Essays on Technology and Culture

Fame, the Internet, and Personal Boundaries

Yesterday, electronic musician Grimes posted something to her personal Tumblr site. It began “I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living.” As a fan, as soon as I heard about it, I rushed to read. One part caught my attention, immediately:

I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized.

I don’t want to be molested at shows, or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction.

I don’t want to live in a world where I’m gonna have to start employing body guards, because this kind of behavior is so commonplace and accepted, and I’m pissed that when I express concern over my own safety it’s often ignored until people see firsthand what happens and then they apologize for not taking me seriously after the fact…

And later:

I’m tired of creeps on message boards discussing whether or not they’d “fuck” me.

To be honest, I’m not surprised at any of the claims she’s making. It’s an unfortunately inevitable effect of how certain groups behave on the Internet. For a woman, especially in a male-dominated public space, the expectations will be that you do certain things, and behave in a certain way. Woe be unto you if you don’t. If you have an open ear, you’ll know this is a topic that comes up with disturbing regularity in the technology world. A great discussion of this came on episode 8 of 5by5’s The Crossover, and for every woman who speaks up about inappropriate behavior from men, there are too many more who keep quiet. I’ve not heard a musician speak out about this harassment until now, but I’m not surprised at all.

I’ll come clean: I first discovered Grimes through 4chan’s music board. [1] This was not long after the album Visions was released, and when her song “Oblivion” and its music video were getting its first wave of traction on the Web. In less than a year, discussion about Grimes on the board went from talk about her music and her videos to her perceived attractiveness, and nothing else. [2] I don’t think it’s a leap to go from expressing that sort of attitude on a message board and projecting it in reality with misbehavior at a concert. It’s a minority of people, but their impact is massive. As the Internet has lowered the barriers of communication between artist and audience, it seems to me that some members of the audience are trying to erode those barriers in other places, to ill effect.

I feel as if we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this as the Internet becomes the primary way for an artist in any form to find an audience. When you combine attention seeking (the good kind) with the lack of social awareness that pervades a lot of Internet culture, and the darker corners in particular, it creates a powderkeg situation. This is different than the phenomenon of “haters.” In any sort of artistic career, haters come as soon as you have a modicum of success, and if you don’t learn how to deal with it early, you won’t have a career to worry about. Now, there’s unprecedented access to artists—you need to be on, 24/7—creating your public image, and addressing the community of true fans. Fame is stressful, ask anyone who’s been given it.

While some of these are problems that will plague any professional artist in the Internet age, we have to return to the issue of gender. Women are forced to put up with more than men in these fields, typically because of entitled men who view women as nothing more than sex objects. This is an old problem, but one that is seeing an unfortunate uptick as communities of like-minded people form, and groupthink pervades. For an idea of what this is like, visit /r/mensrights on Reddit some time. [3] It plays hosts to a bizarre persecution complex that renders feminism and gender equality as a conspiracy to subjugate all men.

The current situation sucks for anyone who isn’t a creepy, obsessive fan. If there’s a way out, it’s to do what Grimes has done. By casting a public spotlight on the unacceptable behavior coming from the community at large, it exposes them. Nobody likes being exposed, and public shaming is typically a good way to shut down people, at least temporarily. It shunts them back into the dark corners, where they belong. An artist should not, and must not change who they are to make the art they want to make. The persona they affect is not an invitation. Behind the fame, the music videos, the albums, and the image, is a human being who deserves respect. The Internet can be used to dehumanize those we don’t like, but it allows the famous to humanize themselves.

  1. No, I will not link you to 4chan.  ↩

  2. Increasingly, most discussions on female artists on 4chan’s music board are focused around an artist’s sexual attractiveness, and not their music.  ↩

  3. I refuse to link there, too.  ↩