On Hot Takes, Privacy Norms, Identity, and Why I Stopped Blogging
Almost a year ago I wrote a Medium blog post which I tweeted about to my following of, at the time, about 2,000 Twitter followers, entitled Night in the Woods: A Rebirth of Graphical Adventure Games, and Trumpian Propaganda in Disguise. This piece, much like my very first piece on this platform, a critique of the game Life is Strange (a game I have since come to love and have somewhat less hyperbolic views about), was a deeply personal reflection on how a video game made me feel. I’ve frequently used this blog to express my genuine feelings and emotional reactions to a number of media properties, because media criticism is something I do for fun. Or rather, it used to be.
The Night in the Woods piece was, unfortunately, linked back to the developer, Scott Benson — who I will note I did not mention by name and in fact was no more than nominally aware of when I wrote the piece. He did not appreciate the criticism — nor would I necessarily expect him to. However, his continued reaction over a period of days drew the attention of his devoted fans, and I was subject to a great deal of scrutiny over what I had viewed as something like an autoethnography of playing Night in the Woods as someone who shares a lot of situational and identity characteristics (other than the being a cat person thing) with the protagonist. My assertion that the game ultimately reinforced the same narratives that kept me marginalized as a transgender person in deep rural America, and my expression of disappointment with this as someone who bought the game because its summary sounded like my life, was taken as an assault on Benson’s character, on indie games, and on socialist politics.
So some people were jerks to me online. That’s not a big deal in and of itself, and it’s certainly happened to me before — I was there for GamerGate, after all. This piece isn’t about Benson’s unprofessional conduct; it’s about how this specific event — and any number of similar events not involving this specific developer or these specific circumstances — is why I haven’t blogged in nearly a year. My only post here, in this blog which was once an escape and a form of self-expression, since the Woods incident was a statistical breakdown of lesbian representation in games, something I felt I couldn’t exactly be challenged as having a “bad take” about because I was crunching numbers. It’s not that I haven’t had things I wanted to post to this blog, it’s that I’m scared to.
As a trans, autistic woman who currently isn’t working on medical advice, but almost certainly will have to look for a job in the future, expressing opinions online is actively dangerous. There are websites designed specifically to make people like me unemployable or worse by archiving literally everything we do, forever. These websites thrive on focusing on people who are perceived as generating “drama,” and I’ve often joked that they resemble the Eye of Sauron in the movie versions of Lord of the Rings, a nightmarish searchlight that, once you’re seen, will follow you.
The point is that if drama happens around you, whether you caused it or not, these sites can amplify their connections in public search results by doing things like linking to your unexpected viral hot take in their thread cataloging everything wrong with you, you freak, and suddenly that’s the first thing people see when they search for you.
The drama in my specific case blew up around what amounts to an extension of the 2016 American presidential primaries, and is an intra-left wing controversy. I lean to the “liberal” side of the left, while Benson and his supporters would be what I’d characterize as “hard leftists.” I bring this up not to relitigate the issues of disagreement again, but to illustrate my important caveat to this being an intra-left fight: the right wing got on board. They did this because I am autistic and a trans woman and they hate those things. I don’t think fans of Night in the Woods have those bigotries, but they attracted the attention of right wingers who saw me as a convenient target. What should have at most been a situation where Scott and I blocked each other and moved on became a nightmare for me. (Scott did block me; I’m told he claims it sucked a lot for him too, and that’s reasonable. Maybe he even got harassment from some of the same right wing folks. It doesn’t change that he’s an acclaimed, as far as I know cisgender game developer with a company and I’m a broke trans woman and there’s a huge power imbalance there.)
If I was cisgender I am fairly confident I would be okay braving these kinds of situations; I also expect I’d be in fewer of them, because it’s not as much cruel fun to find out everything embarrassing a cisgender person has ever done, unless they have some other marginalized Identity. But the point is I stopped blogging, stopped this outlet for being me because every post I make, including this one, draws that Eye of Sauron closer.
This is not just my problem. As we’ve seen recently with revelations about basically every online platform not caring about privacy, privacy as a norm seems to be in its twilight. It’s particularly bad for those of us who have been archived with all our identities publicly listed; I could drop the Bootleg Girl persona (but I won’t) and Eleanor Lockhart would still be linked to all of this. But everyone has suffered here; if you have a Facebook your data is in the hands of all sorts of irresponsible people.
One easy and popular take on all this is just to say, “I acknowledge I and countless other people, most people really, foolishly trusted corporations and anonymous web conglomerates with information we should never have expected them to not capitalize on somehow.” This is true up to a point — Facebook has always been obvious creepy surveillance; Google too, to a lesser extent. But I dispute that we could have predicted things would get this forking bad.
The decision to hand personal information over to Facebook, collectively, was an unwise one, and we probably have that to thank for, you know, the collapse of democracy. It was rational to expect advertisers, including political candidates and groups, would use our information to target us. What I do not believe was a rational thing that we could have predicted was that individuals would end up making Hoover-level dossiers on other individuals to advance grudges, and obsessively pursue more information to cause more disruption to people’s personal lives. It was not a reasonable expectation that stalkers would leverage the power of archiving to dig up decade old embarrassing selfies to humiliate people with. It was not a reasonable expectation that every identity we had would end up linked not just by corporations but by malicious individuals.
And this hurts people who are minorities far more than it hurts anyone else. The cost of a controversial blog post is much higher for me than for a heterosexual man who isn’t trans and doesn’t have any neuroatypicalities or disabilities. It’s higher for people who aren’t lucky enough to have very secure jobs.
The fact is that we’ve been “celebritized”. The apparent flattening of social relations online actually means that a person having “problematic” politics (which can be as simple as not liking Bernie Sanders, or even Stalin!) is treated as tantamount to a high profile person in showbiz being revealed as an abuser. Because, ultimately, we’re basically all high profile people in showbiz now.
In the title of the piece I said I stopped blogging. I’m going to start again, because I’m tired of having no voice. But I expect to experience new attacks, probably when I’m least expecting it. I have diagnosed post-traumatic stress predating all of this, and I can confirm that being harassed online does not help with PTSD, regardless of the original cause. My voice is already inherently limited — by my actual voice, no less. I have little chance of, for instance, being a successful vlogger, because my voice sounds dude like and that’s all anyone will talk about. So having been deprived of the ability to post on Medium because I was essentially “canceled” for disliking a video game made 2018 an even more miserable year than it would already have been.
What I’m asking you to do is to recognize that people who go online while marginalized are incurring many of the risks rich showbiz celebrities do in terms of publicity, but get none of the perks. People like to complain about “e-begging” from online content creators, but consider that PayPal and Patreon are what we have instead of, you know, actual media contracts. And yes, those are links where you can donate to mine.
The Internet doesn’t have to suck as much as it does for marginalized people. But everyone — including a lot of marginalized people — need to stop punching down or laterally and recognize that we’re not powerful elites, just people.