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#womenslives: Online harassment, young women (and the academy)

Online harassment, young women (and the academy) – @socimagination

The Pew study found the distribution of these experiences to be structured by gender and age. Young adults (18-29) as a whole are more likely to experience either category of harassment but young women (18-24) are overwhelmingly the targets of the more extreme behaviours.

But the gendering of these experiences, shouldn’t lead us to dismiss the ‘lesser’ category of harassment. This too can be gendered, in its cumulative and ubiquitous character, as Audrey Watters conveys on loc 1771 of her Monsters of Educational Technology:

I speak from experience. On Twitter, I have over 26,000 followers, most of whom follow me, I’d wager, because from time to time I say smart things about education technology. Yet regularly, men –strangers, typically, but not always –jump into my “@-mentions” to explain education technology to me. To explain open source licenses or open data or open education or MOOCs to me. Men explain learning management systems to me. Men explain the history of education technology to me. Men explain privacy and education data to me. Men explain venture capital funding of education startups to me. Men explain online harassment to me. Men explain blogging to me. Men explain, they explain, they explain. It’s exhausting. It’s insidious. It doesn’t quite elevate to the level of harassment, to be sure; but these microaggressions often mean that when harassment or threats do occur, women like me are already worn down. Yet this is all part of my experiences online. My experiences. Women’s experiences. My friends’ experiences.

There’s a complexity to this behaviour which the Pew study doesn’t capture. It recognises that these behaviours are much more common on such platforms than others, but it doesn’t attempt to look at these divergences demographically in terms of use of platforms. It’s important to recognise that certain online environments are what we might think of as ‘harrasogenic’ in a way that’s susceptible to explanation, including though not limited to deliberate choices by the companies in question to calibrate the architecture of their platforms to maximise attention, engagement, return etc in line with commercial incentives:

  • 66% of internet users who have experienced online harassment said their most recent incident occurred on a social networking site or app
  • 22% mentioned the comments section of a website
  • 16% said online gaming
  • 16% said in a personal email account
  • 10% mentioned a discussion site such as reddit
  • 6% said on an online dating website or apphttp://www.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/

The mechanisms available within a platform to respond to harassment are a clear function of those choices, as well as shaping the character of the platform through parameterization of harassment and responses to it. The Pew study found that low-level harassment tended to lead to single-step responses and high-level harassment tended to lead to multi-step responses. Surprisingly, 75% of those who responded thought their decision made the situation better, though it raises an obvious question of the distribution of this experience between the two categories.

  • 47% of those who responded to their most recent incident with online harassment confronted the person online
  • 44% unfriended or blocked the person responsible
  • 22% reported the person responsible to the website or online service
  • 18% discussed the problem online to draw support for themselves
  • 13% changed their username or deleted their profile
  • 10% withdrew from an online forum
  • 8% stopped attending certain offline events or places
  • 5% reported the problem to law enforcementhttp://www.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/

When seen against this background, the drive within universities to incite academics to engage online can seem rather problematic. As Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it “the risks and rewards of presenting oneself “to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion” (Barone 2009) are not the same for all academics in the neo-liberal “public” square of private media.” The increasing levels of political polarisation, as well as the specific problem of organised conservative and alt-right groups seeking to highlight what they deem to be problematic academic speech online, reveal how this issue is intensifying. Given, as Tressie observes, universities use “engaged academics as an empirical measure of a university’s reputational currency” online harassment must be seen as a central issue of academic freedom and academic labour.