Understanding The Internet Rage Machine

Internet Rage Machine graphic
Credit: Tomm Coker (Marvel Comics)

The world is full of problems: Ebola, ISIS, potholes, global warming, and more. So you’d think people would spend their time doing something more productive than railing on about Spider-Man.

But no. Baseball is no longer the national pastime. It’s been replaced by righteous indignation. And that’s why comic book creators have had to change their phone numbers and email addresses in the past, and—we do not lie—local law enforcement authorities and even the FBI have visited the offices of comic book websites to collect information when there are death threats involved (Yes, it has happened).

When it comes to the Internet and comic books, people can be d**ks. Obsessive d**ks. And somewhere within in the realm of “d**k” is a special little fiefdom inhabited by people to whom reality is just so much static, but hot dammit, they can tell you exactly what the “real” Batman should have done there.

We slap labels on all things Internet. It’s a “virtual” world. But virtual can crash into real in a hurry when he Internet Rage Machine gets cranking. But what is the Machine? Is the Rage misplaced? And what fiefdom do you live in?

Credit: DC Comics

YOU ARE (NOT) ANONYMOUS

We’ve seen it a million times: Marvel or DC will announce a new creative team, a new title, a cancelation, or heaven forbid a crossover, and the comments start: “This is proof positive that Axel Alonso wants Marvel to fail!” “Dan DiDio obviously hates DC Comics, and all us loyal readers!”

Well…no. If you think about it for half a second, everything Axel Alonso does is geared to help Marvel Comics succeed, to the best of his talents and abilities. As the Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics, he has no interest in seeing Marvel fail. Yet people come up with histrionic conclusions, devoid of reason. But why?

Dr. Holly Parker thinks she has an answer. Parker is a Harvard psychology faculty lecturer and clinical psychologist at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital. Her new book, If We’re Together, Why do I Feel so Alone? hits stores in January 2017. Parker thinks that people who are looking to lash out feel they can do so from the safe space of “you can’t touch me.”

Credit: Penguin Group USA

“Ultimately, people doing this are looking to be hurtful,” she says. “Logic doesn’t even enter their equation. The ideas just don’t match the facts. It’s more likely to occur in an online forum—everything from people just looking to inflame, to hurtful comments, to death threats — due to people’s ‘cloak of invisibility’ they feel they enjoy online.”

Parker says the concept is known as “de-individuation.”

“It’s similar to road rage,” she says. “People treat each other way differently behind the wheel of a car than they would if they were face-to-face because it’s hard to identify a person behind the wheel, and see them as a human being. In most online forums, it’s the same. When people believe they’re not being watched, then the reins come off and the inhibitions drop. People feel more free from social constraints or reprisals. They’re not worried about consequences. Anonymity increases the odds that someone will act in a way they usually wouldn’t, and almost become somebody they are not.”

Fred Chamberlain bridges the worlds of psychology and comic bppls. Chamberlain has a master’s degree in counseling and 15 years professional experience. He opened Inner Resources Counseling two-plus years ago, and is a lifelong comic book fan who’s also been a frequent reader and poster at ComicBoards.com since 1996. He’s seen the Internet Rage Machine take root, and he agrees anonymity is a key factor.

“You’re talking about a population of people who read and enjoy fictional stories about people who dress up in costumes and develop a second identity,” he says. “Isn’t the Internet, on a certain level, the same thing?”

And Chamberlain thinks anonymity is keyed up by fandom.

“When we’re talking about comic fans, we’re talking about people who often grew up reading these characters, and that experience informed their way of thinking,” he says. “They don’t just ‘enjoy the stories,’ they’ve grown to love these characters who although very fictional, have become very real to us.”

YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A TOM BREVOORT

Credit: Marvel Comics

But let’s never lose sight: The characters are fictional; the people behind them, real. Tom Brevoort is one such real person, a 26-year veteran at Marvel Comics, and currently a senior vice-president and executive editor at the company. Brevoort takes on the Rage Machine daily on his well-read Tumblr page, where people occasionally tell him how much the hate him, and even tell him, “if you were to die, I think comics would be better off.”

And even with hate and death on display, Brevoort says you’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

“The absolute horrible stuff—and there is some—never makes it to public view. It just gets deleted with the press of a button,” he says. “The stuff that does get answered is usually stuff that I find funny or legitimate.”

And Brevoort does see people’s “cloaks of invisibility” at work.

“It’s funny, because I allow anonymous comments on my Tumblr, but all the comments that come from named accounts tend to be nicer, more articulate, and well-reasoned—even when they’re disagreeable,” he says. “All the comments that are anonymous tend to be ‘Your s**t is suck.’ The guys who are just looking for a fight don’t even sign their fake Tumblr name.”

It’s classic de-individuation in full effect. But again, there’s always a real person on the other side. Dan Slott, Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man writer, muses that “I could write whole books on this,” but gets very itchy, declining to cite specific examples.

“You never want to let that guy know he got under your skin, and you never want to show people examples of bad behavior to emulate,” he says.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Slott is a gregarious, friendly guy who’s always willing to interact with fans on Twitter and the like. It’s where he’s from.

“When I was a fan 25, 30, 35 years ago, if there was a way I could interact with Stan Lee and John Romita, with Denny O’Neil or Walt Simonson, just by typing an at-symbol in front of their name…yeah! I would do that!” he says. “It would be awesome to be able to do that! I would ask them questions. I would engage.”

But personally, that’s where Slott would draw the line.

“But what I wouldn’t do is just ring someone’s bell to tell them I didn’t like their work, to call them an asshole and then run away,” he says. “That’s what I don’t get. Why do that?”

On the whole, Slott tries to measure his online interactions. He recently called the aggregate a “heightened reality,” where the bright spots get brighter, but the dark areas show up so much darker.

“It’s confusing,” he says. “Going forward, I think that when a fan rings my bell and tells me they like my stuff, I need to pay more attention to them, focus on them instead of the other guy, and engage them. Become part of and reward the good example. Maybe that’s the only way we all get better.”

KICKING BACK AT THE MACHINE

People in Slott’s position are faced with a choice: To engage, or not to engage? Holly Parker recommends that a target definitely should set the record straight if there are allegations of illegalities, unethical behavior, or something that’s categorically false. But comic book creators are much more often faced with the gray areas.

“If it’s more opinion or performance-based, a target might say, ‘Hey, I understand, and I appreciate that you’re upset.’ Sometimes a response like that can really take the air out of a balloon,” she says. “People may respond to ‘Hey, this guy took the time and engaged, and did it in a respectful way.’”

Credit: Mikel Janin (DC Comics)

Or not. “respectful” is in the eye of the beholder. Writer Tim Seeley recently took flack over a scene in Grayson #13 in which secret agent Dick Grayson received a full-body exam (including rectal) after returning from a mission. Seeley was seen by some as condoning a sexual assault, even though the exam was conducted by a doctor in the scene. Seeley replied via Twitter.

“I felt like I had a right to face my accusers, especially when it's so serious, and completely inaccurate,” he says.

Seeley’s interaction only fanned the flames.

“I mean, they deluged me with Twitter posts,” he said. “Between five people, I think there were a hundred-some posts to me. I think many modern fans ‘live’ in the echo chamber of the Internet, a message board, a Tumblr community. And they come to believe not just that their opinion is fact, but that disagreeing with them is a form of attack or abuse."

Seeley did his level best to be respectful and address the concerns.

“I feel sympathetic to anyone with trauma, and anyone has a right not to like a story,” he says. “I just don’t feel I have to capitulate to criticisms.”

Cullen Bunn is the writer of Uncanny X-Men from Marvel, Sinestro from DC, and for a little while longer, DC’s Aquaman. Bunn will be leaving Aquaman with #48 in January. He’s ditching the book at least partially due to hate mail he’s received over the book’s direction. He tried playing the social media get-along game.

Credit: DC Comics

“When I started writing comics professionally, I told myself that if I had people reach out to me, I'd do my best to respond,” he says. “And I've received negative feedback that has been offered in a thoughtful, polite manner. That's aces as far as I'm concerned.”

But getting along got to be too much.

“Then there's the hate,” Bunn says. “And I shouldn't respond to it, but sometimes I just can't help but let a jackass know that they are, in fact, a jackass. I know it's better just to ignore them, to block them. It's just against my nature to let insults slide. If I'm being honest with myself, though, I'm just feeding the egos of the haters, so my first recourse from now on will be to block with abandon. Let's see if I really stick to that plan.”

For his part, Chew writer John Layman says he’s done with engagement. All it took was a death threat.

“I got my first death threat this year after someone concluded Chew and I are transphobic and wrote an article about it,” he says. “It’s made my decision not to engage a whole lot easier. A lot of these f**kers are just looking for somebody to hate, and once they got their hate on, nothing can or will change their mind, because they don’t want it to.”

OKAY, BUT IS COMIC BOOK FANS OR JUST FANDOM IN GENERAL?

Sure, people can get bent about Spider-Man, and upset if they feel their own past is being trampled on by a comic book story. And to be fair, comic books hardly has the only Rage Machine.

“It’s really no different than people who are into pick-a-TV-show,” Tom Brevoort says. “It’s everywhere. We, at our worst, are no worse than music fans, sports fans, whatever. I think that’s part of the nature of fandom—we feel strongly about something. And in pro sports, they tip over cars and set them on fire. Here, we only talk about that.”

Fred Chamberlain tends to agree.

“We’re talking about a larger society that has pathological people and extreme fringes,” he says. “The Internet is not going to be any different. It’s just a sampling of the larger society.”

Credit: Marvel Comics

And Cullen Bunn has seen Chamberlain’s earlier point about “They don’t just ‘enjoy the stories,’ they’ve grown to love these characters.”

“Readers can feel a real sense of ownership, and it angers them when editors and writers do something that—to their way of thinking—flies in the face of what should be done with the character,” he says.

Bunn comes from that same neighborhood.

 “When I was a kid, I was horrified when the X-Man Storm lost her powers. I was mad! Furious!” he says. “But I also loved it. I loved seeing how that story would play out. These days, some readers have no clue how to enjoy change. They want things ‘fixed’ and they want it now. But it's not the writer's job to play to their every wish and desire. The writer is there to tell a story. Sometimes, those stories are going to be very different than what you would do if you were writing the book.”

And the obvious problem hits when fans relate their feelings about two-dimensional characters back on three-dimensional creators.

“These creators, in the eyes of fans, wear a white hat or a black hat depending on how you feel about their work at the time,” Tom Brevoort says. “Fans often don’t relate to creators as complex human beings—they can create a caricature of that person in their mind based on not even real exposure to that person, but to the comics they wrote last month. In that way, they might view that creator in the same way they view Thor. There’s really no difference in some people’s minds.”

Strange though it may sound, in an outlier case, yes, that’s possible.

“Do I think there’s a mental health issue involved? In extreme cases. Certainly if someone values Spider-Man over a human life, that’s an issue,” Fred Chamberlain says. “But we’re talking, largely and on these extremes, about people who might not have coping skills or social skills. The overall majority of what we’re seeing might be mildly unhealthy, but it’s not pathological.”

Just how many are legitimately mentally ill is a number that’s hard to target. But for the socially inept and downright rude, there’s no specific disease, and thus no cure. But one simple tonic might be identification.

“If you and I logged into the Internet and immediately our real name and picture were connected to everything we posted, there is no question in my mind—no question!—that the face of online dialogue would change dramatically,” Dr. Holly Parker says. “People would be identifiable. They wouldn’t feel the freedom to do and say whatever they want.”

The other treatments? Simple empathy and civility.

“We can rationalize anything in our own behavior. So if we’re not open to hearing the thoughts and responses of other people, we’re done,” Chamberlain says. “Society and civil order relies on the masses to help guide behavior.”

There’s a simpler Golden Rule as well.

“I would invite people to remind themselves before they write anything that there are real people on the other end that they’re talking to,” Parker says. “Be aware of your behavior. It has an effect on other people. Period.”

RAGE ON? RAGE OFF?

Credit: DC Comics

The Internet Rage Machine seems to be just that: Internet. It’s a localized phenomenon that scarcely, if at all, bleeds into the real world where you look someone in the eye. De-individuation is turned off when we’re all in the flesh.

“I think it’s pretty consistent if you talk to creators up and down the line that if you go to a convention, you’ll have thousands of interactions, all of which but a small handful are genuinely pleasant,” Tom Brevoort says. “Ill-behaved incidents in real life are very, very rare. When you’re standing in front of someone, you’re dealing with a real human being, and that defines the equation.”

And the baby cannot be thrown out with the bathwater. It’s a weak thinker who jumps to “Oh, Internet, thus bad” as their only conclusion. As always, it’s individual choices and individual responsibilities that also define the equation. Hell, even the man who would make “comics better off” if he were to die finds his light at the end of the tunnel.

“I still think that in the broad view, Internet interaction with the audience is a good thing,” Brevoort says. “There is an element that makes it difficult. You can find a wonderful spirit of camaraderie and generosity as well, but it’s sometimes drowned out. But I think the negative is, what? Maybe 10 percent? I don’t know. Just don’t let the noise of the negative win out, I guess.”

Alas, many potential sources contacted never replied or declined to speak on the record for this article. Read more at this link.

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