A thought that follows on from yesterday’s post about Twitter and freedom of speech: it’s easy, I think, to see all the anger and distress caused by online abuse and come to the conclusion that it’s a growing problem. That social spaces online are increasingly hostile to women and other minorities, and that such incidents are increasing in both frequency and severity. In short, it’s easy to think that things are getting worse.
But I don’t believe that’s true. Social spaces online have historically always been fairly unpleasant places to be a visible minority, with notable exceptions. Usenet wasn’t a fun place to be openly female. Neither were early IRC channels (a/s/l and all). Parts of 4chan and Reddit still aren’t. But as online space has become easier to enter, easier to use, more important and less socially obscure, a broader section of society has colonised it. I learned when I was about 12 that you don’t admit your gender online, if you’re female; it’s less than three months since I first felt comfortable using a real picture of my face as my avatar, knowing what that can open you up to.
The evolution over the last couple of years has been that more women and other minorities feel safe enough online to be visible at all, rather than hiding behind the default masculine assumption that comes with anonymity and some pseudonymity. The target pool for abuse is larger, because more people are unafraid to simply be in public.
At the same time, the backlash to such behaviour is more visible and more outspoken. Abuse and threats are increasingly seen as unacceptable. That means more visibility for particularly reprehensible abuse, where a decade ago it would have been more hidden and harder to speak out against. The availability heuristic means people are more likely to overestimate the frequency of abuse now as opposed to abuse years ago, because they can think of more recent visible examples – not necessarily because it’s more frequent, but because it’s more frequently spoken of. It also means that social norms are changing for the better.
Maybe this is too optimistic a take. But I’d like to believe so.