Growing up in public, acting out online

When I was twelve, I starred in an ad for internet safety. Tousle-haired and small for my age, with huge blue eyes that threatened to swallow the camera, I sat in the centre of a set dressed to look like a child’s bedroom, peering intently into the screen of an old Mac. In the clip, my character thinks that he’s talking to a girl his age on an instant messaging client. She asks about my age and hair colour, and I get a bashful look on my face as she suggests we meet up at a nearby park. Hard cut to the computer on the other side of the line: the ‘girl’ stubs a cigarette out with his calloused, middle-aged hand, another pockmark on his filthy desk.

It was a fun shoot. I remember the production team being overwhelmingly comprised of well-meaning, diligent women who doted on their young star.

I also wonder what they would think of the trail of online refuse I left in my ensuing adolescence and early twenties: male acquaintances and I trying to grow scraggly beards and making light of each other for looking like child sex offenders; petulant and passive-aggressive screeds at 18 about ‘anonymous’ girls at high school who weren’t interested in talking to me (as was their right). ‘Rape jokes’ as a form of initiation, bravado and endearment in conversations with other young men in public forums, where it was a statistical certainty that people who experienced sexual assault in their lives were forced to see it.

A former poster boy of internet safety, I grew up to casually to do my bit in making the internet feel like a much more dangerous and upsetting place.

Going back into these various forums and social networking services and seeing a younger self is a chastening and shaming exercise. So it should be, but online misogyny has taken on a fevered pack mentality beyond anything I could have participated in a decade ago.

The ‘#Gamergate‘ fiasco, a month in the running, has caused female game developers and journalists to relocate for their own safety and announce their retreat from an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. Women’s phone numbers, addresses, and personal communications have been published online with the thinnest veneer of justification (females are using their sexuality to advance nepotism in gaming journalism, apparently).

Closer to home, Erin Riley’s scathing but empirical assessment of crowd behavior at the AFL Grand Final has resulted in a murderous outpouring of Twitter bile that still flows as I’m writing this.

Females have been targeted and threatened online for years, but something about women who are experts in ‘male fields’ (the individuals targeted in #Gamergate have received plaudits and awards for their work; Riley has written professionally about the code for a decade) has upped the visceral and vicious cruelty and the corresponding media interest. For the moment, a shaft of daylight has exposed the festering awfulness of certain parts of Twitter and YouTube; of Reddit; of the trenchantly nasty 4Chan. When the media moves on, is there anything that can be done to affect change?

There’ve been broad and sweeping suggestions – that Twitter, Facebook and other forums take on a sterner policing role, or that the anonymising protections that make would-be keyboard warriors comfortable to act the way they do should be revoked. Ultimately, they’re heightening the contradictions of a web architecture that was designed by, and for the benefit of, wealthy white men, but is increasingly used by those who were marginalized in other mediums.

Platforms like Twitter were engineered by people who loved the idea of replicating free and open communities but were at best indifferent to the codes of conduct and behavior that modulate real-life. It’s easy to gab about recreating the Greek Agora and some platonic ideal of debate and discussion when your elderly parents aren’t being rung on a stolen number by strangers hissing that their daughter is a slut, a whore or worse.

Even if network founders simply wring their hands, better policing of threats of violence from the police themselves seems essential at this point, though Amanda Hess’s exceptional Pacific Standard article from January hints at the kind of huge transformation this would take. The experiences she relates suggest many law enforcement authorities are at a loss to understand both the technology of something like Twitter and the psychological impact of an anonymous online rape fantasy.

Likewise, resources for tracking and gathering the evidence for any prosecution seem thin on the ground among ordinary urban or regional police forces. Even where some form of civil order gets through, geographical distance and the net’s sheer breadth are the online harasser’s friend. To this day, Hess’s own recalcitrant watcher occasionally rears his head.

Prosecuting and otherwise naming and shaming offenders might act as an example to others, but anonymity online is as much a shield to those who need it as it is a sword to those who abuse it. Moves by Facebook to make people put their real names to their opinions this past month have caused genuine anxiety to women suddenly exposed to abusive ex-partners, to drag queens who wish to keep their performer identities distinct, and to people who can get killed for simply saying the wrong thing in their countries. More prosaically (and depressingly), some of the worst offenders in the online mens’ rights movement now bear their own identities proudly anyway, cultivating minor circles of worship around their websites, YouTube channels and crowdfunding efforts.

Sure, plenty of men acquit themselves well online. But when I recall my own entitled defensiveness as a teen, my immediate thought isn’t a sniveling ‘#notallmen’ apologia, but more of a ‘shit, why not even more men still?’

Thinking this article over, I spoke with male friends close to my age (and therefore, close to the average of today’s male Facebook and Twitter users) who had been alternately bored, depressed and fanatical internet users when they were younger. We had all said things we were now appalled by, but none of us had experienced a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion that made us change our online behavior overnight. Rather, there were chance encounters: a stray arts paper to make up points that happened to expose us to a fantastic firebrand lecture about the nature of privilege, or an article or blog that we stumbled across, or a friend or family member calling us out. But ‘chance encounters’ were all they are.

Which brings me back to me peering into the camera over the Mac on that film set, and my formal online education. We were told about internet ‘stranger danger’ in class too, but it seemed pointless and remote, because we already knew to stay away from strange adults. We were warned about how we used our cellphones, particularly the blocky, pixelated cameras the high-end ones were just starting to come with. Then and now, a lot of that feels tainted with a moralising prurience into how teens initiate sexual overtures – the same ‘well, you chose to take the picture’ hypocrisy that grown men now justify themselves with they share stolen personal conversations and nudes alike.

At no stage do I remember being sat down and talked to about how I might comport myself in a public online space – what rules were different, which should still apply, and how I should react when I disagreed or felt upset. At the turn of the century, it might have beyond the call of duty for a farsighted teacher to initiate such a discussion – but teachers today, growing number of whom are active online, should be more than equipped for it.

Incorporating young people’s online interactions into teaching is a significant ask – not just because of the pressure for standardised curriculum and outcomes in Australia and elsewhere but also because it takes critical skills rather than a rote sense of obligation (‘always be nice!’) to treat others respectfully from behind a screen.

The screen is always going to have a distancing, detaching effect, and #Gamergate is ample proof that supremely lazy excuses for logic and rhetoric expounded by a few opportunistic individuals (‘social justice concerns are about ending free speech’; ‘women will use guilt as strategic leverage for … something’) will fill a void where individuals haven’t had the skills or experience to assess a situation for themselves.

All of this points to the need for conversation with young men and young people broader than just about how they conduct themselves online – a conversation where we don’t simply drill into them that sexism is bad, but instead encourage them to look at the evidence of its effects themselves and then question and form their own opinions. If that means something more than an IT thing, fine – because no one’s pretending that Internet misogyny is some sui generis form of fear and hatred, rather than old seeds planted in rich new soil.

The alternative is let young men wing it – to assume that their destinies bring them into situations where they grow, learn and correct themselves, and that they won’t do anything too awful along the way, because that’s what laws are for. There’s a lot they can read and build an empathy and understanding from out there. There are also a lot of women who will take the time to explain things to them, though they’re not obliged to do so.

But the world can also be a capricious and embarrassing and lonely place for a young kid – and the ones that take a few knocks retreat to places, online and off, where they stew over those episodes with likeminded people, listening to voices that soothe them rather than challenge them. When they do feel cornered, they’ll see themselves as righteous and wronged, and lash out again and again. As they ruin another woman’s life by finding her on Google Maps, or by just casually telling an interloper that she’s ugly and should kill herself, they’re cloaked in an enveloping, unchecked victimhood.

From where they stand, they’re still just that boy in the ad.

Joe Nunweek

Joe Nunweek is a writer, lawyer and trade unionist from Aotearoa New Zealand, now ordinarily resident in Narrm. Prior to moving across the Tasman, he co-founded the NZ arts and culture website The Pantograph Punch.

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