The Night I Fed a Troll

What an online hater taught me about creativity.

Note: This story also appeared on The Startup at Medium .

The email popped in my inbox with the subject line: “Saw You Online and OMG!”

This was a few years ago, before those words had become a spammer’s ubiquitous tease. Before I’d learned that those words never lead you someplace good.

I took the bait and found my own face smirking back at me. My face and belly, annotated.

I didn’t recognize the email address. The pic was shot by some roaming photographer at the Folsom Street Fair, California’s third-largest single-day outdoor spectator event, which draws a quarter million “fetish enthusiasts.”

Though the street fair had grown in popularity and widened in its demographics, it’s rooted in the gay community, and anyone with a passing acquaintance of (a certain privileged segment of the) gay male culture knows that we’ll strip off our shirts with little hesitation at events for which straight people normally remain clothed. (Brunch? Check. Bowling? Check. Book club? I’m down.)

Anyway, I’d been drafted to sling beers for charity and had been to the gym that week, so I ended up shirtless on the internet (sorry, Lowe’s). When I stumbled across it, I promptly grabbed the pic for an online profile, which may have helped me land a date or two (thanks, Lowe’s).

Since half my life is online, I had no idea which site the troll had pulled it from. I had to Google “turistors” to confirm that they’re luggage. Baggage, bags, etc.

It stung.

With the help of Photoshop, he (I assumed it was a fellow gay dude) had zeroed in on the body parts that gave me shame (two of them, at least). The parts that made me hesitate when stripping off my shirt or posting a pic. Parts to filter. Parts to obscure.

Like he’d jimmied open the back door to my brain and shone a Maglite on the one dark corner where I stash my ego. I could speculate on his motives, but that’s a dull path to take.

I could call myself, with all sincerity, my own worst critic. I didn’t have to internalize the shame he meant to provoke — it had been there for years. The call was coming from inside the house.

But seeing that critic’s thoughts (i.e., my own thoughts) scrawled over my face and body and concretely seconded by an anonymous observer (who may have known me in real life) was arguably worse.

Everyone knows the risks. Sad sacks haunt forums and chat rooms and comment sections, trailing poison with every keystroke. I’d been writing and blogging for years, and I knew the number one rule: DON’T FEED THE TROLLS.

They live off the bloodshed. They feed off the left hook/right hook of threaded comments and retaliatory emails. Faced with no response, they wither to bones, or sniff out the next sucker.

It was a rule I held to for years. I didn’t even read online comments, following one soul-debilitating presidential election cycle. But that night, wounded by the red scrawls staring at me from my inbox, I couldn’t help myself:

Sorry you’re such an unhappy person, I wrote. Good luck with your miserable life. You’ll need it.

Lame, in retrospect. I’ve never thought fast (or cutting) on my feet. Still, it was short, bitter, and to the point.

It didn’t make me feel better.

Two minutes later I got a new email with the subject line: Saw you online and again what the fuck??

Inside was another of my pics:

The bruise on my chest is a good story for another time.

He’d named this pic, “SheThinksShesAllThat.jpg” which, again, was remarkable in its precision cutting.

The thing is, I’d never in my entire life thought I was all that, about anything. At all. But I’d done something I was a little proud of. A lifetime ago, I’d arrived at college weighing 128 pounds. I’d been called Toothpick and Bones so often that if a genie had granted me three wishes, I’d easily blow the first to look “normal.”

Instead, over those many years I’d worked hard to build up to 185 pounds, and if I wasn’t all that (I wasn’t), maybe I was some of that? A slice of that? Enough to encourage moments in which beautiful strangers might want to make out with me in dive bars, Toyotas and shirtless bowling alleys?

Like I hadn’t learned my lesson. But I could taste blood. In 70 words-per-minute haste I shot back:

The image of you spending your days and nights photoshopping other people’s pictures is cracking me up. Fortunately you still have your mother to tuck you in at night, since you’re living in her basement. Please keep spending your time sending me pictures of myself. It’s flattering.

I waited, checking my email every few minutes as I made a dinner that I’d chew in glum righteousness. But that was the last I ever heard from the troll.

I didn’t feel as though I’d won. The emails had wounded me despite the deft construction of a sweet and affable personality. I’d long avoided any fusillade of criticism, forever scanning the horizon for threats, fashioning armor of helpfulness and self-deprecation, to keep me safe. I was nice to dogs and exes and I donated to charity.

And still it came for me.

Women fear being killed by men. Men fear being laughed at by women. I don’t know the top fear of white, privileged gay dudes, but having your shirtless internet pic annotated for laughs could rank high. I should add that including these pics here is the wound that keeps on bleeding. I don’t want you to see them.

As the hours passed, the sting faded, and I began to mull a fellow blogger’s tagline, which I will paraphrase: “If you post anything on the internet, expect criticism.” I have no love for this motto, though I get it.

It’s a stretch to draw parallels between beefcake pics and works of creativity that are posted with less selfish motives than future hook-ups. But that’s where my brain went on the Night of the Troll.

You make something and put it up — a blog post, a painting, a song, an idea — hoping for praise. Hoping, maybe, to connect.

You can labor on it for days, weeks, and longer, dogged by doubt and the multiple calls coming from inside the house. But to post it, to share it, to strip off your shirt — that jump takes guts.

Many never make that jump.

You run the risk of the Facebook take-down. A hundred hours of labor met with a single, Twittered, “Meh.” I’d written online for years, and every time my mouse had hovered over the “Post” button, I’d think:

This time you went too far. This time you said too much. Worse, you said it unskillfully. You’re a crap writer. You’re naked and ugly and they’re all gonna laugh at you, Toothpick.

But somehow I’d jump. Not because I had guts. Only because other writers and painters and musicians had made that jump before me, making me feel, through their best work, less alone with my flaws and faults. The luggage I’d rather hide.

I’m not all that, I don’t know much, but I’d rather exit this life having added one or two things to the world, than dwell in the basement of trolls.

Make it. Post it. Be naked and afraid. Connect with beautiful strangers when they stumble across your creation. Make them feel less alone with their deformities. Make out with them in their dark bedroom, their phone on the nightstand chirping as their inbox fills through the night.

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