Q&A with Hilary Weston Prize finalist Paula Todd

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Happening Now Wednesday, October 08, 2014 View Count = 1230

Q&A with Hilary Weston Prize finalist Paula Todd

Paula Todd
is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online. Published by Signal.

Our contest to guess the winner will run until the winner is announced on October 14 in Toronto.

Nonfiction_Todd_Extreme-MeanCan you describe the genesis of your book? What brought you to the subject? 

I love the Internet and was initially baffled at the violent, misogynistic, racist and anti-LGBT posts. Why were some people in the face of the most sophisticated technology reverting to their most primitive selves? When so many blamed anonymity – and called for an end to what’s also been a liberating essential online – it didn’t ring true for me. We all know people who do good things anonymously; and most of us aren’t driven to harass, bully, stalk, sexually extort and blackmail via the Internet just because we think no one will find out. I wanted to know what was behind this massive and demoralizing misuse of technology so I could help others understand, survive it and eventually help us to right our course online. Also, once you know the many motivations behind cyberabuse – for which anonymity is just camouflage usually – the sting of harassment is significantly reduced. I want to help people understand it's not about them.

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

From start to finish, Extreme Mean took about two years to research and write. I am a journalist accustomed to deadlines and don’t believe in writer’s block, per se, but there is so much controversy and confusion in the field of cyberabuse that I felt it necessary to understand the scientific and social underpinnings really well. Sometimes, I was at my computer 14 to 16 hours a day. Eventually, I felt (and looked!) like the glassy-eyed robots we are warned not to become! I don’t think I tipped into addiction but there is no question the Internet became an obsession for awhile. I’m much more careful after that experience; I do put my devices away now.

I travelled a fair amount, too, because you cannot write about human pain and stay in your little house. In Norway, I was able to hold a rather shocking discussion with the world expert on traditional bullying (schoolyard), and in Canada, the United States and England, I spent time with the families of people who’d taken their own lives, and with some of the upstanders who are working tirelessly to curb online abuse. Travel is always expensive, especially for a poor scribe (!!), but the field interviews I conducted were essential primary sources.

Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?

So many, and yet nothing specific. I read widely – many academic studies conducted around the world, along with authors who’d explore the psychological, social and institutional causes of violence. And books/essays about the Internet and its culture already line my library, so there’s that whole foundation of ideas already influencing my analysis. Online, I followed endless websites, blogs, vlogs and comment sections because those sources are at the heart of the book, along with the field interviews with targets, cyberabusers and bystanders – youth and adult – who show us the human side.

Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen. 

I wanted something that would convey more than “cyberbullying” because some of us have become so saturated we turn away at this historically critical time. People think they know all there is to know about online behaviour but my research showed me a world much bigger than typically reported. I write about it all – kids, youth and adults who are using the Internet, consciously or accidentally, as a weapon.

I wanted to convey, as well, that there is an arc of behaviour with accidental and immature copycatting at one end through to adults picking on each other out of jealousy, and right through to the criminal online behaviour of bullying, stalking and the sort of sexual extortion Amanda Todd told the world about. There is no agreement on the definition of cyberbullying, so I used the umbrella term, “cyberabuse,” and hoped that “extreme mean” would pull in readers who perhaps thought cyberabuse only happened to school kids.

Also, if you write the title as one word, there’s a little nod to Internet culture there with the new word created: Meme.

What are you working on now?

I owe my fourth born non-fiction book to Penguin Random House/McClelland&Stewart/Signal under a two-book deal I signed with Doug Pepper. But I am one of those writers who can either talk a book, or write a book, and the latter is what I signed up for. So ... no hints just yet!

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