Human Beings are Cruel Things–The Internet Didn’t Create That

There seems to be a new, public wave of hand-wringing over technology changing us, making us mean or cruel. People cry out that the only reason women receive rape and death threats online is because of anonymity; there’s belief that bullied kids would never kill themselves before the internet; there’s a panic over the shaming that many (especially white men) face for revealing their racism, privilege, bigotry. But as Tabatha Southey points out, we–we humans–are cruel. We have always been cruel. We almost certainly always will be cruel.

Lately, humanity has been flattering itself that it was better and kinder before the Internet – as though we never slipped anonymous notes through locker doors in high-school hallways that were echo chambers in themselves, as if we never wrote on actual walls.

I had a growth spurt at 10; by 11 I’d reached menarche and developed breasts–the first out of my school and friend group. By the time I was 12, I was referred to as “Bazoonga Breasts” by everyone in junior high school, because most other girls–and certainly not any other 6th graders–had not developed to the extent I had.

I didn’t hear anyone, except teachers and family, refer to me by my given name for almost two years.

To hear us now, you’d think no one ever ever crank-called late at night, dialled up even before dial-up to offer abuse, stared into other people’s windows through our own twitching curtains.

When I was 13, everyone I ate lunch with, spent time with on the weekends, socialized with, and thought was my friend decided they liked another guy better than they liked me. molg-butterfly-wings-stickerThat guy was mad at me, so convinced everyone to send me letters telling me how worthless I was, how much they hated me, how much everyone wished I would just kill myself.

I took a decent swing at it.

We were never bitches before BBS. We never took our children to public hangings. The way it’s told now, we never publicly shamed anyone, put them in the stocks, or hurled rotten vegetables at them in the street. We never quietly dropped anyone off the guest list at a time when, new social spheres being difficult to access, a true precipice might well lie below.

When I was 20, the people I thought were helping me leave an abusive, violent relationship–the people who had helped me orchestrate fleeing in the middle of the night, getting into a motel room, fending for myself for several days–stood me up. We were supposed to meet at someone’s house and then caravan to another state; they purposefully didn’t show up, leaving me to either return to my abuser or make a 700 mile drive I’d never made before on my own. When I called to ask where everyone was, they told me they’d left hours earlier.

They thought it was funny.

They had, in their words, punked me.

We didn’t start the flame war. Scandalous satirical pamphlets were once cranked out by writers and sold at train stations, like so many primordial blog posts. Political cartoons have a long and vicious history. Incivility is our legacy, not our invention. It is part, but only part, of who we are. And have always been.

No, the internet hasn’t made us cruel. The internet has simply made it impossible to deny the reality of our nature, amplifying what was once small and local into a chorus people can no longer ignore, and are forced to confront with eyes that want excuses for the baseness of our very being.

Childless: My Joy is Another’s Grief; Don’t Conflate the Two

This morning, CNNThanks, Tara, for bringing it to my attention. Or, “thanks.” ran a piece on misunderstandings and stereotypes of childless women called “Check your ‘cat-lady’ preconceptions about childless women.” Naturally, it’s full of preconceptions, misunderstandings, and stereotypes of childless women. In particular, the women are still discussed by their relationship to/with children, and the voluntarily child-free are conflated with the involuntarily childless and uncertain.

Let’s take a quick walk through the women interviewed for this story:

  • Grell Yursik, 35: she and her husband have not decided whether they want to have children;
  • Laurie White, 43: refers to herself as “accidentally childless”;
  • Melanie Notkin, 45: says she has circumstantial infertility because she’s single and discusses “the pain and grief over not having children,” promotes maternal instincts of childless women;
  • Kitty Bradshaw, 35: heeded advice to wait to have children (portrayed as bad advice in the story), still dreams of having them and has moved to LA to find a husband;
  • Sheila Hoffman, 64: conscious choice to be child-free.

Women, still defined by the activity of their uteruses. Still defending their ability to be maternal,“We are maternal … we get to exercise our maternal muscle on the children we love.” still looking for someone to create a child with,Note: not a family. You create your family when you marry, when you adopt, when you choose the people you want your children to call aunt and uncle. still using morally loaded language to justify their childless state as an accident of fate.

In fact, in an article ostensibly about the great life of childless women, four of the five women interviewed discuss wanting to have children and feeling that the circumstances of their lives simply don’t allow it. There are 33 paragraphs in the story, and three–the last three–talk to and about a woman, Sheila Hoffman, who actively made the choice to not have children. None of the paragraphs on Hoffman discuss her choice or how it makes her feel, only the need for role models for women that are not mothers. This, despite the fact that the DeVries Global white paper that at least in part prompted Wallace’s article showed that a full 36% of the 1000 women without children interviewed didn’t actually want children (and another 18% were on the fence).

So why did Wallace’s article spend absolutely zero time on this theoretically large segment of the American population?

Because it’s still not considered acceptable for women to not want children. Even the term being coined for these women, “Otherhood,”Don’t you dare. Yes, you. I’m looking right at you. emphasizes the Otherness“Othering”, quite simply, is taking a person or a group of people and classifying them as “not like us.” Most of the time, this alienating step is done in conjunction with the assumption of “less than us”; it’s the mindset behind a lot of nasty bits of colonialism and sexism alike. of women who have decided to skip having children.

What is acceptable is for a woman to want to have children, but to ruefully conclude that she cannot because she is single, cannot afford IVF treatments or being a single mother,Fun fact: I was once told, while studying bioethics, that I should see if any company would harvest and freeze my eggs for me, for publicity, so I didn’t “lose the chance” to have kids–even though I have been clearly “not having children” for at least 18 years. or has lost her chance for reasons running the gamut from missed love to missing love. Women can and should be apologetic and sad about being childless; it is an accident, or a tragedy, rather than an empowered choice. And that’s reflected in Wallace’s article.

But beyond being infuriating for those of us–a third of the women sampled!–who are cheerful, happy, and decisive about our decision to not have children, the grouping of women who do not have children with women who do not want children is hurtful to the women who do feel that loss in their lives. These experiences–of feeling circumstantially infertile, of accidental childlessness, of deeply wanting a child–should not be lumped in with those of us who happily hug our IUDs, pills, and/or condoms whilst skipping gleefully down the Marvel toy aisle thinking “all for me, all for me.”Is not having children a selfish choice? No more selfish than having children. Being infertile, circumstantially or medically, is a serious emotional wound that should not be conflated with a joyful and intentional life choice.

Write about the pain.

Write about the joy.

Don’t write about them at once, because that only does a disservice to both.

Dear @Twitter: I don’t want your head, but can I borrow your ear?

As just about everyone who uses Twitter is likely aware, on Thursday the company attempted to roll out changes to the “block” feature. Instead of the previous policy, which didn’t allow blocked users to follow you or interact with your Tweets, “block” was going to function more like “mute”: blocked users would still be able to follow you and interact with (RT, MT, favourite, etc) your Tweets, you’d just never see it happening. What ended up happening was a Twitterstorm of the likes Twitter itself has never faced (itself a bit of a remarkable thing, all considered).

In the face of considerable backlash, Twitter quickly rolled back the policy to their previous one, which they say is:

Blocked users cannot:

  • Add your Twitter account to their lists.
  • Have their @replies or mentions show in your mentions tab (although these Tweets may still appear in search).
  • Follow you.
  • See your profile picture on their profile page or in their timeline.

Privacy note: If your Tweets are public (i.e., not protected), they will still be visible on your public profile page to anyone, regardless of whether they have a Twitter account or not.

We do not send notification to a user when you block them, but because they will no longer be able to follow you, they may notice that they’ve been blocked.

Now, what you’ll notice here is that there’s nothing about being able to see blocked Tweets. Previously, when a user was blocked, your content was no longer available to them unless they signed out of their browser (in other words, when Twitter didn’t know they should block the content). At some point, it seems that this has changed, although when no one actually knows. But everyone who has had to figure out how block works has been adamant that in the past, Twitter did hide content from blocked users, which is in the TechCrunch article covering the fiasco:

Twitter has introduced a new blocking policy that is materially different from the one that they’ve had in the past. Blocked users can now see your tweets while logged in and continue to follow you on the service, allowing potential harassers or abusers to continue to track your updates on the network, even though you’ve explicitly blocked them. [Emphasis mine.]

Twitter has been consistent in stating that the reason they made their changes to the block function is that some users have complained that by alerting a harasser that they have been blocked, the harassment can actually escalate. This actually isn’t inaccurate, in theory; one of the major challenges when dealing with stalking is figuring out how to de-escalate involvement without making it clear that you are doing so, because realizing that their target it out of reach can make stalkers more aggressive and violent.

Head-in-sandSo, assuming you believe Twitter’s motivations here (and to be clear, many do not and feel that this was a move to appease advertisers), they had the right idea that the current (rather than newly implemented and as rapidly de-implemented) block functionality is not ideal. The problem with their solution is that it amounted to telling people “if someone is harassing you, just don’t look at them!” rather than actually dealing with the harassment of one of their users.

This isn’t the first time that Twitter has gotten in hot water for not policing user behaviour more stridently. In August, Twitter’s senior director of trust and safety, Del Harvey, and U.K. General Manager Tony Wang co-wrote a blog post saying

Twitter has updated its rules “to clarify that we do not tolerate abusive behavior,” adding that they “want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter Rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behavior was, or could ever be, acceptable.”

This was in response to Caroline Criado-Perez receiving multiple threats on Twitter after leading a successful campaign in the UK to put a woman on a bank note.

Harvey and Wang say they will “keep working” to make Twitter a safe place for users and say they are adding additional staff to “the teams that handle abuse reports and are exploring new ways of using technology to improve everyone’s experience on Twitter.”

One can only assume that Harvey and Wang were not consulted when the new Twitter block policy was implemented yesterday, since it actively undermines the work they did in August to reassure users that Twitter actually does take claims of harassment seriously.

With that overview in place, I would actually like to bend Twitter’s ears for a minute.

So, to Twitter: I actually can appreciate the concerns you raise over notifying people that they’ve been blocked. You’re right, that can cause behaviour to escalate. But the solution isn’t to put blinders on the people being harassed, who feel that they need to utilize the block function to protect themselves. The solution is to help figure out how to keep things from escalating. And in this, you could learn from Facebook. (Yes, words I’m just as surprised to type as you are to read.)

Facebook allows you to create a list of restricted users who can only see your public posts. Previous content is still there, and for all intents and purposes, you (person doing the blocking) simply appear to stop updating or using Facebook to the person who is blocked. Would this work once the harassing user was logged out? No, but in most situations, the idea isn’t about a perfect anti-harassment format, but about making things more difficult.

Now, the caveat here is that Facebook has many more settings than simply “protected/private” and “public,” which is why it can provide such nuance to posts. But Twitter, your framework is clearly able to handle deciding if someone should or should not interact with a tweet, and as such, should be able to simply stop showing certain users tweets.

I know, Twitter, that you want to point out that if a user account isn’t protected, then the tweets and information is still public, and while this is true, having to sign out of an account to view someone’s Twitter stream, copy and paste, and do other extra steps to facilitate harassment is, in and of itself, enough to stop many people from abuse. Will it stop everyone? No – but making it easier isn’t the solution, which is what your initial change did.

Your new policy essentially said “we’ll make it so you don’t have to see someone’s bad behaviour” rather than implementing any particular punishment for bad behaviour. This opens up many people, men and women alike, to being harassed, stalked, and abused, and left trying to figure out if it’s worth seeing harassment on their timeline every day, going “protected” and losing the networking-with-new-people point of Twitter, or trusting that other people will alert them if someone who is functionally muted moves from creepy harassment to actually threatening behaviour.

I’m glad that you realized that the Twitterstorm of concern raised reasons you overlooked, and that you rolled the block change back for safety reasons, Twitter. However, people who are signed in and blocked can still see content–this should be changed (and yes, I’m partial to the “stop all content after date/time blocked,” but open to other solutions). But mostly, Twitter, in whatever you do, you need to keep the concerns of the harassed, threatened, and stalked at the forefront. You screwed up once by putting that aside, and then you screwed up again when your CEO, Dick Costolo, said that the point of the change was cutting down on the antagonistic behaviour of people who were blocked.

Guys–and I do mean guys, because this is one of those on-going indications of a lack of female involvement in Twitter–the solution to cutting down on antagonistic behaviour of people being antagonistic, block-worthy jerks is not to appease the block-worthy jerks, it’s to move from block to ban.

And it really is that simple.

Suggestions Forward for Science Online (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)

In the wake of Bora Zivkovic’s multiple resignations last week (amazing index here, if you were out on a research cruise and missed it), I was asked if I was going to participate in offering further advice or recommendations to Science Online, since I had been visible and vocal in my impression of what needed to happen. My silence on the blog, save to discuss the difference between con(vention) and con(ference), shouldn’t be read as disinclination to proffer my opinion, but the much more prosaic: holy fuck, I’m tired.

I also wanted to pull back and let other people have the conversation; science online is a community that I am (I would argue marginally) a part of, but the issue with Twitter and blogs is that sometimes the voices that are amplified are the ones that are most present, not the ones with the most thoughtful things to offer.

…okay, fine, and Maryn McKenna beat me to the punch, posting five recommendations for the science communication community to consider moving forward; I unreservedly support her suggestions. I also have a few more.

While I have emailed these suggestions to Karyn Traphagen, (per request), I am also listening them here because the very first suggestion I have is the most important one: transparency.

Right now, an awful lot of trust has been violated, and strange things happen to a community when your ability to trust is shaken. We navigate life based on trust, and we make a lot of decisions based on the very simple feeling of whether or not we trust something, or someone. In a lot of ways, trust is a limiting factor; it helps us make decisions because it automatically narrows down the choices available for us; we can discard many options because we have no trust in the person or the process associated with those options.

When emotional trust is broken,

our options become limitless, and we are paralyzed, not in fear, but in choice. We have no way of narrowing down the potentiality of an event/situation without the ability to trust. But we trust – or not – based on prior events, and to override those prior events that taught us that we cannot believe our instincts is something that can only be done on faith.

Above all else, this is probably the most threatening thing for Science Online right now: broken trust, and the threat of becoming stuck. Right now, the best way I can see towards overcoming broken trust and fear of “what if,” is to continue the very public and transparent discussions.

The rest of my suggestions can be broken down into those that are immediately applicable, and more generalized future changes. The one thing that I think must (yes, back to that word) happen for Science Online 2014 is that some sort of reporting/anti-harassment committee must be set up, easily identified in conference literature, and promoted to all members.

• Anti-harassment Committee – A committee of 5–7 (odd numbered) people should be assembled with the express purpose of being there to handle any harassment going on at the conference. This should be a diverse group of people; half of the group should commit to a single-year term and the other half should commit to a two-year term. Replacing half of the group next year, then, with new people who are also committing to two-year terms, should create an institutional memory, as well as remove concerns of cliquishness. These people should not be (or be related to) any conference organizer or board member.

Essentially, the idea here is for a group of people who are present on Twitter and eMail (likely via a single, shared Twitter and eMail handle) to be easily accessible if someone is feeling harassed. This group should determine whether or not someone is violating the Science Online anti-harassment policy, and have the authority to remove someone from the event, if necessary.

• Offer non-alcoholic socializing options – This has been amply discussed on Twitter, but I wanted to throw my endorsement behind it, as well. Right now, one of the things that blurs the line between convention and conference for Science Online is that the drinking appears officially endorsed. As has already been extensively discussed, clarifying the line between officially endorsed event and “event happening in conjunction with” would be useful. Removing the focus on evening drinking and creating more options would also, at least per Twitter feedback, give more introverted people chances to socialize on their terms.

• Have a buddy system for the opening night social – Partner up new attendees with old hands for the first night mixer, so that the newbies have someone to talk to, show them the rope, and help them get settled in. This is a several hour commitment at most, but would go a long way towards preventing groups of people clumped in corners at a science museum, not knowing anyone (as did happen in 2013). Having someone to go “hey Chad, have you met Allie?” will go a long way in helping newbies integrate, place Twitter handles to faces and names, and have familiar faces around over coffee the next morning. Plus, it’s just nice and helps to build community!

• Have a strong, clear harassment policy, and be willing to enforce it – Signing off on having read the Science Online sexual harassment policy should be required before allowing anyone, old or new, to register for Science Online 2014. While I was inclined to say that sexual harassment training should be mandatory, the reality is, that’s not possible on the scale the conference has grown to. However, resources are readily available online and for free; these should be prominently visible on the Science Online website, and people who are uncertain as to precisely what is harassment is–which is okay, not everyone has been through multiple iterations of harassment training from human resources–should be encouraged to view and take training videos without stigma or shame.


The other suggestions I have are likely more long-term, not implementable for Science Online 2014. I still think that they are important to include.

• Decide on the unconference – I’ve heard “it’s an unconference” associated with Science Online, but the reality is, by planning the majority of sessions ahead of time, SciO is not an unconference. Continuing to call it such creates an incorrect image of what people should expect. It’s one of those things that either needs to be fully embraced (which could be interesting) or fully dropped. Because of how planning has worked, and the fact that a small committee makes the choices on what presentations are ultimately available, it seems to me that “unconference” should be dropped for either con(vention) or conf(erence).

• Ditch the size limit – As many people have pointed out, limiting the size of Science Online creates an exclusionary atmosphere. Chad Orzel has had some great things to say about this, from pointing out that random registration times are difficult for those with jobs, families, and other obligations, to noting that because of the prominence Science Online appears to play in helping people get started in online/science communication–an event that helps shape careers–it cannot even have the appearance of being exclusionary. In fact, Orzel said it so well, I’m just going to quote him:

The problem is that #sciox seems to have become an important, even essential meeting for people getting started in online scicomm. If #sciox is going to have that kind of must-go-to-make-it role in community, the bar for inclusiveness has to be much higher. If #sciox is an event that shapes careers, it can’t also be or even appear to be an exclusive party for a select in-group.

I realize that conference centers are booked several years in advance, and a change of size will take time. But as Science Online continues to grow in popularity, and be seen as the place to attend to make connections (and a career!), it will be necessary to make sure that the conference grows proportionally. Not doing so, and making attendance based on a combination of opaque session suggestion acceptance, luck of the draw when registering on the internet, or literal luck of the draw with a lotto, creates different classes of people, and perpetuates the feeling of exclusivity.

Why is the path unclear,
When we know home is near.
Understand we’ll go hand in hand,
But we’ll walk alone in fear. (Tell me)
Tell me where do we go from here.


(With thanks to Eva Amsen, David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna, Nicholas Evans, Alice Dreger, Emily Willingham, Rose Eveleth, Karen James, David Shiffman, and oh, about 300 other people I’ve had what feels like almost on-stop Twitter and email discussions with this last week. While many of these people discussed these ideas with me and helped me refine them, if you take issue with anything, that’s my fault, and should be taken up with me.)