If you are reading this, I assume you participate in social media – otherwise, there are rarely people who stumble upon my blog. I don’t resent that, as there are readers here and there and in rare cases, a discussion comes up. Anyhow, as I caught a cold, I had the oportunity of watching Richard Hoeg’s Hang-outs & Headlines on YouTube today and I have a bit of time on my hands to write down what I think. My opinion, so to speak. Subject of today’s edition was a Washington Post article titled YouTube remains rife with misogyny and harassment, creators say.
So, here we go again, on the never stopping merry-go-round that is behavioural criticism on the internet. The article in question refers only to YouTube, but, honestly, it is the same just everywhere. When I joined the exclusive circle of what today is called content creators, there was no such thing as social media in the way we know it today. Back then, we had nothing, least of all bandwith. But we had newsgroups on the Usenet and, later on, forums and message boards. Text only, low bandwith, no memes – spaces where you had to put your thoughts in actual words and you needed to explain yourself. There was a guideline as to how to behave, so that discussions could be had within reasonable boundaries: The Netiquette.
Discussions were direct, matter-of-factly, sometimes heated, and there were the occasions when users crossed lines they better wouldn’t. And even then, without those beautiful technologies we have today, there was harassment, there was anger, there were threats, there was doxxing. It was a little more difficult to do, but if you knew how, there was not that much of a problem. So, what’s the huge difference between then and today?
1. Who threw the first toy?
There are those occasions when you look at your news stream (be it Twitter, facebook, YouTube, whatever) and you feel as if you were at a playground with four year olds who are throwing sand toys at each other. Yes, there were occasions on the Usenet when you could feel that, too – but those were far rarer. Perhaps, because it was less people and far more focused on topics. When people started to clown about or got off topic, their messages were just pushed into another group, along with a followup link.
Today, before getting into factual discussions, we need to discuss how to discuss – and the loudest user(s) get to make the rules, in general. Not those with the facts, no. Those who can make the most noise. And it is them who define which behaviour is named how, thus not only ruling over the discussion, but also how the content is to be understood – and judged. Someone says ‚I like bacon‘ and when the time and place is right, a mob of users will attack the disgusting animal abuser. That person, in return will opine on people’s comments in – ahem – quite a harsh way and within under a minute you can watch the sandbox wars unfold in all their glory. Darth Bacon and Princess Sunflower will fight until there are no winners.
This is, of course, completely inane, but, alas, I know no one (not even myself!) who is immune to pitching in. It’s a free world allowing free speech, isn’t it? No one said that this speech needs to be sensible. And, if we’re honest, it is not about bacon or tofu. It’s about unloading, even dumping the day’s stress. Boss was mean? Well, Princess Sunflower is a very good avatar, may she sit at home and cry her eyes out! And that’s the problem: In this case, she is an avatar, nothing else. That leads us to things that have existed from the beginning of time up until today, because we are humans and humans are not at all perfect.
So let’s talk about how those sandbox wars are fought. How do you get to rule over a discussion? Well, the first step is to shape facts to your needs. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines misogyny as hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women. Nota bene: women, plural. So, if you want to own a discussion where a woman (singular) is affected, you just define your needed term anew, even if this is linguistically just wrong.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
The sentence ‚Elena Example is dumb.‘ is unflattering, but not at all misogynistic. If you say ‚Elena Example is a woman, that’s why she is dumb.‘, it is definitely misogynistic. The trick to be the ruler of the discussion is to expand the meaning of the latter to the meaning of the former. This can be done with each and every buzzword that is currently in use (e. g. sexism, racism). As soon as you have established your definition of those words, you can accuse anyone of anything and, as a consequence, make social media providers change their regulations according to your needs. Quite neat, huh?
Harassment is a different and far more difficult matter as it has so many facets. Let me just say this: If you call somebody out for lies they tell and you do so repeatedly, it can feel to them like harassment, but it needn’t be that. If you go after people with lies you tell about them and you do so continually, it is harassment and might even be punishable by law (at least in Germany, but I don’t think that it is very different elsewhere). As a matter of fact, this is a very common method of people too dumb to make a point (mostly because of not having one) to shut others up. Doesn’t work, but is widely used, unfortunately.
Now, here is a sensitive topic. Let’s start with commercial outlets, the so-called mainstream media. Once upon a time, when I was young, a newspaper (as well as a radio or TV programme) was there to report news and sold advertisements to support this goal. In the meantime, the market changed a lot. Not only are there more newspapers etc., but we have the internet. To maintain the earnings from advertising, you need to be faster than all the others; an internet platform will earn next to nothing from the news themselves (in form of subscriptions), so you need to be aggressive about advertising. That’s where the much critizised clickbait comes from. In a nutshell: today, the sale of advertisements is supported by news. That has quite some effect on the quality of the news we are presented with, especially in the entertainment sector.
It is of absolutely no interest if a bit of news is true, half true or just a rumour that later turns out to have no truth to it at all – if it is there and it is in the slightest way justifiable to put it out there, it will be put out there. The more scandalous, the better. The more lurid, the more valuable. That is where the money lies. Celebrities are the ones who suffer the most from this behaviour. Be it a youthful prince in a scandalous situation, be it a movie star accusing her boyfriend of violence against her. Drunk driving, consuming drugs, partying too hard, kissing someone other than the spouse, being naked on a private beach while on holiday, no matter what, it is news, especially if there are photos. Careful, accurate reporting is not at all a thing. There is no time nor money for investigation. And this is the gateway for ‚journalists‘ who want to shape the world to their ideas of right or wrong. This kind of journalist need not investigate; they regard their view as the gold standard and they use publications – and reputable ones – for their own ends. And they are not alone; there is always a political agenda behind that: being socially influencial, having the upper hand in social discourses.
For content creators who do that on their own dime and in their spare time, the rules are different. They do not depend that much upon the sales of advertisements. Sure, they, too, need money to keep the channel (blog, account) going. There are some who live off their content, of course. But they are not under that much strain, so they say what they want to say how they want to say it; there’s no need to be fast. They can take their time to get information. And they can afford to choose their topic and stay on it. Compared to journalists with deadlines and assignments, this is a very luxurious position. I don’t say that their content is more accurate – but often it is. I don’t say that they are right – but they can voice their opinion and leave it to the consumer to fill the gaps with further information. All in all, they need not do the following (although some surely do):
5. Divide and Conquer
To be of relevance, you need the above mentioned upper hand. You could, of course, investigate and report facts. But that doesn’t stir emotions. Reporting without emotions feels cold. That won’t earn rapport from users and this is what you need. So, what do you do? You divide people in groups. Pro-this, against-that. The more controversial, the better. That way, a lot of people will not only read your articles, listen to your podcasts, watch your videos, no, they will comment and they will do that very emotionally. The best thing that can happen are threats, having people going after each other. You get loads of page impressions and even more comments – which sell, you guessed it, advertisements. Win-win. Except for society. We lose our ability of compassion and of tolerance. Everyone is a possible enemy and what was an emotional outlet on a bad day suddenly becomes an all-consuming war, where we fight for our lives, perhaps our livelihood.
I can’t see how laws and regulations will do anything to contain this kind of behaviour. They never have, not even for the pub talk before the internet. What we need is to learn how to cool down, to refrain from reacting to provocations. Be levelheaded. That’s not easy and it doesn’t work every time. We are humans, not saints. But before you let other people manage and use your emotions, try and take a step back. If someone calls you transphobic, look at what they refer to. Think about how important it is to correct the wrong statement of another person. Is your reputation really at stake? Are you letting a complete stranger hurt your feelings? If so, why? Try and separate other people’s problems from yours. You’ll see that most problems are not even yours. Most aggressions are not even really directed at you. Keep talking to people who know how to behave. Accept other people’s opinions, even if you do not agree. Agree to disagree. And don’t let others drive you into radical behaviour that at the end of the day robs you of your social abilities like friendliness, understanding and compassion.
As always: These are my views. It is not a report of facts, but of what I see unfold in those parts of the internet I spend my time in.