Online anonymity is a weird fish. Users often must fight for it and against it. Without any, we’re constantly surveilled; with too much, we become inhuman and unaccountable.
That’s why two stories this week grabbed my attention. Both involved subjects watching their watchers and how such counter-surveillance reintroduced a glimmer of humanity.
On Monday, well-known writer and feminist Lindy West shared a surprisingly touching story about confronting her cruelest troll. For those unfamiliar, trolling is an online phenomenon whereby anonymous users actively harass a subject often to the point of silence.
West explains why she attracts so many trolls: “I write about big, fat, bitchy things that make people uncomfortable.” As a result, she is often threatened with violence, rape, murder and other inhumane cruelty. “People who don’t spend much time on the Internet are invariably shocked to discover the barbarism—the eager abandonment of the social contract—that so many of us face simply for doing our jobs,” she explains.
But her cruelest troll was something altogether different.
One day she was surprised to see her “dad’s dear face twinkling” back in her Twitter feed. You see, her dad had died 18 months earlier after a tough battle against cancer, and someone had stolen a “beloved” photo of him, and created a bio: “Embarrassed father of an idiot … Other two kids are fine, though.”
For subjects of cyberharassment, whether to respond or not to trolls can be a difficult decision—sometimes a response can embolden them, create a bigger maelstrom and work. This time, however, West “went off script and wrote about it publicly online. “I made myself vulnerable. I didn’t hide the fact that it hurt.”
The next day she woke up to this email:
When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever. I’m done being a troll. Again I apologize. I made donation in memory to your dad. I wish you the best.
A surprising moment of humanity from this apparently reformed troll. Eventually, West and said troll discussed the issue for two-and-a-half hours on the radio program This American Life. “He told me that he didn’t hate me because of rape jokes – the timing was just a coincidence – he hated me because, to put it simply, I don’t hate myself,” she said.
He also explained how he changed his life, got healthy and went back to school.
Great story, right? So great, in fact, that an employee of Twitter noticed it and posted it on the company's internal forums, prompting CEO Dick Costolo to respond:
“It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”
Wow. Amidst all of our digital trappings, it’s easy for us to be separated from our humanity. The Internet (and the burgeoning Internet of Things) while connecting us, also separates us. Trolls are an obvious outcropping. But maybe we don't have to just sit idly by and accept it.
But it’s not just about confronting trolls. Take, for example, the art exhibit Dear Erin Hart by photographer Jessamyn Lovell. Five years back, Lovell’s wallet, and subsequently, identity were stolen. It turns out the thief, Erin Hart, had been arrested, and Lovell was able to track her down with the help of a private investigator. She then spent the day following and taking photos of Hart “as she wandered about the city—buying cigarettes, riding the bus and shopping at Goodwill.”
Lovell then showcased the photo exhibit at the very place in which her wallet was stolen. She even reached out to Hart, but never received a response. Lovell explained, “I just wanted her to know that she impacted a real person.” Plus, in her surveillance of Hart, Lovell began to realize how poor Hart might be—bringing some empathy and closure to her victimization.
Again, Lovell is injecting a slice of humanity into a truly alienating experience. Staring back at those who watch us can be empowering and humanizing.
It’s reminiscent of a keynote speech David Brin gave at Summit last year about watching the watchers. Brin talked about “sousveillance,” “reciprocal accountability” or as the IAPP’s Angelique Carson characterized it, “the ability to look back at the ‘surveillers’ from below their proverbially glaring eyes.”
Angelique continued in her coverage of Brin’s speech: “Instead of telling the NSA to stop, which will never happen, we have to tell the Peeping Toms and voyeurs’ mothers what they’re doing, so to speak.”
Really, that’s what Lindy West and Jessamyn Lovell have done and in the process, they’ve brought that glimmer of humanity—that essential social contract—back to what often becomes a conniving, barbaric, anonymous digital space.
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