What is the problem with the social networks we inhabit online? It’s this: the spaces where so many of us communicate, collaborate, and stay in touch with friends are also riddled with harassment. This ranges from extensive, organised campaigns, to more personal attacks directed at people of colour and female public figures. And we know that these can escalate, becoming something much more violent and menacing in nature.
4chan is an important example of harm by design. For years, the ethnographer Whitney Phillips and I have been discussing how humour can be weaponised as a means of disguising harassment in digital spaces. We can’t see or hear someone when they type something online, therefore much of the intentionality of a conversation is obscured. Phillips wrote ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’, which highlights how the design of early 4chan, with its offensive humour and rhetoric, laid the cultural foundations for the contemporary culture of harassment and trolling in so many online spaces.
Is a rape threat a joke, for example? Or is the joking or meme-ing of a terrorist attack also a joke? It is difficult to draw this line from a policy standpoint if you’re designing a social network, but it’s perhaps even more important to ask a deeper question of: what is the impact of this violent rhetoric when it spreads as a ‘humorous’ meme?
Which brings us to today. What is happening right now within our internet? Social networks can exist as many things: tools, platforms, weapons, amplifiers. Our social networks allow for activism as well as harassment; if a system allows for coordination of a movement like #MeToo, it also allows for the coordination of #Gamergate. Can we protect one kind of activity whilst curtailing the other? Should we? Misinformation, protest, and harassment campaigns use social networks in similar ways for good or for ill because of how constrained social networks are by design: from the technical infrastructure to the policy framework to the social culture. These networks are about one thing: posting and responding to content, at scale. Their core design hasn’t changed in years.
This article was first published (12th November 2019) online via hiig.de and is part of the publication "Critical Voices, Visions and Vectors for Internet Governance". In order to find the full length text, please visit the publication.