Talking Online: The Park and the Dark Forest

One of the fondest memories of my childhood is my mother teaching me to draw. I was three years old or so and I loved trucks because they had lots of wheels bigger than myself. My mother taught me to draw a squarish shape for the tractor cab, a line for the coupling, another rectangular box for the trailer, then a series of circles for the wheels. Finally she added a rectangle for the cab door, another rectangle for the window, and a comma for the door handle. They looked like this:

I loved drawing them.

I started doodling my own variants. I particularly liked making trucks with more and more wheels.

Sometimes I went overboard with the wheels. I really liked big wheels. I still do.

I can’t thank my mother enough for teaching me to love art.

She also, without fail, taught me that slander, gossip, bullying, abuse, and harassment are bad. And lives that way, as well. Like every person, she has makes mistakes, but when she does, she takes responsibility and does her best to repair the damage. I am proud of her.

I have been drawing for more than three decades since.

Over the last few years, I have been sharing my work online. This was quite scary at first. Until recently I was always nervous about engaging with the online world.

I used to think, “Who am I, a young man from a tiny alpine town, to say anything online?”

When I first went to university, even supermarket clerks felt confident in correcting my dialect. Online? Everyone seemed more powerful, more entitled to being right.

I kept the online world as segregated from my lived reality as I could.

I was acutely embarrassed about doing things online. The general mood in the early 2000s was still that this space was not real. That it was a disturbing, fantasy place, where real men didn’t waste their time.

Real men did real things. Like running marathons, chasing girls, spit-roasting pigs, kicking balls, drinking beer and wine and schnapps, and making bad jokes to hide their insecurities.

And young men want to be real men.

Let’s not get started about how folks viewed online dating at the time.

When I started my first blog in 2006, drawing editorial cartoons about the news, I named it “In Human News,” and under a pseudonym drew sheep and mosquitoes and hamsters talking about the world.

When I told ‘offline’ people that I had earned some money online, they joked that I was running a porn site. I had actually sold my first art commission online. Something a little like this piece, the Imperium Hamsterianum.

A mere decade ago most people were convinced the Internet was a place apart. Online was less important, less real. Frivolous.

In recent years I finally got it that online is not somewhere else. We are not different people online. We are the same. And online is just another public square with market stalls around it.

I started drawing and writing and selling more online under my own name. It has been a long, and often hard, journey since those days in a small apartment in a small town in the Alps, where my mother taught me to draw trucks. Without the support of family and friends, but also without an online community, I would not have come to my current incredible position: I am able to make a living from my art and my games.

Until the last few days I worked almost entirely without experiencing online harassment. I was lucky, careful, and anonymous enough. I am also part of a mostly very respectful community.

Then, on the 7th of January, I wrote about an essay that had a profoundly negative impact on my creative life. I wrote a critique. And shared it online. As an artist and designer, part of how I promote my work is sharing the stories of how my work gets made.

Many people complimented me on the post and agreed with my conclusions. A few people respectfully disagreed with my analysis or provided additional interpretations.

Then on Twitter a perfect stranger came up to me and accused me of appropriating “the real life suffering of marginalized groups,” and proceeded to personally attack me as “just a bad game designer.”

I was taken aback.

My first response was to laugh it off, after all the accusation and the attack were just so weird.

But after a few hours of thought, I realized that what had happened was not nothing. It was the equivalent of a stranger walking up to me in the marketplace, where I was hanging out with friends and customers, and accosting me in front of everyone. Plastering a false accusation on my market booth and calling me names to my face.

Would you tolerate a stranger coming up to you in the park and ranting vile accusations at you? Badmouthing you? How about at your office or in your shop?

Of course not! That’s slander and harassment.

I decided to treat it as such.

I requested that this stranger explain their allegations and apologizes for their harassment.

The stranger refused to do so.

Accomplices of the bully came along on Twitter to pile on the harassment, to call me a crazy person. To gleefully inform me that, “this is normal behavior on Twitter.”

After all, when you report harassment, Twitter advises: “Don’t respond to this person — this may encourage this person’s behavior.”

This, my friends, is bullshit. Tolerating bad behavior is what encourages it.

Just because Twitter tolerates harassment, does not make it normal. Just because these bullies’ social media are full of abuse, does not make it normal.

As a rule, my online interactions are respectful, interesting, and fun.

This is because I am proud to be a part of online communities that do not consider harassment normal and do not tolerate it.

We are different people behind screens and keyboards. People with different views and opinions, skills and experience. People with vastly diverse private lives.

This online world is our public world, it is ours to cherish and hold in common. It is where we make friends and find love, where we share art and have communal experiences, where we make a living and where we buy our groceries. It is our life.

So long as we remember that online is just another place where humans meet, like a park or a bar, we can make it a place of human respect, decency, and safety.

The heart of that is a community of standards and mutual support, of rights and duties.

When we are attacked online, we have a right to stand up for ourselves and ask why. When someone makes an accusation, the burden of proof is on them. When somebody harasses us, we have a right to demand a public apology.

And when we are bystanders to attack and harassment, we have a duty to stand with the victim. To say to the abuser, “We see what you did. We hold you accountable. Make this right. Fix your mistake.”

We are all human. It’s alright to make mistakes, but my mother taught me we have to own our mistakes, apologize for them, and make amends.

This applies at a friend’s house and this applies online.

When we stand together as a community, our common good experience stands on the standards to which we hold ourselves and each other. Good faith and honesty, respect and decency.

My experience with the troll was good.

Many people stood up for me when I was harassed. They held the abusers to account for their actions. They made public statements of support. They sent me private messages of concern.

These people, standing together, created a community by their actions. I hope help others, too. It is through our daily deeds that we create a decent space, safe from casual abuse.

We’re all human, we’ll make mistakes, and we’ll apologize. But we should never tolerate lies and harassment. Abuse thrives in the dark.

It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun. My mother hasn’t had an easy life, she has suffered many times, but she has always stood up against bullying and harassment. I am proud of her for it. Thank you, Mami.

I hope we will continue to shine the light. I believe we can continue to make our online communities a place of public good rather than a dark forest of abuse. Even when it takes some effort.

Thank you everyone. You’re the best.

We can do it.

Healthy public spaces make for pretty pictures.

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