There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.
Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.
I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.
I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.
Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues.1 But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.
Have a read of Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) discussing these issues on Twitter. Start at the bottom and then scroll up. Here’s the storify that Daniel José Older (@djolder) put together.
I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.
As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.
More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.
I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.
But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.
Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.2
Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism