There are a lot of things I don’t get about Twitter and/or Facebook: hashtags (seriously, who uses them?), profile photos, how righteous a tweet can make us feel even as it fills us with self-doubt. There’s no tone and little room for nuance or context in these spaces, no grace for momentary lapses or mistakes, and outrages frequently ensue. Maybe we are living in a new age of media, like all those entrepreneurial internet gurus claim. We still can’t control representation – who reads what and how – but we feel that we can, largely because we have more influence than we did during an earlier age when we so rarely controlled the means of production or the published matter.
My wonderings about social media were spurred by the PyCon scandal a couple of weeks back, when Adria Richards was offended by a conversation in the row behind her, in which three guys talked about ‘forking somebody’s repo’ (programmer vernacular for admiring somebody else’s code) and ‘big dongles’ (big usbs). She tweeted to the conference convenors, and internet crazee ensued: she and one of the guys in the photo lost their jobs, critics wished her ruination (often involving rape and death), feminists declared sexism rife in the tech industry so the public shaming justified, and MRAs started a Feminist Victims’ Fund.
The incident could have spurred an examination of whether dick jokes can be comedic, or if they’re always macho lording, and whether such humour is ineluctably sexist because women don’t have penises but know the world is crafted for the phallic gaze. Maybe it is sexist to assume that usbs are substitute penises – that penises rule the world, that every object can be recast in their shadow, and that various work scenarios may end in sexual (even if masturbatory) acts. Maybe. But if the sexist nature of a comment is so hard to determine, surely an intervention that might actually lead to changes in behaviour would have been warranted, rather than, say, a social media shaming.
Last week there was the Femen story and before that the Steubenville case –but I’ve also been thinking about how the edges of this debate have already been explored on Overland: Stephanie’s piece last week on the way we tell these stories on social media, the desire for vigilantism that Lizzie described, and Giovanni’s piece on the possible consequences of politics via social media.
Social media – in its immediacy and brevity and dependence on news – narrows our focus, and we find ourselves holding individuals responsible, rather than seeing societal fissures. The Steubenville case is a prime example. Exposing sexual violence is important but we need also look at the social reasons why two 16-year-olds don’t see rape as rape. We’d have to start with football culture and small-town masculinity, the way women’s bodies are imagined across media, how there is still an assumed sexual compliance that comes with gender, and beyond.
We all know the harassment of women is not going to lessen because we tweet some photos or a programmer loses his job or two teenagers go to jail, but on Twitter we can sometimes deceive ourselves into believing we live in a world where we can eliminate fear by naming and shaming. Those 140 characters can seem to reduce ambiguity and nail the essence of genuine grievances, but the empowerment it offers is fleeting, soon to be replaced by the next news cycle.
But there is more than one purpose for social media. And even though we sometimes complain about the ads, or the new changes in privacy policies, we don’t really notice the hand of the market in our time spent there. In ‘A history of like’, his essay on Facebook as (largely) a contemporary marketing exercise, Robert A Gehl writes, ‘We like, they know. The science of marketing has always been the science of placing us in taxonomies based on what we like.’ These innovations like Facebook and Twitter and other technological start-ups were usually driven by dreams of riches, to be supplied by wealthier corporations.
Tellingly, in the PyCon story, the CEOs of the start-ups involved wrote blog posts justifying their actions, signed with their personal email contact details. The implication was clear: the CEO is your friend, he’s on your side. The reality is that they feared potential market backlashes. The dismissals were about corporate impression management, rather than any attempt to address sexism in the tech industry.
When musing on sexual politics and senior management, I can’t help but think of that scene in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and switch when, trying to infiltrate the white-collar working world, she attends a professional development day for crisis communications management – most of which is focussed on what to do when activists attack. During the group activity, Ehrenreich’s table has to deal with a series of sexual harassment allegations. Someone suggests they handle it by offering medical care and psychiatric counselling to the victims.
These are the solutions these platforms mostly provide: absurd or cosmetic changes, because status updates and tweets have disproportionate influence over corporations, or the end of one crusade, soon to be traded for another.