Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Internet I want to live in

Lindy West left Twitter yesterday. I noticed that around the time I was holding her book Shrill in my hands, so I could transcribe the title of an essay into the syllabus of one of my courses: "You're So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself." The essay is about the notion of 'confidence' and what it means, culturally and personally, to be a confident fat woman. It begins with body acceptance, and according to West, the chapter could be only sixteen words long and it would say this and be complete: "Look at pictures of fat women on the Internet until they don't make you uncomfortable anymore."

West reminds us that representation matters. She narrates the process of seeing, over and over, and then actively seeking out and voraciously consuming, photos of fat women, starting with Leonard Nimoy's Full Body Project, and moving through blogs and hashtags. Seeing her own body type represented, over and over, and celebrated and loved and just simply being, cracked something open.

When West married, she produced this. This is the internet I want to live in.

However, the internet I actually have is a little different. It's an internet where even after 10 years, Twitter's best anti-harassment tool is to make is so those who are being abused can "mute" their harassers, whose hate everyone can still see. It's an internet that Sherman Alexie also just left on New Years, tweeting "Hey folks, I’m leaving Twitter because its negatives increasingly outweigh its positives. Thank you for the follows." Ta-Nehisi Coates is gone, too, though maybe temporarily. It's a platform for fake news and gas lighting and hate speech and doxxing and dog-piling. It's weaponized virality with the aim of silencing oppressed and minoritized populations. It's developing its own vocabulary, even.

Maybe the internet was started by computer nerds--government funded misfits and model train builders and hippies and prodigies. Somewhere along the line--in Usenet groups, through Reddit and 4chan, and leaping onto the WWW and sites like Facebook and Twitter--the internet itself became a tool of oppression. And I think this was in direct proportion to its utility and effectiveness as a tool of liberation. The internet gave us #GirlsLikeUs, #BlackLivesMatter, #MMIW, #ILookLikeAProfessor and more, a platform that no one gave to us, but that we took. That internet is under attack, and we risk losing it.

To say we live in a moment of powerful backlash against acknowledging and celebrating the always-there-but-often-suppressed diversity and plurality of our shared world would be an understatement.

West deserves a break. Alexie, too. Leslie Jones deserved a break. Hashtag activists deserve a break. It's time for those of us who have remained behind the front lines, benefiting from their cover, to step forward. We are going to have to fight for the internet we want, because it's not a given. I'm collecting strategies and resources, and trying to do my part. You might start here, with Femtech Net's Centre for Solutions to Online Violence. Or, if you you want to get down and dirty, consider something like Sleeping Giants. And, crucially, stay online. Stay on Twitter as a progressive. Stay on Facebook and keep reporting those fake news sites. Keep blogging, keep linking, keep sharing.

Representation matters. Women, people of colour, disabled people, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, rural people, the underemployed, we've enjoyed a really good run with online publishing tools, producing vast troves of amazing content, and cobbling together amazing communities. This is all at risk. Fight. And maybe someday Lindy West will come back.

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