Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Category: PageBoyPolitics

PageBoyPolitics – Online Abuse Is The Refuge Of A Coward

I wrote this originally for the great web site but the range of applications this has never fails to blow my mind. I wrote something similar for funk’s house of geekery too and I’m going to keep talking about this from now on. Some things are just wrong.

One of the down sides of being a vociferous fan of free speech is that you often end up defending things that are not really very good – overly-violent horror movies, poorly written music, badly done art – but all of that is more than worth the good stuff that freedom of expression grants. I’d go as far as to say that the internet has made things infinitely better and more complicated all at the same time.

Firstly, the good. The internet has been the greatest democratising force possible in terms of engaging people. An artist? A musician? Or even if you’re just someone who wants to comment on things, the internet has given everyone a voice, and for those of us lucky enough to experience it in all of its freedom, free speech has never been freer.

Sadly though, free speech online has a dark side, just as it does in traditional, non-internet culture. As the internet becomes more and more the miasma that hangs over everything written, read and thought, the dark side of free speech has become a weird, twisted funhouse mirror of what we all may have been familiar with. For example, the situation with Mary Beard illustrates the vicious poison that can be spewed all over the internet when internet anonymity meets general misogyny.

For those who don’t know, Mary Beard is one of the foremost classicists in the country – a lecturer at Cambridge and blogger for the Times Literary Supplement. Her books and TV appearances make her probably one of the best known academics in the country. She was invited recently to appear on Question Time; asked about the impact of immigration she, (as per usual for an academic) cited a report that showed the benefits of immigration outweighed the potential problems. Innocuous enough, you might think and so it may have been in a previous generation.

However, the now defunct web site Don’t Start Me Off decided that she would be their latest target. Rather than take issue with her ideas and point of view, the sites members directed a torrent of vitriol at her and her appearance. The abuse was foul, crude and sexual and completely unrepeatable here. Beard refused to let it fly and instead wrote about it on her own hugely popular blog and as a result of the attention it received the website was shut down.

Sadly, this is just the latest episode in a long list of women who have been subject to horrendous abuse and vile threats for the heinous crime of being a woman. Being female and having an opinion was enough to generate thousands of words of abuse. As Beard accurately and succinctly noted, the issue was that “a woman, 58 and looking it, saying what she thinks, against the grain, is explosive’ to some people, and through the freedom of the internet this punitive rage found its horrible outlet.

I said that what happened to Mary Beard was just the latest in a long list of depressingly repetitive episodes of women with an opinion being told to sit down and shut up. Not for saying anything wrong, but just because they were women. They can be subject to rape ‘jokes,’ online harassment, belittlement – and myriad other small and mean tricks to try to bring them down and shut them up. For those subject to it, it must be like death by a thousand cuts for your self-esteem.

Enough is enough.

I can’t begin to express my admiration for women who have used their public platform to call out these cowards who hide on message boards and fake names, but it shouldn’t just be down to them.

As a man and a feminist there is something so profoundly depressing to see these men (and it is predominately men) vent their anger and feelings of inadequacy on women in the public sphere. The sheer engrained misogyny has to be called out by the vast majority of men who are NOT terrified and infuriated every time a woman articulates an opinion about anything.

There will be some, no doubt, who think of it as their right to free speech to threaten murder and fantasise about raping whatever hate figure du jour they have fixated upon this week. Some have even claimed that the ‘block’ button on Twitter infringes their right to be heard, as if someone ignoring them is somehow equivalent to censorship. These cowards shouldn’t be censored; they should just be drowned out by other voices. Drowned out, not just by women who refuse to be cowed but by men too. Men who have realised what these trolls and rage filled people haven’t – that women are not men’s property, but equal, deserving of the same respect given to them and not belittled simply because they’re walking around with ladyparts.

I talked a few weeks ago about the internet as a new cultural frontier – a place where the rules of how and where and when we interact with one another haven’t quite been settled yet. It’s this fact that makes the internet such an exciting place to be, but it is also what has given rise to cowards and misogynists hiding behind avatars rather than learn how to deal with someone of a different gender. There will be a time when this kind of abuse, this hatred just won’t be acceptable anymore and the people who still do it will be thought of as we think of fanatics with megaphones in public spaces. However, if the latest incident has proven anything it is that collectively we need to move towards that day even sooner.

ThePageBoy Reviews – ‘Discordia’ by Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple

Laurie penny and Molly crabapple

Laurie penny and Molly crabapple

Words by Laurie Penny

Art by Molly Crabapple

Publishers: Random House

‘Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official.’ –  George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature

It’s easy to see why some people get irritated by Laurie Penny. The shock of red hair, the abashedly strident feminism, the radical politics, the tea, the cigarettes and the sheer bloody minded refusal to act and talk like middle class white women are supposed to. She’s an anomaly in modern British political commentary – someone who has built her name as a journalist by working hard, writing well and putting her principals above her copy. The response from traditional journalists has been disdain; lucky white men sniffily call her a privileged girl, she can be self-righteous and didactic. These sneers and put downs clash incongruously with her editing The New Review, The New Statesman and regularly contributing to the Independent (amongst others) and reveal that all the vacuous epithets they fling disguise an impotent rage at a reporter who is truly distinctive. If the traditional media critics veil their disapproval behind patronising language Laurie Penny has provoked naked hatred from some of the darker recesses of the political web. Streams of vile abuse, comment threads of death threats and even stalkers have given this gifted writer plenty of reasons to give it all up.

Instead she’s produced this – not a book so much but somewhere between an extended essay on everything from geo-politics, liberalism, austerity and the power of art and a series of snap-shots of a specific historical moment. I first came across her name on Twitter a couple of years ago as she tweet- reported from the front lines of the student protests. To be blunt she was a shock to the system. I didn’t know writers could do this. I didn’t know then, that this was what journalism could become; I didn’t know that journalism and activism weren’t mutually exclusive and that to report and change the world around you all you needed was the desire to say something and the courage to do something.

After the protests and simmering violence of London she went out of the country and landed in New York during the summer of Occupy Wall Street. There she filed her copy from the frontline of what people believed could be this generations revolution. New York must have been a surreal place to be that summer, full of writers and activists, rebels and dreamers and artists. It was there that Laurie Penny met Molly Crabapple, (yes, really) and once the summer of idealism faded the two of them jumped on a plane and came to Greece. The two of them are a radical odd couple, one very English, the other with New York engrained in her DNA. Penny is the wordsmith and Crabapple the illustrator. Both unashamedly radical in their own ways, talented and deeply political; charmingly the two have a deep affection for one another that at times border on the fangirlish (Laurie at one point sweetly claiming she wanted to follow her friend and make her coffee)

It’s here that this book? Essay? Memoir? kicks off, as these two unlikely friends pitch up in Athens to find out what makes the dogs of Athens howl in the night as it is slightly pretentiously phrased. What follows is a beguiling cast of characters, ordinary people – often doing quite extraordinary things in a nation that seems to have forgotten what normal really is. Journalism is, as much of society and culture is, an exercise in power and how it works. These interviews are with the powerless, the disenfranchised, normal people suffering an economic death by a thousand cuts. Instead of painting them in the usual narrative of journalistic interviews, (you know, that ‘these people are suffering’ brand of miserablia) here, the people get drunk, and angry, talk about their life and dance to blow off some steam. Rather than follow the rote of how these things should go, the people met seem human and more real than any ‘normal’ journalistic interview.

The book manages to strike a good balance between these human moments and the liberal politics of the two authors. Occasionally the tone does stray into the kind of thing heard around liberal students drinking late at night but what sticks out from the prose are the snapshots of singular moments. The stray dogs running from riot police. The explosion of tear gas. The scrawl of graffiti. It’s things like this that grounds the book in a tangible reality which when coupled with the beautifully emotive art and sketches from Molly make this a fascinating and compelling read. The art is perhaps what makes this book so distinctive – the prose alone would be too bleak to hold together or hold the interest, but the sketches and drawings serve as a natural binding and holding together of this series of snapshots. She might be new to many but Molly’s art is just beautiful to look at, capturing the desolation, the emotion and the damage done to the people written about.

For those seeking a comprehensive history of Greece’s financial woes look elsewhere, this isn’t emotionally uninvolved writing pretending to impartiality either. The historical debris hasn’t settled yet for this to be that. What it is, is something very different and thrilling – the images and prose are the scrawled attempts of two artists to capture history happening around them. So, to sum up – a book for anyone who wanted to know what it’s like to be there whilst the young attempt to make a new and better world. It’s infuriating to read what these people have been through and inspiring to see them survive. It’s people like Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple who help show the humanity of a kind of politics that all too often can degenerate into schism over semantics and ideology. The young, the angry and the desperate of Greece deserved a chance to have someone listen to their struggle, and Discordia documents it in all of its imperfection and anger. It’s strange to think that we were in the same country at roughly the same time and I’m just glad to get to join in with what they saw. Great stuff.

Download it here:

Or here:

PageBoyPolitics – The New Frontier



Since starting this blog I have tried to keep the focus fairly specific – to help me become a better writer and to make sure that people who are interested in one thing don’t have to wade through a vast morass of things not really relevant to their interests. As time has worn on though, I have let a few extra things come into this space. One of the things that has come up, but I haven’t really spoken about is the fact that I do quite a bit of writing in other little digital spots that I tend not to mention here and after giving it some thought I’ve decided I want to bring things into closer integration.  To that  end, I’m going to be adding a few posts, as and when they get written, on topics that I think are interesting. Obviously, a lot of what I write for other sites has a specific audience so I won’t be posting that here but ever so often there is an issue that has a wider audience so when it’s appropriate I’ll share it here.

This is something I originally wrote for the amazing website at, about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz and the free flow of information across the web. I hope you like it!

The New Frontier

This article comes with a Trigger Warning for discussion of suicide, rape and sexual assault.

Aaron Swartz was by all accounts a spectacularly gifted young man. He came to public knowledge as one of a small group of internet activists and developers who were part of the first generation to romp around in the digital playground of the early internet. Like many who find their fame online he was preternaturally talented at a young age, discovering new ways of keeping internet users connected to content. One of his most famous pieces of work was the incredibly widely used RSS 1.0 protocol which he authored when he was just 14 years old.  After revolutionising one part of the web, he went on to be one of the co-founders of reddit, which became one of the most successful websites of all time. When reddit was bought out Aaron sold his share making him incredibly wealthy at a very, very young age. He started dedicating his time to the free flow of information, building links with famous free culture figures such as Lawrence Lessig – and when the US government threatened to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act it was Aaron who was one of the architects of the movement that stopped the bill being enacted. Despite the successes, the corporations he founded, the causes he championed, on the 11th of January Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in New York City, after publically documenting his long struggle with serious depression. He had hanged himself; his body was found by his girlfriend. He was only twenty-six years old.

There are many details of Aaron’s life worthy of discussion, and for those seeking a more personal reflection both Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow have written beautiful obituaries to someone they admired and worked closely with. Even Tim Berners-Lee was moved to write a beautiful piece in which he noted “I’ve not known anybody else who is so ethical: who has thought, all the time, about what is right and what is wrong and what should be done and what should not be done.” There have been some who have tried to place a link between Aaron’s mental health and his personal circumstances, and whilst there should be no attempt at simplifying the complexities of anyone’s mental health when the details of what this man was facing come to light it certainly cannot have helped. As I’ve initially mentioned Swartz had dedicated a huge portion of his time and wealth to making information available for anyone who wanted it for free. As noble as this aim may sound, it was an aim that brought him into conflict with powerful authorities across the planet. His first legal fight came when this whiz-kid computer prodigy wrote a program that downloaded and released approximately 20% of the mammoth Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database. He’d done it because, even though the PACER documents are not covered by copyright, people wanting to access one of their documents had to pay 8 cents a time. The whole system was essentially a huge money making online scheme – with a profit of $150 million.

His activities got him investigated by the FBI before the case was dropped. The next time he came to the attention of the authorities the case attracted even more attention. In 2012 and early 2011 Swartz downloaded about 4 million academic articles from the online academic publisher JSTOR. Once he had downloaded them he uploaded them to the internet for free. Once again he was prosecuted and once again the case looked shaky at best. As a faculty member of Harvard University Swartz was perfectly entitled to access the material – the only thing that he could be said to have done wrong was breaking the terms of JSTOR’s service for downloading too many articles. Why Swartz had decided to do this was for reasons as his PACER exercise. To access JSTOR either one has to pay roughly $30 per article or be lucky enough to be a member of the right academic institution. To someone like Swartz, passionately committed to the idea of free information for all JSTOR’s fees were just not tolerable. To the court prosecutor and JSTOR’s attorneys this was violation of copyright and intellectual property theft. The chance to see how the court ruled, and whether either side could mount a strong case can now never be taken because as the case  was within weeks of trial, Swartz was found dead. It is extremely tempting to join the dots here, and blame Swartz’s tragic death on the pressure that the legal system had placed him under. To do so would be overly simplistic, reducing the complexities of mental illness to an unfortunate side effect of fighting for one’s principles. Swartz deserves better than that – he also deserved the opportunity to defend the right to free information in court, and the court’s verdict would have had wider repercussions than just the sad case of Aaron Swartz. What was going to be on trial was not just one man and his attempts to widen access for all – rather, this was perhaps the most high profile occasion when the rules of the internet have come into direct conflict with the old rules and the dynastical guardians of culture and information.

Before the rise of the internet all of the bastions of culture be they publishers, art, books, music and knowledge itself were tightly controlled and monetized for economic gain. In return for our money we were given access to what they had, and we trusted them to be accountable and honest, because we thought we controlled the purse strings. The internet, and people like Aaron Swartz, liberated vast swathes of information art and other culture from under the traditional controls – for better or worse. Instead of operating under the old model of giving us what we pay for, artists and creators have found new ways and systems for making a living and making culture widely accessible like never before. In news and information the revolution has been just as drastic; where once we needed to trust our institutions, politicians and leaders the free flow of information can hold people to account like never before, allowing electorates across the world to be more informed and democratic. One only need to see the difference that organisations like Wikileaks have made to understand that the internet has forever changed the rules of how information works, moves and is exchanged. Whether that is a good thing or not, still remains to be seen.

The story of Aaron is not the only tragedy involving access to information. A darker story has been breaking in recent weeks from Stubenville Ohio. It recently came to light that members of the famous ‘Big Red’ football program had been at a party. A 17 year old girl was there, and after drinking too much she passed out. The rest of the night she was carried around by members of the program who treated her as their own personal rape toy. She was raped multiple times and the attack was filmed. When the story broke, it garnered precious little attention and it looked very much like the case was going to be dropped, and yet another group of perpetrators allowed to get away with they did. They were high school athletes, feted in the community and inured from the consequences of their actions. However the story was picked up by a local blog and found its way online. It came to the attention of KightsSec, a sub-division of the hacking collective known as Anonymous. They threatened the accused with dire repercussions if they did not apologise before the 1st of January and when the deadline passed the hackers started leaking information. Firstly they released a video of a baseball player recounting what he saw at the party in between giggles.  Then came the report which among other things accused the sheriff of being close to the high school athletics coach and complicit in a cover up as well as more horrifying details about the victim and what happened to her.

What the hackers did, was internet vigilantism, and sadly, given how easy victims of sexual assault have been to ignore and neglect, it was probably necessary. If it hadn’t been for the local blogger the story would have been forgotten. If the internet hadn’t been outraged by what happened, who would have noticed something that so many people wanted to go away?

Information has changed permanently with the advent of the internet. It’s a place not unlike the old frontiers of the Wild West. The old rules can now longer apply because so many people are out THERE, in the spaces of the online world all trying to build something. As a cultural object the internet is really only adolescent and conflicts like these are to be expected as the internet becomes more and more integral to how this world works.

If these two cases have anything deep or profound to teach people it isn’t anything nearly as basic as the evils of copyright infringement, or the necessity of free information. Rather, all these stories highlight is the humanity of those avatars you see online. Aaron Swartz wasn’t just a campaigner, a tech wizard and an online hero he was also a 26 year old with depression. Those hackers who leaked the names of teenagers who had done perhaps the worst thing they could do in their young lives were not just people acting as heroes to the weak. They broke the law too. In short, until the rest of our culture catches up to the new frontier of online life, we would all do well to remember the reality of someone else, on the other side of that monitor.

I hope no more 26 year old men with so much to live for don’t kill themselves to escape from the blackness of depression. I hope no more 17 year old girls are raped by boys at parties and I hope that intuitions are accountable without needing the threat of hackers and the leaking of information. Until then we have to keep hoping that the internet can be a where people can do good, whatever that turns out looking like.