Just to explain what you’re see­ing on the screen, this is basi­cal­ly the only 60 sec­onds worth watch­ing in The Ruins.

Spoilers: that’s at the begin­ning of the film, so they do make it out of there. But the rea­son that I love this scene is that one, this is 2007 so a cell phone is the scari­est thing that you could hear in a hor­ror film because every­body in the audi­ence is prepped to not have their phone go off or hear some­one else’s phone go off. There were com­mer­cials that would air before a film that would be like, Make sure your cell phone is shut off or every­one’s going to be real­ly annoyed because it takes you out of the movie.” So that’s one rea­son I real­ly love it.

But then I love that these vines…which this film, it’s so dis­ap­point­ing those 60 sec­onds are the only sus­pense­ful bit of this film. The rest is just gris­ly dis­gust­ing­ness as opposed to sus­pense. But the idea of these plants that would mim­ic some­thing that some­one want­ed so urgent­ly as a cell phone to call for help, because that’s pret­ty much what we have on us at all times and expect to be able to do, that I thought would be a good way to intro­duce my talk, which is about hoax­es and spoof­ing and fear and how all of that relates to our reliance on technology.

My work often deals with automa­tion, things like default set­tings and inti­ma­cy, expec­ta­tions of authen­tic­i­ty. I think about these things because it’s hard to be a human and each of us is just doing the best that we can. 

This is a project I did a few years ago where I asked some friends to join Friendster again ten years lat­er and just per­form as you were ten years ago. The idea for that was that we prob­a­bly just met each oth­er in the past few years and I don’t know what you were like ten years ago, so this is a good way to have an inter­est­ing inter­ac­tion and get to know each other.

More recent­ly I did this. It’s called the Emotional Labor GMail Extension, and that’s what hap­pens after you press a but­ton. It adds nice lit­tle things and nice words and excla­ma­tion marks and cheery lan­guage. I kind of explained the emo­tion­al labor exten­sion in an essay as a response to increas­ing­ly auto­mat­ed per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, but there was actu­al­ly some­thing a lit­tle bit dark­er that I had in mind when I was putting this togeth­er. I was think­ing about an actress who wrote a sto­ry in Vanity Fair about a more-famous actor who sex­u­al­ly assault­ed her. But some­one close to him said well, that obvi­ous­ly did­n’t hap­pen because she was nice to him at an award show. It’s just like, you know, peo­ple are just nice. You can per­form being nice. It’s very, very easy. In fact, that’s a very good way to, if you are under attack, a smile some­times works bet­ter than a sword to ward off an attack. 

Spoofing emo­tions plays out very dif­fer­ent­ly in our cor­re­spon­dence online because we have more ves­sels for the hid­den parts of our iden­ti­fy, or ves­sels to pre­tend. I always refer to the much-quoted Oscar Wilde quote that Man is least him­self when he talks in his own per­son. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” 

Something else that—oh gosh, I’m just going to say it. I did­n’t want to say the word creepy,” but here’s some­thing that creeps me out. If I say creepy again, I did a bad job of this talk. So here is some­thing that creeps me out. I’m creeped out by my reliance on devices just for being, for just being a per­son in the world and that this is how I access mem­o­ries and live and com­mu­ni­cate and go about my ordi­nary day, and it opens up room for gaslight­ing and algo­rith­mic gaslighting. 

So I received this email and it real­ly upset me because this was a ser­vice sort of like Timehop that would find things from your time­line and send it back to you on the same date two or three years lat­er. I got this email and I’m look­ing at it and I’m like, I did not tweet that.” This ser­vice is telling me, because it sends me my past tweets from two or three years ago, and I’m just, What is going on here. I know I did not spend $100 on box­es, or did I?” I was real­ly real­ly upset because it sort of sounds like me but it’s def­i­nite­ly not me, and I had that eerie feel­ing that all of a sud­den some mem­o­ry is being implant­ed. I went into Inspect Element and it turns out no, I did­n’t twee that. I faved the tweet, and it was the day that I got that mes­sage was prob­a­bly when Memolane start­ed includ­ed things that you’d faved, but they would­n’t have any kind of design ele­ments that spec­i­fied that it was not my tweet, it was some­one else’s.

But I bring this up because I think that nor­mal­ly when we’re in a room togeth­er, you have all these sen­so­ry details that you can accu­mu­late to get a sense that some­thing is awry, and on a screen just get­ting an email, I can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly read some­thing as inau­then­tic or not the same way. It’s very pos­si­ble that if it had been some­thing as spe­cif­ic as a $100 in box­es I might have just been like, Oh yeah, I don’t remem­ber say­ing that. But that must’ve been me, I dun­no.” Or I might not have even got it. 

I noticed (you guys prob­a­bly noticed this, too) the first peo­ple to tweet on the hashtag…hey, there. This is a pret­ty typ­i­cal expe­ri­ence now, that when we con­trast an iPhone to a TV, your sense of con­trol over your expe­ri­ence is so enor­mous with Internet. You have con­trol over how you’re nav­i­gat­ing, how you’re going through chan­nels, and going to web sites, as opposed to a remote that would just flip through dif­fer­ent shows. That con­trol that we expect when we’re using a com­put­er, to have some­one invade that is a par­tic­u­lar kind of scary.

So I’m going to talk about things that scare me on the Internet, things that I’m afraid of, and things that maybe we can’t yet make a hor­ror film. We def­i­nite­ly can’t make a film as bad as The Ruins about this stuff, but I would say it’s a lot scari­er than The Ruins, which is just gross.

This is very upset­ting. I’m show­ing the tweets that are not real­ly hor­ri­bly racist or dis­gust­ing or just upset­ting, because it’s break­fast time and some of us are jet­lagged. I don’t want to get real­ly deep into what hap­pened here. But last June there was a con­cen­trat­ed cam­paign of indi­vid­u­als from what was 4chan; they’re prob­a­bly all on 8chan now. They sensed that there was this kind of split with­in the com­mu­ni­ties of women that talk about fem­i­nism on Twitter, and they were exag­ger­at­ing how women that are kind of mar­gin­al­ized from a main­stream fem­i­nist discourse…they sensed that they were being marginalized. 

So they cre­at­ed a bunch of fake fem­i­nists on Twitter that are women of col­or and they used ridicu­lous lan­guage. It start­ed with this fake hash­tag #EndFathersDay, and it was just exag­ger­at­ed par­o­dies of what they think fem­i­nists would say. It’s so upset­ting, too, because this is the won­ders of peer pro­duc­tion in full effect, not for any social good but for lit­er­al­ly chas­ing women of col­or off of Twitter. That’s what’s hap­pen­ing here. The Wikipedia effect of 2007…this is what’s happening.

There were two women in par­tic­u­lar that already have a com­mu­ni­ty and a net­work on Twitter that they were com­mu­ni­cat­ing [with] and knew each oth­er, and see­ing new peo­ple who had fun­ny lan­guage, that sense of some­thing being awry… Because some­times it was sub­tle. You’d see the 4chan boards, and they’d tell each oth­er how to be real­ly authen­tic, because they actu­al­ly were try­ing to mim­ic these women. They even took some of their avatars, and if you had a screen name with an l” in it, they’d do a cap­i­tal I.” You know, the trick that every­one does. They were try­ing very very hard to mim­ic these women.

So two Twitter users, @sassycrass and @so_treu, cre­at­ed anoth­er hash­tag called #YourSlipIsShowing that would find the peo­ple who were inau­then­tic and were try­ing to cre­ate prob­lems with­in this com­mu­ni­ty. Just to make sure that this is kind of clear, the plan from 4chan real­ly was to have it so that if a woman of col­or just had a gen­er­al con­ver­sa­tion with a fem­i­nist who’s main­stream and white and has access to a plat­form, that she would be skep­ti­cal. It real­ly was that dis­gust­ing. It’s just vile, and I don’t want to make it sound like a kooky, Oh wow, they were steal­ing iden­ti­ties.” No, it’s not that. It’s actu­al­ly dis­gust­ing. I’m not bring­ing up the worst screengrabs.

Screenshot of a stock photo site listing for "korean woman portrait"

The thing that tipped peo­ple off is there would be some kind of slang that was just stu­pid, like We’re the peo­ple of oppres­sion.” The lan­guage was just a lit­tle bit awry, and so you can see here this was one of the fake pro­files, and you could find through image search pret­ty eas­i­ly that this is just a stock pho­to. But some of them, their avatar pho­tos were stolen, and it was peo­ple that were active in anoth­er hash­tag cam­paign called #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

The con­se­quences of this were real­ly frus­trat­ing because the peo­ple who were tar­get­ed, who don’t have access to major pub­li­ca­tions or insti­tu­tion­al back­ing to nec­es­sar­i­ly sup­port them when some­thing like this is happening…

To throw it out there, if you want to see more of what was hap­pen­ing there, [safetwit​ter​spaces​.tum​blr​.com is] at least a good place to start. Also Sydette Harry wrote an essay called Everyone Watches, Nobody Sees”. That was an essay on Model View Culture about how this real­ly sti­fled the con­ver­sa­tion. And it’s real­ly unfor­tu­nate that when this hap­pened, we did­n’t cre­ate a broad­er con­ver­sa­tion, because a few months lat­er, Gamergate hap­pened and it was the same peo­ple, pret­ty much.

Something else that real­ly fright­ens me, because I’m just say­ing very lit­er­al­ly the things that fright­en me, a par­tic­u­lar­ly vile cor­ner of YouTube. Recordings of voyeurisms through the remote access tool, spy­ing through web cams, mess­ing around leav­ing notes for some­one, mov­ing a cur­sor around to spook them. Even the lan­guage in this com­mu­ni­ty is just appalling. If they’ve cap­tured your com­put­er, they might refer to you in their chat rooms as their slave. It’ dis­gust­ing. You can see there are videos like this that say things like, Family scared.” 

This is some­thing that is becom­ing kind of an every­day wor­ry, that while we have so much reliance upon these devices, we also have this threat that some­one can get in there. It’s not like your head. It’s not your head­space. These are mem­o­ries that you are slight­ly alien­at­ed from. So it’s got to the point that even if you go to domes­tic vio­lence web sites, there will be a lit­tle pop-up that says hey by the way, some­one might have a key­log­ger or some­one might be track­ing your activity. 

Again, it’s break­fast time. I’m sor­ry to start out this kooky con­fer­ence real­ly dark. But to end on some pos­i­tive note, I think this is a moment right now where we’re see­ing… Second-wave fem­i­nism was all about build­ing these insti­tu­tions like rape cri­sis hot­lines, domes­tic vio­lence shel­ters. I think what we’re in right now is both defin­ing the prob­lem (which is why this talk was a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult for me because it’s hard to cre­ate nar­ra­tives around what is hap­pen­ing) and also build­ing insti­tu­tions that under­stand the prob­lem and have strate­gies and tac­tics to resolve this. Because if you’re being abused in this way and you’re also trapped by the lan­guage that you need a map that you can share with some­one why this hurts, why this has to stop… The most essen­tial thing, though, is just to walk into the sit­u­a­tion and say that I did not agree to this. I did not invite this. I did not ask for this. This is what I want­ed from this machine and this is what I wilt.

Thank you.

Further Reference

The Haunted Machines site, where Joanne has a fur­ther short piece on The Ruins, Fear of Zero Bars.”

Dedicated page for Haunted Machines at the main FutureEverything site.