Giant Bomb News

720 Comments

Our Internet Empathy Problem

The disappearance of Flappy Bird has prompted streams of harassment and death threats. There are no consequences for the most vile of harassment on the Internet. This has to change.

We don't just have a game culture problem, we have an Internet culture problem.

Today, we have a better understanding of why Flappy Bird developer Dong Nguyen decided his game should no longer be available on the App Store: addiction. An interview with Forbes revealed the developer's insecurity with how people played it.

"I think it has become a problem," said Nguyen. "To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”

Until this morning, his motivations were the source of speculation. (I suspect this will continue to be the case.) It might have been the accusations of theft, it might have been the overwhelming spotlight success brings, and it might have been the torrent of abuse that was spewing forth on his Twitter feed. It might have been a combination of all three or none of the above. There are even some who theorize the virality was faked.

It doesn't actually matter. Even if Nguyen removed the game for reasons he won't disclose, reasons far less altruistic than protecting players from themselves, we can still read what has been said about him and to him.

On Sunday afternoon, I became aware of a custom Twitter list that collected some of the horrendous, awful words that had been targeted at Nguyen in the past few days. Many of them were death threats, some merely promised violence, and others shouted obscenities at the top of their digital lungs. Much of it was unequivocally abuse and deeply unsettling. Whether or not these comments impacted Nguyen doesn't change the fact that they exist. The sheer volume of abuse suggests much of the Internet populace believes there is no consequence for threats conveyed via Twitter or otherwise. There's good reason for that: they're right.

Amanda Hess' "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet" article, for example, is an excellent and deeply applicable source on how much difficulty our modern legal and security infrastructures have dealing with the evolution of harassment. The tools of harassers are deeply embedded into the fabric of the Internet. Empowerment of the user is king. Unfortunately, it comes at all costs to the victims on the receiving end.

Here are a few examples of what was directed at Nguyen:

Weirdly, much of the vitriol targeted at Nguyen may come from a deep misunderstanding of what's happening to Flappy Bird. It is not being erased from every iPhone and iPad. While Apple does have a "kill switch" that would allow the company to remotely nuke a piece of software from all of its devices, it has never deployed the "kill switch." It's reserved for malware and other havoc-inducing apps. (For example, developers who have snuck emulators onto the App Store hidden have not seen their apps forcefully removed from users who downloaded them before being pulled.) But even if these users better understood Flappy Bird's ultimate fate, it's no excuse, and underscores the flippant nature to much of Internet commentary.

What's one comment in a large sea? Well, It adds up. How many people need to tell you that you're an asshole in real-life for it to have an impact on your day?

When I linked to the aforementioned Twitter list, it spread quickly, and generated sympathy and questions. I want to respond to some of the commentary that I found troublesome, and explain why what people did to Nguyen underscores some deeper cultural issues about what we consider acceptable Internet behavior.

(I'm not going to publish the actual tweets, just quote them.)

"I've never experienced any hate like this but I have to imagine 75% of the world would choose to endure this for 50k a day."

The most important part of this is "I've never experienced any hate like this." Red flag. The Verge speculated Flappy Bird was generating $50,000 daily. Nguyen's simply said it's "a lot." This has become the de facto excuse for why it's okay to dismiss Nguyen. He's rich! Who care if he's miserable about it? If a person is making a substantial amount of money, the logic goes, that's reason to put up with whatever the Internet can throw you. (Whether money buys happiness remains an open-ended question in academia.) But this displays an amazing lack of empathy. Can you imagine what it would be like to become a celebrity overnight? No. What gives you the right to evaluate their mental well-being? Why are you allowed to tell them how to feel?

"What mob? The mob of teenage girls who make completely idle death threats? I wouldn't take this too seriously."

"but it's not a real mob though. No one is actually gonna kill this guy."

A threat sent to former Call of Duty developer Robert Bowling.

It's hard to take this tweet seriously. What, mind you, is an idle death threat? That such a damningly vague phrase even exists is evidence itself that we've allowed discourse on the Internet to reach a point where we're supposed to be emotionally, mentally, and physically okay with death threats. If someone writes a death threat in a letter or in-person, that individual may be arrested by the police. At the very least, there are consequences. If someone writes a death threat over a social networking service, it's an "idle threat."

Words are powerful, and people should be responsible for them. When we characterize threats as "idle," we remove the individual from the equation. It's victim blaming. It's hard to imagine how Nguyen is to blame here.

When the Internet turns on you, it's hard to describe the emotional rollercoaster that goes along with it. You can't exactly walk away from the Internet forever. While looking at a long list of abuse Tweets directed at Nguyen, it's easy to distance yourself from it because, hey, it's not you. But I've been on the other side of that equation, albeit not to the same scale as Nguyen. When someone directs a threat of violence at you, it feels very personal. Every single one of them. When someone photoshops my wife into a photo to try and unsettle me, it feels very god damn personal. You cannot distance yourself from attacks that are directed at you, and to suggest otherwise only underscores one's lack of experience with the subject. You need a thick skin to survive as a public figure on the Internet, but that doesn't mean there aren't chinks in your armor. And as Jim Sterling mentioned on this week's morning show, it doesn't mean there isn't skin underneath. That skin can get raw.

We lack empathy on the Internet. There are people behind every game, every username, every Twitter account.

"what is the discussion at hand here? Should we be allowed to insult and/or threat people via the internet?"

Insult? Yes. Threaten? No. That is not protected speech. Learn how to construct a real argument.

"It's not that bad. I see worse shit in an average game of Dota."

This, unfortunately, rings true. It wouldn't surprise me if, statistically, the gaming audience was found to be more prone to this type of vitriolic commentary than other communities. The hardcore gaming demographic skews young. I'm afraid to imagine what kind of stupid things I might have said on today's Internet when I was 14-years-old. Many games, especially those online, are competitive, and adrenaline can bring out the worst in us.

But none of these are excuses for such poor behavior, and merely pointing out the problem doesn't solve it, either. A combination of legal, technological, and societal changes are needed to make the Internet a safer place, especially for critical, dissenting voices. You shouldn't have to put up with death threats on the Internet, and individuals shouldn't be allowed to get away with them without a reciprocal impact. This article won't change that, but the next time a situation like this flares up, you don't have to contribute to the problem, either.

Don't be silent. Speak up for targets of harassment. They're victims, after all.

***

If you're interested in reading more about Flappy Bird (there's lots to digest), here are some terrific pieces:

Patrick Klepek on Google+
792 Comments
Posted by Fitzgerald

... did someone actually photoshop a picture of your wife? Some people are really disturbed.

Posted by mancopter

Jesus Christ this is depressing.

Posted by Clonedzero

All this over Flappy Bird? Really internet? REALLY?

Edited by Steadying

" When someone photoshops my wife into a photo " ..............W-what? My God, people. My God...

Posted by JJBSterling

As an aspiring journalist one of my biggest worries is getting in the cross hairs from the type of people that are quoted in this article. I definitely hope this article gets people to think twice.

Thanks, Patrick.

Edited by weegieanawrench

Ugh, the internet is the worst.

Posted by Thoughtbird

why is this even on giantbomb?

Because it's a growing issue that needs to be addressed.

Edited by ILikePopCans

Great article. Probably have some heat discussion in the comments below.

A point about this story I liked is how the developer seemed super humble in his tweeter feed before this game got blown up. Talking about how his game was not that great and telling people the game was supposed to make you laugh, not cry. It really paints the picture that this guy really does not seem like a guy who wanted his game to blow up and become successful.

Edited by Flappy

I'm already too late, but:

inb4 "why is this on gb?"

This Flappy Bird stuff is news to me.

Posted by TheFeenMachine

Good opinion piece, Patrick. The anonymity that people have on the internet, and on twitter in particular, leads them to develop a mob mentality and gang up on people who don't have the luxury of anonymity simply because they created a work for the public to consume.

It's disheartening, but also not easy to fix, as groups traditionally rebuke attempts to make pieces of the internet "personal". (see: Blizzard Real ID fiasco)

Posted by Sterling

I WILL KILL NO ONE! NO ONE!!!!!!

Edited by Atwa

Honestly, as bad as some people act I just don't see a solution to it. Patrick mentions that merely pointing at it doesn't solve it, yet that is exactly what this article does. Which is precisely the point, I don't see a solution to it, ever. At least not if we want the anonymity of the internet to remain. People have always been horrible. Its just much easier to make that apparent these days. John Lennon got tons of death threats, even without the internet!

@johnbakosh said:

Why is this even on Giant Bomb?

It seems like something better suited to a personal blog.

I kind of wonder the same thing, it has virtually nothing to do with gaming and is more of a social topic. Though I am not one to say if that is where Giantbomb is headed.

Posted by lachrymoses

I believe that James McMullan tweet may have been satire.

Posted by csl316

It sucks. It really does. But having private social accounts can go a long way.

Edited by Solh0und

While I was never personally interested in flappy bird, all of these death threats are completely out of line.

Thanks for the read, Patrick.

Edited by RobertOrri

Why is this even on Giant Bomb?

It seems like something better suited to a personal blog.

Because it's related to a game that's been in the news recently and it's actually a huge problem that even exists on this very website you're browsing right now?

Posted by Alorithin

The internet is a terrible place for sensitive people.

More at 11.

Posted by TurboMan

Why is this even on Giant Bomb?

It seems like something better suited to a personal blog.

Giant Bomb is a video game website.

Flappy Birds is a video game.

Instead of writing a lifeless news story stating that Flappy Birds (a game perceived to be something nobody likes), Giant Bomb decided to write a more personal article about the guy behind Flappy Birds and the struggles that he is going through after making this tough decision.

Edited by Matt_F606

why is this even on giantbomb?

Because it's important! We are fairly lucky here to have a mature community for the most part, but it's wrong that the internet just accepts abuse.

Posted by kalnet101

The scary fact that there are these kind of people out there. Just plain scary.

Posted by UncleBenny

It kind of sucks that you have to stand on a soap box for this, but thank you. It never hurts to be reminded that threats to a stranger, regardless of intention, is mean and terrible.

Posted by conmulligan
Online
Posted by Sil3n7

If you are going to use your real name you should understand the potential for abuse. I'm not saying it's right but you shouldn't be ignorant.

Posted by Draxyle

I'll never understand it. Even as a young teen in the earlier days of the internet I knew to be respectful to those around me on message boards. I can only imagine the upbringing one has to have to even consider writing a death threat for any reason whatsoever.

I only have pity for the people who say such terrible things.

Posted by Jayzilla

I am of two minds on this. First off: Sticks and stones and all that. It is a known thing that people say really terrible, awful, sad, disgusting things on the internet. Most of it is just that: words. It needs to just be dismissed or we need to also get rid of the 99% of tweeting that is about absolutely nothing pertinent to anything ever and is just fluffy garbage. If Twitter was food it would have the nutritional value of mainlining liquid cotton candy. So when people say heinous stuff on there I take it with the same grain of salt I take the other 99% that is totally meaningless as well.

Posted by alwaysbebombing

I understand why you feel the way you do, Patrick. As someone who went to Uni for Political Science, I'm unsure how we can have legislative changes to this harassment if Congress doesn't take this seriously. Do you have any ideas?

Edited by TheLastGunslinger

I like what Jeff has done on this Tumblr, forcing the removal anonymity to ask a question. Getting rid of the veil of protection staying nameless provides forces people to take a firmer stand behind what they say. The question of how to stop assholes from being assholes is one we're probably never going to solve but at least it provides a bit of a buffer.

I also completely agree that you shouldn't stay silent if you see stuff like this. Trolls only want general attention and backlash that is equally vitriolic. They don't stand long when they're called out in a rational way because it's not the reaction they're looking for.

Great article Patrick.

Posted by Gyrfal

Why is this even on Giant Bomb?

It seems like something better suited to a personal blog.

Why shouldn't it be?

Posted by futurstock

its surprising to me how many people immediately jump to "im gonna kill you"
damn dude, chill out. maybe im old or something i downloaded the app after hearing about it so much, i saw the appeal i guess, i set a personal goal of 3 and got it after like 20 minutes then immediately deleted the app never wanting to ever play again, then i went and played dark souls. praise the sun

Posted by Mijati

I received a fair amount of abuse in a previous job as Community Manager for an online game. Luckily my personal details weren't known to them so obviously isn't going to be on the same level as other people but it's still a lot to take.

What got to me wasn't the usual bollocks of "I'm going to kill you", that's stupid kids being stupid kids. It was when they'd relate it to my job in such a way that made me seem like I'd done something wrong. You realise most of the people are just trolling but still tears you up on the sort of things people can say about what you're doing.

Edited by DevourerOfTime

@johnbakosh said:

Why is this even on Giant Bomb?

Because, last time I checked, Giant Bomb is on the internet. And it's also a news site about gaming and the gaming community.

This is a story about both those things.

Posted by gbrading

It's called Online disinhibition effect and it is a very serious problem. We really need to educate people that what you say on the internet, in comments, anywhere, does matter and it does affect people. It is never appropriate to wish or threaten death or violence on anyone.

Posted by subyman

I've read stories about the police getting involved with Facebook death threats and harassment. Its even led to arrests. I'm kind of surprised people would have their face on their twitter profile and sometimes even their real name while saying these terrible things. As you can see, most of the people making these comments look like middle schoolers or high schoolers. As someone that doesn't use twitter or Facebook, these types of things certainly don't make me tempted to check them out.

Posted by Abendlaender

Why is this even a thing on a gaming site, it's JUST about a huge problem in gaming culture, geez. That Patrick and his agendas, amIrightguys? Löl

Fantastic article Pat

Posted by MysteriousDrD

It's great how when people stand up against this sort of thing they get shouted down by people saying "stop being so sensitive bro" and all that various nonsense. Attitudes like that are what got us into this situation in the first place. I really don't understand the 'badge of honor' that being an uncaring asshole on the internet gets you. Like, who benefits from that?

There are plenty of places you can go to be a dick where it's not directed at someone who did nothing to deserve it, if you want that outlet.

Posted by AlisterCat

Having just been diagnosed with autism, more specifically aspergers, I take issue with the use of empathy here.

As someone who has a limited or altered capacity for empathy, or to understand other people's feelings, it does not prevent me from being a reasonable, good person. These people aren't even getting to the stage of empathy, and are acting out the well trodden ground that is the things internet anonymity does to us.

I think the issue is less the empathy and more real world vs the virtual, and consequences for actions. I'm not saying I am personally offended but I would never use my lack of empathy as an excuse to be a bad person like these people.

Edited by ManMadeGod

Flabby bird is very much like the "helicopter game" that came out 10 years ago. Maybe these people should chill out and go play that instead

Posted by HammondofTexas

I love all you Giant Bomb duders! Let's spread the positivity!

Posted by TekZero

When Giantbomb removed their app from the store, I felt a little disappointed. But I made no death threats.

Edited by starfurydysan

@abendlaender: amen, this is just an Op-Ed piece, not completely news.

Edited by Darro

Good article. As much as the majority (at least I hope so) hates this kind of behaviour on the Internet, it is not going to go away any time soon unless drastic changes occur but then that will just set off another mine field perhaps.

I got a few threats from when I started doing video blogs on Gamespot back in 2006 and compared to nowadays, the community back then is angelic in comparison. It is crap like this that is the reason why I don't play multiplayer games any more except with my online friends and while there are people and bands etc that I am not fond of, I am not the kind of guy that is going to abuse them with death threats now.

Whenever I see this kind of thing pop up on a regular basis, I just roll my eyes thinking, "Is the Internet community ever going to mature?" and at the moment, it is a resounding "No!"

Posted by NorseDudeTR

a) If nobody ever points it out when assholes act like they do, they’re free to keep doing it.

b)If people point it out, a microscopic, tiny percentage of them might stop and think about what they’re doing.

I know it’s popular to think it’s impossible to change the way people act, but it isn’t, you just can‘t get to everyone.

I’ll take b over a any day.

Posted by edoone

as Dave says, "don't be a dick in Internet" or with..

Sorry, for my poor Grammar.

Posted by Spunkrake

I like this article, but there are a couple of things I'd like to point out here:

1) If it's not fair for people to think Nguyen is making a poor (or even just weird) decision to shut all this down because they've never experienced this level of internet vitriol, it's also unfair to assume that people wouldn't put up with exactly the same thing if they got enough money, especially if you have never experienced *their* level of poverty. The quote said 75% of the world, and much of the world lives in poverty so great as to be literally unimaginable to me.

2) We need to acknowledge that there is a real and substantive difference between 'internet death threats' and 'death threats'. This doesn't mean that this sort of offhanded garbage that comes out of the internet whenever there is 'okay', or something that we should expect our public figures to ignore, but to treat this idle detritus with the same level of concern that comes with death threats that might actually bring violence with them doesn't really do either problem any disservice.

If we want this to stop (and why wouldn't we?) there need to be consequences for this sort of idiocy. Full stop. Anything less will not solve the problem.

Posted by jarowdowsky

We are starting to see more convictions for twitter or online abuse here in the UK. I'm not getting into views on that happening (some people say some terrifying things in defense of unfettered free speech on twitter) but it's interesting to note the change in legal perspective.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/twitter-trolls-isabella-sorley-and-john-nimmo-jailed-for-abusing-feminist-campaigner-caroline-criadoperez-9083829.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19059127

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/mikaeel-kular-twitter-arrests-two-3038905

And, of course, there are the clear abuses and over-reactions from Police as well -

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19009344

I spent about 10 years as a community manager and had a pile of death threats, some which got very specific at times. Thankfully it was within a charity environment where the majority of users were incredibly supportive of each other. I'm always grateful to have seen so many more examples of the benefits of social interaction over the web than the negatives.

Ultimately I think the biggest societal change may be a perception of the type of place you are in online. There are many more social norms and pressures that change behaviour offline. You don't tend to behave the same way at a funeral as you do at 1am down Bolton town center. I think that's changing for the web as a whole but on twitter it's different.

Firstly people just don't see themselves communicating with an individual and secondly there just haven't been examples in their experience of why to restrict or control their rage. Often it seems that twitter is for some a perfect way to attack someone so they feel better about their shitty day at work or the car that beeped at them an hour ago. They may have spent months or years insulting random people or friends, so why not just let it all out.

It's a damaging cycle that only seems to increase in intensity, from all sides of politics and all walks of life. Moderation is not something seemingly bestowed on this generation in abundance. I think rage, insults and attacks will probably drag down a few services before it's dealt with more openly and with greater investment.

And in my experience meeting people from a number of big social media sites. They spend effectively nothing on their services to protect users. They probably spend more on legal advisers to prove why they shouldn't get involved. Until services like twitter and facebook accept that with world shattering incomes come some small responsibilities they ain't gonna do a thing and that only encourages further problems.

Posted by heatDrive88

Why on earth would someone care THIS much about whether or not they can play a simplistic dullard of a game like Flappy Bird?

Posted by Hameyadea

I've heard this saying once (forgot from where, though) "The individual is a smart, clear-thinking person. Put him in a crowd and he acts unreasonably and foolishly"

The internet easily gives us, people, the feeling of being part of the mob, a small drop in the ocean. And thus a lot of people bring up their mob personality, humorously enough even when their real names are attached to the usernames.

That kind of digital behavior is dangerous and can lead to "behavioral leakage" to the physical world