Face-to-Face – Accept No Substitutes

I’m back in DeKalb, IL this week visiting a bunch of friends. Two of my dearest friends from graduate school are graciously hosting me and letting me use their WiFi.  While I stay in touch with these folks via Facebook and the phone, there is no substitute for sharing a cup of coffee with someone.

pha_aeso-300x296IRL, spaces evoke memories. As I sat across from my mentor today, I remembered one of our last coffee dates in which she encouraged me to finish my research, get published, and find a job. The sound of espresso beans grinding and milk steaming cannot be replaced by social media.  It just can’t.

But beyond the sense memories, meeting with people works. I also had coffee with my co-author. We’ve been writing an article together and created a private blog in order to share ideas, notes, and sources. We’ve been in a place where we need to sit down and write. However, we couldn’t reach that place until we sat down and hashed it out.

Then again, maybe this is just the way I learn. Perhaps some people do better in a controlled online environment in which they are not surrounded by noises and other distractions?

What reddit Does Right

Recently, I’ve posted a lot about how social media shames people. In class, my students mentioned that social media creates and perpetuates drama – sometimes in really poisonous ways.  In fact, one student is writing her Multimodal Advocacy Project about cyber bulling.

And yet, I see ways in which social media and collaborative writing spaces provide 30 Rockunique opportunities for people to connect. Today, I read this story about a reddit megathread in which women recounted stories about the first time they were looked at in a sexual way by a man (Trigger Warning if you decide to read the thread). This thread on reddit is really powerful because of the sheer number of women coming together to describe their experiences.  I should clarify. This question garnered thousands of responses and tens of thousands of comments.

The power of this megathread is manifold. First, the pathos of these women’s stories is powerful. Reading about an eight year old girl running away from a stranger in a store or about a twelve year old girl having obscenities hurled at her from moving cards, makes the reader realize how vulnerable young girls can be in the most mundane situations. In many of the stories, the girls didn’t understand what the men said to them. Their innocence emphasizes the threat. For women, the experiences are so familiar that they may feel sympathy.

While pathos is a powerful appeal, in some ways, this thread is really an appeal to ethos. The credibility of these women is created by their critical mass. When thousands of women in a relatively small corner of the world share story after story about harassment, their authority to make truth claims increases. Collaborative social media created a space for these women to demonstrate that this experience is real and ubiquitous. In other words, the massive response makes it an appeal through phronesis. It’s common knowledge now; prepubescent girls are sexually harassed before they understand their young bodies.

As much as I may rail against the sexism on reddit, I am impressed when women can use the space to make statement about the conditions they live in.

Social Media Pillory

This week a friend of mine posted about her experience on a dating website. In doing so, she posted screenshots of her interactions with an extremely crude individual on Facebook. She is not alone; see the Instagram account, Bye Felipe. After posting the screenshots, one friend called the guy a “Douche.” My friend responded thusly, “Yeah. It’s a pretty common occurrence, and it shouldn’t be. Public shaming it is!”

This interaction sparked two responses for me. Let’s start with the first one. The amount of violence and sexually explicit language directed toward women online is atrocious. Douche2Women must be careful about their interactions online because men routinely threaten them with rape, hate f*cking, or just outright physical violence. As the screenshot my friend posted online shows, the guy behaves like a classic abuser and moves from “Please forgive me” to “Speak when spoken to” within a few hours.  Of course, this degenerates into vulgar descriptions of his penis, which also seems extraordinarily threatening when capped with “Dumb bitch.”  Almost every woman I know on a dating site, reddit, or other forms of social media has been threatened and called a bitch.

Conversely, my gay male friend who is also on an online dating site reports a different experience. He talks about purposefully teasing other members about their profiles. When I asked him about retribution, he was shocked.  He said, “Yeah, sometimes they say stuff back, but nobody threatens me. Does that happen to women?” I think his experience highlights how high the stakes are for women online.

However, my second response to my friend’s post is equally problematic. Sharing the experience and showing how women are treated on dating sites is a legitimate way to start a conversation on Facebook. In fact, describing the the experience seems like an overtly feminist move by uncovering systemic oppression. This setup video of men catcalling their mothers shows how effective a little shaming can be.

And yet, when my friend posted the screenshots, she shared his photo, his user name, and his city of residence. In effect, she placed him in a pillory. Now the wider public can share in humiliating him for his crimes. Unlike the real pillory that is tied to a specific location, the pillory of the interwebs is everywhere.  Social media has taken public shaming to a global level.

In a perfect world, a man would never send threatening messages to a woman. Nevertheless, we live in this world in which these activities happen all of the time.  As we move forward, we may need to think about the effects of public shame. If our goal is to reform these men and change their behavior, I am not sure the Facebook pillory is the best answer.

Digital Privacy

I subscribe to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and a host of other websites that ask me to sacrifice my privacy for their use. They ask me to tag my photos, mark my location, and indicate when they were taken.  My browser tracks my searches and pushes marketing materials to me.  Yes, I looked on Amazon to see if HEPA filters were cheaper there. Now the edges of Facebook alight with advertisements for HEPA filters.

How do I feel about this?  Pretty creeped out. If a human being trackedGoogle my behavior this closely, I would report him to the police.  I’m being stalked.  And yet, I keep using these resources.  Why?  In part, because everyone else is.  It’s how I keep in touch with my friends around the country.  In fact more and more, it’s how all of us keep in touch.  Some articles suggest that sites like Facebook are killing events like the high school reunion. Who needs to go back to a smelly school when a web page can tell you what your high school nemesis is doing?

And with all that, maybe I don’t want everyone to know what I’m doing?  Maybe I want to hang onto an outmoded Aristotelian public/private divide that is no longer feasible in this hyper-connected society we live in. Marshal McLuhan described our increasing interconnectedness as a global village. In Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) he writes, “And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence” (32).  Like a village, everyone knows your business and you depend on them for your existence.

Is this the world we want to live in? Will we all write in Newspeak someday?

Check out Carnegie Mellon University’s privacy grade website to find out how your apps measure up.

Long-Distance Collaborative Writing

I’m currently working three different writing projects with people across the country. I’m collaborative-writingcurrently sitting in a coffeeshop using Facebook instant messenger to discuss an abstract with a collaborator.  In twenty minutes, I’m using Google Hangouts to video conference with two other collaborators about a paper we’re giving in May. And, I’m direct messaging on Twitter with another collaborator about a panel for a conference next year.

Yes, that’s three different methods of social media interaction.

As I navigate this complex web of relationships and work habits, I am reminded that writing is not a solitary activity. This notion is indebted to Lise Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s (1990) Singular Texts/plural Authors. In other words, I always write collaboratively. I always have friends read my drafts and talk through ideas with me. Reciprocally, I do the same for many of my friends, and by doing so, I become a better writer. Moreover, I always imagine an ideal audience and try to anticipate their objections.

So, what changes when I deliberately write with other people?  Well, the digital spaces to share files like Dropbox or Google.docs become essential. Software that allow us to talk in real time become essential because sometimes a thirty minute conversation replaces hours of back and forth emails. Quick check-ins via instant messenger help clear up minor differences of opinion. Social media are essential to contemporary scholarship.

Online Violence against Women

It’s crazy coming back from a Conference on College Composition and Communication and trying to readjust to the real world.  While at C’s, I had the privilege of working at the Feminist Workshop and meeting with women at the Women and Working Conditions Special Interest Group. Women from all over the country in a variety of academic positions shared their experiences.

With all of this positivity, I was shocked when I read the news about Ashley Judd’s experience on Twitter. The story begins when, like any other American caught up in March Madness, she tweeted a comment about the success of University of Kentucky’s basketball team. Her tweet was immediately met with a vile and violent response.  She was threatened with rape, called every nasty name in the book, and reduced to a sexual object. Like women calling out other games for sexism in gamergate, Judd became the target of sexual threats.

Judd published a response to the hate in this article entitled, “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass.” Judd does a great job of cutting through the crap and getting to the heart of the issue – misogyny. She was targeted with sexual threats because she’s a woman.

Some of her detractors claim this is an issue of free speech and that she part of the idea police. However, I wonder if this is a free speech issue. If someone said, “I’m going to rape you” in the real world, the police could take the threat seriously. I think she’s right to question whether a digital space permits any language.  At the same time, I am loathe to infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. Surely there’s a balance?

Bullying Has No Boundaries

The news is full of stories about young people being bullied to the point of self-harm and suicide. Unfortunately, bullying isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, John Hughes‘s movies (Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club) rely on the tension of the bullied vs. the popular.

The big difference today is the constant presences of the interwebs. While Molly Ringwald can curl up in her bedroom and decide not to answer the phone, many students today cannot escape the hate. As their peers post hateful comments on Facebook and Twitter, their phones buzz every time. The tiny chime indicating that you have a new message may begin to feel like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.”

The Canadian Safe School Network recently produced a video of young people reading mean tweets. 

They are playing with Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets segment. When famous actors and athletes read petty comments, we laugh because their success demonstrates how ridiculous the comments are.  However, the humor found in Kimmel’s show falls apart when vulnerable teenagers read tweets about themselves.

Dealing with mean tweets is more difficult for teens. Teenagers do not have the resilience developed through decades of life. Worse than that, Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have to face her haters every day in class. She does not have to experience teachers turning a blind eye, or worse participating in bullying. Teens are vulnerable and still shaping their identities. In the digital age, part of that identity is online. Unfortunately, bullying has expanded to make no space safe.