Context Collapse, Architecture, and Plows

Women and the Internet: Part Two

This is part two of a four-part series. Part One, Part Three, Part Four.

Technology changes everything.

I dance with the trolls, and I enjoy it. I have some wonderfully sketchy internet friends; this comes from covering Anonymous and other lovely crazy hackers and anarchists over the years. I have a deep affection for their horribly rude asshole talk and the strange problems they are trying to solve. Sometimes they are stupid, and sometimes brilliant, and even more often, a bit of both.

One day I found myself in a conversation with a couple anon/hacker-anarchists about how to support a community-wide anti-snitching policy, i.e. never calling the police, without abandoning women to gendered violence. Both of them, professed men, acknowledged that men would have to police men to create justice for women in a community that had turned away from the state monopoly on violence. In particular, we talked about Oakland, California, and how communities of men and women could work together to make women safe. One of them, in particular, embraced the idea that gendered violence was a men’s problem that men should confront.

The next day I found him attacking a British feminist on Twitter using the language of violence and rape. I said to him, roughly, “What the fuck are you doing?” I knew he’d meant what he’d said before, it was part of his activism and his sense of community, whereas this was trolly Twitter nonsense. To paraphrase him: “She came at me, and I’m not going to just sit there!” I stared at my computer and sighed.

Trolls gonna troll.

What had happened was a classic example of what academics call a context collapse. A feminist activist on Twitter was getting horrifically attacked after successfully campaigning to keep women in public images in her country, and she’d decided to fight back. That fight had wandered, context-free, into the realm of my Oakland-concerned trollish friends. From the perspective of this man, who had only hours before been looking for ways to support women and prevent gendered violence in a poor community, a high-status person from a far off country had come in and told him what he could and couldn’t say. He responded by saying the worst things he could. From her perspective, another nasty anonymous male voice online had chimed in to punish her for being a public feminist and winning something for women.

From my perspective, it was all facepalm. Both sides didn’t know they weren’t in the same conversation. They weren’t able to talk to or hear each other, and it descended into a disaster.

We all know what context is in our lives. The same thing we do with our friends can be horrifying to think about doing with our bosses or families. This isn’t because we’re all massive hypocrites, it’s because context matters in culture. One of the major problems with online space is that the wrong people see us hanging out with our friends, and suddenly decontextualize our actions. This makes them wholly different and often unintended actions.

This is foul homophobia.

In my work, dealing with everything from old trolls and novice internet users, it’s not hard to understand that me calling a /b/tard Faggot, a term of art on 4chan, is a different act than me calling a gay thirteen-year-old that just got his first Twitter account earlier today Faggot.

This is just weird-ass shit.

What I can’t control is if one party sees me talking to another and gets the wrong idea about what I mean and what kind of person I am. When trolls bounce around Twitter they play a baiting game. At its best, it’s a conversational art that exposes contradictions. At its worst, it’s stupid bullying. Most trolling lives somewhere in between, full of cues and references that make no sense to people who aren’t part of the conversation. Sometimes even the trolls forget this.

Similarly, an angry woman getting abuse and crazy rapey stuff from a portion of the population of an EU country for trying to raise the profile of accomplished women in her country, is going to be stressed.

I should stop for a moment and say “angry woman” is not an insult. People find angry women unseemly, ungirly, ugly. Well, fuck that. Women have a right to be angry, and a lot to be angry about.

Angry women are strong and beautiful creatures, and they’ve saved worlds in their fierceness. Angry women are angry humans, and all the better worlds were built by rejecting the status quo. I respected her anger, and her decision to fight back. To get the abuse she got and not be angry is the sign of either a bodhisattva or a mentally ill person.

But anger is exhausting, and it makes it harder to understand context. She needed some leeway on doing all her internet social protocols right, and nothing in the context of Twitter helped her do that. To this day, neither side has given an inch.

Social media allows people to see each other practicing cultures in ways that were never possible before the internet, which is amazing. But it doesn’t magically give anyone the cross cultural understanding to interpret what they are seeing. This isn’t new, it’s been a problem with mass media since there was such a thing. In Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd’s fantastic paper on context collapse on Twitter, I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience, they talk about where public figures have had to navigate the difficulty of media destroying cultural context:

Meyrowitz (1985) gives the example of Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael, who typically used different styles when presenting to black and white audiences. Speaking on broadcast television, Carmichael could not appear ‘authentic’ to both audiences and had to choose between a black or white rhetorical style. He chose the former, engaging his black audience but alienating white viewers.

Public figures have also developed ways of coping:

In today’s media-saturated landscape, politicians and celebrities use ‘polysemy’ or coded communication to simultaneously appeal to different, even oppositional audiences (Albertson, 2006; Fiske, 1989). Madonna’s early image exemplifies polysemy. She was interpreted differently by young women, who responded to her feminist message, and young men, who responded to her sexy persona (Fiske, 1989). Similarly, George W. Bush sprinkled coded references to hymns, Bible verses, and Evangelical culture throughout his speeches to appeal to his base without alienating others (Albertson, 2006).

You should all read this paper, by the way, trolls, activists, and newbies alike. It will explain a lot of contemporary life that hasn’t been explained before.

We have a lot of social norms to invent these days. Learning to handle context collapse is the social project of the internet the way learning to live with strangers was the social project of 20th century urbanization. Civil inattention, the custom we have of ignoring people you don’t know in public space in order to give them privacy, is an urban invention. It’s why we don’t suddenly butt into other people’s conversation at cafes, or deliver our opinion of how people dress when they walk by us. It’s a good time to start asking what civil inattention looks like on the internet.

From the 19th century to the present the urban movement of humanity has struggled to find a balance between xenophilia and xenophobia within the crushing giantness of the city. A certain healthy homophily helps people build communities and subcommunities and preserves culture. Past a certain point, insularity creates racist suburbs, gated cul-du-sacs and enclaves so unassimilated they exist outside the rule of law and the benefits of economy.

Media creates context collapse, persistent peer media more so. The net combines this with a nearly contextless sense of shared space. Before the net, you knew if you were with someone. You shared not only body language, but a common space, adorned with context clues.

We often talk of the loss of body language, but the loss of architecture has surely been even more devastating to our social interactions.

We no longer know what neighborhood we’ve wandered into, we don’t know the shape of the building, or the condition of the room. We don’t know what other people are wearing — our first and most profound way of signaling cultural affiliation and social-economic status.

Thusly, the feminist activist doesn’t know she’s joined the hordes that have talked down to activists in disadvantaged communities, and the troll doesn’t know he’s joined hordes of misogynists trying to shut down women’s efforts to be seen in culture.

Even dive bars and peep shows are required to have clearly lit exit signs, and unfortunates who have wandered into troll spaces need dignified ways to get out.

Troll culture needs to evolve a more gentle way of signposting its GET OUT N00B FAGS, and part of internet literacy is going to be learning to leave spaces that you don’t like alone.

The best technical approach for Twitter abuse I’ve heard of is Ella Saitta’s suggestion of subscribe-able block lists, which could be very like normal lists, but which would make sure you never see the sort of people your friends block. Trolls could shout all they wanted; no one of relevance would be able to see them. It would be a way to never manage to wander into the wrong neighborhood.

That’s good, but then, also bad. It lets the trolls and the normal society stay safe, but it also prevents those two from ever running into each other, from ever having that chance to understand each other. I don’t know how to let the trolls and straights run into each other in a productive way, but it’s one more thing we should think about. It’s something we should make together, technologically, but also with traditions and the social training to make sense of each other in the placeless place we spend most of our lives now.

This is just the latest chapter in a story about how technology and new ways of living upset human identities. There is an even deeper context collapse that predates the internet. Manhood has taken a beating over the last few thousand years. It used to be men’s positions were linked with physical labor, where women’s positions were linked with often different physical labor and fertility. The specific roles that developed in different societies were myriad; no one of them was right or wrong. But in all of them, women had babies, and men did physical work.

Physical labor as a mark of achievement has gone into precipitous decline in the last few thousand years. The specific usefulness of manhood started getting a beating with the plow, and by the time we got to remote control drones and mountaintop mining equipment, manhood all over the world was stuck making up all sorts of ways in which it was useful, because mostly what made manhood useful when it developed isn’t very useful anymore, even to men. The baby thing meant that women have been less threatened through this 12,000 year process, (Though having too many humans and access to birth control is beginning to make us examine womanhood, and realize it needs updating too.) But we can still make babies, and we now can make them just when we want to. That’s not such a hard change to go through.

Women need to respect that men have an identity crisis that we haven’t had to deal with yet. It’s hard, and we have no idea how terribly hard this is to do.

Men seeking to differentiate themselves and keep their position of esteem often turn to violence. Sometimes that violence is merely intellectual, like pseudoscientific theories to support why they should have power and money and others shouldn’t. These always sounds like variations of the old scientific racism — measure brain weight and math performance or telling just-so stories about evolutionary biology. Sometimes the violence is just beating and raping women to take back the power that 12,000 years of technology has stripped away.

What men often don’t get, and don’t hear enough, is that they are beautiful and dignified creatures. The intrinsic worth of men does not depend on women in any way, not for approval or by submission.

Men are wonderful and terrible because they are humans, and humans have done all these miraculous things. Human men and women working together made the bridges and the plows and the terrible mistakes and glorious failures and strange sciences. Together we saw the stars in glorious apprehension. When we see this making of civilization as an ungendered project, a project so many billions have brought their piece to, a history unfolds. It is a history and view of humanity that requires awe and grief. We, men and women and everything outside and between own this history, and we own it together. As the future and technology keep eroding our sense of ourselves, like waves carving away the shore, a shared history and a shared future becomes the only reasonable things to make our identities out of.

Gender as we knew it was a tool of history, but as with so many tools, it is failing us.

Its importance is falling away, and waiting for our endless creativity to reinvent it.