Online harassment is a real source of serious problems. Jill Filipovic writes about her history as a target. It’s a very personal account, and this is what matters most:
“When people say you should be raped and killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul,” Hess quotes feminist writer Jessica Valenti as saying.
We want to believe that the Internet is different from “real life,” that “virtual reality” is a separate sphere from reality-reality. But increasingly, virtual space is just as “real” as life off of the computer. We talk to our closest friends all day long on G-Chat. We engage with political allies and enemies on Twitter and in blog comment sections. We email our moms and our boyfriends. We like photos of our cousin’s cute baby on Facebook. And if we’re writers, we research, publish and promote our work online. My office is a corner of my apartment, and my laptop is my portal into my professional world. There’s nothing “virtual” about it.
Once upon a time, using the internet was something “those kids” did, or “those academic nerdy people” did. It was something that was easy to dismiss as a strange activity that only others did, others who could probably use a good comeuppance. It wasn’t simply communication, like two ordinary people do face-to-face or over a telephone, it was mysterious weird and probably nefarious stuff. It was also probably undermining the family and traditional values.
But more people have grown up now. Online communication is everywhere. Families are keeping in touch with facebook, career people make connections with linkedin, everyone arranges dinner dates with instant messages, people skype rather than telephone, everywhere you look people are peering into smartphones, tapping away. It’s not just kids and college professors, either. It’s just about everyone.
It’s the norm.
You know that one of the key events in human evolution was the acquisition of speech — we are social animals, and we have developed wonderfully intricate mechanisms of communication that allow us to build and reaffirm the social structure, and to maneuver within it. This is what humans do. And of course once we built new tools that expand our ability to communicate, we have thoroughly integrated them into our everyday life.
Well, “we” meaning most of us. There are always sluggards who don’t quite get it (but have no fear, they will be assimilated). Right now, law enforcement is split; I think half of them are having orgasms over the depth of tech-assisted communication going on that they can exploit to keep an eye on the public, and the other half are australopithecines who don’t believe in anything more sophisticated than a grunt and a punch in the face, so all this information flying about is irrelevant. You still find Luddites whining that the children will be warped forever if they learn to communicate over the internet.
And of course, the worst of all, the parasites of the internet: people who see these tools as a way to avoid responsibility, who want to shirk accountability for what they say in a way that they could not do face-to-face, who want to disrupt rather than augment communication. The trolls of the internet are nothing but the heavy-breathing, gutter-slurring harassing phone callers of the 20th century, now given access to Photoshop and mountains of free internet porn, yet still mostly getting by on denigrating one-line hate texts sent to random women that want nothing to do with them.
Here we stand with the most wonderful tools for uniting humanity in a web of sophisticated communication, at a time when most people are able to find it socially acceptable and even desirable, and what’s holding it back? Emotionally stunted grownups, mostly man-children, who see the internet as a playground for abuse, sniping away from hiding and avoiding all consequences. They continue to propagate this idea that somehow the internet is different from other means of talking to people; that communication should only be one-way and anonymous; that words don’t matter, they’re only words.
But that’s what people are: words. You don’t know me except for the strings of words I throw around. I came to know my wife by the words we volleyed back and forth for years, sharing our histories and our cares, building a web of connections that tied us together. We don’t judge human beings by how they look, but by what they think and say, and by what they do…which we usually don’t witness, but see described in words.
When “people say you should be raped and killed for years on end”, it means something. It says volumes about the people who say those things. And what they say matters.
So let’s stop pretending that communication over the internet is something different and exceptional requiring new manners and rules, with extravagant liberties we would not grant anyone standing in the same room with us. It’s all just talking. And it’s all central to our social natures.