Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

“Wow, uh…you’re very open online.” I still hear this from people every so often.

“Yup,” I say, because I don’t assume it was meant to be a compliment.

And it’s true. On my Facebook–which, by the way, is not public–I’ve posted regularly about depression, anxiety, sexuality, sexual harassment and assault, body image issues, interpersonal problems, and other various struggles, big and small, that make up life. Don’t get me wrong–I also post plenty about food, cute animals, books, and other “appropriate” topics for online discussion, although I’ve noted before that there really is no way to win at social media (including refusing to play at all).

People who don’t know me well probably assume I do it “for attention” (as if there’s anything humans don’t do for some sort of attention, one way or another), or because I’m unaware of social norms (they’re not that different where I come from, trust me), or simply because I have poor impulse control. Actually, I have excellent impulse control. I’m not sure I’ve ever acted on impulse in my entire life, with perhaps the sole exception of snapping at my family members when they get under my skin. I know plenty of people who have destroyed relationships, lost jobs, or gotten hospitalized as a result of their impulses. I get…speaking rudely to someone for badgering me about my weight.

Being open about myself and my life online (and to a certain extent in person) is something I do strategically and intentionally. I have a number of goals that I can accomplish with openness (or, as I’ll shortly reframe it, vulnerability), and so far I think it’s worked out well for me.

A lot of the good things about my life right now–and, yes, some of the bad–can be traced back to a decision I made about five and a half years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had recently been diagnosed with depression and started medication, which was working out great and had me feeling like myself for the first time in years. (Yeah, there were some horrible relapses up ahead, but all the same.)

I wrote a very candid note on Facebook–later a blog post–about my experience and how diagnosis and treatment had helped me. At the time, I did not know anyone else who was diagnosed with a mental illness–not because nobody was, but because nobody had told me so, let alone posted about it publicly online. While I obviously knew on some level that I wasn’t “the only one,” it felt that way. I certainly didn’t think it would be a relevant topic for my friends. Mental illness was something experienced by Other People and by weird, alien me, not by any of the happy, normal people I knew.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In response to my post, tons of friends started coming out of the woodwork–both in private messages and in the comments of my post–and talking about their own experiences with mental illness. An ex-boyfriend texted me and apologized for dumping me years prior for what he now knew was an untreated mental illness. Acquaintances and classmates turned into close friends. Circles of support were formed. I started speaking out more and gradually became recognized as an advocate for mental health on campus, and eventually started a peer counseling service that is still active on campus today, three years after I left. These experiences pushed me away from the clinical psychology path and towards mental health services, leading me to pursue internships, my masters in social work program, and now, what looks to be a promising career as a therapist.

All because of a Facebook post that many would consider “TMI” or “oversharing.”

Well, not all because. I don’t know what path my life would’ve taken if I’d made different choices, not just with coming out as a person with depression but with all kinds of things. Maybe I’d still be here, or somewhere similar. But I can’t possibly know that–what I do know is that the decision to make that Facebook post had very far-reaching and mostly positive effects on my life.

This isn’t a “you should come out” post; I don’t do those. I’m writing about myself and why I’m so open. This experience, and others that followed, shaped my perspective about this. So, here’s why.

1. To be seen.

That’s my most basic reason and the one that comes closest to being impulsive. But basically, I don’t like being seen as someone I’m not. I don’t like it when people think my life is perfect because I only post the good things. It hurts when people assume I have privileges I don’t, and when people think I couldn’t possibly need support or sympathy because everything is fine. If I didn’t post about so-called “personal” things,  people would assume that I’m straight, neurotypical, and monogamous, and the thought of that is just painful.

2. To filter people out.

I don’t expect everyone in my life to support me through hard times or care about my problems. Some people are just here for when I’m being fun and interesting, and that’s only natural. However, posting about personal things on Facebook is a great way to filter out people who not only aren’t interested in supporting me, but who are actually uncomfortable with people being honest about themselves and their lives. Otherwise, it’s going to be really awkward when we meet in person and you ask me how I’m doing and I say, “Eh, been having a rough time lately. How about you?” Because I do say that. Not with any more detail than that if you don’t ask for it, but that’s enough to make some people very twitchy because I didn’t perform my role properly.

I don’t want anyone in my life who thinks it’s wrong, weak, or pathetic to be open about your struggles. Because of the way I use Facebook, they don’t tend to stay on my friends list for long, and that’s exactly how I want it.

3. To increase awareness of mental illness.

When I post about my experiences with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it’s not just because I want people to know what’s going on with me personally. I also want them to know what mental illness is. When I published that post about depression I mentioned earlier, I didn’t just get “me too” responses–I also got comments from people who said that they’d never had depression and struggled to understand what it’s like, but that my piece helped. Some people took that knowledge and applied it to their relationships with depressed friends, partners, and family members, which I think is great.

It seems weird to write this section now, because so many people in my life have themselves been diagnosed with mental illness or are very knowledgeable about it through supporting others with it. But when I first started being open online about depression, that definitely didn’t describe my social circle, and I’d like to think that my openness is at least part of the reason for the difference.

4. To reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I don’t just want to make people aware of what mental illness is like–I want them to stop thinking of it is a shameful thing that ought to be kept secret. Since I’m fortunate enough to feel safe coming out, I think that’s a powerful action I can take to reduce that stigma. The more people see my posts about depression and anxiety as normal, just like posting about having the flu or going to the doctor, the less they’ll stigmatize mental illness.

Of course, stigma–and the ableism that fuels it–is a broad and systemic problem with intersectional implications that I don’t even pretend to be able to fix with some Facebook posts. But I do what I can.

5. To reduce the stigma of vulnerability, period.

Not everything “personal” that I put online deals with mental illness specifically (although, when you have lifelong depression, everything does tend to come back to that). I write a lot about homesickness, my love for New York (and the pain of leaving it), issues with my family, relationships, daily frustrations and challenges, and so on.

Not everyone wants to share these things with their friends (online or off), but many people do–they’re just afraid that nobody cares, that they’ll be seen as weak, or that there’s no room for this kind of vulnerability within the social norms that we’ve created. That last one may be true, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way.

As Brené Brown notes in her book that I recently read, vulnerability isn’t the same thing as recklessly dumping your personal problems on people. I’ve also written about guidelines for appropriate sharing, and how to deal when someone’s sharing makes you uncomfortable.

The point isn’t to completely disregard all social norms; some of them are there to help interactions go smoothly and make sure people’s implicit boundaries are respected. The point is to design social norms that encourage healthier interactions, and while I’m sure there are some people who can healthily avoid divulging anything personal to their friends, I’m not one of them and my friends aren’t either. So for us, reducing the stigma of vulnerability and encouraging openness about how we feel is healthy.

6. To create the kinds of friendships I value. 

Being open online doesn’t just filter people out–it also filters people in. Folks who appreciate vulnerability read my posts, get to know me better, and share more with me in turn. I’ve developed lots of close friendships through social media, and not all of them are long-distance. In fact, a common pattern for me is that I meet someone at a local event and chat casually and then we add each other on Facebook, at which point we learn things about each other that are way more personal than we ever would’ve shared at a loud bar or party. Then the friendship can actually develop.

I’ve been very lucky to find lots of people who appreciate this type of connection. People who don’t always answer “how are you?” with “good!”, who engage with “negative” social media posts in a supportive and productive way rather than just ignoring them or peppering them with condescending advice or demands to “cheer up!” People who understand that having emotions, even about “silly” things, doesn’t make you weak or immature. People who understand that working through your negative/counterproductive emotions requires first validating and accepting them, not beating yourself up for them or ignoring them.

So, that’s why I’m so open online. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. But I’m not alone in it, and it’s becoming less and less weird. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, I was the only person I knew with depression. Not only do I now know many, but I’m also so much more aware of all sorts of joys and sorrows I haven’t personally experienced–all thanks to my friends’ openness online. For a therapist–hell, for a human being–that’s an invaluable education.

Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free

I am closing comments on this blog until further notice.

I’m not writing this because I think that needs justification. I’m writing this for the sake of my own clarity, to help me decide if/when I want reopen comments, and to empower other bloggers who are considering a similar decision.

Otherwise, I don’t have to justify my decision because I don’t owe you a comments section any more than I owe you access to my living room. I don’t owe you anything other than I owe anyone else: basic kindness and respect.

I’m sure you’re wondering what awful harassment and rape and death threats I’ve gotten recently that made me come to this decision, but the reality is a lot less dramatic. I rarely get harassment and threats these days. When I did, it was horrifyingly unpleasant and scary, but it ultimately did less long-term damage than the actual reason: boring everyday online negativity and nitpicking.

Continue reading “Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free”

Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free

Frivolous Friday: Social Media Etiquette

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care a lot about that may not necessarily have serious implications for politics or social justice. Although any day is a good day to write about our passions outside of social issues, we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun.

There’s been a lot of advice lately about what not to post on social media to avoid annoying other people, since that should obviously be your top priority going through life. I decided to helpfully condense all this advice into one article that you can keep handy.

The author taking a selfie of a flowery dress.
    1. Don’t post any selfies. People who post selfies are self-obsessed. If you’re attractive and you post selfies, you’re probably just trying to show off and make people feel bad about themselves. If you’re unattractive and you post selfies, ew, nobody wants to see that. 
    2. …except for your profile photo. People who make their profile photo anything other than their own face are so awkward and weird. What, are you that insecure about your appearance? We all know you’re not a dog or a flower.
    3. Don’t post photos of your partner(s). That’s so annoying. Besides, how are all your single friends going to feel?
    4. Don’t post photos of your kid(s). Parents are sooo annoying on social media, always assuming that everyone wants to see a hundred photos of their kids. You can post one photo of each child per lifetime–preferably when they’re born and then never again.
    5. Don’t post photos of your pets. See above.
    6. Katya, the author's tabby/tortie cat.
      Don’t post photos of your friends. That just makes other people feel bad because they might not have as active of a social life. Besides, why are you trying to show off how popular you are? Just enjoy your time with your friends without having to broadcast it to the public.
    7. Don’t post photos of food. Who cares about your boring dinner? Oh, that’s a five-course Italian meal you cooked yourself? What a show-off.
      Spiced lamb liver with Israeli couscous.
      Definitely not.
    8. Don’t post photos of landscapes, cityscapes, or cool things you see. Why can’t you just enjoy the moment rather than waste it on taking a photo?
      Flowers in Cincinnati's Eden Park.
      Not this one either.
    9. So, pretty much don’t post photos of anything at all.
    10. Don’t post about your accomplishments. That makes it seem like you just want attention and affirmation for doing totally basic things like getting into medical school or having your writing accepted for publication. Yeah, yeah, we get it, you’re soooo smart and talented and perfect. No need to rub it in people’s faces. If you were really that happy about it, you wouldn’t need attention on social media.
    11. Don’t downplay your accomplishments. Otherwise known as humblebragging. This is annoying. Just be proud of what you did and don’t act all fake and modest about it.
    12. Actually, just don’t post positive things. That makes other people compare themselves to the unrealistic standard that you’ve set and that’s what causes mental illness. Do you want to give people mental illnesses?
    13. Don’t post negative things either. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. It’s unfair to force other people to deal with your problems by seeing them briefly in their newsfeed and then immediately scrolling past.
    14. Don’t post about politics or social justice. It’s controversial and makes people upset, and besides, all you’re doing is reinforcing your own tribalism and trying to score points with other people on your side. Politics is not what Facebook is for.
    15. Don’t post funny memes. Don’t you care about anything serious, like what’s going on in the world?
    16. Don’t post song lyrics. I’m just going to assume they’re a passive-aggressive comment about me.
    17. Don’t post about work. That’s so boring. Leave it at the office.
    18. Don’t post about sex, not even with a warning. That’s disgusting. Keep it to yourself.
    19. Don’t post about fitness. Who cares about your workout routine?
    20. Don’t post about veganism, polyamory, atheism, or any other voluntary non-mainstream lifestyle or identity. You’re obviously just trying to convert people and that’s so much worse than people telling you that you shouldn’t be poly/atheist/vegan.
    21. Don’t post about race. Why do you have to make everything about race?
    22. Don’t post about sexual orientation. Why do you people always have to shove your homosexuality in our faces?
    23. Don’t opt out of social media. After reading all these rules, you might be thinking to yourself, “Wow, social media sounds like a lot of hard work. Also, no matter what I post, I’m shallow and vain and who even cares, right? Maybe I just shouldn’t have any social media accounts.” Not so fast! Opting out of social media means that you’re antisocial, boring, and holier-than-thou. You probably think you’re so much better than the rest of us vain and shallow narcissists. How rude. Do you even have any friends?
    24. Do post about how social media is for vain, shallow narcissists who can’t think critically or engage with the offline world. As a fun thought experiment, see how many current social issues you can blame on social media. And definitely post this article on social media. No, of course I didn’t write it just for the clicks. What are you talking about?

Obviously, that was satire. Post whatever the fuck you want; other people can deal with their own feelings about that.


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Frivolous Friday: Social Media Etiquette

Who Benefits From OkCupid's New Polyamory Feature?

Everyone keeps sending me this Atlantic article about a new OkCupid feature for nonmonogamous people, so I might as well respond to it.

The new setting, which became available for some beta users in December, allows users who are listed as “seeing someone,” “married,” or “in an open relationship” on the platform to link their profiles and search for other people to join their relationship.

[…] Though specialized dating sites for polyamorous people exist, this appears to be the first instance of a mainstream online-dating platform allowing two users to search for sexual partners together, as a unit.

[…] “Finding your partner is very important,” [OkCupid chief product officer Jimena Almendares] said, “you should have the option to express specifically and exactly who you are and what you need.”

Honestly, I know I should be excited about this Great Leap For Polyamory Recognition, but at this point, I’m not. I just can’t care. This feature only serves and makes visible one incredibly narrow, very privileged, and often harmful version of polyamory, and it has nothing to do with the polyamory that I or any of my partners practice.

Let’s start with the fact that Almendares refers to “your partner” (singular) and that the feature only allows you to link to one partner. When are non-poly people going to understand that polyamory is not about “your partner,” “the couple,” or “the relationship,” but rather about “your partners” and “your relationships” and the people in those relationships? This sort of couple-centric language may seem like an innocent holdover from everyone’s monogamous days, but it can have serious implications for how we treat partners who are more short-term, casual, or recent than others.

Sure, some people are totally fine with “joining the relationship.” I’m not writing about those people. I’m writing about those of us who dislike being solicited to become some straight couple’s fun queer sex toy, and those of us who are not interested in relationships where we are treated as intrinsically lesser because someone else got there first.

None of that means that the new feature is bad or wrong; I’m just explaining why I don’t care about it and why I’m annoyed to see it portrayed as a big victory for poly folks on OkCupid.

Would you look at that! OkCupid has already explicitly included nonmonogamous folks.
Would you look at that! OkCupid has already explicitly included nonmonogamous folks.

What really is cool is that OkCupid already lets people list their relationship style preference (I’ve included mine here as an example) and it lets you link to other users’ profiles in the text of your own profile. Many poly people use that to let others know who they’re already dating. You can also, of course, use it to mention friends and fuck buddies and whoever else you’d like. It’s lovely specifically because it doesn’t force you to categorize anyone based on importance. OkCupid also lets you filter by monogamy/nonmonogamy when browsing your matches, which helps people find potential partners who are interested in the same types of relationships they are.

If OkCupid already includes all these options that recognize polyamory, why is this one being touted all over my online feeds as evidence that the dating site is “finally including options for poly couples”? Probably because this particular option caters to such an easily-recognizable version of polyamory, by “allowing two users to search for sexual partners together, as a unit.”


AND you can search for people by (non)monogamy preference!
AND you can search for people by (non)monogamy preference!

Of course, if you ask just about any bisexual woman, poly or not, she’ll tell you that there has been absolutely nothing stopping two users from searching for sexual partners together as a unit this whole time. They do it quite often, and trust me, there’s never any confusion when I get a message from an account with two headless bodies in the profile pic that says, “My wife and I are looking for a hot young woman to have some fun with…” It is abundantly clear to me from the first message what sort of arrangement this is and how much value as a human being I have to these random strangers.

Certainly not all “unicorn hunters” (as they’re called in the poly community) are as objectifying, entitled, and heterosexist as the prototypical example, but in my experience, even the nicest and most consent-oriented ones are operating under a lot of flawed assumptions about queer women and what constitutes an equitable, mutually satisfying relationship. But whatever, this isn’t really the article to hash all that out in. I’m just saying that for many of us polyamorous folks, queer women especially, there’s no “victory” in any dating site feature that claims to make it even easier for these couples to target us.

Calling unicorn hunting “polyamory” feels to me a bit like calling same-sex marriage “LGBTQ equality,” except admittedly without the implications about oppression. Yes, both of these things are components of polyamory and LGBTQ equality, respectively, but both of them are frequently treated by the media (and even by many activists) as if they are the same thing. In the end, I feel similarly about unicorn hunting as I feel about same-sex marriage: do it if it floats your boat, but try not to trip over the rest of us on your way there and definitely don’t act like it’s all there is to fight for and make visible.

Before the chorus of But At Least They Did Something So Just Be Grateful For That begins, I’ll just say this: I’m not sure it’s at all a positive thing to continue perpetuating the idea that polyamory is all about couples looking for a hot young woman to “add” to the relationship. (By the way: even in an arrangement like that, the woman is not being “added.” She is forming two new relationships, one with each person in the preexisting couple, and each person in the preexisting couple is formingnew relationship with her. This is an important distinction.) I don’t celebrate it for the same reason I don’t cheer when a TV show adds yet another conventionally attractive white bisexual woman who sleeps with a ton of people and can’t commit to a serious relationship: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being that way, but it’s a stereotype that causes many people to have a negative impression of bisexual women, so can’t we at least portray a greater variety of bisexual women? Can’t we acknowledge that it doesn’t always look this way?

I would love for more people to know that polyamory can look like this. I would love for more people whose polyamory looks like that to have an easier time using dating websites. One very small and easy thing OkCupid could do (as could Facebook) would be to allow people to list multiple partners rather than just one, especially if the context is open relationships.

Remember: the whole point of polyamory is multiple partners. You may not feel the same way about all of them, you may not see all of them as often, they may not have the same genders, you may not share homes or bank accounts or parenting responsibilities with all of them, and you may even (though this makes me cringe for my own reasons) have rules about what you can and cannot do with some of them, but they are all your partners. There is no “your partner” and “the relationship” in polyamory unless you are currently only seeing one person. Hopefully the folks over at OkCupid realize this soon.

P.S. Here are some great perspectives on this from Ozy and Neil, because I like their writing and I want to show you that this isn’t just me.

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Who Benefits From OkCupid's New Polyamory Feature?

How SXSW Got Online Harassment Wrong

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about SXSW’s…weird handling of its little Gamergate problem.

This week, South by Southwest, an annual film, music, and interactive media festival, canceled two of its scheduled panels: one about harassment in gaming and another about “the gaming community,” organized by Gamergate supporters.

Dealing with ongoing controversies while planning events is never easy, but the festival organizers’ handling of this situation so far suggests, at best, serious ignorance of the reality of online harassment and, at worst, gross negligence on part of SXSW.

Here are the three biggest mistakes the festival made and what future organizers—and everyone else—can learn from them:

1) Failing to take a stand against online abuse

Their first mistake was failing to notice and react to the harassment that the panelists on the “anti-Gamergate” panel were receiving. (Although the purpose of the panel was to discuss harassment, not to “oppose” Gamergate, that’s how it’s being described online, presumably because everyone understands that Gamergate is a pro-harassment movement.)

As Arthur Chu points out in his detailed breakdown of this story, the organizers were aware of the dozens of harassing comments being posted on the page where the panel was being voted on. Although SXSW eventually shut down the comments, it never deleted any. Instead, organizers responded in an email:

Right now, what we see in the comments section is an open dialogue/debate between two different opinions. Until one of those comments turns into an outright threat of violence, we will leave them up.

Unsurprisingly, Gamergate’s response did end up escalating to threats of violence. And while we can’t ever know for sure if that could’ve been prevented by a more assertive response by SXSW, it’s entirely possible that the trolls would’ve given up and moved on to more interesting targets if the festival organizers had deleted all inappropriate comments and made a clear statement in support of its panelists without inviting further “dialogue/debate” on the matter.

The fact that people should be able to use the Internet and participate in panels without being subjected to slurs and harassment shouldn’t be up for debate.

Read the rest here.

How SXSW Got Online Harassment Wrong

In Praise of Facebook's New 'Like' Button

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about Facebook Reactions.

When rumors spread online last month that Facebook was going to add a “Dislike” button, the Internet reacted with a great deal of, well, dislike. Although CEO Mark Zuckerberg clarified that he didn’t intend to suggest that the platform was instituting its own form of Reddit downvoting, nobody understood what he was really planning until Reactions was revealed last week. The site’s new version of the ”Like” button includes six additional emotions: “Love,” “Haha,” “Yay,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.” When users click to “Like” a post, they will be able to choose one of these options, including the iconic thumbs up to which we’re all accustomed.

In a Facebook post from last week, Zuckerberg explained the rationale behind the change:

Not every moment is a good moment, and sometimes you just want a way to express empathy. These are important moments where you need the power to share more than ever, and a Like might not be the best way to express yourself. … Reactions gives you new ways to express love, awe, humor, and sadness. It’s not a dislike button, but it does give you the power to easily express sorrow and empathy—in addition to delight and warmth.

It’s great to see Zuckerberg finally acknowledging the many ways in which people use Facebook. When he used the platform back in August to speak publicly about the three miscarriages he and his wife experienced, it appears he understood the power of Facebook to share news and stories that aren’t exactly likable.

Reactions makes sense as a next step—both for Mark Zuckerberg and his company. While some might dismiss Reactions as silly or weird, I predict that it will help people communicate with each other in ways that feel more intuitive and that end in less awkwardness. Think about it: When someone says something funny, we don’t say “LOL” or “that’s funny.” We laugh. When you share a devastating loss with a friend in person, you might be comforted by the obvious concern and sympathy on their face.

Facebook can’t perfectly mimic the experience of laughing with a roomful of friends or having someone there with you when you hear terrible news (at least, not yet), but it can help people express the emotions they actually mean to express, which can be difficult online. A thoughtless “Like” on a sad post can be read as insensitive or flippant, but there’s not always anything to say in a comment about it, either—nor would a whole thread of “wow that sucks” make you feel any better.

Friends often tell me that they struggle with figuring out how to respond to posts that share serious problems or frustrations. Often they end up saying nothing at all, and clicking a thumbs up icon doesn’t feel like an appropriate substitute. Instead of leaving an empty space when users are grieving or feeling blue, Reactions might help people support friends and let them know that they are heard and that their pain is acknowledged. Sharing a sad post would feel less like screaming into an online void and more like talking to a group of friends.

Read the rest here.

In Praise of Facebook's New 'Like' Button

Why Peeple Won't Save Us From Jerks

I wrote about Peeple again for the Daily Dot, but from a slightly different angle than my other piece.

Peeple, a new app for rating people like as if they were restaurants on Yelp, hasprovoked so much criticism and anger online that its creators, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, have shut down their Twitter and Facebook pages. The app, which is flawed in more ways than it isn’t, is still supposed to be released in November—even despite the death threats that the creators have reportedly received.

I wish I could say that I’m stating the obvious, but sending McCullough and Cordray death threats is not OK. It’s never OK. And although some are gloating over the fact that getting harassed might teach them what the Internet is really like, I still wish that were a lesson they could’ve avoided.

One potential upside is that the app may be getting some changes. Although the creators are making bold statements like “We will not be shamed into submission,” it seems they may have listened to their critics at least a little and made the app opt-in. However, this was not framed as a change. The creators never said that they were responding to criticism and updating the app. In a LinkedIn post, they simply stated that it’s an opt-in app, even though a week ago they explicitly said that it wasn’t. Are they hoping we don’t notice?

Even if Peeple undergoes some much-needed changes, I still haven’t seen anything from the creators about how specifically they intend to address abuse, harassment, and bullying on their app—because it will happen, opt-in or not. What creators of Peeple should learn is that you can’t engineer an asshole-free world. And if you try, the assholes will make sure that it hurts innocent folks much more.

Developers who believe that their apps will be free from abuse are laughably naive. Even apps that in theory have codes of conduct, moderators, and procedures for reporting abusive users struggle mightily with this problem. On Facebook, public pages intended to harass and bully others proliferate. On Twitter, harassers and stalkers use multiple sock puppet accounts to gang up on people they don’t like(especially women and people of color) and drive them off of the platform and sometimes out of public life.

Storify has been used to stalk users (including those who don’t use Storify themselves) by pinging them with notifications that someone they know to be unsafe and threatening is collecting and saving their tweets. On, a site for people to anonymously ask each other questions, teens flood their targets’ inboxes with bullying messages, in some cases leading to suicide. On Reddit, even subreddits dedicated to creating a supportive space get inundated with abusive trolls. YouTubecomments… well, the less said about that, the better.

It might be, thus, tempting to throw one’s hands up and proclaim that there’s nothing wrong with Peeple because the Internet’s already full of abuse and stalking and harassment—so who cares, right?

But the difference between Peeple and all those other apps is that they all have a purpose besides judging and evaluating people. Those apps have facilitated social change and activism, helped people learn new things and stay informed, provided art and entertainment, and created friendships and relationships.

Peeple does, in theory, have a constructive purpose—complimenting people and making sure that you’re surrounding yourself with good ones—but there are already better ways to do that that don’t involve nearly so much potential harm (especially to children or marginalized people like abuse survivors). When creating new technology, it’s important to ask yourself if the benefits actually outweigh the costs. While Peeple probably has some pros, the cons are just too overwhelming.

Read the rest here.

Why Peeple Won't Save Us From Jerks

The Danger of Believing That People Are "Genuinely Good"

Here’s what I was thinking as I watched Twitter thoroughly critique Peeple, a new app that promises to let people “rate” other people like restaurants on Yelp without any option to opt-out: If only all of us were still able to be so naive.

Personally, I’m far from the only person who thinks that Peeple sounds like Regina George’s Burn Book in digital form:

But Peeple’s founders have such rosy ideas about how their app is likely to be used that it’s making me wish I could hide under whatever rock they’ve been hiding under. You don’t even have to have faced online abuse to figure out that people are going to use an app like Peeple to make each other’s lives a living hell (and no, not deservedly). If you aren’t already familiar with how terrible this app is, Ana Mardoll did an excellent summary on Twitter starting here.

In the typical condescending and difficult-to-parse style of their social media posts, the founders claimed that “People are genuinely good even though Yelp has over 47 million reviews and all the users are anonymous and in that 47 million reviews there are 79% positive reviews.” Since it’s apparently not obvious, here’s the difference: most people have little incentive to trash a business on Yelp unless they really did have a pretty bad experience there. Even if they do trash a business on Yelp with no justification, though, it’s probably not going to be that big a deal. The business may lose some potential customers, which does suck, but chances are the unfair review will be overshadowed by more reasonable ones anyway.

When you’re rating people and not businesses, things change. First of all, it gets personal. People want to get back at their exes, abusers want to abuse, stalkers want to stalk. Second, one “bad review” on someone’s Peeple page can be enough to cost them their job, their family (if they get outed, for instance), their friends (if they get falsely accused of abuse by their actual abuser, which is a thing that abusers do). Women, people of color, and marginalized groups will inevitably get targeted by MRAs, Stormfront, or whatever the creepy stalker-y death threat-y regressive group du jour is. Bad reviews of businesses have typically gone viral because those businesses have acted in discriminatory or otherwise unfair ways, but people have gone viral for things as innocuous (and irrelevant to normal people who have shit to do besides stalking people they don’t like) as speaking at a feminist rally, being a bad date, or simply existing. I’m not going to link to examples, because that would perpetuate that abuse. Do some Googling if you don’t believe me.

The Peeple founders don’t seem to see it that way. Based on their posts, they seem to envision the app’s users as good citizen types who primarily want to use the app to bolster the reputations of people they like. Sometimes, of course, there may be bad reviews, but those are surely deserved, and if you think you don’t deserve your bad review, well, you can always just defend yourself in the court of public opinion, and certainly whoever is Objectively Right will prevail in the end. In another one of their bizarre Facebook posts, they write:

We have come so far as a society but in a digital world we are becoming so disconnected and lonely. You deserve better and to have more abundance, joy, and real authentic connections. You deserve to make better decisions with more information to protect your children and your biggest assets. You have worked so hard to get the reputation you have among the people that know you. As innovators we want to make your life better and have the opportunity to prove how great it feels to be loved by so many in a public space. We are a positivity app launching in November 2015. Whether you love us or our concept or not; we still welcome everyone to explore this online village of love and abundance for all.

A “positivity app”? In what universe? Not the one I’m living in.

I do, actually, believe that most people are generally trying to do the right thing. I get asked all the time how I could possibly believe that given what I see and what I write about, but I do and that’s a whole other article. But I also know that it only takes a few people with bad intentions to cause serious damage to others and to the world in general, and I also know how cognitive bias works. Maybe the disconnect between people like me and people like the ones who founded this app is that they think it would take some Hitler type to go on there and intentionally ruin someone’s life, but it really wouldn’t. All it takes is a man raised to believe that women owe him sexual access, or a jilted ex who doesn’t want anyone else to go through what they had to go through, or someone who’s under the mistaken impression that a coworker who messed up and caused the team’s project to fail deserves to never work in the field again. Someone who gets angry and says some things they later regret, only now it’s been screencapped and posted on 4chan along with the target’s credit card number and home address. Someone who believes that they’re saving countless unborn lives when they slander an abortion provider. Someone who thinks that feminists are so dangerous to the very fabric of society that they’d be justified to use any means, no matter how dishonest, to stop them.

It’s not like these things aren’t already happening. This would just make it even easier. And none of the safeguards that the Peeple founders are claiming to be implementing actually seem like they’d make much of a difference. For instance, they say that negative reviews won’t appear unless you claim your profile and thus allow them to show up, but someone could always just give you 10/10 stars and then write a bunch of shit about you. (And they don’t seem to understand that even positive reviews from total strangers, that you did not consent to have sent to your phone, can be ridiculously boundary-crossing and unwelcome. Haven’t either of them ever experienced street harassment?) They say that you have verify that you’re over 21, but nowhere do they say that you have to verify that your target is over 21. You can use this website to bully a child. They say that you have to use your Facebook profile to review people, as if that’s some sort of reassurance. I’ve seen rape threats from people whose full names were attached. They’re not afraid; they have institutional power behind them.

And that’s why I say it must be nice to be as naive as the Peeple founders apparently are. To not know this shit is going on? To not have to try every day to reconcile that with your belief that everyone has some good in them. To not live in fear of the day you piss off the wrong white man with an internet connection and plenty of spare time.

If Peeple is really going to be so “positive,” then why shouldn’t it be an opt-in service? Why wouldn’t everyone want to create a profile so that they can receive these wonderful compliments from their friends and lovers and that one random neighbor they talked to on the sidewalk once? I think on some level, the founders realize that they wouldn’t. They can’t make the app opt-in because then it’d never work. Most of us who’ve been around the online block have reacted to the whole thing with horror and revulsion. The only way the app’s creators can get it to work is by violating people’s consent and essentially forcing them to participate. I fail to see the “positivity” in that.

I get the urge to develop technological solutions to the problem of people being assholes. I really do. It would be great if we could never again date someone who sucks in bed, or hire a babysitter who plops the kids in front of the TV and then spends the rest of the night on Facebook, or befriend someone who will spill our secrets or take us for granted, or live with a roommate who never does their dishes. These things are at best annoyances and at worst serious life-fucking sorts of things.

But more surveillance of each other is not the solution. Heed the warnings of people who know what it is to be surveilled. Read 1984 if that’s what floats your boat. These tools will inevitably be used for abuse, and that’s not worth making sure that your next partner is good in bed.


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The Danger of Believing That People Are "Genuinely Good"

Not the Ethics We Need, But the Ethics We Deserve

Yesterday, Charles Clymer wrote on Facebook regarding the Ashley Madison hack:

The thing about the Ashley Madison leak that truly fascinates me is the hypocrisy of internet privacy activists, whom are predominantly male.

No, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge every person who has “cheated” on their spouse or with someone who is married. People engage in infidelity for a lot of reasons. There are trapped relationships, repressed sexualities and gender identities, abusive marriages, etc. I get that “cheating” isn’t always black-and-white and that people have a right to privacy.

But what blows me away every time some internet privacy incident comes up is that so many of the same people who rant and rave about government surveillance or compromised private information or unauthorized data collection… are the same folks who will gladly share a nude picture of a woman whose computer or device has been hacked.

These are the same people who view celebrity women as commercial products and thus, not entitled to any privacy.

These are the same people who, because of whatever bullshit “friendzone” grudge they hold against women, seem to gleefully–even obsessively–post stories, anecdotes, videos or whatever about women who have been caught cheating.

And not because of some moral crusade against infidelity but because they feel the need to control, in however small a way, women’s sexuality. If they’re not getting any, neither should women.

If they feel they have been denied sex by the women of the world (apparently a collective), they’ll go out of their way to publicly humiliate women in compromising situations.

Can women be cheating assholes or abusive or simply awful human beings? Of course. Every rational adult knows this.

But these angry, insecure men who spend their waking hours glued to Reddit and 4chan aren’t rational. They don’t view women as having the potential to be assholes because they’re human beings; they view a woman as an asshole because to them, she’s a product who is expected to perform to their liking. A robot devoid of character and personality, dreams and nightmares, needs and wants.

This is about a vicious sense of entitlement to women’s minds and bodies by a large population who wield enormous influence over the primary means of communication among human beings.

It’s not just about hacking a nude photo or revenge porn or the unceasing stream of harassment women receive online.

It’s also about enabling a culture that communicates to men that it’s perfectly fine to assault, rape, and kill women for not giving you what you want.

This whole Ashley Madison fiasco is simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement.

So, yes… while it’s a bummer to see privacy violated, I’m not exactly inspired to “join the cause”.

Shoot me an e-mail when your ethics are consistent and don’t blatantly and violently discriminate against women.

Fine, I’ll bite, since it’s a little weird to have Charles Clymer tell me that my anger over the Ashley Madison hack is “simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement” (which, you know, I never had), and that I’m one of the people who looked at the leaked nude photos last summer. I didn’t–and in fact, have been speaking out against this sort of thing for years–but the conflation Charles makes in this post sure is a convenient way of avoiding the issue of privacy and online shaming.

Are there people who oppose the Ashley Madison hack but supported the celebrity nude photo leak? Certainly. Are there entitled, sexist men speaking out right now against the Ashley Madison hack? Certainly. Unfortunately, you’re going to find horrible people in just about any political camp, including the most feminist camps out there. (TERFs, anyone?) That other people are ethically inconsistent doesn’t mean I have to be.

When it comes to ethical consistency, which Charles is trying to lecture us about in this post, you have to support what’s right and oppose what’s wrong based on what’s right and what’s wrong, not based on what your friends and your enemies happen to be doing.

I’ve already stated my opposition to the Ashley Madison hack in a variety of ways, so here I want to get a little more meta and point out a disturbing trend that Charles Clymer is far from the only progressive writer to play into. That’s the idea that finally this whole sexual shaming thing is impacting straight white men, not just women, queer people, and people of color! Rejoice!

I think I won’t. Yes, I belong to some groups that have suffered for millennia because of the idea that our private sexual lives should be anyone else’s business and that we should be judged and punished for living those lives. And you know what? It gives me no joy to see this virus spread. Revenge may be a valid impulse, but it doesn’t tend to lead to a better world for anyone. I don’t want straight white men to have to deal with public sexual shaming. I don’t want anyone to have to deal with it. The fact that it’s starting to hurt them too is not a good sign! It means we’ve really started to accept this as just the way things are.

Further, everyone keeps conveniently ignoring the fact that straight white male lives were not the only ones potentially ruined by this hack. It is impacting LGBTQ people. It is impacting women. It is impacting people who did not join the site to cheat, but because they needed things to be “discreet” for some other reason, and if you really can’t imagine any other reason someone might need things to be discreet, well…what you lack in imagination, you make up for in privilege.

I do recognize that for some people, this hack turned out to be a good thing. The people who found out that their own ostensibly monogamous partners were cheating on them, for instance. Maybe the hack gave these people a way to get back control over their lives. It’s almost inevitable that unethical actions will genuinely benefit some people who themselves did nothing wrong; that’s one of the reasons ethics is hard. That’s why I didn’t really see anything wrong with people using the hack to find out if they were being cheated on.

As for all the people I know–many of whom I greatly respect–who were gleefully feeding their entire email address books into that app so that they could spy on the lives of their friends and acquaintances and that one random person they emailed once about a potential sublet, that only fills me with horror and fear. Horror that I have friends who care so little for others’ privacy; fear that one day I’ll get doxxed, and people I thought were my friends will cackle at their laptop screens as they violate my consent.

I keep coming back to this patronizing undertone in all this–that I should somehow be glad for this. That this is keeping people safe. That if we all watch each other, if our world becomes like a panopticon, then we can be safe from being cheated on, from being discriminated against, from being hurt. I don’t agree. I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. This does not feel safe to me. I would feel much more safe if we all just finally agreed that it is unacceptable to dox and shame people unless they present a real, direct threat to someone else. I do not feel safe when my friends say, “Well, we’d never dox you, you haven’t done anything bad.” But someone else thinks I have! Everyone has done something bad according to someone.

Sexual shaming is an old, old problem. For a while it seemed to be getting better, but now I’m not so sure. We’ve started to accept its premises rather than challenging them. Some of us celebrate the fact that people who were always safe from sexual shaming are no longer. That shows them, right? They deserve it after what they’ve done to us, right?

We’re in the middle of the ocean and the water’s streaming in through the cracks in the hull, but rather than patch them until we can get to safety and build a better ship, we’ve apparently decided to just sink the motherfucker along with everyone on it. Nobody gets any privacy! Everyone gets their sex lives posted online and scrutinized! Anyone can lose their livelihood–even their life–for doing a disapproved-of thing!

Is this what justice looks like to you? It’s at least a twisted sort of equality, I’ll give it that.

But some of us have boats and life jackets and others don’t. Some at least have a wooden plank to grab onto, and others don’t even have that. Who do you think will be the first to drown? Who will be able to float away to land? Most importantly, wouldn’t it have been better not to sink the ship to begin with?

This is what Charles Clymer refers to as “a bummer.”

Revenge may taste sweet, but it’s not nutritious. It won’t keep us alive. Only justice can do that.


Further reading: “Our Shared Affair: The Sexual Shaming Behind the Ashley Madison Hack” by Katherine Cross, who has seriously been a consistent breath of fresh air to me in all these discussions about online doxxing and shaming.


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Not the Ethics We Need, But the Ethics We Deserve

What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

[Content note: online harassment & threats]

Many of us who have dealt with trolls online have spent a lot of time–to much, probably–wondering what motivated them, how they would justify their actions (or not), whether they would ever regret it or apologize.

Writer Lindy West actually got to find this out. After she publicly called out a troll who’d made a Twitter account impersonating her late father and used it to harass her (yes, that happened), he emailed her and apologized. He even donated money in her name to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had treated her father before he died. On an episode of This American Life, West called him and talked to him more about why he did what he did.

The conversation was both amazingly honest and also painfully unsurprising, at least to those of us who have dealt with this sort of behavior. The ex-troll admitted that he’d been in a really bad mental place when he’d made multiple accounts just to harass West. In the email he’d originally sent to apologize, he wrote, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” In the TAL episode, he explained that he was overweight and unhappy with his body, and West’s public satisfaction with (and celebration of) her own weight made him resentful. Gender played a role, too:

Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that– and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first. …I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my– the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life. But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them– seek them out to harm them emotionally.

West added:

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

Indeed, that level of self-awareness is pretty rare in anyone, let alone in men who harass and threaten women.

Although none of my really-awful trolls have ever apologized, one who used to mildly troll my comments section did, and confessed that it had to do with his own mental health issues that he was taking out on me and my blog. I became his outlet, the lightning rod for all his grievances with himself and the world. From talking to other women with a presence on the internet, I know my experience (and West’s) is not unique.

There is a lot to learn from the TAL episode. Although trolls/online harassers probably have a variety of motivations, there clearly is a subset of them that troll because they can’t or won’t deal with their own personal issues. I want to be very careful here and not do the whole blaming mental illness thing, but I also want to trust people who have mental illnesses when they say that their mental illness is what prompted them to do something shitty. That’s part of humanizing mental illness, too–acknowledging that sometimes, especially when untreated/unmanaged, it can cause people to act in ways that aren’t really in accordance with who they actually want to be.

But also, you need not have a diagnosable mental illness to be in a bad place in your head at some point in time. You need not have a diagnosable mental illness to believe on some level that it’s okay to outsource emotional caretaking to someone else. The common thread here isn’t “mental illness” but “people avoiding dealing with their own issues and taking their pain out on others,” which, as I’ve been discussing a lot around here, is a gendered phenomenon.

In the episode, West concludes:

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

That is what horrified me most about this whole thing, aside from imagining what it must’ve been like for West pre-apology. How on earth could a random writer on the internet give these people what they need–partners, friends, self-love, satisfying jobs? It’s a frustration that I’ve felt before.

When the episode first aired, I saw a lot of people hailing it as some sort of sign that, see, trolls really are people too, and they’re redeemable, and maybe if we just remember not to lose sight of their humanity, then they’ll see the light and stop trolling! (Note that although I’m borrowing some of West’s wording here, I absolutely don’t think she’s this naive. Not after everything the internet has put her through.)

It’s a nice thought. It means that the solution to the revolting bullshit people (mostly women) deal with online is neither to “just ignore it” nor to lash back out or ridicule or petition social media platforms for better moderation. It’s just to talk to them and figure out what’s making them hurt so bad.

You can probably see why this is unacceptable as far as general advice goes. As West said, women can’t take responsibility for healing all these strangers’ hurts. People in my field get paid good money to do that, and I’m not about to do it for free for someone I’ve never met who just called me a fucking cunt.

Moreover, though, I’m not sure that most trolls are “redeemable.” Buzzfeed writer Tabatha Leggett, who got rape and death threats after writing about watching The Simpsons (yes, really), recently described her experience contacting her trolls, and seems to have had a rather different one than West did:

The first guy was a stand-up comedian from Chicago. He’d left a meme that said “kill yourself” in the comments section. He insisted that leaving a meme was different to typing out the words “kill yourself”. “Anyone who knows the meme wouldn’t take it seriously,” he told me. “I just wanted to tell you to shut the fuck up.”

I told him that his comment, underneath the hundreds of other abusive ones I’d received, came across as threatening. He told me I was an idiot for feeling that way. I asked him why he felt the need to comment at all. Why not just avoid reading my stuff in the future?

“You might have other really good stuff that you write about,” he replied. “I just didn’t want you to write about The Simpsons again. I was like, shut up.”

Another man that she spoke to did apologize, but it’s unclear which of these reactions is more typical. Point is, sometimes no amount of emotional labor will extract an apology (let alone genuine regret). And even if it did, what difference does it make? The damage has been done, and there always seem to be more trolls willing to take the place of those who realize the error of their ways.

If there’s anything to take away from Lindy West’s interview with her troll, it’s that trolling is more about the troll than the target. However, note that many people are miserable and full of self-hatred and do not make accounts impersonating a writer’s dead father that they use to harass her. The ex-troll’s misogyny and our society’s tolerance of it probably played as big a role in his behavior as did his personal problems.

Unfortunately, we can’t magically heal everyone’s misery. We can stop blaming victims of harassment for that harassment, and we can institute some better social norms and institutional policies that help prevent harassment. People like Lindy West are part of the reason we’re finally having that conversation on any sort of scale, but it’s embarrassing how much we had to put up with before that conversation finally got started.


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What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll