We hear a lot about community and free expression when it comes to the Web. From tech bloggers to legal scholars, the boosters spare little praise for the social benefits of technologically connected groups. Some cyber gurus even go so far as to predict that these new communities are already spawning a new, populist dialogue that will ultimately change the nature of state governance itself.
In the wake of Friday’s heartbreaking events, we know of course that the blogosphere amped up on the subjects of gun control and mental health. And while we tragically have to admit that there may be no policy safety net we might erect that would have stopped this particularly horrendous mass murder, I am hopeful that some of the shared opinions, stories, ideas, and even outrage might cause some measure of reflection on how we relate to the tools we create. Sometimes, social media really does foster a village, and we do extraordinary things like get help to hurricane victims or share thoughts with friends half way around the world and truly connect in ways I believe are unprecedented, profound, and positive. But sometimes a technologically linked crowd is just one catalyst away from turning into a knuckle-dragging mob, and we need to pay attention to that, too.
When the Newtown story broke, I happened to be writing about Anita Sarkeesian, who appears in this video to talk about her experience with the wisdom of one crowd that didn’t like her form of free expression and sought to silence it in an ugly way. Described on her blog as a feminist media critic, Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign last May to raise funds for a video project called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which examines the portrayal of female characters in these games and the social significance of those depictions. Sarkeesian is a gamer herself who works with, not against, the gaming industry; but that didn’t stop at least some of the online gamer community from launching a cyber attack on her that included death threats, rape threats, death with rape threats, invasions of her privacy through hacking, and a torrent of images depicting her likeness being violated and/or mauled in ways that suggest an investment of time, imagination, and loose coordination within the mob.
The average gamer in the U.S. is a male age 30, so this alliance of village idiots was not just a handful of dopey teenagers. And well beyond the gaming community per se, we’ve seen this kind of testosterone-rich, misogynistic cyber-bullying among high school kids, in certain memes, and even on the fringes of political debate. During the overheated battle on SOPA, media executives were harassed at home, and a staffer for Representative Lamar Smith received similar sex-offending manipulations from netizens who clearly don’t know the difference between free expression and assault. Happily for Sarkeesian, and for society’s better angels, revulsion to the attacks on her resulted in an outpouring of support, and she wound up raising seven times her original goal on Kickstarter. This enabled her to broaden the scope of her work, and several video game studios have also invited her to speak with them.
The clowns who attacked Sarkeesian are very likely a minority of gamers, probably even fairly decent people in real life, so is there something about the technology or the environment that brings out these depravities? Odds are, you’ve been in chats where it’s hard to maintain or moderate a civil tone, even among friends. Why do these interactions turn normal people into sanctimonious, vitriolic, trolls? In his book You Are Not a Gadget, technology expert Jaron Lanier argues that the design of Web 2.0 is fundamentally dehumanizing, and here’s what he says about social media discourse: “If you look at online chat about anything, from guitars to poodles to aerobics, you’ll see a consistent pattern: jihadi chat looks just like poodle chat. A pack emerges, and either you are with it or against it. If you join the pack, then you join the collective ritual hatred.”
I do believe tools sometimes have a way of becoming the masters of their makers, that certain tools are not exclusively neutral objects occasionally weilded by sinister or unbalanced people. Some tools change some people. Isn’t this what the cyber gurus keep promising about the unchecked expansion of the digital age, a whole new kind of human being? New maybe, but how human remains to be seen. By relating to our toys and devices (and yes, even our guns) as extensions of ourselves, I think we all get a touch of a dissociative disorder that undermines empathy and, therefore, functional humanity.
In the same way some 2nd Amendment zealots imbue their weapons with a false notion of freedom from an imagined tyranny — therefore, turning a right into paranoia — I suspect the technology addicts who attacked Anita Sarkeesian imagined themselves as an odd band of freedom fighters. They were using Photoshop and social media as weapons to defend their “way of life.” And, of course, the hypocrisy is all too obvious — that the sexual nature of the attacks justifies precisely the questions Sarkeesian hopes to answer.
It seems we have a tendency to either want to blame or absolve certain of our creations for the harm that can be done with them. In the face of abhorrent, human behavior, we want simple answers to complex questions; but the truth is that it’s never one thing. It’s not as simple as blaming the guns or video games or violent movies any more than it would be to blame our keyboards for the almost universal lack of civil debate on the Web. I don’t have answers anymore than anyone else. What does seem true, based on the many comments I read over the weekend, is that we are groping around for our posterity and finding little satisfaction in the ever-expanding cacophony. One word that seems to be at everyone’s fingertips right now is enough. There’s a reason I call this blog The Illusion of More.