Bummer Of A Birthmark, Hal

I gave a talk in 2019 at WordCamp NYC about what happens when you’re the target. Anyone in any form of a ‘leadership’ or visible role of authority in any community has had a bad day where they woke up and found out everyone hates them.

Not that they’re actually doing anything wrong, but people are targeting them for perceived slights. Regardless of right or wrong, all anyone wants is for their phone to stop pinging, their email to calm down, those Facerange and Twooter groups to stop attacking, and maybe everyone could have a beer.

I have absolutely been there before. For the last decade I’ve worked with the support forums and plugin review teams in myriad roles, including representing those teams to the community. I’ve had a lot of bad days. The good news is I’ve learned that are things you can do to protect yourself and to alleviate the problems.

It Is/Isn’t Your Fault

If you’ve been in any sort of leadership or front-facing role, you’ve probably gotten this at least once. Someone has a bad day, maybe they got banned, maybe they got fired, maybe they just failed on their own. Whatever the reason, it’s YOUR fault. They shouted at you, they screamed in person perhaps, and they left you shaking and a little scared about what the heck was going on and what do you do?

Before I jump into how to protect yourself, which will be the majority of this talk, I want to stress something. No matter what, these situations are not ever entirely your fault. Any time something like this happens, it’s from a breakdown in communication, and that speaks to both sides.

However. You do have to take some responsibility here for your own actions. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself here again and again, over and over, and that’s really stressful. So when these things happens, yes, reflect on what you did, but also keep in mind you didn’t do this alone.

Regardless of fault, you have a right to protect yourself. This isn’t an inalienable right. This isn’t a law. This is my firm belief that you have a right to take measures to protect yourself from people who have gone crazy on you. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not, it matters that you should protect yourself.

What Happened?

In order to understand how to protect yourself, you need to be aware of what you did. That’s why I said it’s your fault. You did, or you were perceived to have done, something. Keep a hold of that word, perceived, because it matters a great deal. If people think you did a thing, it has the same net effect on their actions, but drastically changes your emotions.

More than once I’ve woken up to my Twitter mentions and emails filled with people losing their minds about how evil I am. In 2018 it was all about Gutenberg. To be clear, I was accused of deleting bad reviews on the Gutenberg plugin. Since I hadn’t been doing that, it took a lot of stress and reading to figure out why the mob was actually mad at me. In one case, it was a developer who tweeted, at-ing me, complaining it was unfair that Gutenberg had reviews removed, but he couldn’t get his one-star’s removed. That one tweet, for some reason, infuriated the masses and I had DMs and @-messages demanding I explain myself.

I had to ask myself “Did I actually do this?” Did I actually delete reviews in a way that could cause this reaction? This was false and I knew it, because I had not deleted a single review about Gutenberg. However due to my history as a forum moderator, the finger was pointed at me. Here, what I had done was act as a moderator of some renown at some point in my past.

Now that I knew what was going on and where it started and that I didn’t do anything, I had to uncover what actually happened. I’m still a forum admin, so I logged in and looked at the posts and I could see who had moderated what. And then I privately pinged those people and asked for details. In talking to the other moderators, I determined that the removal of Gutenberg reviews were valid. The 1-stars were made by sock puppets, which is to say fake accounts made by people to unethically alter a star rating. It happens a lot.

Now What?

Okay great, now what? Now it’s time to take action and decide what to do about these people. You have two options though. You can respond to them or … not. They both have a lot of pros and cons, but there is one universal truth you need to know going in: Whatever you chose, to reply or not, you will be wrong.

There is absolutely no way to ‘win’ or even come out ahead here. You just can’t. If you reply, people will hate your answers. If you don’t, people will claim it’s proof. There’s no safe course here. So you need to make sure you understand why you’re doing this.

Why You ReplyWhy You Don’t Reply
Reply if you want to have your say in the matter. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, or if you’re apologizing or not. You’re trying to have your chance to talk. By replying you’re opening up the doors for a discussion. Don’t pick this option if you don’t want to talk to people!Don’t reply if you know it’s a muggs game and you’ll just waste time arguing with people who’ve made up their minds about you. Not replying feels like a safer choice, except it eats at you so much. You’re going to hear people rip into you over and over, and you will have to stick to your guns and not reply.

And if you’re still not decided, remember that sometimes you can’t reply. That usually happens when you’re aware of a bigger issue that’s preventing public disclosure, or you’ve signed an NDA, or your company asked you not to… Those are really hard because you absolutely cannot engage with people when this happens. You have to suck it up.

There’s one middle road here. You apologize. This is really hard, though, because no matter how you do it, someone will grab on your word choices and use them as proof one way or the other. Usually it’ll be how they prove you’re terrible.

It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.

P.G. Wodehouse, The Man Upstairs and Other Stories

How to Apologize

I have three rules for how to apologize. Those three rules have served me well, because it reminds me to level-set that no matter what I say, I’m not going to come out ‘ahead’, and I should expect nothing at all in return.

  1. Be respectful
  2. Be sincere
  3. Expect nothing

There are some things you can be mindful of. Don’t use ‘if’ statements, like “I’m sorry IF this hurt you…” Take ownership of the consequences, regardless of your original intent. It doesn’t matter why a thing happened, it matters that you actually apologize for what happened. You can use “But”, just be mindful that it’s not for making an excuse.

You still should consider an apology when you’re not the reason for the drama. However this gives you a little room, because now you can use those weasel works. “I’m sorry you feel this way.” Notice the feel part? That should normally be avoided. Here, we want to use it because it’s actually the only thing you can claim auspice over. You acknowledge their emotions as valid. Which they are.

The follow up to that is you need send them to the right people. “I’m sorry you feel this way. You should talk to X about that. Here’s how…” This is not the equivalent of sending someone to your manager, you’re just getting them to the right people. Oh, but be a mensch and tell the other person what’s incoming.

And remember: forgiveness is not the point

I know this is hard to swallow. When you apologize, you never do it in order to be forgiven. Never. Ever.. If you are, then you’re going about it all wrong. You apologize because you hurt someone. It doesn’t matter if you meant to or not, and it doesn’t matter if you can fix it or not. It matters that someone is hurt, and you did it. It’s up to them to forgive you if they want to, but you owe them a sincere apology.

And just so we’re clear, I’ve screwed this up too. Just as recently as last spring. It’s going to happen. No one is perfect. Try not to do it again.

Practical Defense

Now that you’ve done some ‘active’ things, you need to take the steps to protect yourself. These are hard because it starts with not looking at it.

Don’t look at what they say about you. Its in our nature to want to know what people are saying about us, but I’m here to tell you not to look. Don’t look. Ignore the comments on other forums and blog posts. Walk away from what’s out there.

If you do look, document. And there will be things that come at you regardless. You’re going to want to keep a record. I have a spreadsheet with the title and date of every single email someone sent regarding an altercation with Plugins. 300 emails a month, on average, for three months. It was painful to record, but I did it to have a history of his behavior. Which is still going on.

Are you getting emails? Block them. Did they make a secondary account? Block that. Did they make 69 accounts over multiple email providers and rotate through the accounts to try and talk to you? By the way, yes, that happened. You block them all and you report them. You keep doing this.

Put their emails in your comment blacklist. Don’t dismiss this. If you use Jetpack contact forms, you can use the blacklist to block them from that. IP block if you have to, though I don’t recommend that. Do what you can stop them from getting to you. If you can’t turn off comments (like I did here), then I recommend requiring all first-time comments be approved, and using the Comment Probation plugin.

What about social media? If they’re ‘friends,’ I recommend you unfollow and possibly mute. There are people in WordPress whom I’ve muted, because we don’t get along and will argue about everything. It’s not worth it to fight, so I block and I mute very fast. This is for my own sanity because emotional attacks hurt worse.

It someone calls you names, it hurts. If someone attacks your choices, it hurts. Well when someone continues to belabor a point, argue past the point of sense, and absorb hours of your time, they’re hurting you. You are allowed to ask them to stop and leave you alone. Of course, this doesn’t often work.

The Warning Signs

As many people will tell you, asking someone to stop, even a simple “I don’t want to continue this conversation here, please email X,” can result in unexpected explosions. This is an escalation in behaviour, as someone is demonstrating a distinct lack of respect for you, and human decency. Usually this is because they’re hurt too and lashing out, and it’s hard for people to look past that.

Bear in mind, a threat doesn’t just mean “You better not walk down a dark alley alone” — and yes, someone said that once. Sometimes a threat is “I sent a package to your office.” Now, I bet nearly every non-male reading this just nodded. For those of you who didn’t, let me elaborate.

When an online conversation crosses into the ‘physical world’ (for lack of a better term), it’s a major red flag. If you’ve been tweeting or emailing someone, and they send you, say, an apology letter, or email a photo of their company apologizing, you need to worry. This is because they’re attempting to play to your emotions.

When they make that next step, though, claiming to send you flowers, that’s when you need to get a hold of authority figures and friends. Fast. I will warn you, if the person making the claim is out of state or out of country, it’s very hard to get legal help. You can, but it’s hard. If you work at a specific location, make sure they know. Make sure people you live with are aware. Anyone you think might be targeted, you need to warn.

There are a number of micro-aggressions that indicate this behavior, from Sealioning to Gaslighting. But that’s a talk in and of itself. What you should hang on to here is that you need to trust your gut. Women, people of color, queers, any minority, we’re pretty in tune with that bad feeling that a conversation is going to go sour. Trust that. If someone turns to you and says “Hey, this person looks like they’re escalating,” then you should listen.

Get Help

I said it before, let me say it again. Give your teams a heads up. I had someone follow me all the way to my company, and we had to get legal involved because of threats expressed. I’ve even had to have a security officer on site for a WordCamp talk because someone went far enough that I felt concerned for my physical safety. These aren’t jokes. These are people who have lost the ability to see reason.

You need to tell people in charge. If you’re afraid to tell your boss, you can try this with them or your HR rep or a trusted co-worker:

I’m sorry to bring some personal issues into work, but there’s someone who has been harassing me, and I think they’re going to bring it into the workspace.

No template is perfect or nuanced enough to handle all situations, and if you need help figuring out how to tell your employers, grab a trusted friend and ask for help.

Beyond warning people you work with, get help. Ask for what you need, even if you know it’s the wrong person to ask. They may know who to talk to. I needed a new feature built into WordPress’ tool for plugin reviews to blacklist people so we stopped getting 30 emails in a day in our inbox. Speak up. Your teammates and friends should have your back. And if they don’t listen, go louder and over their heads as high as you need to. Go public if you have to.

Practical Defense

Even if you do all this, you have to keep in mind that once you are pointed at as ‘the bad guy’ people will go bonkers. They will be obsessed with every single thing you do. And this means you cannot bait them. Look, I love a good subtweet as much as anyone, but for the duration of this drama, you must not poke the bears. Don’t even drop a hint. While being harassed by said the aforementioned serial emailer (we’re up to 1000 emails now by the way), I complained about someone else, my cable company as it happened, but he took it to mean I was talking about him. It sucked.

This is the scary thing, and the reason you’ve got to walk away from them. When they get obsessive, reading thousands of tweets deep or dredging up a forum post from before you were a moderator to prove a point, they’ve gone past sense and into obsession. This is terrifying. Which is why you’ve got to put your shields up.

I want to point out the specific things you can do here. These are generally easy to do from a technical perspective, but not emotionally.


First you de-friend. If they’re not a friend, you mute. If they escalate, you block. Some people you will jump right to a block because they’re just so wrong. But do it and walk away. The nice thing about a block and a mute is that it prevents you from reading their tweets at all.

Turn off Twitter notifications for young accounts and people who don’t follow you. Use the quality filters. Disable DMs from people you don’t follow.

If somerone attacks you or is vulgar, report the tweets and block them. Blocking an account you’ve reported will increase the chances that Twitter will actually do anything. Also ask your friends to report and block anything else they made public. It will help.

Facebook & Instagram

So I hate Facebook for a lot of reasons, and this is one. See, pretty much all you can do is build a wall. Facebook cares more about selling your personal information than protecting you from harassment. All you can do is lock your account away and block people. Report, yes, but if my wife’s death threat is any hint, they will do nothing.

Still, I recommend you report content. You need to report the individual posts as well as the user account.

Also curate the hell out of your friends. If you can’t remember why you friended them, it’s a good time to un-friend.

Everything Else? You set your account private and block judiciously. You don’t have to worry about Google+ any more, but lordy, I promise that was a nightmare trying to block people. Snapchat is pretty ephemeral, things don’t stick around long, so it’s not an easy place to manage but still report and block.

I have to mention this because we use Slack for WordPress.org work. And here, there is only one thing you can do when someone’s harassing you. You need to find an admin. Go into the Slack group and click “Customize Slack.” Then pick “About this workspace”. Click on the “Admins & Owners” tab. Ping one, explain the tl;dr and make sure you have logs of your harassment. Good luck.

On a forum? Ask for moderator help. If this is an in-public ask, keep it simple. “I need a moderator. Someone is harassing me. Who can I speak to about this?” If you’re on WordPress.org’s forum, tap the ‘report topic’ button after you post and a Moderator will be alerted. Or come to the #forums slack channel and ask for help.

I Hope You Never Have to Do This

I really do. I hope none of you ever have to do this, and that your takeaway is “Gosh, I should make it easier for people to protect themselves on my systems!” And if you are going through this, protect yourself as best you can and remember, just because you’re the bad guy doesn’t mean the other person is a hero.




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