Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight against Online Hate was published in 2017 by PublicAffairs.
The Uncompensated Emotional Labor of Lessons Owed
It's Why I Didn't Slip Under
Fighting Online Abuse from Within
Brooke Foucault Welles
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
The Uncompensated Emotional Labor of Lessons Owed
I read about half the book, and then I stopped. Zoë is a friend, and I saw all that she describes as it happened, and I realized: I don't want to revisit this. I wish I didn't have to think about this anymore. That sustained online harassment episode so affected every person it touched that we're now all afraid to say anything at all about it, lest we further the harm, be accused of furthering the harm, draw the ire of the mob again, draw the judgments of the social media police, who all seem to insist they would have been a better, more ideologically pure victim than us. Zoë's experiences were awful, but the vulnerable aftermath, which everyone carefully tongues like the wound left by a missing tooth, is awful too.
Here's the thing that's really awful: No one is going to let us forget it. It's now been four years since I was targeted for an essay I wrote, essentially in Zoë's defense, identifying the source of the harassment behavior as cultural displacement on the part of a coddled, insular male audience (and here's another!), but I'm still being asked to appear on Harassment Panels, to write uncompensated Harassment Articles and uncompensated Harassment Book Reviews, to perform emotional labor on the topic of Harassment, all in the name of feminism. The implication is I cannot refuse because I owe people lessons. In addition to what I experienced, I also owe my observations and expertise, and it seems I will owe it for some time. And yet what's the social value of all these discussions we are constantly being asked to revisit? People keep tenderly and breathlessly asking us to unearth these things, so they can speak in hushed voices about our bravery and heroism—what are they actually getting out of our Experience? I'm not any sort of hero because I was harassed. Nor is it the fact that I was harassed that makes me a feminist. These things seem obvious to me, and yet this is where the conversation stops.
Have platforms changed their policy? Has anyone built tools to improve the experience of marginalized people online? Here is a big feature I did for the Guardian on the women who were left to create their own antiharassment solutions in the face of platform inaction. And meanwhile, the fucking discussion groups, the summits, the talks—the people who breathlessly tell me “I love your work” but probably mean “I love how you dunk on trolls on Twitter;” "social justice Twitter," which knows all of our names and talks about us as if we are objects, jockeying for involvement in our crises, as if hungry for the perverse relevance those crises bestow—these things start to humiliate me, move me away from my best self. Everyone seems to imply I really ought to keep donating my labor on this topic because it will supposedly help others. People keep saying they "learned so much" from Zoë's book, they keep saying how it's an important work, but what will they fucking do having read it? Anything at all save wringing their hands and asking for more titillating stories of abuse to pad out their arts festivals and make them seem progressive? Anything at all besides making us revisit this again and again, lest we be unhelpful, ungracious, unfeminist for saying “fuck no”? Nothing more feminist than the implication that you cannot refuse emotional labor, eh? I seriously hope Zoë got a lot of money to do that book. She deserves it, and it's so rare that the people monetizing our experiences are actually us.
Leigh Alexander is a writer and narrative designer (Reigns: Her Majesty, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Monitor). Her journalism (the Guardian, How We Get to Next, Medium, Motherboard) tackles offbeat futurism, digital society, immaterial labor, technomancy, and how the internet, politics, and pop culture intersect. She is the author of Breathing Machine, a memoir of early internet society, and her occasional ASMR video series "Lo-Fi Lets Play" explores ancient computer adventure games. More projects can be found at leighalexander.net.
I'm Toxic, It's Why I Didn't Slip Under
I made a friend because we wanted to do something about harassment and it took me forever to read her book. And because we wanted to do something about it, I ended up alternating between being too busy and too exhausted to see her or actually deal with the material. And now that I finally get to?
It’s on a deadline and a timeline, and it needs to get done. But I instinctively chafe at these circumstances after reading Crash Override because ultimately it’s a story of time: how a world built around instantaneous gratification and historical oppression does and doesn’t grant time to do what we are, can, and should be able to do.
Crash Override is personal, and I both admire and resent that. I admire it because Zoë is considerate of people in a way that I am not yet (nor may ever be). As horrific as people have been, Zoë’s ability to find empathy and space is amazing. Her book creates space by looking through the lens of what it means to be lost, scared, and vulnerable to a “leader” or ideology that can point to someone and say, “that’s the cause of your problem.” Liminality and ambiguity are not granted to most, and the internet has exacerbated that feeling and allowed those who feel trapped by those constraints connection. There is a grace in how Zoë creates space for understanding that is missing in many discussions.
I also really fucking resent it because it is again an example of the victims of something being tasked not only with surviving but also transcending and fixing a problem that comes from systems that disadvantage them.
I was not a teenage shitlord but I am still a motherfucking monster.
I’m one of those black women who, had anybody listened to me, maybe we wouldn’t be here. I also know that I used and still use some of the tactics that Zoë describes—the ones that make the internet a hostile place—just to survive. My ability to rabble-rouse, rage, and almost serenely commit to making hell may be the one reason I have lived to see 33. When Michelle Goldberg glibly called it “Toxic Twitter” in 2014, I was the toxin she was speaking of. The screaming, yelling, “call-out” culture is me trying to survive a burgeoning racist right wing and an indifferent feminist/tech/leftist culture that for the most part doesn’t name me, Crash Override being an exception. And had I not spent a decade screaming and making friends with fellow survivors like Zoë? They would have erased me.
And it shakes out that I’m on the side of the righteous, but everyone thinks that about themselves, and, uncomfortably, I also have to watch what happens to people who learned from me and what happens to people they target. When a young Twitter friend, Branfire, is targeted in the exact way I rode out in 2014, what do I say?
How do I deal with the fact that the transphobic asshat who used my friend’s picture to harass a trans woman recognizes nuances that he used to create discord among the marginalized that the justifiably traumatized marginalized woman targeted by said asshat does not?
And how do I deal with what my friend so astutely observes: that black people don’t get the moments of reflection from anyone before the attack or the apologies after?
How do I step back to create a manual for the greater good like Zoë when my personal survival has been based on being the kind of monster that outlasts hordes and scares the good people of villages?
Professionally, I do research and write guides and exhaust myself on the parts of the internet even fellow targets tell me aren’t worth it. I was the community lead of the Coral Project, an initiative specifically designed to build better commenting systems, and so many people, including many quoted in this book, outright mocked our existence.
Because people don’t think about the fact that not everyone can fall back to enclaves of safety and feeling heard. Not everyone has a place besides the comments.
We were “never gonna make anything,” they said. We are now used by twenty-three newspapers and counting, and we are conducting the first study on the news behavior of women and nonbinary people of color, the people who, as Shafiqah Hudson points out, “get it the absolute worst” (75), especially trans women of color.
I can’t bring those two existences—an internet monster designed to protect myself and a worker for internet health—as close as Zoë does in Crash Override. I hope to, but if we’re being honest, I haven’t had the time. I was dismissed in 2014 when I wrote about surveillance and targeting, and Zoë brings all that to bear in 2017. Even as a white-collar professional, I am a black woman still at war.
If Michelle Goldberg is correct and I am toxic, I must acknowledge I am choosing to stay that way, and until we invest in curing the cancers of racism, sexism, and misogynoir that make my personal toxicity the only way my professional work can continue, then I just think of myself as chemo.
It may cure, it may kill, it may feel worse than the actual cancer, but if it’s the option that works?
Toxic I will be.
I don’t know how much time we have left, but I’m working on it, and if the people working on it commit as hard as Zoë does, I have hope. Not enough to be willing to put down the radium, but hope all the same.
Sydette Harry is editor at large for the Coral Project. She is an avid internet commenter on anywhere that will give her a password. She has worked in cultural arts, tech, and project curation, and her writing has been on Bitch.com, Salon, and The Toast. She tweets as @Blackamazon.
System Error: Fighting Online Abuse from Within
Brooke Foucault Welles
Zoë Quinn is a game developer, programmer, artist, and activist. She is also the victim of Gamergate, an ongoing campaign of targeted harassment levied against Quinn and other women in the video gaming industry. For the uninitiated, Quinn’s experience reads like dystopian science fiction—an embittered ex-lover fabricated a story that incited an anonymous internet mob to send rape and death threats that drove Quinn from her home, relationships, and career. Police, technology companies, and the justice system were of little use, and the abuse continued, largely unmitigated to this day.
Yet, in this era of fake news, alt-right radicalization, and #MeToo, Quinn’s experience is strikingly familiar, and Crash Override offers prescient advice for our times. As Quinn notes, “online abuse is by no means uncommon and can affect just about anyone for any reason” (5). A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center suggests that four in ten internet users have experienced some form of online harassment, and nearly 20 percent have experienced severe online harassment including stalking, sexual harassment, or physical threats. Quinn offers a number of tractable suggestions for preventing and mitigating this sort of online abuse. We would all do well to follow her advice and create stronger, unique passwords on all of our accounts (so long, audre4ever), use burner email accounts to sign up for nonessential websites and services, and delete old accounts, especially those that contain personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, and the names of our family members and friends.
Quinn also offers sage advice for supporting the victims of online abuse. All too often those experiencing online abuse are told to simply avoid going online. Police officers, judges, and even Quinn’s own therapist suggested she may want to seek an alternate line of work that does not rely so heavily on the internet. Reflecting on a judge’s decision not to issue criminal harassment charges against the man who orchestrated the online harassment campaign that targeted her because she could “just get offline,” Quinn says, “The internet was my home, and treating it like a magical alternate dimension where nothing of consequence happens was insulting. Telling a victim of a mob calling for their head online to simply not go online anymore is like telling someone who has a hate group camped in their yard to just not go outside” (107). When so many people rely on the internet for advice, entertainment, relationships, and work, it is simply abhorrent that our first—and often only—line of defense is to cut victims off from these systems of social support, pleasure, and financial opportunity. The pernicious implication is that the internet is inherently unsafe for some people, and that victims bear the burden of change.
Instead, we ought to look for ways to change the systems that allow online abuse to flourish. If there is a shortcoming in Crash Override, it is that Quinn is too gracious toward the multi-billion-dollar corporations that hosted and facilitated her abuse. This is, no doubt, partly because her current work as an advocate depends on productive relationships with organizations such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google. However, the technology giants that enable and profit from online abuse and disinformation can and should do better. To paraphrase Quinn, it is difficult to imagine that the same companies that can find and remove copyrighted content within minutes cannot also find and remove abusers who make their platforms unsafe.
Of course, viable solutions will require collaboration across platforms that are reluctant to work together. Solutions will also need to balance safety against the autonomy and freedom of creative expression that makes the internet so wonderful. But this is not the first time an industry has voluntarily implemented safety protocols. Facing public and political pressure to warn consumers about inappropriate content in the 1930s, the motion picture industry implemented voluntary film ratings—a system that is far from perfect but that few would argue has substantially disrupted creative capacity or industry profitability.
Quinn notes a key limitation in the fight against online abuse is that “the incentives for [internet] companies to remove abusive users are not as compelling as they should be” (64). Rather than changing victims’ behavior, perhaps we can leverage the #MeToo sentiment sweeping through other media industries and incentivize technology companies to fight abuse within their systems. For an industry that prides itself on engineering solutions to difficult networked problems, I expect they are up for the challenge.
Brooke Foucault Welles is an assistant professor of communication studies and core faculty member of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University. Her research examines how online communication networks enable and constrain behavior, with particular emphasis on how these networks facilitate the pursuit of individual, team, and collective goals. Her recent work includes a series of studies of the transformative power of networked counterpublics that illustrates how online communication networks uniquely enable marginalized populations to influence the terms and tone of mainstream public deliberation. Her work appears in leading disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals, including the Journal of Communication, New Media & Society, and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.