To feed or not to feed the trolls?
Powerful San Antonio tech guru sets boundaries in new book taming online trolls
When I asked Lorenzo Gomez III to tell me a little about himself, he warned me that the answer would be pretty long-winded. It’s not because he’s a long-winded guy – it’s because he’s done a lot.
He worked at Rackspace, the technology company, right out of college when it was just getting off the ground; three of his 10 years working for Rackspace were spent in the London offices. He ran a private foundation and cofounded a nonprofit. He ran a coworking space in San Antonio. He started San Antonio Startup Week to enhance the tech industry community in the city. He’s also written four books, and he’s working on number five.
His latest book, The Bully in Your Pocket: Your #1 Playbook to Defeat Online Trolls, came out in November. It’s a quick read — just 152 pages — full of useful information for dealing with online bullying, harassment, and trolling. I chatted with Gomez about why he wrote the book and how his work in the tech industry has affected the boundaries he sets online in his personal life. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
There are 10 "plays" in the bookBook cover courtesy of Lorenzo Gomez III
CultureMap San Antonio: How does your work in the tech industry converge with the personal experiences you share in your books? Are they related?
Lorenzo Gomez III: "I think they do relate. I’m feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunities that I received in my career. [My middle school] Tafolla is one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged in the entire country. I got into the tech world and I realized there’s a place for everyone in technology. I feel like a lot of people think that it’s not for them. And so part of my mission is to encourage people, to give them hope, to say, “Actually, these places are for you as well.”
And so the mental health book [Tafolla Toro: Three Years of Fear] for me was, 'Hey, let me tell you about this stuff that I had to deal with in therapy.' [Middle school trauma] showed up in my adult years while I was trying to live abroad and work in the tech space.
And then on the new book, I feel so lucky and fortunate to have started working at Rackspace when I did, because I graduated in 1999, and Rackspace started in 1999. We didn’t have the vernacular that we have now. No one really used the word “trolls.” We just knew that certain people were just super mean online. So I feel like I was growing up with this naivety that ended up helping me look back and reflect on it, and realize everybody will have a moment like I did when I was a young man engaging with these online people and these tools for the first time."
CM: In the book, you’ve listed 10 “plays” in this playbook for handling online trolls. How did you choose those 10?
LG: "When I was writing the book I got stuck several times, and there was one sort of epiphany I had, which was that this is actually a three-part book. The first part is everything I learned since 2001 being an online tech guy about the psychology of trolls and how people use the internet.
And then in section two I tell the story of a professional troll that trolled me when I was CEO of Geekdom. And it was a very, very traumatic, stressful time period. In hindsight, I thought we overcame it very successfully. We didn't make it worse. I thought we handled ourselves professionally. We didn't engage in any name calling. And so when I look back on it, I said, well, what were the things that we did that allowed us to overcome this successfully. And are there things that I would recommend to other people that I think apply to any situation?
So I sort of went line-by-line in the story and pulled the parts that I thought I would refer to anyone or the recommendations I would make to anybody. And those are the templates that you see there."
CM: The refrain we always hear is “Don’t feed the trolls.” You outline some scenarios where you actually recommend responding to people. How do you decide when to respond?
LG: I think you have to decide what kind of user you want to be before you really deploy a strategy. For me, I want my internet presence to be about my community — mostly local, but I have a bunch of friends abroad that I like to keep up with. I want to be up-to-date on their lives. I want to post things that are encouraging. And I want to encourage other people online. I don’t mind if I read a comment and it seems like they strongly disagree, but they’re not being rude, so I don’t mind engaging them. I just have my own measurement for what I think is unreasonable, inappropriate, and mean. I want to give people permission to create their own rules and boundaries and to enforce them.
CM: Who’s your intended audience for this book?
LG: I have a very odd response to that question. I wrote the book — and I was 90 percent done — and I always go to Marfa, Texas, to finish and edit. I was in Marfa, and I had dinner at this hotel called Hotel Paisano every night. I looked around one night and I realized I was the youngest person in that restaurant by, like, 40 years. And they reminded me of my parents. And I realized my parents are barely getting into technology. My mom is terrified of the internet but loves her iPhone. My dad is afraid of the iPhone but loves YouTube and Google. And I thought to myself, this is actually my audience. Because this population of older people are getting more into the internet, and I need to be able to define these terms for them. And if I can define it for them, I know everyone else will understand.
CM: What’s the main thing you want people to take away from this book?
LG: I feel like what I want is for people to not look at social media as this cool free-for-all, but as a very, very potent, serious tool. It can be used for all kinds of good things. I want people to approach it with way more respect as to what it can produce in your life. You know, if I gave every 16-year-old a Ferrari, that’s transportation, but it’s also too much car for a lot of them. So I want people to have a healthy respect for this powerful tool. Right now, I feel like most people play with it like a new toy on Christmas. And there are downsides to it that they need to step back and evaluate, so that we can have healthy interactions with it, and so that we don't unintentionally hurt ourselves or hurt someone else.