Mailbag: Bad Fans
Q: This morning I was surprised to find that a reader had commented on almost all of my comics and messaged me on Twitter. They were even decent comments. As this is a rare occurrence I was excited to show my co-author. This is when we both noticed something odd. The commenter’s name had a hash tag after it — #WR — which is used by white supremacists. It now appeared on every page of my comic. Looking through his feed, it was littered with racist and sexist messages.
This revelation really took the wind out of my sails. Now I was torn between respecting a person’s free speech and distancing my comic from political affiliations that I’d rather avoid. In the end we agreed to delete the comments.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the matter and if you’ve had to deal with similar situations?
On a related note, I was wondering about stalker-y fan behavior. I’ve had mildly stalker-like followers before, but nothing that forced me to make a stand. They eventually faded to the background, but what concerned me was the difficulty in maintaining good fan relations vs. distancing yourself from invasions of privacy.
A: Whew! There’s a lot there to cover! Let’s take it from the top…
First of all, I don’t know if I would have deleted the fan’s comments, but I would have quietly deleted the hashtag. However, if this person had commented on a sizeable number of posts, that might have represented more time than you were willing to invest.
The bigger issue — for me — is that you seem to feel that this is an issue of Free Speech. And on that point, I disagree completely. This person definitely has a right to Free Speech, but you are in no obligation whatsoever to enable that free speech. This person is more than welcome to sharing his thoughts and opinions — on his own. Your site has zero responsibility in making that happen. So it’s not a Free Speech issue.
Is it censorship? Perhaps. Does that make it wrong? I’d argue that it doesn’t. Again, if your censorship prevented this person from sharing his message entirely, then it would be the kind of censorship that we generally fight against. But you don’t have that power. If this person wants to, he or she could open up a free Tumblr account and mirror every last one of those comments — complete with the hashtag — on his own. You simply don’t have enough power to truly censor this individual.
I always use the analogy of a house party. In running a site, you are the host, and you have a diverse group of guests. A good host does not allow the boorish behavior of one guest make his other friends uncomfortable. In a situation such as this, your duty as a host would be to quietly remove the potentially harmful material. Do you owe the commenter an explanation? I wouldn’t offer it, but if asked, I’d have no problem explaining that those sorts of messages would potentially make some of my other readers feel uncomfortable — and therefore, they’re bad for business.
I’ve only had a few fans who I’d qualify as behaving in a stalker-like manner. In all cases, it was someone who felt as if they — because of their longtime readership or ardent fandom — were entitled to greater access to my personal life than I was willing to grant. It’s weird — especially in webcomics.It seems as if we have a very simple “contract” with out readers. We agree to put a comic up on a Web site for them to read, and they agree to read that comic. There is no other aspect to our relationship past that. And any and all other transactions — buying a T-shirt, supporting a Kickstarter campaign, etc. — are just that… transactions. They pay money, you provide merchandise, and the transaction is at an end. Completing that transaction — or a series of them — does not entitle the fan to anything more than a heartfelt thank-you.
This becomes even more dicey when you have a spouse and/or children. The access that you give a fan becomes access to their lives, too.
In each case, I tried to explain it rationally and politely. After all, our business is all about finding “1,000 True Fans.” One does not get to that number by pissing them off one-by-one. For me, that has usually worked. However, once I found myself in the position that the only way to bring the issue to a satisfying conclusion was to cut the conversation off cold turkey, refusing to answer subsequent entreaties.