opinion, if someone’s anonymous, online behavior is inordinately and aggressively toxic and invasive (and the invasive part is the key part, for me), I think they shouldn’t be surprised when others try to pair that toxic behavior with their real name. They’re aren’t Jennifer Lawrence, minding their own business, and suddenly finding themselves hacked and exploited: they’re going about making people angry, and that has consequences.

There’s this idea that to step outside of the online arena is somehow unfair, but online campaigns and persecutions frequently have real-life repercussions. Midlist authors like myself desperately depend on the goodwill and fair attention of the broader public. A smear campaign can be tremendously damaging to us, or to anyone. Anonymous people can hurt our livelihoods without any sense of responsibility or accountability. After all, we’re just some nebulous brand online.

So while I don’t condone stalking someone or trying to penetrate their privacy, I think that when you begin viciously trolling people, you shouldn’t be scandalized when others spend time trying to figure out who you are. This is often ridiculously easy to do – people leave footprints all over the internet, and even a moderately talented party can do some basic internet sleuthing to put to the clues together.

And then from there, it’s an easy thing to put together a blog post or whichever missive that names your real name, and hangs all the things you’ve said on your real identity. And then, perhaps a few weeks or months later, when you’re sitting down for a job interview, your future employer might say, “Well, we did some cursory Googling on you, and we did note that… ah, you have a track record of telling people that they are, and I quote, ‘an AIDS-swilling homo’ for not liking the James Cameron film Avatar? Can you, um, tell us more about that?”


The problem is that the distinction between the two isn’t so clear.

Vehemently disliking an author’s book is not harassment. Vehemently disliking all of an author’s books is not harassment. Passion is important to any discussion, and controversial subjects bring out the most passion, which needs to be explored.

So imagine I’m a wildly insecure author. (A stretch, I know.) Someone writes a really cruel review of my work. There’s a chance that I, in my insecurity, could claim that this is not just a review, or an opinion, but is in fact harassment, that this person has hurt me, personally, with their bad opinions of my work.

Tough shit. You’re going to get bad reviews. Some will be way off-base. Some will be utterly delusional. But that’s part of the game. You should follow Chuck Wendig’s very good advice and just deal with it.

But this is likely what Kathleen Hale did not do, despite how she presented it: her story initially was a tale of a victim confronting their online persecutor. The more things shake out, the more unlikely this seems. Was this a case of a critic or a troll? From what I’ve seen, it seems like more of the former, and less of the latter. I don’t see a tremendous history of persecution here.

And authors who make that mistake, who violate the anonymity of a critic based solely off of their own sense of victimization, will likely receive all the vitriol and condemnation that would normally go toward the unmasking of a particularly hated and vehement troll. This is extraordinarily damaging in the tiny community of publishing. Once you’ve gone after a critic, it’s tough to come back. Once you’ve unmasked and exposed them – or stalked them – it’s tough to ever be trusted again.


Is anonymity synonymous with privacy? Some appear to think so. However, I personally am not anonymous, but I retain my privacy: I don’t disclose my address, phone number, names of friends, or even my email address.

If I say something stupid here or in my books, I accept that I will be held accountable for it. That’s fair. I’m not anonymous.

I don’t expect for someone to show up my house and break my windows because of what I said, or send me malicious software in an email. That’s unfair. I expect my privacy.

The trouble is that, as I discussed in my previous post, anonymity has its purposes. For example, the Twitter users @crushingbort and @blippoblappo are anonymous, and successfully proved that Buzzfeed journalist Benny Johnson was guilty of plagiarism. They’ve made the same case for Fareed Zakaria, with even Politico taking up their case, but since Zakaria is a far more liked journalist than Johnson, it’s unlikely that he’ll receive the same treatment.

The difference between trolling and “investigative journalism” here is pretty tenuous. They respond negatively to tweets by CNN, Johnson, Zakaria, as well as tweets made by those who disagree with them, and they invite others to dogpile on them. And their anonymity protects them from what is likely a horde of detractors, allowing them to act as persistent gadflies.

At the same time – if they really believe this stuff, why don’t they use their real names? Perhaps they work for an organization that wouldn’t condone their work. Perhaps they work within the same news organizations as the people they’re monitoring. They likely feel like they’re doing good work on behalf of the public – but then, so do most trolls pursuing the most narcissistic and petty of causes.

I like what they’re trying to accomplish here, but if these tactics were pointed at someone different, someone I agreed with, would I feel the same way? Would this feel fair?

“Twitter personality” Matt Binder has made something of a career out of “trolling for good.” His tumblr site Public Shaming is a showcase of Twitter hypocrisy: Binder performs a public search for someone saying something awful, brings up their account and parses through that account for another comment that acts to directly contradict what they said previously – hypocrisy captured in a handful of tweets.


There’s a wicked delight in this schadenfreude – but it’s still public shaming, still dogpiling, still essentially trolling, even when he targets Gamergate. Is this a violation of their privacy, or their anonymity? They’re submitting these things on a public platform. Binder is using his real name. But the unresolved issue is the silent crowd of people watching this, perhaps taking down names, committing themselves to persecuting these privileged hypocrites, and perhaps penetrating their privacy, revealing their personal contact information. The silent majority is more dangerous than ever now. While Binder himself isn’t “doxxing” anyone, the morality here is dubious.

At the same time – do you have a right to not face repercussions for saying insensitive things for all the world to see? Do you have a right to not be accountable for what you say? If you’re mixing on the grand stage of the international internet, do you have a right to remain untouched, to avoid consequences? Do you have the right to make people furious, to harm public lives online, and avoid culpability? Is this all a right, or is it a privilege?

The internet is still incredibly young. As far as widepsread public use goes, if it were a person, it wouldn’t be old enough to drive. As I said in my last post, the more we move online, the more our behavior will likely have to change – and first up will likely be the nature of anonymity.

It’s getting pretty crowded out there. Step wisely.