Warning: This entry contains a lot of profanity. Without asterisks.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t give a fuck what people thought of me. Frenemies made fun of me for wearing combat boots (the real deal purchased from a military surplus store) with short, floral dresses. I did not give a fuck because I knew I was fucking awesome. Boys made fun of me because I was a card-carrying feminist. I did not give a fuck because fuck the patriarchy; they still wanted to make out. People that probably went on to become hipsters made fun of me because I liked listening to The Beatles. I did not give a fuck because John Lennon was the walrus. I hung out with smart, talented misfits who didn’t give a fuck either. One of them took this picture of me, part of a series. I have no idea what’s going on here, but it speaks volumes about the fucks we gave.
When I went to college, I still didn’t give a fuck. I took classes like Paganism and Witchcraft in America, Existential Philosophy, Arthurian Literature, and Feminist Theory. Meanwhile, I failed all my math courses. I spent most of my evenings drinking some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted and my nights dancing in gay clubs or playing pool. My friends were awesome and also did not give a fuck.
Then I don’t know what happened. Was it adulthood? Was it social media?
I think I started blogging in 2003. I was an America Online (AOL) user then and joined the AOL Journals communities, which had John Scalzi as its principal paid blogger. He used to lead fun weekend and photo assignments. It was relaxed, fun and, for me, nothing but a positive experience. I regret not having archived those entries before I moved to Blogger in 2006 because, save for one assignment involving the adventures of a little paper version of Scalzi, I don’t even remember what I blogged about. I’m pretty sure I didn’t give a fuck and just blogged about whatever the fuck I wanted that day. I don’t think bloggers then cared so much about blog themes and goals and SEO and monetisation and all that shit.
Like many AOL users, I used AOL chat rooms, but at some point, I also joined forums. Flaming happened, but the online world was smaller then, more anonymous, and it seemed like there was very little personal scrutiny of the average person. When was doxxing born?
When did I start giving a fuck? I’m not sure. The Internet once felt liberating, but it increasingly feels like a minefield.
Last week, I attended Swarm, an Australian conference for community managers. It is an outstanding conference. The third and final day was devoted to academic research on digital culture. Specifically the theme was “GTFO – Empowered Users, Objective Violence and the Governance of Participatory Media”. No talk of online violence is complete without discussing the sustained harassment that women online experience for having an opinion or, you know, existing. As a result, to avoid becoming targets, many women self-censor. Therefore, female voices are increasingly missing from important discussions online.
The point hit home when Amanda Elliot from the University of Sydney talked about Gamergate and community governance in the new economy. Swarm was wildly tweeted and as soon as we began using the Gamergate hashtag, the Gamergaters descended upon us. Once, I used the hashtag on Facebook and a male friend privately messaged me, concerned, saying I shouldn’t use it, and gave me the link to What to Expect When You’re Expecting (the Internet to ruin your life). Last year, when geek girl extraordinaire Felicia Day blogged that she was afraid to even talk about Gamergate, her fears were swiftly confirmed when she was doxxed within 15 minutes of her entry going live.
It’s not always this dramatic. Still, the implication remains that, if you post online, you’re inviting challenge, and most of the time it isn’t criticism that is meant to open dialogue or be constructive; it’s just mean, personal, and intended to hurt. And it does. I thought that, as I got older, I would give even fewer fucks, but that hasn’t been the case. I have softened and my skin has gotten thinner. And I’m not ashamed of that. I hate the “toughen up” rhetoric. It’s a form of shaming and an excuse to permit bad behaviour. I’m tough where I need to be. I don’t want to be steely.
It’s easy to say that if you don’t want to be scrutinised or harassed online, then don’t be online, but that’s unrealistic. For starters, that bird has flown the coop. Secondly, as one academic pointed out at Swarm, the new digital economy demands that many of us get online. For example, most workplaces require email; government, academic, and scientific research and records are stored in online databases that anyone with a credit card can access; websites like Spokeo organise White Pages listings and public records, and make them public and free online. You don’t need to be online to have information about you shared there, and you don’t have any control over it.
So, what can you do?
Some weeks ago I started deleting accounts to networks and services that I no longer use or don’t enrich my life. My peace of mind isn’t the only reason. It’s also because the more accounts I have, the more time I spend at my PC. I hardly remember what my life was like before the Internet, but I’m pretty sure it involved going outside and reading more, and simply sitting quietly with my thoughts. Now, I struggle with insomnia because my mind is always racing. The last thing I do before bed is check my social accounts on my iPhone. Guess what the first thing I do in the morning is. I know it’s the new normal, but I don’t want it to be – at least, not for me. In time, I may withdraw further from social media. Or maybe I’m just going through a mopey phase. Who the fuck knows.
I’m also tired. As I mentioned at the start of this entry, I was identifying as a feminist by the time I was a teenager, and I’ve been engaged in social justice movements for just as long. That fight is hard enough, but it is relentless online. And every day we are confronted with dozens, maybe hundreds, of messages and images of hatred and suffering. The Internet is no longer a space to just relax and have a little fun in. It is a space that amplifies and autoplays every tragedy and rejoices more in failures than in successes. It’s stressful and fucking exhausting, and almost impossible to get away from. On the day of any given tragedy, it will dominate the news and the social news feeds, and there’s a tragedy all too often. It wears on you.
I don’t have any answers. I love the Internet. I hate the Internet. I would rather not give a fuck, but I do.