ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Online

PageBoyPolitics – Online Abuse Is The Refuge Of A Coward

I wrote this originally for the great web site http://www.scotspolitics.com 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.

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Art Online and How We All Need to Talk About It More

Let me begin with a question:

How great is the internet?

Seriously, just think about it for a moment, go right ahead and bask in the sheer awesome concept that right now, you can be more connected and informed than anyone else in the entire span of human history. The feat of technology that delivers entertainment, culture, news and community at the push of a few buttons is one of the few genuine human achievements that have completely reshaped the world from what is was only a generation ago. Life without it is almost impossible to conceive of, and the very way that you know the internet has changed the life of billions? You don’t even think about it – the internet just happens.

One of the side effects of this normalisation of global connectivity is that art and more specifically our experience of art has become indelible democratised. For the first time in our cultural history artists and creators now share an incredibly intimate digital space. We comment on their blogs, fund their kickstarter ideas, re-tweet them and share their work on our facebook walls all because they have made their work, whether it be ideas, art, literature or music available to us, immediately and wherever we are. What’s curious about this, and maybe something we haven’t talked about enough, is how this affects criticism.

You see? I imagine a few of you made your assumptions about the word just from reading it. Criticism in the age of the internet has become something vicious and personal. Trolls have replaced commentators and ‘the critic’ has drifted away as more and more culture has drifted online. Several things are happening here – our understanding of the role of the critic has changed and more crucially, how criticism is practised has changed too. So let’s start there:

Firstly, critics. For all of the negative connotations the word carries, the truth is, on one level, really quite simple. The act of criticism is what happens when an individual comes into contact with something that provokes a reaction, usually in an encounter with culture but not exclusively.

That meal you really enjoyed? Food criticism.

The movie you posted about? Film criticism.

Your favourite book?

You see what I’m saying I hope – criticism is not quite the same thing as criticising. We exist in an age when culture is all around us and almost completely all-pervading and so we need to engage with it. This act of engagement, whether we admit it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, is a kind of criticism.

What’s crucial to say though is that whilst we all engage with culture in some form there is a difference between the cultural criticism that is done on a daily basis and the kind of thing done by those who identify as critics. I mean, not all of us have a column in a paper, not all of us get invites to premieres or critic’s screenings and not all of us have the same platform that CRITICS do, despite all of us taking part in the act of cultural criticism on a daily basis. So, what is it then that critics actually do?

Well, here’s where things get more complex in the age of the internet because that new found shared space of creators and consumers share has complicated the process of criticism a great deal. A lot of people tend to treat criticism from the people they read or like as gospel – either forming opinions from what the critic says or using the critic’s opinion to validate their own. For proof of this you only need look at the myriad of reviewers out there – on YouTube, across the blogosphere and even in more established digital media who have the temerity to dislike something popular. Sit and watch the comments roll in from people shocked that someone would have the gall to disagree with WHAT THEY THINK!

‘Well, you just don’t understand this…’

‘It’s clear you hate anything produced by….’

‘I don’t think you’ve reviewed this at all…’

‘All you’ve done is pick holes and emphasises the bits you didn’t like…’

And so on and so on and so on…

Two things are happening here – firstly, critics aren’t here to validate your opinions, or anyone else’s for that matter. The job of a good reviewer or critic is to accurately explain what their own experience of something was. Not to explain why you are right to think the way you do, but to explain why THEY think the way THEY do. This is my problem with scores actually – whilst I accept that scoring is useful, the problem is that scoring something with an arbitrary number perpetuates this idea that a critic can sum up a piece of work and how it made them feel in one easy to digest, black and white, right or wrong sound bite. This immediacy of the internet makes people want the easy answer but if anything can be summed up as good or bad then I wonder how good that thing really is…

I understand the reactions like the ones I gave before – this closeness that the internet engenders makes people really protective about the things they love, and that protectiveness means that criticism often meets with hostility. If you want proof, you only need to see the outrage when Anita Sarkeesian suggested that maybe women haven’t been represented that well in pop culture and we, collectively, could talk about it. If you want more proof, see the rage and the anger when the misogyny of fighting games was exposed, when Hitman Absolution happened and people called it out for the sexism and violence against women it perpetuated. People reacted so angrily and without being overly general, it tends to happen more online because this is where geek culture found its home. I get it, I do – a culture that is so young, and has been marginalised for so long, doesn’t take negative attention well. But there is a difference between being attacked and entering the conversation. You see, nobody will take the things you like away from you, nobody will suddenly declare that the one thing you really love is suddenly unacceptable. It isn’t going to happen, but part of being in the culture we live in, is talking about it – all the good, all the bad and what comes next. If there’s one thing that needs to happen more online, in forums, threads and feeds it’s that. Criticism and culture are for all, and here online there is the best chance EVER to bring them, and all the people who love them both, together.

Now, that’s great –right?

To Be Continued.