Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

If you moderate any sort of online forum, I have a suggestion for you: ban all snarking about “well if you’d bothered to search the forum before posting you would’ve found the answer to that” and “why don’t you just Google it.”

The damage done to a community by people sometimes posting easily-googleable 101 questions is far outweighed by the damage done by the silencing effect that occurs when people are scared of being ridiculed for asking a damn question.

Yes, it is annoying when someone posts a question that’s been answered tons of times in the forum. It’s annoying when someone posts a question that’s considered too basic for the purposes of that particular space. But is being annoyed a good enough reason to make people afraid to ask questions?

Theoretically, the way this sort of shaming is supposed to work is that everyone realizes that they should search the forum/check the FAQ before posting. If it worked that way, that’d be nice, although you’d still be using nastiness and ridicule to make people comply, which is a dubious way to build community. But practically, that’s not what happens. Instead, people (especially people who have not been socialized to be confident) do Google, and do check the FAQ, and then think, “Well, I’m probably missing something, and I don’t want them to yell at me for not searching well enough.”

And then they don’t post. And then they don’t get their question answered and they don’t learn more about the topic. And then they quietly disengage from the community, and you never even notice that they’re gone, and you never even know that you’re missing their unique perspective and talent. Instead, your group is overrun with people whining about each others’ poor google skills and making fun of each other–and not in a friendly way.

But then how can we stop people from posting repeat questions?

As a moderator, you can never completely prevent people from doing something you don’t want in your space, but you can make it less likely and you can control what happens afterward.

  • Include “search first” in your rules.
  • Encourage other members to respond to 101 questions with reminders, not ridicule. (“Hey [name], this question has already been answered in this forum. Please use the search feature. Thanks!”)
  • Create a FAQ and make it easily visible and accessible. Forum search features are often crappy and not everyone has the time or energy to wade through pages of irrelevant search results.
  • Simply delete posts and ban users who post these types of questions. It’s kind of extreme, but it may be most appropriate for something like a safe space for marginalized folks or a 300-level social justice space where basic questions really detract from the group’s purpose.

Here’s the thing–if you don’t want your forum to focus on answering questions that have already been answered or that are considered too low-level for the purposes of that space, the last thing you should want is for those questions’ threads to fill up with snark and ridicule of the poster’s lack of Google skills. All that does is promote continued engagement on that post (and a toxic form of engagement at that, although that’s just my opinion) and keep the post at the top of the group feed. It contributes to the exact problem that the snark and ridicule is supposedly meant to prevent.

Except, of course, that’s not really what it’s meant to do at all. In my experience, people who get something out of ridiculing others frequently come up with all sorts of post-hoc justifications for their behavior, but what they’re mostly doing is venting emotions without much forethought. You feel annoyed or angry, so you lash out. Only later do you produce rationalizations like “Well, they’re ruining the purpose of this space by posting those questions and I want them to stop.” I’m skeptical that very many of these people thought, upon encountering the offending post, “Huh, I wonder what would be the best way of stopping posts like this from happening.”

But it’s annoying!

Yeah, as I said, I’m not arguing that it’s not. But I think that a big part of the reason it feels so annoying is because of the assumptions we make about others’ motivations–assumptions that we usually have no evidence for.

Many people see a repeat question and think, “Wow, this person respects me and my time so little that they would make me re-answer something that’s already been answered.” Sure, that could be it. Or it could be that they did try searching but didn’t use the exact right search terms (a common issue for topics as diverse as social justice and coding). It could be that they’re in a hurry to get the answer and figured someone would be willing to point them in the right direction. It could be that they’re on their phone and the search box isn’t even visible in the mobile version of the page and they figured there wasn’t one. Look, it could really be anything. It doesn’t have to mean laziness and disrespect.

But they’re forcing me to answer their basic questions and I don’t want to/don’t have the spoons/can’t be everyone’s free [subject] tutor!

I’ve already written about this dynamic as it applies to social justice conversations online. But I think some of that applies much more broadly, in that many people mistake a statement about a need for a demand that that need be met–or, worse, an obligation to meet that need.

When someone asks a question, it’s safe to assume that they want an answer to that question. (Ok, fine, unless it’s a rhetorical question. Let’s not get technical.) They may even need an answer to that question. They may even feel entitled to an answer to that question from you–yes, you specifically.

But usually we don’t know what a stranger on the internet feels entitled to versus what they would simply like to have, if possible. And sometimes we assume that they feel entitled because that’s what we’re used to, or because we’re not fully confident about our own boundaries or our own ability to maintain them.

Much of this difficulty comes from Guess Culture, which we all struggle with to various extents. In Guess Culture, a question can indeed be an implicit demand for an answer, and in Guess Culture, ignoring someone’s question (even if posted on a public forum) can be a Wrong Thing To Do.

Probably the most common way people deal with situations where they feel like someone is demanding something from them that they can’t provide is to try to invalidate that person’s (perceived) need. After all, if their need is wrong or if they are wrong for asking for it to be met, then we’re not wrong for refusing to meet it.

So, you’re in a forum and someone posts a question that’s already been answered a hundred times, or is obviously too basic a question for this forum, and you’re just exhausted of answering these questions, and you resent being (implicitly) demanded to do it, and how could they expect this constant free tutoring from you–so clearly they’re in the wrong for posting it, and that means it’s okay to lash out at them and make fun of them, because after all they hurt you first.

I think what would help avoid these toxic cycles is to remember that the fact that someone has a need doesn’t obligate you to meet it, and the fact that you can’t meet someone’s need doesn’t make it invalid.

So, if you’re exhausted by these questions and they make you feel resentful and used, ignore them. Hide them from your feed. Block the people who posted them. If you think that someone has a pattern of misusing a group by trying to extract an unfair amount of intellectual labor from its members, talk to the mods about maybe banning that person. Mods, pay attention to those patterns; just because someone means well doesn’t mean they aren’t turning your group into a toxic space.

And that goes just the same for the people who think it their personal mission to comment “well if you’d bothered to use the search feature–” on every other post. Mods, ask yourselves what kind of group environment this contributes to and what it accomplishes. Do you want a group where everyone’s ridiculing each other all the time, or a group where shit gets done, whatever that means for your particular space?

In short, I see all sorts of cons and no pros to allowing this sort of interaction to happen in online forums. (Besides maybe some nebulous commitment to Free Speech and Anything Goes, but I don’t see much value in that when it comes to closed online spaces.) My advice as a longtime group moderator and participant is to ban this toxic and useless behavior.


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Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation
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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

“Wow, uh…you’re very open online.” I still hear this from people every so often.

“Yup,” I say, because I don’t assume it was meant to be a compliment.

And it’s true. On my Facebook–which, by the way, is not public–I’ve posted regularly about depression, anxiety, sexuality, sexual harassment and assault, body image issues, interpersonal problems, and other various struggles, big and small, that make up life. Don’t get me wrong–I also post plenty about food, cute animals, books, and other “appropriate” topics for online discussion, although I’ve noted before that there really is no way to win at social media (including refusing to play at all).

People who don’t know me well probably assume I do it “for attention” (as if there’s anything humans don’t do for some sort of attention, one way or another), or because I’m unaware of social norms (they’re not that different where I come from, trust me), or simply because I have poor impulse control. Actually, I have excellent impulse control. I’m not sure I’ve ever acted on impulse in my entire life, with perhaps the sole exception of snapping at my family members when they get under my skin. I know plenty of people who have destroyed relationships, lost jobs, or gotten hospitalized as a result of their impulses. I get…speaking rudely to someone for badgering me about my weight.

Being open about myself and my life online (and to a certain extent in person) is something I do strategically and intentionally. I have a number of goals that I can accomplish with openness (or, as I’ll shortly reframe it, vulnerability), and so far I think it’s worked out well for me.

A lot of the good things about my life right now–and, yes, some of the bad–can be traced back to a decision I made about five and a half years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had recently been diagnosed with depression and started medication, which was working out great and had me feeling like myself for the first time in years. (Yeah, there were some horrible relapses up ahead, but all the same.)

I wrote a very candid note on Facebook–later a blog post–about my experience and how diagnosis and treatment had helped me. At the time, I did not know anyone else who was diagnosed with a mental illness–not because nobody was, but because nobody had told me so, let alone posted about it publicly online. While I obviously knew on some level that I wasn’t “the only one,” it felt that way. I certainly didn’t think it would be a relevant topic for my friends. Mental illness was something experienced by Other People and by weird, alien me, not by any of the happy, normal people I knew.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In response to my post, tons of friends started coming out of the woodwork–both in private messages and in the comments of my post–and talking about their own experiences with mental illness. An ex-boyfriend texted me and apologized for dumping me years prior for what he now knew was an untreated mental illness. Acquaintances and classmates turned into close friends. Circles of support were formed. I started speaking out more and gradually became recognized as an advocate for mental health on campus, and eventually started a peer counseling service that is still active on campus today, three years after I left. These experiences pushed me away from the clinical psychology path and towards mental health services, leading me to pursue internships, my masters in social work program, and now, what looks to be a promising career as a therapist.

All because of a Facebook post that many would consider “TMI” or “oversharing.”

Well, not all because. I don’t know what path my life would’ve taken if I’d made different choices, not just with coming out as a person with depression but with all kinds of things. Maybe I’d still be here, or somewhere similar. But I can’t possibly know that–what I do know is that the decision to make that Facebook post had very far-reaching and mostly positive effects on my life.

This isn’t a “you should come out” post; I don’t do those. I’m writing about myself and why I’m so open. This experience, and others that followed, shaped my perspective about this. So, here’s why.

1. To be seen.

That’s my most basic reason and the one that comes closest to being impulsive. But basically, I don’t like being seen as someone I’m not. I don’t like it when people think my life is perfect because I only post the good things. It hurts when people assume I have privileges I don’t, and when people think I couldn’t possibly need support or sympathy because everything is fine. If I didn’t post about so-called “personal” things,  people would assume that I’m straight, neurotypical, and monogamous, and the thought of that is just painful.

2. To filter people out.

I don’t expect everyone in my life to support me through hard times or care about my problems. Some people are just here for when I’m being fun and interesting, and that’s only natural. However, posting about personal things on Facebook is a great way to filter out people who not only aren’t interested in supporting me, but who are actually uncomfortable with people being honest about themselves and their lives. Otherwise, it’s going to be really awkward when we meet in person and you ask me how I’m doing and I say, “Eh, been having a rough time lately. How about you?” Because I do say that. Not with any more detail than that if you don’t ask for it, but that’s enough to make some people very twitchy because I didn’t perform my role properly.

I don’t want anyone in my life who thinks it’s wrong, weak, or pathetic to be open about your struggles. Because of the way I use Facebook, they don’t tend to stay on my friends list for long, and that’s exactly how I want it.

3. To increase awareness of mental illness.

When I post about my experiences with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it’s not just because I want people to know what’s going on with me personally. I also want them to know what mental illness is. When I published that post about depression I mentioned earlier, I didn’t just get “me too” responses–I also got comments from people who said that they’d never had depression and struggled to understand what it’s like, but that my piece helped. Some people took that knowledge and applied it to their relationships with depressed friends, partners, and family members, which I think is great.

It seems weird to write this section now, because so many people in my life have themselves been diagnosed with mental illness or are very knowledgeable about it through supporting others with it. But when I first started being open online about depression, that definitely didn’t describe my social circle, and I’d like to think that my openness is at least part of the reason for the difference.

4. To reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I don’t just want to make people aware of what mental illness is like–I want them to stop thinking of it is a shameful thing that ought to be kept secret. Since I’m fortunate enough to feel safe coming out, I think that’s a powerful action I can take to reduce that stigma. The more people see my posts about depression and anxiety as normal, just like posting about having the flu or going to the doctor, the less they’ll stigmatize mental illness.

Of course, stigma–and the ableism that fuels it–is a broad and systemic problem with intersectional implications that I don’t even pretend to be able to fix with some Facebook posts. But I do what I can.

5. To reduce the stigma of vulnerability, period.

Not everything “personal” that I put online deals with mental illness specifically (although, when you have lifelong depression, everything does tend to come back to that). I write a lot about homesickness, my love for New York (and the pain of leaving it), issues with my family, relationships, daily frustrations and challenges, and so on.

Not everyone wants to share these things with their friends (online or off), but many people do–they’re just afraid that nobody cares, that they’ll be seen as weak, or that there’s no room for this kind of vulnerability within the social norms that we’ve created. That last one may be true, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way.

As Brené Brown notes in her book that I recently read, vulnerability isn’t the same thing as recklessly dumping your personal problems on people. I’ve also written about guidelines for appropriate sharing, and how to deal when someone’s sharing makes you uncomfortable.

The point isn’t to completely disregard all social norms; some of them are there to help interactions go smoothly and make sure people’s implicit boundaries are respected. The point is to design social norms that encourage healthier interactions, and while I’m sure there are some people who can healthily avoid divulging anything personal to their friends, I’m not one of them and my friends aren’t either. So for us, reducing the stigma of vulnerability and encouraging openness about how we feel is healthy.

6. To create the kinds of friendships I value. 

Being open online doesn’t just filter people out–it also filters people in. Folks who appreciate vulnerability read my posts, get to know me better, and share more with me in turn. I’ve developed lots of close friendships through social media, and not all of them are long-distance. In fact, a common pattern for me is that I meet someone at a local event and chat casually and then we add each other on Facebook, at which point we learn things about each other that are way more personal than we ever would’ve shared at a loud bar or party. Then the friendship can actually develop.

I’ve been very lucky to find lots of people who appreciate this type of connection. People who don’t always answer “how are you?” with “good!”, who engage with “negative” social media posts in a supportive and productive way rather than just ignoring them or peppering them with condescending advice or demands to “cheer up!” People who understand that having emotions, even about “silly” things, doesn’t make you weak or immature. People who understand that working through your negative/counterproductive emotions requires first validating and accepting them, not beating yourself up for them or ignoring them.

So, that’s why I’m so open online. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. But I’m not alone in it, and it’s becoming less and less weird. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, I was the only person I knew with depression. Not only do I now know many, but I’m also so much more aware of all sorts of joys and sorrows I haven’t personally experienced–all thanks to my friends’ openness online. For a therapist–hell, for a human being–that’s an invaluable education.


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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Text reads, "Plans? Yeah, I know...I cancel, I postpone, I reschedule, I delay committing. Illness sometimes controls my schedule, but I am determined it won't control me! Please keep inviting me."
I’ve been seeing a bunch of memes lately to the effect of, “keep inviting your chronically ill friends to things, even if they always say no/flake out/don’t respond at all/etc.”

(Chronic illness here refers both to mental illness and to chronic physical conditions like fibromyalgia and fatigue.)

That’s a bit of advice that I’ve endorsed and given myself, especially having so often been that exact chronically ill person. I do think that those who are close to someone with a chronic illness and want to be supportive should, if they can, make that extra effort and try to get past their own feelings of rejection to try to include that person, because even if they always say no, the invitations may be a heartening reminder that they’re still wanted and missed. That’s easy to forget when you’re in the throes of a chronic illness flareup, especially if it’s depression.

Lately, though, this advice has been giving me cognitive dissonance and I think I’ve figured out why.

Continue reading “When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries”

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free

I am closing comments on this blog until further notice.

I’m not writing this because I think that needs justification. I’m writing this for the sake of my own clarity, to help me decide if/when I want reopen comments, and to empower other bloggers who are considering a similar decision.

Otherwise, I don’t have to justify my decision because I don’t owe you a comments section any more than I owe you access to my living room. I don’t owe you anything other than I owe anyone else: basic kindness and respect.

I’m sure you’re wondering what awful harassment and rape and death threats I’ve gotten recently that made me come to this decision, but the reality is a lot less dramatic. I rarely get harassment and threats these days. When I did, it was horrifyingly unpleasant and scary, but it ultimately did less long-term damage than the actual reason: boring everyday online negativity and nitpicking.

Continue reading “Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free”

Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free

Who Benefits From OkCupid's New Polyamory Feature?

Everyone keeps sending me this Atlantic article about a new OkCupid feature for nonmonogamous people, so I might as well respond to it.

The new setting, which became available for some beta users in December, allows users who are listed as “seeing someone,” “married,” or “in an open relationship” on the platform to link their profiles and search for other people to join their relationship.

[…] Though specialized dating sites for polyamorous people exist, this appears to be the first instance of a mainstream online-dating platform allowing two users to search for sexual partners together, as a unit.

[…] “Finding your partner is very important,” [OkCupid chief product officer Jimena Almendares] said, “you should have the option to express specifically and exactly who you are and what you need.”

Honestly, I know I should be excited about this Great Leap For Polyamory Recognition, but at this point, I’m not. I just can’t care. This feature only serves and makes visible one incredibly narrow, very privileged, and often harmful version of polyamory, and it has nothing to do with the polyamory that I or any of my partners practice.

Let’s start with the fact that Almendares refers to “your partner” (singular) and that the feature only allows you to link to one partner. When are non-poly people going to understand that polyamory is not about “your partner,” “the couple,” or “the relationship,” but rather about “your partners” and “your relationships” and the people in those relationships? This sort of couple-centric language may seem like an innocent holdover from everyone’s monogamous days, but it can have serious implications for how we treat partners who are more short-term, casual, or recent than others.

Sure, some people are totally fine with “joining the relationship.” I’m not writing about those people. I’m writing about those of us who dislike being solicited to become some straight couple’s fun queer sex toy, and those of us who are not interested in relationships where we are treated as intrinsically lesser because someone else got there first.

None of that means that the new feature is bad or wrong; I’m just explaining why I don’t care about it and why I’m annoyed to see it portrayed as a big victory for poly folks on OkCupid.

Would you look at that! OkCupid has already explicitly included nonmonogamous folks.
Would you look at that! OkCupid has already explicitly included nonmonogamous folks.

What really is cool is that OkCupid already lets people list their relationship style preference (I’ve included mine here as an example) and it lets you link to other users’ profiles in the text of your own profile. Many poly people use that to let others know who they’re already dating. You can also, of course, use it to mention friends and fuck buddies and whoever else you’d like. It’s lovely specifically because it doesn’t force you to categorize anyone based on importance. OkCupid also lets you filter by monogamy/nonmonogamy when browsing your matches, which helps people find potential partners who are interested in the same types of relationships they are.

If OkCupid already includes all these options that recognize polyamory, why is this one being touted all over my online feeds as evidence that the dating site is “finally including options for poly couples”? Probably because this particular option caters to such an easily-recognizable version of polyamory, by “allowing two users to search for sexual partners together, as a unit.”

 

AND you can search for people by (non)monogamy preference!
AND you can search for people by (non)monogamy preference!

Of course, if you ask just about any bisexual woman, poly or not, she’ll tell you that there has been absolutely nothing stopping two users from searching for sexual partners together as a unit this whole time. They do it quite often, and trust me, there’s never any confusion when I get a message from an account with two headless bodies in the profile pic that says, “My wife and I are looking for a hot young woman to have some fun with…” It is abundantly clear to me from the first message what sort of arrangement this is and how much value as a human being I have to these random strangers.

Certainly not all “unicorn hunters” (as they’re called in the poly community) are as objectifying, entitled, and heterosexist as the prototypical example, but in my experience, even the nicest and most consent-oriented ones are operating under a lot of flawed assumptions about queer women and what constitutes an equitable, mutually satisfying relationship. But whatever, this isn’t really the article to hash all that out in. I’m just saying that for many of us polyamorous folks, queer women especially, there’s no “victory” in any dating site feature that claims to make it even easier for these couples to target us.

Calling unicorn hunting “polyamory” feels to me a bit like calling same-sex marriage “LGBTQ equality,” except admittedly without the implications about oppression. Yes, both of these things are components of polyamory and LGBTQ equality, respectively, but both of them are frequently treated by the media (and even by many activists) as if they are the same thing. In the end, I feel similarly about unicorn hunting as I feel about same-sex marriage: do it if it floats your boat, but try not to trip over the rest of us on your way there and definitely don’t act like it’s all there is to fight for and make visible.

Before the chorus of But At Least They Did Something So Just Be Grateful For That begins, I’ll just say this: I’m not sure it’s at all a positive thing to continue perpetuating the idea that polyamory is all about couples looking for a hot young woman to “add” to the relationship. (By the way: even in an arrangement like that, the woman is not being “added.” She is forming two new relationships, one with each person in the preexisting couple, and each person in the preexisting couple is formingnew relationship with her. This is an important distinction.) I don’t celebrate it for the same reason I don’t cheer when a TV show adds yet another conventionally attractive white bisexual woman who sleeps with a ton of people and can’t commit to a serious relationship: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being that way, but it’s a stereotype that causes many people to have a negative impression of bisexual women, so can’t we at least portray a greater variety of bisexual women? Can’t we acknowledge that it doesn’t always look this way?

I would love for more people to know that polyamory can look like this. I would love for more people whose polyamory looks like that to have an easier time using dating websites. One very small and easy thing OkCupid could do (as could Facebook) would be to allow people to list multiple partners rather than just one, especially if the context is open relationships.

Remember: the whole point of polyamory is multiple partners. You may not feel the same way about all of them, you may not see all of them as often, they may not have the same genders, you may not share homes or bank accounts or parenting responsibilities with all of them, and you may even (though this makes me cringe for my own reasons) have rules about what you can and cannot do with some of them, but they are all your partners. There is no “your partner” and “the relationship” in polyamory unless you are currently only seeing one person. Hopefully the folks over at OkCupid realize this soon.


P.S. Here are some great perspectives on this from Ozy and Neil, because I like their writing and I want to show you that this isn’t just me.


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Who Benefits From OkCupid's New Polyamory Feature?

The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

[Content note: depression and eating disorders]

I recently read Olivia’s excellent blog post, “I’m Tired Of Curating.” In it she describes her experiences as a mental health advocate and a person with mental illness(es), and it resonated a lot with me:

I’m not allowed to share these thoughts because they glorify an eating disorder, because I’m not actively telling people how awful it is to be sick, because I’m remembering how intertwined I am with the disease, the way it really is part of the way my mind works rather than something that needs to be kicked out of my life.

[…] I’m sick of trying to spin these thoughts into something useful or meaningful. Since I’ve started to write openly about treatment and recovery and mental illness, I feel as if I need to be a role model or someone that others can look to to see that mental illness does not destroy your life. And yet it’s consumed all of mine and I feel as if I’ve gained nothing except 50 pounds.

I don’t want to curate my words today. I don’t want to be careful not to trigger anyone or to mistakenly portray the ways I behave in a positive light. I want to be allowed the space to honestly portray my mental illness, including the way that it looks seductive when I’m anxious and overwhelmed. Right now restriction is the only thing that makes sense to me. I hate having to hedge that with the caveat that I know it’s not healthy and no other people shouldn’t do it and yes it will fuck up my life.

[…] As someone who has a mental illness and advocates for people with mental illnesses, sometimes I feel like I’m not actually allowed to have my mental illness. Sure, I get to talk about the experience and share inspiring stories or even stories about how nastybad it is and tips and tricks that I’ve picked up, but I don’t get to publicly have the thoughts and feelings that come with a jerkbrain. I don’t get to type “I think I’m a shitstain on the world” without people disregarding everything else I say. I don’t get to type “I truly would like to skip all upcoming meals indefinitely” without being accused of promoting unhealthy behaviors. Newsflash world: I have depression and an eating disorder. These are things that I think on the regular. If it’s too ugly to see it and you have to look away when I can’t be polished, then I don’t understand the point of my activism and advocacy. I don’t understand why I write anymore.

When I read this, it suddenly put my experiences into a context that made sense. Because I’ve been there.

Not only have I felt like I couldn’t share my negative experiences with mental illness, but I was also made to feel like I couldn’t share my victories, either. I once posted on my personal Facebook that I was proud of myself for having been (safely) off of medication for a year, and someone messaged me letting me know that I shouldn’t post things like that because it’ll make people who still need to be on medication feel bad, and that this might be helpful for me to know “considering [my] future career.” Except my personal Facebook page isn’t the same as my professional counseling website, and it’s not even the same as my blog. It’s my space to share my life with my friends. The purpose of my Facebook is to connect with my friends, not to affirm other people. Of course, I like to affirm other people and often try to, but that shouldn’t be an expectation placed on me. It shouldn’t have to be the primary goal of my self-expression.

So that’s a weird, narrow line we mental health advocates have to walk. We’re criticized for being honest about the ugly sides of mental illness (either because it means we’re “glorifying” mental illness or because we’re “confirming negative stereotypes” or [insert accusation here), and we’re criticized for “making others feel bad” when we’re honest about successful recovery. (And, yes, I get to simultaneously believe that there is nothing wrong with taking psychiatric medication and to be proud of myself for getting to a place where I am able to stop taking it. You can accept medical treatment as necessary and morally acceptable and you can be glad when you don’t need medical treatment anymore!)

As a result, we end up presenting a sanitized version of our actual struggles that’s neither overly negative nor inappropriately jealousy-inducing. “Jerkbrain’s really getting me down today, please send cute animal photos.” “Today sucked so I’m going to do some much-needed self-care.” And so on and so forth. Obviously, those can be completely valid and genuine expressions, but as Olivia pointed out, sometimes it’s a lot less pretty.

A while back, I wrote about a particular strain of criticism of people (generally teenage girls) who “glorify” or “enable” mental illness symptoms by presenting them in a romantic or sexy light. The argument goes that these blogs may discourage young people from seeing their mental illnesses as treatable (or seeing them as illnesses at all) and encourage them to do harmful behaviors associated with those illnesses–self-harm, restricting, purging, etc. In that post, I concluded: “It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.’ It’s harder to say, ‘Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.'”

Unfortunately, as I’m learning, it’s not actually particularly difficult to say that at all; you just have to be a little more subtle. Certainly nobody in our communities would ever come right out and say that people with mental illnesses should hide all of their symptoms; heavens no, that would be ableist. Instead, they fill our Facebook threads with condescending reminders to “take better care of yourself” and “that’s just jerkbrain talking.” We can discuss our symptoms as long as we make it absolutely clear that we hate the symptoms and the illness and are completely dedicated to the project of making a full recovery. To admit that sometimes we don’t want to recover is to “glorify” mental illness and “enable” others. It’s to “confirm stereotypes” about people with mental illness, as if the problem is overlapping with a stereotype and not stereotyping people to begin with.

The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal is real and it’s a narrow ledge to squeeze yourself onto. Be honest, but don’t freak us out. Motivate those who are still struggling, but don’t give a rosy and unrealistic perspective. Hate your illness because it’s unhealthy and bad for you, but don’t hate your illness because that’s ableist and implies that there’s something wrong with having a mental illness. Recover, but not so much or so visibly that you make others feel bad. Accomplish because it’s inspirational for others and because people with mental illnesses can do anything neurotypical people can, but don’t accomplish too much, or else are you sure you’re really all that mentally ill? Maybe you just want attention.

I used to blame myself a lot for doing what Olivia calls “curating”–for only portraying my depression in a particular way, not too negative and not too positive. Now I’ve come to see it as a double-bind that everyone who discloses mental illness is placed in, one way or another. Why is it that we’re the ones constantly accused of “encouraging” mental illness when everything about the way our society is set up encourages it? Why is a teenage girl who posts a selfie of herself with mascara tears running down her face any more responsible for someone else’s mental illness than the neurotypical adults who tell each other to “calm down” and “just get over it,” or the boss who creates a stressful and anxiety-provoking work environment, or the primary care doctor who fails to spot the warning signs of depression and refer their patient to a therapist, or the parent who tells their teenager that they’ll “grow out of it”?

We all contribute to ableism and mental illness stigma in various ways, and those of us who actually have mental illness tend to be more aware of that than anyone.

As usual, I’ve got no solution to this except to pay attention to your automatic responses to folks with mental illnesses discussing their experiences. Watch what makes you go “Wow, that is So Real, that is So Brave of you to share” and what makes you go “Uh, are you sure you want to post that so publicly?” The answer might be instructive.

~~~

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The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

"How can I support you?"

When people share mental health struggles online, well-meaning friends and followers often rush in to give them unsolicited advice. That’s something many of us find irritating and push back on. One of the responses we get often goes something like this: “But I give advice because I need to say something. How am I supposed to know exactly what they need?”

These days my response is usually the same: “Have you tried asking them?”

It’s both surprising and unsurprising how often the response is: “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

It’s surprising because, rationally, that seems like the obvious thing to do when someone is struggling and you have no idea how to help them. It doesn’t make sense to waste your time and energy and risk upsetting or pissing them off by guessing what they might want and offering that. When you need information to make a good decision, and the information is readily available by asking someone who is as close as it gets to being an authority on the subject, it makes sense to just ask them.

At the same time, it’s also utterly unsurprising that people so rarely do this.

For one thing, we have all these cultural scripts about how this stuff is supposed to go, and one of them is that if you’re really a good friend/partner/family member to the person who’s struggling, you will “just know” what they need and be able to offer it without needing to be told. On the flip side, you might believe that if someone is really a good friend/partner/family member to you, they shouldn’t have to ask you what you need; they should just know. If they do ask, and you tell them, and they do that thing, then that might be nice and all, but it’s not as special as it would’ve been if they’d just known.

You’re probably familiar with these dynamics from discussions of sexual communication and the importance of asking/telling partners what they’re/you’re into, but this applies to so many other interpersonal situations.

That second part is talked about a little less often than the first, because the first seems on the surface to do more immediate harm. But they’re two sides of a coin. We need to get rid of that sort of thinking in order to be able to intentionally create strong, communicative relationships of all kinds.

In fact, I suspect that a small part* of the reason many people are vague about what they need when they let close ones know about their struggles is because they hope that those close ones will be able to help them without being explicitly told how. When you’re neck-deep in some sort of life shit, that sort of effortlessness can be so incredibly affirming. It satisfies a need many people have to feel taken care of.

(*Note I specifically said “small part”; there are many other, probably more significant reasons people do this, such as not knowing what they want, not having the emotional energy to communicate extensively/clearly, fearing criticism or pushback for stating what they really want, etc)

Besides cultural scripts about Just Knowing what someone wants, another reason people might not ask “How can I help?” is that they worry about annoying the person or putting an additional burden on them (that is, making them explain what it is they need). While that’s definitely a risk, especially with someone who expects you to Just Know, it’s significantly less annoying than shoving useless (or even harmful) advice or assistance at someone.

In her article about unsolicited advice online, Katie Klabusich lays all this out in a great way:

“How can I support you?” is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable. It preempts judgement and assumptions while oozing humility. Often the person won’t have an immediate answer—likely because they aren’t used to being asked a question that’s about what they actually need as a unique human being. If they look stunned, I suggest something like: “It’s OK if you don’t have an answer or don’t need anything right now; the offer’s open for whenever. Just let me know.” And then use an emoji of some sort or make a face that conveys warmth so they know you mean it. (This could be a unicorn, the two señoritas dancing, or the smiling poo. Up to you.)

*Here’s the fine print: you have to believe their answer, whatever it is. If they tell you they don’t need anything, you don’t get to push or pressure or demand they give you something to do so you feel less helpless. Remember, this isn’t about you.

Following up a few weeks or months later (whatever equals “a while from now” with the two of you) is totally fine. Asking clarifying questions about what they need if they need something is also totally fine. Being unsure and having to ask along the way if the thing they asked for that you’re trying to provide is helping or being provided in a helpful way is also totally fine.

Telling the person you don’t know if the thing they need is something you can do is also totally fine; no one expects you to be everything they need, and we’d all rather you not promise than drop the ball. These are all honest, humble, supportive responses and, frankly, just being asked “How can I support you?” will make the person feel less alone and more cared for.

 

As Katie notes, the fact that many people won’t have an answer right away doesn’t mean that the question was wrong. It could mean that they’re surprised at actually being asked, and it could also mean that they’re not used to thinking of some of their needs as needs. For instance, we might ask someone for advice or for practical assistance, but it feels a little weirder for most people to ask someone to just listen or to tell them something affirming. Being asked “How can I support you?” can help shift them into that way of thinking about it: “Hm, what would feel supportive for me right now?”

Feeling supported is not always the same as Making The Right Decision or Growing As A Person or whatever, which is another reason people are sometimes hesitant to ask others what they need to feel supported. “But what if they’re making the wrong decision!” they might protest. “I need to tell them they’re Doing It Wrong!”

Yes, there are some cases in which it’s probably a good idea to speak up and rain on someone’s parade because you’re seriously concerned about their safety or wellbeing. But most cases are not that and most people are not the kinds of people you have that relationship with (i.e. children, little siblings, partners with whom you have that sort of understanding, etc). I have watched friends and partners make decisions that I personally thought were bad decisions, but because they were clear with me that they wanted support/affirmation and not constructive criticism, I kept my concerns to myself. For the most part, those people turned out okay, because they are adults and they have the right to make their own decisions.

I’ve written before that self-awareness is really important when you’re trying to help people, because you need to make sure you’re not just doing it to try to relieve your own feelings of helplessness. Even if you are doing it to relieve your own feelings of helplessness, you can still go ahead and try to help, as long as you acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are your responsibility and not that of the person you’re trying to help. Only then can you focus on helping them in the way they need rather than in the way you need.

Asking what they need is a big part of that. Don’t try to show off how amazing you are at magically intuiting what they need. You’re likely to mess up and cause more trouble than you solve. Just ask.

“How can I support you?” is not a magic question. It will not necessarily get you the answers you need or them the help they need. Maybe that phrasing sounds weird and stilted to you; try not to get too caught up in that and find other ways to ask the same essential thing. The point isn’t the exact words, but rather the idea that you should figure out how best to help someone before trying to help them. They might not always know, but they certainly know better than you do, even if it takes them some time to be able to access that knowledge. They are the expert on what they need, or as close to an expert as anyone is going to get.

Be prepared, too, for the answer, “Nothing.” Sometimes people share their struggles not to get help or support but to be heard and witnessed. Sometimes they don’t know why they’re sharing at all. Sometimes they will tell you that the best way you can support them is to hear what they have to say; sometimes they will tell you, “Nothing.” Thank them for their honesty and move along. “Nothing” is a difficult thing to hear, but it is also a difficult thing to say.

~~~

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"How can I support you?"

How SXSW Got Online Harassment Wrong

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about SXSW’s…weird handling of its little Gamergate problem.

This week, South by Southwest, an annual film, music, and interactive media festival, canceled two of its scheduled panels: one about harassment in gaming and another about “the gaming community,” organized by Gamergate supporters.

Dealing with ongoing controversies while planning events is never easy, but the festival organizers’ handling of this situation so far suggests, at best, serious ignorance of the reality of online harassment and, at worst, gross negligence on part of SXSW.

Here are the three biggest mistakes the festival made and what future organizers—and everyone else—can learn from them:

1) Failing to take a stand against online abuse

Their first mistake was failing to notice and react to the harassment that the panelists on the “anti-Gamergate” panel were receiving. (Although the purpose of the panel was to discuss harassment, not to “oppose” Gamergate, that’s how it’s being described online, presumably because everyone understands that Gamergate is a pro-harassment movement.)

As Arthur Chu points out in his detailed breakdown of this story, the organizers were aware of the dozens of harassing comments being posted on the page where the panel was being voted on. Although SXSW eventually shut down the comments, it never deleted any. Instead, organizers responded in an email:

Right now, what we see in the comments section is an open dialogue/debate between two different opinions. Until one of those comments turns into an outright threat of violence, we will leave them up.

Unsurprisingly, Gamergate’s response did end up escalating to threats of violence. And while we can’t ever know for sure if that could’ve been prevented by a more assertive response by SXSW, it’s entirely possible that the trolls would’ve given up and moved on to more interesting targets if the festival organizers had deleted all inappropriate comments and made a clear statement in support of its panelists without inviting further “dialogue/debate” on the matter.

The fact that people should be able to use the Internet and participate in panels without being subjected to slurs and harassment shouldn’t be up for debate.

Read the rest here.

How SXSW Got Online Harassment Wrong

In Praise of Facebook's New 'Like' Button

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about Facebook Reactions.

When rumors spread online last month that Facebook was going to add a “Dislike” button, the Internet reacted with a great deal of, well, dislike. Although CEO Mark Zuckerberg clarified that he didn’t intend to suggest that the platform was instituting its own form of Reddit downvoting, nobody understood what he was really planning until Reactions was revealed last week. The site’s new version of the ”Like” button includes six additional emotions: “Love,” “Haha,” “Yay,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.” When users click to “Like” a post, they will be able to choose one of these options, including the iconic thumbs up to which we’re all accustomed.

In a Facebook post from last week, Zuckerberg explained the rationale behind the change:

Not every moment is a good moment, and sometimes you just want a way to express empathy. These are important moments where you need the power to share more than ever, and a Like might not be the best way to express yourself. … Reactions gives you new ways to express love, awe, humor, and sadness. It’s not a dislike button, but it does give you the power to easily express sorrow and empathy—in addition to delight and warmth.

It’s great to see Zuckerberg finally acknowledging the many ways in which people use Facebook. When he used the platform back in August to speak publicly about the three miscarriages he and his wife experienced, it appears he understood the power of Facebook to share news and stories that aren’t exactly likable.

Reactions makes sense as a next step—both for Mark Zuckerberg and his company. While some might dismiss Reactions as silly or weird, I predict that it will help people communicate with each other in ways that feel more intuitive and that end in less awkwardness. Think about it: When someone says something funny, we don’t say “LOL” or “that’s funny.” We laugh. When you share a devastating loss with a friend in person, you might be comforted by the obvious concern and sympathy on their face.

Facebook can’t perfectly mimic the experience of laughing with a roomful of friends or having someone there with you when you hear terrible news (at least, not yet), but it can help people express the emotions they actually mean to express, which can be difficult online. A thoughtless “Like” on a sad post can be read as insensitive or flippant, but there’s not always anything to say in a comment about it, either—nor would a whole thread of “wow that sucks” make you feel any better.

Friends often tell me that they struggle with figuring out how to respond to posts that share serious problems or frustrations. Often they end up saying nothing at all, and clicking a thumbs up icon doesn’t feel like an appropriate substitute. Instead of leaving an empty space when users are grieving or feeling blue, Reactions might help people support friends and let them know that they are heard and that their pain is acknowledged. Sharing a sad post would feel less like screaming into an online void and more like talking to a group of friends.

Read the rest here.

In Praise of Facebook's New 'Like' Button

Why Peeple Won't Save Us From Jerks

I wrote about Peeple again for the Daily Dot, but from a slightly different angle than my other piece.

Peeple, a new app for rating people like as if they were restaurants on Yelp, hasprovoked so much criticism and anger online that its creators, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, have shut down their Twitter and Facebook pages. The app, which is flawed in more ways than it isn’t, is still supposed to be released in November—even despite the death threats that the creators have reportedly received.

I wish I could say that I’m stating the obvious, but sending McCullough and Cordray death threats is not OK. It’s never OK. And although some are gloating over the fact that getting harassed might teach them what the Internet is really like, I still wish that were a lesson they could’ve avoided.

One potential upside is that the app may be getting some changes. Although the creators are making bold statements like “We will not be shamed into submission,” it seems they may have listened to their critics at least a little and made the app opt-in. However, this was not framed as a change. The creators never said that they were responding to criticism and updating the app. In a LinkedIn post, they simply stated that it’s an opt-in app, even though a week ago they explicitly said that it wasn’t. Are they hoping we don’t notice?

Even if Peeple undergoes some much-needed changes, I still haven’t seen anything from the creators about how specifically they intend to address abuse, harassment, and bullying on their app—because it will happen, opt-in or not. What creators of Peeple should learn is that you can’t engineer an asshole-free world. And if you try, the assholes will make sure that it hurts innocent folks much more.

Developers who believe that their apps will be free from abuse are laughably naive. Even apps that in theory have codes of conduct, moderators, and procedures for reporting abusive users struggle mightily with this problem. On Facebook, public pages intended to harass and bully others proliferate. On Twitter, harassers and stalkers use multiple sock puppet accounts to gang up on people they don’t like(especially women and people of color) and drive them off of the platform and sometimes out of public life.

Storify has been used to stalk users (including those who don’t use Storify themselves) by pinging them with notifications that someone they know to be unsafe and threatening is collecting and saving their tweets. On Ask.fm, a site for people to anonymously ask each other questions, teens flood their targets’ inboxes with bullying messages, in some cases leading to suicide. On Reddit, even subreddits dedicated to creating a supportive space get inundated with abusive trolls. YouTubecomments… well, the less said about that, the better.

It might be, thus, tempting to throw one’s hands up and proclaim that there’s nothing wrong with Peeple because the Internet’s already full of abuse and stalking and harassment—so who cares, right?

But the difference between Peeple and all those other apps is that they all have a purpose besides judging and evaluating people. Those apps have facilitated social change and activism, helped people learn new things and stay informed, provided art and entertainment, and created friendships and relationships.

Peeple does, in theory, have a constructive purpose—complimenting people and making sure that you’re surrounding yourself with good ones—but there are already better ways to do that that don’t involve nearly so much potential harm (especially to children or marginalized people like abuse survivors). When creating new technology, it’s important to ask yourself if the benefits actually outweigh the costs. While Peeple probably has some pros, the cons are just too overwhelming.

Read the rest here.

Why Peeple Won't Save Us From Jerks