You know you’ll have to at some point.
By Seb FoxAllen
He is hungry. Image via Flickr user Jan Hammershaug
Over the past few days we’ve been trying to find a better way forward from the acrid pile of burning trash that was 2015. We’ve dealt with the environment, terrorism, drug-taking, and more, but perhaps the area with the most room for achievable improvement is in the dank wasteland of the internet.
In 2015 your online friends grew more and more insufferable. All news was bad and the coverage of it worse. People you like argued ad nauseum, and ungodly promoted content took over your carefully curated Instagram feeds. One of your exes got married (lol); another got gout (lol?).
If you were a woman, an incessant stream of dudes yelled sexist shit at you from behind Twitter eggs and Solid Snake avatars. Anonymous threats of sexual violence weren’t so much lobbed in your direction as skillfully targeted at you and your platforms.
If you weren’t white, dismissals of your experiences clogged up your notifications even when you were just trying to crowdsource a substitute for honey in your homemade energy bar recipe.
If you identify as anything less heteronormative than Tim Allen, your very personhood was up for constant debate from people you didn’t know and, more jarringly, in small, subtle ways from some you thought you did.
If you belong to more than one of those groups, you might be commended for even mustering the courage to hang out online this year at all.
Will 2016 be better? Who knows! There is certainly a chance that it will be even worse. But here are a few things that could, if even fleetingly, start to make being online a bit more bearable over the next 12 months.
Stop Calling Harassment ‘Trolling’
Trolling is a magical and valuable tactic of the internet. It uses the language and conventions of a group to coax out hypocrisy or frustration from its members. It catches the status quo in all its pomp and silliness. But trolling is also a word we use to minimize the impact of online behavior that would be criminal if it happened on the street.
Harassment online—whether it’s threats of violence, or persistent unwanted contact—is harassment, and should be described that way. Whether laws are currently equipped to deal with it or not, harassment on the internet has consistently led to offline consequences.
Language is never the be all and end all, but not trivializing harassment that happens on the internet as “trolling” (or, say, “cyberbullying”) helps people who are targeted feel heard and believed. That’s a small, good thing.
Trolls aren’t inherently bad and neither is trolling, so long as they punch up at power and privilege.
The most famous troll of 2015 was Donald Trump. His campaign for the Republican nomination for president has consistently (and sometimes spectacularly) frustrated and embarrassed the big-spending political establishment that is used to picking presidents. He engages the political system with such transparent contempt that he has proven incredibly difficult to pander against, forcing both his opponents and the Republican National Committee to respond to his silliness with a seriousness that ends up reading as even sillier.
Better examples are the South Carolina State Representative who introduced a bill forcing doctors prescribing Viagra to jump through the same ridiculous hoops that her colleagues had legislated for abortion procedures, the Australians using an iMessage loophole to hassle politicians over new cybersecurity laws, or that fake Campbell’s Soup customer service account that made fun of homophobes threatening to boycott the company on Facebook.
The difference between being a troll and being a dick all comes down to who you set your sights on.
Feed the Trolls However the Fuck Much You Want
Being told “Don’t feed the trolls” is about as useful as being told “Just get over it.” Some people process online harassment by shrugging it off, others need to hold it up to the world and light it on fire. Most use a combination of the two, but either way it comes with new consequences that obviously shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.
Feed trolls when it works for you, don’t engage with them when it doesn’t. But don’t accept that either response means you, or someone else, is asking to be targeted.
Stop Confusing Freedom of Speech with Freedom from Consequence
The internet, or at least the parts of it most of us use, isn’t a public space.
Hanging out on Twitter isn’t like standing on a street corner, it’s like standing in a McDonald’s. It’s a corporately-governed space that can impose rules and restrictions on what its users can say or do.
Social media companies have struggled to find meaningful ways to juggle free speech and user safety on their platforms. Twitter in particular has faced years of criticism for its unwillingness to adopt clear, useful mechanisms to protect users from serial harassment.
The same goes for other types of platforms where people are subjected to online harassment, from personal websites, to comment sections, to email clients.
For 2016, Twitter introduced changes that more concretely shape what kind of language it will allow, tackling both personal abuse and more general speech from places like the estimated 50,000 accounts linked to the Islamic State. It’s a step in the right direction, but functions like better blocking and reporting may need more attention before users really have the agency they need to use the platform safely.
What should be clear is that restrictions platforms like Twitter seem increasingly willing to entertain aren’t an affront to free speech, but rather a clear system of consequences to violating the rules its users opt in to. If we’re going to live in a corporate internet, we can insist that platforms keep up with what we want from them.
Don’t Host the Comments
Comments are bad. All of them. They are peep shows of morbid curiosity at best, and magnets for the most pompous type of ideological grandstanding at worst.
If you scroll to the bottom of this article, you are likely to find two types of comments: (a) those you already completely agree with; and (b) those you would absolutely never agree with. They’re relics from a time when there was a genuine lack of places someone could publicly express an opinion on the news of the day. That isn’t the case anymore.
Canada’s public broadcaster closed out 2015 by announcing it would disable comments on articles about Indigenous people, which had for years attracted only the worst types of colonial backwash. In the US, major publishers like Bloomberg, The Verge, and VICE’s very own Motherboard all dropped their comments sections last year.
If someone feels a need to add comment—constructive or otherwise—to an article on your website, they have adequate means to do so across thousands of public channels. “Don’t read the comments” was 2014. In 2016, more publishers will choose not to host them.
Stop Being Such a Fucking Jerk
We get it. You’re callous. You’re brash. You take no prisoners. You understand evolution and free markets and Serena Williams’s sinister agenda better than anyone. You’ve memorized all the most scathing Richard Dawkins quotes, and what you’ve read about ExxonMobil would throw people into open revolt if they only knew.
You’re a rationalist: people should be able to explain anything they say using the square equivalencies of Reason, anytime you ask them to, regardless of whether they’re busy, or don’t know you, or just don’t want to. It’s all about a free exchange of ideas, can’t everyone just realize that?
After all, you’re just asking questions. Like seven of them, one after the other. Maybe the last one was less a question and more a suggestion that that person who tweeted about salted vs. unsalted butter is a dumb bitch who probably doesn’t even like butter. All you wanted was for them to acknowledge that unsalted butter is clearly more versatile because you can always just add salt to it. It’s just logical: but they couldn’t confront the truth.
You’re no hero. You’re just acting out an age-old performance of power, maybe one you feel less and less comfortable doing out in the world these days. Those tiny cracks the Social Justice Warriors and PC Police keep carving into patriarchy and white supremacy seem like chasms from where you sit, jagged expanding holes in the way the world is, or was, or should be.
The internet of 2015, like the internet you’re reading this on today, carried all the same awfulness and injustice that persists offline, except instantly searchable and pinging you 24/7.
But you need to use it. To work, to communicate, to lulz, to connect.
Maybe all you can really do to wade through it are the same things you’ve learned to do offline: keep networks that you trust, pick fights that are worth your time and try to sidestep those that aren’t. Do what you have to do to feel safe, support others when they don’t, and keep chipping away at the structures that make any of this necessary at all.
2016, as ever.
Follow Seb FoxAllen on Twitter.