When I ranted about how the media’s incessant desire to get the story was not allowing the people of Newtown to mourn, I did not expect that I’d be mourning the death of a friend a month later. As I’ve tried to come to terms with Aaron’s death, I’ve found myself slipping between personal grief and meta reflection, my primary coping mechanism for dealing. I’ve decided to craft this deeply personal, reflective blog post because I think that it makes sense to think about and discuss what mourning and vulnerability mean in a culture of public-ness.
Last week, I read the story of a Newtown woman who was photographed grieving at a vigil. She voiced her struggle in becoming an icon of the tragedy, understanding the importance of the story but also wanting to be respected as an individual going through her own struggles. This story resonated with me.
Aaron Swartz was a friend of mine. When I woke up three Saturdays ago to learn about his death, I went into complete shock. I spent the day talking with mutual friends, reading heartfelt stories on the internet, and crying. I woke up the next day and while lying in bed, penned my own memorial for my blog. I always struggle with what my blog is, wanting it to be a way of communicating with people who know me while also recognizing that it’s read by many strangers. Still, it’s the best vessel to share with a community of geeks that I love. So I posted my reflections there.
I should’ve known that my blog post would attract the attention of the press. But I wasn’t really processing reality and I hadn’t yet begun to realize that the story would become a mainstream one. On one hand, I was glad. People should know who Aaron was and why what he did was important. On the other hand, I watched as the story took on a life of its own, not just a rallying cry for geeks, but a portrait that I could barely recognize.
I started getting questions from journalists and I panicked. I wrote as politely as I could that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be their source. But I also struggled with the very fact of their asking. Yes, I blogged about him, but what right do I have to speak for Aaron? To tell Aaron’s story? I was Aaron’s friend, but like many friends in my world, we ebbed and flowed in terms of closeness over the last 9 years. I was not his lover, I was not his professional collaborator. I had only met his father once and only met his current partner briefly. I knew only a small subset of his social circle. I knew – and adored – a facet of Aaron. But who was I to tell his story? I found myself fretting over how my blog post had created a signal that I didn’t want to to convey. I wanted to express my grief and my fear over how parts of my community were reacting, not claim proximity or define Aaron.
As the funeral rolled around, I scratched my head as to whether or not to go. I hate funerals, but I also knew that many people I cared deeply about were struggling even more than me. And none of us live in the same city. And part of me wanted to support them and show respect. But then I heard people who didn’t know Aaron talking about going because it was “the right thing to do” which was basically code for the notion that everyone who was everyone was going to be there. It also became clear that it was going to be a media event with the possibility of protestors and counter-protesters. And I balked. I couldn’t stomach the idea of simultaneously trying to mourn and trying to deal with a collective performance of mourning. So I stayed put, in a daze.
And then the memorials started up and I was asked to speak. And I realized that I was so not there yet. I was still at the stage of cry and hug. And I was struck by how some of those who he spent his last days with were able to channel their own emotional struggle into a far more productive output than I could possibly muster. I was in awe of their strength, of their commitment. Because I relished the activist in Aaron and I was completely intellectually with them in their efforts to use this moment to make a difference, to speak out against the structural inequities and abuses of power that Aaron was fighting for. But I wasn’t able to be there; I was still in a dark place that wasn’t productive. So I pushed my own escape valve, a privileged valve I’ve learned to use whenever things got dark. I spent my frequent traveler points and went to Miami to hug the sun and the beach and get a grip on my mental state.
I’ve spent a lot of years struggling with my own demons and one of the best parts of growing old for me is that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to identify and deal with my emotional state before I put myself or anyone else at risk. I’m good at getting control over me before running full-speed with my activist goals. This is something that I’m very proud of. But I also look back with a lot of uncertainty because I don’t know how I would’ve gotten here without the internet as it was when I was coming of age.
As I’ve said many times, the internet has been my saving grace. I usually publicly point to the ways in which I have learned about new opportunities and been challenged to think about a world that was bigger than the one that I was inhabiting on a daily basis. But embedded in those positive-minded narratives is the fact that the internet allowed me to be vulnerable and safe in a productive way. I spent countless hours anonymously talking to strangers about my demons without being tracked or identified or outed. I used LiveJournal to be deeply vulnerable among friends in an environment where we all understood that it was a site where you shared your struggles and everyone respected that. I lashed out in ways that helped create friendships as a byproduct of getting help. And I started blogging in a context where putting yourself out there enabled a small community of caring folks to listen and be supportive in all sorts of unique ways.
Today, I don’t have that luxury. My internet is painfully public. My interactions online are heavily constrained by pressures I get from others. When I post something controversial or incomplete, I am consistently publicly attacked and I’m regularly told that this is what I get for choosing to speak in public. I am told that as a public figure, I deserve whatever I get. So when I choose to make myself vulnerable in public, I have to brace myself for attacks. Even my attempt to mourn Aaron generated messages by strangers attacking me for clearly having not been a real friend or else he wouldn’t have died. I’ve learned to roll with these attacks, but they still sting. And I don’t know that my younger self could’ve handled them well. But what I know is that I no longer have an internet where I feel safe to deal with my demons. There are still places where people can carve out that space, but somehow, it never feels safe enough to me anymore.
I realize that this nostalgia for the past is interwoven with a whole set of different issues that make this a self-absorbed lament. But Aaron’s death threw it in my face. Because, on the day that Aaron died, the geeks that I grew up being vulnerable with all let down their guards and wailed through the media that they knew best. And then his death went from creating a weekend of collective sadness and storytelling to an event that took on a life of its own. And I’m left with a discomforting question: where are geeks allowed to be vulnerable today?
With each new geek death by suicide, folks ask what we should do about the depression in our community. I can’t help but think that we’re paying the costs of the public-ness that we’ve helped create. We’ve made geek culture something to watch, an economic engine, a dependency. And in doing so, we haven’t enabled safe spaces to grow. We’ve created communities connected around ideas and actions, relishing individualistic productivity for collective good. But we haven’t created openings for people to be weak and voice their struggles and demons. In short, we don’t know how to support vulnerabilities and rather than debugging the problem, we just hope that if we don’t pay too much attention to them, they’ll go away.
But the pressures of public-ness are forcing us to pay an ugly price. In NYC alone, we’ve lost two geeks in two years because their worlds spun out of control in ways that didn’t leave them with enough strength to grapple with their demons while also trying to make the world a better place. Throughout this country, there are geeks and hackers facing serious pressures by structural power as a byproduct of the public-ness we’ve created. And many of them are also facing serious demons. I’m definitely among those who want to hold political entities accountable for capitalizing on vulnerabilities in their pursuit of the status quo, but I am also hoping that the geek community can figure out a way to make sure that those who are struggling have enough support to fight both their demons and their oppressors. Before we lose another one. The problem is that I genuinely don’t know how.
The last 24 hours have been an emotional roller coaster. I woke up yesterday to find that a friend of mine – Aaron Swartz – had taken his life. My Twitter feed went into mourning – shock, sadness, anger, revenge. I spent the day talking with friends who were all in various states of disarray. I watched as many of them poured out their hearts on their blogs, a practice we’ve all been doing for over a decade. And yet, I couldn’t find the words to express what I’ve been feeling. When I tweeted yesterday about being angry, well-meaning friends and mental health experts who didn’t know Aaron wrote to me about how I couldn’t be responsible for someone’s depression. This made me want to scream. I decided to write this blog post instead. It is raw and imperfect, but that’s where I’m at right now.
For better or worse, I’ve known a lot of people over the years who have committed suicide. I’ve watched people struggle through serious depression and then make that choice. Having battled my own demons, I understood. Part of why Aaron’s death hit me like a rock is because this time it was different.
There’s no doubt in my mind that depression was a factor. I adored Aaron because he was an emotional whirlwind – a cranky bastard and a manic savant. Our conversations had an ethereal sense to them and he pushed me hard to think through complex issues as we debated. He had an intellectual range that awed me and a kitten’s sense of curiosity. But when he was feeling destructive, he used his astute understandings of people to find their weak spots and poke them where it hurt. Especially the people he loved the most. He saw himself as an amateur sociologist because he was enamored with how people worked and we argued over the need for rigor, the need for formal training. He had no patience for people who were intellectually slower than him and he failed to appreciate what could be gained by a university setting. Instead, he wanted to mainline books and live in the world of the mind.
I’ve known Aaron for nine years and I both adored him to pieces and found him frustrating as hell. In recent years, our connection grew more sporadic because I loved the ups but really struggled with the downs. But when the arrest happened, I grew very worried about him. We decided never to talk about the case itself, but amidst brainjams, we’d joke about him finally getting his degree in jail as a way to relieve the pressure. I promised to curate an educational plan built off of great pieces of scholarship and told him I’d send him a printout from JSTOR each day. I knew he was struggling, but he was also a passionate activist and I genuinely thought that would see him through this dark period.
What made me so overwhelmingly angry yesterday was the same thing that has been boiling in my gut for the last two years. When the federal government went after him – and MIT sheepishly played along – they weren’t treating him as a person who may or may not have done something stupid. He was an example. And the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power. In recent years, hackers have challenged the status quo and called into question the legitimacy of countless political actions. Their means may have been questionable, but their intentions have been valiant. The whole point of a functioning democracy is to always question the uses and abuses of power in order to prevent tyranny from emerging. Over the last few years, we’ve seen hackers demonized as anti-democratic even though so many of them see themselves as contemporary freedom fighters. And those in power used Aaron, reframing his information liberation project as a story of vicious hackers whose terroristic acts are meant to destroy democracy.
Reasonable people can disagree about tactics and where and when a particular approach pushes too far. Like Lessig, I often disagreed with Aaron about his particular approach to freeing the world’s information, even if I never disagreed with him about the goal. And one of the reasons why so many hackers and geeks spent yesterday raging against the machine is because so many people in power have been unable to see past the particular acts and understand the intentions and activism. So much public effort has been put into controlling and harmonizing geek resistance, squashing the rebellion, and punishing whoever authorities can get their hands on. But most geeks operate in gray zones, making it hard for them to be pinned down and charged. It’s in this context that Aaron’s stunt gave federal agents enough evidence to bring him to trial to use him as an example. They used their power to silence him and publicly condemn him even before the trial even began.
Yesterday, there was an outpouring of information about his case, including an amazing account from the defense’s expert witness. Many people asked why people didn’t speak up before. I can only explain my reasoning. I was too scared to speak publicly for fear of how my words might be used against him. And I was too scared to get embroiled in the witch hunt that I’ve watched happen over the last three years. Because it hasn’t been about justice or national security. It’s been about power. And it’s at the heart and soul of why the Obama administration has been a soul crushing disappointment to me. I’ve gotten into a ridiculous number of fights over the last couple of years with folks in the administration over the treatment of geeks and the misunderstanding of hackers, but I could never figure how to make a difference on that front. This was a source of serious frustration for me, even as SOPA/PIPA showed that geeks could make a difference.
So here we are today, the world lacking a prodigious child whose intellect scared the shit out of everyone who knew him. He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did. All for the performance of justice. All before he was even tried in a society that prides itself on innocent until proven guilty. Was depression key to what happened on Friday? Certainly. But it wasn’t the whole story. And that’s what makes it hard for me to stomach.
There is a lot of justifiable outrage out there. Many people want the heads of the key administrators who helped create the context in which Aaron took his life. I completely understand where they’re coming from. But I also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that – lovable and flawed, passionate and strong-willed, brilliant and infuriatingly stupid. It’ll be easy for folks to rally cry for revenge in his name. But not much is gained from reifying the us vs. them game that got us here. There has to be another way.
What I really hope comes out of this horrible tragedy is some serious community reflection and a deep values check. Many of the beliefs that Aaron stood for – the liberation of knowledge, open access to information, and the use of code to make the world better – are core values in the geek community. Yet, as Biella Coleman astutely dissects in “Coding Freedom”, this community is not without its flaws. Nor was Aaron. He did things his way because he believed that passion and will and action trumped all. And his stubbornness made him breakable. If we want to achieve the values and goals that are core to the geek community, I don’t think that we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs that can be used as examples in a cultural war. As we collectively mourn Aaron’s death and channel our anger into making a difference, I think we need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power.
The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is pleased to announce the publication of eight new of papers in The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series (danah boyd, John Palfrey, and Dena Sacco, editors) as part of its collaboration with the Born This Way Foundation (BTWF), and generously supported by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series is comprised of short papers that are intended to help synthesize research and provide research-grounded insight to the variety of stakeholders working on issues related to youth empowerment and action towards creating a kinder, braver world.
The eight new papers focus on The Role of Youth Organizations and Youth Movements for Social Change, and were selected among submissions from a call for papers that the Berkman Center put out in June 2012. They include:
- “The Value of Youth Organizing” by Jerusha Conner
- “Youth and Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies” by Sasha Costanza-Chock
- “Cultivating Young Women’s Leadership for a Kinder, Braver World” by Anna Rorem and Dr. Monisha Bajaj
- “How Participatory Action Research Can Promote Social Change and Help Youth Development” by Cara Berg Powers and Erin Allaman
- “Engaging Youth, Serving Community: Social Change Lessons from a 4H Rural Youth Development Program” by Donna J. Peterson, Barbara A. Baker, JoAnne Leatherman, Michael E. Newman, and Sally Miske
- “Youth Organizations and Positive Development: Lessons Learned from a Century of Girl Scouting” by Kamla Modi, Judy Schoenberg, and Kallen Tsikalas of the Girl Scout Research Institute
- “Out of the Box: Positive Development & Social Change Through the Arts” by Ping Ho
- “How to Engage Young People: Lessons From Lowell, MA” by Sopheap Linda C. Sou, Darcie DeAngelo, Masada Jones, and Monica Veth
In addition to being published on the The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series site, the eight new papers soon will be published on SSRN as part of the Berkman Center’s Working Paper Series. Stay tuned for details.
In early 2012 we published a group of papers related to Meanness and Cruelty, including:
- “What You Must Know to Help Combat Youth Bullying, Meanness, and Cruelty” by danah boyd and John Palfrey
- “Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review” by Nathaniel Levy, Sandra Cortesi, Urs Gasser, Edward Crowley, Meredith Beaton, June Casey, and Caroline Nolan
- “An Overview of State Anti-Bullying Legislation and Other Related Laws” by Dena Sacco, Katharine Silbaugh, Felipe Corredor, June Casey, and Davis Doherty
- “Bullying Prevention 101 for Schools: Dos and Don’ts” by Susan Swearer, Mia Doces, Lisa Jones, and Anne Collier
- “Implementing Bullying Prevention Programs in Schools: A How-To Guide” by Lisa Jones, Mia Doces, Susan Swearer, and Anne Collier
- “Changing the Culture: Ideas for Student Action” by Anne Collier, Susan Swearer, Mia Doces, and Lisa Jones
We welcome ongoing conversations about these topics.
danah boyd, John Palfrey, and Dena Sacco
In late May – or maybe early June – of 1999, I ended up at a rave in a field on the outskirts of Denver. I was driving cross-country and I wasn’t thinking about our geography. Like many raves at the time, it was a mix of folks ages 16-30. I set up my tent and was sitting in it writing in my journal when some teens asked me if they could come in. They were trying to light their cigarettes and it was too windy and they didn’t have a tent. I invited them in and we got to talking. I asked where they were from and they looked down. “Littleton,” they said. “Is that near here?” I asked, ignoring the warning signs that I was putting my foot in my mouth as their eyes got big with surprise. And then it dawned on me. Columbine. Sure enough, this group of teens were all from Columbine and they were all there when their classmates were savagely killed. I decided not to ask them about the day itself, but asked how it’s been since. What I heard was heartbreaking. They had dropped out of school because the insanity from the press proved to be too much to deal with. They talked about not being able to answer the phone – which would ring all day and night – because the press always wanted to talk. They talked about being hounded by press wherever they went. All they wanted was to be let alone. So they dropped out of school which they said was fine because it was so close to the end of the year and everything was chaos and no one noticed.
Everything about what happened in Newtown is horrible. And as the public processes it, I understand the need to talk about the issues. Mental health. Gun control. Violence in society. Turning killers into celebrities. Disenfranchisement of youth. There are a lot of topics that need to be seriously discussed and, for better or worse, there’s nothing like a crisis to propel those issues into the public consciousness.
But please, please, please… can we leave the poor people of Newtown alone? Can we not shove microphones into the faces of distraught children? Can we stop hovering like buzzards waiting for the fresh meat of gossipy details? Can we let the parents of the deceased choose when and where they want to engage with the public to tell their story? Can we let the community have some dignity in their grief rather than turning them and their lives into a spectacle of mourning?
Yes, the media are the ones engaging in these practices. But the reason that they’re doing so is because we – the public – are gawking at the public displays of pain. Our collective fascination with tragedy means that we encourage media practices that rub salt into people’s wounds, all for the most salacious story. And worse, our social media practices mean that the media creators are tracking the kinds of stories that are forwarded. And my hunch is that people are forwarding precisely those salacious stories, even if to critique the practices (such as the interviews of children).
How can we step back and demand dignity in reporting on tragedy? And how do we not play into this ugly dynamic as a public? How do we let grieving peoples choose when and how to tell their stories? I don’t have answers, but all I can think about are those kids in Littleton whose lives were shattered by the deaths of their classmates only to be further harmed by reporters intent on getting a scoop. Let’s not ruin any more lives than have already been destroyed. We need a media whose mantra is to do no additional harm.
Update: I believe that journalists should create opportunities for people who want to tell their stories to share, but there’s a huge difference between creating opportunities and hounding people. Just because people are coming out into their community to mourn doesn’t mean that they want their image blasted onto national TV. And just because people are physically in a public space doesn’t mean that they’re public figures. Let people have an opportunity to speak, but let them mourn without being pressured to do so if that’s what they need.
I’m pleased to announce that the CFP for ICWSM-13 is now live.
In late October, it was announced that Ethan Zuckerman and I were running the conference. Due to communication failures and organizational disagreements, we stepped down in mid-November. The wonderful and talented Emre Kiciman from Microsoft Research will be running ICWSM-13 in Boston, Massachusetts. I have nothing but confidence in his ability to run this conference and I look forward to seeing where he takes it. So I hope you submit your awesome work and attend the event!
Given some of the organizational confusion, I want to take a moment to explain why I stepped down from running the event. It was not because I don’t believe in ICWSM – I think that ICWSM is a phenomenal conference. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that I’m the right person to be running the conference in the direction it’s being pushed to go.
Every year that I attended ICWSM, there has been a community meeting where people talk about what they love about the conference and what they’d like to see change. Each year, someone raises the issue about diversifying the conference. ICWSM is one of the few places where computer scientists and social scientists actively listen to one another. It is precisely that combination that makes my heart melt. But it’s also run as a computer science conference which is inaccessible to most social scientists. Each year, when the issue comes up, two sticking points are regularly raised: 1) the computer science publishing model doesn’t work for social scientists; and 2) the cost of computer science conferences is inaccessible for the vast majority of social scientists. Attendees propose numerous ways of addressing each of these issues, but they go unaddressed and the conversation repeats each year.
Last summer, Ethan Zuckerman and I were asked if we wanted to co-host ICWSM. Ethan was very open to the idea and I said that I’d only do it under two conditions: 1) I could put in place special issues for journals to entice social scientists who don’t normally attend computer science conferences; and 2) I could work with Ethan to drastically reduce the cost of the conference to make it viable for social scientists and for those who didn’t have large grants. From the getgo, I stated that I wanted to see the cost get down to $400 for industry attendees; $200 for faculty attendees; $100 for students. This is a pretty radical proposal for a computer science conference, even though its still higher than most social science conferences of similar size.
The steering committee told me that this would be viable if I could get a journal to agree and if I could figure out how to reduce the event costs enough to make that pricing scheme viable. I decided to put my time where my mouth was and do everything I could to build a conference that could fully integrate computer scientists and social scientists from diverse fields to have a shared conversation.
Ethan and I began the process of choosing dates with AAAI, the computer science organization that backed the conference. This ended up taking months, causing consternation on all sides. As soon as the dates were chosen, it was announced that Ethan and I were running the conference, even before I was aware that the decision had been made or what the terms would be. While trying to deal with a hurricane in my city, I raced around to build a conference committee, confirm special issues with the journals that I approached, and put together a CFP so that we could get the call out. I sent the proposed call to the representative at AAAI. That’s when all hell broke out.
Unbeknownst to me, the steering committee never cleared my requirements with AAAI. AAAI was violently opposed to having other publishers involved with ICWSM in any formal way. They made it very clear that not only could I not use special issues to entice attendees, but I could not advertise specific journals or otherwise make any promises of publishing with other venues. The best that they could do would be to allow people to only publish an extended abstract in AAAI so that the social scientists could then submit their papers elsewhere.
I was stunned, especially given that I had clearly stated this as a requirement when I began this process. I wrote to the steering committee and was told that we could keep negotiating after the CFP came out. I started to realize that there were massive communication failures going on. I said that in order to move forward, I needed a commitment on the registration costs. I was told that it wasn’t possible to do this yet and that I should just keep going forward. I said that it was unfair to ask me to let go of the prerequisites I gave for running the conference. AAAI, seemingly unaware of these conversations, came back with a proposal that made it clear that no matter how much I reduced the costs of the conference on my end, there was no way to reduce the fees enough to make the conference broadly accessible.
In the end, I found that there was such extensive miscommunication that the gulf between what I had stated upfront as being key to me running the conference was miles away from what AAAI would find acceptable. Both of us felt as though we were contorting ourselves to make this work and it left both of us very bitter and unable to work with one another. I decided that I could not run a conference that wasn’t accessible to many of the core parts of my research community just to please other parts of the research community. I felt trapped and realized that it would be better to walk away than to let go of my principles.
Because I believe deeply in ICWSM, I did not want to leave the conference in a lurch. In walking away, I recommended that the steering committee turn the conference over to Emre Kiciman, a collaborator and friend who I greatly admire. He’s deeply committed to engaging social scientists, but is also comfortable running a conference that is structured as a computer science conference. He’s a phenomenal scholar and a truly gentle human being. Plus he’s deeply passionate about ICWSM and the ICWSM community. And what he’s looking to achieve with the conference is far less radical than what I had proposed.
I still love ICWSM and I still believe in it as a conference. I think that it’s a fabulous place for computer scientists to be exposed to computational social science. And I think that it’s fantastic for social scientists who are willing to take risks and who have the resources to engage with computer scientists. I still hope that the conference will become a core site for meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue. Unfortunately, what I learned is that there are serious organizational impediments to making the conference truly accessible at this time. Perhaps in the future. But for now, it’s going to be a computer science conference where social scientists are welcome.
I’m confident in Emre and I think that the conference committee brings a lot of knowledge from different disciplines and will do a fantastic job of making sure that interdisciplinary scholarship is cherished. I also love the broader community that submits fascinating work and I hope that they/you will continue to do so. I just couldn’t, in good conscience, run the conference in the way that I was expected to run it. My only hope is that my efforts to move the dial may help down the line.
I wrote the following piece for Wired. I’m keeping it here for posterity, but check out the comments over on Wired.
Sitting U.S. President Ford was visiting San Francisco in 1975 when a woman attempted to shoot him. A former marine named Oliver Sipple grabbed the gun, preventing the assassination attempt. When the press began contacting him, he asked that his sexuality not be discussed. While Sipple was very active in the gay men’s scene in the Castro, he was not out to family or work. But Harvey Milk, a famous gay rights activist, chose to out him so the public could see that gay men could be heroes, too.
The cost to Sipple was devastating. The White House distanced itself from him, his family rejected him, and he sunk into a dark depression. He gained massive amounts of weight, began drinking profusely, and died at the ripe young age of 47. Many around Sipple reported that he regretted his act of heroism and the attention resulting from it. But for Harvey Milk, the potential social good from using Sipple’s story far outweighed what he perceived as the costs of outing him.
This is a hard moral conundrum, in part because Sipple was clearly a “good” guy who had done a good deed. But what if he wasn’t? What are the moral and ethical costs of outing people and focusing unwanted attention on them?
Two weeks ago, Gawker journalist Adrian Chen decided to unmask the infamous Reddit troll “Violentacrez” as Michael Brutsch. When Chen contacted him, Brutsch did not attempt to deny the things he had done. He simply begged Chen not to publish his name, citing the costs that publicity would have on his disabled wife. Chen chose to publish the piece – including Brutsch’s pleas and promises to do anything that Chen asked in return for not ruining his life. As expected, Brutsch lost his job and the health insurance that paid for his wife’s care; Chen reported this outcome three days later. Many celebrated this public shaming, ecstatic to see a notorious troll grovel.
Although none of his actions appeared to be illegal, it’s hard to call Brutsch a “good” guy. He had created settings where people could share deeply disturbing content. He enticed people to reveal their ugliest sides. In many ways, Brutsch was a classic troll, abusing technology and manipulating the boundaries of free speech to provoke systematic prejudices and harassment for his own entertainment. He got joy from making others miserable.
Unmasking as a Way to Regulate Social Norms
There are many different reasons to unmask people, out them, or make them much more visible than they previously were. Sometimes, the goal is to celebrate someone’s goodness. At other times, people are made visible to use them as an example … or to set an example. People are outed to reveal hypocrisy and their practices are made visible to shame them.
In identifying Butsch and shining a spotlight on his insidious practices, Chen’s article condemns Butsch’s choice of using the mask of pseudonymity to hide behind actions that have societal consequences. Public shaming is one way in which social norms are regulated. Another is censorship, as evidenced by the Reddit community’s response to Gawker.
Yet, how do we as a society weigh the moral costs of shining a spotlight on someone, however “bad” their actions are? What happens when, as a result of social media, vigilantism takes on a new form? How do we guarantee justice and punishment that fits the crime when we can use visibility as a tool for massive public shaming? Is it always a good idea to regulate what different arbiters consider bad behavior through increasing someone’s notoriety – or censoring their links?
As the Gawker/Reddit story was unfolding, another seemingly disconnected case was playing out. In a town outside of Vancouver, a young woman named Amanda Todd committed suicide a few weeks after posting a harrowing YouTube video describing an anonymous stalker she felt ruined her life. The amorphous hacktivist collective known as “Anonymous” decided to make a spectacle of the situation by publishing personally identifiable information on – “doxxing” – Todd’s stalker. They identified a 32-year-old man, enabling outraged people to harass him. Yet it appears they got the wrong person. Earlier this week, Canadian police reported that Todd’s stalker was someone else: reportedly a 19-year-old.
Needless to say, this shift in information doesn’t relieve the original target of the public shame he felt from Anonymous’ pointed finger. It doesn’t wipe his digital record clean. He has to deal with being outed – in this case, wrongly – going forward.
The ‘Koan’: Technology as Tool and Technology as Weapon
By enabling the rapid flow of information, technology offers us a unique tool to publicly out people or collectively tar and feather them. Well-meaning people may hope to spread their messages far and wide using Twitter or Facebook, but the fast-spreading messages tend to be sexual, horrific, or humiliating.
Gossip is social currency. And in a networked world, trafficking in gossip is far easier than ever before.
When someone’s been wronged – or the opportunity arises to use someone to make a statement – it is relatively easy to leverage social media to incite the hive mind to draw attention to an individual. The same tactic that trolls use to target people is the same tactic that people use to out trolls.
More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.
This raises serious moral and ethical concerns: In a networked society, who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie? This isn’t an easy question and it’s at the root of how we, as a society, conceptualize justice.
Governance and the construction of a society is not a fact of life; it’s a public project that we must continuously make and remake. Networked technologies are going to increasingly put pressure on our regulatory structures as conflicting social values crash into one another. In order to benefit from innovation, we must also suffer the destabilizing aspects of new technology.
Yet … that destabilization and suffering allow us, as a society, to interrogate our collective commitments. The hard moral conundrums are just beginning.
Check out the comments at Wired
Ever since I broke my neck as a teenager, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my body. Truth be told, I’d much rather be a cyborg or a brain on a stick. I prize my brain, but the rest just tends to get in my way, break down, or reach annoying limits that irritate the hell out of me. I know, I know.. this is a terrible way to think about it – and doesn’t actually make any sense given that the brain isn’t separable from the rest of me – but this is my sci-fi fantasy. So shhh.
Two years ago, when my body went to hell and I spent months in a whirlwind of migraines, vertigo, fatigue, and all-around misery that doctors couldn’t diagnose, I turned to tools and techniques coming out of the quantified self movement in an effort to get some form of insight. I got obsessive about tracking every substance that went into my body, experimenting with what types of food had what affects on my health. I tracked the symptoms I was experiencing, my menstrual cycle, and my weight. I used a Fitbit to keep tabs on every step I took and to monitor my sleep. (I also did a genetics map through 23andme, but purely for curiosity.) I started seeing patterns in my health and found the patterns really helpful as I experimented with non-invasive, non-chemical solutions to my various body woes.
As I explored different services and tools out there, I found myself resisting two classes of quantified practices: 1) anything that got framed around “dieting” and calories; and 2) anything that got described as being about fertility. In short, I wanted nothing to do with the practices that were gendered feminine. Y’see, one of the manifestations of my feminist-y anger with our body image-obsessive culture is to want nothing to do with calories or dieting or other activities that position the female body in an objectifiable state. I used to rebel against these norms by shaving my head and drinking 2 liters of Mountain Dew a day, but both of those practices mysteriously lost their charm in my 20s. Odd, right? ::groan:: Meanwhile, fertility just seemed alien to me. Completely unfairly, I associated fertility tracking with aging women desperate to get pregnant and I didn’t want to frame myself as such.
When I moved to NYC, I did a physical with a new doctor and described what I was tracking and the mysterious illness that had plagued me. She asked me why I was using tools designed for fertility tracking to track menstruation, moods, acne, and other symptoms but not ovulation, hormone surges, and cervical fluids. Not wanting to explain that I had a cognitive block against being what I had constructed in my mind as “that girl,” I let her explain how female body cycles are more nuanced than period/not-period and that I’d probably get a lot more insight out of seeing the whole cycle, irrespective of my interest in getting pregnant. She told me to go buy a special thermometer and read up on fertility tracking and see what I found.
In yet another effort to not address my neuroses, I decided to self-delude and position this activity as a science experiment. I read through countless pages dedicated to fertility, describing charting with basal body temperature to see the ebb and flow of estrogen, progesterone, and luteinizing hormone. Truth be told, I liked having something else to monitor because so many of my quantified self practiced had gotten so routinized as to be boring. And I didn’t even realize that my temperature might change over time unless I was sick. But the bigger surprise was how right she was. Once I started identifying ovulation and hormone surges, I started seeing how other symptoms lined up. Even my zits seemed to realize there were complex hormones cycling through my body. They were paying attention, even if I was ignoring what they were telling me.
I still want to be a cyborg. I’d still much rather not have to deal with my period, food as fuel, or the crazy chemicals that seem to dictate so many things. But, given that I’m stuck with this body, I really wish that I had started tracking the chemical and hormonal cycles two years ago when my body was all out-of-whack. Heck, I wish I had started monitoring these patterns a decade ago. I get why monitoring hormones is associated with fertility – and I suspect that most people who ever monitor such things will be looking to conceive – but I wish that the practice weren’t so laden with the cultural associations that prevented me from looking in the first place. And I wish that the quantified self movement would recognize hormone tracking and not see it – and fertility writ large – as an othered category.
I’ve learned more about how my body works by diving into its strange cycles than I ever learned in the first 35 years of my life. I can’t help but think how much better it would’ve been to dive into my patterns in high school instead of trying to make sense of weird drawing of the reproductive system. There’s something so enticing about trying to make sense of personal data. So, ladies, if you’re curious about your body, try measuring your temperature and looking for patterns in your hormones. It’ll be hard to read up on all of this totally divorced from the fertility conversation, but so many other patterns in our bodies are connected to these patterns. And seriously, it’s totally fascinating.
On Tuesday, Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy was arrested for “criminal mischief” – or “the willful damaging of property” – when she responded to disturbingly racist ads that were posted in the New York City subway system with spray paint. Her act of political resistance went beyond spray paint however. In some ways, it was intentionally designed to get the attention of the internet. When she encountered resistance from a person defending the ads – who clearly knew Mona and kept responding to her by name – Eltahawy chose to create a challenge over her right to engage in what she called “freedom of expression.” This altercation escalates as the two argue on camera over whether or not Eltahawy is violating free speech or “making an expression on free speech.” (The video can be seen here.) As this encounter unfolds, Eltahawy regularly turns to the video and speaks to “the internet,” indicating that she knew full well that this video would be made available online. In constructing her audience, Eltahawy also switches between talking to Americans (“see this America”) and to a broader international public, presumably of people who are angry at the perceived hypocrisy of how America constructs free speech in light of the video mocking Islam’s prophet that sparked riots around the globe.
As I watch this video and try to untangle the dynamics going on, I can’t help but reflect on the cultural collision course underway as the notion of “free speech” gets decontextualized in light of heightened visibility. But before I get there, I need to offer some more context.
Free Speech in the United States
In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is the foundation of the “free speech” clause that is one of the most unique aspects of American political life. It means that people have the right to speak their mind, even if their speech is unpopular, blasphemous, or critical.
Over the last 200+ years, there have been interesting cases that pit free speech against other issues that result in what may be perceived to be special carve-outs. For example, “hate speech” is not protected under civil rights clauses when it constitutes a form of harassment. Child pornography is not considered free speech but, rather, photographic evidence of a crime against a child. And speech that incites violence is not considered free speech if it serves to create an imminent threat of violence. (Of course, the edge cases on this are often dicey.) But content that depicts many things that are deemed offensive – including grotesque imagery, obscene pornography, and extreme violence – is often protected by free speech, even if public display of it is limited.
Of course, what taketh also giveth. Many European countries have begun banning women from wearing the hijab, seeing it as an oppressive dress. In the United States, the same first amendment that permits racist and blasphemous content also protects Muslim women in their choice of clothing. Even when people are racist shits, Muslims have a tremendous amount of freedom afforded to them because of US laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of religion. Does that make it easy to be Muslim in the US? No. But being Muslim in the US is a hell of a lot more protected than being Jewish in any Arab state.
As offensive (and, frankly, dreadfully awful) as the pseudo-pornographic film “Innocence of Muslims” is, it’s protected under free speech in the United States. This is not the first film to depict religious figures in problematic ways, nor will it be the last. As The Onion satirically reminds us, there are plenty of sexualized images out there depicting religious figures in all sorts of upsetting ways.
Yet, this video spread far beyond the walls of the United States, into other regions where the very notion of “free speech” is absent. Many Muslims were outraged at the idea that their prophet might be depicted in such an offensive manner and some took to the streets in anger. Some interpreted the video as hateful and couldn’t understand why such content would ever be allowed. Meanwhile, many Americans failed to understand why such a video would be uniquely provocative in Muslim communities. On more than one occasion, I heard Americans ask questions like: Why should it be illegal to represent a religious figure in a negative light when it’s so common in Muslim societies to be so hateful to people of other religions? Or to be hateful towards women or LGBT people? Or to depict women in negative ways? Needless to say, all of this rests on a fundamental moral disconnect around what values can and should shape a society.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a lawsuit was moving through the courts concerning a deeply racist advertisement that “The American Freedom Defense Initiative” wanted to pay to have displayed by New York City’s subway system (MTA). The MTA went to the courts in an effort to block the advertisement which implicitly linked Muslims to savages. The MTA lost their court battle when a judge argued that this racist ad was protected speech, thereby forcing the MTA to accept and post the advertisements. Begrudgingly, they did. And this is where we get to Mona.
While posting racist images is covered under free speech law, not just any act is covered under the freedom of expression. When Eltahawy chose to express her dissent by spray painting the ads, she did commit a crime, just as anyone who graffitis any public property is committing a crime. Freedom of speech does not permit anyone to damage property and, as horrid as those ads are, they were the property of the MTA. Unfortunately for Eltahawy, her act is also not non-violent protest because she committed a crime. [Update: Eltahawy uses non-violent protest as her justification to the police officers for why she should not be arrested. I'm not suggesting that her act was violent, but rather, that she can't claim that she's simply engaged in non-violent protest and assume that this overrides the illegal nature of her actions. If she knows her actions are illegal, she can claim she's engaged in civil disobedience, but civil disobedience and non-violent protest are not synonymous.] Had she chosen to stand in front of the ad and said whatever was on her mind, she would’ve been fully within her rights (provided that it did not escalate to “disturbing the peace”). Now, we might not like that vandalism is a crime – and we might recognize that most graffiti these days goes unpunished – but the fact is that spray painting public property is unquestionably illegal.
Of course, the whole thing reaches a new level of disgusting today when Pamela Hall – the anti-Islam activist behind “Stop the Islamization of America” – sues Eltahawy for damage to _her_ property. While I don’t believe that Eltahawy was in the right when she vandalized MTA property, the video makes it very clear that Hall actively provokes Eltahawy and because of Hall’s aggressions, Hall’s property is damaged. I hope that the courts throw this one out entirely.
Making Protests Visible
By circulating the video of Eltahawy getting arrested, activists are asking viewers to have sympathy with Eltahawy. In some ways, this isn’t hard. That poster is disgusting and I’m embarrassed by it. But her choice to consistently exclaim that she’s engaged in freedom of expression and non-violent protest is misleading and inaccurate. What she did, whether she knew it or not, was illegal and not within the dominion of either free speech or non-violent protest. Interestingly, her aggressive interlocutor accepts her frame and just keeps trying to negate it by saying that she’s “violating free speech.” This too is inaccurate. Free speech is not the issue at play in the altercation between Eltahawy and Hall or when Eltahawy vandalizes the poster. Free speech only matters in that that stupid poster was posted in the first place.
The legal details of this will get worked out in the court, but I’m bothered by the way in which the circulation of this video and the discussion around it polarizes the conversation without shedding light on the murky realities of how free speech operates of what is and is not free speech and of what is and is not illegal in the United States when it comes to protesting. Let me be clear: I think that we should all be protesting those racist ads. And I’m fully aware that some acts of protest can and must blur the lines between what is legal and illegal because law enforcement regularly suppresses protester’s rights and arrests people in oppressive ways that undermine important acts of resistance. And I also realize that one of the reasons that activists engage in acts that get them arrested because, when they do, news media covers it and bringing attention to an issue is often a desired end-goal by many activists. But what concerns me is that there’s a huge international disconnect brewing over American free speech and our failure to publicly untangle these issues undermines any effort to promote its value.
I’m deeply committed to the value of free speech. I understand its costs and I despise when it’s used as a tool to degrade and demean people or groups. I hate when it’s used to justify unhealthy behavior or reinforce norms that disgust me. But I tolerate these things because I believe that it’s one of the most critical tools of freedom. I firmly believe that censoring speech erodes a society more than allowing icky speech does. I also firmly believe that efforts to hamper free speech do a greater disservice to oppressed people than permitting disgusting speech. It’s a trade-off and it’s a trade-off that I accept. Yet, it’s also a trade-off that cannot be taken for granted, especially in a global society.
Through the internet, content spreads across boundaries and cultural contexts. It’s sooo easy to take things out of context or not understand the context in which they are produced or disseminated. Or why they are tolerated. Contexts collapse and people get upset because their local norms and rules don’t seem to apply when things slip over the borders and can’t be controlled. Thus, we see a serious battle brewing over who controls the internet. What norms? What laws? What cultural contexts? Settling this is really bloody hard because many of the issues at stake are so deeply conflicting as to appear to be irresolvable.
I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen to freedom of speech as we enter into a networked world, but I suspect it’s going to spark many more ugly confrontations. Rather, it’s not the freedom of speech itself that will, but the visibility of the resultant expressions, good, bad, and ugly. For this reason, I think that we need to start having a serious conversation about what freedom of speech means in a networked world where jurisdictions blur, norms collide, and contexts collapse. This isn’t going to be worked out by enacting global laws nor is it going to be easily solved through technology. This is, above all else, a social issue that has scaled to new levels, creating serious socio-cultural governance questions. How do we understand the boundaries and freedoms of expression in a networked world?
This post was originally written for A Platform For Good.org, a new site dedicated to creating opportunities for young people and adults to engage with technology in a healthy way.
Parenting is hard. Many parents find parenting in an era of social media to be confusing, in part because they must advise their children to make sense of spaces that they don’t understand themselves. It’s easy to be afraid of what’s new, but by focusing on technology, parents often lose track of the underlying social issues that their children are trying to navigate.
In many ways, the advice that children need to negotiate networked publics parallels advice that parents have always given when their children encounter public spaces. To address online safety concerns, parents need to help build resilience generally. With that in mind, I encourage parents who are concerned about online safety issues to initiate three important conversations with their children:
Public-ness. Hanging out online is a lot like socializing in any other public space. Youth may be there to socialize with their peers, but teachers and other adults may also be present. What makes the internet especially tricky is that youth leave traces that may be viewed by people at a different time. As a girl, my mother taught me that I need to put my best foot forward whenever I was in public. For today’s youth, that public is the internet. In order to help youth navigate networked spaces, parents need to talk with their children about unexpected and invisible audiences. How might what you write be interpreted by someone other than your friends? What happens when what you say is taken out of context? Rather than focusing on what’s right and wrong, it’s important to begin a conversation about what it means to engage publicly in a networked society.
Empathy. People often say or do mean things when they themselves are hurting. They lash out at others to get attention. Some do so anonymously because they want to see how their actions might prompt others to respond. All too often, we focus on helping youth address bullying by blaming the people engaged in meanness and cruelty, but developing empathy broadly from an early age is one of the best ways to address cyberbullying. Rather than blaming technology or blaming mean people, help everyone develop respect for others.
Sex and Sexuality. Many parents struggle with the birds and bees conversation, preferring to avoid the topic altogether or hope that offering a book will do. Unfortunately, some of the trickiest issues online – including sexting and pornography – often stem from the interplay of sex and sexuality. A conversation about sex and sexuality in a networked world needs to include a variety of issues, including navigating desire and respect, the importance of trust and the potential for trust to be violated, the desire to be loved and the potential consequences of falling in love. It never was simply about pregnancy and STDs, but networked technologies highlight how important it is that we go beyond those topics in our contemporary birds and bees talk.
The networked society that we live in today may feel radically different, but many youth are struggling with the things they’ve always struggled with.They’re trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the bigger world. They want to hang out with friends, but they’re also trying to figure out the status games of their peers. All of this is playing out through social media. Parents are in a unique position to help young people navigate this networked world, but they need not fear the technology. Instead, parents should start having key conversations with their children to help them develop strategies for coming of age in a networked world.
I love being a scholar, but one thing that really depresses me about research is that so much of what scholars produce is rendered inaccessible to so many people who might find it valuable, inspiring, or thought-provoking. This is at the root of what drives my commitment to open-access. When Zizi Papacharissi asked Nancy Baym and I if we’d be willing to guest edit the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (JOBEM), we agreed under one condition: the issue had to be open-access (OA). Much to our surprise and delight, Taylor and Francis agreed to “test” that strange and peculiar OA phenomenon by allowing us to make this issue OA.
Nancy and I decided to organize the special issue around “socially mediated publicness,” both because we find that topic to be of great interest and because we felt like there was something fun about talking about publicness in truly public form. We weren’t sure what the response to our call would be, but were overwhelmed with phenomenal submissions and had to reject many interesting articles.
But we are completely delighted to publish a collection of articles that we think are timely, interesting, insightful, and downright awesome. If you would like to get a sense of the arguments made in these articles, make sure to check out our introduction. The seven pieces in this guest-edited issue of JOBEM are:
We hope that you’ll find them fun to read and that you’ll share them with others that might enjoy them too!