About fifteen years ago now, I went on the frontlines for two online communities: RPGnet and Skotos Tech. Oh, perhaps "front lines" isn't quite the right phrase, because I'm not the one directly dealing with our users most of the time. Instead I'm the guy with the ultimate responsibility, backing up our staff, and making the decisions for the betterment of the site as a whole. But, front lines does give the proper sense of warfare, because maintaining a community online is an ongoing battle that never lets up.
Much of this is just the physical need to keep the machines that support the communities up. They could go down at any time, so I've long found myself quickly checking my emails when I get home from some outing, to make sure I don't have any reports of crashes while I was out. When I miss a call from a weird number elsewhere in the US, I worry that I missed a call from a moderator or administrator telling me something catastrophic has happened. And, these are based in real events, as I've gotten home and found that a machine had been down for a few hours, I've gotten calls from admins and mods saying that a site had come under attack. I've had to bring our machines back from the brink in the most annoying conditions, such as at my parents' dining room table this last Christmas Eve. (Thank goodness we no longer have physical machines; biking down to the machine room we used to maintain in Emeryville and sitting alone in the loud, cold room trying to resuscitate an agéd machine was really the height of no-fun.)
But my biggest stressors in my battles to maintain communities have been interpersonal ones.
Let me be clear: the vast, vast majority of people on the various sites that I support are great people. They're literally the reason that I've been willing to support these sites for so long, despite the (primarily emotional) cost. For every really crappy interaction I've had with someone as the result of one of our sites, I've literally had a hundred good interactions, usually from people who are very appreciative that we maintain them. I've worked with great creators at both RPGnet and SKotos, and I'm sad about the many that have moved on (as is natural, as the years pass) and grateful for those who remain.
But, oh, those really crappy interactions have been really crappy.
There are dozens of users who have sent me vile screeds because they got kicked off of a service. I've had people lie to me in any number of ways, usually pretending they didn't do something that they did. I've received two or three death threats. I've had to reach out to the FBI twice due to threats of violence against others. I've fielded semi-yearly legal threats, mostly from people upset by what other people were saying on forums, and wanting us to censor them.
And then there was Zak S.
I'd never heard of Zak S. before 2013, when he started getting serious flak from the RPGnet mods because he was increasingly a drag on the community. As some people do, he tried to go over the heads of the mods to get a different answer from me. It was a slimy letter. First, he tried to present himself as an authority by dazzling me with his credentials, then he acted like he was doing me a favor by being willing to tell me how the moderation on the forums was bad and could be improved. And, shit, that letter is manipulative when I reread it. He was all, hey I know this probably doesn't concern you, but if it does, please write me back and I'll tell you more. Anyone actually wanting to help, of course, would have just told me straight out, but he was trying to establish a power dynamic where I was the supplicant and he the wise master.
Fortunately, I'd already dealt with a hundred people trying to go over the heads of my mods and game hosts by that time, and so his slimy, manipulative letter made very little impression. I told him I disagreed with his assessment that there was a problem with the moderation, and I told him to talk to the mods, and then I told him it again several hours later because he was obviously bad at taking no for an answer.
Fast forward to August, by which time Zak was banned. That's when he began making posts to his blog about RPGnet, complaining about some ads we were running. The ads were frankly offensive: some of the misogynistic online-game ads that started turning up around that time. But his posts showed zero understanding of how internet advertising really worked, and as far as I could tell, he didn't care. (Nowadays, we even have a term for what he was doing: "bad faith arguments".) As far as I could tell, he was just trying to score points, to make us look like hypocrites because we'd banned him for his attitude for women, or something, I think, and here he could pretend that we were showing a shitty attitude toward women. (Here's the thing about how ads work: you sign up for networks, and you try and pick trustworthy networks, but sometimes they still send your horrible ads, and they just appear without your consent, and you have to block them; in our case we *have* been exceedingly picky about what ad networks we use, to do our best to make sure that RPGnet doesn't get any of the truly sucky ads you see elsewhere, and these ones actually came from Google, who usually does pretty good, but stuff sneaks in ...)
Just a complaint like that would have gone right by me. We actually had at least one Skotos-hate site go up after we'd been in business for a few years and had been forced to ban some people. There's at least one minor roleplaying forum that caters to RPGnet bannees and haters. When you run online communities, and when you actually moderate them, you get haters. And they publish screeds, create hate-sites, and otherwise make vocal their hatred.
But when Zak posted these "complaints", and I think there were three blog posts total, he purposefully used my whole name in the blog titles, and then he encouraged his followers to link to them, with the goal of poisoning my search results, so that this misleading and manipulative post that suggested that I was some sort of misogynist who loved misogynistic games was at the top. The object was either explicitly or implicitly (I forget which) to use that as leverage to ... I dunno, get us to stop running ads? Bring Zak back to RPGnet? I'm not sure. (We'd already blocked the bad ads, of course, as we're forced to do from time to time.)
Fortunately, Google at some point figured out that Zak was trying to artificially manipulate Google results. It didn't have anything to do with me, though Google is a rock's throw away, and though I have friends who work there. But at some point, they figured it out, and they tanked the search results for his whole site.
And that was how Zak tried to attack my reputation and my livelihood.
In the years after that, I did my best to forget about Zak, but he took the occasional shot at me. I just found a bizarre interview in 2015 where he claims I actively support bigotry and harassment. (Evidence? No, of course not.) I also discovered that the OSR community was somewhat poisoned against me around the same time. I found it somewhat baffling, as I'd had so little to do with him. It was like I was some big hatred in his life, and he was one of any number of people banned from RPGnet in 2013, and one of several who unsuccessfully tried to go over the heads of the mods to get me to let them back in.
I was never bullied growing up. But I eventually came to use that word for my interactions with Zak. And I definitely was being harassed as well, at a light level, mind you, compared to most of his victims. But it pissed me off all the more when certain professionals in the industry claimed that he'd never harassed anyone.
One of the ways I could tell that I was being bullied was that I was afraid to write about him in a public forum. Because I feared that he'd just increase the bullying and harassing, and maybe send his brigade after me.
I think the concerns mostly broke for me in early 2017, almost exactly two years ago. That's when I discovered that Zak S. had engaged in identity theft against me, creating a fake account on reddit, which he seemed to use mainly to talk himself up. And, it seems pretty obvious that he was the one who did it, because he got the accounts confused: he meant to post something under his account, accidentally posted it under the account using my stolen name, deleted it, and then reposted almost the exact same thing under his name. And there were screenshots! (Receipts!) When confronted, he claimed his roommate did it, but no one believed him.
For me, it was just unbelievably pathetic. I'd built him up as a boogie-man, but here he was rather pitifully trying to stroke his own ego by pretending to be me. I know a lot of people were pretty angry on my behalf; they were in fact much angrier than me. For me, it was more of a relief to see the manipulator laid bare.
But I also just let it go by, because I still didn't want to post and open myself to his attacks.
[Edit: This all followed an earlier identity theft on BoingBoing, something I'd entirely forgotten about until someone commented on this photo, where I discussed the two cases of fraud: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10155990005831164
. It was also used to defend Zak S., but it was perpetrated by some mysterious figure. I was more annoyed by that one, I think because it felt like they were multiple people out to get me, as opposed to one pathetic guy sitting in his basement, giggling while he made up fake accounts and complimented himself.]
Today a very brave woman who used to be Zak's girlfriend wrote about her horrifying experiences with him
. She's apparently been sexually and emotionally abused by him for a decade, so I can't even conceive how terrified she must have been to talk about him. I mean, he had me afraid to say his name from a few isolated instances of internet attacks (and some attempted career destruction, reputation sabotage, and identity theft), so she must have been a hundred, or a thousand times more afraid. But she spoke out.
And her courage makes me more able to say: Zak S? Fuck that guy. Worst user I ever had to deal with.
Being who I am and doing what I do, there's of course another angle to this: how do I write about Zak S. when I get to the history of the '10s? Because he's definitely been an important figure in the OSR movement. There are now people on the 'net destroying all their reviews of his products and all their publicity for them. And I can understand that, but I also have different responsibility as a historian. If he's important enough to his subgenre of publishing (which he probably is), then I need to write about his successes and also his failures.
But perhaps I'm a hair more able to do that now too.