Here in the UK, there’s a “newspaper”—and I use the term advisedly—called The Sun. In longstanding tradition, page 3 of The Sun always features a photograph of a topless woman.
To anyone outside the UK, this is absolutely bizarre. Frankly, it’s pretty bizarre to most people in the UK as well. Hence the No More Page 3 campaign which seeks to put pressure on the editor of The Sun to ditch their vestigal ’70s sexism and get with the 21st Century.
Note that the campaign is not attempting to make the publication of topless models in a daily newspaper illegal. Note that the campaign is not calling for top-down censorship from press regulators. Instead the campaign asks only that the people responsible reassess their thinking and recognise the effects of having topless women displayed in what is supposedly a family newspaper.
Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project has gathered together just some examples of the destructive effects of The Sun’s page 3. And sure, in this age of instant access to porn via the internet, an image of a pair of breasts might seem harmless and innocuous, but it’s the setting for that image that wreaks the damage:
Being in a national newspaper lends these images public presence and, more harmfully for young people, the perception of mainstream cultural approval. Our society, through Page 3, tells both girls and boys ‘that’s what women are’.
Simply put, having this kind of objectification in a freely-available national newspaper normalises it. When it’s socially acceptable to have a publication like The Sun in a workplace, then it’s socially acceptable for that same workplace to have the accompanying air of sexism.
That same kind of normalisation happens in online communities. When bad behaviour is tolerated, bad behaviour is normalised.
There are obvious examples of online communities where bad behaviour is tolerated, or even encouraged: 4Chan, Something Awful. But as long as I can remember, there have also been online communites that normalise abhorrent attitudes, and yet still get a free pass (usually because the site in question would deliver bucketloads of traffic …as though that were the only metric that mattered).
It used to be Slashdot. Then it was Digg. Now it’s Reddit and Hacker News.
In each case, the defence of the bad behaviour was always explained by the sheer size of the community. “Hey, that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing can be done about it.” To put it another way …it’s normal.
But normality isn’t an external phenomenon that exists in isolation. Normality is created. If something is perceived as normal—whether that’s topless women in a national newspaper or threatening remarks in an online forum—that perception is fueled by what we collectively accept to be “normal”.
Last year, Relly wrote about her experience at a conference:
Then there was the one comment I saw in a live irc style backchannel at an event, just after I came off stage. I wish I’d had the forethought to screenshot it or something but I was so shocked, I dropped my laptop on the table and immediately went and called home, to check on my kids.
Because the comment said (paraphrasing) “This talk was so pointless. After she mentioned her kids at the beginning I started thinking of ways to hunt them down and punish her for wasting my time here.”
That’s a horrible thing for anyone to say. But I can understand how someone would think nothing of making a remark like that …if they began their day by reading Reddit or Hacker News. If you make a remark like that there, nobody bats an eyelid. It’s normal.
So what do we do about that? Do we simply accept it? Do we shrug our shoulders and say “Oh, well”? Do we treat it like some kind of unchangeable immovable force of nature; that once you have a large online community, bad behaviour should be accepted as the default mode of discourse?
It’s hard work. I get that. Heck, I run an online community myself and I know just how hard it is to maintain civility (and I’ve done a pretty terrible job of it in the past). But it’s not impossible. Metafilter is a testament to that.
The other defence of sites like Reddit and Hacker News is that it’s unfair to judge the whole entity based purely on their worst episodes. I don’t buy that. The economic well-being of a country shouldn’t be based on the wealth of its richest citizens—or even the wealth of its average citizens—but its poorest.
That was precisely how Rebecca Watson was shouted down when she tried to address Reddit’s problems when she was on a panel at South by Southwest last year:
Does the good, no matter if it’s a fundraiser for a kid with cancer or a Secret Santa gift exchange, negate the bigotry?
Like I said, running an online community is hard—Derek’s book was waaaay ahead of its time—but it’s not impossible. If we treat awful behaviour as some kind of unstoppable force that can’t be dealt with, then what’s the point in trying to have any kind of community at all?
Just as with the No More Page 3 campaign, I’m not advocating legal action or legislative control. Instead, I just want some awareness that what we think of as normal is what we collectively decide is normal.
I try not to be a judgemental person. But if I see someone in public with a copy of The Sun, I’m going to judge them. And no, it’s not a class thing: I just don’t consider misogyny to be socially acceptable. And if you participate in Reddit or Hacker News …well, I’m afraid I’m going to judge you too. I don’t consider it socially acceptable.
Of course my judgemental opinion of someone doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to anybody. But if enough of us made our feelings clear, then maybe slowly but surely, there might be a shift in feeling. There might just be a small movement of the needle that calibrates what we think of normal in our online communities.