A funny thing happened on the way to becoming (moderately) Internet-famous: I learned how to use GMail labels.
Not that they're rocket science or anything, but I used to just dump all my email into an archive and search it when I needed something. That was the whole point of using GMail: I trade all pretense of privacy for Google's impressive search technology, and never lose an email again, ever.
But that was before I started getting hate mail. Then, I actually had to start using labels, because, like a lot of people on the Internet, I needed to be able to keep track of it. I wanted to be able to keep track of threats by incident, by offender, by severity level. You've got your code greens, your garden-variety “U R A BITCH” emails sent at random. Then your yellows, those that get a little more intense, and your oranges, which tend to include more graphic descriptions of what the emailer would like to do to you, your pets, your loved ones.
And your code reds. Those are the ones in which people make it clear they have your personal details; your home address, for example, your license plate number, other things they can use to hunt you down and hurt you. Those are the ones you CC to law enforcement and you make sure that your friends know about how to access your account and where to find them, in the event that something happens to you.
To be a woman, or to be a person who is commonly read/assumed to be a woman, and to exist on the Internet saying basically anything at all, is to be overwhelmed in a constant tide of disgusting and ever-mounting misogyny. It's not just email. It's on Twitter, it's on Facebook, it's on entire websites established so people can be gross about you, it's forum threads trashing you for being, well, alive, and doing things like being a woman playing videogames.
It's people telling you to shut up in the most brutal and ugly ways possible, threatening to rape you to death (with or without various objects), threatening your pets, saying you're a fat ugly sagging lesbo whore, calling you a hairy-legged feminist, saying you're humorless...the list goes on. The goal here is not to express an opinion, to provide valid criticism of your work or something you're doing, but to be an asshole. The goal is to get you to shut up.
So you start the folders, and you try to grow as thick a skin as possible, because otherwise, you spend a lot of time hiding under the furniture and crying. Or you leave the internet entirely, as in the case of a number of high-profile women in tech who've been forced offline by hate campaigns, or women like Jen Kirkman, who went on a Twitter strike to demand that people start speaking up against misogyny directed at female comics.
Lauren Mayberry, of the electropop band Chvrches, which got its initial break and exposure online and interacts heavily with fans online as a result, posted a simple request to the band's Facebook page last week: stop being misogynistic assholes. She put it a little more politely than I just did, but she illustrated it with a screencap of the kind of problems she was talking about.
The comments section promptly exploded. Some of the comments were supportive, high-fiving Lauren for speaking up, getting angry about the widespread misogyny online, talking about how there's often a bit of a conspiracy of silence around the issue; don't feed the trolls, ignore it and it will go away. Others, of course, just added more misogyny to the conversation, as Lauren wrote in a piece for “The Guardian” discussing her post and the response to it.
This one is a particularly charming example of the kind of intellectual, serious, high-minded conversation her post sparked among misogynist jerks: “I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you twat lol.”
Since we began the Facebook page, I have seen every message –- good and bad –- that has come into our inbox. Many people involved with our band argued that we should give up maintaining this routine as things got busier and Chvrches' schedule got tighter, but it is important to me that our fans know we value their interest in us by giving things a personal touch.
This is an issue for a lot of groups and people who handle their own social media; we're the first line of our own defenses. Which means that we see everything, all the love and all the hate, and as Lauren notes, when you're getting so much hate mail, it often seems to drown out the love. It's hard to see the people sending you positive words when you're wading through emails about how you should choke on a gangbang's worth of c**ks and die.
...after a while, despite the positive messages in the majority, the aggressive, intrusive nature of the other kind becomes overwhelming. During this past tour, I am embarrassed to admit that I have had more than one prolonged toilet cry and a 'Come on, get a hold of yourself, you got this' conversation with myself in a bathroom mirror when particularly exasperated and tired out.
There's nothing embarrassing about feeling overwhelmed by vicious hate mail. The people sending it are the ones who should feel ashamed and embarrassed, because they're the ones acting in a way that's totally socially unacceptable, and they're doing so because they think they can get away with it. Because we live in a culture where people are shamed for speaking openly about situations like this, and where people go to great lengths to erase the testimony of women talking about online harassment.
We're supposed to sit there silently tolerating the abuse, maintaining stiff upper lips. And every time we speak out -- I suspect this incident is going to spark a new round of people talking about online misogyny -- people, by which I mean men, act like this is totally new and they had “no idea.” That was my experience when I wrote about this at Tiger Beatdown and promptly received scads of horrified emails from men who hadn't even begun to imagine that this was what people went through online every day.
It reminded me of the “Six Feet Under” episode where a young woman is killed in an “accident” because her friends think it's funny to start catcalling her and chasing her down a dark alley, and she runs out in front of a car. They all talk about how strong and confident and fearless she was, and how they were genuinely surprised when she showed fear; an attitude I see mirrored in the way people talk about women online.
They're all so strong and confident and outspoken, but no one talks about the cost of that, and the genuine fear many women experience, because to open your mouth on the Internet is to expose yourself to a sea of hate. This is not a sea of hate that “comes with the job” or is “something you just need to deal with,” because abuse is never something people should just adapt to.
It's just plain abuse, and it's wrong.