Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Loudness vs. Niceness

So there is this thread on BoingBoing just now, about sexism flame-wars and the woman's experience on the net.

It's here. Be sure to look at the whole comic, not just the BoingBoing excerpt.

The BoingBoing comment thread is closed, which may well be all for the best. It degenerated rapidly into name-calling, but I find I have stuff I want to get off my chest about it, and what better place than my practically-dormant blog?

The thing is, my initial reaction was one that is well-represented in the comment threads, namely, the defensive crouch -- "hey, you know, not all men on the net are neanderthals, most of us are decent and thoughtful." That's true, as far as it goes, but it's almost utterly irrelevant to the issue in the comic. The BoingBoing comment thread does this thing where some guys get defensive, and some others call them out on being blind to their privilege, and some others point out that the discussion is not about the nice guys, and some others point out that, if you're defensive, maybe you actually are part of the problem, and so forth. There's a dusting of Nice Guys(tm) who've been burned trying to defend women on the web, because it means they think the women can't defend themselves, and because they think the White Knight gambit is actually just another way into women's pants.

The thing I want to work through is twofold, firstly that almost the whole comment thread misses the point, and secondly that the mechanism at work in the comic is far from unique to the situation of women putting up with sexist crap just for being seen on the web.

Incidentally, it did not escape my notice that the title of the full comic, "In which we betray our gender", is a rather nice pun, offering "betray" in the sense of declining to fight the good fight, as well as in the sense of revealing or making known.

Many years ago, I tried my hand at net-copping on UseNet. (You young 'uns can go look that stuff up now, I'll wait...)

My particular pet peeve was binary messages on text newsgroups relating to the flight simulation hobby in which I was active at the time. UseNet servers had different retention times for text vs. binary newsgroups, binary posts tended to be large, and so it was considered at least courteous to restrict large binary posts (images, zipped archives of add-ons for software, etc.) to a few binary-specific groups. In particular, some sites took this split very seriously, and would actually block large binary posts in text newsgroups. Because of the automatic hierarchical peer-to-peer nature of the NNTP distribution scheme, if a post got blocked, it would fail to propagate to any of that sites "downstream" peers, "downstream" in this case being relative to the originating site, which defined the "upstream" direction.

So, it was simply obvious to me that people who posted binaries in text newsgroups were at best a bit thoughtless, possibly through simple ignorance of the rather arcane details of the underlying system. They were both mis-using storage space on peering servers, and (unintentionally, one assumes) limiting their audience, because of propagation issues associated with blocking sites.

What I actually did was, when I saw a binary post in a newsgroup I read, I sent a quick e-mail to the originating poster, advising them of the issues, and requesting that, in future, they refrain from this activity. I did not cancel the post, and I didn't respond on the group, only in a single private e-mail.

It is an understatement to say that I was amazed by the response. I didn't exactly expect people to like me -- nobody likes being told they're doing something wrong, after all -- but I suppose I actually did expect some kind of respect for the established and emerging community standards, and a desire to use the available resources effectively.

Maybe people thought that, too. I don't know, I never heard from them, which is of course precisely the point here.

The people I did hear from were very unhappy. The general theme was that brave American soldiers had killed and died for freedom of speech, and that it was treason for me to censor posts, that UseNet was every kind of free, and that tight-asses like me imposing stupid rules would ultimately kill it. The tone was always hostile, and frequently vividly obscene. One in particular expressed a continuing willingness to kill in defense of freedom of speech.

I was, as it happened, too thin-skinned to keep this up for long. I soon stopped, and gradually moved away from most UseNet groups, for different but related reasons. In the end, neither netcops nor discourteous posters mattered, the whole business was overrun with spammers and trolls.

The dynamic has to be similar for women content-creators with a mostly-male audience. The jerks and morons who can't see past your gender may well be a tiny minority of the audience, but they're a substantial fraction of your inbox, they're the ones whose obscenity-laden comments you're constantly modding out of your blog, and if there's threatening language in there, how the hell are you supposed to know if it's actually dangerous?

An appreciation of this dynamic is mostly missing from that BoingBoing comment thread. I take the comic as saying, "gosh, this dynamic is somewhere between discouraging and maddening". The fact that there are many nice sensitive guys who are not part of that dynamic does nothing to ameliorate it.