Essays on Technology and Culture

Why Online Abuse Matters

I had a brief conversation with a friend on a private Slack channel about South by Southwest and their decision to cancel a panel about harassment. Well, for values of conversation equal to two lines each before we all had to go back to work. He pointed out that if SXSW was going to host an anti-harassment panel, they’d be a martyr. If they dropped it, they’d be screwed from the backlash—and he’s not wrong, either—certainly not on that second point. As for being a martyr? Well, having the harassment conversation sure didn’t hurt XOXO Fest last year with Anita Sarkeesian’s talk, or this year with Zoe Quinn’s talk. (No video for that one yet.)

If there’s a hill any conference, or indeed any decent human being should be willing to die on, it’s the hill of saying “stop being terrible to other people.” It’s certainly a hill I’d choose to die on, having been on the receiving end of more than anyone’s fair share of real life harassment and abuse, and on the giving end of more than anyone’s fair share of digital harassment and abuse. It’s not something I want to suffer through again, and it’s not something I would wish to happen to anyone, either.

For reference, by the way, anyone’s fair share of harassment and abuse is zero. Harassment and abuse shouldn’t happen, but it’s an inevitability of the human condition. The entire point of civilization is to save ourselves from the animal instincts we have to harm each other, be it through word or deed. We’re all stuck on a rock, spinning through the endless void at countless millions of miles per second, and we’re all stuck here together, in an ideal case, for seventy or so years a pop. Maybe we can try to make those years as pain-free as possible for each other, yeah?

But let’s bring this discussion back down from the cosmic level. In the last year or so, online harassment and abuse has become a major issue, in no small part because of organized campaigns like GamerGate. Despite this, the attitude remains among people who should know better, that online harassment and abuse is less than real and worthy of their time. The idea that a harassed person can just turn off their phone, unplug their computer, and go about their life, blissfully free from the virtual slings and digital arrows of outrageous fortune is a myth. It has been for over a decade. The Internet is real life, not some sort of magical cyberspace that we can slip into and out of at will. It a part of nearly everything we do, and the people who are decidedly not connected to it are a shrinking minority.

Zooming back out a bit, there’s over seven billion people on this rock, and nearly half of them are online. We’ve managed to cram an estimated 3.2 billion people into a room, given them all megaphones, and told them to go nuts. Admittedly, most of those 3.2 billion are hanging around with the other people in the room who speak their language, but there’s still a lot of people crammed together with megaphones. More than we’ve ever had to deal with before in the history of the species. This is going to have consequences.

A few days ago, I made a flippant tweet about how “[t]he average human capacity for empathy does not reach Internet Scale.” Judging from the number of Retweets and Favorites it got, including one from Arthur Chu (!), it struck a nerve. All the people who are bemoaning the passing a more civilized Internet age are either privileged nerds, deluded about the past, or—likely—both. I mean, we’ve been having this same basic discussion about online harassment for over twenty years! (Trigger Warning: descriptions of sexual assault.) We’re still no closer to solving the problem, and it’s not for lack of trying.

Actually, I’ll take that back. In many cases, of which the recent South by Southwest debacle is only the latest, harassment and abuse has been an afterthought at best. Whether in—for lack of a better term—real world spaces, or digital ones, most people are content to just cover their eyes and ears to the potential for humans to be thoroughly terrible to each other for reasons. To quote some musical philosophers, “If you can not see it, you think it’s not there. It doesn’t work that way.”

The creators and caretakers of our public and private meeting places, online and off, disregard the potential for abuse either because they are not likely to be victims themselves, or only focus on protecting themselves and people who pay the bills. What they don’t know can’t hurt them, at least not until their space becomes a toxic hellstew of abuse towards people who aren’t like them. The numbers bear his out: It’s been shown time and time again that women get a disproportionate amount of online harassment. Women of color get an even worse deal than white women. These are facts. They are not negotiable.

For anything to change, more people need to see that online abuse matters. It matters to abuse victims, and it matters to abuse enablers, both the willing and the negligent alike. This is especially true for the people who create and run the online spaces we congregate in. It’s clear to see the tide is starting to turn in a few places, but only because there’s enough people screaming bloody murder about their victimization. We need to have conversations about how to design systems to prevent abuse before it happens. We need to engineer systems that reward constructive community building, not just the latest hot take, outrage, snarky comment, or threat of violence.

Cynical as my opinion that human empathy doesn’t reach Internet Scale may be, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be proven wrong. A cynic is, to quote George Carlin, “a disappointed idealist,” after all. Online harassment and abuse matters, and the discussion around how to stop it matters. That people are willing to make threats of violence to shut down the discussion is proof alone of how much it matters. What will have to happen for the rest of the world to take it seriously? When I ask that question, the disappointed idealist in me has all kinds of answers, none of which I want to put down in words. It also desperately wants to be proven wrong. It’s time to take all that utopian rhetoric around the Internet, and actually do something with it.