Dealing with Abuse in Online Spaces by Will Kenneth

When people share that they got banned from nerd havens like message boards or conventions, my reaction is usually, “Wow what bullshit did you pull to make that happen?” And then of course it turns out they were trying to con people or were carrying on like an asshole.

“I swear those (LPs/shoes/toys/video games/et cetera) I sourced at a great deal from China, which are also suspiciously just slightly off from the originals, are totally authentic. You’re just wrong about them being fake!” Yeah. Right.

So when I got banned from one of the biggest Transformers Facebook groups, the whole ordeal really made me reevaluate… absolutely nothing about myself. If standing up for marginalized people and being critical of those in power means getting kicked out, well, I would do it all over again.

I’m sharing this story to help illustrate what harassment looks like in our communities and some actions we can take to mitigate them, even if those spaces are mostly online.

Building a community

For a moment, forget that Transformers is a brand that exists to sell you shit you don’t need. No matter how much you love a corporation or the garbage they make, brands and corporations are not your friends, and that especially includes Transformers’ owners Hasbro and Takara-Tomy.

But they can never own the relationships we make with art. Warner Music Group (parent company of Sire and Rhino) might own the rights to reissue Ramones 180g LPs until the ice caps melt and drown everyone on this planet, but those albums will always belong to us.

Transformers fans share that sense of ownership, and no copyright or trademark can take that away. In the past thirty years, technology and the internet have played a key role in how Transformers fans connect with each other, and the change hasn’t always been for the better.

As the 1980s Transformers craze began to wind down, people started fan clubs, writing zines, and eventually running their own dedicated Transformers conventions to keep the magic alive. Later in the ’90s, Transformers fans started coalescing around Usenet groups and a handful of fan sites like Ben Yee’s Beast Wars page.

At the time, I mostly lurked—message board lingo for watching, but not participating. I was excited to read about Transformers, but jumping into pointless debates about whether Frenzy or Rumble is the blue one or theorizing where the heck Optimus’s trailer goes after he transforms really wasn’t my thing.

By the early to mid-2000s, fans started to move away from the Usenet, and they migrated to the two biggest fan sites: TFW2005 and Seibertron (pronounced “Saber-Tron” after the Japanese pronunciation of the Transformers home world), creating a somewhat friendly rivalry. Eventually I caved and participated in the latter, racking up a few thousand posts over a decade on their message board.

Quality boards usually have rules that boil down to don’t be a jerk. If you break the rules, you get called out, and they usually give you a few more chances to change your behavior before you’re gone for good.

Culture is set by community leaders. When those people emphasize tolerance, people will follow, and those who can’t get with the program will either adapt or leave.

But when community leaders become tolerant of intolerance, the community will reflect that, too.

Getting Kicked Out

So I got kicked out of this Facebook group I’m going to call Transformers Fandom, because why name them and give them more attention that they’re probably craving? I’m not telling this story to create more drama. I want to illustrate a point about harassment and I don’t want to lose focus on that.

I had been a member of this group for several years, but I missed when the original owner left, and taking his place were group administrators who seemed more interested in trolling the group than fostering a community.

I got frustrated with the way the admins had taken an adversarial stance with group members, but when one of the admins shared a transphobic post, I had enough. (What is it about transphobes making the same damn joke? “Hey guys, get it? TRANSformers?” Yeah, we get it. We’ve heard it before.)

Maybe I could’ve tried to reach out to this admin privately, but I’m tired of trying to explain delicate ideas requiring empathy to people who are uninterested and unable to reexamine their beliefs.

Instead, I decided to burn that bridge to Transformers Fandom.

I’ll admit, I got mad. And yeah, maybe that was the point. I turned to my own Facebook page to vent and looked for solidarity with my friends.

(My friend Jay Insult said it best when he remarked, “Ironic that a guy who believes a truck can also be a robot denies that somebody can be assigned a gender other than what they are.”)

I said that I was going to report every transphobic remark until the admins threw me out. When you report a post to group admins on Facebook, they know who reports them. You aren’t anonymous, and I’m glad, because I felt like I had nothing to fear from doing that.

In the end, I got thrown out, but my plan didn’t go the way I expected. My internet was acting up, and before I could successfully get a report through, I discovered I had been removed from the group. Only one thing could explain why that happened: someone snitched.

And sitting in my inbox was a friend request from a different admin, the one who likely kicked me out. What was he trying to accomplish? Did he want to harass me on my Facebook page? Was he trying to harvest personal information to harass me elsewhere? But also, who betrayed me?

Without accepting his friend request, I reached out to him to figure who tipped them off to my plan. After dealing with a few minutes of his gaslighting and insults, I got my answer.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider a bigger picture. Here’s why he tried to harass me: The admin felt like I was a threat to his power. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Facebook has an option to report an entire group, which could’ve led to Transformers Fandom being disbanded. He thought I had attempted that, which was ironic, because I didn’t get to report anyone.

You can tell that protecting his power was more important to him than protecting marginalized people just by considering who was still in the group: the guy making transphobic remarks and not me. Of course, you’ve heard this story before, but with different names and different scenarios, which is why what this guy did wasn’t surprising, but still frustrating just the same. I was told the original post was removed, so I’m willing to acknowledge that they at least attempted to be accountable, even if it doesn’t match my idea of what accountability looks like.

Trying to figure out who sold me out didn’t take long. I had four mutual friends with this admin, and when he pretended to not know someone I’m going to call Joe, I knew right away who I should be talking to.

Dealing with Harassment

Joe confessed to sharing my post after I pressed him. He said that he agreed with me that the transphobic remark was unacceptable, and he asked the admin to remove it.

Let’s acknowledge that Joe tried to do the right thing. He tried delegating to someone with power to try to solve a problem. And honestly, it was probably more helpful than how I reacted.

Joe made an earnest mistake sharing my identity with his friend the admin, but that mistake can have lasting and traumatic consequences for some people. I was fortunate that I didn’t experience any serious reprisals.

Recently, I finished reading Making Spaces Safer by Shawna Potter, and she recommended a few more tactics to help people being targeted by harassment (quick review: the first half of the book outlines how to establish safe spaces, how to react to harassment and abuse, and how to be accountable. Making Spaces Safer should be required reading for people running DIY spaces).

In my scenario, I could’ve been more direct. I could’ve said, “What you’re sharing is transphobic,” and I wouldn’t have faced serious consequences with a conversation over the internet. This tactic works in real life scenarios, too, but you have to be cognizant of your safety and the person being harassed.

Outside the internet, we have a few more tools to deal with harassment. If you’re witness to someone actively being harassed, you could create a distraction to deescalate. Shawna recommends interrupting by talking to the person being harassed like asking for the time or pretending to know them, inserting yourself between the harasser and their target, or causing a commotion like spilling your drink or dropping something. Personally, I’ve used distraction before to deescalate, and I can attest that it works.

Shawna also offers that you could delay until the harassment is over to speak to the person being harassed. You could ask if the person is okay, if they need anything, or you could just accompany them. If someone is already being helped, you could try documenting with your phone or camera, but make sure you get consent from the person being harassed before using the footage, like posting it online.

Will Kenneth lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ALL > Descendents. Transformers are mammals. (Facebook | Instagram | w o l f m a n w i l l [@] g m a i l)