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The virtuous medlar circle
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    In the rabbit hole
a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

December 2006
Bullies in the blog playground

by A.C.E. Bauer


I was never a popular child.  But when I entered 4th grade, my 9-year old schoolmates decided to make me a pariah.  They teased me, invented stories about me, turned me into the butt of mean jokes, and one day followed me around the entire school, taunting me until I dissolved into a puddle of tears.  Our teacher, who came upon us, forced the lead bully to apologize, but my social status in our small school was set for years to come.

I left that child behind, as I grew, and built a happy, productive and full adult life.  But I never forgot that nine-year-old girl, cornered at the bottom of a stairwell by four grinning tormentors.  I recognize her in other people, especially these days, on the web.

The bullies aren’t much different from the ones I knew as a girl: they are successful in their field, they are clever, sometimes intelligent, have an entertaining wit, and, most importantly, have built a following.  The most visible thrive among bloggers, although they exist in other areas of the internet as well. 

Blogs are a form of entertainment, and cultivating an audience is part of the entertainer’s job.  A successful blogger will, over time, attract a group of core readers who comment on posts, banter with each other, and amuse new readers almost as much as the blogger does.  The best blogs provide a fair helping of useful or insightful information, but readers come back day after day, often hour after hour, because the blogs entertain them and provide a virtual community with a common focus—the blogger.

What happens when a popular blogger becomes annoyed with something someone has said or posted?

Should the blogger post a public scolding, the readers will cheer her/him on.  It won’t matter that the victim isn’t a public figure or is a person with no significant following of his or her own, or that the annoying behavior is a matter of no great importance.  As long as the blogger skewers the victim in an amusing way, the readers will sympathize with the blogger’s annoyance, provide personal examples of similar annoying behavior, banter about better ways to do things, and carry on as usual.  The conversation will be watched with interest by almost anyone following the blog—the way a shark feeding is at an aquarium.  We might squirm a bit as the commentators tear apart the juicy bits, and feel a little disgusted when they go after the dregs, but we won’t do anything to prevent it.  No one wants to be bit.

The victim, in the vast majority of cases, will leave well enough alone, since things get messy if a foolhardy victim decides to jump in to defend his or her behavior.  Coming to the blogger’s territory only allows the regulars to generate a “piling on”—one commentator after another will tear apart everything the victim posts, down to poor spelling and (God forbid) misplaced commas, in such a volume, that regardless of the rightness of the victim’s claims, s/he will have been drowned out.  Yes, this is a kind of bullying. And most readers recognize that.  But, the blogger’s community will excuse it under the rationale that as much as we may wish otherwise, in the free-for-all created by the anonymity of the internet, people will not behave with the kind of restraint you might find at a dinner party.  Most bloggers will attempt to restrain the worst posters, but nastiness will occur, and given the nature of anonymous discourse, it is almost inevitable. To return to my aquarium metaphor: once sharks have begun feeding, you don’t wave an open wound at them.

Sometimes, the bullying happens outside of the blogger’s community.  It might be on the victim’s own site, if s/he has one, but more often it takes place on a third party’s blog or discussion forum.  An argument between the blogger, the victim, and other members of that third-party community heats up.  The blogger goes back to her/his community and posts a note. “Look at what’s going on over there!”  And that’s when it becomes truly ugly.  Because the blogger has a large enough following, a certain number of followers will go to that third-party site, flood the victim with responses in the same way they would on the blogger’s blog, and carry on the bashing the bully started.  The victim initially posted within a community he or she understood, only to be beat up by an entirely new set of people who are there only because the bully wanted to “set the so-and-so straight.”  The blogger will walk away unscathed, taking the followers home, and will initiate new, interesting, intelligent, and civil conversations within her/his domain.

But I see whom they left behind.  I recognize that girl in the stairwell.

Let’s not engage in semantics here.  The victim really is a victim.  There may not be any physical scars, but the experience will be extraordinarily painful—one that won’t be forgotten.  This is a person who does not have the blogger’s large following, and, more likely, has no following whatsoever. It’s important to understand that bullying isn’t a war among equals: the bullying occurs because the bully is certain of victory (although, on some rare occasions, the bully misjudges the victim and ends up being the one beaten). This wasn’t an intellectual exercise, or a heated argument between individuals, or the victim’s fault because s/he is a fool.  A bully marshaled a group of people who lashed out in a very public way at someone because the bully pointed him or her out to them. The marshaling may only be, “Look over here!”, but that is enough. 

The social power engendered by a popular blog is enormous.  Pretending that that power doesn’t exist, or that responsibility doesn’t follow, is callous.  It’s fine and good to maintain that a blog’s readers are individuals bearing individual responsibility, but the reason those individuals read the blog is because they admire the blogger.  You tell admirers “scorn this person,” then that person is going to be scorned—maybe not by all, but by enough to be injurious.  It’s the nature of leadership.

I don’t confuse bullying with a real fight.  Raising ire about issues, public figures, matters of any import is one of the reasons I read blogs.  And I love it when bloggers pick an honest fight.  They lose my respect, however, when they drag down someone they’re annoyed with, just because they can.


A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. Her novel, NO CASTLES HERE, will be published by Random House Children’s Books in autumn 2007.

Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec. You can read more of her musings at, a community blog of children’s-books authors whose debut novels will be published in 2007.

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
The lowly potato
A list
Copyright won't give you an hourly wage
How to ruin TV
A love story
Breathing water and pine
"It's just a children's book"
Reconciling to the Impossible
Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"Bullies in the blog playground" copyright © December 2006 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006