Gender and Digital Identity

10 Jul

Troll pic by John McGovern. (Click to view the original on Flickr Creative Commons)


In a way this is slightly off-topic in that it isn’t about libraries, but in more ways it’s on-topic because this blog is often about new technology, and social media, and higher education. In particular I think we as information professionals should be sharing our expertise in social media with the academic community – I do this via workshops, and one question I get asked in more than half the sessions I do, is, how do you deal with the unpleasant attention online which you (inevitably) get if you are both prominent and female?

When I was first asked this I really didn’t know how to answer it very well – the second and subsequent times I’d looked into it a bit and felt better prepared, but there still doesn’t really seem to be a good answer (outside of: Fix Society – which I’m not holding my breath for). With this in mind, I went along to a session called Female public intellectuals – the risk of exposure as part of the University of York’s Intellectual Integrity conference. The panel discussion was revealing, fascinating, and depressing – I was going to say in equal parts but that’s glib; it was basically mostly depressing. Here are some thoughts around this whole issue, for what they’re worth.

The problem

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the problem but let me set it out explicitly here: the problem is that as soon as you gain an amount of exposure, you open yourself to abuse. I think this is true across the board, because among every X number of people, a small percentage of them are bound to be fecking idiots: the higher the number X, the more idiots are in that number. However the problem of abuse is exacerbated by the internet in general (it allows disconnected contact in a fashion which allows cowards to flourish), social media in particular (it allows direct access and potentially even the feeling that you ‘know’ someone and so are entitled to comment on their appearance, etc) and is much much worse if you’re female, gay, or in an ethnic minority.

Increasingly vital to researchers and academics is the need to have impact, and to have impact you need to be seen. To be seen is to open yourself to abuse, so how do you do your job in such conditions?

One of the panel spoke about how she appeared on the BBC for around 2 minutes – TWO MINUTES – and within hours had several emails from people either saying how sexually UNattractive they found her, or how sexually attractive they found her and what they wanted to do about it. Males on the same programme got emails too – about their arguments. But she just basically got abuse – and keep in mind, this is a BBC1 audience who had to Google her and find out her email, and took the time to do so.

The two things that really hit home for me attending this talk (and keep in mind I’m a social-media-workshop-teaching, feminist-lefty-leaning Guardian-reading, already-interested and somewhat-read-up-on-this librarian…) were A: how little exposure women need to get abuse (I naively thought it didn’t happen until you’d been on TV, but people with 2,000 Twitter followers are finding that enough to warrant emails detailing sexual fantasies) and B: how there’s no real preparation for dealing with it. It’s not really discussed much. There’s a tendency to laugh it off or, worse, to feel misplaced guilt about it – maybe I inadvertently led them on? So it doesn’t get shared, and you don’t get the relief and understanding that comes from realising other people are getting this abuse too, and it’s not your fault.

We’re not talking about a tiny number of ‘sick’ people abusing women online anymore. It’s really, really common.

It’s no longer about anonymity

For ages I thought the problem with the internet was anonymity. If you want to see how people act when they’re unaccountable, go look at the comments section of ANYTHING – YouTube, the Guardian, heaven forbid the Mail – and check your faith in humanity at the door.  People say awful things, all the time, because they don’t have to take responsibility for them – they can hide behind a random username.

But I don’t think that’s even the main issue anymore. Take a moment to look at this tumblr post from Feminist Frequency – she had the audacity to tweet a mild comment about lack of female lead characters in computer games, and got back an unfathomable stream of abuse. The abuse is not from people hiding behind the anonymity of the net. It is from people with their name and photo on their twitter account.

Another attendee at the session today mentioned the ‘coarsening of society’ – we are generally getting more unpleasant, more mysognistic all the time. I agree with that, but I think social media can make this a lot worse because of its unique ability to connect like-minded people.

Social media, tribes, and ‘finding your (similarly repulsive) people’

I love social media. I love most how it can help you find your people – you can reach all the other Twitter users who happen to have your exact outlook on life, or taste in music, or professional interests, or whatever it might be. It gives us all the chance to deepen and enrich our experiences through sharing them with the like-minded. The old saying about how you can’t choose your family, but at least you can choose your friends – that needs updating. Because even your friends are chosen partly based on logistics such as geography, place of work etc. Online you can find people just like you!

However… There’s a darker side to this, which is that all the really repulsive people can find all the other really repulsive people. And what they do (this is my pet theory; others may have explored this with proper intellectual rigour) is form their own ersatz society, which comes with different standards of behaviour. It seems to me that a depressingly high percentage of humans really have no private morality at all – the only reason they aren’t unpleasant to women (for example) all the time is because society’s norms dictate that they can’t. Hence, the original problem of anonymity and the net – if you’re not accountable to society’s norms you can finally act however you like (which for lots of people seems to be: Really Unpleasant!). But now that all these people can find their tribes online, they effectively create a new society where the norms ARE to be unpleasant and misogynistic – so they think nothing of abusing prominent women under their own name and their own image.

God it’s depressing.

A project to tackle this

I’d like to see Higher Education Institutions tackling this by preparing academics and researchers (both male and female) for what will happen if they become prominent. I’d like to see students being taught about the scale of the problem as soon as they engage with the online world. Clearly this is a far bigger problem than just an academic one, but we can’t all leave it for someone else to fix society. But even tackling this problem head-on is fraught with difficulty – as someone on the panel pointed out, this has the feeling of acceptance: getting abuse is part of being a successful female, so here’s some coping strategies, off you go.

Anyhow there is work being done in this area, and I particularly wanted to highlight what Sara Perry, one of the panelists, is doing at the moment. She’s collecting data about people’s online experiences, and there’s been around 200 responses to her survey so far (which is great as it’s brand new) – including people saying how they deal with this and offering SOLUTIONS or at least ways of getting through the problem for individuals. That’s a great thing, and I can’t wait to see what Sara and her team publish at the end of it. (From a purely selfish point of view, I’d like to be able to better advise people who ask me about this in social media workshops about how to deal with it.) So please consider taking the survey – the details and the link are on Sara’s blog. Sara is speaking up about really problematic issues here in the hope that it can help others who have endured similar incidents to those she’s experienced, which is vital.

If anyone has anything they’d like to add to this in the comments, whether it’s general discussion or advice on how to deal with online abuse, please leave a comment below. And if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!


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  • Katie Birkwood July 10, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    Thanks for writing this Ned. I’m fortunate in that it’s not something that’s happened to me, so I’ve not had to think about it in concrete terms. But it’s important that everyone acknowledges that this happens, and that it’s not the fault of the people receiving the abuse, and that it’s something that needs to change.

  • Sian July 10, 2013 at 9:24 PM

    Great post, thank you for taking the the time to write it – I think wider exposure of the issue is needed to try and tackle it. I liked that you said how little exposure women need to get abuse; I have less than 800 followers on Twitter but when I once tweeted a pretty rubbish joke about John Terry that got RT’d about 3 times I got a load of tweets from some random idiot informing me that it was a shame I was such a stupid bitch because I looked quite attractive! As if I even cared! Oh and there was the time I tweeted about some nasty t-shirts that Topman were selling and I got the standard ‘you’re just jealous because no one would want to rape you lol’. This sort of misogynistic abuse can happen to anyone woman, regardless of how prominent and we really need to talk about it more. The only advice I have is to just block immediately and not engage, there’s really no point in trying.

  • thewikiman July 11, 2013 at 3:22 PM

    Hi Both, thanks for commenting. It’s unbelievable how common this is, and how little is required to provoke it. All the women on the panel who spoke about social media loved using it, loved engaging that way, and it’s so wrong that accepting abuse appears to be part of the terms and conditions for using it.

    In library terms, I think we need to tell people about it (men and women) as much as we can. It’s not much but it’ll help people prepare for it. Meanwhile I don’t know what we do about society…

  • woodsiegirl July 11, 2013 at 7:10 PM

    Good post, thanks for writing Ned. It’s good to see people talking more about this issue. I firmly believe it’s something that needs to be talked about as much as possible – not only, as you’ve said, to reassure people that they are not alone in facing this problem, but also just to raise more awareness generally. If you’ve never experienced this kind of abuse yourself, you have absolutely no idea a) how prevalent it is, b) how horrendous it is, or c) just how little you have to do to “provoke” it! (I’ve put provoke in quotes there as I couldn’t think of a better word to use, but I do also want to make clear that no one ever really “provokes” this behaviour – some people are just shitbags).

    I’d be interested to know if this is a problem in the library world – my gut feeling is that it isn’t, probably due to the profession being so female-dominated and generally made up of lefty liberal types, but then I don’t want to assume that just because it’s never happened to me, that means it doesn’t happen to other people in the profession. I have almost never had abusive comments on my library blog (the only exception being a string of inexplicably angry comments left on my blog post about why I deleted my G+ account – apparently this made me an “ugly slut” as well as a “weak-minded sheep”. No idea what provoked that level of vitriol – I just deleted all his comments until he eventually gave up!)

    I do, however, remember getting regular abuse back in my MySpace days (cue sepia-tinted memory montage…) when I was quite active on some feminist boards. Nothing compared to what the group moderators got, but still enough to be pretty scary. My view on tackling this kind of abuse really stems from those experiences, and also from what I see on the feminist blogs I frequent nowadays. I know this isn’t a popular choice for free-speech reasons, but I do believe ruthless moderation is the way to go. Can’t be nice, or disagree with someone based on the facts rather than making ad hominem attacks? Boom, comment deleted.

    I know some will cry censorship to that, and that is a valid perspective to take. I just think you have to balance freedom of speech with maintaining a safe space, and that’s a judgement to be made individually. If you want to prioritise free speech above all else, then that is totally fine and totally your decision to make – but you need to accept that is going to mean dealing with a certain amount of abuse. And vice versa: if you want to prioritise keeping a safe space, then that is going to mean sacrificing some freedom of speech.

    That’s the (unofficial) comment policy I have for my blog: disagree with me all you want, but if you can’t do it without calling me a bitch, your comment will be deleted. The way I see it, there’s a whole internet out there for people to call me a bitch to their heart’s content – so I don’t need to put up with it in my own space.

    Obviously all that applies mainly to blogs/online comments, but I think the same can apply to real-world scenarios like academic conferences/panels – there has to be zero-tolerance for abuse. Institutions like universities (and indeed the BBC!) need to make it clear that they will not tolerate personal, abusive language, and – crucially – they need to enforce this. I’ve read some stuff online recently about female delegates and speakers getting harassed at tech conferences, and despite official zero-tolerance policies, nothing happened to their harassers because they were well-connected and well-known/respected in the industry. That is not acceptable: it can’t be “zero-tolerance, unless you’re one of the in-crowd in which case that bitch was totes asking for it”.

    And finally (my last point, I promise!) I agree that teaching students coping strategies would help, but I also agree with the panellist who commented that that’s a bit accepting of the situation. It rather sends the message that it’s the responsibility of the harassed person to either stop the harassment (which they have no power to do) or just ignore it and quit whining. I know that’s not how you mean it, but that’s how it may come across – it’s got a whiff of victim-blaming about it. Personally, I think the onus has to be on changing people’s behaviour and creating a culture where abuse and harassment are not acceptable, rather than just telling people “well, this is gonna happen, so here’s what you can do to cope”. I think if you’re going to teach coping strategies, you also need to be able to say “and this is who you report this stuff to, and this is what action will be taken”.

    So, now that my comment is probably longer than your post, I think I’ll leave it there! Sorry for the essay, as you may have guessed this is something I feel strongly about. It’s good to see it addressed here, and I hope the conversation continues.

  • Elizabeth Yates July 11, 2013 at 8:08 PM

    Thanks so much, Ned, for writing about this important issue.
    Woodsiegirl – I agree with you. In a nutshell, I think it boils down to the need for community standards online. We all operate within an intangible framework of behavioural standards and expectations in our homes, workplaces, in our leisure activities — everywhere. Except online.
    Setting clear standards for how we behave/communicate online is essential as is moderation. Sadly, it’s equally clear that, while social media companies such as Twitter, FB, etc., may claim to have rules about user conduct, they have little interest in monitoring such standards and disciplining transgressions.
    So it’s really up to us. Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it. We don’t need to get involved in a verbal offensive, but simply offer constructive criticism and move on.
    It’s worth a try.
    Cultural shifts are slow and painful, but they have to start somewhere.

  • Bluearchgirl July 14, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this. Reading your blog post made me think a bit more about whether a career in academia is the right direction for me. I’ve debated it in my latest blog post. So thank you again :) very helpful for me

  • Marcus Frewin-Ridley July 16, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    Great article. I agree with everything you say, except that we are getting more course and mysogynistic over time. Surely progress is happening, or how did feminism happen? Or do you mean we’ve passed our peak of progress and are now regressing?

  • ERose July 17, 2013 at 8:18 PM

    I like your theory about online spaces creating new erstaz societies. I almost think in a way those societies can also find their own virtual geography, in the sense that it’s crazy easy to follow the trail of one site or space you agree with to others and never have to interact meaningfully with other kinds of ideas.
    It sort of reinforces the notion of your favorite behavior being acceptable because you never have to see that there are other communities with different standards if you don’t choose to look for them.
    That’s why I tend to be a proponent of using one’s prominence to call foul (when you have the energy to deal with the tangent) publicly and contributing at least a message of support when I see someone else has done so. If the aberrant voices are the only ones speaking, it allows them to maintain the illusion that their behavior is normal and acceptable.

  • Kelly Quaye July 18, 2013 at 6:58 PM

    Thanks for raising awareness of this issue in your blogpost, Ned! It’s a really important issue and truly shocking to read some of the comments people post in response to opinion pieces. I kept a professional blog for a short while but was also very careful about what I posted for fear of receiving offensive comments, which seems to be the norm for so many people unfortunately.

  • Audra Mitchell July 24, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    Thanks for highlighting this on your blog, Ned, and for your interesting views on the issue. Good to see so many thoughtful comments from your readers I’ve recently written about it on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog (and linked to your post):

  • [...] session attracted a good deal of interest, including posts by Ned and by Anonymous. Audra Mitchell, who convened the panel, has written a post on the duty of [...]

  • Rosie Hare August 8, 2013 at 2:46 PM

    This is a great post Ned, and I fully agree with the comments by woodsiegirl et al above. My mother and I had a conversation the other night (in relation to abuse that Mary Beard received on Twitter) and we came to a similar conclusion about the ersatz societies of abhorrent morons. I’m fortunate to have encountered very little online abuse via social media and my blog, and I suppose one of the main reasons is because of my twitter community of fairly liberal-minded library and information professionals. Because I only tend to associate with people in a similar profession or similar mindset to me, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are some awful, awful people out there and I’m often shocked and despair at the amount of anger, misogyny and downright hatefulness that is out there on the net.

    I’d be sure to fight against any online abuse I received and would offer my support to others who were at the receiving end of such abuse. It may seem like a losing battle, which is why I agree with ERose – we need to shout just as loud as these online bullies to change the mindset and culture of those participating in online communities.

  • [...] over a month – it was meant as a direct follow up to a previous post (linked below) but then the gender and digital idenity thing came up (which is now EVERYWHERE in the media – glad the issue is getting proper coverage) [...]

  • thewikiman November 6, 2013 at 2:16 PM

    Sorry for the incredibly belated response to all your excellent comments.

    Woodsie, I agree, we have to be really careful about how we couch advice on coping with this, in order to eliminate the possibility that it comes across as ‘this is life, deal with it’. But I still believe that NOT providing information or support (which is basically the current situation) isn’t ideal either. There is no ideal, it’s a shitty situation.

    Elizabeth and ERose, Rosie, I completely agree, we have to call out bad behaviour where we see it, regardless of the status or ‘rank’ of the people perpetuating it. It’s a joint responsibility we all have, not just the people getting the abuse.

    Marcus, I think we hit a peak and are regressing. I’ve said this for a while, depressing anyone who’ll listen – I think history will judge the end of the last century as being the point at which humankind ended thousands of years of progress and began its descent (much like the inverted childhood of old age).

    Kelly, thanks for commenting, Audra, thanks for linking to this in your excellent article.

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