Content Warning(s): Bullying, stalking.
This post is both difficult and necessary to make, but I have a confession that determined the course of everything I'm doing now: in the past, I actively harassed two people on the internet. In honor of mental health awareness month, I want to tell these stories to remind anyone going through, or having gone through, these experiences that they're not alone, and that becoming a bully can happen to anyone just as easily as becoming a victim of bullying. I'm inspired by Sally Kohn's recent TED talk, "What we can do about the culture of hate," and highly recommend viewing it or reading the transcript, especially if you're a cosplayer.
The first time was when the internet was brand new to me, and I'd gotten into drawing and looking at fanart for Pokemon. Specifically, for Team Rocket. And, oh man, I was obsessed. I had an OC named "J.C. Rocket" and I made her a "cooler" version of myself who just happened to be the third member of Team Rocket. I came upon an artist who went by "ChibiTeamRocket"/"CTR" then. Being the vulnerable, unattended child I was, I became jealous that their works (including her own self-insert) were both better and more popular than my own. Rather than trying to improve myself, I started hating on them. I can't remember whether I sent an email or made a page on my tiny Geocities website, but I reached out and let them know that I hated them. And then, I made up some keyboard-smash language pretending that it was fancy and foreign and that made me better than them. It was in every way inappropriate. It was bullying. I can't remember what happened next, but "blocking" wasn't a thing back then, so I'm sure I kept tabs and gossiped with my friends in real life as though the artist were someone who actually deserved my hate.
It's been close to 20 years since that happened and I feel awful about it, especially because my life's passion is to reduce harassment in my community. Why did I choose to do that? I know my parents didn't monitor my activity, nor could CTR flag me as being a harasser and have my account(s) suspended. But those options weren't even in my mind as I relentlessly poured my hate onto this artist. ChibiTeamRocket, if you're still out there, I'm so sorry. It'd be easy to assume one could forgive a child, but I know that my actions will never have been okay.
The second time I harassed someone was much more recent, to my shame. It began sometime in 2015. I was friends with a group of people who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would go on to relentlessly mock, stalk, and—through me—harass people they didn't care for. Nobody was out of their line of fire except for themselves and me—or so I thought.
One person came into the line of fire more than others during early stages of my friendship with the group: Carly. Carly knew the group before I did, and the queen bee claimed in vague ways that Carly was an awful cosplayer and person. I had met Carly separately and didn't sense anything was off, but I chalked it up to not having been active in the cosplay scene for years. Because I wanted the group to like me, I defended them without question and vowed to keep my interactions with Carly to a minimum.
I maintained a close friendship with the group. On occasion, I would go to the queen bee's profile page and look up old pictures of her cosplays to catch up on the years I missed out on. I kept up with all their social media as though it were my job to be historian for the group. We would jokingly call it "stalking," and the culture of the "read more" feature on Tumblr encouraged us to visit each other's actual blogs (rather than one's feed). It was a privilege to know them, and because I knew them, I dug further whenever they used a "read more." They'd had previous groups of friends who left or stopped hanging out with them, and I felt bad for them, and vowed I'd be their real friend.
Then one day, Carly and I got into a heated argument on Tumblr regarding a character from our shared fandom. I felt that she had overstepped her bounds, even after she apologized directly to me, and I began blocking her, running to the group for reassurance. Now more than ever their influence reached me, and I was bound and determined to defame Carly in every way, more than just what I had felt was warranted for our personal argument.
For months, I logged out of my accounts to stalk the social media accounts that allowed ghost viewers. I would check on whether she was submitting panels, what she was cosplaying at what cons, and report back to the group. Honestly, it became an addiction. It became CTR all over again. I was determined to find everything she did flawed, and laughed with the group when they mocked her.
From Carly, with permission:
I also found myself doing questionable things for validation of our friendship when I was close friends with the group. Because we got along so well, I never wanted to rock the boat, since I frequently heard this person being annoyed at other people in our friend group. I felt special because the two of us hadn't had those sort of disagreements or fights. Instead of sticking up for my friends when she made demeaning comments about them for just us to hear, I kept quiet and ignored it, and that's something I regret now.
I didn't want to rock the boat or make her mad at me, because we seemed like such close friends, and I felt special finally having someone who considered me a best friend. But I should have known better that she was being mean to everyone else besides me...until one day she got a reason to be mad at me.
The group and I ran a panel on the shared fandom that was accepted pretty consistently by conventions we went to. I loved giving the panel (I would later learn this is because I'm adept at public speaking and I genuinely enjoy educating people). Having people in the shared fandom choose me/us over Carly made me feel in control. Of course they would support me. Carly was "terrible." I was the real star, here. I even began to feel like I was becoming more of a presence than the other members of the group when it came to panels.
One large convention in 2016 rejected our group panel, and that was IT. Leading up to that point, there were some personal struggles between me and the group (big, convention-ruining struggles), but I had been willing to put that aside to put on our glorious fandom panel, the one that made me feel so special. So this rejection represented their rejection of me; my submission of the panel had failed. And the one who was merited a panel in that fandom? Carly. So therefore, Carly had to have been out to get us. Carly had to have known I wanted that panel so badly. Carly was out for me, specifically. (This was, of course, not true.)
From Carly, with permission:
I felt pretty isolated in [that fandom], sticking close to a few friends at cosplay meetups who didn't know that group; I was afraid that everyone at these cosplay meetups who knew them and were friends with them on social media would have a one-sided personal story about what had happened, because I had kept quiet for fear of starting drama. I don't know how many people saw stuff they wrote about me, but the fear was there until I started befriending more people on my own.
In hindsight, I figured I should have been keeping screenshots of cruel things that had been said about me that mutual friends had mentioned seeing. But I just wanted to be left alone, for this personal drama to be put behind us, and for me not to panic whenever I saw them. I didn't have the emotional energy to put up with seeing any of it, because it always ruined my day. So I tried to go to events, even when they happened to be there, too, and act like nothing had ever happened, just so that I could try to tell myself that things were normal again. I didn't want to ruin anyone else's time at these cosplay meetups.
None of this is to say that I haven't made any mistakes with how I reacted to them in occasional messages we had; we all mess up. Regardless, I wouldn't wish stalking and harassment on anyone.
While I don't have as much evidence of my stalking her, I do have a small collection of some screenshots I had taken leading up to this point that prove I was, as well as an image the group perpetuated that consists of an image of Carly's face and a cruel phrase in meme format. I have a screenshot of a message we had encouraged one of the group members to leave anonymously in her inbox: "Dear Carly, I have a huge crush on you... what do? :(" I have phone pics that serve as screenshots for when I would look at her twitter for updates regarding panels—the text alone doesn't even vague at us or imply anything beyond its most literal interpretation. The queen bee even sent me what she had of an old panel that Carly had presented when they had been friends so that during a skype call, we could rip it to pieces as if our critique mattered. The world was our Burn Book.
What happened next is something so embarrassing that I destroyed evidence of it from Facebook, and I regret that as much as I regret having posted it. I wanted to show you the exact fantasy world in my head at the time and how desperate I was to appease these former friends. I wrote a long, long callout post about Carly, claiming that I had "tried to stay quiet/neutral" and "couldn't" anymore. I explained that Carly had harassed me on Tumblr (with no indication of her having apologized in my callout post), and that she had then spun hate around me to the point where she was definitely targeting me by submitting and winning that panel slot. Some friends agreed; most people showed support. Absolutely nobody had any idea that these beliefs I held were all created and made worse by the presence of that group.
Let me tell you what I learned from this experience: It is SO remarkably easy to believe you are a victim. Not even just to claim you are, but to truly believe that you were wronged instead of being the one doing the wronging. I was absolutely convinced that Carly was out to get me, even though I saw (during one of my "stalking" sessions) that she hadn't even remembered I existed until that incident. I even remember one time during a large fandom photo shoot Carly was running, we lined up in a color order. I was wearing black, so I was at one end; the rest of the group was somewhere in the middle. When pictures came back, I was cut out of some of them in that one shot. Was it because we had an estimated 40 cosplayers in a tiny hallway and it was impossible to include everyone at once? Of COURSE it wasn't. It HAD to be that Carly told the photographer to crop me out of the shot. The group encouraged me to think this way.
Some time passed. A few weird things ended up happening with the group romantically, and I'll be the first to say that my immaturity caused misunderstandings and I wasn't ready to deal with the fallout. The arguments with that group of friends came to a head where I began to suspect I wasn't being treated well (especially based on the increase and language used in hashtags and "read mores" on their Tumblrs), and with a different convention where we were supposed to room together looming, I knew I had to put my foot down. The convention that followed was where I broke it off completely.
An incident occurred where I began to fear for my physical safety and fled to another friend's room for the rest of that convention. I had a moment of pristine clarity: I realized that because I was leaving the group, they would frame me as enemy like they had many other people they disliked.
I realized I was going to become the next Carly.
I realized the only person who would understand the truth was someone who had gone through it, and that I had burned so many bridges between myself and Carly that I was in for extended periods of feeling isolated. Even if I apologized, that didn't mean solidarity.
Because I knew what I had done as well as what they had done, in terms of stalking Carly's accounts, I locked and blocked as many accounts as possible. That didn't save me from over a year and a half of harassment through others, and harassment of my friends as a way to get to me. They began their campaign against me the same way they had begun the one with Carly. Suddenly, the "stalking" I'd done for and of them when we were friends was now surely me stalking them after I left them! Even though all I wanted was to get away, and desperately. I had, and have, no desire to check in. I never wanted, or want, to see or hear about them ever again. I never wanted the texts, calls, voicemail, email, and grapevine rumors from them but there was no way to stop it even though I've walked away in a clean-break fashion; a fact I knew because I couldn't stop once I had started harassing Carly. As far as I understand, there are still people giving them information about me and my life even now.
But people can change and grow. I haven't lost hope. Over a year ago, I reached out to Carly to apologize for my actions. She was truly the only one who'd gone through exactly what I'd gone through. Graciously, and unexpectedly, she forgave me. She didn't have to. She could have walked away forever and let me pay for how I harassed her. Instead, she showed immense compassion and courage. We talked at length about what had happened to us, and I shared methods I had used to stalk and harass in case it could help protect her from their continued pursuit. Carly inspired me to keep forging CSSN as a place where people who had been harassed could commiserate. Being able to talk with her and have her understand exactly how I had become such a toxic person myself without judging me helped me more than she may ever know. It gave me an opportunity to analyze my actions and words and see how easily I'd fallen into becoming a harasser. Now, the best thing I can do is to use the knowledge I have from being on that side of the fence to show others the warning signs within themselves. It's my dream to inspire cosplayers to encourage each other in a genuine, community-building way so that we don't breed more Mean Girls.
In my recovery from this and other traumas in my life, I have made mistakes and upset people; I've had to leave some people behind, and was saddened that others left me before I had the chance to tell my side of the story; I've misunderstood, and bumbled, and regretted. I've hurt people. I'm not perfect. But I want to be better. I want to let go of what happened, but part of me still feels that the only way I'll be free from being harassed is when they choose their next target. And nobody deserves to be in the position of "next target." The situation is not "if"; it's "when," because people in their position tend to refuse to see their actions as wrong. I certainly did! However, I know that if they were truly being harassed, truly repentant, and wanted a place to discuss their needs? I wouldn't turn them away from CSSN. (Of course, due to our conflict of interest philosophy, I wouldn't be the one to speak to members of that group, but I want to make it very clear that they wouldn't be turned away.) I hope they grow and learn from their actions as I learned from mine. And I will try to forgive; if Carly can forgive me for what I did, nothing is impossible.