You might know them, but they don’t know you.


So, apparently Anne Wheaton started to receive harassment because she offered cash support to Feminist Frequency, and once the inevitable creepy tweets started, she decided to donate extra for every jerk she had to mute.

Then, inevitably:

Apparently, this ridiculous threat is a copypasta meme, and that supposedly means that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously. Wheaton was supposed to recognize it, then dismiss it as a non-issue.

But really, even if she’d recognized it (I’d never heard of it before), why should she write it off? It’s coming from a (now-suspended) user account that she knows nothing about. Why’s the burden on her to make assumptions about strangers?

Yeah, a big part of the answer to that last question is “Sexism,” but other more knowledgeable people can address that better than I can. I’d rather talk about illusory internet friendships.

I’ve seen people on social media shit-mouth writers, artists, and actors as though they were old college pals who talked trash all the time. I’ve seen fans of a TV show criticize the creators in the most outrageous ways. And I’ve seen authors and other non-celebrities asking people not to glom onto them in public spaces.

Yes, the anonymity of the internet contributes to these problems, but too often I’ve seen people insisting they were not trolling, not trying to be awful. They’re just being friendly with someone they know, and were treating the person the way they treat their friends: with good-natured ribbing and straight talk. Sometimes the harassers act like casual acquaintances; not friends, but people who know you and feel they have the social capital to set you straight.

And that’s the problem: because they have someone in their social media, they think they have them in their social circle.

The thing is, it’s only friendly trash-talk if the recipient thinks it is. And while the trash-talker might have donated to cover a vet bill, or have closely followed months of complaints about a contractor, or a child’s learning disability, or a new job, the recipient might not know that person at all.

Now, to be clear, it’s unlikely that Wheaton’s harasser was simply misguided, treating her like a pal. It seems pretty obvious that he’s a straight up shit eater. The people I’m talking about are the hangers-on, who slide into her mentions telling her how she’s supposed to feel about a threat against her life. I’m also talking about the times John Scalzi has posted pictures out his hotel room windows while on book tours, then had to ask people not to track him down and stalk him in the lobby. I’m talking about the people who drove Damon Lindelof off Twitter because they didn’t like the last episode of LOST; in fact, if Lindelof’s harassers had faced, in real life, the sort of contempt they showed, over something as minor as their shoes or their haircut, they’d have been griping about it to their friends for a week. But they felt perfectly comfortable lashing out at him over a project he spent years of his life creating, which they got to watch for free.

This isn’t to say that people should never try to interact with others online–or that they should be obsequious about it–just that it’s important to understand that it’s the recipient who decides how “jokes” and criticisms will be interpreted.

Actually, that’s a useful writing tip in general, but never mind.