Ugly comments are part and parcel of being a woman and writing online. You attend that particular rodeo often enough, and they’re just expected, inevitable blips in your day. Some writers grow armor to the extent that they just bounce off our skulls and we have trouble remembering what it was like to give a shit. Some quietly internalize the negative crap and pay a therapist to pull it all out again on a regular basis. And some call these abusive comments out, every time, even when the process seems a hopeless waste of energy.
I tend to fall into the first category, to the extent that when someone emails me about a terrible comment levied at me or another writer, it takes me a second to remember oh yes, some people still have the capacity to recognize this as supremely messed up. I have to be reminded. Because forgetting is the only way to keep going. All of these approaches are about survival in an online atmosphere that is at best ambivalent, often unforgiving, and occasionally overtly hostile. Especially if you’re a woman.
I used to be a member of the last group, though -- the group that calls out bad behavior and demands something be done about it. I have a lot of years on these internets, many of which were spent doing intensive community moderation work (as a volunteer, because I was an idealist), and there was a time when I felt as though I couldn’t put head to pillow at night without knowing I’d done everything I could to hammer down the miscreants and monsters in the most public way possible.
I’m not sure what changed. I suspect I just got tired, because no matter how many heads you chop off, it just keeps growing more.
Jezebel has a serious problem of late: an unknown person or persons are using “burner” commenter accounts to flood their threads with images and animated .gifs of sexual violence and gore. These disposable accounts are part of Gawker Media’s Kinja content management system, and are designed to allow users to anonymously tip on articles and stories.
In concept, this is not a terrible feature. In practice, it throws open a huge barn door for human shitstains to exploit that anonymity for gruesome purposes, be it garden-variety trolling or the kind of concentrated and sustained destructive effort described in Jezebel’s post on the subject. Because these burner accounts intentionally don’t track IPs, there is no way to ban a specific user, only a specific account -- and of course, the user can make an unlimited number of accounts to keep posting.
This isn’t just a petty annoyance, though -- as the piece co-authored by the Jezebel staff explains:
This practice is profoundly upsetting to our commenters who have the misfortune of starting their day with some excessively violent images, to casual readers who drop by to skim Jezebel with their morning coffee only to see hard core pornography at the bottom of a post about Michelle Obama, and especially to the staff, who are the only ones capable of removing the comments and are thus, by default, now required to view and interact with violent pornography and gore as part of our jobs.
None of us are paid enough to deal with this on a daily basis.
Seems like a valid complaint, right? The problem is that Gawker Media, Jezebel’s parent company, doesn’t think so, and has evidently told the Jezebel staff that there are no plans to start recording IP addresses for these accounts, which would be a simple soultion. Gawker has, it seems, ignored Jezebel's complaints entirely. And, in so doing:
...Gawker's leadership is prioritizing theoretical anonymous tipsters over a very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel's staff and readers. If this were happening at another website, if another workplace was essentially requiring its female employees to manage a malevolent human pornbot, we'd report the hell out of it here and cite it as another example of employers failing to take the safety of its female employees seriously.
Jezebel has publicly shared their outrage over this on their own site. You don’t have to work in publishing to understand why this is an impressive and courageous move. All of us who write about ladystuff under the auspices of a larger media company know there is no perfect arrangement, but we work with it as best we can, and for the most part we’re all just happy to have the opportunities that we do. And let’s be honest, opportunities for online writers don’t come much better than a job at Gawker Media, at least not if your priority is to get as much exposure as possible. So it’s astonishing -- and even admirable -- to see the staff of a Gawker site willing to step out of line and draw attention to a problem in this way.
“Don’t feed the trolls” is one of the internet’s most-repeated (and most useless and hackneyed) expressions, the idea being that by giving attention to those seeking it via bad behavior, you reward and encourage that behavior. It’s not altogether terrible advice, but it does become frustrating when it’s advice constantly being given to women by men, because “don’t feed the trolls” starts to sound like “just be quiet and pretend a dude sending you weekly rape threats isn’t a problem” or “simply accept that you’ll never be able to write anything that doesn’t get at least one negative comment about your appearance” or “resign yourself to the truth that your work will never get the same respect as that of straight white men.”
Calling out unacceptable antisocial behavior may indeed satisfy the attention-seeking urge among those who perpetrate it, but not doing so doesn’t necessarily make that behavior stop. Sure, Jezebel is likely filling the hearts (?) of their rape-happy haters with glee over being made a public example of, but that doesn’t mean doing so was a bad idea, especially not if their effort leads to Gawker Media being moved to do something to correct the issue.
If nothing else, the Jezebel staff’s willingness to point out that this whole situation is unacceptable subverts the cultural pressure for women to suffer abuse and harassment in silence. Silence is too often the enemy of justice. Sometimes we need to drag even the most horrific behavior out into the light of day before we can deal with it.