Looking at my current blog, I can't help but compare it to my old LiveJournal blog, which I kept in my early twenties. I wrote in it almost every day--the way one might tweet or post to Facebook--about everything that popped into my head. No self-censoring, no dodging around controversial topics. I was writing a door into my head, and the door was open.
Sure there were some issues--back then, I was very much an American conservative. And because I liked art and technology, I had many liberal friends. I was proud of the fact that we could discuss issues without flaming one another. More or less. There was one who went anonymous so he could say things without being polite, but, you know, ISP-stamped messages are rather identifiable. We dealt with it.
Then I became a Guardian, a GM for Furcadia. Hey, don't judge: it's in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest MOORPG. Anyway, my job in the community was to mediate conflicts and ban those who continued causing trouble. Naturally, this led to harassment of yours truly. I largely dealt with it using the Ignore command. After all, you don't feed the trolls.
Then one day, someone with my name backwards showed up on LiveJournal. He (or she, but the vast majority of harassment of this sort comes from men) made his own journal, and filled it with details from my life, distorted into a grossly sexualized parody. He catalogued where I was in real life: I felt stalked. He posted on my friends' journals. And when people started noticing him, he only got more prolific.
Eventually, I realized I could write to LiveJournal and have the site shut down. I made my blog utterly private, and eventually stopped writing in it. I thought I'd learned a valuable lesson: writing less will provoke less.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. I've been a longtime fan of Feminist Frequency, and followed the recent cybermob harassment of Anita Sarkeesian with sympathy and anger. When she participated in a panel called Online Harassment: What it Drives and How it Lowers Visions, I had to watch it. She and two other women--and academic and a journalist--discussed online harassment as something I'd never considered before. That some (not all) of the trolling I was taught as a GM to tell players to ignore was part of a larger, systemic harassment culture on the Internet. You should see the videos for yourself, but here are some elements:
-- Between 2000-2012, 72% of online harassment victims were women.
-- Seeing the sexualized harassment of others discourages women from participating online.
-- Cyberbullying is a social activity, providing positive incentives for others to join in harassment.
-- Bullying replicates cultural assumptions that exist outside of the Internet.
After I saw the videos of the panel, I thought about the sexism inherent in the harassment I received: how, by focusing, for instance, on the size of my vagina, one blogger was able to reduce my existence to that of an object. How it changed me, someone who, at the time, was already seeing a therapist for agoraphobia--avoidant behavior--to the person I am now. How it's constantly there under the surface, the worry. I learned to choose gender neutral names when an alias was an option. I never show my gender on a gamer forum. In MOORPGs, I usually play male characters. You get less unwanted attention that way. And talking to other gamer women, I realized we all thought about potential harassment from male gamers.
I wondered about my online writing, too. Have I failed to regularly write on the Internet because of avoidance/fear? Do I choose NASA or books or childrearing as topics because they aren't, in my mind, too controversial?
Before, I would have said all of these changes were because I have grown older and more cautious. Some of them probably are. But remembering how the harassment felt, reading what I wrote then, and seeing these videos, I've begun deconstructing the emotions I felt at the time. And while I still stand by the general rule of not feeding the trolls, saying something when I see someone being attacked for her gender or in a sexualized way may be, at times, the better response. And removing sexist attacks from my comments section isn't inhibiting free speech: it's providing culturally relevant accountability for otherwise unchecked antisocial behavior.
As for writing on the Internet? Well, I'm here. On this blog. Writing. I'm doing this realizing I'll feel a twinge of anxiety for a few hours after I post this. Fear must be faced. And while I won't throw out courtesy and reasonable caution, I know that I must fling my windows wide open again.