The Tumblr of Laura Hudson.
I like comics, video games, progressive politics, karaoke, and cats.
Also available on Twitter.
Yesterday I posted an op-ed at Wired called “Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Someone on Social Media,” about considering the power of your online voice before you shame or call someone out online. One of the examples I used was Adria Richards, a prominent tech developer who photo-shamed two men at a tech conference, an incident that lead to the debacle sometimes called “Donglegate.” Some of the reactions to my article piece have suggested that it was intended to attack Richards, or silence people from calling out sexism, racism, and other bad behavior on the internet. Since that piece was originally a print article, where I only had 1,000 words to communicate my ideas, I’d like to take advantage of the web’s infinite scroll to clarify my position.
Before I wrote the piece, I actually had a rather different perception of the internet’s power to call people out for their bad behavior. I thought (and in some ways still think) that it can be a powerful tool for giving a voice to the disenfranchised, and power to the powerless. But the more I researched it and thought about it deeply, the more I started to believe that online power was a form of power that had to be considered as well in the calculus of the decision to shame. And further, that failing to consider the scalability of the things you say in the context of that power can lead to unintended, negative and counterproductive effects.
It is perhaps also worth noting, for those who don’t follow my work, that I’m a feminist, and the defining principle behind my feminism is intersectionality. This is the idea that there are numerous different systems of advantage and disadvantage in culture—based on gender, race, class, sexuality, age, physical ability, etc.—and that these dynamics coexist and interact in complex ways. If you’re a wealthy black gay man, for example, you may experience the advantages of wealth, but you still experience other societal disadvantages based on race and sexual orientation. None of them negate each other, and all exist simultaneously. Everyone experiences their own combination of advantages and disadvantages based on different inequalities, and they need to be considered both individually and in unison.
Having online power doesn’t negate the fact that someone experiences other types of oppression, like racism or sexism. It doesn’t change that reality or the very real disadvantages of power they create, even one iota. And it’s not more important. But while it’s incredibly critical to consider how race and gender impact our interactions and our experiences, I don’t think that online power—particularly the power to shame someone to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people—can or should be completely erased by those other elements. Indeed, I think that’s the very heart of intersectionality: being willing to consider them all in an interlocking and nuanced way.
My perspective on the importance of considering online power dynamics while speaking about harassment is also informed by my personal experiences as a woman who has spent much of her public career discussing gender issues in male-dominated fields. I’ve experienced both online and real-life harassment on many occasions, much of it at industry events. I receive semi-regular hate mail from people who do not like the things I have written. Some of them have threatened to rape and kill me. I’ve talked about many of these incidents publicly, on Twitter, in published articles, and on public radio. I’ve also discussed them privately, one-on-one to friends. Not surprisingly, the conversations I have with large media platforms and the conversations I have with small groups of friends are different. The identifying information that I give about the perpetrators is different. The emotional details are different.
That’s because my expectations about what is going to happen with that information are different too, based on who I think I’m talking to, and the sphere of exposure I believe that information will have. If you aren’t being conscious of how loud social media can become at the drop of a hat, you’re not accurately perceiving the sphere where you are speaking. This is a problem not only because it can potentially hurt others, but because it can hurt you: It can make it easy to talk in a way where your words can be taken out of context or reframed in ways that distort your intent, causing all kinds of harm that you never intended.
As a blogger and a journalist, I’ve also been fortunate to have numerous experiences that helped me understand the realities and dangers of social media, particularly what can happen when an ill-considered comment goes viral. (I also consider myself lucky that none of these lessons happened to be ones that occurred on the national stage. There but for the grace of God go I.) Over and over again, the power of my words—and the consequences of being indeliberate with them—has been impressed on me, and adjusting my expectations and responsibilities to my relative level of power on different media platforms and different social media platforms has been a critical and occasionally awkward part of my growth.
My relationship to hateful remarks in my Twitter replies, for example, has changed profoundly with the upwards growth of my follower count. Something shifted for me when I hit a certain threshold of visibility, and it felt different. That was because it was different, because my voice was so much more powerful. Using it against random jerks—even jerks who said cruel or sexist things to me—started to feel disproportionate on most occasions, particularly when my follower count hit five figures. It felt more and more like a nuclear option, or at least a very dangerous arsenal.
That doesn’t mean I never do it. There are indeed times I think it has value, the way Twitter feeds like @EverydaySexism have value, in terms of making invisible experiences visible to people who would never otherwise experience them. And there have been times when I’ve retweeted call-outs because I felt like they had value, including times when they alerted people to real-time dangers at large public events. But for the most part, I try to aim my arsenal at targets who are at least as big as I am, or relevant figures in public spheres, at least when it comes to naming names. But if I do name names, I try to be prepared for—and responsible about—the potential for that decision to amplify beyond the smaller scale of my followers to a much larger one.
Saying this doesn’t mean I’ve never dealt with these dynamics badly before, or that I’m never going to deal with them badly again. But at the very least, I’m going to try and be as thoughtful and aware of them in the future. And I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to write the article, precisely because that process has made me realize that online power—both personal and the kind inherent to social media—needs to be part of my decision-making about shaming.
People are always going to disagree about what warrants shaming, and I think those are good discussions, good disagreements to have. But I believe we can have better dialogue by considering online power dynamics. We can have more productive dialogue. And more importantly, we can have deliberate dialogue. We can communicate the things we mean to say, in the way we mean to say them, for the audiences we intend to receive them.
It doesn’t mean you don’t speak up. It doesn’t mean you don’t call people out. All it means, when you’re using social media, is that you should consider the power of the tool—or the potential weapon—you’re using before you pull the trigger.