This article was originally posted on my blog Superheroes in Racecars.
Anyone who follows tech/game industry news has probably noticed a deeply disturbing pattern by now, as outlined by the following examples:
- Co-creator of the innovative Head First programming books has been facing years of online harassment and real-world threats.
- Pop culture media critic who makes academic video-essays has been facing years of online harassment and real-world threats.
- Game developer who raises awareness of mental illness has been facing years of online harassment and real-world threats.
- Software engineer who made an anti-harassment tool will almost definitely face years of online harassment and real-world threats.
- Game development studio founder will almost definitely have to endure years of online harassment and real-world threats.
- …and many other developers, writers, and critics have been putting up with years of online harassment and real-world threats.
- [EDIT] Over the course of the few days that it took me to write this post, the founder and editor of a progressive tech publication has started receiving several vicious attacks. Everything about the situation is consistent with other cases that have resulted in years of online harassment and real-world threats.
Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these stories, but most don’t realize that the hate campaigns against these people still aren’t over. Part of what makes this pattern so upsetting is the public’s infuriating habit of stopping to notice what’s happening, being horrified for a moment, and then moving on and forgetting all about it. We almost always leave the victims to fend for themselves against these hate mobs while we happily move on in blissful ignorance.
This is clearly a huge problem, not just in terms of urgency but also in terms of how difficult it is to solve. Most of us don’t even know what we can do to help, and so we usually don’t do much at all. Even when we do try to help, it can often feel like our contributions are just a drop in the bucket, like we’re essentially doing nothing.
And frankly, I’m super tired of doing nothing, especially when there are such few people who are actually working on this problem. Earlier this month I tried to cope with this frustration by trying to convince myself to be more satisfied with the effort that I put in so far. But my conscience has been killing me ever since, because this attempt at complacency felt as though I was turning my back on these people whom I really respect. I realize now that I won’t be comfortable with myself unless I’m actually serious about making a difference here. And to me, taking something seriously means being satisfied only by results, not by effort.
Defining the Problem
There are plenty of people who oppose anti-harassment efforts under the argument that online harassment will always exist and that, therefore, nothing can be done about it. That argument is so pessimistic that it almost sounds like a taunt coming from a cartoon villain.
But that argument is also coming from a fundamental misunderstanding of what we actually want. We just want to live in a world where it’s not normal for people to have their lives literally ruined by hordes of internet haters and stalkers. Yes, the amount of hatred that people are capable of fostering is an important problem, but it is not necessarily the problem that we’re trying to solve here. The real problem at hand is the damage that internet hate causes.
This distinction is incredibly important, since it helps us have a clearer idea of what success looks like. While we may not be able to stop everyone from doing horrible things, we as a society can get better at stopping them from getting away with. We might not be able to convince everyone to let go of their hatred, but we can take away their power to hurt people.
The Importance of Research
If you truly take this problem seriously, then you’ll listen to the stories, analyses, and insights of every victim of internet hate that you can find, in an attempt to gather as much data as possible about this problem. Learn about what it’s really like to be in their shoes, to deal with so much hate day after day, and to see how that starts to affect you. Learn what you can do to help victims heal. A lot of the distrust that people have against victims of internet hate comes from being uninformed about how internet hate actually works. Once you start learning from the data, you’ll realize that:
- Ignoring the haters doesn’t stop them.
- Speaking out against them doesn’t stop them.
- Having almost everyone they know and respect also speak out against them doesn’t stop them.
- Escalating these cases to the police and pursuing restraining orders is an extremely slow and time consuming process that still doesn’t stop everyone.
Sometimes I fear that some of us are spending too much time trying to convince “non-believers” about the severity of this problem. When you’re dealing with such people, it’s surprisingly easy to become biased in the political sense, where you get caught up in that alluring cycle of trying to prove that “we are right and they are wrong,” rather than actually moving forward with solving this problem.
The purpose of gathering so much data shouldn’t be to prove your case that internet hate is a serious problem — because of course it is! Your true purpose when researching should be to find insights within the data, to notice trends, patterns, and potential new solutions. In this case, it’s useful to read analyses that present varying perspectives and theories on what fuels and enables internet hate, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their conclusions, because they may offer insights that prove to be useful to you later.
This is what it means to be serious about solving a problem. It means studying it obsessively, turning it over, poking at it, looking for weak spots.
There’s still plenty of room for people who want to contribute to the effort of researching and understanding internet hate. For instance, I have yet to see much interaction between the anti-harassment communities that I frequent and the academic communities that have already been researching this problem for years (EDIT: the recently announced Crash Override Network appears to be a collaboration between internet hate victims and various unnamed experts in this field). I have yet to see more people attempt to do big-data analyses on the torrents of hate that pass through social media servers everyday. I would also like to see a greater sense of intellectual rigor being applied to the many theories that people have written about already, because it’d be nice to have more discussions on which theories are actually useful versus which ones are based on misunderstanding or misinterpretations.
Active vs. Passive Community Management
These days I see more and more websites setting up community spaces while also refusing to take proper care of them. Managing a community is like managing a garden. If you put enough continuous care into it, then you can end up with a vibrant and healthy community that helps people become even more attached to your product or service. But if you neglect your community (which seems to be the norm these days), you’ll find that your site will inadvertently become a safe space for hateful and bigoted behavior, and your community features will become something to be avoided — something that hurts the user experience with your product.
Since the emergence of social media and the decline of traditional forum boards, new communities have emerged that no longer seem to be defined by a single website or service. For instance, I tend to see prominent members of the general games community simultaneously interacting on many sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, Gamasutra, IGN, Gamespot, Polygon, Kill Screen, Giant Bomb, and dozens of other journalism sites and personal blogs.
Going back to the gardening analogy, we used to think of communities as being like a plant growing out of a single pot (or website), but now it seems to be more like a large, interconnected tree growing out of several pots at once. And so when the health of the larger community is threatened, who’s responsible for making sure it gets the care that it needs?
The trend of recent years is that more websites tend to just shrug their shoulders at their own community’s problems. We claim that our communities are simply a reflection of what’s “normal” on the internet, rather than taking responsibility for cleaning up the toxic environments that we have created. We’ve created spaces where people think it’s okay to blatantly abuse each other, and because all of our communities are interconnected now, this toxicity works its way back up into everyone else’s spaces.
The only clear way to make a difference here is to decrease the number of sites that host toxic community spaces and increase the ones that host positive, healthy ones. This sense of responsibility is even greater for those of us who run high-traffic sites and services, such as IGN and Gamespot, which tend to attract lots of young people and end up forming their perceptions of what acceptable online behavior is. The problem, however, is that we all tend to get extremely lazy and apathetic when it comes to fixing the communities on our own websites. Most of us don’t even know where to start, or when we do, we decide that it’s just not worth the effort because everyone else’s standards are already so low.
The absolute easiest thing that you can do to mitigate the effect of hate in your community is to simply speak out against it. When we see hate on the Internet, our common reaction is to simply roll our eyes and ignore it because there’s not much that we can do about it — and to complain about stuff that we have no power to fix usually comes off as whiny and uncool. However, if you are respected in a particular community, then you finally have some power to do something about it. You don’t even have to be in a position of authority (such as being a mod) in order to be respected. Sometimes you just have to be one of the “cool and popular” members who people tend to look up to and appreciate. And so when users see people who they respect taking the time and effort to vocally disapprove of something, those users are probably going to listen.
Make it clear to your members that being a jerk is not okay and that there are real consequences for being a hurtful. Make it clear that you do care about the health of your community and that you expect better from other members. Being one of the respected members of a community is essentially a position of power. What you do and say (and what you refuse to do) have a stronger impact for your community than any single no-name individual in that group. Being responsible with this power means getting off your butt and doing something when you see bad stuff happening in your community. You can’t just ignore it and hope that it goes away, because that will send a message to everyone that such behavior is acceptable — because you are literally accepting it by letting it happen.
The advice of the last few paragraphs can basically be summed up as “say stuff,” but if you really want to get serious about creating and managing healthy community spaces, then I suggest reading up on community management so that you don’t accidentally create spaces that end up hurting people. There are tons of tools available to you beyond simply having moderators who delete things. For instance, Stack Exchange is a great example of how various community features can be thoughtfully and intentionally put together in order to create a community with a very specific and healthy vibe. Just like any good design, communities of that quality are usually the result of an iterative process, whereby you study how the community is responding to your systems and you adjust them accordingly to mach your design goals.
The same concepts also apply to making community features for games as well. League of Legends got a lot of attention for designing features that promote positive behavior, and a few years ago, Extra Credits made a video suggesting a few simple features that games could include to limit the effect of harassers:
If you work for a website, game, or service that offers community features, then I hope you realize that your little branch of our larger community doesn’t have to be a cesspool of hatred and bigotry. I hope you see the importance of taking an active role in shaping the community spaces that you are creating.
A Call for Higher Engineering Standards
It’s baffling how the tech world, which is completely and utterly full of developers, is notorious for having so many poorly engineered anti-spam and anti-harassment features. The problem is so bad for certain companies that it negatively affects their brand. Xbox Live, for instance, is still trying to come back from being seen as the place go when you want to interact with horrible, sexist bigots.
Twitter, especially, has enraged many people with the sheer ineffectiveness of its blocking and reporting features. Their inability to prevent haters and spammers from creating hundreds of throwaway accounts simply makes the company look like it just doesn’t care about protecting its users. One could argue that good engineering takes time, but Twitter has existed for almost nine years now. If anything, they are leaving themselves wide open for any new competitors who emerge boasting better safety features, especially when there are entire communities (such as the gamedev community) who are practically ready to jump ship after getting hit so hard by these internet hate campaigns.
I suspect that there’s something wrong with the way in which a lot of developers approach the problem of building community features. Rather than being driven by a desire to actually keep their members safe, I suspect that their thought processes are more along the lines of, “well, everyone else has this feature, so I guess we need one, too.” This affects not just the design process but also the testing process, as we fail to look for scenarios that allow users to break past our blocks.
I think there’s also a fundamental problem with how we define “safety.” It’s very easy for developers to get careless when they assume that people can’t hurt each other when only using text. When we develop community features from now on, we have to consider the following questions:
- What would happen if one of my users was being hit by an internet hate campaign?
- How might a hate campaign try to abuse my community features to attack that member?
- How can we detect when something like this is happening so that we can take action?
- Are my safety features effective at helping this member protect themselves from the hate campaign?
- Is it possible for people to abuse my safety features in order to hurt other members?
- Will targeted members feel safe or unsafe using my website or service?
- How can I better work with law enforcement to help them track down these stalkers?
And then once the service is built, you have to work with your community to confirm the effectiveness of your safety features. You have to be serious about finding and fixing vulnerabilities in those features, and you must also be aware of potential design problems that might make those features undiscoverable or difficult to use.
Our Governments Need Help
Many of the actions of these internet hate mobs are illegal in several countries, but pursuing justice in these cases is often a serious challenge. As Zoe Quinn wrote in her piece titled “August Never Ends”:
Think GG is hard to explain to a friend? Try a legal system that doesn’t really understand what the internet is yet – it’s like trying to push cooked pasta through the eye of a needle. Try explaining shit like 4chan to an officer who types with henpeck hands and getting handed a police report that makes you feel like praying the abuse away may be more effective. Law enforcement is prepared for familiar things like “here is a death threat, here is someone violating a restraining order, here’s where they openly discuss wanting to rape me”, but trying to convey how things work online is frustrating.
The tech world has always been aware of the disconnect between government and the internet, but now it’s even more imperative that we learn how to bridge that gap.
Specifically, we need to make sure that people stop thinking about the internet as being some kind of alternate dimension with no real ties to the “real world.” Even just the fact that we tend to refer to offline space as “the real world” is problematic. If the internet was as fake as we suggest, then why does virtually every modern business have a website, and why does the President of the United States claim that internet access is an economic necessity? We need to iron out these internal contradictions from the public’s understanding of the internet so that we can start having more informed conversations about these kinds of problems.
When working in a democracy, it’s not just about informing government officials such as law enforcement, judges, lawyers, or legislators. One has to inform the general public, because they make up the voters and jurors that have a big say in how many of these situations often play out.
This is why getting mainstream media coverage of these hate campaigns is often so beneficial, because it shows the public that this problem exists, that it still exists, and that we need to solve it. Unfortunately most of the media’s depiction of this problem doesn’t seem to be aware of the challenges of pursuing justice against these crimes. It’d help if the conversation was shifted towards asking questions such as:
- How can our legal system help us fight internet hate campaigns?
- How is our government’s understanding of the internet failing us, and what can we do to clear things up?
- How can we improve our efforts to bring these stalkers to justice?
Unfortunately, much like how government officials don’t understand the internet very well, most people in tech also don’t seem to have a very strong understanding of political activism either. It’s hard to answer the questions that I’ve listed above if you honestly don’t know much about those topics. And it’s significantly harder to explain the internet to government officials when you don’t even know what their understanding of the world is like.
The EFF has recently published a well-researched and informative statement on this issue, but there is still much work to do. We really need more people in tech who understand the public sector, and we specifically need strong activists who are focused on promoting solutions for internet hate.
“What if I’m a Nobody?”
What if you really want to help solve the problems caused by internet hate, but:
- you just aren’t the academic type who’s interested in advancing our understanding of this problem,
- you don’t have much of a voice in any online or offline communities,
- you aren’t a developer or a designer who can help create and maintain community spaces or safety tools,
- you have pretty much no knowledge or interest in figuring out how to help your nation’s legal system or law enforcement agencies.
I definitely know what it feels like to really want to help but feel too useless to be able to make any significant impact. I’m just an obscure recent-grad who doesn’t even work in the games industry yet. However, I refuse to let this frustration lead me towards doing nothing, because that would, of course, lead to having absolutely no impact.
And so I just do what I can. I continue to study and learn about internet hate so that when I do find an opportunity to make an impact, I’ll be ready and well informed. As a developer, I recognize that my specific career path will have plenty of opportunities to help build and improve community spaces, and I’ll even consider working at certain companies on that premise alone. But for now, even if all I get are just small chances to better inform people about this problem, I’ll take my victories where I can get them, all while counting on the assumption that the big opportunities will come later.
If you really have the resolve to make a difference here, then I encourage you to make similar long-term investments, especially considering that internet hate can’t possibly be solved overnight. Focus on developing your skills and maintaining your understanding of this problem so that you can later have the kind of impact that you wish to have.
Until then, just remember to use your voice! Remember to speak out against harassment when you see it. Remember to keep pestering companies and web developers to improve their safety features. Remember to send words of support and encouragement to victims to help fight those waves of hate with a little bit of kindness. One of the best things about the game industry’s universal condemnation of GamerGate was that it created an atmosphere that openly disapproved of hateful behavior, which is precisely the kind of vibe that has been missing from many of our online spaces for a long time. It was our habit of quietly rolling our eyes that contributed to an atmosphere that made jerks believe that their behavior was cool.
There seem to be so few people who are actually working on fixing the problem of internet hate that it sometimes makes me wonder, “is it weird to care this much about solving this?” I’ve written about this feeling before, how sometimes I feel like a weirdo for getting so worked up about this problem since it isn’t directly affecting me. I believe that the mental barriers that I’ve formed over the years to protect me from becoming hopelessly lost in political ideologies are now confusing apathy for levelheadedness.
Regardless of how you look at it, these hate campaigns are only getting more vicious and more frequent. It’s obvious that this problem won’t fix itself and that something must be done. Enough is enough! I’m tired of watching so many developers and writers have their lives put in danger, and I’m tired of dealing with weirdos who act like this is no big deal. I will do everything I can to help make a difference here, even if it takes years of hard work. I know that I’m not in a very strong position to make much of an impact right now, but I’m determined to get there.
In the meantime, I just hope that this post was somehow able to reach people who have more power to make a difference than I have right now. Hopefully I’ve helped give you a clearer idea on what you can do to help fix this problem.