Good after­noon, every­one. We can­not end online harass­ment unless we under­stand what it is that actu­al­ly caus­es it. There are a num­ber of myths that per­co­late in our soci­eties about online harass­ment. Every sin­gle one of us in this room, I would wager, has heard that anonymi­ty is one of the pri­ma­ry caus­es of harass­ment, or that peo­ple harass because they’re anony­mous. That anonymi­ty plus a com­put­er equals anti-social behavior.

It’s a com­mon­place that I’ve observed across the polit­i­cal spec­trum, whether the per­son is left, right, cen­ter, lib­er­tar­i­an, social­ist, what­ev­er their eth­nic back­ground or reli­gious back­ground, whether they are expert com­put­er users and tech­nol­o­gists, or com­plete Luddites. People believe in the idea that anonymi­ty is cen­tral to what moti­vates harass­ment, that it is the dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the online world that makes it such a tox­ic place.

My work has led me to the con­clu­sion that if we do con­tin­ue down this path of sim­ply blam­ing anonymi­ty, then we will nev­er actu­al­ly address the prob­lems that under­lie online harass­ment. And in the process, we might also be deny­ing a num­ber of peo­ple what should con­sti­tute a civ­il right in terms of their abil­i­ty to use the Internet, that in oth­er words you have the right to be anony­mous, and that anonymi­ty is not mere­ly a neg­a­tive absence of a legal iden­ti­ty, but that it is also a pos­i­tive site of iden­ti­ty reconstruction.

So with all of that in mind, we need to under­stand that core prin­ci­ple, and this is the idea that I feel that my soci­o­log­i­cal research has brought into the dis­cus­sion here. Simply put, anonymi­ty does not cause harass­ment. It does play a role, but it’s much much more com­pli­cat­ed than most peo­ple have made it out to be. The rea­son that this is impor­tant to under­stand is because it’s hav­ing a prac­ti­cal impact on the world right now.

A num­ber of web sites, in their efforts to reform their nox­ious com­ment cul­tures, have moved in the direc­tion of say­ing that com­menters can no longer be anony­mous and that this will resolve the harass­ment prob­lems that we’ve been expe­ri­enc­ing; this will make com­ments nicer; this will make them more con­struc­tive. The real­i­ty that has emerged is that this sort of isn’t true. And I say sort of because what’s hap­pened is that it has changed the tox­i­c­i­ty of those web sites. It’s changed them, but it’s moved the nature of that tox­i­c­i­ty around.

So on web sites where com­ments are not anony­mous, what often ends up hap­pen­ing is that you’ll have super-toxic users post­ing things that they know will get delet­ed, but instead they tar­get the mod­er­a­tors, the actu­al human beings that they know will have to read these com­ments as part of their jobs. So they will send in these real­ly long, nasty, absolute­ly unpleas­ant, big­ot­ed screeds because they know the mod­er­a­tors have to read it, and so the tox­ic com­menter still man­ages to get one off at some­body, even though their legal name is attached.

Most of us are con­nect­ed to Facebook. We know from per­son­al expe­ri­ence, time and time again, that peo­ple say awful things to each oth­er and to large groups of peo­ple on Facebook. Because they feel that they can get away with it. Because they feel that there is no account­abil­i­ty for their behavior. 

And account­abil­i­ty is a key word here, because that’s why most peo­ple think anonymi­ty is the prob­lem. They under­stand intu­itive­ly that there is no account­abil­i­ty for bad behav­ior on the Internet, but they assume that that’s because you’re anony­mous. If you’re anony­mous, then there is no per­son, no legal iden­ti­ty to which account­abil­i­ty can accrue. You are face­less, you are formless.

A strip of paper given a half twist and attached at the ends to form a Möbius strip

But that’s not strict­ly accu­rate. This love­ly topo­graph­i­cal object is called a Möbius strip. It under­lies the the­o­ry that I have artic­u­lat­ed about the caus­es of online harass­ment in our soci­ety. A Möbius strip is a single-sided math­e­mat­i­cal object with one side and one edge that gives the illu­sion of hav­ing two. It’s a use­ful tool that has come up again and again in psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ics and phi­los­o­phy and so on to explain how some­thing that is con­tra­dic­to­ry can nev­er­the­less exist in har­mo­ny; that some­thing that is seem­ing­ly opposed, with two sides, can nev­er­the­less exist in a per­fect­ly har­mo­nious unity.

Illustration by Spiritgreen; available on a t-shirt

Illustration by Spiritgreen; avail­able on a t‑shirt

So to explain how a Möbius strip works we can enlist the aid of Mario here. The nature of a Möbius strip is such that you can trace what­ev­er edge from any point that you choose and trace it in its entire­ty with­out ever lift­ing your fin­ger or your pen­cil from the sur­face of the object. It has one side, even though it gives the illu­sion of hav­ing two. This par­tic­u­lar piece of art­work is by Spiritgreen; cred­it always where it is due.

So why do I talk about the Möbius strip? Because the real­i­ty of online harass­ment emerges from the fact that we believe it is unre­al, that we are social­ized to approach the Internet as a space of unre­al­i­ty. We are social­ized by our media, we are social­ized by our friends, our fam­i­ly mem­bers, our par­ents. I grew up with par­ents that were telling me that the peo­ple I talked to on the Internet were not real. And these were par­ents that want­ed to take care of me, that loved me, and they were also not ter­ri­bly inter­est­ed in tech­nol­o­gy. They were not the hyper-clued-in, plugged-in, mil­len­ni­als, or what­ev­er the lat­est scape­goat is of the press these days. They were of the baby boomer gen­er­a­tion, and they just thought that the Internet was­n’t real. And they and mil­lions of oth­er par­ents have raised their chil­dren with exact­ly the same idea.

And we trans­mit that notion in our every­day con­ver­sa­tion. IRL” is what we say when we’re talk­ing about any­thing that is not on the Internet. IRL, In Real Life, with the implic­it assump­tion being that what hap­pens on the Internet is not real, is some­how less mate­r­i­al. This assump­tion under­girds a lot of online harass­ment, because peo­ple believe that their tar­gets are not nec­es­sar­i­ly real peo­ple or are not whole peo­ple. We appre­hend avatars on the Internet as being akin to non-player char­ac­ters in a video game, as being unreal.

And so why the Möbius strip? Well, because there has to be a way to explain a fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion with online harass­ment. Online harass­ment is a pro­found­ly moti­vat­ed phe­nom­e­non. People real­ly want to do it, and par­tial­ly because they believe that they’re accom­plish­ing some­thing. It’s not just some­thing that is done for the sake of hav­ing a quick laugh. When you look at the online harass­ment of women and minori­ties and minori­tized peo­ples, peo­ple of col­or, LGBT peo­ple, it’s often pro­found­ly polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed. These peo­ple are seen as exis­ten­tial threats to a giv­en community. 

To take gam­ing as a car­di­nal exam­ple, the world that I hap­pen to be involved in, in the world of gam­ing women are seen as the cen­so­ri­ous mom­mies that are going to take the boys’ toys away, ulti­mate­ly. That we are going to have a very ugly mate­r­i­al effect on the world of these most­ly young, most­ly white, most­ly male gamers. 

So you might then ask if that’s true, then were does the unre­al­i­ty come in? The harassers clear­ly see a threat, they see an exis­ten­tial threat to their way of life, to a mate­r­i­al space that they exist in. Where does the unre­al­i­ty come in? That’s where the Möbius strip comes in. This is the Möbius strip of real­i­ty and unre­al­i­ty, a soci­o­log­i­cal form that describes the approach that peo­ple take to inter­ac­tion online, where things are real when it is con­ve­nient, and unreal when it’s not con­ve­nient for them.

What ends up hap­pen­ing is that on the one hand women can be per­ceived as real enough to con­sti­tute and exis­ten­tial threat, but because they are appre­hend­ed through the inter­fac­ing medi­um of the Internet, we are seen as sort of akin to celebri­ties, in a way. Think about celebri­ty gos­sip cul­ture. You don’t think of the peo­ple star­ing out from those mag­a­zines nec­es­sar­i­ly as full real peo­ple. You think of them as sort of sim­u­lacra of them­selves, as some­one whose life you can pick apart because the media allows you to do so. Their lives are invad­ed, their lives are splashed all over the front pages of mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers, and so forth.

That cul­ture of celebri­ty, that dis­so­ci­a­tion between the actu­al human being and the pub­lic per­sona that is cre­at­ed of them, that’s as old as mass media. What’s dif­fer­ent about the present is that the Internet allows for that celebri­ti­za­tion to occur for almost any­one. But with­out the ben­e­fits of celebri­ty, so no lim­ou­sines, no secu­ri­ty detail, no peo­ple to open your mail, and so forth.

That’s the inter­face through which much online harass­ment occurs. People see the tar­get of online harass­ment as exist­ing in a real­i­ty suf­fi­cient enough to con­sti­tute per­haps a threat, or some­one who is hav­ing a mate­r­i­al impact on the world and needs to be stopped. Think about all the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries sur­round­ing fem­i­nists, all the nasty things that we’re sup­posed to be doing to the world, to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, to edu­ca­tion, to the Internet, etc. They believe we’re hav­ing a real impact. But we’re not appre­hend­ed as real on the Internet. 

That’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly because these harassers are inher­ent­ly awful peo­ple in and of [them­selves], it’s some­thing that we’re all trained to do. When we look at some­one on the Internet, their avatar, the lit­tle pic­ture that com­pris­es their Twitter avatar, they come to us as words on a screen. If we play an online video game, they come to us as a 3D avatar with mys­ti­cal con­no­ta­tions and affec­tions and so forth. It’s hard to look at say, a World of Warcraft avatar of a troll with blue skin and tusks and think, That’s a real per­son behind that, a real human being like myself.” You instead approach them as a game, an NPC in a video game. They are seen as exist­ing in this strange lim­i­nal space between real­i­ty and unreality.

So that’s where anonymi­ty then comes in. It can occa­sion­al­ly inflect the result­ing harass­ment. Sometimes anony­mous harassers may be more explic­it, may be more bru­tal, but if you look at what’s actu­al­ly occur­ring in terms of gin­ning up online hate mobs, who’s respon­si­ble for it, and so on, what you find again and again is that the harassers, for instance peo­ple who make online hate videos that tar­get peo­ple like Anita Sarkeesian for instance, whom many of you have just heard speak now. They’re not anony­mous. They’re well-known. They have legal iden­ti­ties, they have jobs that are known to the pub­lic, and yet they get away with what they do.

The rea­son for this, very sim­ply, is because there is a lack of account­abil­i­ty that emerges from the fun­da­men­tal belief that the actions they take on the Internet are just words” and not real. And there are a wel­ter of moral and eth­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions that enter into the frame as well.

So on that note, it is I think appro­pri­ate to leave you to under­stand that anonymi­ty is not real­ly the dri­ving force here. Anonymity is one of many things that can inflect online harass­ment, but much more impor­tant is what psy­chol­o­gist John Suler called the dis­so­cia­tive imag­i­na­tion, where we dis­tance our­selves and our sense of moral and per­son­al and phys­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty for our actions every time we sit behind a key­board. There’s a dis­tanc­ing effect that occurs when we use the Internet that has noth­ing to do with anonymi­ty. If we get rid of anonymi­ty from the Internet, just waved a mag­ic want tomor­row, the tox­i­c­i­ty prob­lems that we are all con­cerned about would remain. And we have to think of smarter solu­tions. Our vir­tu­al future depends upon it.

Thank you.

Further Reference

 It’s Just a Game’—The Discursive Construction of the Virtual”, a 2012 blog post where Katherine pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed the Möbius strip concept.

Description at The Conference’s site of the ses­sion this talk was part of.

The orig­i­nal video for this pre­sen­ta­tion can be found at The Conference’s site.