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Dot Dot Dot: Starting fresh on the Web

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Internet enthusiasts, such as myself, have a tendency to want to believe that the Internet can be a perfect society. It feels as if crossing a new frontier means we have the opportunity to start fresh, to do it right.

But instead, we often bring along with us all the mistakes, the human failures, and the injustice of the world before.

Instead, we find that the same old shit just keeps happening.

Last week, a troll that has been attacking women comic artists got some comeuppance. He finally drew the attention of a male comics artist, Ron Marz, who actively mobilized his fanbase to put a stop to his “vile misogyny.” They tracked his sock puppets, found his real name, and reported his accounts to Twitter and his identity to the police.

A blow was struck. The Internet is better off without @MisterE2009 on it.

The trouble is that @MisterE2009 had been trolling women for years, but it took Ron Marz—a  man—stepping forward for anything to be done about it, as Comicbookgrrl pointed out.

Was it that the women he attacked didn’t take direct action against him, assuming it was best to let him go unchallenged? Was it that no one really cared until a man raised the issue?

Either way, it shows that the state of women online is not very different, not much better, or more progressive than it is offline.

***

I feel a little strange myself, writing about this. As a man, do I have the right to address these issues? Can I even begin to really understand them?

And yet, as a human being, I feel compelled to grapple with the ways in which we’ve transported the same old inequalities to the Web.

It is commonplace today, for men to exact their revenge on ex-girlfriends by posting nude or sexual pictures of them on Facebook. If women ever try to do this to a man, it’s much rarer and no one seems to notice. A woman’s reputation, people seem to assume, can be harmed by dirty pictures (but a man’s can’t). It is bizarre that in this day and age, and on the Internet of all places, this kind of Victorian character assassination still has so much currency.

***

Yet, if it’s disturbing what men will do to women online, it’s just as disturbing to consider what women will do to themselves.

It is a truism, and usually a great strength of the Internet, that online, no one is alone. So communities have popped up around common interests and issues. Many of these communities are deeply distressing.

For years now, social media has become a tool that connects young women with eating disorders. Tumblr and other social networks have banned “thinspiration” blogs and forbidden the glorification of eating disorders.

It hasn’t worked. Now young women are rallying around the ABC diet: Ana Boot Camp. It’s an eight-week program that trains you to eat, well, on many days: nothing. Other days, as little as 150 calories.

The comments these girls leave each other are gut wrenching: “So I decided i’m going to replace days 2 and 3 of the abc with fast days because … well because i wanna look skinny when school starts.... There’s this really skinny hot girl in my class and i want to look better than her,” willingtobeskinny wrote.

***

I am an optimist. And I believe, even if it’s an act of faith to believe that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King put it.

I take heart from the fact that a Japanese woman is using social media to talk directly to the most powerful man in the world—and she’s doing it more than absolutely anyone else. She feels strongly that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) must be stopped, and she’s letting him know—a lot. No one has tweeted President Obama as much as @sazare.

I was pleased to see, when we assembled our list of the funniest Twitter users in the world—the ones you haven’t heard of yet—two women topped the list, upending what has traditionally been a very male-dominated field.

***

The story about the ABC diet was one of the most difficult things to read that I’ve seen in awhile. I can’t stand that these young women are doing this to themselves. And yet I wonder if there isn’t just a little bit of hope in the very same story.

One blogger wrote: “Nobody ‘normal’ understands why you want to starve yourself for days on end. Nobody ‘normal’ can understand your frustrations when you fail and your gleefulness when you can go through a day of fasting or a day of perfect restricting—only people like myself would.”

Experts have suggested that Tumblr and other social-networks’ approach to this problem, banning discussion supporting eating disorders, while well-intentioned, is also misguided. That these young women have found a place that they feel comfortable, where they can speak openly, could be the first step toward these same women stopping this destructive behavior. It opens the door to providing online resources free of stigma and judgment.

Few people are actually ever helped by stigma; they just take whatever they’re ashamed of underground. But hiding things brings only stasis and paralysis. Bringing something out into the light, among our friends and loved ones, is often the only way to begin to change.

If we can do that online, if we can bring the failures of our culture into the light and among friends, then that’s all the fresh start we need.

Photo via sazare1/Twitter