Last night I attended a Social Media Week event run by Women In A Room. The title of the event was Is a woman’s opinion “the miniskirt of the internet”? – a reference to Laurie Penny’s Independent article last year discussing the abuse that she and other women have received online for airing their opinions. The discussion for the evening was to ‘talk about whether social media is useful and empowering, or a risky business’.
It was an enjoyable evening but one which didn’t quite follow the discussion path I’d expected. The Laurie Penny piece was certainly controversial when written and was picked up by many writers and publications such as The Guardian, the New Statesman and The Spectator. It sparked a #mencallmethings meme and triggered blog posts such as my own. I’ll admit I came prepared and hoping for a lively debate on whether women’s voices are silenced online, or their experiences dismissed. What I got was more of a positive discussion on the benefits of engaging in online communities.
I’m not sure, given the premise of the night,that the two speakers were best chosen. The evening started with both introducing themselves and their experiences online, and a short discussion of the issues lead by one of the organisers Katy Beale, along with comments from the floor. The speakers both seemed to have very positive experiences online, which is great for them, but seemed not to acknowledge that for some, this isn’t always the case. Kate Bussmann (writer, editor and compiler of A Twitter Year: 365 Days in 140 Characters [Bloomsbury]) discussed how cautious she is in terms of what she puts online, and how you can protect yourself. For her work this may be true, but for journalists, human rights campaigners and feminist activists I’m not sure this was helpful and almost smacked of victim-blaming – you put yourself above the parapet so can expect to be hit. She also felt that by giving profile to the people who call you things, you are merely giving them air and worse, by retweeting things they’d said (the C word for instance) you are merely showing future employers for example that you use the C word – she felt we need to be mindful not to appear aggressive. This provoked something for a reaction from the floor as one attendee (who also wrote a blog post on the night) felt this was akin to rape victims being told that ‘public knowledge of the rape will reflect badly on them’ . Aside from the blaming angle, I just felt that sometimes there’s a time and place to certainly be assertive (if not aggressive) online and that telling women, especially if they’re involved in politics or activism, to moderate their tone to avoid attracting flak isn’t particularly constructive. I don’t think women should be afraid to speak out.
Julie Howell (a founder of Jooly’s Joint and now a social media trainer and mentor to women in technology) seemed to agree with much of what Kate said, although as a disability rights campaigner she probably puts her head up and speaks out more. Her response was to be ‘robust’ She doesn’t take shit from anyone and won’t engage with trolls or people who are out to target her. I respect this to an extent - feeding the trolls is a fruitless endeavour - but again, I don’t think she accepted that for some women the reaction they get online is threatening and frightening. In those cases, she advocated going straight to the police and this is often appropriate. She also said she didn’t advocate ‘vigilantism’, which she inferred to mean engaging with those online who hold different opinions or calling them out publicly. I think the recent campaign against the Unilad website which resulted in both its closure and its Facebook page, showed that concerted action is sometimes the way to go. Interestingly when the Laurie Penny piece was raised by an attendee she seemed to dismiss it entirely on the basis of Laurie also being capable of dishing it out. Having the article that was intended to inspire the night’s discussion dismissed in one sentence was a shame as the point I raised was related to how I felt that when women sometimes contribute to debate online they’re often told that their experiences don’t happen or that they’re exaggerated. I was left with the impression that Julie feels the same way.
After the relatively short panel discussion we split into groups to discuss the issues involved. While our group initially started discussing harassment online the conversation quickly moved on to more positive experiences. Many of the women in the group had stories to tell of time when online communities helped them – from technical queries to meeting new work colleagues. The joy of social media and Twitter in particular is also that you can, quite directly, get in touch with people who you would ordinarily not have access to – a point raised by one of the organisers Rachel Coldicutt. Some of the women in the group also felt that being a woman gave them an advantage in being heard as they weren’t competing with men in the same way as they competed with each other. It was an interesting discussion and given my expectations of the evening it was pleasant to have a chat about the positives of social media rather than getting worked up over the challenges.
Overall however, I do feel that the evening was a lost opportunity to discuss difficulties experienced online. I gather some of the other groups did talk about moderation in communities which is great, but I suppose I’d have liked to have heard more about how women deal with being silenced, or even if more women do experience this. I’m willing to accept however that this assessment of the evening may well be coloured by my own preconceptions and interests so I’m glad to hear that others really enjoyed it. It was all very enjoyable and pleasant so I can’t complain on that front and sometimes it’s nice to take a break from getting all worked up and instead remember the positives that using your voice on the internet can bring. It certainly didn’t put me off attending future Women In A Room events.
The last week has seen a sudden explosion of talk, hashtags, blogs ands news comment pieces regarding harassment of women online. It’s sparked some really interesting discussion about the extent to which it exists and the particular brand of violence and vitriol that many feel is reserved specifically for women.
The discussion began with an article on TheNewStatesman. In it Helen Lewis Hasteley spoke to a range of women who used the internet to amplify their voice. Some were bloggers and feminist activists, some were journalists and one was a conservative, Catholic. The thing they had in common was the level of abuse they got for voicing their opinions in public. All of them had experienced abuse that went far beyond mere disagreement with their opinion but was instead directed at their gender and often their appearance. Many of them had been targeted with violent threats including rape and in some cases they had been sent emails which included their home or work addresses.
In response to this article many bloggers have added their voice to the discussion and articles have appeared on sites such as The Guardian. A Twitter hashtag (#mencallmethings) also appeared, where women could share their stories of abuse and name-calling online, thanks to blogger TigerBeatDown.
So how bad is it, and is it something only women experience? For some women it’s bad. It’s really, really bad and it’s been going on a long time. Much has been written about the experiences of Kathy Sierra in 2007. She was a blogger and prominent consultant on development and programming and her blog was technology based, rather than political or feminist. The level of abuse she began to receive was to the extent that it left her cancelling public appearances and being in genuine fear for her life. She was threatened with having her throat slit and a picture of her with noose around her neck was circulated. She closed her blog, deleted her twitter account and retreated from public life.
Things haven’t improved. Cath Elliott, a feminist and trade union activist as well as blogger and writer for publications such as The Guardian, has had some horrific experiences online. Like Kathy Sierra, in one case hers seemed to be an orchestrated attack through one website. However, she experiences regular and often violent abuse as evidenced by her contributions to the hashtag above.
When reading about cases like this, it’s hard not to believe that there is a large community of people out there determined to shut down the opinion of women - who readily dismiss everything they say on the basis of their gender. If a woman is too pretty, they can’t be smart enough to have opinions worth listening to and if they’re not pretty enough, they can’t be worth paying attention to (being too ugly to rape is a comment which has been levelled at some). Women with opinions are not disagreed with, they’re dismissed.
It is true however that women aren’t the only ones to experience harassment and sometimes violent reaction online. Tim Adams has written in The Guardian about how the culture of the internet breeds trolls and abuse, often directed at comedians for reasons passing understanding.
Hannah Pool wrote a fantastic piece today about her experiences as not just a woman, but a black woman. She gets a particular brand of abuse which includes comments telling her should ‘go back to Africa’ as well as the usual abuse that women get. It’s obviously not an area I have direct experience of but I’ve seen enough of it online to know that racism is just as alive as sexism in online comments.
The comments after some of the recent Guardian pieces on this have made interesting reading as did the reaction published in The Telegraph. Many seem to think that women should just stop moaning and toughen up. Brendan O’Neill seems to think that the reaction to this abuse is merely a Victorian ‘attack of vapours’ brought on by exposure to bad language.
However, it’s too easy to dismiss writers’ experiences as claim they’re a bit too thin-skinned. The level of abuse is just not acceptable and should be challenged. There’s a vast difference between disagreeing with someone and even swearing at them, and saying they deserve to be gang-raped or penetrated with one of a range of objects. Men shouldn’t be shrugging their shoulders and saying it’s just part of internet life either. It shouldn’t be. We should all be loudly proclaiming it to be unacceptable. I wrote recently about the need to address street harassment of women and think this is a similar issue.
So what can be done? Well firstly I think online communities need to call it out. The campaigns against Cath Elliott and Kathy Sierra are perfect examples of mob rule and gang mentality. Communities need to become just that, social communities with acceptable norms and standards. Sites like Comment is Free do a pretty good job of moderation but many sites don’t and should.
What’s much harder to control is the steps that personal people take, anonymously sending emails to writers and bloggers. Twitter at least requires some kind of personal profile which may identify people and prevent public abuse but anyone can set up a temporary email address solely for abusive purposes. Sites like Feministing use occasional name-and-shame tactics in their Anti-feminist mailbag posts. In one case, they received a hateful email from the university email address of a man who turned out to be the public relations officer of the Southern Illinois University College Republicans. Having named and shamed him online, he resigned from this post, sent an email of apology to Feministing and the University administration took action. It is important to call out this behaviour when it occurs but it was nice that he made it so easy by using his real name and email address.
I don’t really have the answers to lessening online abuse or violence and am grateful that, to date, I haven’t received it. Like street harassment though I do believe that sharing stories, gaining strength in numbers and calling it out when we see it will all go a long way.