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A brief history of cyberbullying

November 4, 2015

People think of cyberbullying as a relatively new phenomenon, but it’s not.  It had roots as early as 1991, possibly earlier, though that’s about the time I came into the “cyber picture”.   I’ll stick to talking about my own personal entry point and beyond; there are people my age who came in even earlier, and could probably paint even more of a crotchety-old-cyberguy picture than me.

In late 1991, I was a sheltered thirteen-year-old, finally starting to use this little thing called a modem that my parents had in their old monochrome IBM for the past couple of years.   There was a dial-up service called Prodigy, which had some comic but classic attempts at gaming (Mad Maze, Carmen Sandiego).  There were a bunch of bulletin boards that were meant for sharing basic information and tips, but soon evolved into communities with groups of friends — kids around my age who made connections purely though these online bulletin boards — and “clubs” of those friends.   You would post a message, wait for it to show up, then wait for other people to post replies in the same fashion.  Or, you would send a private message (which slowly became known as e-mail) for 25 cents a message after your 30 free per month.

Among these clubs sprouted a nasty bunch that called themselves “bashers”.  Bashers got their kicks by going around “bashing” (insulting and verbally abusing) other clubs, which generally had done nothing to provoke them and only wanted to have fun with whatever fandom they honored.  Often these bashers targeted clubs of younger, more innocent, “dorkier” clubs who celebrated various Disney cartoons or the like.   Enter some of the first cyberbullies.

Some of us (seeming a minority), for reasons of our own, just got pissed off at bullies like this and formed our own group of “antibashers”.  In my case, I’d grown up being extremely quiet and extremely shy, thus having to defend myself against various bullies.  Railing against bashers online was one way I had of fighting what I’d gone through in the real world, as fake as the whole thing was in the long run.   Some of us antibashers formed a club called Arcadia, and for a small time, we were about as close as online friends with no knowledge of each other in meatspace could get.

In the beginning, I was a newbie’s newbie — I TYPED IN ALL CAPS, but only because I was too lazy to use punctuation online, despite being an honors English student.  My initial callsign was “THE PROTECTOR” (later to become a slightly cooler but still pretty funny sounding “Neoguardian”).  I squared off against people who used callsigns like “God Bits” and “Master Poon Tang” (one or two of you who I directed to this post may even remember those guys).  What exactly did squaring off against them entail?  It’s hard to make a good real life analogy to online verbal attacks and defenses.  At the time, I’m sure we thought of ourselves as jedi knights fighting the sith.  In reality, we were probably closer to characters out of the movie Zoolander, those prissy male models wearing superhero-style costumes trying to out-flash each other.  But it felt better than doing nothing, even if we were fighting fire with fire.

And it just became more and more of a game.  Soon there were fewer victimized kiddie clubs; the bashers started coming directly to our “HQ” to post their nastiness, and nowhere else.  That was just a section of one bulletin board where we posted our topics, such as “Arcadia – Home Base”, “Arcadia – Mess Hall”, and so forth.

Bashers and antibashers tried to impersonate each other, use hacked accounts, and things generally spiraled into ugliness.  Some of the bashers started putting swastikas in their callsigns when they found out I was Jewish, though looking back, I doubt they knew much of the true horrors behind the holocaust, other than Nazis being the bad guys.  Once or twice, I got a phone call, presumably from one of the basher ringleaders who called himself “Shatterhand”, saying “Hey Mike…gonna get you, little freshman.”  But that was the worst of it.

So, cyberbullying in the early 90s? Check.

Flash forward to today, some 23, 24 years later.  Across that time, bashers have manifested themselves in gradually stronger, nastier circles.  Ten or fifteen years ago, school bullies would take to AOL Instant Messenger and harass their victims on there after school.  After that, facebook messages and malicious facebook groups like “Jane Doe Suicide Encouragement Force”.  But now, the nastiest, most hideous of those is a group of misogynists who harass women in the video game industry for any perceived ethical infractions by threatening to rape and murder them over twitter, then doxxing them (publicizing their home addresses).  Completely ignoring the fact that if they were to try such tactics that they accused these women of using, their fellow bros would find it perfectly acceptable, even praiseworthy.

Some of them seem to be associated with the GamerGate movement — a movement of angry (mostly male) gamers determined to put them uppity-acting womens in their place.  For a thorough summary of what it’s about, read this. That explains it way better than anything I can write.

The gist all this?  Bashers and their ilk were once as infantile as online communication itself, but they’ve evolved with the internet and become just that much more powerful.   They’re real criminals now, wielding real clout.  It would be nice if us former antibashers were real deputized activists of some kind, but alas. The little play power that we once used over bulletin boards to keep cyberbullies in check?  Tinfoil swords to a gun fight.

This is the part where, if this were a film, I would be that last guy from the team who kept vigil all these years and began sending messages to my old Arcadia comrades saying, “They’re back. We have one last mission…”.

But this is reality, and groups like mine were just clubhouses full of kids who probably would have gone all Napoleon Dynamite if they’d ever had to physically confront any of those bashers.  (there’s actually a great deleted scene for that film where Napoleon is threatening to go all ninja on one of the bullies. He ends up lightly slapping the bully in the cheek and running away, but the bully was actually nervous enough to cry out from the anticipated pain of his attack — that about sums us up!)

As to what we can do beyond the whole “No Country For Old Men” ending I implied above (see? My inner 13 year old still likes to dramatize), here’s one thing.

Just agreeing to intercept and speak out against it wherever we see it is the best first step.

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