What academic mobbing feels like

In my many years on Twitter, I have seen a lot of interesting things. Back when I first started some 9 years ago, it used to be, well, fun. People would joke, share, and generally enjoy engaging as part of a community. We used to go viral, discussing and celebrating the things we loved. Now though, it seems to have taken on a whole different character. The people are pretty much the same, but the dynamic feels different.

A key part of this, I feel, is due to cases of ‘academic mobbing’. This can be generally described asnon-violent, sophisticated, ‘ganging up’ behaviour adopted by academicians to “wear and tear” a colleague down emotionally through unjustified accusation, humiliation, general harassment and emotional abuse. Bullies use mobbing activities to hide their own weaknesses and incompetence. Targets selected are often intelligent, innovative high achievers, with good integrity and principles. Mobbing activities appear trivial and innocuous on its own but the frequency and pattern of their occurrence over long period of time indicates an aggressive manipulation to “eliminate” the target.”

Does this sound familiar?

Mobbing, in general, is just a type of crowd-based bullying behaviour. I have not exactly fond memories of high school inner-city playgrounds where I grew up, where mobbing and bullying were fairly common and perhaps even to be expected as part of the trials of youth and adolescence. Groups of bullies would descend upon others for almost any reason; wearing the wrong shoes, being poor, sounding too posh, liking a particular type of music, you get the idea.

Mobbing is probably not the sort of behaviour which we would usually expect of our intellectual academic elite. Or perhaps, it might be, as intellectual and emotional maturity do not necessarily always go hand in hand. When I try and talk about this behaviour to non-academics, they always give me a look that says something like “Seriously, fully-grown adults still behave this way..?

When you’re a witness to mobbing, usually which takes place in the ethereal space known colloquially as ‘science Twitter’ it must look incredibly strange from the outside. Hundreds of individuals, most with PhDs, many with professorships, seem to descend upon virtually anyone for just about any infraction of whatever the latest woke-flavour of the month is. You either join in the crowd, or just ignore it and hope that it never turns on you.

To me, in almost every circumstance, it looks like massively over the top retaliatory behaviour. Yes, someone might have fucked up, and badly; but mobbing isn’t exactly a behaviour that comes across as empathetic or forgiving, it doesn’t seem to teach anyone anything, and it certainly doesn’t hold anyone accountable for their actions in a proportional manner.

It also probably never results in anything besides ‘cancelling’ of individuals, due to the usually severe reputational damage that comes from it. I imagine for some, this will be the precise intent of such mobbing. But to me, it feels more like vindictive behaviour than any reasonable quest for justice. In this post, I will try to illustrate why, using two examples I was personally involved in.

Part 1: As part of the mob

I have been within one of these mobs before, several years ago now. It was one that was targeted at William Gunn (@mrgunn), who works for Elsevier. I have known Will for many years, mostly from conferences and online chats. I really liked him in person, and found him to be a generally kind and thoughtful individual. He has a funny sense of humour, one that works well more between friends, I feel. One of the things I liked most about Will was his ability to make me think about things from different ways, and carefully challenge my own perspectives, particularly on issues around scholarly communication. This relationship matters, because in a toneless online world, it helps me to empathise more with where Will is coming from and what he is saying.

He often had made comments online that were provocative, and often seemingly deliberately to ignite discussion. There was one infamous time though when Will sent a tweet saying “Yes, everyone should have rainbows, unicorns, & puppies delivered to their doorstep by volunteers. Y’all keep wishing for that, I’ll keep working on producing the best knowledge and distributing it as best we can.” It was in response to Ashley Farley, who had said “People shouldn’t have to jump through additional hoops to access information because they aren’t privileged enough to be associated with an institution that can (nowadays its barely) afford subscriptions.”

Depending on how you look at this tweet, Will either just told a funny joke, or was vastly inappropriate and being a massive dick. Or anything in between, or all the possibilities. It was in public, and everyone saw and interpreted it through their own lens. Given that Elsevier are not exactly everyone’s favourite publisher, having your Director of Scholarly Communications tweeting these sorts of things probably doesn’t fall under what was considered acceptable in their communications strategy. This was what we will probably one day classify as an “Oh boy, here we go again..” moment.

But as well as trying to get where Will was coming from here, on the other side, we also need to try and empathise with Ashley. Ashley works at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is an individual who I have an enormous amount of respect for. We have often spoken about how elements of the ‘open science community’ present and conduct themselves, particularly in online spaces. I know that Ashley is not alone in being a woman who seems often to be ‘shouted down’ by men on Twitter, and we discussed this incident as a strong example of that. Will’s tweet, and coming from someone with a lot more ‘power/status’ online, must definitely have felt like being punched down on.

Let me be absolutely clear here. Intention does matter. It matters, because if we think about the others’ intention, it automatically is helping us to empathise with that individual, and gives us a second to pause before emotionally engaging with a reactive response. I believe that Will was trying to be funny, but failed to fully consider the negative impact that such a silly response could have online, and the message that it was sending out.

At around that time, I was in conversation with a number of other women about how they felt both coddled and often bullied at the same time from different elements of the ‘open science community’, both from other men and women. We would often discuss how I could use my Twitter platform (and its many followers) to help address times when men behaved inappropriately towards women, especially on Twitter. Which, as some also indicated to me, this tweet from Will was a pretty solid example of.

So, I messaged Will publicly and privately about this, to say that it wasn’t perhaps the smartest comment to make, given his professional status at Elsevier and within the ‘open science community’, and that he really needs to consider how this looks from the ‘outside’. I was also asked to comment on this incident for an article in Slate magazine, given the sensitivity of the topic, in which I remarked that the comment seemed “bizarrely callous”.

It wasn’t just me who commented though – maybe hundreds of people ‘mobbed’ Will, with thousands of interactions in total (retweets, likes, etc). This tweet even made it into several media articles, and encouraged even more piling on to Will. As you can see from the responses to his tweet, of which there are many, most are a combination of ‘call outs’, pretty nasty insults, and equally sarcastic retorts. It didn’t help that Will seemed to defend himself for such a long time, rather than just apologising for what seemed to be a careless mistake. Either way, to me it did not look particularly good for either ‘side’.

From what I know of Will, I have no doubt that he was just making a sarcastic remark, and intended it to be humorous and a light-hearted overview of the wishful thinking that many advocates have about the future of scholarly publishing. And I’m sure it would have been taken more or less this way if it was just a bunch of people chatting over a beer at a conference or something. At worst, at least in circles I move in, someone would have just said “That’s not a cool thing to say”, there would have been a quick apology, acceptance of that, and we would have all moved on. Problem solved.

However, on Twitter, intentions can often be twisted and reinterpreted to mean pretty much anything. Twitter seems to specialise in creating hysteria over the slightest infractions, as part of what often feels like a quite crude and not particularly dignified social crowd mentality. Hence, academic mobbing.

I have been in toxic relationships before, and this is part of how they thrive. Constantly shifting expectations so that you never know what the next thing to catalyse a violent emotional response will be. You end up walking on eggshells, stifling yourself and conforming to totally unrealistic expectations, just in case even the most minor thing triggers an explosion.

Academia is in a toxic relationship with Twitter.

In this case, I was definitively part of the mob, and I don’t think my public involvement helped anything. In the end, no, it was not the smartest tweet to make in public. This comment might also have worked okay between friends in a more private setting, but when the world is waiting and has its finger on the trigger and always pointing at you, best to err on the side of caution.

As in, if you have to think twice before you tweet something, best not to tweet it, and if you’re not thinking before you’re tweeting, best not to be on Twitter.

So, was Will’s tweet inappropriate? Yes, I think so. Did it require the disproportionate response that it did from the ‘community’ to help fix it, and help Will see that it was not the smartest idea? No, I do not think so. Just to reiterate, I am NOT defending Will at all over his actions. What I am suggesting is maybe we can all just tone down the hostility on Twitter a bit more.

When someone messes up, we behave with civility, and lead by example. Twitter is public, and people are watching. And mobbing does not look good. It might not seem like a mob when we are just a small part of it and cannot see the full; but from the outside or when you are the victim of one, it sure as hell does. We can all work together to more constructively point out others’ mistakes and what feels like inappropriate behaviour, and how we can all learn from them to make a healthier online culture in the future.

The best times when I have personally learned from my mistakes are not when I have been harassed and bullied by a torrent of anger; that just triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. They are the times when compassionate individuals have taken the time to speak to me privately, carefully explain why what I did/said was inappropriate, and what I can do to avoid it in the future and make amends if needed. I can think of several cases in my life where this has happened, and I am highly grateful to those individuals for helping me grow. Over time, this has also been how I personally work with others where I feel their behaviour might have been inappropriate too. It works.

At the time this was all going off, I could not have felt what this experience must have been like for Will. I imagine, difficult, to say the least. Sometime later, I did end up chatting again with Will, and apologised to him for my contributing to this incident. I’m happy to say that he was forgiving of me, and seemed to have learned a lot from the experience.

We are all highly imperfect humans and all make mistakes. We never fail alone, and we do not need to fail backwards. The thing which divides us though is whether or not we choose to learn from those mistakes, and make a commitment to personal development. Some of the best people I know in life now are those who fucked up the worst in their history.

The more ‘popular’ we seem to get, the more responsibility we shoulder, and the more accountable we should be for our behaviours. But, as a rule of thumb, I try to be civil to people, especially when they might misbehave, and use these incidents as learning and growth opportunities. Less reactive, more reflective. Anything else does not feel like justice to me.

Academic mobs are not an effective form of conflict resolution.

Part 2: As a victim of the mob

Over the last few months, I have also been the ‘victim’ of one of these mobs. Some of you may feel this was justified, others may think it was out of proportion. Many of you might laugh at the thought of me being a ‘victim’, as if this was something that could only be granted in certain circumstances (see DARVO-ing). Comparing victimisation does not seem to help anything, and one person being a victim does not marginalise another. There is no monopoly on suffering or adversity.

Whatever your views, I respect them, as long as you can justify them. I know that there are some who are standing by to continue to invalidate my feelings and experiences. Irrespective of that, I still want to share what it is like to be the target of such a mobbing. I want to see if I can adequately describe what it feels like, in the hopes that people can see what effect it has and do not do it so much in the future.

The intention of this is not to diminish my own responsibilities relating to this whole incident. I have written several articles before about the circumstances leading to this mobbing, and don’t need to repeat them here. Even after I had made a public apology, and made it clear that I had also apologised to those affected some years before, very little seemed to change. Very few people seemed to care that it involved things from many years ago, or that I have spent the last few years of my life dedicated to trying to create a healthier and fairer research culture; at least in part, because of the mistakes I had previously made.

Similar to the incident with Will, my mobbing incident involved hundreds, maybe thousands, of tweets over a period of months, and many thousands more interactions (retweets, likes, responses) on those tweets. This actually still continues a bit to this day, with a number of individuals continuing to make highly hostile comments about me, and calling for others to ‘cancel’ me too. While all of this has hurt my Twitter numbers quite a bit, that has been the least damaging thing.

Many of these messages/comments were from people I don’t know, or have never even spoken to or met before. Many of them though were from people I know and respected. Virtually all of the public element of it was confined to Twitter.

These people hurled almost every possible violent insult my way, hurtful accusations, and just generally not very nice things that do not need repeating here. Given that this was based on near-zero public information, virtually all of it was unfounded besides rumours through ‘whisper networks’. Even now, after I have made as much information as possible public (i.e., the truth from my perspective), many of the original mob don’t seem to care, are continuing to be aggressive, and presumably feel quite content and justified with their behaviours.

For the articles that I have made public on the matter, it has been a bit strange. The blog posts are getting an incredible amount of traffic, but barely any ‘interactions’, either on the blog or social media. This is almost the inverse pattern to what happens normally. My thoughts are that, combined, some people perhaps need time to process all of this information, some just do not care, many are realising the disproportionate nature of the mobbing, and many are still afraid of interacting with my name due to the ‘taint’ associated with cancel culture. Indeed, many in the mob made it clear that anyone who in the future supports or associates with me is just as evil.

Once the incredibly vague statement from OpenCon was out there, it provided a benchmark for others to begin to pile in too. Yes, there was a small amount of legitimate and fair criticism, relating to things long ago in my past which I thought had been since dealt with. But that was diluted by people bringing up just about anything they could get there hands on to attack me. Jokes made in the pub many years ago, memes posted online, basically anything that could be used to cut the existing wound deeper and make me look like a villain. Much of this orchestrated by just a few key individuals, who made sure to circulate as many of these comments as they could, presumably to show through weight of numbers that all allegations were true and reinforcing each others’ legitimacy.

Due to the time that has past since any of these actual real incidents, and the manner in which people went about the mobbing, it did not feel at all like people were trying to address any issue or protect anyone. It felt like they were in it for blood, for the thrill of taking me down, and brandishing their righteousness and virtues for all to see. There was little to gain except retribution.

My mind watching all of this veered between feeling a sort of fascinated pity for people for behaving in such a strange way, and sadness with a twinge of anger at the things being said. Pity, because I felt ashamed to see people behaving in such a way, and thinking that it was in any way responsible or mature. Sadness and anger, because there was nothing else I or anyone could do to stop them; silence was accepting all guilt, speaking out would be seen as defiance and reinforce the view that I am disagreeable or whatever. It was a lose-lose situation.

Much of the sadness, though, came from the fact that virtually all of it was based on lies. Virtually all of my partners and close friends from the last few years expressed privately how they were enraged and saddened by it all, as they knew it painted me in an unfair light. I was glad that they expressed their anger at others with me in private, rather than in public, due to the risks associated with that.

There are heroes out there, who speak up when they are victims of real crimes. And there are villains out there who commit those crimes. In this incident, neither were present. And the incredible over-hyping of such a small incident does an incredible amount of damage to those real stories, eroding away at how sensitive we are to them. I was sad, because I felt like those real stories were being invalidated by this display. A number of individuals reached out to me feeling that their real-lived traumas were invalidated by these actions from the mob. I was angry, because I knew those at the centre of this would probably get away with it., and were essentially duping a majority of ‘good’ people into this behaviour.

Back in those high school playgrounds where I grew up, the only other place I have ever seen this sort of behaviour, the solution for this would have been simple. The adolescent victim would target the biggest/loudest of the bullies, the alpha, and punch them. Hard. The rest of the pack would all of a sudden find their courage waning, and things would die down.

I saw this sort of mobbing regularly during my growing years though. Back in high school (age 15-17), me and my friends were targeted on a daily basis by a much larger, aggressive group of boys, for no apparent reason. One time, I had enough with their behaviour, and while alone I challenged the biggest one of them to show some guts and fight me one on one instead of as a mob. Not smart at the time, but you know, adolescence. Thankfully, I walked away unscathed after a scuffle, but after that, they kept their distance, until most of them ended up leaving the school (UK system things). After the alphas had gone, the rest just got on with school, and avoided the eye contact of me and my friends. Even stranger though was that whenever I would take the time to speak with these bullies one-on-one in private, they would usually confess that they were only doing it to impress their friends, were having a bad time at home, or didn’t really know why, they just thought it was harmless fun. Until it wasn’t.

The story here being that bullying and fighting like this was something to be expected of working class boys with too much testosterone and no idea what to do with it. Academic mobbing feels the same, but, as most of it seems to be online, no one ends up getting punched in the face. I did not strike back though against the mob this time, and have tried to maintain my composure through all of these difficult months.

On Twitter, no one holds you accountable for being a bully. In academia, our bullies get promoted. I am not saying ‘academic bullies’ should be punched in the face. What I am saying though is I bet most people wouldn’t behave the way they did if they were more accountable for their actions.

Now, in small amounts, I can take insults. I can spot a bully from a mile off, and an ego from even further. I grew up on the streets of an inner city in England, and if you don’t grow a thick skin and learn to shrug off bullies, you don’t get too far. I can handle a small stream of insults, but not a tsunami. One-on-one, my ‘social profile’ is bigger than almost any individual who attacked me on Twitter, However, when they all group together, it’s the sheer volume of them that becomes overwhelming. And it really was.

The whole mob was designed to strategically isolate me through fear and intimidation. No evidence was needed, I was guilty of all accusations by default through the court of Twitter. Anyone who spoke up in my defence, or even just called for a bit of reason or evidence, was similarly attacked. This is a common tactic now for people who engage in ‘cancel culture’ and mobbing behaviour.

Strangely again, most of the people so heavily involved in this mob, I had already muted/blocked for some time due to their aggressive online behaviours. I have a near-zero tolerance for toxic individuals and those who promote ‘outrage culture’. Most of them had also blocked me. I was only able to see most of the more violent comments thanks to a number of friends sending me a constant stream of updates and screenshots.

Most of the time through all of this, I just sort of felt empty inside. Often during the worst times, my whole body felt sick. Like it wanted to turn inside out and vomit out my soul. This is the best way I can describe a feeling that I hope no-one else has to ever suffer. I’m not going to shy away from words describing this, because it would not do justice to the reality I faced.

Relentlessly, over a period of months, the mobbing waves ground me down mentally and physically. It almost seemed stochastic, coming from new and different angles every day. Do you know like when you have food poisoning, and you have to painfully vomit and wretch up absolutely everything inside of you over a period of days? Yeah, it felt like life was doing that to me. Just when I thought there was nothing else left, nope, wrong.

I told myself to stay away, but I couldn’t. It was fascinating, in a deeply disturbing way. I checked every day to see this ‘cancel culture’ in full swing, and to see what those who I had once considered to be friends and colleagues were saying about me. Just when it felt like I was gaining control of my mind again, something new would happen, and it would come crashing down. Every minute of each day, I felt like my mind was skating on impossibly thin ice over a black hole of despair.

Throughout it all, I really did not understand anything. I knew that I had messed up in the past, but this all felt highly disproportionate. To this day, I still do not fully understand the motivations behind much of this incident. This was the worst part, not knowing where it all came from. At least if I knew what it was I had apparently done, to whom, and when, I could seek to apologise for those mistakes and atone.

But after months, it seemed like virtually all of this was based on just one incident from many years ago. I thought that it could not be right. There must be more. It felt like a sword was hanging over me at all times, wielded by an unknown villain. I could not make a move in public. I could not begin to try and recover inside. Because what if the worst was still to come? My friends had to constantly remind me that I’m not some evil fucker who is going to jail, and that I had not committed any crimes. I wracked my brains, trying to think of every potentially bad thing I had ever done to anyone, to see what could have been behind this. Almost every quest I put out for answers returned no information. Doing anything about this on Twitter during this time was of course out of the question.

While most of the ‘mobbing’ in this case did occur online, it had a number of consequences offline. I have documented most of the damages briefly in this post, but did not go into much detail. I will try to describe some of them here, as I think it is important.

In Denmark, where I was living and working while this began, my life was highly disrupted, to say the least. Some of my colleagues were highly distressed watching the behaviours unfold. People from all around the world were calling and messaging all day long for weeks. Have you seen what people on Twitter are saying? What is happening, Jon? Did OpenCon tell you what this is all about yet? How can we help? Why is this happening now? Jon, did you rape someone?

The moment I saw someone accused me online of rape, I almost passed out. I was at an important event in Berlin, and could not focus at all. I was trying so hard, but people were messaging non-stop about the mobbing. When I saw it, I cannot describe what it was like. I don’t think my English is good enough, or the words even exist. All I could do, was message a friend who worked nearby to ask to come and pick me up, it was an emergency, and wait for an appropriate time to leave. All I had to do until then was stay conscious and not vomit. During a break, I politely made my exit, and fled. What was supposed to be a critical moment in my career, and possibly the most important day in my life in service to ‘Open Science’, was utterly destroyed. To this day, I still do not understand the link between this obviously false allegation and the OpenCon statement.

Around this incident in Berlin, I found it increasingly difficult to focus on my work, especially when giving public talks. I had to continue to work as best as I could, but it was damn difficult. I spent virtually all of my private time trying to work out what had happened, speaking with concerned friends and colleagues, and really not doing much work. It was virtually impossible to concentrate on my work, as every few seconds my phone was going off. And if I stayed away for too long, I would be buried under the volume of unread messages, or miss important developments as they unfolded. It was like drinking saltwater; the more I drank, the thirstier I got.

It was a daily grind, from the moment I woke up, to the minute I went to bed. The first thing I would do when waking up after a few hours of shaky sleep would be to check the damage overnight. It was all I could think about. Who had I hurt, how, what could I do to make up for it, why now after so long, why are all these people being so angry, what is the lesson, what to do next, should I respond or stay silent, who should I respond to next, what about this project, what about this person. Non-stop, all day. A racing mind lost in a jungle.

I spent a lot of time reading about similar incidents of public shaming, academic mobbing, ‘kangaroo courts’, and false accusations made under similar circumstances. I spent my time reading books about forgiveness, compassion, trauma recovery, and similar topics. Through this, I realised that in almost all of the similar incidents, even when they were ‘resolved’, it seemed like there was bitterness left at the end. I decided to focus on unconditional forgiveness, in that all of those who were so deeply involved in this, I would forgive for their hostility towards me, and try to deeply empathise where this was all coming from. It was not easy.

Only through constant meditation on this was I able to stay focused enough to get through each day. I was able to keep my emotions within, and maintain a stable focus enough to get by. As this continued over time, I allowed myself to release some emotions while meditating, which has been helping me to recover a bit more each day. But still, the number of unknowns surrounding this, and the amount of damage the mob caused to me physically and emotionally, makes recovery slow and difficult.

Just before this incident kicked off, I was lucky to meet a wonderful individual, and we began dating. My heart, already deep in recovery mode for some years beforehand, had begun to feel alive again. When this new storm hit, my heart shut down again completely and automatically. I had been hurt so much in the past, there was no way in hell my heart was letting itself become vulnerable again. I lost all positive feeling, all loving emotions, and my heart went dormant. Every time I felt just a little love towards someone, it came with sadness, as I knew that I would not be able to express myself fully to them. Even today, I can still feel it that my heart is pain. When meditating, I focus on my heart, and it immediately brings all sorts of painful memories and emotions surrounding this to the front so that I can slowly release them, and understand the pain that it is going through. Sadly, focusing on not falling apart was taking every little bit of my emotional energy, and I was unable to give this person the love they deserved. They understood, but continued to hold my hand through this dark time. I cannot adequately express my gratitude to that person. I am quite sure that I would be in a much darker place without them, and perhaps would not even be alive.

Several times, I had breakdowns as a result of this mob. Let me tell you directly, these are not nice experiences, and I wish none of you ever have to suffer them. Most of my close friends know that the last few years of my life have been very challenging for me for a number of reasons. Adding this latest incident on top of all of that did not seem fair to them. I always say that these moments in life are our greatest challenges and opportunities for growth, but fuck, this was too much. I just wanted a month or two of stability, was that too much to ask?

Breakdowns are difficult to describe. For me, it’s like, everything just became too much, overwhelming, and I lost the ability to function, so I would just cry. Often just during normal times of the day, it would come out of nowhere, and I would shut down. In periods of silence or isolation, or even when others were around. I was trying so hard to remain stable during all of this, keep my emotions in check, so that I could still do my work, focus on getting through this, and helping others who were involved too. Present a strong front, and let others draw from that. Sometimes though, that strength just is not enough though.

I remember one evening while outside in Denmark. It was cold and wet, and had been another evening of these relentless online attacks. Friends and colleagues were again messaging me in private, apologising but not knowing what to do. I told one friend that this was it, I was going offline, going away, severing contact with everyone, and did not know when or if I would return. All this while the online mob just seemed to relish in being part of my death by a thousand tweets. At this point, it got to me. I cracked, and I sat alone in the dark, cold, rain outside, and just cried. I don’t remember for how long.

I thought about ending things on a number of occasions. I know that it is stupid, but the thought is there. I don’t feel this way because of guilt over what I have done. It is because the amount of hostility directed at me was just so intense. I did not understand, and it felt so unjust. I really do not understand how some people can think that they are behaving in any sort of humane way. Often, I did not know whether to cry in despair or laugh in pity. Often, it felt like I was watching a crazy drama unfold, or some sort of weird game; but then I remembered the damage it was causing and the funny side would quickly disappear. Why should I stay alive just to work for such an ungrateful and unjust community? I will not hide that my thoughts during this time were incredibly dark, and often it felt like my mind was in a cage, unable to even exhibit feeling anymore.

Before I left Berlin last year, 4 of my close friends confessed to me thoughts of suicide. A few weeks ago, a colleague told me of 2 people he knew who had recently killed themselves due to this sort of academic mobbing. I cannot emphasise to you how seriously I take this behaviour, and how damaging I believe it to be.

During all of this, I really began to rigorously question everything about my life, even more than usual. No matter what support my friends offered, no matter the reality I thought I knew, the mob had spoken and judged me. I did not really know what for still, but all I could think about is what a shit human I must have been for it to get this far. But I still did not know how, as the information was all concealed to me still, if it even existed. I know, deep down, that I have always striven to be selfless and be a ‘good’ human, learning from my mistakes and helping others. But all of these strangers, they too know that I am a worthless human being, so they must be right, right? Why else would they be behaving this way?

While I was able to keep my mind mostly in check, noting bad thoughts, and dealing with them as they came, my body was a bit different. I noticed that my hands became restless. They were always doing something. Fidgeting, touching something, or mostly playing with my facial hair. I would often phase out for long periods, blankly staring at nothingness, only to realise after that I had just spent long times doing nothing but twiddling my ‘beard’. That was new. Even now, just proofing this for the final time, I just noticed that my hands have been playing constantly. Great.

I felt even worse when all of this impacted my friends, colleagues, and family. The additional emotional distress it caused them made me feel even worse. I usually feel a lot of love for those around me, and it hurts to know that they are in pain too. Because ultimately, this whole thing is still my fault, my mind tells me. And I can see the pain and love in their eyes too. None of my friends really knew what to do, or what to say. Patience and courage, they would send me, and gratefully, I would accept. But none of us are trained for this sort of thing. I put on a brave face for them all, but inside, my heart wept for them.

Right now, it has been more than 3.5 months since the OpenCon statement, and I still have very little idea about anything behind it. I have been as open and honest about all of this as possible, especially including my role and responsibility in it all. I cannot really think of any other way of dealing with this stuff other than honesty and compassion. Even those who have tried to hurt me the most, I have been messaging to see if they want to discuss things with civility. I truly do not understand the behaviour of so many people involved in this mob.

For the time being, I have gone into a state of isolation. Only a few people know of my whereabouts, and I am going to keep it that way until circumstances change. I have become closed-off emotionally, and on lock down; I know what this feels like, as I have been through it all before. I am terrified of interacting with people who I don’t know, as my trust has been totally compromised and betrayed. It requires an incredible amount of mental energy just to converse with others. Every day is still difficult, as I focus on repairing my heart and mind. At the front of it all, I keep asking, how can I use this event not just to improve myself, but also to serve as a lesson to others. Hopefully just by writing this down, it can help a bit.

So, some of you are probably reading this and thinking that the impact this is having on me is totally justified. That mobbing is a totally valid way of punishing people for whatever behaviour. However, my hope is that most of you are compassionate individuals, and wish that such never happens again in such a massively disproportionate way. And not only take steps yourself to do so, but also encourage others to think twice before engaging.

And that is what is academic mobbing feels like.

6 thoughts on “What academic mobbing feels like

  1. The online bullying you have experienced by OpenCon members and ‘the mob’ is quite clear and public. Well done for keeping your cool and sticking to the facts.

    If you had any kind of criminal case to answer then your accusers should follow up with the police, allow the law to take it’s course and let justice prevail. However, this doesn’t appear to resemble the reality of the situation.

    OpenCon appear to have fostered a pretty toxic community culture that first encourages, and then protects, salacious and malicious gossip spread by its members.

    Without irony, this is referred to as a ‘whisper network’ by OpenCon members on twitter.

    No mistake, this is frenzied and thoughtless psychological bullying. I’m certain that there will be many who think as I do, that there is great shame in the behaviors exhibited by certain OpenCon members online. That the tearing down of a persons life and reputation without evidence is wrong. We may be less vocal than the mob, and we are all too often drowned out, or scared into silence/anonymity, or fatigued. But we exist.

    The hypocrisy in OpenCon’s handling and management of it’s members speaks volumes. Thank you for bringing attention to these issues and best of luck.

    OpenConned… laughable.

    I strongly recommend you read Jon Ronson’s work, e.g. his book ‘So, you’ve been publicly shamed’. It seems highly relevant to your situation.

    1. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, Elizabeth. It certainly helps me to feel less alone in all of this. For me, it is quite heartbreaking, as I invested a lot of time and energy in this community, and the vast majority of them are wonderful people. I remain at a loss for how things escalated to such a state.

      I still wish that justice will find its course, one way or another, in this. This includes if there is more that I am legitimately ‘guilty’ of. And that there remain lessons for us all to learn from and grow stronger together with.

      Thanks for the book recommendation, you are certainly not the first to suggest it! 🙂

  2. I’m a random stranger who found this post as my first exposure to this incident. I’m appalled at how you have been treated.

    For many who follow incidents like this, the flurry of injustice after injustice is deeply depressing. I was tempted not to comment, but I was conscious of being another ambiguous page view to be interpreted as passive judgement of your character.

    Even if we take these allegations as totally and unambiguously true (which I don’t), mistakes are human. Your character is not defined by a moment in time, a minor social infraction that happened years before.

    The reality is that this is trendy at the moment. It’s fun for people to attack strangers for imagined crimes. Simple as this.

    The reality is that the benefits you bring to the people closest to you, and the positive influence you could have in academia, have been stolen. The wider community has lost you, and that is a minor tragedy.

    The reality is that you deserve the chance to move on from this. My ideal would be to see you sue your primary interlocutors for defamation. I can understand how you would not want to do this, how it would prolong your exposure to more toxicity and pain. I’d just love to see justice done, and your name cleared.

    I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive yourself. I hope you find peace.

    1. Hi Oisin, thanks for taking the time to comment, I do appreciate it. The posts I have been making on all of this have been getting an incredible amount of traffic, and yet virtually no engagements compared to what I usually post. The inverse pattern.

      It does feel like pretty much everything I stand for, have worked for, and all of the things I have achieved have been taken away now. Part of me thinks that this was the intention too, and I am still waiting to be shown otherwise. If I was really some sort of high-risk menace, I would be the first to remove myself from social situations. I did forgive myself a long time ago for this little thing, as did the other person involved. The injustice just keeps rearing its ugly head and dragging on though. I really do not want to sue anyone, but as for recovering from the damages done and seeking at least one form of justice, I do feel I am being left with little choice.

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