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.