a monthly column
by A.C.E. Bauer
Bullies in the
by A.C.E. Bauer
I was never a popular child.
But when I entered 4th grade, my 9-year old
schoolmates decided to make me a pariah. They teased me,
invented stories about me, turned me into the butt of mean
jokes, and one day followed me around the entire school,
taunting me until I dissolved into a puddle of tears. Our
teacher, who came upon us, forced the lead bully to apologize,
but my social status in our small school was set for years to
I left that child behind, as I
grew, and built a happy, productive and full adult life. But I
never forgot that nine-year-old girl, cornered at the bottom of
a stairwell by four grinning tormentors. I recognize her in
other people, especially these days, on the web.
The bullies aren’t much
different from the ones I knew as a girl: they are successful in
their field, they are clever, sometimes intelligent, have an
entertaining wit, and, most importantly, have built a
following. The most visible thrive among bloggers, although
they exist in other areas of the internet as well.
Blogs are a form of
entertainment, and cultivating an audience is part of the
entertainer’s job. A successful blogger will, over time,
attract a group of core readers who comment on posts, banter
with each other, and amuse new readers almost as much as the
blogger does. The best blogs provide a fair helping of useful
or insightful information, but readers come back day after day,
often hour after hour, because the blogs entertain them and
provide a virtual community with a common focus—the blogger.
What happens when a popular
blogger becomes annoyed with something someone has said or
Should the blogger post a public
scolding, the readers will cheer her/him on. It won’t matter
that the victim isn’t a public figure or is a person with no
significant following of his or her own, or that the annoying
behavior is a matter of no great importance. As long as the
blogger skewers the victim in an amusing way, the readers will
sympathize with the blogger’s annoyance, provide personal
examples of similar annoying behavior, banter about better ways
to do things, and carry on as usual. The conversation will be
watched with interest by almost anyone following the blog—the
way a shark feeding is at an aquarium. We might squirm a bit as
the commentators tear apart the juicy bits, and feel a little
disgusted when they go after the dregs, but we won’t do anything
to prevent it. No one wants to be bit.
The victim, in the vast majority
of cases, will leave well enough alone, since things get messy
if a foolhardy victim decides to jump in to defend his or her
behavior. Coming to the blogger’s territory only allows the
regulars to generate a “piling on”—one commentator after another
will tear apart everything the victim posts, down to poor
spelling and (God forbid) misplaced commas, in such a volume,
that regardless of the rightness of the victim’s claims, s/he
will have been drowned out. Yes, this is a kind of bullying.
And most readers recognize that. But, the blogger’s community
will excuse it under the rationale that as much as we may wish
otherwise, in the free-for-all created by the anonymity of the
internet, people will not behave with the kind of restraint you
might find at a dinner party. Most bloggers will attempt to
restrain the worst posters, but nastiness will occur, and given
the nature of anonymous discourse, it is almost inevitable. To
return to my aquarium metaphor: once sharks have begun feeding,
you don’t wave an open wound at them.
Sometimes, the bullying happens
outside of the blogger’s community. It might be on the victim’s
own site, if s/he has one, but more often it takes place on a
third party’s blog or discussion forum. An argument between the
blogger, the victim, and other members of that third-party
community heats up. The blogger goes back to her/his community
and posts a note. “Look at what’s going on over there!” And
that’s when it becomes truly ugly. Because the blogger has a
large enough following, a certain number of followers will go to
that third-party site, flood the victim with responses in the
same way they would on the blogger’s blog, and carry on the
bashing the bully started. The victim initially posted within a
community he or she understood, only to be beat up by an
entirely new set of people who are there only because the bully
wanted to “set the so-and-so straight.” The blogger will walk
away unscathed, taking the followers home, and will initiate
new, interesting, intelligent, and civil conversations within
But I see whom they left
behind. I recognize that girl in the stairwell.
Let’s not engage in semantics
here. The victim really is a victim. There may not be any
physical scars, but the experience will be extraordinarily
painful—one that won’t be forgotten. This is a person who does
not have the blogger’s large following, and, more likely, has no
following whatsoever. It’s important to understand that bullying
isn’t a war among equals: the bullying occurs because the bully
is certain of victory (although, on some rare occasions, the
bully misjudges the victim and ends up being the one beaten).
This wasn’t an intellectual exercise, or a heated argument
between individuals, or the victim’s fault because s/he is a
fool. A bully marshaled a group of people who lashed out in a
very public way at someone because the bully pointed him or her
out to them. The marshaling may only be, “Look over here!”, but
that is enough.
The social power engendered by a
popular blog is enormous. Pretending that that power doesn’t
exist, or that responsibility doesn’t follow, is callous. It’s
fine and good to maintain that a blog’s readers are individuals
bearing individual responsibility, but the reason those
individuals read the blog is because they admire the blogger.
You tell admirers “scorn this person,” then that person is going
to be scorned—maybe not by all, but by enough to be injurious.
It’s the nature of leadership.
I don’t confuse bullying with a
real fight. Raising ire about issues, public figures, matters
of any import is one of the reasons I read blogs. And I love it
when bloggers pick an honest fight. They lose my respect,
however, when they drag down someone they’re annoyed with, just
because they can.