But Words Will Never Hurt Me

Posted Jan 6, 2018
Last Updated Feb 2, 2018

For many years I've been building various scripts and programs ranging from JavaScripts, Content Management Systems, game tools, design tools and 3D plugins. The vast majority of the work I've done has been from my own needs to either accomplish specific tasks (both personal and professional) or simply to express my desire to be creative and helpful.

I have a long history of pleasant emails and letters from appreciative consumers of my work, including letters to the editor when I worked as a beat reporter, thanks for providing useful JavaScripts before the modern era of consolidated JavaScript frameworks made things easy, and near worship from the Source Engine community after releasing Wall Worm Model Tools. Praise and thanks go a long way in motivating a creative person to keep up their participation in activities. I have always treasured the positive feedback.

Something happened, though, that started to cast a shadow over my relationship with the consumers of my work--something that I never really thought much about until recent years when the tools I make for 3ds Max kept growing.

In 2012 my need to start looking for new avenues of income forced me to look at my own personal roadmap. My father had moved into our home as he ailed from terminal cancer, and the weight of caring for him and watching him deteriorate was an emotional strain. To make things worse, I parted ways with the client that had sustained me for a decade. Needing to make up for this lost stream of money, but growing tired of web development and in need of a new path, I turned to the area where I'd become a passionate expert: 3ds Max. I wrote about this time in Wall Worm Turns Five Years Old in 2015.

Little did I know that the simple fact of deciding to turn my time building tools for the game design community into a new stream of revenue would add a totally new character to my relationship with consumers. I had dealt with a few “trolls” in the early days of Wall Worm--but they were often episodic and rare. However, after I released news of new commercial projects, the ratio of fanatic-to-troll shifted in a way that I had never anticipated--and still do not really understand. By far the positive feedback always outweighs the negative in my experience, but human nature makes us susceptible to over-reacting to negativity pointed at us or our work.

The trolling email, forum post or comment became more prevalent the more my tools spread into the general population of Source Engine users. Overall I have tried to let these roll off like water on a duck's back. There is that old phrase: “Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I've always touted it. However, despite its wisdom, it's only partly true. It's actually half a lie. Yeah, I will always keep teaching my kids this outlook--but only from the perspective of them dealing with negativity. It can help insulate from the effects of negativity. But it only insulates--it does not protect. The reality is that words can and do hurt.

I'm a great lover of technology, information and the Internet. But mixed with some of the base tendencies in human nature, the ability to cause harm with words has grown. I think that any student of history knows how dangerous words can be--see what rhetoric did to mobilize hatred and murder throughout history like in Nazi Germany. When I open Facebook I'm often disheartened by how much negativity there is. And with the rise of the modern propaganda machine that has been vitalized since the 2016 US Presidential Elections (causing racial and political tensions to be pulled tight), the specter of really treacherous problems confronting the world because of toxic language is real.

The cloud of the global socio-politico temperament is far more important than my own niche of software development and interaction with customers, clients and consumers. However, I want to share a few tidbits for my own consumers so they can see how excessive negativity can harm them.

Affront to the Guru

In 2017 there was news that the developer of the popular Guruware plugin Guruware Ivy stopped distributing his plugin as a freely available tool. He stated, “I was in the process to upload an updated ivy… out of the blue i received a donation-notification 0.01 Euros <-- a joke?, it wasn't the first one, but... it's the last one.”

That he was offended is no surprise. His reaction? He “decided not to update it, and removed the current one also, the web is full with BS.”

He claimed that the plugin had been downloaded more than 35,000 times; yet, in eight years of developing and sharing the plugin, the donations from his users didn't even cover the cost of running his domain to share the tool.

There are multiple ways of looking at this case. On one side is a (sole) creative developer who is sharing the fruit of his labors, money and time. On the other side are thousands of people benefiting from his generosity. And although the lack of donations is probably expected (at least from most of the conversations I've had with many prominent developers of free tools), the lack of respect from the consumer is really inexplicable. The fact that his consumers were non-paying consumers makes it even more inexplicable--what level of immaturity does it take to literally insult people who are giving you free things?

Now it is possible that the person making the donation was so destitute that 0.01 Euros was all the donator could afford in this case. He never did share the comments this user made (if any) with the donation. But based on my own experience, I tend to agree with him that the “web is full with BS.”

Rampant Ingratitude

No, I'm not following in the footsteps of Guruware. Far from it. In fact, I've been blessed by some exceptionally surprising financial gifts from users over the years. (Rick Underhill will always remain a shocking benefactor. Others too have shared significant sums that have validated my resolve to avoid letting negativity get to me.) So I do not want any of my customers or my users to feel fear that I will stop trying to make new tools to enhance the circles my work overlaps.

I have to admit that I really was unprepared for how negative the Internet can get. In fact, I had been using the Internet for years before I even knew the word “troll” as it relates to a subset of Internet users.

The fact that “trolling” is a daily aspect of Internet life is a testament to the failure of past generations (including mine) to properly raise many of our children.

Some reading this may not understand some of the comments to follow. So I will give a brief explanation of some of my work. In 2010 I released to the public a free set of simple MAXScript tools for 3ds Max to help automate the process of getting models into Source Engine games. I have continued to develop those tools, and release them freely for seven years now. The download count is well over a hundred thousand in that time. Since then, I started a commercial variant that provides a few extra functions and some options that enhance what you can do. But the free version does 95% of what the commercial version does--and I develop them as a single project.

Yet, somehow, some users have taken the time to send comments that blow my mind in their level of ingratitude, entitlement and often total lack of humanity.

Following are a few.

“[...] a few days ago - I was forced to switch to WallWorm [...] I want you to know that these last few days were spent switching between confusion, blinding rage, confusion again, fury, depression, and more violent maddening rage. Because, to put it as a blunt fact, your toolset is retarded. Yes, it deserves this strong of a word […] what you made is retarded garbage, I have no other words. I feel so bitter that I wanted you to know there's at least one person who feels this way. I hope this upsets you. Oh, and this is all related to the version 2.163. It was the only one I had previously downloaded, so it was available, because when I wanted to grab a new version, I was redirected to some store page (?) where I were to 'order' Wallworm for $0.00 (??) and then checkout, and to do that, I have to be a member or to log in or register (?!) so I gave up. Even download line is retarded and confusing. So I'll just have to stick to importing things back into 2009, which is very unstable, but at least not stupid and artificially worsened, as your tools are. Wishing you the worst of things”

I can't help but wonder how this person could have reached the level of being able to open a complex application like 3ds Max but did not have the sense to post in the forums for help or reach out with a kind question about whatever issues he/she was having. The insults were hard to read--but knowing that someone is literally so bitter as to insult someone who can help them and is offering free tools… it's just saddening. Even when I was at my angriest as a teenager, I still felt love and admiration for those trying to help me--even if I didn't see eye-to-eye with them. How did this person go through life to get to the point of such unfruitful rage and bitterness? How did his/her parents, teachers and friends let this happen? How did he/she get there? I know that I was lucky to have such loving and supportive parents. Maybe that is why I can't come to grips with this outlook?

“thanks for making something that should be free pretty expensive. This ain't a Creative Cloud plugin or something!”

This comment, like the earlier one, speaks of the level of entitlement of some people. While downloading something that is free, the person felt the need to write an insult. I have a great love for all the users of my tools, so it's unlikely that I will turn my back on them despite this kind of negativity. But obviously this person never thought about how his/her comment might affect his/her ability to use Wall Worm into the future. What if my temperament was less of a philosopher and more volatile? He/she must not have thought about how it might affect the long-term development and graciousness of the tools he/she was downloading for free.

Somehow it was insulting they might have to pay $30 for for a few extra features--and it was contemptible he/she had to download the lesser free version.

Which brings us to the odd problem of software development and commercialism. Traditionally the idea of capitalism is that people pay for what something is worth. That view can be debated forever in economics forums. The problem for people like me is not whether software is valuable, but with the impression of the value of our work by consumers (and by consumers, I mean both paying and non-paying users). The Internet is a great oasis of free applications and media (both legal and illegitimate). Many people can become accustomed to the readily available landscape of free programs, movies, music and more.

The problem is this. Developing software takes a lot of resources. Those resources include time and money. The person above probably never developed any application nor read the changelog for any long-running project.

Quantifying the value of any piece of software is not straightforward. There are too many variables to be objective about it. As such, I generally don't judge people's opinions on specific valuations because it just isn't objective. But as someone who has spent years dedicated to the development of creative tools (building the tools, testing, sharing the tools, documenting and actively supporting the community of users by answering emails, forum posts, instant messages, calls and video conferencing), my perspective is that this skepticism towards commercial software itself is simply unfair and naive. Without income, developers cannot devote time to their software. Somehow, this is overlooked by those who feel entitled.

Vojtech Cada, a prominent expert in MAXScript and 3ds Max, shared his thoughts on the negativity that he's experienced from some circles from time to time. "This is an important topic. It's almost unbelievable how everything changes once you release even just one thing with a price tag; suddenly there are people out to get you, trying to show you it's utter garbage and totally useless - and you're a horrible person for doing that." Cada said he generally has pleasant interactions with users overall, but it's easy to be worried about the backlash that can come simply by putting a price tag on projects, no matter how small the cost.

Kostadin Kotev, another expert MAXscript developer, has been dealing with negativity with some circles for years as well for his commercial work. Kotev referred me to one public forum where someone was asking for an illegal copy of his scripts. Another user named Kratos replied, “[And] for crying at loud.. if a freelance work does not give you guys €17 to invest in your work utils and to buy from this great programmer a script.. maybe you should start thinking in a change of career.”

The response of one person to Kratos: "Not helpful you pretentious twat [...] €17 is too expensive when I just want one particular script in the pack and none of the rest[...] I could do without wankers like you giving insulting answers like that. Arsehole."

It doesn't take long to find this kind of childishness across the Internet.

Entitlement and Trolls

There are really two interwoven issues going on here. There is the entitlement in that a significant portion of the world's Internet users seem to feel that they have a right to every digital asset in the world (movies, music, games, programs). And there is the troll--people who have not been fortunate enough to have learned the value of civility. Mix the two together, and there is a daunting uphill battle for creative developers to try and make a living at being creative while simultaneously keeping a positive outlook towards consumers. Especially for solo developers, the emotional strain of warding off this sinkhole of negativity can be overwhelming.

Dealing with it is actually more complex than it appears on the surface. The world is not wrapped in a blanket of uniform prosperity. Some places are so destitute (compared to American standards at least) that potential consumers really have no recourse but to resort to pirated software. This is an economic issue. Luckily, disadvantaged students have been given opportunities to use and learn high-end software like 3ds Max now because many companies like Autodesk have started offering educational licenses to them at no cost.

For small developers, however, the option of offering educational versions of software is problematic because small developers often do not have the resources (time, money, infrastructure) to build licensing systems to keep their software from being distributed freely or seek legal recourse for infractions. Even giant corporations cannot keep their applications safe from being cracked and distributed globally. Small developers are generally easy-picking for illegal distribution.

There is also a social side to entitlement. That is where people value their own time more than anyone else's. This is the only way we can realistically be as creatures that must live our own individual lives managing the time we have here; however, once it reaches a level where the time of others' is totally disregarded, we have reached a social problem that must be addressed. I have a natural right to do what I want to live happily--but that right is of necessity limited with the boundaries of everyone else's similar rights. If I decide that my time is so valuable that I can't be bothered to exchange any of my time (via the proxy of money or other tangible valuable), but I need/want what you have, then the recourse is to take it by force or surreptitiously steal it. Both are unacceptable social paths.

The issue of the troll is a different matter. It's entirely a social one. I don't think that any developer (from solo developers to those working on mainstream applications) is immune to the sting of ingratitude. The demoralizing effect of negativity can seep into a developer, causing one to wonder if the effort is worth it. Technical creatives (software developers, sound technicians, editors, etc), have to deal with a type of emotional strain that drains their emotional batteries: often the amount of labor they put into their work isn't appreciated because it's often buried deep inside black boxes that the consumer can never see into and understand. Pile onto that the repetitive cacophony of angry trolls and you have a recipe for burnout.

Is the World So Bleak?

It is easy for us, especially as we get older, to presume that everything is getting worse. There are countless comments throughout the ages about how the world is going to hell and that everything was so much better in some pristine past. I have a strong inclination that this is just standard human nature. It's been labeled Rosy retrospection.

In all likelihood the current generation will get by just fine. They will figure out their world and make a path that fits them. Younger generations, however, will progressively need to figure out how to deal with a world where communication has a new dimension that never existed in the past--instantaneous and ubiquitous dissemination of every thought, idea and feeling--both good and bad.

Even though we can presume that current and future generations will figure things out and adapt, that is not a license to say everything is hunky-dory. Criticism and skepticism are vital for improving almost anything. Especially in the free world, it is the civic duty of every person to express their desires and worries to the leaders (of government and industry and every other entity of some power). This is not advocating to always stay meek and quiet. This is advocating prudence and wisdom.

With the Internet Age comes a new dynamic that ought to be addressed in the adult societies sooner rather than later, which entails that the adults take a look in the mirror and start finding ways to change ourselves. We need to be better role models, better mentors. Instead of fostering a world where everyone seems to shout, we need to guide public discourse into dialogs.

No, the world isn't doomed. There is always hope. Moreover, it's probably important to realize that despite the barrage of negativity that manifests in the various medias, it may only be a fact of human nature to focus on the negative more than the positive. In several conversations on this subject there is a common point: Perhaps most people are friendly and positive. Perhaps it's just a vocal minority that sour the tune. We've all heard that it just takes one bad apple…

So yes, maybe the Internet is full of BS. But I think the world is actually more full with goodness. We just don't always let ourselves notice it.

Think Before You Speak (or Tweet)

Words themselves may never hurt more than feelings and pride. But words lead to sticks and stones because the motion of human interaction is driven by emotion. As such, my hope is that every parent, every teacher, every big brother and sister, every leader starts to preach wisdom a little more via our actions--by reflecting on our words before we share them, rather than shouting opinions impulsively. None of us are perfect, and all of us have said (and will continue to say) things we shouldn't. That's inevitable. But as much as possible--please think before you speak. If you do not consider the long term consequences of your actions and words, and tailor them for the positive outcome of a more enlightened future for the coming generations, then, although it's your right, you are not worthy of speaking your mind.

And for those that are burdened with the negativity of the Internet, there is one glaring solution staring us in the face: Turn it off. Not forever; just give it a break. For the first time ever, the real world may be a place for escapism.

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Jan 9, 2018

Knowing you personally (full disclosure ^^) it makes me sad reading this, not only because I know how much time you have put into the tools and helping the community who use them, but also just knowing your character as a person, who not only is very open, honest and wears their heart on their sleeve (so to speak), but also who tries to see the best in others and always show others respect. I couldn't imagine anyone who knew you personally ever writing the words in the emails you quoted above, which maybe is even indicative of at least part of the problem - the anonymity of the online world. We often know so little about the people with whom we interact online that we are constantly forced into a situation of projecting our own preconceptions and prejudices into the mix - which is human nature, we seek to contextualize the world around us.

The problem that you are talking about is, imo, and extremely complex one that is very difficult to analyze or sum up quickly or easily. There are a wide range of contributing factors, but I do believe the very character and nature of the online world we have created has had a large role to play in the emergence of this culture of "trolling". Many people could now be said to live more of their lives in the virtual online space than they do in the real world, so much so that a new social standard is evolving and overriding the lessons we learn everyday in the real world. Our psychology, outlook and way of thinking is becoming increasingly informed by our online experiences and interactions as they take up an ever greater percentage of our days.

The online world is vast and fast paced, a sea of content populated by endless faces or avatars and with so many things competing for our attention only the most streamlined or noisy get through. In my opinion being constantly confronted the enormity life and social interaction on a global scale triggers a fundamental "angoisse" (upset or trauma) in most people, and the more we interact on that level the more traumatize we become. Although Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like all try to put us at the center of our own little worlds, superstar fish in our own virtual ponds, all spending time online really does is to remind us of our insignificance and lack of power. As biological animals (for those who accept evolutionary principles even if under the guidance of a intelligent creator) we require social interaction in order to survive (humans won over tigers and bears because we knew how to cooperate and work together to achieve things). And to cut a long story short, in order to function in a social pack we need to know our place. We need to understand how we fit in, what our role is and (probably most importantly) why we are needed at all.

In our everyday lives, family, friends, job etc we can very often define our role in a satisfactory enough manner to be "happy", however when we go online that definition is destroyed, because we have no role, no significance, no identity... we are just another piece of flotsam in an endless sea. And the more time people spend online and interacting online the more this idea starts to seep into their fundamental psychological makeup and sense of self-identity. Feelings of powerlessness and insignificance generally cause people to lash out and act in angry, aggressive and negative ways... emasculated is a good term for it, and although I don't believe it is by any means an exclusively male problem (as it speaks to something more fundamentally human than that).. there does seem to be evidence to suggest that much of the worst online harassment and "trolling" is perpetrated by men.

However I put the word "troll" in quotes earlier because although I totally agree with and understand what you are talking about, I am not sure that "trolling" is exactly the right term for it. To me a Troll is someone who is specifically just looking to provoke reactions and spread chaos, and who spends most of their time in most situations with that goal in mind. However I think that genuine trolls like that are rarer than the people you are talking about. I think what you are talking about, certainly in the case of the email you quoted, is someone who doesn't always go around looking to start trouble, but who doesn't think twice about reacting in this extreme and aggressive manner the times that they do feel "wronged" for some reason. Maybe it isn't important but I feel that although tangentially related to trolling, what you are referring to here it isn't exactly the same thing as genuine trolling, and therefore it could be useful to define it differently.

I very often wonder though, how many of the worst perpetrators of this kind of behavior online (all the idiots telling Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn they wanted to rape and murder them) are actually just "kids"... minors, adolescents etc. who as I am sure we will all admit from personal experience say and do some very dumb things sometimes. Of course there are some horribly minded adults out there too, but I feel there is no doubt that there is a catalyst effect that goes on... being exposed to the worst of these comments then tends to make essentially more reasonable people also become intolerant and go too far. I don't think it takes that much to start poisoning the well and online negativity has a sort of resonance effect where a bad interaction influences the next for the worse and so on. This is another problem with the anonymity online... I wonder Shawn, if that email you quoted above would have effected you less if you saw the person who sent it and discovered that they were actually just an awkward unpopular spotty 14 year old. I am not criticizing at all by the way, I still get upset, wound up and annoyed by people online and every time I say the same thing to myself but it doesn't really help - because you simply do not know.

L4D2 has a reputation for having a toxic community and yes, while it really does often dismay and shock me the percentage of players who do genuinely seem to just have a "f**k the world" attitude and just seem so instantly bad minded without the slightest provocation, I don't think that is the whole story. Beyond that there are quite a number of players (myself included sometimes I will freely admit) who come across as toxic not because they really think that way, but just because they are so often exposed to it they become oversensitive and defensive (which in this case is compounded by the fact that L4D2 is a game which lasts and hour or more, you can often spend a long time waiting around for game to start, and can literally by ruined by one person in the space of 10-20 seconds). The point is the negativity propagates, and certainly in part because of the anonymity behind which is hides. In the end it is almost like everything online which upsets or antagonizes us belongs to the same amorphous mass, one generic entity which encapsulates everything which threatens and or complicates our lives, and in the end a letter to the developer of an online tool becomes an emotional outlet for all the frustrations, anger and resentment the causes of which cannot be directly addressed. Writing and angry hateful letter to you or spoiling a game of L4D2 will probably make someone feel as if they are having some impact upon the world and taking back some of the power they sacrifice each day. It is also an interesting example because L4D2 is very much a game which can leave people feeling impotent, powerless and emasculated (moreso that quite a lot of other games) and I think this is also one of the reasons L4D2 tends to see a disproportionate quantity of extremely negative and destructive behaviour.

Anyway, great article Shawn. A subject that I feel is becoming (or has been made) very important over the recent past. I feel we have seen a massive tendency towards disdain, contempt, hostility, aggression and dismissal in online culture, arising maybe from a dissonance between an increasingly narcissistic, self-affirmation, "I am the center of the universe" expectation of self-identity within a framework/system which constantly undermines this same expectation. Maybe as you say it isn't an apocalyptic problem, but when I see the way so many people seem to talk, react and interact online it really fills me with despair, and I would like to believe we are capable of so much better than this.
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