Friday, 6 March 2015

Trolls at my door: reflections on the occasion of the International Women’s Day 2015 (8 March)

When I started blogging one and a half year ago I was well aware that there were trolls in the digital woods. I knew very well that women who blog or otherwise take part in online public debate experience various kinds of unwanted attention. I also knew that a large part of this unwanted response is gendered in nature, in the sense that its content is responding to the fact that the blogger is a woman. However, since I was planning a research blog, with purely academic contents, I assumed that this would protect me from at least parts of the most aggressive trolling that we all know is taking place in online sharing culture.

Now, looking back, I guess that in part I was in fact right. I have never been threatened, nor have I received explicit hate mails. But still, as I was soon to discover, I was wrong as well. Less than 24 hours after publishing my first post a troll was at my door. Ever since, each and every time I have posted something I receive “responses” (let’s call them that) via Gmail, Google+, and Messenger/Facebook messenger service.

The responses fall into two categories:

1.Responses that in various ways call for my attention, but not as a scholar. Some respondents ask, quite discretely, if they can be in touch with me privately or have my phone number. Others share pictures of themselves dressed in army uniforms. Curiously, I receive these army uniform messages again and again, each time from a different respondent.

2.At times I receive messages of a far more aggressive kind. These are the messages I would categorize as trolling, defined elsewhere as “recreational abuse”. Out of concern for the fainthearted I will not summarize them here, but simply share one short quote to illustrate their general contents and style. That first troll knocking at my door back in 2013 claimed, among other things, that I “obviously needed to be ****** by a real man.” No need to go into detail – you get the picture.

These two categories of responses are in many ways two different types of responses. The first category may be described as ill-informed and uninvited, but probably rather innocent per se, while the second is obviously offensive. Upon receiving them, I have tended to react differently to them. The first type has left me somewhat puzzled, but otherwise has not affected me much. The second type is disturbing and my initial reaction has been accordingly.

However, the two categories also have something important in common: they are both completely off the point in the sense that they are not responding to the contents of my posts. They are responses, but they are utterly irrelevant to the contents of my blog - they respond to my online representation, my digital avatar, and that avatar is female. My name and the picture on the blog give away that I am a woman and that is what these messages are all responding to.

And upon further reflection, I have come to think a bit differently about the respective graveness of the two types of responses. Although the messages I categorize as trolling are clearly the most disturbing, the other category displays a tendency that might be seen as equally grave, just in a different way. The fact that so many individual respondents approach me in ways that are completely irrelevant to what I have posted suggests that it is considered alright and comme-il-faut to approach women online in this way: responding to the fact that she is a woman, not her utterances. 

Sure, you might say that I asked for it. I knew about the trolls, but I still decided to put my blond head out there. You might say that there is nothing special about my experiences. Rather, this is common, and many women have worse stories to tell. You might say that I knew what I was entering into. What I have experienced is simply an integral part of contemporary cultural practices online. No reason for whining!

But I am not whining. I am analyzing.

And here is the analytical point of this post: The very fact that trolling and other off-the-point responses are highly common practices in digital communication culture is exactly why this issue should be addressed in an academic blog on the occasion of the International Women’s Day. During the last decades, and particularly during the last couple of years, online platforms and fora of various sorts have become an increasingly important arena for academic discussion, communication, and knowledge sharing. These digital sites are in this sense academic arenas. They may well appear as new and different than traditional academic arenas, and they are clearly hybrid in nature. They are sites where academic discussion takes place and simultaneously they are a part of the overwhelming interrelatedness of the web, open for anyone who wants to pay them a visit. And yet, they are still arenas where academic practices unfold and where scholars – men and women – do their job. They should be taken seriously as such.

The implication is that trolling cannot be seen as foreign to this academic arena. My trolls have found me due to the interrelatedness of the web. I certainly do not believe that any of these trolls are colleagues in the academy, and still that fact does not make the trolls less real when I do my job. From this point of view, then, fighting trolls is one of the things I, as a woman, will have to do if I want to be present at this academic arena. If I want to share my research digitally and do my job as a scholar in a world where online presence is increasingly part of the game, this is what I am facing out there. If these kinds of responses should keep me and other women from posting or otherwise taking part in online discussion, and if they make women practice self-censorship that is bad news for gender equality in the academy.

I know that this post means trouble. I am bolting my door.

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