Dancing Man: Shaming the internet trolls

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Allow me to let you into a little secret: I’m not very thick skinned. And yet people often assume I am, partly because some of my blogs range from being moderately tongue in cheek to bordering on acerbic. One thing they never are, however, is personal. So when people are outright rude to me or call me names online in response to a blog, then I don’t tend to like that very much. One person even suggested I commit suicide.

Granted, who would like that? But to some, it’s water off a duck’s back; or so it would seem. Other people, such as Ricky Gervais and Jeremy Clarkson, have nonchalance down to a tee.

I also grant you that the blogosphere is probably not the ideal medium for someone of an easily offended disposition. In one of my blog posts earlier this year, I queried why people seem to think that hiding behind the anonymity of a pseudonym on the internet gives them the illusion of free rein to behave however they like.

Suicide suggestions aside, I was actually told to f*** off on a LinkedIn forum by someone who allegedly worked for the UN.

These aren’t isolated incidents. When I was asked by The Guardian to write a piece about Ed Balls and his stammer (whose politics I do not share but whose bravery I admire), I was again the victim of some internet trollery. I genuinely struggle to understand why.

So this morning when I tuned in to BBC Breakfast, I was very pleased to learn more about Sean O’Brien – aka Dancing Man – and about a trolling episode turned good.

In case you missed it, Sean O'Brien is the man who was openly bullied on Twitter earlier this year, when a random member of the public posted a picture of him dancing. Yes, Sean is the chap in the header photo. So this lowlife troll decided he was fair game for a bit of good old-fashioned (or new-fashioned, more accurately) humiliation and abuse. Along with the photo, the troll wrote:

Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.

Almost immediately, a Twitter campaign was launched to find “Dancing Man”. Not here in the UK, however, but in the USA. In reality, these incidents are two a penny. So why did Dancing Man from Liverpool capture the hearts of the nation? And, even more interestingly, the hearts of the Americans?

In terms of publicity, it seems to have reached national TV charity-a-thon status. $70,000 was raised to fly Sean to Los Angeles to take part in various anti-bullying campaigns, with the remainder of the money going to “body positivity” charities. He was given the superstar treatment by a whole train of celebrities, with Moby offering to DJ for free at the Avalon nightclub where a party (with the hashtag “dancefree”) was held in his honour. During the same five days, Sean also threw the first pitch at an LA Dodgers baseball game – something that is usually reserved for A-list celebrities.

Even though this all occurred back in May, the hype still hasn’t stopped. American Katy Dolle revealed today that she has even made a documentary about him.

Sean himself doesn’t seem too sure why his own story has been singled out. Speaking this morning on BBC Breakfast, he said: “I still don’t quite understand why my story captured the imagination of everybody. I think everybody was just fed up of bullying online and it just triggered an emotion in everyone that just steam-rollered.”

I’ll be honest and say there is something about all this that still makes me a little uneasy, however. Yes, it’s fantastic for Sean and it’s great to put out what is undoubtedly a positive message about body fascism. But Sean is not rare. The USA is the most obese nation on earth. The ladies who brought Sean into the limelight could walk down any street in and find a whole family of Seans who have been bullied because of their size. Why couldn’t the people who picked up on this one tweet have searched for local victims or gone to support groups – which must exist – to find an equally worthy local cause? If there’s a reason why they didn’t do that, I’d like to know what it is.

That said, I genuinely wish Sean and other such victims all the best, however. For one thing, it’s nice to finally hear a trolling story end in triumph rather than suicide.

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a copywriter, editor and blogger


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