If you spend any time on the internet these days, you know that trolls — commenters that arrive with vicious, mean-spirited thoughts to share — are just part of the landscape. They turn up in comment sections, on Twitter, and arrive, unsolicited, in inboxes.
Most of us journalists have had at least some experience with trolls (this, for example, is what I opened Tweetdeck up to Tuesday morning). Typically our trolls hide behind pseudonyms and Twitter handles. They're never actual people we can have a conversation with and ask: why are you so mean? Why do are you doing this to me? Did you realize what you wrote on the internet literally made me cry?
This is what makes Lindy West's new piece for This American Life so incredible. West, currently a contributing editor at GQ, had an anonymous troll create a fake Twitter account impersonating her recently deceased father.
But here's what's arguably even more bizarre is that, after West called out the person on Twitter, he sent her an apology and said he felt badly about the pain he'd caused her.
Hey Lindy, I don't know why or even when I started trolling you....I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me, because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self. I have emailed you through two other Gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults. I apologize for that....
I can't say sorry enough. It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me: there is a living, breathing human being who's reading this shit. I'm attacking someone who never harmed me in anyway and for no reason whatsoever. I'm done being a troll.
It's that last insight from West's troll — "there is a living, breathing human being who's reading this shit" — that often gets lost in internet discourse right now. It's easy to fire off mean things off on a keyboard, and forget about the fact that somebody will read that mean thing. And trust me, after spending a half-dozen years writing on the Internet, I can guarantee you that they will be hurt.
This also what makes it so bizarre and interesting to hear West go on to interview her troll and actually hear them talk about the abusive things he wrote about her, that they both remember. West's piece is great because its such a reminder that the internet is made up of real people, with real feelings, who experience real pain. You can listen to West's full piece here.