The Idea That Online Life Isn’t Real Is Trite—And Harmful
I found the photos, appropriately, through Facebook: striking black and white images of people staring blankly at their empty hands — at the spot where a cell phone would be — instead of talking to each other.
“Removed,” a new series by photographer Eric Pickersgill, is meant to evoke the isolating influence of modern technology. You’ve probably come across this sentiment before — probably on Facebook, and probably accompanied by anxious comments like “Must see!” “Scary but true!” “Look immediately then throw away your phone!!!”
There was last year’s megaviral “Can We Autocorrect Humanity,” in which spoken word artist Prince Ea urges viewers, over a montage of sad people looking at screens, to reject “digital insanity” in order to get “closer to humanity.” (The video has been viewed 14 million times on YouTube, where Ea links to his Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts, natch).
Then there was September’s New York Times’ op-ed by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, in which she argues that technology is ruining conversation—and might even be turning the next generation into phone-addicted robots incapable of normal empathy.
Just a week after Turkle’s article, CNN ran a special report about the “perils” of the fact that young people “are living their social lives online as much as they do face-to-face.”
It’s certainly worth considering how cell phones and social media divide our attention, and the viral success of these articles and photos and videos suggests they’re tapping into a common fear. The glaring problem with all this modern handwringing, however, is its presumption that the complex, wondrous worlds behind our screens aren’t real.
As a female journalist, I am tired of hearing this. The harassment I’ve been subject to online is all too real, but the prevalence of the idea that on-screen life is less authentic has meant that my experiences—and those of countless other women—aren’t taken seriously.
Months before I’d come across any of these articles or photos, I’d stood in a dreary police station in Brooklyn with four pages of printed emails in my hand. The messages had started that morning — the first, with the subject line “get raped,” sandwiched between a birthday party invitation and a chili recipe from my mom. I’d opened them to read, “you deserbe (sic) to have your vagina violently mutilated. you are a disgusting, baby mutilating cunt. i personally want to rape you. we’re on to you, and we’re growing. people like you will be removed from our society.”
The emails were in response to an article I’d written about men’s rights activism, a sort of rabidly anti-feminist sect that has found confidence and community online. I’d gotten similar messages in the past — I’m a woman who sometimes writes about woman-related things on the Internet; harassment comes with the territory — but this was the first time I’d tried to do anything more than mock the senders’ grammar on Facebook.
Unfortunately, the police had no idea what to do. They quickly sent me on my way (to be fair, one officer did say he’d like to punch the emailer in the face), and my search for offline justice was over almost as soon as it began.
It is for most people. Digital harassment typically doesn’t lead to rigorous investigations, legal prosecution, nor even basic sympathy, in large part because of this persistent notion that what happens on the Internet doesn’t count — a notion bolstered, no doubt, by assertions that technology is destroying human interaction.
I’m not totally unsympathetic to discomfort with how technology is changing the way we communicate; I’m 26, so of a generation caught between people who spent their formative years without any social media whatsoever and those for whom “elsewhere,” as Turkle calls it, has always been in the palms of their hands. But beyond assuming that physical proximity is inherently more meaningful than whatever’s happening online (it’s not), much of this growing unease betrays a lack of digital fluency; the adults referenced by CNN’s report, for example, had “no idea what teens are actually doing online.”
It also underestimates the capabilities of our new mediums. The message of Pickersgill’s photos is clear: while supposedly keeping us connected, technology is really just driving us apart. Turkle similarly says technology distances us from conversations in which we “allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable,” where “empathy and intimacy flourish” and “we learn who we are.”
But our technologies actually do allow for a breadth of emotional cues. I don’t just mean the obvious ways they connect family members who are thousands of miles apart or friends who have lost each other in time. I mean the fact that the things we use to talk to each other today have their own tonal grammar: tiny changes in punctuation can convey vastly different inflections; few things match the agony and excitement of seeing the bubble of ellipses as a crush responds to a text; a Gchat feels inherently different from a Twitter mention, which feels different from a Facebook post, or an Instagram “like,” or a Snapchat, or a screenshot of a Snapchat. A recent Pew study even found that online spaces “play a major role in how teens flirt, woo and communicate with potential and current flames.”
A sort of cyber-synesthesia characterizes modern communication, and this will only get more complex with time. Those who “learned who they are” in the absence of this ever-expanding alphabet may find it less penetrable, like someone who picked up French later in life and never captures the range of expression, never feels the presence and vulnerability, of a native speaker. This is important to understand, because arguments that dismiss diverse technologies as a monolith permitting only shallow communication ignore the fact that digital interactions can be nuanced and intimate — and, it follows, deeply harmful.
In a world where women in particular are often terrorized into quitting platforms that are essential to modern life (not to mention to feminist organizing), this is not an academic point. Women, who have been the most vocal about cyber harassment and subject to distinctly gendered abuse, face severe consequences for speaking up online — from being forced to flee their homes, to canceling speaking events (and losing out on potential income), to simply having to waste valuable mental labor coping with an onslaught of hate.
Nearly half of teen respondents to a recent global YouGov survey also said cyberbullying is a bigger problem than drug abuse, and more than half felt it was “worse than bullying face to face.” Yet the go-to advice for anyone dealing with harassment is to tell them not to “feed the trolls,” or that whoever is behind it would never do or say these things in “real” life, and thus their threats and bullying don’t matter. “Anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless,” Slate’s Jim Pagel wrote in 2013.
Dismissing harassment like this just denies its discriminatory dynamics, the power structures it seeks to reinforce, and the emotional validity of victims’ very human responses. “These relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online,” journalist Amanda Hess wrote in an article for Pacific Standard about her own extensive experience with digital abuse. (One commenter tweeted at her, “Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” A police officer later asked her, “What is Twitter?”)
Michelle Goldberg echoed this sentiment in the Washington Post, writing that “the incessant, violent, sneering, sexualized hatred” directed at women online has “extracted a steep psychic price” from female authors that “saps morale and leads to burnout.” That technology has become an invaluable tool for organizing around women’s rights makes their potential exclusion from it all the more impactful; some women Goldberg interviewed had stopped or reduced their writing on topics like reproductive health care and rape.
It might seem counterintuitive to exalt technology by emphasizing the bad things it lets people to do to each other. But while the darker aspects of digital communication may indeed arise because people aren’t always standing in front of each other when they talk anymore, they’re likely encouraged by assumptions that what we do via technology is by nature less valid than anything we do in-person. That is, maybe harassment flourishes not just because the stakes actually are lower, but also because viewing digital communication insignificant encourages people to believe this to be true.
Would fewer people engage in online abuse if technology were treated with enough respect as a medium to warrant emotional gravity — and legal consequences — for the things we say through it? It’s certainly possible. As it stands, light penalties mean officials have little incentive to take online crime seriously, let alone devote resources to its investigation and prosecution.
We can never hope to make the Internet a better, safer place until we accept it as the legitimate part of life it already is. The technological revolution stands only to become more embedded in our lives, and if we want to fully embrace all the beauty it enables (and there is so much of that), we have to acknowledge — and fight to limit — the pain it can cause. That means that as our inventions open doors to new frontiers of human interaction, we need to move forward with enough openness and humility to understand that the places we’re going are real.