From joyful community to fearful chaos

By Caitlin Kelly

Only a few short weeks ago, I blogged here about a community I had found on-line, one filled with women of all ages and races and income levels, from Edmonton to Los Angeles to Dubai to Mississippi. It was secret, and had, at the outset, almost 600 members, many of whom weighed in daily to share their triumphs — (work, dating, family) — and tragedies, (dead or dying pets, work frustrations, break-ups.)

They are mostly women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, gay and straight, polyamorous or monogamous and many looking (with little success) for love. I was, being older than many of these women, astonished and often appalled by the intimacy of the many details they chose to share there, with women many of them had never met and never will, women whose character and morals and ethics they have no knowledge of or experience with.


The chickens soon came home to roost…

I was, naively, hopeful that this would be a place for fun, friendship, shared wisdom and a dozen of us living in New York met for brunch in early September and had a great time. The women were funny, lively, creative and I looked forward to seeing them again.

Not going to happen: I was kicked out this week.

It’s been a fascinating lesson in political correctness, tone policing and definitions of “derailment” — taking a comment thread off-message. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what a shitshow!

Talking about issues is important -- but when are you over the line?
Talking about issues is important — but when are you over the line?

The group’s small handful of volunteer administrators decided I should be banned for insensitivity. Which is, of course, their right.

I do express my opinions vigorously.

But how amusing that women there could rant for hours about others’ being mean to them — yet turn in a flash on anyone they felt wasn’t being sufficiently sympathetic to their cause(s.)

It soon — why? –devolved into a rantfest. Women raged daily about their oppression and others’ privilege, swiftly chasing down, or simply banning, with no notice to the larger group of their actions or why they took them, those who dared to disagree with them or whose opinions were deemed…unwelcome.

One woman I liked very much was dismissed from the group for her allegedly racist remarks.

Then another — anonymously, of course — took a screen-shot of someone’s comment and sent it to her freelance employer, costing her paid work and a professional relationship. Members legitimately freaked out at such a creepy betrayal of their mutual trust.

But, really!

Why on earth would you even trust a bunch of people you do not know?

For a group of women so oppressed by patriarchy, it was too ironic that one of their own proved to be such a vicious and cowardly bitch.

Membership had dropped, rapidly, by more than 40 people last time I looked.

I’m glad to have made several new friends through the group and look forward to continuing those online relationships, several of whom I’ve also met, and enjoyed meeting, face to face.

But it’s been a powerful and instructive lesson in group-think, competitive victimhood and endless, endless draaaaaaaaama.

I’m well out of it, sorry to say.

Have you been a part of an on-line group like this?

How long did it last and how much did/do you enjoy it?

47 thoughts on “From joyful community to fearful chaos

  1. Caitlin, this is why I’ve grown to dislike private groups–intensely. They soon become cliques, and the moderator/leaders almost always become hypersensitive when anyone new to the clique dares to dispute what one of the ‘lil darlins has to say. Almost always, the ‘lil darlins are allowed to say anything they like but woe betide anyone else who might just have other ideas.

    In short, no matter how democratic they start out, they tend to get mean. I was kicked out of a Linkedin group where one member thought he was, well, the hottest shit around, and anyone who argued with him or–heaven forfend!–made fun of his haughty, hilariously dumb insults (in an English accent, if that can be done on a keyboard) was automatically destroyed by the moderator (who might have had a crush on the dumb shit, I don’t know) and then thrown out. Blocked.

    I’m on another group now that is turning that way–not against me but against a few others. I think I’m done with private or secret groups. I won’t join one again.

    I’m sorry you ran into this but, as my sainted mother used to say, “Consider the source”. It’s not you, it’s them.

    1. Whew. So sorry to hear this…but it makes me feel less of a pariah! I had never seen that kind of Lord of the Flies behavior (not in a private, moderated group, at least) and it was so bizarre.

      Thanks for sharing this.

  2. i’m so disappointed to read this, i was really happy for you when you first wrote about it. i’ve never been a part of one of these groups so i don’t really have experience with the dynamics you described. i’m glad that you made some lasting connections out of it and that is the good you can take from this exercise.

  3. themodernidiot

    Online admins are power trippers, and everyone whining just wants to be one. People are ridiculous.

    If those 600 people were together in smaller groups, like friends are, no one would complain about the one who’s racist, the one who drinks too much, the one who sleeps around, or the one who’s always late.

    We tolerate so much more in person since we have reciprocity and facial tone to help us determine worth and meaning. Online you just have typos, liars, and caps lock. Never works.

    Bitches be cray cray, yo.

  4. I’m so sorry to hear about this Caitlin, When we don’t have face to face interaction, our social manners, compassion and empathy go all to hell then everyone suffers. I hope you and the others who were kicked out are counting it a blessing that you no longer have to deal with that soul-sucking mess.

    1. Karina, thanks. No worries! I’m really glad to have made at least a dozen new friends from it — one of whom I’m meeting for lunch next week — so it’s all good.

      But it was frightening and fascinating to watch people: 1) lurk; 2) rush to agree with those deemed to be in power; 3) watch those in power exercise it more and more 4) watch those of us who dared to dissent get rounded on for challenging the new/emerging power structure.

      Worth study. 🙂

  5. Wow, so sorry to hear about that. The rules of online behavior are tough to figure out. I sort of do this w/another forum and like you, have met some great friends: I have met in person, some who I really talk about things I’d never discuss with my closest friends and relatives. I love how “safe” it is to talk to people who will not judge me in person for putting it all out there. But I guess I have also learned to edit my tone and response, or not say anything at all if I think someone will take offense. Certainly that’s not helpful if you want REAL discussion and debate, like this group you are in, as opposed to just “support”, I think that’s more of what my role in this group is…. Anyway, you are an awesome thinker and participant and I hope you find another group that deserves your thoughtfulness, time and input….

    1. That became the tone…”feel sorry for me or else.” Puhleeeze.

      My original post about this, written in the midst of it, was titled “competitive victimhood.”

      Thanks, Robin! I always look forward to returning “home” here where the convo’s are civil and interesting. 🙂

  6. Staci

    I have been part of an online group for more than 10 years. I have come to call these folks my cyber family and sometimes my “imaginary” friends. I have not met most of them. We are a varied group but mostly women in our 40’s and50’s. Some older, some younger, some males. Same types of topics, daily life, death, kids, family, recipes, decorating, jokes. We have our “fluff” side and our politics side of the board. A split a few years ago moved a bunch to their own board and this came from political and religious arguments. Sometimes I spend more time visiting and then I can go weeks or months without checking in. It’s easy social for me but for some of our members that live in rural places or are housebound because of illness it is their only lifeline to the outside world. I could give it up, but I do look forward to seeing what’s up with their lives and like knowing a friend is only as far away as my keyboard at any time of day or night.

    1. It sounds terrific — and I know of groups like it. I’m in several others of such duration, but they tend to be focused on professional life, which limits (for better or worse) emotional excesses.

  7. I think the online bit is tough because those of us that tend to trust warning signals–you meet someone and the alarm bells start ringing in your head–have a harder time sensing who a person really is via technology. There’s something to be said for the human element and trusting your gut.

  8. It’s truly a bizarre thing to watch. I’ve seen it happen in other forums too, certain ones I engaged in with Mormon Feminism for example. It’s alarming how soon camaraderie turns to in-fighting or unhealthy ranting in some spaces–one of the reasons I stepped away from a number of forums that once helped and sustained me. Any space that is used primarily for emoting I now find largely dangerous because they are essentially echo chambers (emotional and otherwise) where feelings and shouting matches get amplified past the point of usefulness. Might have to blog about that myself someday…

    1. This all really helps me put this into a larger context, so thank you! It is heartening to know that other smart, incisive women have run into this bullshit. I also wonder (????) is this a female thing? Nasty nasty nasty business.

      1. I used to think it was something that happened more in women’s communities and forums, but I no longer think that’s necessarily true. I’ve seen plenty of in-fighting and mods-gone-mad in the comment boards of mostly male spaces. The difference is, no one calls it “catty” since that’s a “female problem.” I look at other groups who ‘self police’ their own community cultures or defend their assorted “patches for good or bad (hello, #GamerGate…yikes!), and remember that this is a *people* problem.

        But I am disheartened to see spaces that could do (and often DO do) a lot of good get massively thrown off track, especially for women. We so badly need positive, proactive, helpful, safe ones.

      2. “We so badly need positive, proactive, helpful, safe ones. ”

        Word. This is why I am so depressed about it. I love the women I met through it and would never have met any other way. But life is way too short to fight with ghosts, which is what I call this sort of insanity — arguing with people you have never met and likely never will. Who might even not “be” who they say they are.

  9. Caitilin, they are guru-tripping over there and cannibalizing themselves. They are madly in love with their own pain and victimization. Which is fine if you’re into that kind of thing. It began as a hilarious space where we could shout out the cultural, professional and personal things that were making us crazy, and then turned into whatever mess it is now. I was one of the original members and just got the boot for not participating enough. Weird, right?

    Pack of cards. Sorry you had that experience.

    1. And you’re so cool, they have NO idea what they’ve lost. 🙂

      Thanks for the insights…

      One of the women they ejected said, of it, “summer fling”, which seemed to sum it up, sadly enough. It was, for a bit, such a joy for me.

  10. Caitlin – I think this is endemic to the form. I too have been in and loved this group — but as soon as it started, I told my husband “I hope this one lasts a while,” because I’ve been here before. Something about the nature of this small, exclusive groups lends them to become smaller and more exclusive – increasingly fragmented. Look at the group the secret group sprang from – how much we loved that for the – oh maybe weeks – that it was good. I’m going to try and find a link to a story I wrote about another such group (which I wrote about and was roundly criticized for writing about, much criticism saying I “didn’t get the big picture”), which had been formed by refugees from an earlier group…

    1. What is concerning is that they are accusing women of being bullies and then bullying them. So everyone has to walk the line. That is a toxic situation for victims of abuse, and there are many of those still there.

      1. Exactly. I find it very ugly, very weird and seriously hypocritical to yell at people for being…something they don’t like and then assume they (those pointing fingers and/or banning people) are being kinder and more righteous in so doing. Feels a bit medieval to me, really.

  11. Even (I must say, male dominated) online forums in sports like skiing, mountain biking, and rock climbing devolve into the WORST kinds of flame-wars and troll-hijacking.Having said that, it can be fun to lurk… you are absolutely right; after all — why would you trust anyone that you have not at least talked on the phone with?

  12. It’s definitely not just women. The private cult survivor group that I’m in has often devolved into the feel sorry for me no matter what. When someone relates a good experience they are sometimes attacked as being insensitive to those who had terrible experiences. Their loss for kicking you out.

  13. Oh, do I know the words to this tune, my friend…

    I was part of an online coven / community about 5 years ago. Though I knew the priestess and we lived in the same town, most of the members were scattered all over the country. So, most of the meetings and discussions took place in a private chatroom or via email.

    Now, I, like you, enjoy a discussion. REAL discussion, not just some pats on the head saying, “Tut tut, there there, insert appropriate proverb here that I just read off of Facebook.” Genuine exploration as to why we make decisions and how to make better ones. In fact, doing your “shadow work” was very much a part of my apprenticeship on this path. But, these women who are supposed to be “sisters” whom no one has met, expressed horror when I even attempted to probe even the most trivial topics saying I shouldn’t bring “negativity” into the circle. (For crying out loud, they nearly gave me an exorcism when I mentioned that Listerine is better for your teeth than carob root!)

    Negativity, my ass. There is nothing more “negative” than fear.

    Oh, you’re having problems finding a relationship? Okay. Did you think that maybe YOU have something to do with that? Oh no…no no…we can’t discuss that — that’s “negative.” Okay. You’re having a hard time at your job but you’re not looking for another one? Then, maybe you should stop bitching! Oooh oh no no no no…we can’t discuss that. That’s “negative.” These fluffy bunnies are not enlightened, they’re pretending. They’re licking the frosting off the cake out of fear that the cake might have a file in it…

    It is a rare and divine gift to find like-minded “whoevers” who can agree, disagree, explore, debate, and respect. It is a treat to find anyone who is not afraid to look in the mirror, embrace self-empowerment and change. It is unusual to find company whose egos are strong enough to be okay with wrong and not having the last word. So, your story, unfortunately and sad to say, is not uncommon.

    Really sorry you had that experience. But frankly, I think they did you a favor.

  14. That is a very interesting topic. Actually I have never been in these online groups and I have always looked with fascination at those that were. More recently I am on fb groups for people that have history or hiking as an interest and so far it did not lead to any such toxic behavior, maybe because those groups are confined to a field and as you say above not about emotional sharings.
    I wonder what is the dynamics of such a closed environment with “nominated” moderators: such a dynamics of “competitive victimhood” as I can imagine is definitely very unhealthy and surely does not seem to promote healing, moving forward or turning a page. Some psychotherapist friends would say that the eternal victims feed their own symptoms themselves, but maybe I am too quick to judge , probably because I am wary of closed environments: this makes me think that not too long ago I had read a crime fiction set in a convent and the detective attributing the murder to the fact that a sick closed environment like a convent pushes out the sick part of many people. Anyway it is very unpleasant to go through these experiences. I do not know how much the online thing promotes them, sometimes I think that online we do not get to know people through the same selection process as in physical life (school , family, friends , hobbies) so we are exposed to people that have nothing to do with us for the best and the worse. Sorry for your experience.

    1. It is interesting…and frightening to watch…how nasty people can be to one another on-line. I have never seen a group of people who “know” one another (online mostly, but using their real names) be so horrible to one another.

      I have no patience for victims who stay attached to their pain and drama. I have a lot of compassion, but do not have the time or interest to stick around a place where all that’s discussed is drama and misery. I’m about solutions.

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  16. I have been a moderator and am also a member of a few groups. I have also seen the dark side of the Word Press community.

    Being a moderator of a forum was fun. I met so many interesting people. Then there were the freak shows that would flame throw about the most ridiculous things. This was an Airstream forum. Loved the camaraderie, but if someone wanted to discuss tires or axles…whoa to you who asked the wrong question or made the wrong comment.

    Have a Facebook group. It is great, but we are all friends in real life, or at least there are pockets of overlapping friend groups. Someone above said it…when you know each other in real life, you are less likely to get nasty.

    Quit a Linkedin group for historians…crazies came out of the woodwork one day. You know that snow monster in Frozen that appears out of nowhere when the Ice princess is trying to protect herself….yeah, I met one of those. Done. out.

    Then there was the group of followers of a certain blogger and his blogs. He was grooming. He was preying on other victims. If people disagreed, they were demolished. Eventually it caught up with him. I loved his writing, I loved the concept of the other blogs. I was naive. But when the dark side appeared…Done. out.

    And this is sometimes why I feel we need to educate our students so much more on Internet safety. They have such a strong need to belong. They spirits can be easily crushed as teens. They just want a venue to share their writing, thoughts, musical tastes, and it could all just get so ugly.

    1. Thanks for sharing this….you certainly know the landscape well!

      I have been a bit stunned by what a few of my students are willing to share with us in class, and through their writing. I love the openness and optimism, but they also need to be self-protective.

  17. Checking in again because this is just too delicious not to share: I just got kicked off of a private group called. . .ready for this?. . .”I am a Liberal”. I’m not kidding. It was during a discussion about Monica Lewinsky with a whole lot of slut-shaming going on and it went on for hours and hours and hours, well into the morning. I said a couple of times that I found the atmosphere most illiberal, but I was pretty polite. I said I thought I might leave and before I knew it, the moderator–who was absent throughout the entire discussion–said something like, “Here, let me help you”, and the next thing I knew I was blocked!

    It was a proud moment.

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