Working Through is the fifth in a series of novels centering around a crowd of forty through seventy something artists from Utica, New York. In the latest story, struggling writer and first-time novelist Heather Toth and her fiance, musician Quin Sartini, land steady work in the arts, working for a woman who appears poised to launch as the next social media star. Working for Michelle Milford should be a dream, an opportunity for both artists to work in interdisciplinary arts, provide arts education, and earn steady income, all while becoming part of a little crowd that supports and encourages each other to do their best to serve others. But things do not often work out as they should…in the arts, at work…or in general.
Heather thought this type of thing would be in the past by the time she reached her fifties, and Quin neared seventy. She thought queen bees, the in-crowd vs. the outcasts, and most of all, bullying would be something they’d be helping grandchildren through, not dealing with themselves. But things are different when you’re an adult, and Heather does not need to take this type of treatment anymore. But what does that mean when you’re an adult?
Join Heather, Quin, Mindy, Brenda, Heidi, and the rest of the crowd from previous novels Lifting the Shadows, Chatting as Adalee, Mostly on the Internet, and Attracting Virtual Reality for a look at an issue often faced, but rarely talked about, among adults in the workplace.
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Jess Szabo is a writing teacher, novelist, and arts writer.. the owner and head writer here at Artist Cafe Utica. Her teaching work is done online, and includes students from across the country. Her arts writing and novel writing focus exclusively on the artist community in her adopted hometown of Utica, New York.
An “internet troll” can be defined as a person who posts intentionally upsetting content online with the goal of causing some type of trouble. In some cases, the troll simply enjoys manipulating people into getting upset or angry. Other trolls are seeking attention, and think diverting it from the person who would naturally be the center of attention on the page or the post is the way to get it. Still others hope to shock people, and may use crude, rude, or disgusting remarks or messages to do so. Some trolling is done by people who intend serious harm, such as ruining a friendship, relationship, or career.
Many use “trolling” to describe every type of online joking around, kidding, smarting off, or being silly. A YouTuber wears a wedding dress, or their robe, or silly makeup to the store just to see if they can make other customers and their viewers laugh, and people refer to it as “trolling” video. Or someone pretends to be in love with someone else with the target’s full knowledge and consent, or spends half the video pretending they’re on a beach vacation when they’re really laying out at their neighbor’s pool, and it’s called “trolling.” But this is more plain, old-fashioned joking, goofing off, and acting silly. True “trolling” is done with some type of selfish intent.
Nearly anyone with an online presence is going to have to deal with internet trolls at some point. Artists are especially vulnerable, as we workshop, present, share, and market so much of our work online.
Some may claim this article is unnecessary. “I just delete and block,” they will proudly proclaim. “End of story.” Of course, “delete and block” is going to be your first move when dealing with any type of internet troll. But too often, it is not the end of the story. The damaging content may be seen by fans, potential collaborators, personal friends, family, or the supervsior at your day job or very needed side gig before you even know it’s there. Content you delete and block may have already been copied and shared, or saved on somebody’s hard drive for sharing in the future. And even if the content is completely gone, trolls are perfectly capable of creating “sock puppets,” or new accounts made for the purpose of continuing their online harassment, mocking, and other crude behavior.
Here are just a few examples of “trolling” behavior, and what you can do in addition to “delete and block” to protect your online presence.
Bad reviews that don’t make sense
Everyone who does not like your work is not trolling. We are not entitled to have everyone like us, or to only hear praise.Some people are honestly not going to like your singing, playing, writing, teaching, or comedy, and they may give you an unflattering review. This is very different than bad reviews from trolls. Trolls tend to write bad reviews that attack the artist’s character or perceived character, appearance, or other detail unrelated to their work. When they do focus on the work, they usually go for sweeping generalizations such as “truly the worst guitar player of the century” when the guitar player has only released a single song so far, or insults that lack content such as“it’s not worth the money, and it’s free.”
While asking people to write good reviews for you is dishonest, there is nothing wrong with encouraging those who would already write you a good review to do so, in order to increase your webpage or product’s rating. Avoid responding directly to the troll, unless the person has posted factual errors that may impact your business. For example, if your art form is cake and pastry decorating, and you work at a restaurant, a troll might comment, “This place failed the health inspection last year” or “The meatloaf made me sick.” In those cases, responding with a simple photo of the certificate from the health inspector, or the menu showing that your restaurant does not even serve meatloaf, is all you need to do.
Personal attacks on your professional page or links from your professional page
This one can be particularly disappointing to see. You post a video of you playing your new song in a Facebook group, with a link to your Instagram, and someone comments on the Facebook group post only to inform you that they hate your Instagram page because they saw that picture of you playing at your church last year, and they hate that particular church. Or you open up comments on your band’s page, and instead of talking about your work, the latest comments are all weird remarks from someone claiming to have worked with someone in the band at Taco Bell ten years ago, and finding them egotistical.
Your first instinct is probably to defend yourself, or your bandmate, and perhaps gently remind everyone that this is your band’s page, not a religious discussion or workplace memories page. If you truly feel you must respond, do it only once. Correct the misinformation and/or the misuse of your page or link with a single comment. If the person stops they got the attention they wanted and things will settle down. If the person continues, or if others join in, this does not mean everyone is against you. A group of internet trolls just decided to use you for a little online attention for themselves. If you are online in a place that allows you to delete others’ comments, quietly delete all trolling ones. If you can’t delete others’ comments, delete your post, then re-post your content or link. This will put whatever got ruined back up, without the trolling comments. If they come back, repeat the process until they catch on that you’re not a good source of attention for them.
Free unsolicited advice that’s worth every penny you paid for it
You post in a musicians’ group asking if anyone knows of a good makeup brand that will withstand the stage lights for some upcoming performances, and someone responds not with answers like “Tarte Shape Tape” or “Jeffree Star Magic Star Powder,” but with an online lecture about how shallow you are for caring so much about your appearance.. When you point out that this isn’t what you asked about, the response is something huffy and self-righteous, along the lines of “constructive criticism not welcome, duly noted.”
In this case, a slightly snarky comeback is warranted. But don’t engage the person in an argument, or try to defend yourself. They’re seeking attention for making someone else look helpless, fragile, or stupid, and if you come across as distraught, you’re just “feeding the troll.”
“I’m really glad you were able to overcome this issue. That’s great for you. I’m really happy for you. But I need to do it this way,” turns any future comments into nothing more than evidence they don’t catch on when they’re being mocked. Once you’ve said that, carry on as though they aren’t even there.
Bizarre or disgusting posts, comments, or other online behavior
Barging into Zoom groups and shouting racial slurs or bullying the legitimate attendants of the meeting, posting nonsensical rants on Facebook groups, posting swear words or references to sexual activity in space set aside to be safe for work, or posting content intended to turn readers’ or listeners’ stomachs is an especially jarring form of trolling.
When faced with this type of behavior online, once the content is deleted and the trolls blocked, there are only two other things you can do. The behavior of complete strangers is not your fault, but fans will probably appreciate a quick “sorry you had to see/hear that” type apology anyway. The only other action you can take is to restrict page access. Set your Zoom meeting so that everyone must be vetted and given a link before logging in. Make comments require approval before being posted to your standalone page. Delete posts and re-post another copy of the ruined content to your facebook pages.
Whatever type of troll you get, never take what they say seriously. You’re dealing with someone who has the entire internet at their disposal, with its endless possibilities for learning, socializing, or even just relaxing and watching or listening to something soothing or funny. Yet all they can think of to do is hassle strangers.
Novel excerpt: Current work in progress
By Jess Szabo
In the novel tentatively titled Baxtalo (a romany word meaning “happiness” or “luck”), fifty-something Utica artist Heather Toth has taken what she believes to be a writing job for a local businesswoman in the process of building a business themed podcast. At first, it feels like the perfect way to supplement her day job as an online tutor and earn some extra money to support her slowly emerging creative writing career. But soon, signs that something might not be right begin to emerge. Below is an excerpt from chapter four of the third draft of the novel:
Chapter 4: Not Suited
By the end of my first week at Baxtalo Business Seminars, I’ve only managed to write one article for the blog. Seeing my name up there, on an article somebody actually wanted again is a thrill. It really is. I feel like the actual writing part of my writing career is taking off again.
Michelle doesn’t seem to mind that I’m writing awfully slow. At least it feels like slow writing to me. I come in and do my writing, but Michelle and Courtney don’t sit out in the front. They both sit back here where I sit to write, and the two of them like to talk. And then there’s the phone. Answering the phone is not something I ever want to do again. I’m here as a freelance writer, not as their new receptionist. But every time it rings, Michelle goes, “Heather, get that,” and continues texting on her phone. I’m afraid to tell her “no.”
I can already tell I’m not going to get much done today, even though the phone is not ringing so far. Michelle and one of her podcast hosts are having a loud conversation in the room right when I need to add the final touches to this second assignment and go over it one last time for edits. I wish the two of them would at least go out in that empty lobby. Or go sit in the podcast room. Surely that thing is somewhat soundproofed.
“You want me to tell you something about who doesn’t make it here at Baxtalo?” Michelle suddenly yells. I jump. I can’t help it. She seems to get loud when she’s worked up about something, but this has just progressed to flat out screaming.
The podcast host, a tall skinny white guy in a suit, nods, as it is clearly a rhetorical question. She only wants him to acknowledge that he’s hearing her. He looks like half of him wants to get right up in her face, and half of him wants to take off running. I’d go for running if it were me. He selects to stand there and stare down at her.
“Lazy people who make excuses,” Michelle declares, still yelling. “The ones who say, ‘Oh, I can’t because I work too hard and I’m too tired to prepare’ but turn around and spend half an hour with their coffee at Starbucks every morning. Or the ones who claim they don’t have time to work after hours because they have kids, but they have all evening after the kids go to bed to binge watch Netflix.”
What Michelle is berating this man for sounds like relaxing before and after work to me. Of course I don’t know this man, but he sounds like he’s done nothing more than leave this job at this job. Plus, it’s podcasts. Surely he has something else he does to make a living.
The podcast host finally responds by explaining that he needs some time to relax, and some time to do his own thing, that he’s studying to be in sales, in college, and he needs time to do his studies and work his day job. There it is. I knew it. This only seems to irritate Michelle a little more.
“How are you going to be in business, in sales, if you have the opportunity to promote yourself by promoting us.. but you won’t take it? We’re launching careers here, lifting people up to do their best work, live their best lives, but I can’t lift you if you keep weighing us all down.” Michelle has backed down a bit physically, but her voice is still loud enough to make the guy step back until he nearly topples over the desk next to Courtney.
Glancing over at Courtney, she looks upset, but unsurprised. She’s wearing a black and white pinstripe suit and a red blouse today, and the only moves she makes are to slip the jacket off and adjust the cutouts in the shoulder of her blouse so her bra strap doesn’t show. I expect her to stand up, to intervene somehow. But she stays seated and watches Michelle and whoever this guy might be.
“I show up ready to go online” the guy finally raises his own voice to match Michelle’s tone. “You see me?” He holds out his tie. “Here and ready to go.”
“Yeah today,” Michelle snaps. “But what about the way you talked to our listeners? I’ve had two people request a topic, and twice now you’ve given them some line about how you couldn’t do it.” She’s not yelling anymore, but she’s not calm either. I half expect her to reach over and smack the guy. “Interacting with our audience is one thing that differentiates us from radio,” she’s lecturing. “If you want to do that, you might as well just go find a radio station and be a DJ or something.”
Courtney, the podcast host, and I all stare at her. Radios have had call-ins on their shows, and taken requests for decades now. Baxtalo Business Seminars Podcasts are literally only different from a radio station in that they’re on the internet instead of the airwaves, and the focus is narrower. The three of us exchange glances, checking to see if anyone dares to tell Michelle she’s not making any sense.
“When I started here…” the podcast guy says instead, backing out the door. “I made it clear that I am taking business classes online, and I need time for those. You knew about my other job. I believe I gave you my schedule.”
“Well, things are different now.” Michelle’s tone is almost worse than yelling. It’s condescending. “We’re starting some new things, some new growth, and we need you here to grow with us.”
“Well I can’t grow with you.” The presenter makes “grow” sound like the concept could not get more ridiculous. “I’m here to do the job I agreed to do.”
“That macho attitude doesn’t fly here with me, and you know that,” Courtney snaps. She’s loud again, loud enough that it’s giving me a headache. “I can’t believe you don’t want to do this,” she says, her voice in what would be a whine if it were not so loud, “You watch YouTube. You see how big some of those channels get. We could be bringing in millions of dollars in a year or two, but you don’t want to do the work needed. You don’t even appreciate that you have an advantage here. You have a whole team working with you.”
“You know what?” The podcaster maneuvers until he’s backing out the door.
The above content is property of the author, Jess Szabo