liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
[personal profile] liv
I've had some half-baked thoughts about being female on the internet for a couple of months now. My basic thesis is that the internet isn't all one thing, and specifically the parts of "the internet" that have most media visibility aren't the whole story. This may actually be several different ideas muddled together, mind you, and it's always risky to make broad generalizations about gender and social media. But let me have a go, and see if I can refine my vague ideas by discussing them.

What got me thinking along these lines was that lots of people I know from right-on Jewish circles did this #PesachUnplugged thing, where they undertook a social media fast during Passover. Something about this struck me the wrong way, and not just the irony of using Facebook and Twitter to promote your anti social media hashtag / meme. The idea that not being online makes you more "free" and more "connected" didn't ring true for me.

Let's start with the obvious: my friends live in the internet. Since [personal profile] mathcathy moved away I don't really have any local friends outside work. I'm getting to know my neighbour L, which is cool, and there are work colleagues I get on with and sometimes socialize with. But the people who are important to me, the people I've known and loved for years or decades, the people I can talk about anything with, are scattered across four continents. I can't build community in the flesh, when even spending time with a single individual in the flesh requires hours if not days of travel. And I happen to have the money, the physical capabilities, and occasionally even the time, to be able to do some of that travelling; the idea that real connections require flesh would be even more counter-productive to people who find significant travel or even leaving their homes difficult.

It's not just the geography, though. I could in theory maintain relationships purely via one-to-one direct communication. Some of that would use the internet as the carrier medium, email, VoIP or video calls, IM, etc, but that's not what people are on about when they talk of a social media fast. I think there are real advantages to online communities, having part of my social life in public. For my dear ones, reading blogs and status updates means that on the rare occasions when we do get to spend time together we don't have to waste time going, so what have you been up to for the last several weeks / months / years, then? It's not just more efficient, if I only managed to talk to people when I made a specific effort to talk directly to them, I'd be a lot less part of their lives and it would be that much harder to have a rich connection. When I do make time for personal conversations, you might think I would prioritize friends who aren't on social media, but in most cases I don't, simply because if I don't have that connection to people's day-to-day lives and thoughts, I'm a lot less likely to feel emotionally close to them.

Beyond that, social media lets me have a real community, not just lots of links to individuals. People I can have friendly conversations with, and build the kinds of links that mean people care about how I'm doing. Some of these develop into friendships; I'm meeting a whole lot more friends online than in person, and this has been true basically since I graduated from university. But even the ones that remain at the acquaintance level, they're still a social network, in the old-fashioned sense rather than the "all ur bases are belong to Google" sense. When I Tweet that I'm having a bad day, there are people who send me hugs and comforting things, people I wouldn't think of phoning up out of the blue to ask for sympathy, and anyway I wouldn't have time for that, the reason that I'm having a bad day is partly cos I'm over-stretched and not getting any breaks.

What about the idea that social media is a chore, a source of negativity, or at best a waste of time? (I don't think the rhetoric of comparing an unsatisfying FB habit to slavery or even to an addiction is appropriate, even if it's meant metaphorically.) I totally acknowledge that for many people, it absolutely can be, it's managing your image, it's dealing with competing demands on your time and energy, it's a Sisyphean struggle against spam and flamewars. I do find I put something like "work" into social media, but the pleasure I get out of it more than justifies the effort. I can go online and see what my friends are doing, read interesting comments from good writers and people with novel (to me) perspectives on all kinds of interesting topics, see funny jokes and works of art being shared or created in front of my eyes. It's not work, it's entertainment; why would I want to be "liberated" from having fun?

I think part of the reason social media is viewed this way, which runs counter to most of my experience, is that the internet is portrayed by the news media as one gigantic debate forum. In this framing, the absolute best you can hope for from your internet experience is respectful, thoughtful debate, but it always has to be competitive. And it's very easy for "debate", especially if it takes place in a completely open arena, to turn into just aggression and fights. Lots of people count debate as a hobby, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I can quite see why not everybody wants to spend all their leisure time trying to convince a hostile audience of their views.

The thing is that this framing misses out massive chunks of internet experience, experience which has always been there, long before there was such a category as social media. Take the "don't read the comments" rule. This rule makes sense if you assume the entire internet is made out of news articles or blog posts with space "below the line" for the general public to argue against the idea being put forward in the original post. But the internet is also made out of discussion forums, where conversation, not winning debates, is the whole point, and "don't read the comments" is not just wrong, but nonsensical, in venues where communities are built by people making comments (ie having conversations) with eachother.

But forums and online communities "don't count". This seems to have gone on forever; even in the pre-WWW days, Usenet discussions / debates / flamewars were considered representative of what the internet was like; bulletin boards and MUDs didn't count. In the 2000s so-called Web 2.0 was all about public-facing blogs and comments on online news sources; message boards didn't count, and LJ was always sidelined as not like real blogging. The same continues today: Facebook and Twitter trends and all the various more-or-less professional online essay repositories are "real" social media, Tumblr and communities based on shared interests still don't count. I am beginning to suspect that the difference is that female dominated internet venues are just invisible to pontificating commenters. (Just like casual games don't count as games, even though they make up over 50% of the market, because women and girls who play games aren't gamers, they're doing some kind of weird girl thing that can't possibly be interesting and probably involves, like, handbags or gossip or something.)

This is a bit of a strange thing for me to contemplate, because I don't normally think of myself as someone drawn to female-dominated spaces. I personally do (sometimes) enjoy robust debate, and I deliberately keep this journal as public as I can reasonably get away with. This post itself is an example of what I might generalize as a masculine approach to social media: it's an opinion piece that invites discussion and analysis rather than emotional strokes or social bonding. But I've also chosen to put it on DW, where probably 2/3 of my likely readership are female (or from minority gender backgrounds). Consciously, the reason I chose this is because I like the sense of community, the high probability of having the same smallish group (a few hundred at most) I'm already connected to coming back to read and comment on new posts. I like the way my d-roll contains a mix of thinky essays with creative output and glimpses of people's personal lives. But maybe those two facts are actually connected, not just a coincidence?

I want to emphasise that this is not purely about platforms or technology. Of course, people can put anything they like on DW or Tumblr or whatever; LJ may have been stereotyped as angsty teenaged girls, but it's also, certainly historically and even today, the major platform for Russian political dissenters to provide serious commentary. And there are communities which are supportive and full of good conversation hosted in the comment sections of very public facing blogs on platforms designed for broadcast. But the technology and the sorts of interactions that the platform favours are not irrelevant. For example, DW has inherited from LJ fine-grained privacy controls, and decent moderation tools. Plenty of better analysts than me have pointed out that stable but pseudonymous identities and the ability to connect a commenter to their posting history are a key factor in promoting high quality conversation over poo-flinging, and LJ-based platforms excel at that. Tumblr eschews comments altogether, while easily allowing people to make stable connections with like-minded people.

There are also lots of internet communities which I'm less familiar with personally, but which generally have a members-only model; things like Mumsnet or Ravelry, for example, are very much set up to encourage people to interact with people they know and friends-of-friends. LJ and DW have always been against having a security level of "registered accounts only" on the grounds that there's nothing to stop a malicious person from creating an account. But I think the deterrent of having to create an account does change the conversational atmosphere. Registered-only contexts are like having a private conversation in a public place; sure, someone might overhear, and someone who was being actively malicious might find you and disrupt the conversation to attack you, but it's still a different thing from literally broadcasting your remarks to the whole world.

Facebook is just weird, in this respect. FB (in its current incarnation) seems to be set up to try to get men to interact in more female-typcial ways, without giving the site too many girl cooties that might drive away male custom. FB all but automates a certain kind of low-level, perhaps not very satisfying but socially important bonding interactions. Remembering people's birthdays, cooing over pictures of their kids / grandchildren / pets, expressing sympathy for their troubles. You occasionally get opinion pieces by male authors complaining about how trivial and time-wasting it all is, but in pre-FB days this was just naturally assumed to be women's job, the price of entry into having a social life. FB gives people at least the illusion that they're talking to friends and people from overlapping social circles, while its actual privacy controls are broken by design. (Whereas G+ was a sort of cargo-cult version of the female dominated internet, as if the designers were shooting for an LJ replacement but with no understanding of what made LJ successful. "Circles" as a poor substitute for friend filters, the absurd "real" name policy as a substitute for stable identity, etc.)

This brings me to the other aspect of musing about the gendered internet; it's almost a truism that women on the internet are constantly subjected to harassment including sexual harassment, and to graphic threats including threats of sexual violence. It's a real and serious problem, and one that's generating a lot of column inches lately. But again, it seems to me that it really depends what you mean by "on the internet". People like Laurie Penny or Mary Beard who write columns in national media outlets are subjected to really disgusting attacks. People like [ profile] CCriadoPerez and [ profile] karnythia who use Twitter to engage very publicly with current political issues have been treated in ways that only fall short of being criminal because the law hasn't caught up with the technology yet. These are people who are using the internet in what I am tentatively classifying as male-typical ways, and it is disgusting that their right to do so is being undermined by this kind of harassment and threats.

I don't think this is an inevitable consequence of women having opinions on the internet, though. I mean, I'm pretty sure that you can post on Mumsnet without getting hundreds of comments with graphic descriptions of exactly how the authors would like to rape and murder you. But Mumsnet "doesn't count", if it gets mentioned in news media or opinion columns at all it's merely something to mock, it's not big important Social Media, just women talking about all that boring feminine stuff like nurturing and educating children. Other places you can be female-on-the-internet without constantly having to deal with the barrage of violent threats include places for creative hobbies, from AO3 to DeviantArt and everything in between. Parts of the internet that "don't count", like Tumblr.

I'm not saying that nobody ever gets attacked in female-dominated spaces; we've heard of the phenomenon of anon-hate on Tumblr, and I'm sure [personal profile] synecdochic could share some choice horror stories from her days running LJAbuse, and I imagine there's still a bit of this going on on DW now. But it's not an expectation, it's not a cultural norm, if you go outdoors you sometimes get rained on, and if you go online you sometimes get graphic rape threats. And the thing about LJ, and DW as its heir, is that it actually had an abuse team. It had a full-time paid employee and a sizeable team of reasonably well trained volunteers, who even knew something about the relevant law in their jurisdiction, to address abusive comments and harassment campaigns. That's in addition to the tools provided to journal owners, allowing them to block unwanted readers from seeing their posts and unwanted commenters from disrupting their conversations.

So I think in some ways we already have quite a good idea how to reduce attacks on women online. We don't know how to make the internet completely safe for women, but we don't know how make any environment completely safe for anyone of any gender. But it's perfectly possible to have a culture where you get rewarded for making connections and building communities, rather than for "winning" debates or for "winning" the memetic contest for attention, which can more easily be done by creating bland trivial stuff that's easily accessible than rich, detailed, interesting stuff, and can even more easily be done by being louder and more violent and more shocking than everyone else. And in community culture, rather than competitive culture, there's a lot less motivation for people to make violent threats against strangers.

There's a weird backlash against community culture, though. When female-dominated internet spaces don't get ignored or counted out of analysis, people get really angry about the fact that they are resistant to shouting matches and violent rhetoric. Even people who themselves would never dream of posting rape threats against people they disagree with can be really really furious when someone chooses to block harassers from interacting with them. Somehow, blocking and banning is a threat to "free speech" – but never daring to express any controversial opinion in case people doxx you and threaten to turn up at your home and torture you to death is apparently some kind of ultimate freedom. People are absolutely hopping mad about "social justice warriors" and "call-out culture". Telling someone to check their privilege, or not to make sexist (or racist or other bigoted) remarks is perceived as a threat in the way that the actual hurtful remarks somehow aren't. I have quite a lot of male acquaintances who feel really uncomfortable with even DW (which although female-dominated by the numbers is much less of a feminine culture than many sites, I'd say) because it's "too feminist" or "too PC" or even just "too pink".

Then again, maybe my experience is just weird. I've presented as female online for more than 10 years, and I've had people disagree with me and criticize me rudely, but never in violent terms, and I've never experienced a concerted attack or been stalked beyond the post that people disagreed with. But equally, I've very rarely experienced street harassment and never sexual violence offline, and I don't go through my life being hypervigilant against stranger rape, all of which I've often seen described as absolutely inevitable aspects of female experience by many feminists.

OK, that probably should have been two or three separate posts. And now I really must get back to my marking!
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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