The Internet is the greatest, and maybe the ultimate, experiment in mass media. The Internet alone gives every person with access a platform from where their words can, conceivably, reach the rest of the connected world.
That means stories once spread to give hope to communities can now inspire millions. It also means that common human cruelty, of which there is no shortage, can be inflicted in equal measure. Whereas bullies once existed only on the playground, they are now omnipresent. They may physically be thousands of miles away, but their new digital brand of psychological warfare transcends distance. On the Internet, we can be exposed to the full range of human depravity in a matter of seconds.
This is what has been called trolling, a term in its present form as old as the World Wide Web itself. But, what it describes doesn’t need a special name. Trolling is the latest incarnation of the special brand of emotional assault that can only be inflicted by people, on people. It’s all the more horrifying today, because the onslaught can be overwhelming, immediate, and public in the most extreme of ways.
So, instead of being able to grieve in private for a lost father, Zelda Williams had to concern herself with what to do with her social media accounts, because of inappropriate photos and incredible accusations that she was not grieving her father in the way proscribed by people who seem to think they know better. Instead of sharing memories with family, friends, and fans, she had to confront the very worst that people have to offer.
I’m sorry. I should’ve risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye.
— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) August 13, 2014
It’s staggering, the thought that somewhere among us, there are people who take active joy in not just the suffering of others, but in being the cause of that suffering. It’s mystifying, how anyone could possibly think these are appropriate responses to someone going through the death of a father. The lack of empathy is genuinely unsettling—that a person can carry on completely apathetic to the fact that their target is another living, breathing, feeling human being.
I will be leaving this account for a but while I heal and decide if I’ll be deleting it or not. In this difficult time, please try to be respectful of the accounts of myself, my family and my friends. Mining our accounts for photos of dad, or judging me on the number of them is cruel and unnecessary. There are a couple throughout, but the real private moments I shared with him were precious, quiet, and believe it or not, not full of photos or ‘selfies’. I shared him with a world where everyone was taking their photo with him, but I was lucky enough to spend time with him without cameras too. That was more than enough, and I’m grateful for what little time I had. My favorite photos of family are framed in my house, not posted on social media, and they ‘ll remain there. They would’ve wound up on the news or blogs then, and they certainly would now. That’s not what I want for our memories together. Thank you for your respect and understanding in this difficult time. Goodbye. Xo – Zelda Williams last comment on her Instagram account.
In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow talks about the dark places of the earth, the areas as-yet unexplored by his civilization. Today, there are no more rivers to sail down for the first time. There are no dark spots on Google Maps. The only darkness left is the same horror Marlow came upon once he sailed into the heart of the jungle. It’s the twisted and inscrutable brutality that people are capable of, something that comes from a place we don’t even know how to explore.
There’s really no way of exploring why people would take any sort of joy out of sending a grieving daughter photoshopped images of her newly-deceased father. There’s no way of exploring why anyone would go out of their way to criticize someone for not being a good enough mourner. There’s no intelligible response to it, because the actions are unintelligible in the first place. The Internet has unleashed all the latent awfulness of the world, and sometimes, like Zelda Williams, the only thing to do is retreat in horror to the safety of family, friends, or anyone else you know can help keep that darkness at bay.