Lindy West, Sherman Alexie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are among some of the high-profile Twitter users who’ve quit the service in the last few days. West, in particular, pointed to trolls as the reason she’s leaving. Online harassment isn’t just a first-world problem that people just have to get over or ignore. For people routinely bombarded with it (and so far I’m not among them—knock on wood), it can be a relentless, exhausting mental burden.
Which, I guess, is the point of it. My point is that having thicker skin isn’t going to help all that much. The mental burden and suffering don’t come primarily from hurt feelings—it comes from:
- Having to sift through the mountain of notifications. If you want to engage with the public, you will occasionally get insightful, helpful, even joyful feedback. But sorting through incoming messages to find those enriching notes means (a) reading each message, (b) evaluating each message for relevance (and threat level), and (c) deciding whether and how to respond. Consider how irritated you get with individual spam emails and multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of messages that someone might get on social media. (As an aside, a 2009 study estimated that spam—at that time—had a carbon footprint of about 3.1 million cars. Creating, sending, filtering, deleting all of that data costs energy. I haven’t seen a similar study applied to the loss of productivity or carbon footprint of trolling, but it’s likely much higher.)
- The dread of having to deal with these abusive messages day after day. It’s probably a bit like having to go to a job you hate.
- The uncertainty about the seriousness of the threats. Most of them are alarming but ultimately empty. But it only takes one legitimate threat to seriously disrupt or even end your life. Doxxing or threatening a person’s family are especially menacing—and they reinforce the point that online harassment goes way beyond name calling. They add another level of burden to sorting through messages: not only do you have to pick out the abusive messages, but you have to ask, “How serious is this threat?”
Hurt feelings, not to mention general disappointment in humanity, are mental burdens as well, but they’re not the primary reason online harassment is so serious. Dismissing harassment as the price of fame is shortsighted and unfair. Nobody should be treated this way, and some people facing harassment weren’t even looking for fame or attention—they may have just sent out a single tweet or update that happened to go viral.
People leaving platforms like Twitter because of harassment has little to do with how easily offended they are. It takes a lot of mental effort to deal with harassment, and they’ve just decided to channel that effort elsewhere—maybe to producing more ideas or art. But their pulling back from engaging—all because of a legion of assholes—is a loss for us all.